Duke Research Blog

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

Category: Medicine (Page 1 of 13)

Teaching a Machine to Spot a Crystal

A collection of iridescent crystals grown in space

Not all protein crystals exhibit the colorful iridescence of these crystals grown in space. But no matter their looks, all are important to scientists. Credit: NASA Marshall Space Flight Center (NASA-MSFC).

Protein crystals don’t usually display the glitz and glam of gemstones. But no matter their looks, each and every one is precious to scientists.

Patrick Charbonneau, a professor of chemistry and physics at Duke, along with a worldwide group of scientists, teamed up with researchers at Google Brain to use state-of-the-art machine learning algorithms to spot these rare and valuable crystals. Their work could accelerate drug discovery by making it easier for researchers to map the structures of proteins.

“Every time you miss a protein crystal, because they are so rare, you risk missing on an important biomedical discovery,” Charbonneau said.

Knowing the structure of proteins is key to understanding their function and possibly designing drugs that work with their specific shapes. But the traditional approach to determining these structures, called X-ray crystallography, requires that proteins be crystallized.

Crystallizing proteins is hard — really hard. Unlike the simple atoms and molecules that make up common crystals like salt and sugar, these big, bulky molecules, which can contain tens of thousands of atoms each, struggle to arrange themselves into the ordered arrays that form the basis of crystals.

“What allows an object like a protein to self-assemble into something like a crystal is a bit like magic,” Charbonneau said.

Even after decades of practice, scientists have to rely in part on trial and error to obtain protein crystals. After isolating a protein, they mix it with hundreds of different types of liquid solutions, hoping to find the right recipe that coaxes them to crystallize. They then look at droplets of each mixture under a microscope, hoping to spot the smallest speck of a growing crystal.

“You have to manually say, there is a crystal there, there is none there, there is one there, and usually it is none, none, none,” Charbonneau said. “Not only is it expensive to pay people to do this, but also people fail. They get tired and they get sloppy, and it detracts from their other work.”

Three microscope images of protein crystallization solutions

The machine learning software searches for points and edges (left) to identify crystals in images of droplets of solution. It can also identify when non-crystalline solids have formed (middle) and when no solids have formed (right).

Charbonneau thought perhaps deep learning software, which is now capable of recognizing individual faces in photographs even when they are blurry or caught from the side, should also be able to identify the points and edges that make up a crystal in solution.

Scientists from both academia and industry came together to collect half a million images of protein crystallization experiments into a database called MARCO. The data specify which of these protein cocktails led to crystallization, based on human evaluation.

The team then worked with a group led by Vincent Vanhoucke from Google Brain to apply the latest in artificial intelligence to help identify crystals in the images.

After “training” the deep learning software on a subset of the data, they unleashed it on the full database. The A.I. was able to accurately identify crystals about 95 percent of the time. Estimates show that humans spot crystals correctly only 85 percent of the time.

“And it does remarkably better than humans,” Charbonneau said. “We were a little surprised because most A.I. algorithms are made to recognize cats or dogs, not necessarily geometrical features like the edge of a crystal.”

Other teams of researchers have already asked to use the A.I. model and the MARCO dataset to train their own machine learning algorithms to recognize crystals in protein crystallization experiments, Charbonneau said. These advances should allow researchers to focus more time on biomedical discoveries instead of squinting at samples.

Charbonneau plans to use the data to understand how exactly proteins self-assemble into crystals, so that researchers rely less on chance to get this “magic” to happen.

“We are trying to use this data to see if we can get more insight into the physical chemistry of self-assembly of proteins,” Charbonneau said.

CITATION: “Classification of crystallization outcomes using deep convolutional neural networks,” Andrew E. Bruno, et al. PLOS ONE, June 20, 2018. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0198883

 

Post by Kara Manke

Quantifying Sleepiness and How It Relates to Depression

Sleep disturbance is a significant issue for many individuals with depressive illnesses. While most individuals deal with an inability to sleep, or insomnia, about 20-30% of depressed patients report the opposite problem – hypersomnia, or excessive sleep duration.

David Plante’s work investigates the relationship between depressive disorders and hypersomnolence. Photo courtesy of sleepfoundation.org

Patients who experience hypersomnolence report excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS) and often seem to be sleep-deprived, making the condition difficult to identify and poorly researched.

David Plante’s research focuses on a neglected type of sleep disturbance: hypersomnolence.

David T. Plante, MD, of the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, studies the significance of hypersomnolence in depression. He said the condition is resistant to treatment, often persisting even after depression has been treated, and its role in increasing risk of depression in previously healthy individuals needs to be examined.

One problem in studying daytime sleepiness is quantifying it. Subjective measures include the Epworth sleepiness scale, a quick self-report of how likely you are to fall asleep in a variety of situations. Objective scales are often involved processes, such as the Multiple Sleep Latency Test (MSLT), which requires an individual to attempt to take 4-5 naps, each 2 hours apart, in a lab while EEG records brain activity.

The MSLT measures how long it takes a person to fall asleep. Individuals with hypersomnolence will fall asleep faster than other patients, but determining a cutoff for what constitutes healthy and what qualifies as hypersomnolence has made the test an inexact measure. Typical cutoffs of 5-8 minutes provide a decent measure, but further research has cast doubt on this test’s value in studying depression.

The Wisconsin Sleep Cohort Study is an ongoing project begun in 1988 that follows state employees and includes a sleep study every four years. From this study, Plante has found an interesting and seemingly paradoxical relationship: while an increase in subjective measures of sleepiness is associated with increased likelihood of depression, objective measures like the MSLT associate depression with less sleepiness. Plante argues that this paradoxical relationship does not represent an inability for individuals to report their own sleepiness, but rather reflects the limitations of the MSLT.

Plante proposed several promising candidates for quantitative measures of excessive daytime sleepiness. One candidate, which is already a tool for studying sleep deprivation, is a ‘psychomotor vigilance task,’ where lapses in reaction time correlate with daytime sleepiness. Another method involves infrared measurements of the dilation of the pupil. Pupils dilate when a person is sleepy, so this somatic reaction could be useful.

High density EEG allowed Plante to identify the role of disturbed slow wave sleep in hypersomnolence.

Another area of interest for Plante is the signs of depressive sleepiness in the brain. Using high density EEG, which covers the whole head of the subject, Plante found that individuals with hypersomnolence experience less of the sleep cycle most associated with restoration, known as slow wave sleep. He identified a potential brain circuitry associated with sleepiness, but emphasized a need for methods like transcranial magnetic stimulation to get a better picture of the relationship between this circuitry and observed sleepiness.

By Sarah Haurin

ECT: Shockingly Safe and Effective

Husain is interested in putting to rest misconceptions about the safety and efficacy of ECT.

Few treatments have proven as controversial and effective as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), or ‘shock therapy’ in common parlance.

Hippocrates himself saw the therapeutic benefits of inducing seizures in patients with mental illness, observing that convulsions caused by malaria helped attenuate symptoms of mental illness. However, depictions of ECT as a form of medical abuse, as in the infamous scene from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, have prevented ECT from becoming a first-line psychiatric treatment.

The Duke Hospital Psychiatry program recently welcomed back Duke Medical School alumnus Mustafa Husain to deliver the 2018 Ewald “Bud” Busse Memorial Lecture, which is held to commemorate a Duke doctor who pioneered the field of geriatric psychiatry.

Husain, from the University of Texas Southwestern, delivered a comprehensive lecture on neuromodulation, a term for the emerging subspecialty of psychiatric medicine that focuses on physiological treatments that are not medication.

The image most people have of ECT is probably the gruesome depiction seen in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

Husain began his lecture by stating that ECT is one of the most effective treatments for psychiatric illness. While medication and therapy are helpful for many people with depression, a considerable proportion of patients’ depression can be categorized as “treatment resistant depression” (TRD). In one of the largest controlled experiments of ECT, Husain and colleagues showed that 82 percent of TRD patients treated with ECT were remitted. While this remission rate is impressive, the rate at which remitted individuals experience a relapse into symptoms is also substantial – over 50% of remitted individuals will experience relapse.

Husain’s study continued to test whether a continuation of ECT would be a potentially successful therapy to prevent relapse in the first six months after acute ECT. He found that continuation of ECT worked as well as the current best combination of drugs used.

From this study, Husain made an interesting observation – the people who were doing best in the 6 months after ECT were elderly patients. He then set out to study the best form of treatment for these depressed elderly patients.

Typically, ECT involves stimulation of both sides of the brain (bilateral), but this treatment is associated with adverse cognitive effects like memory loss. Using right unilateral ECT effectively decreased cognitive side effects while maintaining an appreciable remission rate.

After the initial treatment, patients were again assigned to either receive continued drug treatment or continued ECT. In contrast to the previous study, however, the treatment for continued ECT was designed based on the individual patients’ ratings from a commonly used depression scaling system.

The results of this study show the potential that ECT has in becoming a more common treatment for major depressive disorder: maintenance ECT showed a lower relapse rate than drug treatment following initial ECT. If psychiatrists become more flexible in their prescription of ECT, adjusting the treatment plan to accommodate the changing needs of the patients, a disorder that is exceedingly difficult to treat could become more manageable.

In addition to discussing ECT, Husain shared his research into other methods of neuromodulation, including Magnetic Seizure Therapy (MST). MST uses magnetic fields to induce seizures in a more localized region of the brain than available via ECT.

Importantly, MST does not cause the cognitive deficits observed in patients who receive ECT. Husain’s preliminary investigation found that a treatment course relying on MST was comparable in efficacy to ECT. While further research is needed, Husain is hopeful in the possibilities that interventional psychiatry can provide for severely depressed patients.

By Sarah Haurin 

First Population Health Conference Shares Energy, Examples

Logo: Population Health at Duke‘Population Health’ is the basis of a new department in the School of Medicine, a byword for a lot of new activity across campus , and on Tuesday the subject of a half-day symposium that attempted to bring all this energy together.

For now, population health means a lot of different things to a lot of different people.

The half-day symposium drew an overflow crowd of faculty and staff. (photo – Colin Huth)

“We’re still struggling with a good definition of what population health is,” said keynote speaker Clay Johnston, MD, PhD, dean of the new Dell School of Medicine in Austin, Texas. Smoking cessation programs are something most everyone would agree is taking care of the population outside of the clinic. But improved water quality? Where does that fit?

“We have an intense focus on doctors and their tools,” Johnston said. Our healthcare system is optimized for maximum efficiency in fee-for-service care, that is, getting the most revenue out of the most transactions. “But most of health is outside the clinic,” Johnston said.

Perhaps as a result, the United States pays much more for health care, but lives less well, he said. “We are noticeably off the curve,” when compared to health care costs and outcomes in other countries.

This graphic from a handout shared at the conference shows how population health spans the entire university.

This graphic from a handout shared at the conference shows how population health spans the entire university.

As an example of what might be achieved in population health with some re-thinking and a shift in resources, the Dell School went after the issue of joint pain with input from their engineering and business schools. Rather than diagnosing people toward an orthopedic surgery – for which there was a waitlist of about 14 months – their system worked with patients on alternatives, such as weight loss, physical therapy and behavioral changes before surgery. The 14-month backlog was gone in just three months. Surgeries still happen, of course, but not if they can be comfortably delayed or avoided.

“Payment for prevention needs serious work,” Johnston said. “You need to get people to buy into it,” but in diabetes or depression for example, employers should stand to gain a lot from having healthier employees who miss fewer days, he said.

Health Affairs Chancellor Eugene Washington commented several times, calling the discussion “very interesting and very valuable.” (photo -Colin Huth)

Other examples flowed freely the rest of the afternoon. Duke is testing virtual ‘telemedicine’ appointments versus office visits. Evidence-based prenatal care is being applied to try to avoid expensive neonatal ICU care. Primary care and Emergency Department physicians are being equipped with an app that helps them steer sickle cell patients to appropriate care resources so that they might avoid expensive ED visits.

Family practitioner Eugenie Komives, MD, is part of a team using artificial intelligence and machine learning to try to predict which patients are most likely to be hospitalized in the next six months. That prediction, in turn, can guide primary care physicians and care managers to pay special attention to these patients to help them avoid the hospital. The system is constantly being evaluated, she added. “We don’t want to be doing this if it doesn’t work.”

Community health measures like walkability and grocery stores are being mapped for Durham County on a site called Durham Neighborhood Compass, said Michelle Lyn, MBA, chief of the division of community health. The aim is not only to see where improvements can be made, but to democratize population health information and put it in peoples’ hands. “(Community members) will have ideas we never could have thought of,” Lyn said. “We will be able to see change across our neighborhoods and community.”

Patient input is key to population health, agreed several speakers. “I don’t think we’ve heard them enough,” said Paula Tanabe, PhD, an associate professor of nursing and medicine who studies pain and sickle cell disease.  “We need a bigger patient voice.”

Health Affairs Chancellor and Duke Health CEO Eugene Washington, MD, has made population health one of the themes of his leadership. “We really take seriously this notion of shaping the future of population health,” he said in his introductory remarks. “When I think of the future, I think about how well-positioned we are to have impact on the lives of the community we serve.”

Lesley Curtis, PhD, chair of the newly formed Department of Population Health Sciences in the School of Medicine, said Duke is creating an environment where this kind of work can happen.

“I, as an organizer of this, didn’t know about half of these projects today!” Curtis said. “There’s so much going on at an organic level that the challenge to us is to identify what’s going on and figure out how to go forward at scale.”

Post by Karl Leif Bates

Obesity: Do Your Cells Have a Sweet Tooth?

Obesity is a global public health crisis that has doubled since 1980. That is why Damaris N. Lorenzo, a professor of  Cell Biology and Physiology at UNC-Chapel Hill, has devoted her research to this topic.

Specifically, she examines the role of ankyrin-B variants in metabolism. Ankyrins play a role in the movement of substances such as ions into and out of the cell. One of the ways that ankyrins affect this movement is through the glucose transporter protein GLUT4 which is present in the heart, skeletal muscles, and insulin-responsive tissues. GLUT4 plays a large role in glucose levels throughout the entire body.

Through her research, Lorenzo discovered that with modern life spans and high calorie diets, ankyrin-B variants can be a risk factor for metabolic disease. She presented her work for the Duke Developmental & Stem Cell Biology department on March 7th.

Prevalence of Self-Reported Obesity Among U.S. Adults by State, 2016

GLUT4 helps remove glucose from the body’s circulation by moving it into cells. The more GLUT4, the more sugar cells absorb.

Ankyrin-B’s role in regulating GLUT4 therefore proves really important for overall health. Through experiments on mice, Lorenzo discovered that mice manipulated to have ankyrin-B mutations also had high levels of cell surface GLUT4. This led to increased uptake of glucose into cells. Ankyrin-B therefore regulates how quickly glucose enters adipocytes, cells that store fat. These ankyrin-B deficient mice end up with adipocytes that have larger lipid droplets, which are fatty acids.

Lorenzo was able to conclude that ankyrin-B deficiency leads to age-dependent obesity in mutant mice. Age-dependent because young ankyrin-B mutant mice with high fat diets are actually more likely to be affected by this change.

Obese mouse versus a regular mouse

Ankyrin-B has only recently been recognized as part of GLUT4 movement into the cell. As cell sizes grow through increased glucose uptake, not only does the risk of obesity rise but also inflammation is triggered and metabolism becomes impaired, leading to overall poor health.

With obesity becoming a greater problem due to increased calorie consumption, poor dietary habits, physical inactivity, environmental and life stressors, medical conditions, and drug treatments, understanding factors inside of the body can help. Lorenzo seeks to discover how ankyrin-B protein might play a role in the amount of sugar our cells internalize.

Post by Lydia Goff

MRI Tags Stick to Molecules with Chemical “Velcro®”

An extremely close-up view of Velcro

In the new technique, MRI chemical tags attach to a target molecule and nothing else – kind of like how Velcro only sticks to itself. Credit: tanakawho, via Flickr.

Imagine attaching a beacon to a drug molecule and following its journey through our winding innards, tracking just where and how it interacts with the chemicals in our bodies to help treat illnesses.

Duke scientists may be closer to doing just that. They have developed a chemical tag that can be attached to molecules to make them light up under magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

This tag or “lightbulb” changes its frequency when the molecule interacts with another molecule, potentially allowing researchers to both locate the molecule in the body and see how it is metabolized.

“MRI methods are very sensitive to small changes in the chemical structure, so you can actually use these tags to directly image chemical transformations,” said Thomas Theis, an assistant research professor in the chemistry department at Duke.

Chemical tags that light up under MRI are not new. In 2016, the Duke team of Warren S. Warren’s lab and Qiu Wang’s lab created molecular lightbulbs for MRI that burn brighter and longer than any previously discovered.

A photo of graduate students Junu Bae and Zijian Zhou in front of a bookshelf.

Junu Bae and Zijian Zhou, the co-first authors of the paper. Credit: Qiu Wang, Duke University.

In a study published March 9 in Science Advances, the researchers report a new method for attaching tags to molecules, allowing them to tag molecules indirectly to a broader scope of molecules than they could before.

“The tags are like lightbulbs covered in Velcro,” said Junu Bae, a graduate student in Qiu Wang’s lab at Duke. “We attach the other side of the Velcro to the target molecule, and once they find each other they stick.”

This reaction is what researchers call bioorthogonal, which means that the tag will only stick to the molecular target and won’t react with any other molecules.

And the reaction was designed with another important feature in mind — it generates a rare form of nitrogen gas that also lights up under MRI.

“One could dream up a lot of potential applications for the nitrogen gas, but one that we have been thinking about is lung imaging,” Theis said.

Currently the best way to image the lungs is with xenon gas, but this method has the downside of putting patients to sleep. “Nitrogen gas would be perfectly safe to inhale because it is what you inhale in the air anyways,” Theis said.

A stylized chemical diagram of the hyperpolarization process

In the new technique, a type of molecule called a tetrazine is hyperpolarized, making it “light up” under MRI (illustrated on the left). It is then tagged to a target molecule through a what is called a bioorthogonal reaction. The reaction also generates a rare form of nitrogen gas that can be spotted under MRI (illustrated on the right). Credit: Junu Bae and Seoyoung Cho, Duke University.

Other applications could include watching how air flows through porous materials or studying the nitrogen fixation process in plants.

One downside to the new tags is that they don’t shine as long or as brightly as other MRI molecular lightbulbs, said Zijian Zhou, a graduate student in  Warren’s lab at Duke.

The team is tinkering with the formula for polarizing, or lighting up, the molecule tags to increase their lifetime and brilliance, and to make them more compatible with chemical conditions in the human body.

“We are now developing new techniques and new procedures which may be helpful for driving the polarization levels even higher, so we can have even better signal for these applications,” Zhou said.

15N4-1,2,4,5-tetrazines as potential molecular tags: Integrating bioorthogonal chemistry with hyperpolarization and unearthing para-N2,” Junu Bae, Zijian Zhou, Thomas Theis, Warren S. Warren and Qiu Wang. Science Advances, March 9, 2018. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aar2978

Post by Kara Manke

How A Zebrafish’s Squiggly Cartilage Transforms into a Strong Spine

A column of green cartilage cells divides into an alternating pattern of green cartilage and red vertebra

Our spines begin as a flexible column called the notochord. Over time, cells on the notochord surface divide into alternating segments that go on to form cartilage and vertebrae.

In the womb, our strong spines start as nothing more than a rope of rubbery tissue. As our bodies develop, this flexible cord, called the notochord, morphs into a column of bone and cartilage sturdy enough to hold up our heavy upper bodies.

Graduate student Susan Wopat and her colleagues in Michel Bagnat’s lab at Duke are studying the notochords of the humble zebrafish to learn how this cartilage-like rope grows into a mature spine.

In a new paper, they detail the cellular messaging that directs this transformation.

It all comes down to Notch receptors on the notochord surface, they found. Notch receptors are a special type of protein that sits astride cell membranes. When two cells touch, these Notch receptors link up, forming channels that allow messages to rapidly travel between large groups of cells.

Notch receptors divide the outer notochord cells into two alternating groups – one group is told to grow into bone, while the other is told to grow into cartilage. Over time, bone starts to form on the surface of the notochord and works its way inward, eventually forming mature vertebrae.

X-ray images of four zebrafish spines

Meddling with cellular signaling on the notochord surface caused zebrafish spines to develop deformities. The first and third image show healthy spines, and the second and fourth image show deformed spines.

When the team tinkered with the Notch signaling on the surface cells, they found that the spinal vertebrae came out deformed – too big, too small, or the wrong shape.

“These results demonstrate that the notochord plays a critical role in guiding spine development,” Wopat said. “Further investigation into these findings may help us better understand the origin of spinal defects in humans.”

Spine patterning is guided by segmentation of the notochord sheath,” Susan Wopat, Jennifer Bagwell, Kaelyn D. Sumigray, Amy L. Dickson, Leonie F. Huitema, Kenneth D. Poss, Stefan Schulte-Merker, Michel Bagnat. Cell, February 20, 2018. DOI: 10.1016/j.celrep.2018.01.084

Post by Kara Manke

Growing “Mini Brains” To Understand Zika’s Effects

You probably remember what the Zika virus is because of the outbreak in 2015 that made global headlines.

microcephaly illustration

An infant with microcephaly (left) with a reduced head circumference, as compared to an infant born with a regular head circumference (right) Picture credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63278345

The serious nature of the virus was apparent when hundreds of infants across South America were born with microcephaly – a condition characterized by a very small head circumference as a result of abnormally slow brain growth.

The sudden outbreak of Zika in South America led to a panic of the possibility of spread into the United States as well as beyond – and thus, research into learning more about the disease mechanisms of Zika expanded. However, one of the problems in studying a disease like Zika is the difficulty of modeling a complex organ like the developing brain.

Until now, the current way to model the brain was with a brain organoid – a brain grown in a lab. Organoid structures attempt to mimic whole developing organs – however, current brain organoid technology required the use of a large spinning bioreactor to facilitate nutrient and oxygen absorption to mimic the function of the vascular system in our brains. Large spinning bioreactors are expensive to run and bulky—they require large volumes of expensive media that mimic brain fluid. The size and cost has meant that only a few organoids can be grown and studied at once.

Guo-li Ming, University of Pennsylvania

Dr. Guo-li Ming, a professor of neuroscience from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, set out to work on finding a way to solve this problem. She came down to Duke University last week to give a talk on her findings.  As she spoke, I could feel the minds of the audience firmly captivated by her words. It was truly fascinating stuff – Ming was actually growing brains in the lab!

The work began by finding a way to take the large spinning reactor that the existing brain organoid required and make it smaller. Three clever high school students working in her lab used a 3D printer and a small motor that involved spinning 12 tiny interconnected paddles within 12 small cell culture wells. Each of the wells contain a paddle that is spun by one gear.  All of the individual gears connect to a continually rotating central gear driven by a motor.

Bioreactor schematic

The Spin bioreactor. Source: http://www.cell.com/cell/abstract/S0092-8674(16)30467-6

After many optimizations, the final design was called SpinW,  which ultimately required a mere 2 ml of media per well, resulting in a net 50-fold reduction in media consumption, as well as dramatically reduced incubator space. The large number of wells, combined with dramatically reduced cost of the apparatus and media consumption, allowed for optimal conditions to run multiple test scenarios with ease – essentially meaning that 12 “mini brains” could be tested at the same time.

The design of SpinW costed a mere $400, while the commercial design costs over $2,000, with the added burden of consuming 50 times more media. The success of the design only serves to prove that age doesn’t matter when it comes to great ideas!

A brain organoid infected with Zika virus. ZIKV envelope protein is shown in green; neural progenitor cells marked by SOX2 are shown in red; neurons marked by CTIP2 are shown in blue.
CREDIT: Xuyu Qian/Johns Hopkins University

Dr. Ming and her team used the apparatus to model the Zika virus’s impact on the brain.

The findings indicate that Zika works by killing off neural stem cells, as well as causing a thinning of key brain structures. One of the observations was that, by day 18 of Zika infection of a brain organoid, there was an overall decrease in size, which points to the link of Zika causing microcephaly. The Zika infection of early-stage organoids corresponded to the first trimester of human fetal development.

The brain is the most complex organ in the body, and one of the least understood. The work Dr. Ming and her team has done goes a long way towards helping us understand the way the human brain develops and works, as well modeling its reaction to things like viruses. It was a pleasure and honor to hear Dr. Ming talk to us about her work –I am eager to hear about further developments in this field!

Post by Thabit Pulak

Can Science Explain Everything? An Exploration of Faith

The Veritas Forum, Feb. 1 in Penn Pavilion

I found out about this year’s Veritas Forum an hour before it started — a friend, who two years ago helped me explore Christianity (I grew up non-religious and was curious), mentioned it when we ran into each other at the Brodhead Center.

So, to avoid my academic responsibilities, I instead listened to Duke physics professor Ronen Plesser, a non-practicing Jew, Troy Van Voorhis, a Christian who teaches chemistry at MIT, and moderator Ehsan Samei, a professor of radiology and biomedical engineering at Duke. They discussed the God Hypothesis and how it fit in with their views as hard scientists.

Ehsan Samei

As someone who has relied on the scientific method instead of an omniscient, higher power to understand the natural world, I found it amazing how the speakers used relatable examples to demonstrate their belief that humans cannot explain everything. They started answering the classic question “Why is the sky blue?,” using more and more complex chemistry and physics as answers only led to more questions.

At some point, science-based explanations about how and why molecules move the way they do and where they come from didn’t suffice — at some point, it just seems like something, or someone, is responsible for the unexplainable.

Troy Van Voorhis of MIT

Something that Van Voorhis said particularly stuck in my mind. Reproducibility and objectivity form the “bedrock of science,” but are also it’s “grand limitations.” They are essential to corroborating the results of a scientific study or experiment, but can they really confirm something as scientific truth? When does reproducibility adequately overcome variation in data, and can something be defined as truly objective?

So, I sat there in the audience, thinking about alternatives to explaining morals, ethics, and the feeling of being human since, to paraphrase Plesser, science just doesn’t cut it in these cases. He elaborated on faith after branching off Van Voorhis’ point of view. Plesser’s explanation made the overlap of science and religion become more and more prominent. As someone who also does not practice a religion, I felt that his comparison of faith in science and faith in religion comforting.

Ronan Plesser

Even though I still struggle to fully accept Christ, I was aware of the similarities of the path to scientific and spiritual enlightenment. In science, incessant questioning of our surroundings is necessary to understand the Truths of our world (“otherwise we wouldn’t be publishing papers and we would be out of our jobs!”), as are the calls to God to come down and help people improve themselves. It is impossible, then, to avoid faith entirely since being human inherently involves belief in some sort of system.

I was wowed by the connections that the three men were making between the seemingly divergent areas. I was even more astonished, though, by their emphasis on humility. They exemplified the need for understanding and patience when describing scientific theories and religious ideologies. To be humble is to accept that people have differences and to acknowledge these differences is the only way to reduce conflicts between religion and science.

Post by Stella Wang

Hospital Music ‘A Reminder That There’s Life’

When William Dawson took over the Performing Arts program at Duke Hospital, he became the first full-time staff Musician in Residence and Semans/Byrd Performing Arts Coordinator. As a teacher, band director and international performer, Dawson understood the effect music could have on one’s mood and emotions. Still, he had a challenging task ahead of him – Dawson had to prove that music could make an impact in a hospital setting.

In the spring of 2014, as part of the larger Arts & Health program at Duke Hospital, the department administered a survey. Staff had the opportunity to reflect on what programs had improved their hospital experience. As it turned out, live music was one of the top patient satisfiers. Armed with the information, Arts & Health chose to expand the Performing Arts program.

The Performing Arts program differs from music therapy, where board certified professionals work one-on-one or in small groups to achieve a personalized goal. Instead, it is composed of Artists in Residence, Performing Arts Volunteers and Hospital Concerts. Throughout the week, professional musicians are assigned to hospital units to visit patients at the bedside. The professional musicians play for relaxation, company, religious services, and special events including birthdays, weddings, anniversaries and the final moments of life.

Performing Arts Volunteers are students and community members who perform in hospital lobbies and concourses. To assess the musicians’ audience, Dawson used a handheld tally counter and noted that on average, 600-800 people pass through the hospital’s heavily trafficked areas per hour. The instrumental music provides an opportunity for a shared connection, he said.

“It’s like a magic trick,” Dawson said. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been playing there piano and a person has cried. It’s beautiful – it’s a reminder that there’s life.”

Hospital Concerts are offered periodically by the Artists in Residence and professional organizations. Recognizing the diversity of the hospital staff and patients, Dawson ensures that performers reflect a variety of backgrounds and can cater to a wide audience.

Since becoming coordinator, Dawson has been statistically analyzing the growth of the program, because potential donors and current financial backers would like to see measurable impact. Dawson has the figures: In the 2016-2017 fiscal year, the number of bedside requests increased by 282 percent, from 109 to 416. To match demand, the number of Performing Arts Volunteers increased by 120 percent and 1,156 hours of live music were performed.

In the future, Dawson looks forward to continued program expansion. Additional funding would also enable the Uke in Duke program, a hospital in-patient instructional ukulele program, to expand and serve more patients. With Dawson’s leadership and a dedicated team of professional musicians and volunteers, the Performing Arts program has an undeniable impact.

Post by Ameya Sanyal

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