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On the — Very Cold — Ground for the Iowa Caucus

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As a kid who grew up on the west coast, the midwest has always befuddled me. This land of blizzards, corn fields, cheese, and a severe lack of ocean was a complete mystery. And to be quite frank, this was a mystery I had zero desire in solving. 

Evan Brown, Olivia Schramkoswki, Anne Dillon, Amaia Clayton, and Emily Zou at the Fox News Town Hall with Nikki Haley.

However, from January 4 to 9, I found myself in Des Moines, Iowa with a group of around 20 other Duke students. I put on my best ski gear and braved the snow to observe a truly Iowan experience — the presidential caucuses. Although we missed the caucus itself because we had to be back in Durham for the first day of classes, we had amazing opportunities to meet presidential candidates, get behind-the-scenes tours of debate stages, meet with journalists and campaign teams, and speak with Iowans to understand their voting priorities. 

“My favorite part of the trip was getting to meet all of the presidential candidates and ask them questions of my own,” said first-year political science major Evan Brown. 

Duke professor Mark Dalhouse has been taking students to the Iowa caucus for multiple election cycles starting in 2008, first at Vanderbilt, then at Elon, and now at Duke. Students who are interested in politics visit Iowa to observe rallies, volunteer for presidential campaigns, and to learn more about the Iowa caucus. He says the trip is intended to help students learn lessons in bipartisanship and make our campus less politically polarized. 

When asked about polarization on Duke’s campus, Professor Dalhouse said “I think the very first step is doing what we did in Iowa; talking to individuals and learning their story, seeing people who might have different belief systems than we do as people, not as “them.” I think this demystifies stereotypes and enables us to see that we have a lot more in common with those on the other side of the political fence than we might think.”

Vivek Ramaswamy at his rally in Toledo, IA on January 4.

The Iowa caucus is a way of nominating a party’s presidential candidate. As a party-run process, Democrats and Republicans both have their own particular methods for caucusing. For 50 years, Iowa has been the first state that each party has held their caucus in. However, after Biden took office in 2021, he changed the processes for Democrats. You can read more about that decision here. That means that this year, only Republican Iowans participated in this coveted first-primary-of-the-election-season tradition. Registered Republicans across Iowa come together in school gymnasiums, church basements, and community centers to advocate for their primary candidate of choice and submit a secret vote. 

Nikki Haley at her rally in Indianola, IA on January 6.

On the first day, we attended a Vivek Ramaswamy rally and back-to-back CNN town halls with Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis. The Ramaswamy event took place in a small room in a motel; he brought out his wife and kids.

“I thought that Vivek was a very intelligent man and very well-spoken,” Brown said. “But, at that event, the solutions to our country’s problems that he proposed solidified, to me, the fact that he is not my candidate.”

Ramswamy suspended his campaign on caucus night after an underwhelming performance that he felt left no real shot at a presidential nomination. 

At the CNN town halls, we got to see the media-trained versions of Haley and DeSantis as Iowan voters asked their questions to the two candidates. 

Nikki Haley at her CNN Town Hall, with me.

The second day, we went to a DeSantis rally at a wine bar. He was accompanied by Representative Chip Roy of Texas. Freshman public policy major Amaia Clayton said, “The DeSantis rally was packed, and people seemed especially eager to engage and ask him lots of questions.” DeSantis finished second in the caucuses but suspended his campaign on January 21.

We attended a Ron DeSantis rally and got to meet him.

On the third day, we saw Haley at her own event at a vineyard. She was introduced by New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu. Clayton said, “She had a unique method of talking about her policy goals… [she] was very intentional in explaining the ‘why’ behind many of her policies.”

We also attended an event for former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson at a restaurant. As an underdog in the Iowa caucus, he dropped out of the presidential race shortly after the results came out. “It was interesting to see that when he had a much smaller audience than the other candidates, of which many were students, he altered the issues that he spent the most time talking about,” Brown said.

This year, the Republican primary candidates were heavily overshadowed by former President Donald Trump. With 51% of the votes, he was crowned the winner of the Iowa caucus only minutes into the vote counting process, proving his decisive lead in the polls. Following behind him was Ron DeSantis with 21.2% and Nikki Haley with 19.1%. Vivek Ramaswamy received 7.7% of the votes and candidates Ryan Binkley, Asa Hutchinson, and Chris Christie (who called off his campaign days before the caucus) all received less than one point. 

When speaking to voters, the candidates very clearly fell into two camps: pro-Trump and anti-Trump. Voters at Ramaswamy, Haley, and DeSantis rallies all echoed their disapproval of the chaos that tended to follow Trump. Although all three candidates had praises for Trump’s policy priorities, they emphasized his tendency to get caught up with media frenzy and make enemies. That said, Trump won every single district in Iowa except Johnson County, where he was losing to Haley by a single vote as of January 17.

Asa Hutchinson at his event in Waukee, IA on January 7.

On the topic of Trump, Professor Dalhouse said, “Trump changed this Caucus just by the steady accumulation of his continued command of the front pages in the news. He is the story and everything else is tangential. His four trials, his successful planting of the idea that our voting system is “rigged,” and his successful articulation of the anger I referred to earlier made him the prohibitive favorite in Iowa. Also, he has a much better on the ground organization than in 2016 when Ted Cruz beat him.”

“If you crunch the numbers from this Iowa Caucus, it’s quite interesting,” Dalhouse said. “In Iowa, there are 719,000 registered Republicans. Only about 56,000 came out on Caucus Night; of those, nearly half voted AGAINST Trump. This suggests to me that he has some structural weaknesses even among Republicans. I think this also suggests the strong potential that he will bleed votes all year long into November and that number will go up if he is convicted of even one felony between now and November. I think that will give a lot more Republicans pause before voting for him. As the old baseball saying goes, ‘it ain’t over ‘til it’s over.’” 

As someone who was raised in a very Democratic area and family, I had never truly been immersed in Republican politics like I had on this trip. Although I went into the trip with caution, I can confidently say that it was an extremely eye-opening experience.

Talking with Iowan Republicans, it was obvious to see that they were Americans who had much in common with me. At the rallies, it was clear that Democrats and Republicans both saw similar problems with our country: increasing rates of mental health disorders, a broken immigration system, a lack of access to affordable housing, and much more. Obviously, the pathways to solving those problems are where the political parties tend to diverge.

This did leave me with a lot more perspective on political polarization. On one hand, common viewpoints can spark bipartisan and productive conversation. On the other, the two parties so clearly see the same things from completely different angles.

The next step for the candidates still in the running is the New Hampshire primary, which will take place on January 23. You can read more about the NH primaries and what to expect here.

Post by Emily Zou, Class of 2027

Putting Stronger Guardrails Around AI

AI regulation is ramping up worldwide. Duke AI law and policy expert Lee Tiedrich discusses where we’ve been and where we’re going.
AI regulation is ramping up worldwide. Duke AI law and policy expert Lee Tiedrich discusses where we’ve been and where we’re going.

DURHAM, N.C. — It’s been a busy season for AI policy.

The rise of ChatGPT unleashed a frenzy of headlines around the promise and perils of artificial intelligence, and raised concerns about how AI could impact society without more rules in place.

Consequently, government intervention entered a new phase in recent weeks as well. On Oct. 30, the White House issued a sweeping executive order regulating artificial intelligence.

The order aims to establish new standards for AI safety and security, protect privacy and equity, stand up for workers and consumers, and promote innovation and competition. It’s the U.S. government’s strongest move yet to contain the risks of AI while maximizing the benefits.

“It’s a very bold, ambitious executive order,” said Duke executive-in-residence Lee Tiedrich, J.D., who is an expert in AI law and policy.

Tiedrich has been meeting with students to unpack these and other developments.

“The technology has advanced so much faster than the law,” Tiedrich told a packed room in Gross Hall at a Nov. 15 event hosted by Duke Science & Society.

“I don’t think it’s quite caught up, but in the last few weeks we’ve taken some major leaps and bounds forward.”

Countries around the world have been racing to establish their own guidelines, she explained.

The same day as the US-led AI pledge, leaders from the Group of Seven (G7) — which includes Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States — announced that they had reached agreement on a set of guiding principles on AI and a voluntary code of conduct for companies.

Both actions came just days before the first ever global summit on the risks associated with AI, held at Bletchley Park in the U.K., during which 28 countries including the U.S. and China pledged to cooperate on AI safety.

“It wasn’t a coincidence that all this happened at the same time,” Tiedrich said. “I’ve been practicing law in this area for over 30 years, and I have never seen things come out so fast and furiously.”

The stakes for people’s lives are high. AI algorithms do more than just determine what ads and movie recommendations we see. They help diagnose cancer, approve home loans, and recommend jail sentences. They filter job candidates and help determine who gets organ transplants.

Which is partly why we’re now seeing a shift in the U.S. from what has been a more hands-off approach to “Big Tech,” Tiedrich said.

Tiedrich presented Nov. 15 at an event hosted by Duke Science & Society.

In the 1990s when the internet went public, and again when social media started in the early 2000s, “many governments — the U.S. included — took a light touch to regulation,” Tiedrich said.

But this moment is different, she added.

“Now, governments around the world are looking at the potential risks with AI and saying, ‘We don’t want to do that again. We are going to have a seat at the table in developing the standards.’”

Power of the Purse

Biden’s AI executive order differs from laws enacted by Congress, Tiedrich acknowledged in a Nov. 3 meeting with students in Pratt’s Master of Engineering in AI program.

Congress continues to consider various AI legislative proposals, such as the recently introduced bipartisan Artificial Intelligence Research, Innovation and Accountability Act, “which creates a little more hope for Congress,” Tiedrich said.

What gives the administration’s executive order more force is that “the government is one of the big purchasers of technology,” Tiedrich said.

“They exercise the power of the purse, because any company that is contracting with the government is going to have to comply with those standards.”

“It will have a trickle-down effect throughout the supply chain,” Tiedrich said.

The other thing to keep in mind is “technology doesn’t stop at borders,” she added.

“Most tech companies aren’t limiting their market to one or two particular jurisdictions.”

“So even if the U.S. were to have a complete change of heart in 2024” and the next administration were to reverse the order, “a lot of this is getting traction internationally,” she said.

“If you’re a U.S. company, but you are providing services to people who live in Europe, you’re still subject to those laws and regulations.”

From Principles to Practice

Tiedrich said a lot of what’s happening today in terms of AI regulation can be traced back to a set of guidelines issued in 2019 by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, where she serves as an AI expert.

These include commitments to transparency, inclusive growth, fairness, explainability and accountability.

For example, “we don’t want AI discriminating against people,” Tiedrich said. “And if somebody’s dealing with a bot, they ought to know that. Or if AI is involved in making a decision that adversely affects somebody, say if I’m denied a loan, I need to understand why and have an opportunity to appeal.”

“The OECD AI principles really are the North Star for many countries in terms of how they develop law,” Tiedrich said.

“The next step is figuring out how to get from principles to practice.”

“The executive order was a big step forward in terms of U.S. policy,” Tiedrich said. “But it’s really just the beginning. There’s a lot of work to be done.”

Robin Smith
By Robin Smith

Doctors Share a Vision for Ending Preventable Blindness

Cataract surgery is often perceived as a garden-variety medical intervention akin to the colonoscopy, mammogram, or flu shot. But outside of higher-income countries, the following is not an understatement: eye care can be revolutionary. 

A cataract is described as “the clouding of the lens of the eye.”

It is estimated that, globally, 36 million people are blind; that around 90% of preventable blindness cases are demarcated within low and middle income countries; and that nearly 75% of blind individuals could regain their vision with medical intervention. 

Today, cataract surgery can be performed for $100 or less and, with a practiced hand, in as little as three minutes. 

In that context: a blind individual can completely regain their sight in the time it takes to brush their teeth. For the price of a discounted pair of running shoes. 

Dr. Geoffrey Tabin is an ophthalmologist and co-founder and chairman of the Himalayan Cataract Project. He is also the fourth person in the world to reach the tallest peak on each of the seven continents.

In late September, the Duke Global Ophthalmology Program hosted the A Vision for Ending Preventable Blindness panel to address the global scope of vision impairment, eye care interventions, and subsequent socioeconomic implications. Panelist Dr. Geoffrey Tabin, Professor of Ophthalmology and Global Medicine at Stanford University, characterized the nature of these eye conditions: “Glaucoma’s preventable, trachoma’s preventable, river blindness is preventable, vitamin A deficiency is preventable, even… diabetic changes [in vision] are preventable.” In fact, cataract surgery, in most cases, is a 100% and lasting cure.

What other health interventions boast similar statistics? 

Dr. Llyod Williams holds an ice cooler which will soon contain corneas for transplantation. Photo credit: Chris Hildreth/Rooster Media

Panelist Dr. Jalikatu Mustapha, new Deputy Minister of Health of Sierra Leone, and moderator Dr. Lloyd Williams, director of Duke Global Ophthalmology Program, established a corneal transplantation program in Sierra Leone. Pictured above with a box of corneas, Williams performed the country’s first corneal transplant in 2021. Mustapha and Williams recounted a clinical experience that well-represents their objectives:

Dr. Jalikatu Mustapha is an ophthalmologist, has overseen Sierra Leone’s Eye Care programme, and lectured at the University of Sierra Lione. She is currently the Deputy Minister of Health of Sierra Leone.

While operating in Sierra Leone, Mustapha and Williams worked with a patient completely blind since her teenaged years. After 29 years and a successful corneal transplant, she regained sight in one of her eyes. Walking out of the clinic, she saw a crying young woman and asked what was wrong. When the young woman responded, the patient recognized the woman’s voice, realizing that she was, in fact, her daughter. This would mark the first time she had physically seen one of her children. Her daughter was 19. 

Over the course of his career, Williams has performed thousands of eye surgeries in Africa including, of course, a number of corneal transplants. 

Despite the obvious efficacy of eye health interventions, blindness has little priority on the global health agenda nor in low income countries where preventable cases are disproportionately located. Tabin emphasized the “travesty” of this disconnect, describing blindness as “the lowest hanging fruit in global public health.”

Why is this the case? 

NGOs and governments point to the high mortality rates of infectious diseases like HIV, malaria, cholera, COVID. Blindness is not fatal, they argue, it is an apples and oranges comparison, cataracts to Ebola.

A glance at notable foundations and charities with health-related mission statements cements this sentiment. For example, among its laundry list of initiatives, the Gates Foundation funds the fight against enteric and diarrheal diseases, HIV, malaria, neglected tropical diseases, pneumonia, and tuberculosis; the Rockefeller Foundation “established the global campaign against hookworm… seeded the development of the yellow fever vaccine… supported translational research for tools ranging from penicillin to polio… spurred AIDS vaccine development;” and the Wellcome Trust financially supports infectious disease, drug-resistant infection, and Covid-19 research. 

Of course, this is not an effort to undermine the impact of these institutions but merely to point out a lack of urgency to redress blindness.  

The panelists challenged this “if not fatal then not urgent” thinking. Tabin cited two poignant WHO estimates: 1) vision impairment contributes to an annual $411 billion global productivity loss, and 2) the cost of providing eye care to every in-need individual would be around $25 billion.

The US Department of Defense’s proposed 2024 fiscal year budget is $842 billion. If this funding was allocated towards eye care, every case of preventable blindness could be mitigated 33 times over in one year.  

The downstream effects of blindness are substantial not only for the effected individual but for their family. In the absence of sufficient eye care, children with congenital cataracts, for example, will struggle/will not attend school; they will require care, potentially removing family members from the workforce; they will struggle to find employment; and, on average, they will have a life expectancy about a third of their age- and health-matched peers. Because 90% of preventable blindness is localized in low and middle income countries, community productivity and GDP may be significantly impacted by curable conditions. 

Tabin explained that “blindness really perpetuates poverty” and, on the flip side of the same coin, “poverty really accentuates the suffering of blindness.” Through his work at Stanford, Tabin identified pockets of agricultural Northern California with mass migrant workforces and high rates of preventable blindness. Documentation concerns, language barriers, and/or lack of healthcare often prevents seasonal workers and immigrants from accessing and benefiting from care, comparable to that in low and middle income countries. 

Dr. Bidya Pant is an ophthalmologist and director of  Geta Eye Hospital in Nepal. He has worked with HelpMeSee to lead a team of cataract specialists.

Dr. Bidya Pant, a leading ophthalmic surgeon, challenged this so-called eye care vacuum in a number of countries, including Myanmar, Uganda, and Nepal. His work speaks for itself. In 2016, Pant built six new hospitals, worked with a number of local monks to facilitate care, trained countless ophthalmology specialists, and completed 200,000 cataract surgeries. His high volume cataract surgery model dramatically decreased cost such that even individuals from the poorest communities in Nepal are still able to afford life-changing care. 

In 1984 the population prevalence of blindness in Nepal was 0.84%. In 2015, it was just 0.35%. 

Similar to Pant’s collaboration with the Myanmar monks, Mustapha, in her role as Sierra Leone’s Deputy Health Minister, has worked to increase access to eye care by training community healthcare workers who already provide maternal care, chronic disease management, vaccinations, etc. to rural communities lacking access to public health initiatives. Mustapha also advocates for a national prioritization and an integration of eye health “… into a strong health system that focuses on delivering quality healthcare that’s affordable to every Sierra Leonean across all life stages, whether they be pregnant women, babies, teenagers, adults, or elderly people, without financial consequences.”

Mustapha then posed the question: If you provide a child with a vaccine for measles or pneumonia and they later go blind from cataracts, have you really helped that child? 

Of course not!

Photo from the Himalayan Cataract Project

At face value, ending preventable blindness seems overly idealistic. But, let’s return to Tabin’s “low hanging fruit” analogy. As exemplified by the work of Tabin, Mustapha, Williams, and Pant, eye care is public health’s blueberry bush. Given proper investment and government initiative, this aim is arguably realistic. It’s just a matter of enough hands reaching for and plucking berries from the bush.

I will defer to Williams who best situated the scope of their mission. He said: “You could make a serious case that there [is] no intervention… for the dollar… that would send more girls in Africa to school than cataract surgery.”

If interested, you can watch the A Vision for Ending Preventable Blindness Panel here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3fSw5w2nk6k

Post by Alex Clifford, Class of 2024

My Face Belongs to The Hive (and Yours Does Too)

Imagine having an app that could identify almost anyone using only a photograph of their face. For example, you could take a photograph of a stranger in a dimly lit restaurant and know within seconds who they are.

This technology exists, and Kashmir Hill has reported on several companies that offer these services.

An investigative journalist with the New York Times, Hill visited Duke Law Sept. 27 to talk about her new book, Your Face Belongs To Us.

The book is about a company that developed powerful facial recognition technology based on images harnessed from our social media profiles. To learn more about Clearview AI, the unlikely duo who were behind it, and how they sold it to law enforcement, I highly recommend reading this book.

Hill demonstrated for me a facial recognition app that provides subscribers with up to 25 face searches a day. She offered to let me see how well it worked.

Screen shot of the search app with Hill’s quick photo of me.

She snapped a quick photo of my face in dim lighting. Within seconds (3.07 to be exact), several photos of my face appeared on her phone.

The first result (top left) is unsurprising. It’s the headshot I use for the articles I write on the Duke Research Blog. The second result (top right) is a photo of me at my alma mater in 2017, where I presented at a research conference. The school published an article about the event, and I remember the photographer coming around to take photos. I was able to easily figure out exactly where on the internet both results had been pulled from.

The third result (second row, left) unsettled me. I had never seen this photo before.

A photo of me sitting between friends. Their faces have been blurred out.

After a quick search of the watermark on the photo (which has been blurred for safety), I discovered that the photograph was from an event I attended several years ago. Apparently, the venue had used the image for marketing on their website. Using these facial recognition results, I was able to easily find out the exact location of the event, its date, and who I had gone with.

What is Facial Recognition Technology?

Researchers have been trying for decades to produce a technology that could accurately identify human faces. The invention of neural network artificial intelligence has made it possible for computer algorithms to do this with increasing accuracy and speed. However, this technology requires large sets of data, in this case, hundreds of thousands of examples of human faces, to work.

Just think about how many photos of you exist online. There are the photos that you have taken and shared or that your friends and family have taken of you. Then there are photos that you’re unaware that you’re in – perhaps you walked by as someone snapped a picture and accidentally ended up in the frame. I don’t consider myself a heavy user of social media, but I am sure there are thousands of pictures of my face out there. I’ve uploaded and classified hundreds of photos of myself across platforms like Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and even Venmo.

The developers behind Clearview AI recognized the potential in all these publicly accessible photographs and compiled them to create a massive training dataset for their facial recognition AI. They did this by scraping the social media profiles of hundreds of thousands of people. In fact, they got something like 2.1 million images of faces from Venmo and Tinder (a dating app) alone.

Why does this matter?

Clearly, there are major privacy concerns for this kind of technology. Clearview AI was marketed as being only available to law enforcement. In her book, Hill gives several examples of why this is problematic. People have been wrongfully accused, arrested, detained, and even jailed for the crime of looking (to this technology) like someone else.

We also know that AI has problems with bias. Facial recognition technology was first developed by mostly white, mostly male researchers, using photographs of mostly white, mostly male faces. The result of this has had a lasting effect. Marginalized communities targeted by policing are at increased risk, leading many to call for limits on the use of facial recognition by police.

It’s not just government agencies who have access to facial recognition. Other companies have developed off-the-shelf products that anyone can buy, like the app Hill demonstrated to me. This technology is now available to anyone willing to pay for a subscription. My own facial recognition results show how easy it is to find out a lot about a person (like their location, acquaintances, and more) using these apps. It’s easy to imagine how this could be dangerous.

There remain reasons to be optimistic about the future of privacy, however. Hill closed her talk by reminding everyone that with every technological breakthrough, there is opportunity for ethical advancement reflected by public policy. With facial recognition, policy makers have previously relied on private companies to make socially responsible decisions. As we face the results of a few radical actors using the technology maliciously, we can (and should) respond by developing legal restraints that safeguard our privacy.

On this front, Europe is leading by example. It’s likely that the actions of Clearview AI are already illegal in Europe, and they are expanding privacy rights with the European Commission’s (EC) proposed Artificial Intelligence (AI) regulation. These rules include requirements for technology developers to certify the quality of their processes, rather than algorithm performance, which would mitigate some of these harms. This regulation aims to take a technology-neutral approach and stratifies facial recognition technology by it’s potential for risk to people’s safety, livelihoods, and rights.

Post by Victoria Wilson, MA Bioethics and Science Policy, 2023

Bolivia’s Lithium is Like White Gold in the Salar de Uyuni

As the world undergoes the great energy transition — from fossil fuels to alternative energy and batteries — rare earth metals are becoming more precious.

Open The Economist, Forbes, or Fortune, and you’ll see an article nearly every day on Lithium, Nickel, or Copper. For investors seeking to profit off of the transition, lithium seems like a sure bet. Dubbed “white gold” for electric vehicles, the lightweight metal plays a key role in the cathodes of all types of lithium-ion batteries that power electric vehicles (EVs). Although EVs produce fewer greenhouse gasses than gas- or diesel-powered vehicles, their batteries require more minerals, particularly lithium. 

On Sept. 26, Duke’s campus welcomed the first in a series of discussions on climate and energy diplomacy focused on the challenges and opportunities of mining and development in South America’s Lithium Triangle. In a room crowded with curious undergraduate and graduate students alike, some lucky enough to have snagged a seat while others stood at the perimeters, three experts discussed the possible future of Bolivia as a major player in the global lithium market. 

Professor Avner Vengosh of the Nicholas School

Duke Distinguished Professor Avner Vengosh, Nicholas Chair of Environmental Quality in the Nicholas School of the Environment, began by highlighting the staggering EV growth in 2020-2022: Sales of electric cars have more than tripled in three years, from around 4% of new car sales in 2020 to 14% in 2022. That number is expected to rise to 29.50% in 2028. Speaking of the critical element to EV production, lithium, Vengosh said frankly, “we don’t have enough.” 

Lithium is mined from two major sources, Vengosh explained. The first is from hard-rock pegmatite, where lithium is extracted through a series of chemical processes. Most of these deposits are found in Australia, the world’s biggest source. The second is from lithium-rich brines, typically found in Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile, also known as the “Lithium Triangle.” These brine deposits are typically found in underground reservoirs beneath salt flats or saltwater lakes. The Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia is the world’s largest salt lake, and the largest lithium source in the world. It stretches more than 4,050 square miles and attracts tourists with its reflective, mirror-like surface. 

Mountains surrounding the Uyuni salt flat during sunrise By Diego Delso, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47617647
Mountains surrounding the Uyuni salt flat during sunrise, (Diego Delso)

A group of Duke students led by a PhD candidate pursuing research on Bolivian lithium development recently traveled to Bolivia to understand different aspects of lithium mining. They asked questions including: 

  • How renewable is the lithium brine? 
  • Are there other critical raw minerals in the lithium-rich brines? 
  • What are the potential environmental effects of lithium extraction?
  • What is the water footprint of the lithium extraction process?
  • Is water becoming a limiting factor for lithium production?

The Duke team conducted a study with the natural brine in the Salar, taking samples of deep brines, evaporation ponds, salts from evaporation ponds, wastewaters, and the lithium carbonate. Vengosh said that “we can see some inconsistency in the chemistry of the water that is flowing into the chemistry of the brine.”

This indicates that there is a more complex geological process in the formation of the brine than the simple flow of water into the lake. The team also confirmed the high purity of the lithium carbonate product and that there are no impurities in the material. Additionally, the Duke team found that the wastewater chemistry produced after lithium carbonate production is not different from that of the original brines. Thus, there are no limitations for recycling the water back to the Salar system.

After Vengosh shared the findings of the Duke research team, Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Andean Information Network (AIN) in Cochabamba, Bolivia and Dr. Scott MacDonald, chief economist at Smith’s Research & Gradings and a Caribbean Policy Consortium Fellow, discussed Bolivia’s lithium policy. With the largest untapped lithium deposits in the world, Bolivia has constructed a pilot plan for their lithium production, but Ledebur highlighted that the biggest hurdle is scaling. Additionally, with a unique prior-consultation system in place between the central government and 36 ethnic and indigenous groups in Bolivia, natural resources are a key topic of concern and grassroots action. Ledebur said, “I don’t see that issue changing any time soon.”

Another hurdle is that Bolivian law requires that the extraction process is controlled by the state (the state must own 51%). Foreign investors have been hesitant to work with the central government, which nationalized lithium in 2008 despite, critics said, lacking much of the necessary technology and expertise. 

Maxwell Radwin, a writer for Mongabay, writes, “Evo Morales, the former socialist president who served from 2006 to 2019, nationalized the industry, promising that foreign interests wouldn’t plunder Bolivia’s natural resources as they had in the past. Instead, he said, lithium would propel the country to the status of a world power. Morales didn’t just want to export lithium, though; he wanted to produce batteries and cars for export. This complicated deals with potential investors from France, Japan, Russia and South Korea, none of which came to fruition because, among other things, they were required to take on YLB (the state-owned lithium company) as an equal partner.”

Ledebur said, “At this point in time, the Bolivian government has signed three contracts… and I think things will fall into place.” 

Naysayers say that the Bolivian government hasn’t done anything to take advantage of the massive market sitting beneath their Salars and that grassroot consultations don’t work. Ledebur said, “I don’t think that it’s perfect, but it’s happening.”

Duke students will return to Bolivia with professor Vengosh next year to conduct more research on the lithium extraction process. Then, they’ll be able to see the effects of this ‘happening’ first-hand. 

By Isa Helton, Class of 2026

New Blogger Emily Zou: Bound By a Promise

My eyes peered at my mom’s hand, rarely blinking. My ever-bouncing leg had stilled. My mind caught every subtle movement, attempting to decipher the pattern. I watched, entranced, as my mom’s fingers nimbly wove together the pieces of red thread into the bracelet I would wear every day for the rest of my life.

My senior photo, red string bracelet on my left wrist.

Chinese red string bracelets are a symbol of luck, prosperity, health, protection, and courage. In ancient China, the emperor would give his first, therefore most important, wife a red string bracelet. Similarly, red string bracelets are gifted to newlywed couples to commemorate their true love and wish them well in a new stage of their lives. Close relatives also gift a red string bracelet to women and girls on their 本命年 (Year of Birth), in order to protect them from the negative energy they will face that year.

A bracelet serves as a physical representation of a promise. Most obviously, a friendship bracelet shows a promise to love and trust your matching bracelet wearer. But any string on your wrist represents a promise. A W.W.J.D. band serves as a promise of faith and to live like Christ. A 4Ocean beaded bracelet is a promise to care for the Earth’s aquatic life. Even an Apple Watch is a promise to live healthily.

I was given my red string bracelet by my mom in 2016 (the Year of the Monkey). When I wear it, I remember my family’s unconditional love for me and the history of my Chinese heritage. The bracelet serves as a mutual agreement between my family and me: to protect and look after one another.

My name is Emily Zou and I’m a freshman from a suburb outside of Portland, Oregon. The bracelet my mom made 6 years ago sat on my wrist the entire flight from PDX to RDU. Similarly, my parents’ promise is what has landed me here. Throughout the past 18 years of my life, my parents have taken care of me: they cooked me dinner at 9 pm after school board meetings, drove me 4 hours to debate tournaments at 4 a.m., cut endless bowls of fruit for late night study sessions, and of course, are paying my college tuition.

My mom and I at Blue Devils Day, when I committed to Duke. Notice the left wrist 😉

A promise is a unique moral obligation. The obligation isn’t inherent; there’s no biological or evolutionary reason to keep a promise. It’s also not for fear of consequence; simply breaking a promise does not inflict physical or emotional damage on you, but rather the consequence is the act itself. And yet, promises are expected to be kept universally, regardless of scope, culture, or time period. This is because just like a red string bracelet, a promise is made with intentionality. Just like each knot must be precisely made, so must each part of a promise.

Now, it’s my turn to uphold my end of the promise. I’m extremely lucky to attend a university like Duke, and I plan to use every opportunity possible to someday give my parents even half of what they’ve given me throughout my childhood. And not just to my parents, but to the rest of the world, as well. I believe that each one of us wears a metaphorical bracelet symbolizing our promises to society. To protect one another and leave this world better than how we found it.

My bracelet sits perfectly positioned against the pulsing heartbeat in my wrist’s veins, pumping its promise into my veins to accompany the red blood cells to every part of my body. It remains visible as I ride the C1 to my Economics lecture, code an APT, or throw a ceramic piece on the wheel. As long as a bracelet is worn, its wearer swears to keep their promise. However, much like a bracelet worn every day, it’s often easy to forget the various commitments in daily life. Friendship bracelets fray, W.W.J.D. bands become stained, and Apple Watches become simply a way to check text messages.

Our society’s foundation is based on promises: promises to value community, act with integrity, abide by the law, show up to work or school, put our shopping carts away, etc. Some of the most important promises are made by leaders and institutions. If we anthropomorphize the American government, we can imagine the slew of red string bracelets it hands out to its citizens, each representing a different promise. These promises are explicitly laid out in the preamble to the Constitution: to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” More specifically, each amendment lays out a specific promise from the government to the people about certain rights and privileges. However, it seems that in its daily wear and tear, the US Government has forgotten about its promise to its people as we experience daily violations of these promises.

My mom and I at graduation; again, you can see my red string bracelet on my left wrist.

This is what I want to discuss at Duke, and more specifically, on the Duke Research Blog. Promises transcend so many different academic and research fields: the promises parents make to their children, promises schools make to their students, promises countries make to their citizens.

When we tie the knot around our wrist for the very first time, the bracelet’s strings taut and secure, it’s simple to uphold its promise for the days following. Hyper aware of its presence, each time we move our arm, we recognize it: I made an effort to improve my Mandarin during the first days of the Year of the Monkey; the recently converted attend church every Sunday; Apple Watch users take their 10,000 steps. However, as our minds become used to the bracelet, or overwhelmed by the fresh new ones, its promises become obsolete. This phenomenon can only be reversed when we ground ourselves in the intentions of our bracelets: to protect one another, the marginalized, and our planet.

At Duke, I’m weaving my bracelets from scratch, which includes the Duke Research Blog. But a lot of my future bracelets are still up in the air. I’m still collecting my strings, and I’m learning that that is okay. And moving forward, not all of my posts will wax so philosophical, actually, probably none of them will. I just figured if I get one opportunity to make a first impression, I might as well share my life philosophy.

Post by Emily Zou, Class of 2027

Meet Some of the Teams at the Bass Connections Showcase

If you weren’t outside enjoying the sun on Wednesday, April 19, you were probably milling around Penn Pavilion, a can of LaCroix in hand, taking in the buzz and excited chatter of students presenting at the 2023 Fortin Foundation Bass Connections Showcase.

Open floor presentations at the 2023 Bass Connections Showcase

This annual celebration of Bass Connections research projects featured more than 40 interdisciplinary teams made up of Duke faculty, graduate students, undergraduate students, and even partners from other research institutions.

Research teams presented posters and lightning talks on their findings. You might have heard from students aiming to increase representation of women in philosophy; or perhaps you chatted with teams researching physiotherapy in Uganda or building earthquake warning systems in Nepal. Below, meet three such teams representing a wide variety of academic disciplines at Duke.

Building sustainable university-community partnerships

As Bass Connections team member Joey Rauch described, “this is a poster about all of these other posters.” Rauch, who was presenting on behalf of his team, Equitable University-Community Research Partnerships, is a senior double-majoring in Public Policy and Dance. His interest in non-profit work led him to get involved in the team’s research, which aims to offer a framework for ethical and effective university-community research collaboration – exactly what teams do in Bass Connections. The group looked at complicated factors that can make equitable relationships difficult, such as university incentive structures, power dynamics along racial, socioeconomic, and ethnic lines, and rigid research processes.

Senior Joey Rauch with his team’s 2nd-place poster!

Along the lines of rigid research, when asked about what his favorite part of Bass Connections has been, Rauch remarked that “research is oddly formal, so having a guiding hand through it” was helpful. Bass Connections offers an instructive, inclusive way for people to get involved in research, whether for the first or fourth time. He also said that working with so many people from a variety of departments of Duke gave him “such a wealth of experience” as he looks to his future beyond Duke.

For more information about the team, including a full list of all team members, click here.

Ensuring post-radiation wellness for women

From left to right: seniors Danica Schwartz, Shernice Martin, Kayle Park, and Michelle Huang

Seniors Michelle Huang, Shernice Martin, Kayle Park, and Danica Schwartz (all pictured) were gathered around the poster for their team, Promoting Sexual Function and Pelvic Health in Women’s Healthcare.

The project has been around for three years and this year’s study, which looked at improving female sexual wellness after pelvic radiation procedures, was in fact a sister study to a study done two years prior on reducing anxiety surrounding pelvic exams.

As Huang described, graduate students and faculty conducted in-depth interviews with patients to better understand their lived experiences. This will help the team develop interventions to help women after life events that affect their pelvic and sexual health, such as childbirth or cancer treatment. These interventions are grounded in the biopsychosocial model of pain, which highlights the links between emotional distress, cognition, and pain processing.

For more information about the team, including a full list of all team members, click here.

From dolphins to humans

Sophomores Noelle Fuchs and Jack Nowacek were manning an interactive research display for their team, Learning from Whales: Oxygen, Ecosystems and Human Health. At the center of their research question is the condition of hypoxia, which occurs when tissues are deprived of an adequate oxygen supply.

Sophomores Noelle Fuchs and Jack Nowacek

Hypoxia is implicated in a host of human diseases, such as heart attack, stroke, COVID-19, and cancer. But it is also one of the default settings for deep-diving whales, who have developed a tolerance for hypoxia as they dive into the ocean for hours while foraging.

The project, which has been around for four years, has two sub-teams. Fuchs, an Environmental Science and Policy major, was on the side of the team genetically mapping deep-diving pilot whales, beaked whales, and offshore bottlenose dolphins off the coast of Cape Hatteras  to identify causal genetic variants for hypoxia tolerance within specific genes. Nowacek, a Biology and Statistics double-major, was on the other side of the research, analyzing tissue biopsies of these three cetaceans to conduct experiences on hypoxia pathways.  

The team has compiled a closer, more interactive look into their research on their website.

And when asked about her experience being on this team and doing this research, Fuchs remarked that Bass Connections has been a  “great way to dip my toe into research and figure out what I do and don’t want to do,” moving forward at Duke and beyond.

For more information about the team, including a full list of all team members, click here.

Post by Meghna Datta, Class of 2023

Recovery, Resilience, and Coexistence: Nature-based Solutions on the Coast

When it comes to balancing the needs of humans and the needs of nature, “Historically it was ‘develop or conserve’ or ‘develop or restore,’” says Carter Smith, Ph.D., a Lecturing Fellow in the Division of Marine Science & Conservation who researches coastal restoration.

However, according to Brian Silliman, Ph.D., Rachel Carson Distinguished Professor of Marine Conservation Biology, “We are having a new paradigm shift where it’s not just… ‘nature over here’ and ‘humans over here.’”

Instead, conservation initiatives are increasingly focusing on coexistence with nature and ecological resilience, according to this panel discussion of marine science experts during Duke Research and Innovation Week 2023.

Nature-based solutions — protecting and restoring natural shoreline habitats — have a proven role in protecting and restoring coastal ecosystems. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), “Nature-based solutions… address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously benefiting people and nature.”

The panel, moderated by Andrew J. Read, Ph.D., Stephen A. Toth Distinguished Professor of Marine Biology and Professor of Marine Conservation Biology, also included Brian Silliman, Carter Smith, and Stephanie Valdez, a Ph.D. Student in Marine Science & Conservation.

Living shorelines can help protect coastal ecosystems from storms while also offering benefits for climate and conservation. Photos by Carter Smith.

According to Smith, nature-based solutions can “leverage nature and the power of healthy ecosystems to protect people” while also preserving biodiversity and mitigating climate change. She spoke about living shorelines as an effective and ecologically responsible way to protect coastal ecosystems.

“The traditional paradigm in coastal protection is that you build some kind of hard, fixed structure” like a seawall, Smith said, but conventional seawalls can have negative effects on biodiversity, habitats, nutrient cycling, and the environment at large. “In this case, coastal protection and biodiversity really are at odds.”

After multiple hurricanes, living shorelines had significantly less visible damage or erosion than sites with conventional hardscape protection, like seawalls.

Nicholas Lecturing Fellow Carter Smith

That’s where living shorelines come in. Living shorelines incorporate plants and natural materials like sand and rock to stabilize coastal areas and protect them from storms while also creating more natural habitats and minimizing environmental destruction. But “if these structures are actually going to replace conventional infrastructure,” Smith says, it’s important to show that they’re effective.

Smith and colleagues have studied how living shorelines fared during multiple hurricanes and have found that living shorelines had significantly less “visible damage or erosion” compared to sites with conventional storm protection infrastructure.

After Hurricane Matthew in 2016, for instance, both natural marshes and conventional infrastructure (like seawalls) lost elevation due to the storm. Living shorelines, on the other hand, experienced almost no change in elevation.

Smith is also investigating how living shorelines may support “community and psychosocial resilience” along with their benefits to biodiversity and climate. She envisions future community fishing days or birdwatching trips to bring people together, encourage environmental education, and foster a sense of place.

PhD student Stephanie Valdez then spoke about the importance of coastal ecosystems.

Blue carbon ecosystems,” which include sea grasses, marshes, and mangroves, provide services like stabilizing sediments, reducing the destructive force of powerful waves, and storing carbon, she said. These ecosystems can bury carbon much faster than terrestrial ecosystems, which has important implications when it comes to climate change.

In the atmosphere, carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses contribute to global warming, but plants pull carbon dioxide out of the air during photosynthesis and convert it to carbohydrates, releasing oxygen as a byproduct. Therefore, ecosystems rich in fast-growing plants can serve as carbon sinks, reducing the amount of atmospheric carbon, Valdez explained.

Unfortunately, blue carbon ecosystems have suffered significant loss from human activities and development. We’ve replaced these wild areas with farms and buildings, polluted them with toxins and waste, and decimated habitats that so many other creatures rely on. But given the chance, these places can sometimes grow back. Valdez discussed a 2013 study which found that seagrass restoration led to a significantly higher carbon burial rate within just a few years.

Sea grasses, marshes, and mangroves provide services like stabilizing sediments, reducing the destructive force of powerful waves, and storing carbon.

PhD Student Stephanie Valde

Valdez also talked about the importance of recognizing and encouraging natural ecological partnerships within and between species. Humans have taken advantage of such partnerships before, she says. Consider the “Three Sisters:” beans, corn, and squash, which Native Americans planted close proximity so the three crops would benefit each other. Large squash leaves could provide shade to young seedlings, beans added nitrogen to the soil, and cornstalks served as a natural beanpole.

Recognizing that mutualistic relationships exist in natural ecosystems can help us preserve habitats like salt marshes. Valdez points to studies showing that the presence of oysters and clams can positively impact seagrasses and marshes. In restoration, it’s important “that we’re not focusing on one species alone but looking at the ecosystem as a whole”—from top predators to “foundation species.”

“There is hope for successful restoration of these vital ecosystems and their potential to aid in climate change mitigation,” Valdez said.

Finally, Prof. Brian Silliman discussed the role of predators in wider ecosystem restoration projects. Prioritizing the protection, restoration, and sometimes reintroduction of top predators isn’t always popular, but Silliman says predators play important roles in ecosystems around the world.

“One of the best examples we have of top predators facilitating ecosystems and climate change mitigation are tiger sharks in Australia,” he says. When the sharks are around, sea turtles eat fewer aquatic plants. “Not because [the sharks] eat a lot of sea turtles but because they scare them toward the shoreline,” reducing herbivory.

However, Silliman said it’s unclear sometimes whether the existence of a predator is actually responsible for a given benefit. Other times, though, experiments provide evidence that predators really are making a difference. Silliman referenced a study showing that sea otters can help protect plants, like seagrasses, in their habitats.

Restoring or reintroducing top predators in their natural habitats can help stabilize ecosystems impacted by climate change and other stressors.

And crucially, “Predators increase stress resistance.” When physical stressors reach a certain point in a given ecosystem, wildlife can rapidly decline. But wildlife that’s used to coexisting with a top predator may have a higher stress threshold. In our ever-changing world, the ability to adapt is as important as ever.

“I think there is great optimism and opportunity here,” Silliman says. The other speakers agree. “Right now,” Valdez says, “as far as restoration and protection goes, we are at the very beginnings. We’re just at the forefront of figuring out how to restore feasibly and at a level of success that makes it worth our time.”

Restoring or reintroducing top predators in their natural habitats can help stabilize ecosystems impacted by climate change and other stressors.

Brian Silliman

Smith emphasized the important role that nature-based solutions can play. Even in areas where we aren’t achieving the “full benefit of conserving or restoring a habitat,” we can still get “some benefit in areas where if we don’t use nature-based solutions,” conservation and restoration might not take place at all.

According to Valdez, “Previously we would see restoration or… conservation really at odds with academia itself as well as the community as a whole.” But we’re reaching a point where “People know what restoration is. People know what these habitats are. And I feel like twenty or thirty years ago that was not the case.” She sees “a lot of hope in what we are doing, a lot of hope in what is coming.”

“There’s so much that we can learn from nature… and these processes and functions that have evolved over millions and millions of years,” Smith adds. “The more we can learn to coexist and to integrate our society with thriving ecosystems, the better it will be for everyone.”

Post by Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

Truman Scholar Maya Durvasula, T’18, on her Research Journey Through Duke and Beyond

Maya Durvasula, T’18, and a current Ph.D. student at Stanford University, grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “And it’s hard to grow up there without a very keen sense of what it looks like when policy doesn’t work for people,” she remarks.

Maya Durvasula, T’18

After graduating high school with an interest in politics, she decided to take a gap year and bounced around organizations in New Mexico, working for the state legislature, political campaigns, and even a think tank. In hindsight, she says, “Having a block of time where you have time is super helpful.” One thing she learned was that she didn’t really want to do politics. “People were making policy, but debates were heavy on feelings and politics and light on facts.”

A high school mentor suggested that maybe she would get along better with economists than politicians, so once she got to Duke, she took that to heart.

As a first-year, she says, she knew she wanted to be exposed to a lot of things, and she knew she wanted to do research, but she wasn’t really sure what “research” meant for a first-year. In the beginning, she cold-emailed a lot of people and received multiple rejections.

After rejection, though, eventually something clicks, and for Durvasula, what clicked were three main research projects she undertook in her time at Duke.

The instinct is always to start with where you want to end up and then work backward, but you don’t know where you’re going to end up”

Maya Durvasula, T’18

Her first experience in a research group was a joint venture between an academic team in China and at UNC-Chapel Hill. Their group studied behavioral interventions to increase the uptake of health technologies, with a particular focus on sexual health. Usually, as a country industrializes, the rates of sexually transmitted infections will drop, but in China, rates of HIV and syphilis continued to rise as the economy grew. Durvasula and the team looked at different interventions that might make testing for HIV more attractive to patients, such as alternative testing locations, different advertisement design, and compensation.

She also did a project with Duke professor Bob Korstad in the history department and the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity, looking at the history of housing in Durham. Finally, she worked with her primary advisor, Duke economics professor Duncan Thomas, in his joint lab with UNC’s Elizabeth Frankenberg, on projects related to household decision-making in Indonesia.

Duke Economics Thesis Symposium in 2018

A notable part of her undergraduate time at Duke was winning the Truman Scholarship. What was most valuable to her about the Truman was the people she met. “Most people I’ve met are defined by picking something they care about and doing a lot with it,” she says. And it’s inspiring to be surrounded by people who love what they do and immerse themselves so wholly in it.

Duke Economics Graduation, 2018

Durvasula graduated Duke with numerous experiences and accolades under her belt. But from there, how did she find her way to doing a Ph.D. at the intersection of law, technology, and economics? As she describes it, the interplay between economics and law is inextricable. Both economic incentive and legal institutions affect the rate and direction of innovation, which affects how quickly technology is developed, and ultimately what products ends up in our hands. A question at the heart of her research is wondering how to make sure the value of this technology is distributed equally across society.

So five to ten years from now, where will we see Durvasula? She sees herself remaining in academia, although at some point she wants to work in public service. “I love learning new things, and I want to take advantage of being in a space where people are always willing to teach you things.”

And in that vein, her advice to a curious Duke student is to explore everything. “The instinct is always to start with where you want to end up and then work backward, but you don’t know where you’re going to end up,” she said.

Pursue the questions that you find exciting, and let that point you in the right direction – clearly, Durvasula is proof that this process will take you places.

Post by Meghna Datta, Class of 2023

Working with Humans and Animals to Save What’s Left

“Krithi  Karanth is…” begins a long sentence if not pruned, so I will settle on the following: Dr. Karanth is the Chief Conservation Scientist and Director at the Centre for Wildlife Studies in India, an adjunct professor in the Nicholas School at Duke, and a Vogue Woman of the Year

On Oct. 13, she visited her alma mater to catch us up on her work.

Karanth grew up in close contact with an abundance of wildlife as the daughter of tiger biologist Dr. Ullas K. Karanth in India. Her first experience in the jungle was at the ripe age of one, and she credits this “sheer joy of watching nonhumans uninterrupted” as the basis for her deep concern and care for wildlife.  

Krithi Karanth, Ph.D. (2008)

She received her Ph.D from the Nicholas School after scouring historic hunting journals and interviewing Indian wildlife scientists to build a database that documents the havoc wreaked on wildlife populations in India, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century. The results are gut-wrenching, among them: an estimated 96% plunge in the lion population, 67% drop in tigers, and a 62% decline in wolves.

After thirteen years studying and researching in the U.S., Karanth returned home to India, where she felt her impact could be greater.  

Today, large British hunting parties are no longer the main cause of species decline in India. Instead, man and beast find themselves stepping on each other’s toes and tails more and more as towns expand and animals like elephants and leopards lose their habitats.

At the Centre for Wildlife Studies, Karanth’s work focuses on mitigating the most prevalent problems in human-wildlife interaction: crop and property damage, livestock predation, and human injury and death.

Her tactics for doing so are expansive. At CWS, she leads several initiatives targeting different sides of the problem.

WildSeve deploys timely assistance to people, most often farmers, dealing with destructive wildlife encounters. Farmers can call a toll free number, and a member of the team will ride out to their farm to help document the incident and file a claim for government compensation, allowing farmers to complete what would otherwise be an arduous and expensive legal process. In “peak season,” between October and November when many farmers are growing a cover crop known to attract elephants, WildSeve deploys as many as thirty conflict responders per day.

Dr. Karanth presenting at the Nicholas School

The goal of these interactions is not simply response, but mitigation. WildSeve helps farmers understand what factors increase the likelihood of human-wildlife conflict (HWC) and how to avoid these encounters in the future. 

Another project in the works, WildCarbon, will assist farmers in transitioning their land from agriculture to carbon-sequestering agro-forests in places where the benefits can outweigh the costs.

Karanth says that trust is key to ensuring that the advice from the team is well-received. It is often difficult to convince a farmer to change their practices. Farming technique is both a careful science and the basis of a farmer’s livelihood. The project is in its seventh year, and Karanth says it has taken time for farmers to see that their assistance works. One factor that helps build this trust is that many members of the WildSeve team are locals in the communities.  

Another program, WildShaale, is designed to foster understanding and appreciation for local wildlife in schoolchildren. Karanth pointed out that many school-age children easily recognize a kangaroo despite their lack of proximity to or interaction with the Australian marsupial, but could not identify the Indian wolf native to their backyard.

For children living in communities that come in close contact with wildlife, their perception of the animals is often one of fear. Karanth said the curiosity and empathy that WildShaale nurtures is critical to creating communities that have a net positive relationship with their animal neighbors. By fostering this empathy, violence becomes a last resort when dealing with wildlife conflicts.

After Karanth’s talk, I grabbed a chai latte from Beyu Cafe and sat down in Penn Pavilion for New York Times columnist Bret Stephens’ chat on cross-partisan conversation. At the time, I didn’t see much connection between the two events, but in retrospect, it is there. Both talks touched on that attempt at harmony, respect, and civil discourse I so often find myself craving: for Karanth, it’s between animals and people; for Stephens, people and people.

As I got ready to write this article, I turned on my GE digital clock radio to keep me company. I debated switching to a podcast, but then the host mentioned elephants and — given their relevance to task — I leaned in a little closer. 

The radio still works!

WUNC was playing this week’s segment of the TED Radio Hour, which centered on finding resolutions in situations of conflict. The woman being interviewed was discussing her own solution to elephant-human conflict in Kenya: beehives.

I will leave it to the reader to find out how, but the remainder of the segment drove home my key takeaway from hearing Karanth speak: Seeking out simple, yet innovative answers to human-wildlife conflict, a life or death issue, can teach us a lot about the importance of finding solutions to interpersonal conflict.  

Post by Addie Geitner, Class of 2025

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