Following the people and events that make up the research community at Duke

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Leadership As ‘Groundskeeping,’ Not ‘Gatekeeping,’ and Other “Lessons From Plants”

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Dr. Beronda Montgomery, author of Lessons from Plants, recently spoke at Duke University. (Photos: Marie Claire Chelini, Biology Dept.)

Plants do not passively exist, leaving their survival to the whims of fate; they notice their environments and respond accordingly, says Dr. Beronda Montgomery, a professor, writer, science communicator, and researcher from Michigan State University who studies plants and what we can learn from them.

She visited Duke last week to talk about her recently published book, Lessons from Plants, and the inspiration behind it.

Plants perceive and respond to their surroundings in myriad ways, from turning toward a light source to reacting to differences in temperature, humidity, and nutrient availability. Even the same stimulus can cause different reactions in different situations, said Montgomery, whose research involves photosynthetic organisms, especially Arabidopsis plants and cyanobacteria. She is broadly interested in how organisms respond to and are affected by their environments.

For example, light can serve as either a “go signal” or a “stop signal,” depending how much of it is available. In low light conditions, plants invest more energy in stem elongation as they seek light. When they have sufficient light, on the other hand, plants undergo “de-etiolation,” creating shorter stems and better developed leaves.

Montgomery doesn’t just learn about plants; she learns from them as well. And in some cases, she says, plants might make better teachers than humans.

Montgomery spoke in the Penn Pavilion at Duke.

One area Montgomery has written about extensively, both in Lessons from Plants and elsewhere, is equity. As she points out, “Equal aptitude can result in different outcomes depending on environment.” According to Montgomery, “Humans, by and large, have an expectation of growth for plants,” so when something goes wrong, we look to external factors. We blame the caretaker, not personal defects in the plant. With humans, on the other hand, “We recruit people… who have demonstrated success elsewhere,” fueling a vicious cycle that can exacerbate inequities and limit opportunities. Montgomery talks about “the need to move from leadership as gatekeeping to groundskeeping.”

When students or employees struggle, she believes we should scrutinize mentors and caregivers instead of automatically attributing failure to personal defects. After all, “We would never say… ‘let me teach you to have turgid leaves’ to a plant” or tell it to simply try harder. We don’t eliminate houseplants that aren’t thriving. We ask ourselves what they need—whether it’s light, fertilizer, or water—and make changes accordingly.

“What would happen,” Montgomery asks, “if we saw things like equity as essential to our existence?” She stresses that questions like these can’t remain hypothetical. She points to a quote in Breathe, a book by Imani Perry, that captures the importance of applying what we learn: “Awareness is not a virtue in and of itself, not without a moral imperative.”

Nevertheless, Montgomery believes that “We have to live in the system we have while we transform it.” Sometimes, just as managed fires can make forests healthier and safer, there is a need for “intentional disruption” in the human world. “We seem to want change without change,” when we should instead be embracing the process of change as well as the result. “Change doesn’t mean that what happened in the past was all evil. It just means that we have to keep moving.” Moving forward is something plants do well. Season by season, year by year, they keep growing. Montgomery speaks of the tulips that helped bring her peace during a period of personal and collective grief. In spite of everything, the tulips she had planted in the fall came up in the springtime, ready for warmer weather.

Plants don’t just respond to change; they prepare for it. In the fall, when deciduous trees lose their leaves, they are “actively prepar[ing] for rest,” something Montgomery thinks we could all learn from.

Hope, according to Montgomery, means that “some things have to die, and some live,” and that “despite what’s going on around you, you have to find the power and strength to go on.”

“I aspire to hope,” she says.

Montgomery also did a book signing for Lessons from Plants which was published in April of this year.

Montgomery says her guiding life principle is reciprocity. It seems fitting, then, that she has taught her son to appreciate plants from an early age, just as her mother did for her. When Montgomery’s son was nine months old, she planted a tree in his honor with the idea that he would be its steward. Sometimes, her son was taller than the tree. Other times, it was the other way around. When Montgomery’s son was seven, the tree became ill, but they treated it successfully, prompting conversations about sickness and recovery and what it means to care for something. Throughout his childhood, her son’s tree remained a valuable conversation starter. It still is.

“He’s a second-year student in college, and he still asks about his tree.”

Post by Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

A Look Inside the Most Dynamic Criminal Trial of 2021

“You were told, for example, that Mr. Floyd died because his heart was too big. You heard that testimony… the truth of the matter is – that the reason George Floyd is dead is because Mr. Chauvin’s heart was too small.”

– Jerry Blackwell

George Floyd holding his now 7-year-old daughter, Gianna Floyd.

May 25, 2020 was a day that shook the United States to its core. George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black father was murdered in Minneapolis, Minnesota, by white police officer Derek Chauvin. Police brutality is nothing new to America, but the barbarity of this incident sparked international outrage, leading to the reignition of the Black Lives Matter movement, worldwide protests, and national polarization.

On Sept. 20 at Duke Law, political science professor Kerry L. Haynie and law professors Timothy Lovelace and Trina Jones had the opportunity to converse in a virtual panel discussion with Jerry Blackwell, the lead prosecutor for the George Floyd trial.

“The unique thing about this case was that George Floyd died in all of our living rooms,” Blackwell began. “The people wearing the badge who are supposed to protect the people almost made me feel like an object that could be brutalized.”

Blackwell, a North Carolina native, said he sympathized with George Floyd, not in the direct sense of being brutalized, but from other dehumanizing injustices by police, such as being pulled over without reason, being racially profiled, and being questioned without a warrant.

Lead Prosecutor Jerry Blackwell during the Derek Chauvin trial.

Blackwell’s involvement with the case launched with a call from Attorney General Keith Ellison, the first Black attorney general in the state of Minnesota. “Happenstance” was how Blackwell described his acquisition of the case. He explained that his law firm, Blackwell Burke, practiced trial law and that this was a criminal case, causing potential issues in participation. Regardless, he wanted to help in any way that he could, especially since the incident happened in Minneapolis, where he lives.

Blackwell thought he would be “helping with costumes and hemming the curtains,” helping other criminal lawyers get ready for the trial, maintaining a more behind-the-scenes position. He joined on a pro bono basis, meaning he did not get paid, but after a few weeks, he ended up becoming the Lead Prosecutor for the case.

During his work, Blackwell said he encountered a plethora of obstacles, one of which was the issue of American History. Since the onset of the civil rights movement, attempting to commit a white police officer for the brutalization of an African American is a rare and arduous thing. “So many citizens don’t want to believe that police officers would ever do that,” thinking instead that there had to be some confusion going on, that if given more time, there would have been a different reaction. The assumption that cases like these represent a situational issue and not a personal one is one of the factors responsible for the current lack of accountability in the justice system.

There was also the concern of drugs being in Floyd’s system at the time of the murder.

“Some jurors might hear ‘drug equals thug’ and a thug isn’t a thing a juror would rule in favor of against a white police officer.” Blackwell said. It was important to him that his team prove without a doubt that drugs were not his cause of death, so they could turn their attention to incriminating Derek Chauvin. Blackwell was also questioned by his team on whether he held enough objectivity to handle this case since he had lived similar experiences as a black man.

During the three-week trial, Blackwell remained hopeful about the outcome of the case, even though it was extremely difficult at times.

Officer Derek Chauvin moments before the final verdict was given.

He opened up about having white counterparts who expressed, “How hard can it be, with video proof?” and explained that when it comes to the issue of social justice, just because everyone has seen it doesn’t mean the verdict will be any different.

“Every African American was on the edge of their seats, and I was too,” he said. After deliberating for around 10 hours over a two-day period, the jury found Derek Chauvin guilty of second-degree murder and he was later sentenced to 22.5 years in prison.

Justice was served, right?

According to Blackwell, it wasn’t. “Don’t call it justice, because if it were, George Floyd would still be alive.”

Post by Skylar Hughes, Class of 2025

Trust-Building, Re-Visited History, and Time Pertinent to Achieve Health Equity for Black Americans

Along with being a beautiful person and leading a productive life, Henrietta Lacks is the mother of modern medicine. Her scientific child was born without Henrietta’s consent through the clinical breakthroughs and medical miracles achieved with the help of her cervical cells – HeLa cells – stolen without her knowledge when she sought healthcare. Ironically, the same treatments developed from the cells of this Black woman are inaccessible for many Black Americans contemporarily. Though Ms. Lacks passed away from cervical cancer at the premature age of 31, her unique cells have become immortal. Her story lives on as a pertinent reminder of the importance of building trust between medicine and the Black community. In honor of her birthday, expert panelists met to both celebrate Ms. Lacks and discuss the path forward in trust-building, equity, and reckoning with our history to change the narrative of healthcare for Black Americans.

The panel honored Henrietta Lacks through discussion of the path forward for biomedical research and Black communities. The panel was hosted in August in remembrance of Ms. Lacks’ birthday on August 1st.

The panel, which took place on Tuesday, August 31, began as a conversation between Nadine Barrett (Ph.D.), Robert A. Winn (M.D.) and Vanessa B. Sheppard (Ph.D.). Among their many other titles and positions, Barrett is Director, Center for Equity in Research, Dukev CTSI and Associate Director of Equity, Community and Stakeholder Strategy, Duke Cancer Institute, Dr. Winn is the Director of the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Massey Cancer Center, and Sheppard is the Associate Director of Community Outreach Engagement and Health Disparities at VCU Massey Cancer Center. The trio were joined by Reuben Warren (D.D.S., M.P.H., Dr. P.H., M.DIV.), Director of Tuskegee University’s Bioethics Center, along with a handful of other contributors including Veronica Robinson – Henrietta Lacks’ great-granddaughter and a registered nurse who represents the Lacks family on the NIH panel that reviews applications to conduct research using the HeLa genome.

A screenshot of panelists who took part in Tuesday’s conversation.

Winn began by referencing the U.S. 1932 public health service study that took place in Tuskegee, Alabama. The experiment exploited Black men in Tuskegee when an effective form of treatment for syphilis was discovered 15 years into the study but withheld from participants “to track the disease’s full progression.” In 1972, 40 years after the study began, it was the associated press, not the scientific community that finally led to the experiment’s demise and the issue of an apology from the U.S. President.

As Warren pointed out, the issue with the study was less about the treatment and more about the dishonesty, the falsifying information, and lies. “Stop calling them poor, stop calling them all sharecroppers,” Warren said of the Black men who participated in the study, “They were far more than that.” “[The study] was an issue of trust, not an issue of ignorance,” he continued. Unfortunately, when talking about this story, Winn said that Black Americans “don’t always talk about the power of us standing up and saying not again.

Bioethics violations have been a continuous part of the biomedical research enterprise in the U.S., and race and racism have been part of scientific inquiry, which continues to be of great concern, Warren said. Often, rather than putting preventative protections in place, bioethics regulations have come as a reaction to extreme violations of justice. Thus, Warren laid out a central theme of the panel that “You build trust by making yourself trustworthy and that takes time.” Rather than initiating transactional research with Black communities when the scientific and medical community needs something, Warren offered that they should start when they want to help with something.

Dr. Rueben Warren presenting examples of bioethics violations in the history of biomedical research, with most examples stemming from the United States

As Sheppard said, “[Black people] have earned a mistrust” for medical communities. This is largely hinged on Barrett’s argument that the American systems from health to education to criminal justice “are working as they were designed” – to ensure that the very inequalities that exist today came to be. Using the analogy of a marathon, Barrett said while white men in the U.S. started the race 450 years ago, Black men and women only began running this race hundreds of years later. “Those who start the race are going to…ensure that they thrive,” Barrett said. This has led to Black people dying disproportionately from often treatable diseases, Sheppard said, continuing to add that these sorts of disparities were front and center for the world to see during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the creation of our structural inequalities, the system created “two bookends: Black and white.” But there has to be a narrative that keeps this story alive. “In order to create the change, we have got to do the work to change the narrative,” said Barrett.

Nadine Barrett (Ph.D.), Director of Health Equity and Disparities at Duke Cancer Institute

Robinson pointed to the importance of history, paralleling Warren’s comments that in focusing on health equities we are fully focusing on the future in a way that ignores the past and does not deal with “what really brought us into health disparities” in the first place. Robinson said that we “can no longer sweep [conversations on the historical injustices of medical racism] under the rug.” She continued to say that the reason why Tuesday’s conversation and the ongoing dialogue that is sure to follow is so powerful is because “we are no longer victims in our own legacies” by taking over conversations at the table rather than being the topics of discussion at the table.

Mistrust in the Black community for systems of medicine and healthcare are based on hundreds of years of action. Hesitancy – from Covid-19 vaccinations to participation in clinical trials for cancer research – amongst Black Americans “aren’t us saying no,” said Robinson, “We’re saying something happened.” Sharon Ribera Sanchez, Founder-Director of Saving Pennies 4 A Cure, is a cancer survivor and advocate for people of color to engage in clinical trials because of the difference they can make in medical developments that draw on more diverse and robust data.

But there is a bigger conversation than just having more Black folks take place in research and clinical trials, Winn said. “How are you going to look at my biology without looking at my history?” he asked, referencing the genetic implications of environmental conditions and stressors from socially constructed race that impact DNA.

An image of HeLa cells

The dialogue, which was opened and closed with a prayer, also spoke to the importance of establishing regular, ongoing, transparent relationships between the Black faith community and the medical community. This should happen, not just in times of crisis, because “mass hysteria is prime for miscommunication,” Ralph Hodge, pastor of the Second Baptist Church in South Richmond, Virginia, said.

“Today was a big way of us looking back at the past, looking at where we are at now, and moving forward to the solutions,” said Barrett. This comes by letting communities know that we care, said Winn, along with “doing things with our communities, not through them.”

A key factor in deconstructing this issue and achieving health equity is time. Time to reflect on the past in order to avoid reliving it; time to generate innovative solutions to the problems at hand; and time to invest in Black communities – to learn from them, support them, and earn their trust not because they can offer science something, but because science has something to offer them.

Post by Cydney Livingston

Quantifying the effects of structural racism on health

Photo from Scholars@Duke

America is getting both older and Blacker. The proportion of non-white older adults is increasing, and by 2050 the majority of elderly people will be racial minorities. In his Langford Lecture “Who gets sick and why? How racial inequality gets under the skin” on November 10, Professor Tyson H. Brown discussed the importance of studying older minorities when learning about human health. His current project aims to address gaps in research by quantifying effects of structural racism on health. 

Health disparities result in unnecessary fatalities. Dr. Brown estimates that if we took away racial disparities in health, we could avoid 229 premature deaths per day. Health disparities also have substantial economic costs that add up to about 200 billion dollars annually. Dr. Brown explained that the effects of structural racism are so deadly because it is complex and not the same as the overt, intentional, interpersonal racism that most people think of. Thus, it is easier to ignore or to halt attempts to fix structural racism. Dr. Brown’s study posits that structural racism has five key tenets: it is multifaceted, interconnected, an institutionalized system, involves relational subordination and manifests in racial inequalities in life chances. 

A motivator for Brown’s research was that less than 1% of studies of the effects of race on health have focused on structural racism, even though macro level structural racism has deleterious effects on health of Black people. When thinking about inequalities, the traditional mode of thinking is the group that dominates (in this case, white people) receives all benefits and the subordinates (in Dr. Brown’s study, Black people) receive all of the negative effects of racism. In this mode of thinking, whites actively benefit from social inequality. However, Dr. Brown discussed another theory: that structural racism and its effects on health undermines the fabric of our entire society and has negative impacts on both whites and Blacks. It is possible for whites to be harmed by structural racism, but not to the same extent as Black people. 

Dr. Brown identified states as “important institutional actors that affect population health.” As a part of his research, he made a state level index of structural racism based off of data from 2010. The index was composed of nine indicators of structural racism, which combine to make an overall index of structural racism in states. In mapping out structural racism across the domains, the results were not what most people might expect. According to Dr. Brown’s study, structural racism tends to be highest in the midwest of the United States, rather than the south. These higher levels of structural racism were associated with worse self-rated health: one standard deviation increase in level of structural racism correlated with the equivalent of two standard deviation increases in age. In other words, a person who is affected by structural racism has similar self-rated health to people two age categories above them who do not experience negative effects of structural racism. 

As the structural racism index increases, the Black-white difference in COVID-19 related deaths also increases. Overall, Dr. Brown found that structural racism is a key driver of inequalities in COVID-19 deaths between whites and Blacks. Looking forward, Dr. Brown is interested in learning more about how contemporary forms of racism contribute to inequality—such as searching racial slurs on Google and implicit bias, both of which are high in the southern United States. 

After his discussion, colleagues raised questions about what can be done to eliminate negative effects of structural racism. Dr. Brown listed options such as rent protection, COVID-19 test sites in lower income communities and another stimulus bill. He also explained that the distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine needs to be done in an ethical manner and not exclude those who are less fortunate who really need the vaccine. We also need better data collection in general—the more we know about the effects of structural racism, the better we will be able to adapt equity practices to mitigate harm on Black communities.

By Victoria Priester

Trust in Gynecology: The Impact of Race & Socioeconomic Status in Women’s Health

Nikki Mahendru’s mother didn’t go to the gynecologist for 45 years — and when she did, she regretted it. Ms. Mahendru felt “decades of anxieties and hesitancy reduced to five minutes of brisk interaction with her provider,” and left convinced that the “realm of women’s health was just not for her.” According to Nikki, a Duke University undergraduate, her mother’s “trust in the system was lost.” 

Mahendru joined Dr. Megan Huchko, the director of the Duke Center for Global Reproductive Health, and Dr. Chemtai Mungo, a Fogarty Global Health Fellow and OB-GYN doctor, on the Center for Global Women’s Health Technologies’ October 20 panel “Impact of Race and Socioeconomic Status in Women’s Health and Gynecology.” The panel was moderated by Ashley Deans and Alexandria Da Ponte.

Mahendru went on to detail an experience she had in the clinic with Carmen, a patient who spoke only Spanish and was also new to the gynecologist. The medical translator and Mahendru learned her story: she had been in pain for a year but had kept quiet due to money problems, had worked most of her life to send her kids to college, and was learning English via Rosetta Stone. With the details of Carmen’s story and an “equitable working relationship,” Mahendru and the translator could relay Carmen’s previous history to her provider. But Carmen’s provider knew only of her condition. 

Mahendru thinks gynecology done right has the potential to help women love their bodies and take care of their health, but gynecologists must earn the trust of their patients: “Acts of listening help bridge disparities.”

Dr. Huchko stated that throughout history, a male-dominated healthcare landscape saw the depiction of menses as ‘dirty,’ terms like ‘hysteria,’ and an overall lack of female control. The “father of gynecology” James Marion Sims exploited Black women in his development of the field, using unanesthetized slaves as subjects of experimentation. In general, Dr. Huchko sees a trend: “The lessening or decentering of women in women’s health corresponds to more discrimination.” In addition to the decentering of women, Dr. Huchko said that structural and individual factors “produce outcomes that prevent women from getting the care they need.” Like Mahendru, she identified trust as a central issue.

Dr. Megan Huchko, MD, MPH, is the director of the Duke Center for Global Reproductive Health

Dr. Huchko cited an experience in which she bore witness to the unattended consequences of racial bias in medicine. In Niger to repair women’s fistulas, which occur due to lack of postpartum care, Dr. Huchko felt she was attending to the downstream symptom of a much broader issue. She felt uncomfortable when the urogynecologist on her team ignorantly praised Sims without acknowledging his problematic history. Then, she saw this ignorance firsthand. 

Making a false assumption about the nature of the case, Dr. Huchko’s team chose to operate on a woman with a mass in her bladder. During the surgery, they realized the mass was a malignant tumor. With an unbiased eye and a complete exam and workup, this would have been clear. But because the team was looking at these women as “one-dimensional,” a woman with stage 4 cancer was subjected to a very invasive surgery that worsened her quality of life. 

Dr. Huchko experienced a similar lack of structural competency during her residency, where colleagues openly racially profiled people and overtly discussed disparities in pain tolerances among different ethnicities. Since then, “things have changed,” and she embraces this new culture of “being patient centered, exploring our own biases, and [having] zero tolerance for racial profiling.” She stresses the need for personal education and accountability alongside systemic change. Eventually, this will lead to women feeling “respected, seen, and heard.”

Coming to the US from Kenya, Dr. Mungo quickly came to appreciate the “sheer magnitude” of structural racism and its impact on health and healthcare. Dr. Mungo explained that “mutually reinforcing systems of disadvantage” for people of color, such as food deserts, are both the result and cause of healthcare disparities and result in enduring legacies of disadvantage.

Dr. Chemtai Mungo, MD, MPH, is a Fogarty Global Health Fellow and OB-GYN doctor

Dr. Mungo also observed that with healthcare in the US being so economically driven, the best care is often directed at those with racial and socioeconomic privilege. When she worked in a high resourced (read: white, wealthy) hospital, access to uterus-saving equipment such as interventional radiology meant that she only did one hysterectomy in four years. Doctors at the hospital also came in on weekends to get a person with cancer into the OR immediately.

Now, working at a “safety net hospital,” Dr. Mungo sees a stark difference. With non-existent interventional radiology and more part-time, “less invested” employees, Dr. Mungo has done three hysterectomies in three years — a 75% increase — and sees patients with time-sensitive conditions wait much longer before surgery. This “separate and unequal access to resources” is a cause for concern. 

Dr. Mungo also stressed the need to make practices “safe places” for patients of color by increasing minority representation. Dr. Mungo explained that while Black physicians make up only 5% of doctors and 3% of faculty, there is strong evidence that patients who are cared for by someone of their own race or ethnicity have better outcomes. “We live in a racist society,” Dr. Mungo stated, “so we need specific anti-racist policies.” 

Dr. Mungo also acknowledged that healthcare providers work within “templates” like 15 minute appointments, and posed the closing question, how can we make patients feel safe and heard within the constraints of modern medicine? 

Answering questions from the audience, Dr. Mungo and Huchko discussed medical algorithms that are based on race, like the VBAC calculator and GFR. 

Dr. Mungo indicted these algorithms as “an example of how institutionalized some [racial] biases are.” There is “no concrete evidence” on why these corrections for race — which typically act to reduce the probability of success for a procedure or favorability of an outcome — exist. Dr. Mungo would urge providers “not to stop at, ‘well, African Americans have an increased risk of diabetes.’ Ask why. Have them explain food deserts… and structural and environmental racism.”

Dr. Huchko stated that giving aspirin throughout pregnancy reduces preeclampsia, and is thus traditionally offered based on risk factors for preeclampsia, like low socioeconomic status and African American race. Sometimes, healthcare providers may not be able to address these risks without the acknowledgement of race as a risk factor. Dr. Huchko is right, African American women are at a higher risk for preeclampsia, and ignoring this correlation would probably do more harm than good. 

But per Dr. Mungo’s appeal, providers must interrogate these associations more deeply — and be ever anti-racist in their efforts — if they are to create the safe spaces and trusting relationships that Mahendru, Dr. Huchko, and Dr. Mungo each hope to see.

By Zella Hanson

Polymath Mae Jemison encourages bolder exploration, collaboration

Photo from Biography.com

“I don’t believe that [going to] Mars pushes us hard enough.” This was just one of the bold, thought-provoking statements made by Dr. Mae Jemison, who came to speak at Duke on Monday, February 24 as part of the 15th annual Jean Fox O’Barr Distinguished Speaker Series, presented by Baldwin Scholars.

Dr. Jemison is at the pinnacle of interdisciplinary engagement—though she is most famous for serving as a NASA astronaut and being the first African American woman to go into space, she is also trained as an engineer, social scientist and dancer. Dr. Jemison always knew that she was going to space—even though there were no women or people or color participating in space exploration as she was growing up.

Dr. Jemison says that simply “looking up” brought her here. As a child, she would look up at the sky, see the stars and wonder if other children in other places in the world were looking at the same view that she had. Growing up in the 1960’s instilled into Dr. Jemison at an early age that our potential is limitless, and the political culture of civil rights, changing art and music and decolonization were all about “people declaring that they had a right to participate.” 

Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Roy

One of the biggest pieces of advice that Dr. Jemison wanted to impart on her audience was the value of confidence, and how to build confidence in situations where people are tempted to feel incapable or forget the strengths they already possess. “They told me if I wanted to lead projects I needed an M.D.,” Dr. Jemison explained. “I went to medical school because I know myself and I knew I would want to be in charge one day.” 

At 26 years old, Dr. Jemison was on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year as the Area Peace Corps Medical Officer for Sierra Leone and Liberia. She described a case where a man came back with a diagnosis of malaria from Senegal. When Dr. Jemison first took a look, the diagnosis seemed more likely to be meningitis. After making an “antibiotic cocktail,” from what she had on site, she realized this man might lose his life if they didn’t get him to a better hospital. At this point, Dr. Jemison wanted to call a military medical evacuation, and she had the authority to do it. However, another man working with her suggested calling a doctor in Ivory Coast, or a doctor at the hospital in Germany to see what he thought before making the evacuation. Dr. Jemison knew what the patient needed in this situation was to be flown to Germany regardless of the cost of the evacuation. In reflecting on this experience, she says that she could have given someone else her authority, but letting her confidence in herself and what she knew was the right thing to do would have negatively impacted her patient. 

So, how do you maintain confidence? According to Dr. Jemison, you come prepared. She knew her job was to save people’s lives, not to listen to someone else. Dr. Jemison also admonished the audience to “value, corral and protect your energy.” She couldn’t afford to always make herself available for non-emergency situations, because she needed her energy for when a patient’s life would depend on it. 

Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Roy

Dr. Jemison’s current project, 100 Year Starship, is about  trying to ensure we have the capabilities to travel to interstellar space. “The extreme nature of interstellar hurdles requires we re-evaluate what we think we know,” Dr. Jemison explained. Alpha Centauri, the next closest star, is more than 25 trillion miles away. Even if we go 10% the speed of light, it will still take us 50 years to get there. We need to be able to travel faster, the vehicle has to be self-replenishing, and we have to think about space-time changes. What Dr. Jemison calls the “long pole in the tent” is human behavior. We need to know how humans will act and interact in a small spaceship setting for possibly decades of space travel. Dr. Jemison is thinking deeply about how we can apply the knowledge we already possess to fix world problems, and how we can start preparing now for problems we may face in the future. For example, how would health infrastructure in deep space look different? How would we act on a starship that contains 5,000 people when we can’t figure out how to interact with each other on the “starship” we’re on now?

Returning to the childhood love for stargazing that brought her here, Dr. Jemison discussed towards the end of her talk that a stumbling block for the majority of people is insufficient appreciation of our connection across time and space. She has worked with a team to develop Skyfie, an app that allows you to upload photos and videos of your sky to the Sky Tapestry and explore images other people in different parts of the world are posting of their sky. Dr. Jemison’s hope is this app will help people realize that we are interconnected with the rest of the universe, and we won’t be able to figure out how to survive as a species on this planet alone. 

By Victoria Priester

Predictive maps in the brain

How do we represent space in the brain? Neuroscientists have been working to understand this question since the mid-20th century, when researchers like EC Tolman started experimenting with rats in mazes. When placed in a maze with a food reward that the rats had been trained to retrieve, the rats consistently chose the shortest path to the reward, even if they hadn’t practiced that path before.

Sam Gershman is interested in how we encode information about our environments.

Over 50 years later, researchers like Sam Gershman, PhD, of Harvard’s Gershman Lab are still working to understand how our brains encode information about space.

Gershman’s research questions center around the concept of a cognitive map, which allows the brain to represent landmarks in space and the distance between them. He spoke at a Center for Cognitive Neuroscience colloquium at Duke on Feb. 7.

Maps are formed via reinforcement learning, which involves predicting and maximizing future reward. When an individual is faced with problems that have multiple steps, they can do this by relying on previously learned predictions about the future, a method called successor representation (SR), which would suggest that the maps we hold in our brain are predictive rather than retroactive.

One specific region implicated in representations of physical space is the hippocampus, with hippocampal place cell activity corresponding to positions in physical space. In one study, Gershman found, as rats move through space, that place field activity corresponding to physical location in space skews opposite of the direction of travel; in other words, activity reflects both where the rodent currently is and where it just was. This pattern suggests encoding of information that will be useful for future travel through the same terrain: in Gershman’s words, “As you repeatedly traverse the linear track, the locations behind you now become predictive of where you are going to be in the future.”

Activation patterns in place cells correspond to both where the animal is and where the animal just was, pointing to the construction of a predictive map during learning. Graphic courtesy of Stachenfield et al., 2017.

This idea that cognitive activity during learning reflects construction of a predictive map is further supported by studies where the rodents encounter novel barriers. After being trained to retrieve a reward from a particular location, introducing a barrier along this known path leads to increased place cell activity as they get closer to the barrier; the animal is updating its predictive map to account for the novel obstacle.

This model also explains a concept called context preexposure facilitation effect, seen when animals are introduced to a new environment and subsequently exposed to a mild electrical shock. Animals who spend more time in the new environment before receiving the shock show a stronger fear response upon subsequent exposures to the box than those that receive a shock immediately in the new environment. Gershman attributes this observation to the time it takes the animal to construct its predictive map of the new environment; if the animal is shocked before it can construct its predictive map, it may be less able to generalize the fear response to the new environment.

With this understanding of cognitive maps, Gershman presents a compelling and far-reaching model to explain how we encode information about our environments to aid us in future tasks and decision making.

Brain networks change with age

Graph theory allows researchers to model the structural and functional connection between regions of the brain. Image courtesy of Shu-Hsien Chu et al.

As we age, our bodies change, and these changes extend into our brains and cognition. Although research has identified many changes to the brain with age, like decreases in gray matter volume or delayed recall from memory, researchers like Shivangi Jain, PhD, are interested in a deeper look at how the brain changes with age.

Shivangi Jain uses graph theory to study how the brain changes with age.

As a post-doctoral associate in the David Madden Lab at Duke, Jain is interested in how structural and functional connectivity in the brain change with age. Jain relies on the increasingly popular method of graph theory, which is a way of modeling the brain as a set of nodes or brain regions that are interconnected. Studying the brain in this way allows researchers to make connections between the physical layout of the brain and how these regions interact when they are active. Structural connectivity represents actual anatomical connections between regions in the brain, while functional connectivity refers to correlated activity between brain regions.

Jain’s studies use a series of tasks that test speed, executive function, and memory, each of which decline with age. Using fMRI data, Jain observed a decline in functional connectivity, where functional modules become less segregated with age.  In terms of structural connectivity, aging was associated with a decline in the strength of white matter connections and global efficiency, which represents the length between modules with shorter paths being more efficient. Thus, the aging brain shows changes at the anatomical, activational, and behavioral levels.

Jain then examined how these network-level changes played a role in the observed behavioral changes. Using statistical modeling, she found that the decline in performance in tasks for executive control could be explained by the observed changes in functional connectivity. Furthermore, Jain found that the changes in structural connectivity caused the change in functional connectivity. Taken together, these results indicate that the physical connections between areas in the brain deteriorate with age, which in turn causes a decrease in functional connectedness and a decline in cognitive ability.

Research like Jain’s can help explain the complicated relationships between brain structure and function, and how these relationships affect behavioral output.

Post by undergraduate blogger Sarah Haurin
Post by Sarah Haurin

Man’s Best Friend, Our Relationship to Dogs

The average dog costs its human owner $10,000-20,000 over the course of its lifetime, from vet care and grooming to treats and toys to the new fad of doggie DNA testing. But what’s in it for us? Researcher Kerri Rodriguez – a Duke alum of evolutionary anthropology and current grad student with Purdue University’s College of Veterinary Medicine – explores just that.

Rodriguez is a member of the OHAIRE Lab at Purdue, which stands for the Organization for Human-Animal Interaction Research and Education. Continuing her work from undergrad, Rodriguez researches the dynamic duo between humans and dogs – a relationship some 15,000 to 40,000 years in the evolutionary making. Rodriguez returned to Duke to speak on February 12th, honoring both Darwin Day and Duke’s second annual Dog Day.

It’s well-known that dogs are man’s best friend, but they do much more than just hang out with us. Dogs provide emotional support when we are stressed or anxious and are highly attentive to us and our emotional states.

In a study of 975 adult dog owners, dogs ranked closely to romantic partners and above best friends, children, parents, and siblings when their owners were asked who they turn to when feeling a variety of ways. Dogs provide non-judgmental support in a unique way. They have also been found to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol, lower perceived stress in individuals, improve mood, and improve energy up to 10 hours after interactions. Therapy dogs are prevalent on many college campuses now due to these impacts and are found in hospitals for the same reasons, having been found to reduce subjective pain, increase good hormones and dampen bad ones, causing some patients to require less pain medications.

(Creative Commons)

 Along with reduced stress, dogs make us healthier in other ways, from making us exercise to reducing risk of cardiovascular disease. A study of 424 heart attack survivors found that non-dog owners were four times more likely to be deceased one year after the attack than victims who owned dogs.

The increased social interaction that dogs offer their human companions is also quite amazing due to the social facilitation effect they provide by offering a neutral way to start conversations. One study with people who have intellectual disabilities found that they received 30% more smiles along with increased social interactions when out in public with a dog. Similar studies with people who use wheelchairs have produced similar results, offering that dogs decreased their loneliness in public spaces and led to more social engagements.

Rodriguez also shared results from a study dubbed Pet Wingman. Using dating platforms Tinder and Bumble, researchers found that after one month, simulated profiles containing pictures with dogs received 38% more matches, 58% more messages, and 46% more interactions than simulated profiles without. Even just having a dog in photos makes you appear more likable, happier, relaxed, and approachable – it’s science!

 A large bulk of Rodriguez’s own work is focused on dogs in working roles, particularly the roles of a service dog. She explained that unlike therapy or emotional support dogs, service dogs are trained for one person, to do work and perform tasks to help with a disability, and are the only dogs granted public access by the American Disability Association. Rodriguez is particularly interested in the work of dogs who help American veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

(Creative Commons)

 Around one out of five post-9/11 military veterans have PTSD and the disorder is difficult to treat. Service dogs are becoming increasingly popular to help combat effects of PTSD, ranking at the third highest placed type of service dog in the United States. PTSD service dogs are able to use their body weight as a grounding method, provide tactile interruption, reduce hypervigilance, and prevent crowding of their veterans. However, because of the lack of research for the practice, the Veterans Association doesn’t support the use of the dogs as a therapy option. This is an issue Rodriguez is currently trying to address.           

 Working with a group called K9s for Warriors, Rodriguez’s research evaluated the mental health, social health, quality of life, and cortisol levels of veterans who have received service dogs and those who were on the wait list for dogs. Veterans with service dogs had lower PTSD symptoms, better mental health, and better social health. Rodriguez is now working on a modification to this study using both veterans and their spouses that will be able to measure these changes to their well-being and health over time, as well as assessing the dog’s health too. Unlike other organizations, K9s for Warriors uses 90% shelter dogs, most of which are mutts. Each dog is as unique as the human it is placed with, but no bond is any less special.

By Cydney Livingston

Visual Perception in Congenitally Blind Adults

Vision provides a rich source of information that most people’s lives revolve around. Yet, for blind people, how do they conceive of visual intake and what happens to regions of the brain dedicated to vision if a person doesn’t have typical visual input? These are questions that drive Marina Bedny PhD, an Assistant Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences and principal investigator of a neuroplasticity and development lab at John Hopkins University.

Bedny spoke at Duke’s Institute for Brain Sciences on Friday, January 17th, about her work with congenitally blind adults. Her lab explores similarities and distinctions of visual perceptions between blind and seeing people and seeks to understand how nuanced, natural variation in experience shapes the human mind and brain.

Many of the studies Bedny discussed have very important linguistic components. In one trial, she investigated the meaning of verbs pertaining to light events and visual perception as compared to touch, amodal, auditory, and motion verbs.

Both blind and sighted people displayed nearly identical results when comparing the different types of verbs used in the study. This showed that there were no differences in what blind people knew about the terms. Analysis of the verbs revealed that linguistic dimensions of intensity and instability were used to evaluate the words’ comparative meanings. Blind people agreed more on the comparison of sound emission and touch perception words. This shows that blind participants have more aligned comprehension of the meanings of other sensory terms compared to sighted people.

In other cases, Bedny’s lab assessed what blind individuals know about color. One study used three object types – natural kinds, functional artifacts, and non-functional artifacts. These categories were used to evaluate agreeance not only on color, but the relevancy of color to certain objects’ functions as well.

Another crucial question of Bedny’s work looks at how the innate structure of the brain constrains cortical function. The findings show that the visual system in blind participants has been repurposed for higher cognitive functions and that portions of the visual system connected to high cognitive abilities are invaded by the visual systems. Along with repurposing visual regions for linguistic use, Bedny’s lab found that visual regions of the brain are active during numerical processing tasks too.

Blind people display additional activity in the visual centers of their brain in numerous studies beyond having the same regional brain responsiveness as sighted people. Though further research is necessary, Bedny proposes that there is a sensitive period during development that is critical to the specialization of the brain. Study participants who have adult-onset blindness do not show the same sensitivity and patterned responses in visual cortices repurposed for different functions as congenitally blind subjects.

At birth, the human cortex is pluripotent – providing the best of both worlds, Bedny said. The brain is prepared but highly flexible. Her studies have repeatedly shown that the brain is built for and transformed by language, and they underscore the importance of nature and nurture in human development.

Post by Cydney Livingston

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