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AI Time Travel: Reimagining Ancient Landscapes

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You are looking at a field of fluffy, golden grass dotted with yellow flowers. There are trees in the background and mountains beyond that. Where are you?

Now you’re facing a terracotta sarcophagus. Where are you? When are you?

A new exhibit in the Rubenstein Arts Center uses AI to bring viewers into ancient Roman and Etruscan landscapes spanning 1300 years, from about 1000 BCE to 300 CE. (The field is Roman, the sarcophagus Etruscan.)

An AI-generated image of a summer meadow near Vulci (Viterbo, Italy). Preserved pollen evidence has revealed which plant species dominated these landscapes, and the prompts used to generate images like this one include lists of plant species.

Along one wall, screens show springtime landscapes representing ancient Rome. The written prompts AI used to create each image include detailed information on plant species found in each landscape. One titled “Sedges in shallow water of an ephemeral pond” mentions “sparse trees of alder (Alnus glutinosa), white willow (Salix alba), and white poplar (Populus alba), and few herbaceous plants.” You can view examples of the written prompts on the exhibit’s website, AI Landscapes – Rethinking the Past.

Models of pollen grains from different plant species. Real pollen grains are microscopic, but these magnified representations help show how different their shapes can be.

Historians know what plants were likely to be in these landscapes because of evidence from preserved pollen grains. Different species have distinct pollen shapes, which makes it possible to identify plants even centuries or millennia later.

Part of the exhibit uses AI and a camera to turn interactive prompts into ancient Roman scenes.

An interactive display near the front of the room has a camera pointed at props like building models, pillars, toy horses, and pieces of styrofoam. An AI model reinterprets the camera’s images to create hypothetical scenes from ancient Rome. “See how the columns get reinterpreted as statues?” says Felipe Infante de Castro, who helped program the AI. The AI attempts to add detail and backgrounds to simple props to create realistic scenes. “The only thing that we’re forcing,” he  says, “are essentially shapes—which it may or may not respect.” It may reinterpret a hand as a horse’s head, for instance, or a strangely shaped building.

The model is more precise with plants than buildings, says Augustus Wendell, Assistant Professor of the Practice in Art, Art History and Visual Studies and one of the exhibit designers. Latin names for plants are widely used in modern taxonomy, and the AI is likely to have encountered more plants in its training than ancient Roman architecture styles. The AI is a “generic model” asked to “draw on its presuppositions” about Roman buildings, says Felipe. It “wasn’t trained on specifically Roman landscapes…. It just tries its best to interpret it as such.” The results aren’t always completely authentic. “In the background,” Wendell says, “the city is often quite modern Tuscan, not at all ancient Roman.”

It’s interesting to see how the AI responds when you place unfamiliar objects in front of the camera, like your hand. Here, it tried to turn my hand into some sort of building.

“We can use an AI,” Felipe says, “to give us a representation of the past that is compatible with what we believe the past should look like.”

In another part of the exhibit, you can use an AI chatbot to talk to Pliny the Elder, a Roman scholar. Caitlin Childers, who helped design the exhibit, explains that the chatbot was trained on Pliny the Elder’s 37 books on natural history. When I asked Pliny what the chatbot was designed for, he told me, “I do not have the ability to access external articles or specific information beyond the knowledge I possess as Pliny the Elder up to the year 79 AD.”

He can give you information on plants and their uses in ancient Rome, but when I asked Pliny what his favorite plant was, he couldn’t decide. “I find it challenging to select a favorite plant among the vast array of flora that the Earth provides. Each plant contributes uniquely to the balance and beauty of nature.” According to Professor Maurizio Forte, “This AI chatbot can speak in English, French, Italian and also in Latin! So it is possible to formulate questions in Latin and requiring a response in Latin or ask a question in English and expect a reply in Latin as well.”

A virtual reality headset lets you see a three-dimensional model of an Etruscan sarcophagus. The real sarcophagus is encased in glass in the Villa Giulia Museum in Rome, but the virtual reality experience puts it right in front of you. The experimental VR-AI installation also allows viewers to ask questions to the sarcophagus out loud. The sarcophagus has a statue of a man and woman, but historians don’t know whose ashes are buried inside. “It’s not important how they look,” says Forte. “It’s important how they want to be.”

The sarcophagus would have been a “symbolic, aristocratic way to show power,” Forte explains. The design of the sarcophagus represents an intentional choice about how its owners wanted the world to see them after their death. “This is eternity,” Forte says. “This is forever.”

A display of quotes at the “Rethinking the Past” exhibit.

The exhibit, called “Rethinking the Past,” is on display at the Rubenstein Arts Center until May 24.

Blueberrying and More: Expanding the History of Bennett Place

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Two of the buildings at Bennett Place, a preserved family farm in Durham known largely for its role in a Civil War surrender. Kalei Porter, a Duke Liberal Studies graduate student, recently led an event focusing on the natural history and land use of Bennett Place over time.

Bennett Place, a North Carolina State Historic Site in Durham, is known for its role in a Civil War surrender, but a recent event focusing on the site’s natural history sought to broaden that story. Kalei Porter, a Graduate Liberal Studies student at Duke, led the event, which focused on changing land use at Bennett Place over time.

Jim Barrett, a volunteer tour guide, led a tour of Bennett Place focused on the more well known parts of its history. “The Civil War was a series of five military surrenders,” he explains. The first occurred in Appomattox Court House in Virginia, but while that marked a symbolic end to the war, technically only the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia surrendered there. Another surrender meeting occurred on the land now known as Bennett Place, where Union General Sherman and Confederate General Johnston met at the Bennett family’s small farm to discuss their terms of surrender.

That meeting ultimately led to the preservation of the farm as a historic site, but the history of Bennett Place “should not be an exclusive Civil War story,” Porter says. She has a degree in environmental biology, and her work at Bennett Place combines her interests in ecology and history.

For the past two academic years, Porter has been involved with the North Carolina Lives and Legacies Project, which uses research to tell more nuanced, inclusive stories about land use at sites like Bennett Place. The project, which is based in Duke’s Information Science + Studies, has also received support from Bass Connections in the Vice Provost’s Office for Interdisciplinary Studies and Duke University Libraries. This summer, Kalei will continue her research as a Graduate Project Manager in a History+ team.

James Bennett and his family were small-scale, yeoman farmers. They had about 200 acres, Porter says, “sustaining four to ten people.” They grew most of their own food and sold handmade clothing and crops like watermelons and vegetables at a local market, Barrett says. The site was preserved by civil leaders, including one of Washington Duke’s sons, according to Barrett. The original house was destroyed in a fire in 1921 but was rebuilt in 1962 with material from a similar house, Porter explains. On Barrett’s tour, he mentioned that Sherman brought an illustrator to the surrender meeting, and the pictures from that day still exist, so we know what the house originally looked like. The new house was rebuilt to resemble the old one.

Porter’s event included a display of plants from Duke’s herbarium. The dried plants she chose were collected in North Carolina in different decades, preserving important information about flowering time and native flora in specific sites. “You have a little slice of spring from as far back as the 30’s,” Porter says about the plants she chose.

Two large sheets of blotter paper with dried plants carefully arranged and taped in place upon them. Each herbarium specimen sheet also includes a small envelope for seeds and a one paragraph label and description.
Plants from Duke’s herbarium were on display at the event. Specimens like these can preserve important information like what time of year plants were flowering in different decades.

The exhibit at the event includes other items, too, like a list of who has used this land at different points in history. Before 1782, according to a sign at the event, several Native American tribes inhabited the area, including the Seponi, Cheraw, Catawba, Lumbee, Occaneechi, and Shakori. In 1782, Jacob Baldwin purchased the land, and it changed hands at least twice again before James Bennett bought it in 1846.

There is also a detailed soil map from 1920 on display. Such surveys can make farming more profitable since different crops do best in different soil conditions. Porter says the first geological survey in North Carolina was conducted in the 1850s, making North Carolina only the third state—and the first state in the South—to do soil surveys.

Porter has been working on transcribing Bennett’s ledger papers, which she describes as “a cross between a diary, a planner, and a credit card log.” They provide a record of daily life for a small farmer in North Carolina. Porter says Bennett made a lot of notes about fixing his tools.

Later in the day, Porter led a tour of the site with a focus on natural history. We start on a path lined with fences. Historically, it was a road that went from Raleigh to Hillsborough, and it also “roughly lines up with some of the Native American trading routes that predated the property,” Porter says.

The Unity Monument at Bennett Place. The monument was built in the 1920s, and its original meaning isn’t entirely clear.

We stop at the Unity monument, built in the 1920s soon after the Bennett house burned down. Robert Buerglener, Research Associate, Duke Information Science + Studies, explained to me earlier that the Unity monument may have survived because its meaning is more ambiguous than many Confederate monuments. Porter says the monument incorporated stone from the North, West, and South to represent the theme of unity.

We tour the house and separate kitchen. Both give glimpses into the lives of the Bennett Family. A ladle made from a dried gourd. Jars of persimmon seeds and other items that, according to Barrett, were used as wartime replacements for more typical ingredients. Wood siding on the house that Porter says dates from the 1850s.

It’s not just the buildings that reveal the story of this land. Porter points out trees, shrubs, and fences as well.

Before the Civil War, she says, livestock here roamed free. Buildings and gardens would have been fenced to keep the livestock out. After the war, however, fencing became more expensive, and people started creating fences around the livestock instead and building cheaper, less sturdy fences.

As we walk toward a nature trail at the back of the property, Porter draws our attention to the pine trees. Both loblolly and shortleaf pines grow here. Historically, shortleaf would have been more common in this area, but places that have been recently managed for timber tend to have loblolly. Most of these pines are still relatively young; they were not here when the Bennetts lived on this land.

In the forest, many of the low-growing plants we pass are species of blueberry. Porter has searched through digitized North Carolina newspapers for records of the word “blueberry.” It was first mentioned in the 1880s as a verb, blueberrying (women going out to pick wild blueberries) but wasn’t grown commercially in this area until the 1930s.

Porter ends her tour by asking us to look at the sky. Even the sky could have changed in the centuries since the Bennetts farmed this land. Today it’s clear and blue, but modern pollution could make it less blue than it used to be, Porter says, and some days we might see airplane contrails, which the Bennetts would never have seen back then. “Sometimes the sky is even asynchronous with time,” Porter says.

Post by Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

What Comes Next for the Law of the Sea Treaty?

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More than 40 years since its signing, the United States still has not ratified an international agreement known as the “constitution of the oceans.” In a webinar held April 2, two of the world’s leading ocean diplomacy scholars met to discuss its history, challenges, and the U.S.’s potential role in the future.

The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea was truly revolutionary for its time. Unraveling against the backdrop of decades of conflict pertaining to maritime affairs, the significance of this conference and its attempts at negotiating a comprehensive legal framework cannot be understated. Key figures in this development include the members of the United Nations, coastal and landlocked states, the scientific community, environmental community, and developing nations. Yet, with the conclusion of this unifying conference, a singular question remained: What comes next? 

This question is what David Balton, the executive director of the U.S. Artic Steering Committee, and David Freestone, a Professor at George Washington University and the Executive Secretary of the Sargasso Sea Commission, aimed to address in a webinar titled, “The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea at 40.” In this discussion a range of topics were discussed but the primary focus was providing viewers with a comprehensive understanding of the events of this convention and the way this history plays out in modern times. 

Picture of Ambassador David Balton (Obtained from the Wilson Center)

The 1982 convention was one of multiple attempts at setting parameters and guidelines for maritime control. In 1958, the council met for the first time to discuss growing concerns regarding the need for a comprehensive legal framework regarding ocean governance. In this they brought multiple representatives worldwide to discuss the breadth of territorial waters, the rights of coastal states, freedom of navigation, and the exploitation of marine resources. This conversation laid the groundwork for future discussions. However, it was largely ineffective at generating a treaty as they were unable to reach a consensus on the breadth of territorial waters. This first conference is referred to as UNCLOS I. 

Following 1958, in 1960 the members of the council and associated parties convened once again to discuss the issues brought forth by UNCLOS I. The purpose of this conference was to further discuss issues pertaining to the Law of the Sea and build a framework to begin ratification of a binding treaty to ensure that conflict regarding the sea diminishes greatly. This discussion was set in the context of the Cold War. This new setting complicated discussions as talks regarding the implementation of nuclear weapons under the deep seabed further elicited great debate and tensions. While the aim of this meeting was of course to reach a general agreement on these subjects, major differences between states and other parties prohibited UNCLOS II from producing said treaty. 

UNCLOS III served as the breadwinner of this development, yet this is not to say that results were immediate. Negotiations for UNCLOS III were the longest of the three as they spanned from 1973 to 1982. UNCLOS II was particularly special due to its ability to produce revolutionary concepts such as archipelagic status and the establishment of the exclusive economic zone (EEZ), granting coastal states exclusive rights over fishing and economic resources within 200 miles of their shores. In addition, this led to the development of the International Seabed Authority and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. Despite the limitations and unfinished agenda that preceded this, the treaty was officially ratified in 1994 at Montego Bay. The convention initially received 157 signatories and currently holds participation from 169 parties. Absent from this group are the United States, Turkey, and Venezuela. The convention was designed to work as a package deal and required nations to fully commit to the agreement or abstain entirely. For this reason, the United States retains a nonparty, observer status despite to their adherence to the rules and guidelines of the treaty. 

After this explanation, Balton and Freestone addressed the big question: What comes next? As of right now, the United States is still not a signatory of this treaty. However, this is not to say that they are in violation of this treaty either. The United States participates in discussions and negotiations related to UNCLOS issues, both within the United Nations and through bilateral and multilateral engagements. In addition, the Navy still upholds international law in dealings concerning navigational rights. The one factor many claims prohibits the United States from signing is the possibility of their sovereignty being challenged by certain provisions within the treaty. In spite of this, many continue to push to change this reality, advocating for the United States to ratify this agreement. 

Picture of Professor David Freestone (Obtained from Flavia at World Maritime University)

The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea remains a pivotal moment in the history of international maritime governance. This Convention led to many insightful and necessary developments which will continue to set precedent for generations to come. While imperfect, the efforts put forth by many nations and third parties to ensure that it remains consistent with modern day times is very telling of the hopeful development of this treaty. Furthermore, while the future of U.S. involvement in the treaty is uncertain, the frameworks established by the three UNCLOS’ provide a solid foundation for addressing contemporary challenges and furthering international cooperation. 

Post by Gabrielle Douglas, Class of 2027
Post by Gabrielle Douglas, Class of 2027

Reducing Food Insecurity and Creating Community at Durham’s Catawba Trail Farm

At Catawba Trail Farm in north Durham, the idea of community remains at the forefront of all that they do. A space dedicated to growing, learning, and diligent work, the farm invites all willing to become involved. Recently, students at Duke University had the opportunity to bear witness to these qualities, through a course taught by Dr. Brian McAdoo of Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

Picture of volunteers at Catawba Trail Farm (Credit: @UrbanCommunityAgrinomics on Instagram.)

The Catawba Trail Farm was once known as Snowhill Plantation, yet despite this co-founder Delphine Sellars refers to it as “a place of healing.” This is because Sellars recognizes the importance of acknowledging the past when attempting to shape the future. Sellars’ focus is on taking land formerly used to abuse enslaved people and transforming it into a place of empowerment and healing. This is seen through the connection between the farm and McAdoo’s course here at Duke. The course, “Exploring Earth Sciences: Surviving Anthropocene in North Carolina,” explores a range of themes such as food insecurity, environmental justice, and global change through the context of environmental studies. Additionally, McAdoo’s course has what is referred to as the ‘Catawba Trail Mission’ where Duke students, in partnership with Catawba Trail Farm, seek to not only target this food insecurity within the community, but also uncover the history hidden within the roots of the farm.  

Picture of Delphine Sellars (Credit: @UrbanCommunityAgrinomics on Instagram.)

The most recent progress of this mission can be seen through the class’s work with the gravesite of William Johnston, who established Snowhill Plantation in 1763. Through a geophysical survey, the class identified several unmarked graves of enslaved people buried with the Johnston family. Through this they have worked to trace their lineages to their loved ones and inform them of their findings. The class has also used this same technology to help identify and ensure that the traits and key aspects of the land are fully understood and respected. 

Picture of volunteers at Catawba Trail Farm (Credit: @UrbanCommunityAgrinomics on Instagram.)

Through the work between Duke and Catawba Trail Farm, students are granted the opportunity to take their learning beyond the textbook and truly begin to understand the depth behind the land outside of technological gadgets. Catawba Trail Farm helps in this journey while simultaneously learning more about the rich nature of the land and its inhabitants. This constant sense of learning and support is what makes students such as Duke master’s student, Roo Jackson, comfortable in saying Catawba Trail Farm “feels like home.” 

Post by Gabrielle Douglas, Class of 2027
Post by Gabrielle Douglas, Class of 2027

The HIV/AIDS Epidemic: Revisiting the Early Days of a Global Health Crisis

On June 5, 1981, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported the first cases of a mysterious disease afflicting young, otherwise healthy men in a tiny suburb of Los Angeles, California. The disease, now known as AIDS, would go on to infect 85.6 million people around the world, sparking an epidemic that persists to this day.

On February 6, 2024, Duke’s Global Health Institute hosted a conversation with Dr. James Curran and Dr. Kevin M. De Cock, both former leaders at the CDC, about their experiences on the frontlines of the AIDS crisis in the earliest days of this epidemic. The conversation was moderated by Dr. Chris Beyrer and Dr. Nwora Lance Okeke, two Duke researchers in infectious disease.

Pictured from left to right: Dr. James Curran and Dr. Kevin M. De Cock

The Origin of the Epidemic

The first cases of AIDS were reported by Dr. Michael Gottlieb, a young immunologist from UCLA. His groundbreaking findings, published in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, described “previously healthy gay men from Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York, who presented with rare opportunistic infections,” said De Cock. These infections, known as PCP (Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia) and KS (Kaposi’s sarcoma), were extremely rare. Upon observation, Gottlieb identified a startling commonality among the cases: they were all sexually active gay men.

Michael Gottlieb: The Rutgers Alumnus Who First Identified the Deadly  Disease We Now Call AIDS | New Brunswick, NJ Patch

These findings “didn’t fit into any organizational unit at the CDC,” so a multispecialty task force was formed. Led by Curran, it recruited experts in STIs, parasitology, virology, cancer, and more.

Tracking the Epidemic

At the start of the epidemic, cases were phoned into the CDC by individual doctors. But this quickly became inadequate. The epidemic was growing fast, and CDC phone lines could not keep up. “The CDC, therefore, developed a surveillance case definition for the syndrome,” De Cock explained. “Cases meeting this definition were reported through health departments to the CDC.”

“I think we were able with the case definition for surveillance, to take advantage of the fact that all of these conditions were very serious and so unusual that the physician would say ‘I’ve never seen anything like it,’…,” Curran said. “The other conditions were far less specific and far less useful for tracking the disease.”

In October 1981, these tracking protocols helped identify AIDS as a sexually transmitted disease. A national case-control study found that sexual activity was a leading risk factor, and a cluster of cases in 10 US cities linked via sexual contact was discovered. “People just didn’t want to believe it,” Curran said. “They wanted to believe that it wasn’t something transmissible.” 

Expanding Epidemic

Over the next year, the epidemic expanded to include injection drug users, heterosexual partners of bisexual men, people of Haitian descent, and infants. But perhaps most surprising was the transmission occurring through blood transfusion. In December 1982, a case of AIDS-like illness was reported in a 20-month-old infant after receiving blood from a donor who later developed the virus.

“Until that December report of the infant, the mainstream media had actually paid very little attention to AIDS. But that suddenly changed,” said De Cock. “While AIDS was seen as a problem of marginalized groups… it was easy to ignore. But anyone might need a blood transfusion.”

In the following years, rumors surrounding transmission and contact sparked nationwide panic. Fear of contracting the disease caused AIDS patients to lose their jobs and housing. Although the CDC provided up-to-date information on the nature of the virus, quelling public fear was extremely difficult. “AIDS proved that you can’t separate prevention and treatment,” Curran explained.

Modern AIDS Era

As we get close… to 100 million HIV infections since the epidemic began- have we done as well as we should have?”

Dr. Kevin M. De Cock

In 1991, researchers successfully identified HIV (Human immunodeficiency virus) as the underlying cause of AIDS. Since then, scientific understanding of the disease has greatly improved. “Our success has made AIDS more normal, which has robbed the disease of some of its mystique,” De Cock expressed. However, there is still no known cure for AIDS. The disease is a lifelong battle that wreaks havoc on the people it infects.

HIV / AIDS - Our World in Data
Source: Our World in Data

De Cock and Curran’s contributions to the AIDS epidemic fundamentally shaped our understanding of the virus. Their work shines a light on the importance of frontline research and support. Their book, entitled ‘Dispatches from the AIDS Pandemic: A Public Health Story,’ is available to read here.

Written by Skylar Hughes, Class of 2025

The Controversial Birth of American Gynecology

As a woman, I am familiar with the gynecologist. In fact, thinking about it right now, I may need to create an appointment for one soon. However, I am not just a woman; I am a black woman, and in addition to being familiar with what the gynecologist is, I am also familiar with the dangers of the gynecologist. I know that if I were to become pregnant, I would be three times more likely to die by pregnancy-related causes compared with my white counterparts. This phenomenon is not new; in fact, it is a symptom of the racism within American Gynecology. The founding of this system is not pretty, or pure; it is ugly and distasteful, and during her lecture, historian Deirdre Cooper Owens explains it perfectly.

Dr. Deirdre Cooper Owens and I after her wonderful lecture

Cooper Owens is an associate professor of History and African studies at the University of Connecticut, and earlier this semester, she gave an insightful talk on how slavery and modern American gynecology are interconnected.

The controversial “father of gynecology” was J. Marion Sims, who experimented on enslaved women in Alabama. When talking about the racism in gynecology today and in the past, Sims mainly gets the blunt end of the stick. However, it was not just Sims; it was much bigger than him, Cooper Owens said.

Dr. Samual Cartwright was the first doctor for the Confederacy. Through his experiences with enslaved people, he believed that black people did not feel pain. Furthermore, he created a theory that if an enslaved person ran away or thought about running away, then they had a mental illness. Through the use of a spirometer (a medical tool still used today), he noted that black people have smaller lung capacity than white people. His findings were used to prove that there was a biological difference between races, which is not true.

This idea separated people and placed them in a hierarchy where white people were perceived as superior and black people inferior. The thought of this is damaging in itself, but back then, and sometimes now, they used this ideology as an excuse for the pain they caused African Americans.

Ephriam McDowell, for instance, removed a tumor from the ovaries of a white woman. From this, he then decided to “perfect” this surgery on five black women; four were enslaved, and one was freed. From this group, one person died, and other than that, there is no record of the women’s personal lives.

Dr. Francis M Prevost performed C-sections on enslaved people. These experiments did not take the pain of these women into account; due to the fact that he believed black people did not feel pain, but they did and still do. Now one would hope that a black woman’s relationship with C-sections has improved, but, from 1832 until two years ago, Louisiana was the state where a black woman’s body was used the most for a C-section. Today, that state is Mississippi.

John Peter Mettauer performed experiments on a white woman and a black woman. After the experiment, he claimed that the white woman was cured, but the black woman was not. As a result, he operated on the black woman eight times and claimed that if she did not have intercourse, she would have been cured. However, he failed to take into account that the woman was enslaved and had no control of her body autonomy. So how could she say no to both unwanted sexual encounters and to him?

Lastly, there is James Marion Sims, who is notorious for his contributions to American gynecology. However, such contributions were based on the bodies of enslaved women who had no choice. He used these experiments to advance his techniques and deepen his understanding of gynecology. In fact, it even went to the point where he built a hospital for the sole purpose of experimenting on enslaved women.

J. Marion Sims with his assistants and the victims of his experiments

While the acts and experiments that these men conducted were atrocious, they raised a question for me, why black women? At that time, black people were viewed as an inferior race; they were not equal in physical components and intelligence compared to white people. Therefore, if they are genetically different, why experiment with black women to find cures for white women? When asking that question, the answer is obvious; they knew there was no difference, so they chose to ignore it. They chose to continuously bring harm to these women, and until recently, they were rewarded for it.

Image provided by  Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

I learned a lot from this lecture, but if I had to choose only one thing that stuck with me, it would be that the victims of these heinous acts were only referred to as enslaved persons with no name and no story. The only story that was told was the point of view of those committing the acts.

I hope one day, the mortality rate of black women giving birth will decrease to the point that it is simply unheard of. Still, for society and our health system to reach that point, we must understand American gynecology’s true history.

By Jakaiyah Franklin, Class of 2025

Historic Stagville: Stories of Resilience

I was overwhelmed with tranquility while driving along the everlasting gravel road, encased by looming, forest green trees. This healing reconnection with nature towards the entrance nearly allowed me to forget the purpose of my visit at Historic Stagville in Durham. However, as we arrived closer to the entrance of this state protected historic site, I recalled the haunting darkness of America’s past. Approximately 25 minutes away from Duke University lies what was once the largest plantation site in North Carolina, owned by the Bennehan and Cameron families. At its height, the families owned 30,000 acres and over 900 enslaved people. 

Richard Bennehan married Mary Amis in 1776 and acquired the original 66 acres of historic land in 1787. Their home, Stagville, was built by enslaved people on this land and further renovated with an additional story in 1799. They would raise two children, Rebecca and Thomas. Rebecca married Duncan Cameron in 1803 and had two sons and six daughters. Despite their plethora of children, most of the estate was given to their son, Paul, as the other children died and/or did not have heirs. Paul would eventually marry Anne Ruffin and have seven children. These generations of Camerons along with the original Bennehans furthered their infamous and appalling familial legacy of undeserved wealth through slavery.

Despite the Bennehan/Cameron family’s power, wealth, and dominance, the enslaved people of Stagville remained resilient against their injustices. For instance, Emma Turner Henderson decided to continue working for the Camerons as a cook after their emancipation; however, she and her family were evicted on a count of “imprudence” as Emma had claimed ownership of her newfound freedom, claimed ownership of the equality she shared with the white woman who had previously owned her, and claimed ownership of the violence she endured under their regime. According to Paul’s records, Emma had told Margaret Cameron that their disrespectful treatment is not justified as “[Emma’s] skin is nearly as white as [Margaret’s]– that her hair is just as straight– and that she was quite as free”. 

Mary Walker was the fifth generation of formerly enslaved people for the Camerons, born in 1820. She was given to four of Duncan Cameron’s daughters when she was nine years old. These young daughters would eventually pass away from tuberculosis, which is why she was given to their sister, Mildred. Mary Walker would act as Mildren’s caretaker as she had an unknown illness that required a wheelchair. She would frequently travel to Philadelphia during the summer, a free state, with the Camerons for Mildred’s medical appointments. By this point, Mary Walker had three children of her own and she constantly feared their safety. Therefore, Mary Walker evaded the Camerons on her last visit to Philadelphia in 1848 as her freedom was protected under the 1847 Personal Liberty Law. She was employed as a seamstress and spent the rest of her life attempting to reunite with her children. Walker attempted to purchase them from the Camerons or even kidnap them from the estate. Even with three known rescue attempts, Walker was unable to live with her children. That is, until seventeen years later, in which a Union soldier reunited Mary Walker with two of her children, Agnes and Bryant, after the Civil War. Historians do not believe that Mary reunited with her eldest son, Frank, as it is assumed that he escaped. His escape from the plantation was a miraculous feat as it would have taken Frank around two weeks to walk off the estate alone. While the Camerons did place ads for Frank, he could have passed as a white man as he had fair skin, blue eyes, straight black hair, and freckles. The greatest act of resilience from Mary Walker was her success as a seamstress after she settled in Cambridge as she created a strong reputation and a healthy life for herself and her family, despite the evil conditions of her past because of the Camerons. 

As I explored Stagville and Horton Grove, where the enslaved laborers built their homes and lived as they worked for the plantation, I felt the looming presence of their horrifying traumas throughout the estate. I spent time in each room of the luxurious (for its time period) Stagville home in which enslaved people were constantly beside those who committed the most injustice against them. I compared this to the unlivable conditions of the enslaved family homes in Horton Grove where eight people would stay in each room per building. Along the brick walls of these homes remain fingerprints from enslaved people from the creation of the bricks. One brick, in particular, encased the toe-prints of a small child from hundreds of years ago. 

Despite the unimaginable injustice generations of enslaved people endured from the Camerons, their resilient legacy continues with dignified honor. A number of formerly enslaved families continued to sharecrop at Stagville until the 1970s, when it became a state protected site, or settled in nearby locations as a testament to their familial heritage.

Bennehan/Cameron Stagville home

Average dwelling on Horton Grove

A child’s toe prints on the right-side of the third brick from the bottom of a brick on Horton Grove

By Samera Eusufzai, Class of 2026

One Man’s Death Is Not Another Man’s Science

Geer Cemetary in Durham is one of many burial grounds in America that hold the remains of thousands of Black Americans from the 19th century. There are no records of the people buried there. The process of researching grounds like these as a form of reparations to descendent communities was pioneered by Michael Blakey in the African Burial Ground Project in Lower Manhattan, New York. He is currently the Director of the Institute for Historical Biology at the College of William and Mary.

Dr. Michael Blakey. Image courtesy of Library of Virginia Education

On April 4, Blakey visited Duke as a guest of the Franklin Institute of Humanities, the Department of Classical Studies, the Department of International Comparative Studies, and Trinity College. In attendance to his lecture were students of Classical Studies 144: Principles of Archaeology with Alicia Jimenez, International Comparative Studies 283: Death, Burial, and Justice in the Americas with Adam Rosenblatt, and several graduate students by invitation (and me). His presence was clearly highly anticipated.

I initially approached Dr. Jimenez with my interest in bioarchaeology in January as I was planning my Program II application. She invited me to this seminar, and to lunch with Blakey and the graduate students beforehand. I came prepped with questions on osteopenia and hypertrophy, as well as a map of Brightleaf Square so I wouldn’t get lost (I still got lost) and a few dollars cash for parking (they only took card).

Geer Cemetery, Durham, NC. Image Courtesy of Durham in Plain Sight

For those of you who have ever loved the detective fiction heroine Temperance Brennan, Blakey’s work is for you. He is co-chair of the Commission for the Ethical Treatment of Human Remains through the American Anthropological Association. He was claiming the title of bioanthropologist before it was cool. He wrote a guide for the profession called Engaging Descendant Communities, or, more lovingly, The Rubric. Blakey encourages allowing those descendant communities to guide scientists’ research on human remains. He calls us Homo reminiscens, because what makes us “human” may be our affinity for memorializing our dead as much as it may be our large brains (á la Homo sapiens). “Burial is human dignity,” Blakey announced during the seminar, “Dignity is what we do.”

“Ethical code is not law. It is our greatest responsibility.”

Michael Blakey

After all, science has historically been used to justify the unjust. Bioarchaeology is a famous contributor to the field; the pseudoscience of phrenology was upheld until well into the 20th century, and was originally used as “scientific proof” that people of African descent were lesser than Europeans. It was also cited as a justification for displacing Native Americans from their lands.

During lunch, I was struck by Blakey’s cadence. He had a deep, slow voice and spoke with intention. He ordered the giant pretzel. I never asked my questions; instead, I was swept away by the group’s discussion on ethics–a topic I had no open Safari tabs on. I asked instead why a scientist would choose to guide themselves entirely by a non-expert opinion rather than scientific inquiry; would that not hinder discovery?

The scientific method, as you may recall, starts with asking a question. Rather than gracefully including descendent communities after the paper has been written, Blakey urges scientists to only pursue questions about remains that the descendants wish to answer. The science of death should never be self-serving, he noted. There is no purpose to publishing a paper if it is not in the service of the community that provided the subject. A critical reader may notice that The Rubric is not called The Gospel or The Constitution. Rather than a rule of law, it is a guideline. That’s because ethics is based on the respect of self, of craft, and of others. “Ethical code is not law,” Blakey reminds scientists. “It is our greatest responsibility.”

Geer Cemetary has been the subject of Duke research for years now, from a Story+ program to class field trips. Members of ICS, CLST, and FHHI have been in cooperation with Friends of Geer Cemetary to answer such questions about burial conditions–the attempt at dignity granted to Black residents of Durham by their descendants.


Edit: a previous version of this article had incorrectly stated that the Department of African and African American Studies sponsored Michael Blakey’s lecture.

Post by Olivia Ares, Class of 2025

“Humans Are Selectively Pro-science” and Other Ways to Think About Polarization

Photo from DonkeyHotey on flickr.com. Licensed under Creative Commons license.

We live in a country where 80% of both Democrats and Republicans believe that the other political party “poses a threat that if not stopped will destroy America as we know it.” Lovely.

A 2020 study found that only 3.5% of voters would avoid voting for their preferred candidate if that candidate engaged in undemocratic behavior. In 2022, 72% of surveyed Republicans said that Democrats are more immoral than other Americans, and 83% of Democrats said that Republicans are more close-minded than other Americans. Political polarization is apparently increasing faster in the U.S. than in other democracies, but Americans aren’t just divided along political lines. Other aspects of identity, like religious beliefs, can spawn discord as well. In the U.S., 70% of atheists think religious organizations “do more harm than good,” but 44% of Americans still think that you must believe in God “in order to be moral and have good values.”

Most Americans agree that polarization is a problem. But what can be done about it? The Trent Center for Bioethics, Humanities, and History of Medicine recently hosted a conversation between two people who have spent much of their careers engaging with many different beliefs and perspectives. A recording of the talk can be found here.

Molly Worthen, Ph.D., Associate Professor of History at UNC and a freelance journalist, grew up in a “secular, totally nonreligious home,” but courses she took in college made her realize that “for a huge swath of humanity, over the course of our history,” religion has helped people find meaning and community. She has explored religion extensively through her work as a historian, author, and journalist. Worthen says she has “way too risk-averse a temperament to be a full-time journalist,” but one advantage of journalism is that it provides “an excuse to ask people questions.”

Emma Green, a journalist at The New Yorker, has also covered religion in her writing and spent time engaging with people and communities who hold a wide variety of beliefs. Green believes that “the most interesting stories are often about the debates communities are having within themselves.” These debates aren’t just about religion. In communities of all kinds, people with different and often opposing beliefs navigate disagreements with their best friends, neighbors, and family members as they engage with polarizing issues and try to find ways to coexist.

The process of interviewing people with differing worldviews and beliefs can bring challenges, but both Worthen and Green have found that those challenges are not insurmountable. “If you do your homework and you really make a good-faith effort to learn where a person is coming from,” Worthen says, “they will tell you their story. They will not shut down.”

Worthen has spent time with a community of Russian Orthodox Old Believers in Alberta. It was an opportunity to make a “concerted effort to really get inside the worldview of someone very different from myself.”

Green has also spent time talking to and learning from religious communities. She published an article about Hyattsville Mennonite Church in Pennsylvania, which had been welcoming gay members for over a decade and had originally been “disciplined” by the Allegheny Mennonite Conference for its open acceptance of homosexuality. A decade later, the Conference gathered to determine whether the Hyattsville church should be allowed to rejoin the Conference or be removed from it altogether. (A third option, according to Green’s article, was to dissolve the Conference.) Green was struck by how the Mennonite community approached the dispute. They followed the formal “Robert’s Rules of Order,” but they also sang together in four-part harmony. The central dispute, Green says, was “about whether they could stay in community with one another.” Ultimately, the gay members were allowed to stay, though Green says that some people left the congregation in protest.

Polarization is a word we hear a lot, but why is it that we seem to have such a hard time finding common ground when it comes to important—or even seemingly unimportant—issues? Worthen points out that there seems to be a new survey every few years showing that “humans are generally impervious to evidence” that goes against our existing beliefs.

“Barraging a human with evidence doesn’t really work,” Worthen says. According to her, theologians and philosophers have long said that “we are depraved, irrational creatures, and the social science has finally caught up with that.”

This hesitancy to even consider evidence that conflicts with our existing beliefs has implications on public trust in science. Too often, “believing in science” takes on political implications. 

According to Pew Research Center, only 13% of Republicans have “a great deal” of confidence in scientists, compared to 43% of Democrats. “Many people on the left think of the universities as belonging to them,” says Worthen, leading to a greater sense of trust in science. “There is a desire on the left to want science to line up” with their political views, Green agrees, but good science isn’t inherently aligned with a particular political party. Science involves uncertainty and “iterative self-correction,” Worthen says, but even acknowledging uncertainty can spawn controversy. And when science doesn’t perfectly align with someone’s political or ideological beliefs, it can make people uncomfortable. For instance, Worthen believes that “the retreating date of viability” for fetuses and better fetal imaging technology is “provoking… discomfort on the left” in conversations about abortion.

Evolucionismo_Teísta.jpg by Felipe Ligeiro FL on Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Similarly, evidence from evolutionary biology can be hard to reconcile with deeply held religious beliefs. Worthen describes an interview she did with Dr. Nathaniel Jeanson. He has a Ph.D. from Harvard in cell and developmental biology, but he is also a Young Earth creationist who believes the earth was created by God in six days. There are “plenty of conservative Christians who understand those days as metaphors,” Worthen says, but Jeanson takes the six-day timeframe described in the Bible literally. In Worthen’s article, she says that Jeanson “dutifully studied evolutionary biology during the day and read creationist literature at night.” One thing Worthen admired in Jeanson was his willingness to be “honest about who we are”: not very open to new evidence.

“I think very few humans are anti-science,” Worthen says. “It’s more that humans are selectively pro-science.”

It isn’t just politics that can cause people to distrust science. Green points out that people who have had frustrating experiences with traditional healthcare may look for “other pathways to achieving a sense of control.” When patients know that something is wrong, and mainstream medicine fails them in some way, they may turn to alternative treatments. “That feeling of not being understood by the people who are supposed to know better than you is actually pretty common,” Green says, and it can fuel “selective distrust.”

It can be helpful, Worthen says, for a clinician to present themselves as someone trustworthy within a larger system that some patients view as “suspect.”

Distrust in public health authorities has been a recurring theme during the Covid pandemic. Green recalls interviewing an orthodox Jewish man in New York about his community’s experiences during the pandemic. Many Orthodox Jewish communities were hit hard by Covid, and Green believes it’s important to recognize that there were many factors involved. Even well-meaning health officials often lacked the language skills to speak dialects of Yiddish and other languages, and the absence of strong, pre-existing relationships with Orthodox communities made it harder to build trust in the middle of a crisis.

Worthen spoke about vaccine hesitancy. “For most of the population who has gotten the [Covid] vaccine,” she says, “it’s not because they understand the science but because they’re willing to ‘outsource’” their health decisions to public health authorities. It is “important not to lose sight of… how much this is about trust rather than understanding empirical facts.”

Finally, both speakers discussed the impacts of social media on polarization. According to Green, “information ecosystems can develop in social media and become self-contained.” While “there are a lot of people out there who are quacks who purport to be experts,” social media has also created public health “stars” who offer advice and knowledge to a social media audience. Even that, however, can have downsides. “There isn’t a lot of space for uncertainty, which is a huge part of science,” Green says.

Worthen, meanwhile, believes that “social media is one of the main assets destroying our civilization…. I would encourage everyone to delete your accounts.”

Polarization is pervasive, dangerous, and difficult to change. “As a journalist, I basically never have answers,” Green says, but maybe learning from journalists and their efforts to understand many different perspectives can at least help us begin to ask the right questions. Learning to actually listen to each other could be a good place to start.

Post by Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

For Weary Scholars, a Moment to Regroup, Reconnect…and Write

DURHAM, N.C. — English professor Charlotte Sussman doesn’t get much time in her role as department chair to work on her latest book project, an edited collection of essays on migration in and out of Europe.

“At least not during daylight hours,” Sussman said.

But a recent workshop brought a welcome change to that. Sussman was one of 22 faculty who gathered Dec. 13 for an end-of-semester writing retreat hosted by the Duke Faculty Write Program.

Duke faculty and staff gather for an end-of-semester writing retreat.

Most of them know all too well the burnout faculty and students face at the end of the semester. But for a few precious hours, they hit pause on the constant onslaught of emails, meetings, grading and other duties to work alongside fellow writers.

The participants sat elbow-to-elbow around small tables in a sunlit room at the Duke Integrative Medicine Center. Some scribbled on pads of paper; others peered over their laptops.

Each person used the time to focus on a specific writing project. Sussman aimed to tackle an introduction for her 34-essay collection. Others spent the day working on a grant application, a book chapter, a course proposal, a conference presentation.

Jennifer Ahern-Dodson, Ph.D.
Jennifer Ahern-Dodson, Ph.D.

“We have so many negative associations with writing because there’s always something more to do,” said associate professor of the practice Jennifer Ahern-Dodson, who directs the program. “I want to change the way people experience writing.”

Ahern-Dodson encouraged the group to break their projects into small, specific tasks as they worked toward their goals. It might be reading a journal article, drafting an outline, organizing some notes, even just creating or finding a file.

After a brief workshop, she kicked off a 60-minute writing session. “Now we write!” she said.

The retreat is the latest installment in a series that Ahern-Dodson has been leading for over 10 years. In a typical week, most of these scholars wouldn’t find themselves in the same room. There were faculty and administrators from fields as diverse as history, African and African American Studies, law, psychology, classics, biostatistics. New hires sitting alongside senior scholars with decades at Duke.

Peggy Nicholson, J.D., Clinical Professor of Law, writing alongside colleagues from across campus

“I really like the diversity of the group,” said Carolyn Lee, Professor of the Practice of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. “It’s a supportive environment without any judgement. They all have the same goal: they want to get some writing done.”

Sussman said such Faculty Write program get-togethers have been “indispensable” to bringing some of her writing projects over the finish line.

Participants say the program not only fosters productivity, but also a sense of connection and belonging. Take Cecilia Márquez, assistant professor in the Duke History Department. She joined the Duke faculty in 2019, but within months the world went into COVID-19 lockdown.

“This was my way to meet colleagues,” said Márquez, who has since started a writing group for Latinx scholars as an offshoot.

The writing retreats are free for participants, thanks to funding from the Office of the Dean of Trinity College of Arts and Sciences and the Thompson Writing Program. Participants enjoy lunch, coaching and community in what’s normally a solitary activity.

“I appreciate the culture of collaboration,” said David Landes, who came to Duke this year as Assistant Professor of the Practice in Duke’s Thompson Writing Program. “In the humanities our work is intensely individualized.”

Assistant Professor of Biostatistics & Bioinformatics Hwanhee Hong (left) and Adam Rosenblatt, Associate Professor of the Practice in International Comparative Studies (right)

Retreats are one of many forms of support offered by the Faculty Write program: there are also writing groups and workshops on topics such as balancing teaching and scholarship or managing large research projects.

“One of the distinguishing features of Faculty Write is the community that extends beyond one event,” Ahern-Dodson said. “Many retreats are reunions.”

After two hours of writing, Ahern-Dodson prompted the group to take a break. Some got up to stretch or grab a snack; others stepped outside to chat or stroll through the center’s labyrinth at the edge of Duke Forest.

It’s more than just dedicated writing time, Ahern-Dodson said. It’s also “learning how to work with the time they have.”

The retreats offer tips from behavioral psychology, writing studies, and other disciplines on time management, motivation, working with reader feedback, and other topics.

As they wrap up the last writing session of the day, Ahern-Dodson talks about how to keep momentum.

“Slow-downs and writing block are normal,” Ahern-Dodson said. Maybe how you wrote before isn’t working anymore, or you’re in a rut. Perhaps you’re not sure how to move forward, or maybe writing simply feels like a slog.

“There are some things you could try to get unstuck,” Ahern-Dodson said. Consider changing up your routine: when and where you write, or how long each writing session lasts.

“Protect your writing time as you would any other meeting,” Ahern-Dodson said.

Sharing weekly goals and accomplishments with other people can help too, she added.

“Celebrate each win.”

Ultimately, Ahern-Dodson says, the focus is not on productivity but on meaning, progress and satisfaction over time.

“It’s all about building a sustainable writing practice,” she said.

Ahern-Dodson leads an end-of-semester writing retreat for Duke scholars.

Coming soon: On Friday, Jan. 27 from 12-1 p.m., join Vice Provost for Faculty Advancement Abbas Benmamoun for a conversation about how writing works for him as a scholar and administrator. In person in Rubenstein Library 249 (Carpenter Fletcher Room)

Get Involved: Faculty and staff are invited to sign up for writing groups for spring 2023 here.

Learn more about sustainable writing practices: “The Productivity Trap: Why We Need a New Model of Faculty Writing Support,” Jennifer Ahern-Dodson and Monique Dufour. Change, January/February 2023.

Robin Smith
By Robin Smith

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