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

Category: Lecture Page 1 of 17

Nobel Laureate Dr. Jennifer Doudna and Groundbreaking Applications of CRISPR

In 2011, Dr. Jennifer Doudna began studying an enzyme called Cas9. Little did she know, in 2020 she would go on to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry along with Emmanuelle Charpentier for discovering the powerful gene-editing tool, CRISPR-Cas9. Today, Doudna is a decorated researcher, the Li Ka Shing Chancellors Chair, a Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Molecular as well as Cell Biology at the University of California Berkeley, and the founder of the Innovative Genomics Institute.

Doudna was also this year’s speaker for the MEDx Distinguished Lecture in October where she delivered presented on “CRISPR: Rewriting DNA and the Future of Humanity.”

“CRISPR is a system that originated in bacteria as an adaptive immune system” Doudna explained.

Dr. Jennifer Doudna holding the Nobel Prize in Chemistry

When bacterial cells are infected by viruses those viruses inject their genetic material into the cell. This discovery, a couple decades ago, was the first indication that there may be ways to apply bacteria’s ability to acquire genetic information from viruses.

CRISPR itself was discovered in 1987 and stands for “Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats.” Doudna was initially studying RNA when she discovered Cas-9, a bacterial RNA-guided endonuclease and one of the enzymes produced by the CRISPR system. In 2012, Doudna and her colleagues found that Cas9 used base pairing to locate and splice target DNAs when combined with a guide RNA.

Essentially, they designed guide RNA to target specific cells. If those cells had a CRISPR system encoded in their genome, the cell is able to make an RNA copy of the CRISPR locus. Those RNA molecules are then processed into units that each include a sequence derived from a virus and then assemble with proteins. This RNA protein then looks for DNA sequences that match the sequence in the RNA guide. Once a match occurs, Cas9 is able to bind to and cut the DNA, leading to the destruction of the viral genome. The cutting of DNA then triggers DNA repair allowing gene editing to occur.

“This system has been harnessed as a technology for genome editing because of the ability of these proteins, these CRISPR Cas-p proteins, to be programmed by RNA molecules to cut any desired DNA sequence,” Doudna said.

Jennifer Doudna holding a Model of CRISPR-cas9

While continuing to conduct research, Doudna has also been focused on applying CRISPR in agriculture and medicine. For agriculture, researchers are looking to make changes to the genomes of plants in order to improve drought resistance and crop protection. 

CRISPR-cas9 is also being applied in many clinical settings. In fact, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Doudna along with several colleagues organized a five-lab consortium including the labs of Dan Fletcher, Patrick Hsu, Melanie Ott, and David Savage. The focus was on developing the Cas13 system to detect COVID-19. Cas13 is a class of proteins, that are RNA guided, RNA targeting, CRISPR enzymes. This research was initially done by one of Doudna’s former graduate students, Alexandra East-Seletsky. They discovered that if the reporter RNA is is paired with enzymes that have a quenched fluorophore pair on the ends, when the target is activated, the reporter is cleaved and a fluorescent signal is released. 

One study out of the Melanie Ott group demonstrated that Cas13 can be used to detect viral RNA. They are hoping to apply this as a point-of-care diagnostic by using a detector as well as a microfluidic chip which would allow for the conduction of these chemical reactions in much smaller volumes that can then be read out by a laser. Currently, the detection limit is similar to what one can get with a PCR reaction however it is significantly easier to run.

Graphical Abstract of Cas13 Research by the Melanie Ott lab

“And this is again, not fantasy, we’ve actually had just fabricated devices that will be sitting on a benchtop, and are able to use fabricated chips that will allow us to run the Cas13 chemistry with either nasal swab samples or saliva samples for detection of the virus,” Doudna added.

Another exciting development is the use of genome editing in somatic cells. This involves making changes in the cells of an individual as opposed to the germline. One example is sickle cell disease which is caused by a single base pair defect in a gene. Soon, clinicians will be able to target and correct this defect at the source of the mutation alleviating people from this devastating illness. Currently, there are multiple ongoing clinical trials including one at the Innovative Genomics Institute run by Doudna. In fact, one patient, Victoria Gray, has already been treated for her sickle cell disease using CRISPR.

Victoria Gray being treated for Sickle Cell Anemia
Meredith Rizzo/NPR

“The results of these trials are incredibly exciting and encouraging to all of us in the field, with the knowledge that this technology is being deployed to have a positive impact on patient’s lives,” Doudna said.

 Another important advancement was made last summer involving the use of CRISPR-based therapy to treat ATR, a rare genetic disease that primarily affects the liver. This is also the first time CRISPR molecules will be delivered in vivo.

In just 10 years CRISPR-cas9 has gone from an exciting discovery to being applied in several medical and agricultural settings. 

“This powerful technology enables scientists to change DNA with precision only dreamed of a few years ago,” said MEDx director Geoffrey Ginsburg, a Professor of Medicine at Duke. “Labs worldwide have redirected the course of research programs to incorporate this new tool, creating a CRISPR revolution with huge implications across biology and medicine.”

Examples of further CRISPR-Cas9 research can also be found in the Charles Gersbach lab here at Duke. 

By Anna Gotskind, Class of 2022

How is Universal Healthcare Like the Waterboarding Debate?

The Duke Medical Ethics Journal (DMEJ) is an undergraduate publication started in Spring of 2020 that examines conversations around universal patient-doctor responsibility. In other words, they’re training the next generation of healthcare providers to ask big questions and make informed decisions. So, we owe them a huge thank-you in advance. 

On Sunday, October 24th, DMEJ hosted Dr. Gopal Sreenivasan to speak with current members. The event was open to the public as part of the club’s mission to promote ethical practices across all fields. Dr. Sreenivasan is a moral philosopher, but he is also a professor of medicine at Duke Medical School. His position as the “Crown Professor of Ethics at the Trent Center for Bioethics, Humanities & History of Medicine,” is part of an initiative to connect societal arts and sciences aspects of Duke University to the Medical School. 

Dr. Gopal Sreenivasan

“Today, I want to talk to you all about the human right to health,” he opened. 

Sreenivasan’s talk was focused on the question of how individual countries can provide healthcare or insure health.  “One division within the human right to health is the division between health and healthcare,” he clarified. “Another is the difference between a regular right and a human right.” 

As a philosopher, Sreenivasan took the issue of access to health and placed it on a universal scale. He addressed the social determinants of health (callback time!) as part of the solution, alongside more direct-but-still-indirect healthcare actions like vaccinations. His conclusion? We are ultimately moving away from the narrative that we have a right to healthcare and towards the narrative that we have a human right to health

“You have a right to health, but that does not necessarily mean you are going to be healthy. There are still factors that affect this which are under no one’s control. It doesn’t mean that if you don’t live to be 80 or 85 that your right has been violated. But you’re still entitled to a broader range of things than just health.”

To help illustrate this for my fellow visual learners, I’ve made a fun little visual aid. 

Sreenivasan laid out a verbal map to demonstrate the confusion policy makers face about addressing the wellbeing of their constituents. If you believe healthcare is a right, you believe the government has a different role to play than if you believe health is a right. You may expect less of them in terms of handling indirect factors like social determinants and vaccines. If you believe healthcare is a human right, you expect all governments to provide healthcare access universally. This is different from Sreenivasan’s preferred view: health is a human right. All people are entitled to all aspects of their health being addressed all the time in every way in every place. 

The word human in “human right” indicates universality the same way removing the care from “healthcare” does; they both broaden the scope. 

After that lovely philosophical grammatical discussion (Do colorless green ideas sleep furiously?) as our foundation, Sreenivasan moved on to a challenging analogy: waterboarding

“It does not belong to the nature of a right that everyone has to have it. But it does seem to belong to the nature of a human right that everyone has to have it. Take the human right to not be tortured, for example.”

Your moral view may differ on whether or not it is a human right not to be tortured. You may think the right should apply to all people, or no people, or only some people. But you also may think that the right should apply to only certain aspects of torture; maybe you think that specifically waterboarding doesn’t count.

(The debate around whether or not waterboarding counts as torture and whether or not it is prohibited under human rights legislation is one that has been around for a long time. Torture has been banned by multiple American presidents in multiple environments, but the language around waterboarding in particular is highly controversial. You can read more about the debate here.)

“It’s not that some people have a human right not to be tortured which protects them from waterboarding, and other people have a human right not to be tortured but it is somehow lesser and does not protect them from waterboarding. You can’t pick and choose the content based on the person for whom the right belongs.”

So, how is the waterboarding debate like universal healthcare?

For one, it’s a matter of exclusion. It’s a matter of moral philosophy. It’s a matter of definition. 

The question of whether there should be universal healthcare goes far beyond the question of whether healthcare is a right. 

How do we improve access? Who is at fault for rising drug prices? How is America’s healthcare system different than other countries? These questions must start with questions of definition. Who is our target audience? Who is included? Who is excluded? What is included? What is excluded? 

“It seems intuitive that human rights are all or nothing.” Sreenivasan explained. “Either everyone has them or no one has them. But then you must say that their content also has to be the same.”

Post by Olivia Ares, Class 2025

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School Segregation & Culture War: Color of Education 2021

Mary Hassdyk

Perhaps you’ve heard of the 1619 Project. A Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalism project which sought to place “the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of our national narrative,” the project has been controversial and is thought to have sparked the current debate over critical race theory in the classroom.

Its creator, Nikole Hannah-Jones, spoke at the Color of Education virtual summit on October 26. She discussed her journalistic research on systemic racial inequities in the education system, as well as the 1619 Project and the struggle over teaching race in the classroom.

Nikole Hannah-Jones

Hannah-Jones defined the public school as an “intimate place” where young members of society come together to “exchange ideas and culture, meeting across class and race.” The public school serves to create community, which, she stressed, is necessary for a healthy democracy. “A sense of community prevents polarization,” she said. “I know that a person who’s different from me still wants, fundamentally, the same things.” That gives us more of an opportunity to solve political problems without hostility. 

Instead, she often sees “segregated” low-income mostly-Black schools and “integrated” mostly-white schools, separated by a disturbing chasm of resources and opportunity. (She’s written about this in several Times pieces.) She remarked that “this bifurcation doesn’t serve our democracy and it doesn’t serve humanity.”

But that’s been a problem since before Brown v. Board of Education. What’s changed in the last few years, according to Hannah-Jones, is that in the wake of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, there is now a “culture war” being waged over critical race theory. 

Critical race theory is an academic framework that examines the intersection of race with law and public policy. The theory is controversial: many fear the fundamental critique of the US legal and economic system that the theory ultimately implies. (In 2020, whereas white conservatives and more moderate liberals tended to blame fatal incidents of police brutality on “a few bad apples,” the viewpoint consistent with critical race theory is that “the problem is the barrel and the systems that produce it.”)

Laws banning the teaching of critical race theory have already been passed or are in the works in several states, including here in North Carolina, where Governor Roy Cooper recently vetoed a bill which sought to regulate the teaching of several race-related concepts, including whether “a meritocracy is inherently racist or sexist.”

There’s also historical revisionism, known pejoratively as ‘revisionist history’: the reinterpretation of orthodox views surrounding historical events, or, according to fellow Times contributor and historian Timothy Snyder, “the parts of history that challenge leaders’ sense of righteousness or make their supporters uncomfortable.” (Snyder says that in the US, “the ‘revisionists’ are people who write about race.”) 

Critical race theory ultimately requires some revisionism — to critically examine the intersection of race with the laws and policy of the current moment, we must critically examine how we got here, and that means taking another look at the US’ legal history, war history, even its history of infrastructure. Critical race theory is usually taught in college humanities classes. (Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term in the 1980s, and her work is decidedly college level — I’ve read her here at Duke, but certainly not before.) But because critical race theory and revisionism are linked, it’s come to pass that any K-12 effort to teach about how racism has informed US history now gets labeled as “critical race theory” by adversaries of these efforts. 

Critical race theory has become a buzzword — and in many circles, it’s a bad word. These days, if a parent thinks you’re teaching critical race theory, you might soon find yourself without a job. (The summit required a passcode and was not recorded for fear that educators participating might be “outed as believers” in critical race theory and subsequently maligned.)

Along with educators in the Zoom comments, Hannah-Jones discussed this problem: teachers are getting accused of teaching “critical race theory”; the term is being used as a weapon and to imply wrongdoing; and it seems that parents, legislators, and even some educators don’t know what it actually means. 

Hannah-Jones asserted that this is “how propaganda works.” The term “critical race theory” is being used to produce fear and automatic condemnation, which distracts from the content of the theory and shuts down further (more rational) conversation. Hannah-Jones gave some advice to educators: “When a parent says, ‘I do not want my child to learn critical race theory,’ Ask them what they think that it is. They don’t know. And then you get to say, ‘Well, no, that’s history. Well, no, that’s anti-slavery.’ You get the point.”

Hannah-Jones explained that “as educators, you have to have these conversations with people.” Parents don’t necessarily know what their children are learning in school — and that can be a source of anxiety. So when “bad-faith actors are fear mongering, saying ‘Don’t you know what terrible things your kids are learning?’” it’s all too easy for parents to become distraught and distrust their child’s teacher.

Moving to discussing other issues in education, Hannah-Jones emphasized that schools are generationally deprived of resources, which is a problem that “can’t be fixed overnight.” She’s seen parents trying to advocate for their children and failing because they lack proximity to social, political, or legal power. “Maybe they can’t come to PTA because they’re a single mother, or they work at Popeyes — they get dismissed,” she said. “There’s no meeting with the superintendent. They can’t call the media in.” And when power dictates one’s ability to make change, the generational deprivation of resources can only continue.

Jayden Grant, a senior at Falls Lake Academy, asked Hannah-Jones how to ensure that these issues are addressed on the level of charter and private schools, which aren’t governed by the same policies. 

Hannah-Jones replied that she is fundamentally opposed to charter and private schools, viewing them as “undemocratic by design.” As such, “holding them accountable” is only possible through public advocacy, namely through the media. Students have the strongest voice, she told Jayden. They’re the reason these schools exist in the first place; it’s up to them to challenge policies or actions they see as unfair and make the public aware. 

On that note, Hannah-Jones brought the conversation back to the question of which version of our collective past will be taught in the K-12 classroom. Hannah-Jones said that based on the feedback she’s gotten and conversations she’s had, the 1619 project has inspired kids. It’s made them excited about history and learning in general. She denounced the neoliberal “privatization and commodification of education,” stating that often, parents wrongly view themselves as consumers. “We need to center kids in these discussions,” she said.

Hannah-Jones wrapped up the discussion with a call to action. She told the audience to “get angry” that authors like Ruby Bridges and Toni Morrison are being blacklisted, because “that is the same kind of thinking that’s led to the inequality we see now.” She claimed that “people wouldn’t be freaking out about the 1619 Project if it wasn’t having an effect,” but the Project is making waves, because “those who control the stories about who we are control the culture.” And the culture Hannah-Jones wants to see is one which sees the “least of us as just as deserving as anyone else.”

Professor Emeritus at UNC Harry Amana had the last word, saying that one cannot be an educator without being an optimist. That’s because, as an educator, you believe that “if people knew better, they would do better.” 

Maybe one day, we all will.

Post by Zella Hanson

Will the Humanities Save the World?

Lorenzo Gritti

The bad news about the energy transition, according to Dr. Matthew Huber, is that it’s not happening. At least, not at the scale we need it to. A June report stated that the share of fossil fuels in the world’s total energy mix is still about 80%, as it has been for several decades. “We still live in a system fueled by fossil fuels,” Huber said. 

Matthew Huber
Jennifer Wenzel

On October 18, Huber, author of Lifeblood: Oil, Freedom, and the Forces of Capital and a professor at Syracuse University, joined Dr. Imre Szeman, author of On Petrocultures: Globalization, Culture, and Energy and professor at the University of Waterloo, and Dr. Jennifer Wenzel, author of The Disposition of Nature: Environmental Crisis and World Literature and professor at Columbia University.

Moderated by Dr. Ranjana Khanna, professor and director of the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute here at Duke, the panel discussion “What Can the Humanities Contribute to the Global Energy Transition?” explored the potential of humanities fields to help supplement perspectives offered by the sciences, teaching us about new ways of living for a greener world.

Imre Szeman

Khanna posed the titular question: what do the panelists think that the humanities have to contribute to the energy transition?

Huber responded that in dealing with climate disaster, the “critical issue of our time,” there’s a civic responsibility to engage with the “public and political struggle” for change.

Humanities scholars excel in the art of persuasion and argumentation, and they can use that in public forms, like the Op-Ed and social media. Whereas the public conversation is skewed towards economics and engineering, humanities scholars can emphasize the equally important political and cultural barriers toward the energy transition. 

Huber also called on history scholars to help recover the “deleted history” of what is politically possible.

“After four decades of neoliberalism we’ve forgotten what the public sector can actually do,” Huber said, “but when we remember the Soviet-style planned economy during World War II, and the New Deal, we recover that these large mass scale transformations have happened, and are possible,” Huber said. He also lamented that the social movements of today’s Left have become “atomized, neutralized, and largely ineffective” such that “students don’t believe in large-scale social change anymore.” With public history, activists can show how and why struggles of abolition have won in the past, and how that could be applied to the struggle for carbon abolition. 

As the Climate Critic in the Green Party of Canada’s Shadow Cabinet, Dr. Imre Szeman drafted the Green Party’s proposal for the energy transition. He says that upon seeing the recommendation to end all production of fossil fuels, journalists asked Szeman, “Is this realistic? Here? Now?” They seemed to view such a change as “impossible — even though they might want it.”

Szeman argued that whether climate solutions are considered ‘realistic’ isn’t so much a question of cost, but of “our ability to conceptualize another way of being in the world,” which is where humanities fields come into play. He then posed a series of questions, including “What do we love about our current habits and behaviors? Who is culpable for the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? How did we get here, and what does this say about our ability to get somewhere else?” He said that the role of the humanities in the energy transition is to answer all of these questions — and to remind us of the need to ask them in the first place.

Wenzel agreed, explaining that energy humanities can help us examine the literary and cultural narratives that shape our experience. She explained that fossil fuels enable a “chain of ease” wherein the primary mode of thinking about fossil fuels in everyday life is not thinking at all. She discussed the oil inventory activity she does with her students, where they account for the ubiquitous significance of oil in their lives. We develop an “embodied attachment” to the things that oil makes possible — the smoothness of plastic, the speed of auto, the smell of a butane stove. This leads us to an “impasse: we know where we stand, but we’re unable or unwilling to take action at the scale we know we need to.” 

Wenzel explained that the oil inventory was actually invented by the oil industry with an insidious intention — to get consumers to consider the indispensability of petroleum products in their lives “to produce wonder and appreciation.” She showed the audience an Exxon commercial, in which scenes of vast, interconnected energy grids play across the screen as a soothing voice tell us, “you don’t need to think about the energy that makes our lives possible. Because we do.

Wenzel emphasized that the effect of rhetoric like Exxon’s is to “ensure passivity.” The lesson? When we take stock of the impact of oil on our lives, how we use that information matters most. Climate activists must reclaim the oil inventory to “disrupt habits of mind” rather than entrench them.

Khanna noted that one of the humanities’ core methods is a “revelatory gesture of critique,” and asked the panelists what they thought about “moving past that initial gesture, toward some broader consensus for change.” 

Wenzel said that doing the work of the oil inventory is powerful, but “not the last move.” We must make other moves, and in terms of thinking about what we might do otherwise, we must take care to be “forward thinking, but deeply, critically, historically informed.”

Huber said that we need to interrogate the “politics that attach oil to life,” because it’s a strategy of moving politics away from work, production, and who decides its conditions. Production today feels invisible — it’s offshore, outsourced — so that we fail to ask questions about who’s controlling it, and to what effect. He called upon the 1930s, when a “radical politics of production was on the table,” and said that climate-conscious humanities scholars need to work to recover this history.

Szeman had one “next move,” in the words of Wenzel: to realize that oil companies in the US are private, unlike in much of the rest of the world. “There’s a decision made very early on” about how and in what quantities oil is to be used — a decision that could be amenable to change.

Khanna opened the panel to questions. One audience member asked about how to advocate for an energy transition in light of the fact that capitalism is ultimately responsible for much of the status quo and the damage it has caused. How can humanities scholars critique the status quo without critiquing capitalism to the point of suspicion from would-be supporters?

Szeman emphasized the need for recognition that there are some things that one can do in the political sphere, and some things one can’t. Even though the Green Party falls squarely on the political left, “we don’t explicitly criticize capitalism right off the bat, because that doesn’t seem like the winning position.” It’s important to give voice to discussions about change “to the extent possible within the official political sphere.”

Wenzel told the audience about giving a talk on energy humanities at the Pipeline Safety Trust conference. She had to “stand in front of the oil industry” — regulators, landowners, executives — which meant “thinking about which values and assumptions to share.” By establishing credibility, she could “make conversations about this problem, which implicates all of us, possible” — despite their different perspectives.

Huber contended that when the enemy is as abstract as the quasi-global system of capitalism, it can “induce paralysis.” He’s “not sure we can absolish capitalism on the time scale” necessary for the energy transition. He quipped that the earth is not dying, it’s being killed, and “those who are killing it have names and addresses.” Those people are the target, he said — just as in the abolition of slavery, when the target of struggle was the slave owning class, another oligarchical power representing about 1% of the population. Although he supports a systemic critique of capitalism, right now “we need to be more concrete. These people have names and addresses,” he reiterated.

Another audience member asked about how to “break down the concepts of beauty and pleasure” that support the current oil regime.

Huber discussed the need for “low-carbon luxury” and an investment in open green space as part of any Green New Deal. Climate politics has often been about “shame, fear, guilt, sacrifice,” he said, and “we’re not going to win on that.” A beautiful, pleasurable vision of the future is what’s needed to win people over.

Wenzel identified the role of literature in “collecting and borrowing” ideas of beauty, arguing that beauty is always constructed. To those who view renewable energy, like wind and solar, as an eyesore, Wenzel posed the question: “Are oil spills ‘beautiful’?” (Take a glimpse.)

Someone asked a question about science fiction’s ability to “dream futures into being” — what should humanities scholars aspire to read and write? 

Wenzel said that there are many ways to think about the future, and that apocalyptic renditions of science fiction are essentially “practicing for possible bad futures.” Huber agreed, stating that apocalyptic visions can be galvanizing — but there must be a positive vision that wins people over (he pointed to AOC’s “Message From the Future”).

Szeman said that utopian narratives tend to say more about the viewpoint by which a fictional world is considered a utopia than a “prescriptive way to get there,” and suggested that humanities scholars interested in fiction might consider creating more of the latter.

Revolutionary ideas were discussed during the two hours, and panelists acknowledged that humanities fields can’t do all of this work alone. 

Wenzel told the audience about a discussion she had with an economist from the Energy Policy Center. She’d said, “we’re interested in the non-technological obstacles to transition and non-technological tools to foster public demand for these changes. We want to understand why people remain so attached to the world that fossil fuels have created.” The economist said, “Right. We call that demand-side management.”

The audience laughed, understanding the frustration that often results from the disparate methodologies of science and humanities fields. Wenzel said she “felt a bit deflated” — but also learned a word she could use in future collaborations with economists and policymakers. 

The humanities have many valuable contributions to the energy transition: recovering histories, disrupting the status quo, crafting new narratives. But what’s important right now is communicating this. Wenzel left us with an instruction: “We need to learn to build bridges across different disciplines.”

This event was organized by the Energy Humanities Working Group in partnership with the Duke University Energy Initiative, Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, and John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute. Duke students or faculty members can join the Energy Humanities Working Group by contacting Dr. Tom Cinq-Mars (tom.cinq.mars@duke.edu).

Post by Zella Hanson

How Freshman Engineers Solve Real-World Problems in EGR 101

The sound of drills whirring, the smell of heated plastic from the 3D printers, and trying to see through foggy goggles. As distracting as it may sound, this is a normal day for a first-year engineering student (including myself) in class. 

During these past few weeks, freshmen engineers have been brainstorming and building projects that have piqued their interest in their EGR101 class. Wanting to know more, I couldn’t help but approach Amanda Smith, Jaden Fisher, Myers Murphy, and Christopher Cosby, and ask about their goal to make an assistive device to help people with limited mobility take trash cans up an inclined driveway that is slippery and wet.

“Our client noticed the problem in his neighborhood in Chapel Hill with its mainly-elderly population, and asked for a solution to help them,” Fisher says. “We thought it would be cool to give back to the community.” Their solution: a spool with a motor. 

Coming from a mechanical engineering mindset, the team came up with the idea to create a spool-like object that has ropes that connect to the trash can, and with a motor, it would twist, pull up the trash can, and then slowly unroll it back down the driveway. As of now, they are currently in the prototyping phase, but they are continuing to work hard nonetheless. 

“For now, our goal is to slowly begin to scale up and hopefully be able to make it carry a full trash can. Maybe one day, our clients can implement it in real life and help the people that need it,” says Smith.

Low-fidelity prototype of the spool

All of this planning and building is part of the Engineering Design & Communication class, also known as EGR 101, which all Pratt students have to take in their first year. Students are taught about the engineering design process, and then assigned a project to implement what they learned in a real life situation by the end of the semester.

“This is a very active learning type of class, with an emphasis on the design process,” says Chip Bobbert, one of the EGR 101 professors. “We think early exposure will be something that will carry forward with student’s careers.”

Not only do the students deal with local clients, but some take on problems from  nationwide companies, like Vivek Tarapara, Will Denton, Del Cudjoe, Ken Kalin, Desmond Decker, and their client, SKANSKA, a global construction company.

“They have an issue scheduling deliveries of materials to their subcontractors, which causes many issues like getting things late, dropped in the wrong areas, etc.,” Tarapara explains. “There is a white board in these construction sites, but with people erasing things and illegible handwriting, we want to make a software-based organizational tool so that everyone involved in the construction is on the same page.”

Watching the team test their code and explain to me each part of their software, I see they have successfully developed an online form that can be accessed with a QR code at the construction site or through a website. It would input the information on a calendar so that users can see everything at any time, where anyone can access it, and a text bot to help facilitate the details.

“We are currently still working on making it look better and more fluid, and make a final solution that SKANSKA will be satisfied with,” Denton says, as he continues to type away at his code.

Vivek Tarapara (left) and Will Denton (right) working on their code and text bot

One final project, brought up by Duke oral surgeon Katharine Ciarrocca, consists of students Abigail Paris, Fernando Rodriguez, Konur Nordberg, and Camila Cordero (hey, that’s me!), and their mouth prop design project. 

After many trials and errors, my team has created a solution that we are currently in the works of printing with liquid silicone rubber. “We have made a bite block pair, connected by a horizontal prism with a gap to clip on, as well as elevated it to give space for the tongue to rest naturally,” Paris elaborates.

The motivation behind this project comes from COVID-19. With the increase of ICU patients, many receiving endotracheal intubations, doctors have come to realize that these intubations are causing other health issues such as pressure necrosis, biting on the tongue, and bruising from the lip. Dr. Ciarrocca decided to ask the EGR 101 class to come up with a device to help reduce such injuries.

Medium-fidelity prototype of mouth prop inside of mouth model with an endotracheal intubation tube

Being part of this class and having first-hand look at all the upcoming projects, it’s surprising to see freshman students already working on such real-world problems.

“One of the things I love about engineering and this course is that we’re governed by physics and power, and it all comes to bear,” says Steven McClelland, another EGR 101 professor. “So this reckoning of using the real world and beginning to take theory and take everything into consideration, it’s fascinating to see the students finally step into reality.”

Not only does it push freshmen to test their creativity, but it also creates a sense of teamwork and bonding between classmates, even in the most unordinary class setting.

“I look around the room and there’s someone wearing a pool noodle, another boiling alcohol, and another trying to measure the inside of their mouth,” says Bobberts as he scans the area quickly. “I’m excited to see people going and doing stuff together.”

Post by Camila Codero, Class of 2025

Discipline Makes You Free: Exploring Nigerian Militarism in the Late 20th Century

Six years after Nigeria gained its independence from Great Britain in 1960, a bloody military coup transferred power to the nation’s armed forces.

The ensuing forty-year period was marked by eight different military regimes and a Civil War, which were often demarcated by similarly violent coups that overthrew the initial Republic. Brief interludes of constitutional republics occasionally emerged, but these periods were short-lived and quickly replaced by another military government.

The eight different Heads of State under different military governments (Top row from left to right: Aguiyi-Ironsi, Gowon, Mohammed, Obasanjo. Bottom row from left to right: Buhari, Babangida, Abacha, Abubakar).

The heads of these regimes were military strongmen, soldiers who had risen through the chain of command and sought to rule the nation with near-absolute power. Samuel Fury Childs Daly (PhD), a professor in Duke’s African and African American Studies department and author of the acclaimed book A History of the Republic of Biafra: Law, Crime, and the Nigerian Civil War, sought to dive deeper into the political philosophies of these authoritarian rulers.

Daly says the writings and opinions of these autocrats often receives insufficient attention in the modern accounts of Nigerian history. The title of his lecture through the Franklin Humanities Institute, “How Soldiers Think,” attempted to address this lack of analysis by asking several important questions: What did these soldiers believe? Why did they enact the laws that they did? How did they envision Nigeria’s future?

Dr. Samuel Fury Childs Daly (PhD)

The story of Nigerian militarism, according to Daly, has its roots in the decolonization process. The soldiers and lawmakers of the later 20th century found their inspiration in one of the most famous decolonial thinkers: Frantz Fanon. Fanon’s two seminal works – Black Skin, White Masks and The Wretched of The Earth – were rooted heavily in his experience as a trained psychiatrist and a soldier for the Front de Libération National, the Algerian nationalist movement that fought against French colonial rule during the French-Algerian War (1954-1962). His advocacy for violent decolonization inspired anticolonial fury within Nigerian intellectuals and soldiers alike, leading to the widely accepted notion that military violence could be both reparative and restorative.

Fanon, in many ways, gave these soldiers a language of revolution, but, as Daly points out, many of them found his socialist politics to be too radical for Nigerian society. To the military rulers, the ideal system of governance was ascetic, masculine, and heavily disciplined.

In many ways, these soldiers sought to craft Nigeria in their own image–an image of order and self-control, a society where civilians needed to be tamed.

To create this society, the soldiers relied heavily on criminal law and the law enforcement apparatus. To them, law served as a tool of social engineering, albeit one that didn’t always work in their favor. Despite setting up a plethora of friendly judges throughout the judicial system, occasional rulings would rub military officers the wrong way. Nonetheless, they were able to exercise their heavy influence over the legislative and judicial systems to set forth programs aimed to reduce the perceived disease of chaos that plagued the Nigerian population.

One of the major initiatives Daly highlighted was the infamous War Against Indiscipline (WAI). The WAI initiated a number of often draconian programs such as the mandate to queue in an orderly manner for buses. Those who refused to form a line would be promptly whipped or beaten by an officer. Other social reforms outside of WAI centered heavily around sacrifice and control, such as the requirements for women to dress modestly and for men to stay fit; in fact, exercise was routinely used as public punishment for unruly activity.

These behavioral and punitive measures were heavily inspired by the rigid and militaristic upbringing of these autocrats, which is precisely why they were so unpopular with civilians. Daly describes several misconceptions within these leaders’ political philosophy – their treatment of politics as binary, their desire for conformity, their misconstrued knowledge of what their people want – that ultimately led to the instability of their regimes.

Through a unique combination of warped decolonization rhetoric, militaristic attitudes, and malleable jurisprudence, Nigerian political practices of the late 20th century offer a glimpse at the shortcomings of discipline as a primary political ethos. The societies formed under the military heads of state were illiberal and, contrary to the title of this article, decidedly unfree.

*the images from this article were obtained from Dr. Daly’s 2021 presentation “How Soldiers Think” through the Franklin Humanities Institute.

Post by Vibhav Nandagiri, Class of 2025

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

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

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