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

Category: Science Communication & Education Page 1 of 22

A Fond Farewell for Our Three Senior Bloggers

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It’s May! Time for our 2022 Duke graduates to endure Pomp and Circumstance on repeat, shed a tear, and then take wing. Always bittersweet for those of us who work with students.

This year, the Duke Research Blog celebrates the graduation of three outstanding student-bloggers. This class produced some real gems and we will be greatly diminished by their commencement.

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Anna Gotskind in the Galapagos, 2018

Anna Gotskind blogged for us all four years, after growing up in Chicago.

Most memorably, Anna took us along when she spent the summer of 2019 at an archaeology dig in Italy.

Her other topics were a liberal arts education in themselves: she wrote about invisible malaria, climate change, dance, drinking water standards, snow leopards, muscular dystrophy, cybercrime, autism and some fascinating classmates. This year, as she readied for her career, she wrote a three-part series about blockchain and bitcoins.

After graduating with a psychology major, an econ minor and an innovation and entrepreneurship certificate, Anna will be moving to Atlanta to work as an associate consultant at Bain and Company. She plans to continue learning about the web3 space in her “free time” and hopes to find an outlet to continue writing about cryptocurrency as well. 

Cydney Livingston, the pride of Anson County, NC, joined us as a sophomore and proceeded to shoot out the lights with 31 career posts.

Cydney Livingston

Cydney’s biggest hit, by far, was her first-person account of trying to continue with college after the pandemic shut down Spring Term, 2020. “Wednesdays, My New Favorite Day,” appealed to Duke alumni, family and friends everywhere who were wondering what the heck was going on in Durham. Short answer: It was weird.

She was integral to our (mostly virtual) coverage of the COVID crisis, and helped the campus keep up with some of the larger questions the emerging virus presented, including social inequity and vaccine hesitancy. She also profiled some grad students, sharing a look inside their worlds from a student’s perspective. And in between, Cydney saw paleontologist Richard Leakey in one of his last public appearances and wrote about space junk, cervixes, lead poisoning, dog smarts, visual perception and North Carolina’s pungent pork industry.

Cydney is graduating with a BS in Biology and an AB II in History and is moving to Boston in the fall to begin work as an analyst with ClearView Healthcare Partners. But she is leaving open the possibility of a return to academia in history of science, technology and medicine, or science and technology studies. “I’m excited to spend a few years working and reflecting on my time at Duke and what lies ahead in my life journey.”

Rebecca Williamson

Rebecca Williamson, a first-year economics, but maybe arts major, signed up four years ago just for the experience and horizon- broadening. Mission accomplished! She’s graduating with distinction as an English major with minors in Econ and Music. Her blogging career covered The Muppets, grad student standup comedy, and the exhausting Datathon hackfest.

She will be staying in Durham to take part in the Analyst Program for DUMAC, the nonprofit corporation that manages the university’s investments.

Godspeed, young bloggers. We miss you already.

Written with fondness and gratitude by Karl Leif Bates, editor

Vernal, Ephemeral, Spring Beauty by Any Other Name

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Nicki Cagle, Ph.D., with perfoliate bellwort, an ephemeral forest plant also known as wild oats (Uvularia perfoliata).

“Ephemeral” is one of my favorite words. It conjures up images of vernal pools and fireflies and flowers in spring. It comes from ephēmeros, a Greek word meaning “lasting a day.” English initially used it in a scientific sense, to refer to fevers and then in reference to short-lived organisms like flowers or insects. Today “ephemeral” is most often used to describe anything fleeting or short-lived.

The term “spring ephemeral,” for instance, refers to flowers that are visible for only a short time each spring before they disappear.

Nicki Cagle, Ph.D, a senior lecturer in the Nicholas School of the Environment, led a spring ephemeral workshop in the Korstian Division of Duke Forest on a Friday afternoon in late March. The workshop was hosted by DSER, the Duke student chapter of the Society for Ecological Restoration. We focused on identifying herbaceous plant species and families, particularly spring ephemerals.

“Spring ephemerals are perennials that emerge early in the spring and then grow, reproduce, and disappear from the surface of the forest floor in just a few short weeks,” Cagle explains. We also found several species that aren’t technically ephemerals but still bloom in early spring — before the tree canopy emerges and plunges the floor into shade.

Oxalis violacea, a species of wood sorrel.

The first plant Cagle points out is Oxalis violacea, a type of wood sorrel. “This particular species will have purple flowers,” she says. The genus name, Oxalis, refers to the plant’s oxalic acid content. “You can nibble on it,” but “you don’t want to nibble on it too much.” Oxalic acid, which is also found in common foods like spinach, gives the leaves a pleasant, lemony taste, but it can cause problems if eaten in excess.

Common bluet (Houstonia caerulea).

When we come across a patch of lovely, pale violet flowers with yellow centers, Cagle challenges the workshop participants to determine which family it belongs to. She offers two options: Rubiaceae, a large family that often has either opposite or whorled leaves and four to five petals and which includes familiar plants like coffee, or Violaceae, a very small plant family whose members “tend to have everything in fives” (like petals, stamens, and sepals) and often have basal leaves. Answer: Rubiaceae. This particular species is Houstonia caerulea, the common bluet. Its yellow centers help distinguish it from related species like the summer bluet, tiny bluet, and purple bluet. If anything, Cagle says, the plant’s presence is “an indicator of disturbance,” but it’s still good to have around.

Here’s the little brown jug (Hexastylis arifolia).

Next we come across two species in the Hexastylis genus. They are sometimes called wild ginger, but the name is misleading. Hexastylis species are not related to the ginger you buy in the store, which is in a completely different family. Hexastylis is, however, in the same family as the Asarum genus, which Cagle thinks of as “proper” wild ginger. Asarum and Hexastylis have traditionally been used as food and medicine, but they also contain toxins. According to Cagle, they belong to “one of the few plant families that have fossilized remains in the United States,” even dating back to the late Cretaceous Period.

The two species we see are Hexastylis arifolia, the little brown jug, and Hexastylis minor which looks similar but “tends to have a much more rounded form.” Like many spring ephemerals, Hexastylis is often dispersed by ants. The seeds have elaiosomes, fatty deposits that ants find attractive.

“We have a lot of different violets of varying origins” in this area. According to Cagle, this one is likely to be a common blue violet, Viola sororia.

There’s a patch of violets near the Hexastylis plants. “We have a lot of different violets… of varying origins” around here, Cagle says. Many of the native species have both a purple form and a variety that’s white with purple striping. Other species in the violet family come in different colors altogether, and Cagle says many of those are of European origin.

The Johnny-jump-up pansy, for instance, can have “funkier colors,” like yellow or pinkish purple and is native to Europe and Asia. Violets can be hard to identify. Some species are distinguished mainly by characteristics like the lobes (projections in leaves with gaps between them) or the hairiness of the leaves. The bird’s foot violet and wood violet, for example, “tend to have really deep lobes.”

Cagle says the violet we’re looking at is likely the common blue violet, characterized by smooth leaves and petals, purple or purple-and-white flowers, and rounded or slightly arrow-shaped leaves.

The Cranefly orchid (Tipularia discolor) reproduces later in the year. The purple on the bottom of the leaves, and sometimes on the top as well (see right), helps protect the plant from sunlight and herbivores.

The orchid family, Orchidaceae, is one of the largest families of flowering plants in the world. Many of its members are tropical, including the Vanilla genus, but “we do have a number of native orchids” here as well, including yellow and pink lady’s slipper orchids, putty-root, and the cranefly orchid.

The cranefly orchid, Tipularia discolor, isn’t yet in bloom, but we come across the leaves several times on our walk. According to Cagle, Tipularia discolor “isn’t actually a spring ephemeral” because it reproduces later in the year. However, “it’s ephemeral in its own way,” the leaves disappear by the time it flowers. Cagle says the plant’s scientific name can remind you what to look for: “‘Tip-’ because you’re going to tip this leaf over” to look at the underside and “discolor” because the leaves are a striking purple underneath. Some of the ones we see are purple on top as well. Cagle explains that the purple coloration serves as sunscreen and protection from critters that eat plants.

The plant gets its common name (and its scientific genus name, interestingly) from its delicate flowers, which are supposed to resemble craneflies. When the plant blooms, “the flowers are so delicate and so subtle that most of the time you miss them.” Pollinators like Noctuid moths, on the other hand, find the flowers easily and often. Cranefly orchids even have “specialized seed structures” that “get fused onto insects [such as the moths]… and carried off.”

Rue anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides or Anemonella thalictroides).
Cagle with giant chickweed (Stellaria pubera).

The rue anemone, unlike the cranefly orchid, is a true spring ephemeral. It belongs to a more “primitive” family and has lots of petals in a spiral arrangement. The species is also known as windflower “because they flutter and dance as the breeze comes through.” Cagle mentions that the plant is “usually pollinated by flies and little bees” and serves as an important food source for insects in early spring. But “how do these even exist” in a forest with so many plant-eating deer? Many spring ephemerals, Cagle explains, have “some really potent toxins” that protect them from large herbivores.

We stop briefly to examine perfoliate bellwort, also known as wild oats (Uvularia perfoliata), and giant (or star) chickweed. Chickweed is in the pink family, named not for the color but because “the petals… [look] as if they’re cut by ‘pinking shears,’” which have saw-toothed blades that leave notches in fabric.

Trout lily (Erythronium umbilicatum). According to Cagle, “No spring ephemeral walk is actually complete without finding some trout lilies.”

Near the end of our walk, we find several trout lilies. That’s fortunate. “No spring ephemeral walk is actually complete without finding some trout lilies,” Cagle says.

Unsurprisingly, trout lilies belong to the lily family. “Their flower structure,” Cagle says, “is very symmetrical” with three petals and three sepals. In trout lilies, the sepals resemble petals, too. This particular species is Erythronium umbilicatum. The species name, umbilicatum, refers to its “really long peduncle,” or flower stalk, which “allows the seed to actually touch the ground.” The seed is dimpled, Cagle says, “like a little belly button.” The name “trout lily,” meanwhile, refers to the mottled pattern on the leaves.

Spring beauty (Claytonia virginica), “a quintessential spring ephemeral.”

At the base of a tree near a small river, Cagle points out a flower called spring beauty (Claytonia virginica), “a quintessential spring ephemeral.” Some flowers, like the common bluet we saw earlier, thrive in disturbed areas, but plants like the spring beauty need rich, undisturbed habitat. That makes them good indicator species, species that can help scientists gauge environmental conditions and habitat quality. When a natural area is being restored, for example, scientists can measure restoration progress by comparing the “restoration site” to an undisturbed “reference site.”

According to Cagle, the spring beauty is pollinated by “bee flies… flies that kind of look like bees.” After pollination, the flowers turn pink. Cagle says this is common among ephemerals. One theory is that the color change signifies which flowers have already been pollinated, but others think it’s just a result of senescence, or aging.

Spring beauties are also “photonastic,” meaning they open and close in response to changing light conditions. “There is some evidence that the Iroquois would eat this plant in order to prevent conception,” Cagle says, but today the plant—like many spring ephemerals—is under protection in some areas. Human activities, sadly, have contributed to the decline of too many spring ephemerals.

Alum root (Heuchera americana) near the end of the walk. According to Cagle, its roots can be used “to form mordant for dyes.” Members of the Saxifrage family, which includes alum root, often have five petals, five sepals, and five stamens.

Not all of the plants we saw are spring ephemerals. Some, although they bloom in early spring, “wouldn’t technically be considered ephemeral because their leaves stick around even if their blooms don’t last long.” True ephemerals, on the other hand, “are plants that just seem to disappear off the face of the planet (or the forest floor) after a few weeks,” Cagle says. Only three of the species we found during the workshop are true ephemerals: the windflower, trout lily, and spring beauty. However, these aren’t the only spring ephemerals found in the area. Cagle’s personal favorite is bloodroot, with its “bright white petals” and pollen “that looks like it’s glowing.”

Next time you’re in the woods, keep your eyes out for ephemerals and other early spring flowers, but look quickly. They won’t be here for long.

By Sophie Cox

Post and Photos by Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

“Brains are Weird… and the World is Difficult”

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Institute for Consumer Money Management, and Duke University’s Center for Advanced Hindsight.

Intending to do the right thing doesn’t always lead to actually doing it, a tendency formally known as the “intention-behavior gap.” We can intend to go to bed early and still go to bed late. We can want to exercise and still choose not to. We can recognize the importance of saving extra money and still choose to spend it instead. So why is it so hard to change our behavior? Because, says Jonathan Corbin, Ph.D., “brains are weird” and “the world is difficult.”

Corbin is a senior behavioral researcher at the Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke University. The Center for Advanced Hindsight recently partnered with NOVA Labs, Thought Cafè, and the Institute for Consumer Money Management to create the NOVA Financial Lab, a group of financial literacy games targeted at adolescents and emerging adults. In each game, players practice managing money while taking care of a pet. You may never have to sneak a cat into a concert or prepare a retirement plan for a dog in real life, but you will need to understand concepts like budgeting, interest, and debt. “What we hope people start to do,” Corbin says, “is really think about, ‘What decisions should I make now to make better decisions later?’”

Essentially, “Money spent now is money that can’t be spent later.” As intuitive as that might seem, “The way we think about money is relative, and it’s not linear.” When you’re already spending thousands of dollars on a car, for instance, an extra five hundred dollars for a feature you may or may not need “feels like a very small amount of money,” but in a different situation, its value can seem higher. How many times, Corbin points out, could you go out to eat with five hundred dollars?

The three games combine financial literacy with behavioral science to explore why people make the decisions they do and how they can start to make better ones.
Source: https://advanced-hindsight.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/CAH-NOVA.pdf

There are three games: Shopportunity Cost, Budget Busters, and Exponential Potential. (“One of the people from PBS helped us come up with these cute names,” Corbin says.) They each involve different skills, but they all focus on “financial literacy from a behavioral science perspective.” Players have to contend with both external obstacles and common behavioral biases to make financial decisions for a pet. “I always choose the dog,” Corbin adds, “but I understand other people might choose the cat.” (I chose the cat.)

The first game, Shopportunity Cost, focuses on short-term financial planning. It involves dressing a pet up like a person in order to sneak them into a concert for the night. “You have to make decisions that optimize the pet’s happiness while also being able to make it to the concert and back home,” but you have a limited amount of money to spend. If you spend too much money too soon, you’ll run out, but if you’re too frugal, your pet won’t enjoy the evening. As goofy as the concert scenario is, it introduces players to an important concept known as opportunity cost, which refers to the potential benefits we miss out on when we choose one alternative over another. Say you’re debating between a $50 outfit and a $30 one. The opportunity cost of choosing the more expensive outfit is $20, but shoppers don’t always consider that. “Opportunity cost neglect is the simple idea that when we’re faced with financial decisions, we tend not to consider alternative uses for that money.” Reframing the $30 outfit as “a $30 dress that I’m okay with plus 20 extra dollars” that could be spent elsewhere might lead you to choose the cheaper outfit. Or it might not. “Sometimes you want the $50 outfit, and that’s perfectly fine… but a lot of the time that might not be the right decision.” Like many things, taking opportunity cost into account is a balancing act. “We shouldn’t obsess over every possible opportunity that there is,” Corbin cautions, but “consider[ing] opportunity costs can lead to better financial decisions.”

Budget Busters, meanwhile, involves medium-term planning. Players have to manage checking, credit, and savings accounts while caring for their pet over a six-month period. Along with purchasing essential and non-essential items to attend to their pet’s basic needs and happiness, players have to contend with unforeseen circumstances like medical emergencies. The game introduces people to the 50-30-20 rule, a budgeting concept that involves devoting 50% of income to essentials, 30% to non-essentials, and 20% to savings. Budget Busters also explores the principle of mental accounting, the idea that aside from formal budgets, we have “categories in our head” that change our perception of money. “Let’s say you get birthday money from your relative. That money tends to be a different kind of spending money to you than money you get from your paycheck,” Corbin explains, because “money feels different in different contexts.” 

There are parallels in Budget Busters. Sometimes players receive unexpected windfalls like gifts or prizes. (My cat won $40 for being “Best in Show” at the local pet pageant.) Players get to decide whether to use the extra money on a “fun” item for their pet or put it into savings. Corbin says “gift money” is a classic example of a misleading mental account. “We tend to overspend… because it feels like it’s not even our money in a way.” In reality, though, money has “fungibility,” meaning it’s “exchangeable… across any account.” In other words, “money is money,” regardless of where it comes from.  A $10 bill, for instance, can be exchanged for two fives without changing its value. (Non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, lack this property. “You can’t exchange the picture of a cat you bought from the internet for Chipotle.”) Like Shopportunity Cost, Budget Busters focuses on both traditional financial concepts and common behavioral tendencies that affect decision-making. “None of these things are necessarily bad,” Corbin emphasizes, “but they’re things that one should be aware of… when that natural proclivity may be swaying them in the wrong way.”

Budget Busters, which focuses on monthly budgeting, also encourages players to look closely at discounts when shopping. “Sometimes the discount that looks really good from a  percentage-off perspective isn’t actually the better discount” in terms of overall budgeting and total amount of money saved, Corbin warns.

The last game, Exponential Potential, explores concepts like compound interest, debt, and investment. The premise of the game involves traveling back in time to balance debts and investments. The goal is to make your pet a millionaire. By showing players how investment decisions can affect future net worth, the game seeks to increase understanding of processes involving exponential growth. Exponential Potential introduces the concept of exponential growth bias. According to Corbin,  “We tend to underestimate things that grow exponentially.” He cites the coronavirus pandemic as an example: “Even the people who were making the graphs of Covid’s growth… it’s really hard for them to figure out how to show that to people.” Log-transformed graphs are one option, but they can be deceptive by making the slope look flatter. Similarly, when dealing with exponential growth in the financial world, “People are going to underestimate how badly they’re going to get burned” by debt, but they may also underestimate how much they’ll benefit by saving for retirement.

With compound interest, for instance, “The interest gets applied both to principle and to interest from the last time, and that’s where exponential growth happens.” In the game, players have the opportunity to adjust how much money to put toward paying off debts, investing, and saving for retirement each month. Then they travel decades into the future to see how their decisions have affected their pet’s net worth.  “We’re hoping that that kind of feedback allows you to think through… what you might have done wrong and try to correct,” Corbin says. Once again, though, raw numbers aren’t the only factor at play. “We just want people to understand what the optimal way to do this is, and if there’s a better way for them to do that psychologically, that’s fine.” Debt account aversion, for example, refers to the fact that people want to have fewer debt accounts, meaning they are often eager to pay off accounts in full when they can. Some financial advisers suggest that “because they think it’ll get the ball rolling and you’ll be more likely to pay off the next one.” According to Corbin, there isn’t a lot of evidence for that, and sometimes paying everything off at the outset isn’t ideal. For instance, “It is optimal to start thinking about retirement as soon as you can… but if you’re delaying putting money into retirement because you’re so concerned with your student loan debt,” that can be problematic. Still, Corbin understands the appeal of closing debt accounts. “I am risk-averse, which means if I have a debt I’m probably going to put more money toward that debt that I necessarily should given what the interest rates are and what I could potentially make by investing that money instead.” Financially speaking, “There’s a decent likelihood that I should just pay the minimum on my mortgage… [but] I’ve decided I’m willing to trade off those future gains for the peace of mind that if something goes wrong… I’ll be ahead on my mortgage payment.” Even in Exponential Potential, the right choices aren’t always clear-cut. Corbin describes it as a “sandbox approach” where players are given more opportunity to play around. “This is the trickiest game because there’s no perfect answer for anything,” he says. “Everything has risk.”

Another bias that can affect our financial decisions is known as present bias, the tendency to discount the future in favor of the present. Corbin offers the everyday example of staying up too late. “Nighttime Me wants to stay up and read…. Morning Me is going to be really ticked off at Nighttime Me when they’re exhausted and don’t want to get up.” Research suggests that people can have a harder time identifying with their future selves. That can easily affect our financial decisions, too. “I’m going to let future me worry about that. That guy. Whoever that is.” However, “If you can get people to identify more with that person,” they can sometimes make better decisions. Ultimately, “The game isn’t trying to force people to become investment robots.” We are biased for the present because we live in it, and that’s normal. The purpose of the game is simply “to nudge people… to worry just a little more about the future.”

“Money is basically for safety, security, and happiness,” Corbin says. The ultimate objective is to balance needs, wants, and savings to achieve those three goals both in the present and the future.

By Sophie Cox
By Sophie Cox

Poetry and Pedagogy: The Push for Humanities Education in Medicine

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“If language shapes inequitable systems, then their disruption relies in part on our ability to effectively wield language in subversive ways”

Dr. Irène Mathieu, MD
Dr. Mathieu reading from her award-winning 2017 book orogeny 

Buried within a smattering of bullet points and data nuggets, these evocative words flashed across the slide deck of Dr. Irène Mathieu, MD. As Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Virginia School of Medicine and an award-winning poet, Mathieu thinks medical students could benefit from a stronger background in the humanities. Over the course of her guest lecture, “Playing Between the Lines: Poetry by a Pediatrician,” Mathieu dropped many such pieces of wisdom linking the study of language, and more broadly the humanities, with the practice of medicine. She shared this wisdom through a variety of methods, including original poetry, anecdotes from her life, and the latest research into the field of narrative medicine. The lecture was organized by the Trent Center for Bioethics, Humanities, and History of Medicine and hosted by Dr. Sneha Mantri, MD, MS, Assistant Professor of Neurology at Duke University School of Medicine.

Published in 2016 and co-authored by Dr. Charon, “The Principles and Practice of Narrative Medicine” is considered as one of the influential works in the field. 

The field of narrative medicine, hardly twenty years old, can trace its roots to Columbia University, when a group of physicians and scholars, spearheaded by Dr. Rita Charon, MD, PhD, sought to change the discourse surrounding traditional medical training. Emphasizing various humanities-based approaches, narrative medicine seeks to increase the propensity of physicians to perceive strife, uncertainty, and complexity in the pursuit of caring for complex illnesses. In her discussion, Mathieu cited multiple studies that detail the positive impact of an exposure to the humanities on the empathy, wisdom, tolerance for ambiguity, and resistance to burnout in medical students. More recent studies have shown that narrative medicine experimental training programs have similar impacts.

Like many of her contemporaries, Mathieu sees the utility in narrative medicine to impact not only the personal lives of physicians, but also the systems in which they interact. By approaching treatment through the lens of narrative medicine, she believes that physicians can better reimagine health systems into more equitable entities. In her pursuit of greater health equity, Mathieu identified two concepts that every physician should strive to possess: structural competency and critical consciousness. Structural competency, a term coined by her colleagues in an influential 2014 paper, proposes a model of patient engagement that goes beyond the realm of cultural awareness and further into understanding upstream, systemic issues such as zoning laws, food delivery systems, and health insurance. Critical consciousness, the ability to recognize the inherent contradictions and inequities within society, complements the structural competency framework. By consistently engaging in critical reading and reasoning, future physicians will be better able to reflect on the “power, privilege, and the inequities embedded within social relationships”.

While Mathieu recognized the power of narrative medicine, she also acknowledged how poetry has never had its proper place within the prose-heavy field. In her eyes, however, incorporating poetry into narrative medicine frameworks makes a lot of sense. For one, it allows a deeper level of vulnerability and dynamicity that literary fiction and theory cannot provide. More practically, however, poetry tends to err on the shorter side of literature (Mathieu calls them “multisensory micro-stories”), offering a less time-consuming alternative for busy medical students and residents.

For most of Mathieu’s life, her passion for poetry and medicine developed on parallel tracks. It wasn’t until her undergraduate years that she began to think of poetry more externally and started to seek out opportunities for publication. Around the same time, through her work in various global health initiatives, she witnessed the power words and policy can possess over the healthcare needs of entire populations. She identified a need for a humanities education, replete with poetry and theory and fiction, as critical to increasing equity within the healthcare system. When Mathieu assumed her latest role at UVA, on the eve of publishing her third poetry collection, the critically acclaimed Grand Marronage, she was given the opportunity to integrate her poetry within the university medical curriculum. Today, Mathieu has a secondary appointment as Assistant Director of the Program in Health Humanities at UVA’s Center for Health Humanities and Ethics. The parallel pathways of her life had converged.

As Mathieu revealed during her presentation, much of her poetry has little to do with her daily medical practice. Rather, she views poetry more along the lines of an escape. This escape takes the form of a critical reflection, by connecting the quotidian with themes of family and love, excess and presence. Mathieu’s poetry has the rare ability to walk readers through her complete narrative process, from the barest of sensory details to the ambiguities of emotion.

Perhaps there is no more fitting an ending to this article than an invitation to join Mathieu’s narrative world. After all, no amount of prose can substitute for a real poem. Below is a particularly striking excerpt of Mathieu’s artistry from the first stanza of her poem, “the forest fire of family trees”:

the problem is we don't know
that many ways of doing things
for instance, neither of us can
fry an egg without public radio
chattering in our ears, & there
are worse blueprints for a home,
like what my grandfather taught
my uncle. we think we know
people until we see the way
they eat a banana, totally unlike
how we peel and devour the fruit,
only instead of eating a banana
it's something way bigger,
like loving another person.
Post by Vibhav Nandagiri, Class of 2025

On the Intersection of Innovation and Immigration

International students comprise an essential part of the fabric of US colleges.

Their contributions to ongoing campus dialogues, research initiatives, and cross-cultural exchange have improved not only the caliber, but also the relevance of American universities on a global scale. Yet, through a combination of legal challenges and the COVID-19 pandemic, enrollment of international students in the United States declined by 15% from 2020 to 2021.

Logo for The Center for Innovation Policy at Duke Law School, founded in 2013.

This figure was a key motivating factor behind one of the panels at The Evolving Role of Universities in the American Innovation System conference, hosted by The Center for Innovation Policy at Duke Law School on March 3 and 4. The panel, titled “Immigration Policy and the Availability and Cultivation of Talent to Support U.S. Universities’ Missions,” explored the importance of effective immigration policy in fostering a culture of innovation in the United States. Featuring four thought leaders on the intersection of immigration policy and international students, the panel was moderated by Stuart Benjamin, JD, from Duke Law School. 

Esther Brimmer, DPhil, Executive Director and CEO of NAFSA: Association of International Educators

Panelist Esther Brimmer, DPhil. stressed the importance of generating a coordinated national strategy for attracting international students, with the goal of creating an attractive environment for scientific leadership. Scientific fields are the focus because, while international students make up only 5% of total enrollment at US universities, over half of them are employed in STEM fields. Furthermore, in the 2016-2017 Academic Year, 54% of master’s degrees and 44% of doctorate degrees in STEM fields were issued to international students, two figures that have been on the rise in the past decades.

Data from 2019 IIE Open Doors Report. Chart created by World Education Services.

Recent legislation from the Biden-Harris Administration capitalized on the rising relevance of international STEM students by expanding  opportunities for study and bolstering legal protection, a move backed strongly by Brimmer and other immigration policy scholars.

Richard Freeman, PhD, Herbert Ascherman Professor of Economics at Harvard University

Richard Freeman, PhD, followed up Brummer’s points by analyzing the impact of international students on a recent scientific breakthrough: the development of COVID-19 vaccines. Working off of a thesis that the US university serves as a critical global hub for science, technology, and innovation, Freeman focused his analysis on the C-suites, inventors, and clinical trial authors as it pertained to major pharmaceutical firms Moderna, Novavax, Pfizer/BioNTech, Johnson & Johnson, and AstraZeneca/Oxford. Freeman found that US university education was a uniting factor in the backgrounds of most of the leaders and innovators within the vaccine development processes, irrespective of whether they were born in the United States. To propagate the vast US innovation system, Freeman alluded, it was imperative that policymakers develop the necessary frameworks to maintain a pool of international talent.

Caroline Wagner, PhD, Associate Professor at the John Glenn College of Public Affairs at The Ohio State University 

Caroline Wagner, PhD, proceeded to expound upon the critical policy frameworks necessary for enhancing international collaboration at US research universities. She discussed how liberal democracies such as the United States ought to shift their policies in terms of focus, funding, and approach towards research in order to keep pace with a more diffuse and fast-growing international STEM ecosystem. Therefore, research at the university level needed to be better aligned with US national interests on an economic and political level, claimed Wagner. Working off of this claim, the focus of Wagner’s current collaborative project with the Berkeley Research Group Institute is to develop and advise a more deliberate science and technology policy that would balance innovation with the needs of global security.

Dany Bahar, PhD, Associate Professor of Practice of International and Public Affairs at Brown University

Dany Bahar, PhD, rounded out the panel with a discussion of the intersection between migration and innovation, with a specific focus on inventions. Through his research, Bahar identified a class of individuals whom he dubbed Global Mobile Inventors, scholars and inventors who patent multiple novel technologies in a multitude of different countries. As these individuals migrate across borders, they utilize their technical expertise to positively contribute to the economies of each country within which they reside. Upon mapping patent data against migration reform trends, Bahar found that negative migration reforms often stop innovative inventors from moving, leading to a loss of innovation and a lowering of economic output.

Chart visualizing the movements of Global Mobile Inventors between twenty nations from 2015 to 2019. Chart and data obtained from Dany Bahar.

Bahar asserted, in no uncertain terms, that America needs migrants now more than ever before. This powerful statement was met with nods of approval from each panelist, an empowering example of consensus-building from leaders working within a decidedly imperfect university system. However, it was the panelists’ common recognition of institutional shortcomings that laid the groundwork for an especially fruitful discussion, one that will likely play out on the national and international political stage for years to come.

Post by Vibhav Nandagiri, Class of 2025

Quorum Sensing: The Social Network of Bacteria

Dr. Bonnie L. Bassler, the Chair of Molecular Biology at Princeton University, is an advocate for diversity in science.

Bonnie Bassler of Princeton University

Throughout her presentation of the Ingrid Daubechies Lecture on Jan. 31 during Research Week, she emphasized that the diversity of her scientific team allowed every lab member to contribute to different steps of the process of studying quorum sensing, a form of microbial communication. (Watch her talk.)

Bacteria are everywhere. They’re sitting at the tables you sit at, burrowing in the clothes you wear and unfortunately, also crawling around on your skin. For a long time, they’ve had a pretty bad reputation, and for good reason! They have caused plagues that have wiped out masses across the globe, driven up breath mint sales by thriving in your mouth and mutated into every biologist’s Boogeyman when you try to kill them with antibiotics – super bugs!

However, the bacterial redemption arc is also quite compelling. “Good guy” bacteria in the gut help us break down food, produce essential vitamins and also sometimes fight off their evil siblings.

So, good or bad, the impact of bacteria in our daily lives is undeniable. But how does a microscopic little being have the capacity to influence the macroscopic world so greatly?

It doesn’t. At least, not by itself.

Lactococcus lactis is one of the starter bacteria in a cheese culture!

A bacterium never works alone because its strength lies in its numbers! Groupwork and communication (as any Pratt star going through recruiting season will swear to their interviewers) are what make bacteria so powerful. A bacterium by its lonesome will act differently than a bacterium surrounded by its daughters, sisters and cousins (bacterial family tree dynamics can get a little unusual).

Knowing that bacteria optimize their behaviors to work efficiently in a group answers the question of how they are so powerful, but it raises another.

How do bacteria know when they have company?

In a world where social media helps us stay connected, it is easy to take rapid status updates for granted. But for tech-deprived microbial colony, how does one member gauge the population of their surroundings? This question is one that Bassler’s lab answered: with a special chemical compound called autoinducers.

Autoinducers are little chemical signaling molecules that each bacterium sends out into its immediate environment. These molecules allow for quorum sensing, or cell-to-cell communication, to take place among bacteria.

Basic quorum sensing: How bacteria know who’s around them. (Nidhi Srivaths)

Every bacterium senses changes in the concentration of these autoinducers in their surroundings. Sensing a sudden increase in autoinducer concentration will change a bacterium’s gene expression, protein synthesis, and consequently, behavior. It will adapt to group behavior, while a bacterium that senses a drop in autoinducers will adapt to individual behavior.

Bacteria not only sense how many others are around them but also who their neighbors are. Autoinducers are universal to both Gram positive and negative bacteria and are unique to the type of bacteria that produce them.

This provides the bacterium with qualitative information on the population of its surroundings. Are they friends or foes?

Quorum sensing also includes nametags so bacteria can tell friend from foe. (Nidhi Srivaths)

In marine vibrio (a genus of Gram-negative bacteria), Bassler’s lab found that quorum sensing could perform intra-species, intra-genus and inter-species identification. This additional information helps the microbes adjust their behavior – from being friendly and supportive towards their relatives to being aggressive and competitive with their enemies.

Bassler provided a real-world perspective on quorum sensing. One species of the vibrio genus, Vibrio cholerae, is responsible for causing Cholera a deadly food and water-borne disease that has plagued low- and middle-income countries for centuries.

When the cholera bacteria enter the host, they are highly virulent and create a sticky biofilm around themselves that helps them clump into aggregates. Their cell density increases with bacterial division until the bacteria sense a certain concentration of autoinducers. Then their gene expression is modified to reduce virulence and biofilm production and the bacterial gene expression patterns shift to escape mechanisms. The bacteria soon break out in large numbers in search of a new host. (Their human host has voluminous, watery diarrhea in response and that becomes the vector for infecting new hosts.)

While the sequence of events that occurred in a cholera infection was known, the discovery of quorum sensing in V. cholerae opens doors for possible treatments, Bassler said. As bacterial communication sets the cycle of infection and division in motion, interfering with the autoinducers produced or disrupting bacteria’s ability to sense them sets the stage for innovative therapies for several infectious diseases.

Quorum sensing is another step towards understanding the world of the tiny microorganisms that influence our world and Bassler and her team are another example of the incredible research that can come from diverse teams in science.

Post by Nidhi Srivaths, Class of 2024

Medicine Under a Microscope

Duke Research Week 2022 featured a range of speakers from across all disciplines. The Lefkowitz Distinguished Lecture on January 31st highlighted some of our favorite things here at Duke Research Blog: ingenuity and perspective. 

Dr. Huda Yahya Zoghbi’s career spans decades; her Wikipedia page sports an “Awards and Honors” section that takes up my entire computer screen. She is a geneticist, neuroscientist, pediatric neurologist, pharmaceutical executive, and literature lover. Her presentation kicked off 2022 Research Week with a discussion of her work on Rett Syndrome. (View the session)

Rett Syndrome is a rare genetic disorder. The gene that researchers identified as the driver of the syndrome is MeCP2, which is especially active in brain cells. Certain mutations of this one gene can be responsible for a loss of speech, development issues, and persistent fidgeting. 

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The MeCP2 protein. Image: Wikipedia Commons

Children with Rett Syndrome faced chronic misdiagnosis, and even with proper care were limited by a lack of research.

Duke’s Dr. Robert Lefkowitz introduced Zoghbi at the beginning of the seminar and explained how she came to become the leading expert on this relatively unknown disorder. After completing medical school in Beirut in the midst of the ravaging Lebanese Civil War, she came to Texas Children’s Hospital, where she was able to observe and diagnose her first case of the syndrome, a process spurred by a simple interest in a newly-published journal article.

Holistic knowledge of Rett Syndrome is completely dependent on genetic research. A mutation on the MeCP2 gene causes errors in transcription, the reading out of DNA in your cells which leads to the production of proteins.

The mutated gene’s MeCP2 protein is then lacking the ability to do its job, which is helping other genes be expressed, or actively transcribed.

It’s a vicious cycle; like when you go to sleep late one night, so you sleep in the next day, then go to sleep late the next night, then sleep in the next day, and so forth.

In order to simulate and measure the effect of different kind of mutations on the MeCP2 gene, Zoghbi and her team studied genetically modified mice. While Rett Syndrome is caused by a lack of MeCP2 function, an overactive MeCP2 gene causes MeCP2 duplication syndrome. Varying degrees of gene efficiency then produce varying degrees of severity in the syndrome’s traits, with fatality at either end of the curve.  

Varying degrees of phenotype severity.

Zoghbi’s talk focused mainly on the mechanics of the disorder on a genetic level, familiar territory to both Nobel Laureate Lefkowitz and Duke Medicine Dean Mary Klotman, who shared some discussion with Zoghbi.

This medicine on a microscale is applicable to treating genetic disorders, not just identifying them. Zoghbi has been able to experimentally correct MeCP2 duplication disorder in mice by modifying receptors in a way that reverses the effects of the disorder.

The symptoms of Rett Syndrome are physical; they present themselves as distinct phenotypes of a subtle difference in genotype that’s too small to see. The field of genetics in medicine is responsible for making that connection.

Post by Olivia Ares, Class 2025

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Introducing Muser – A Better Way to Find Student Research

An effortlessly simple research platform where Duke students and Duke research projects can connect? Yes, please!

If you are anything like me, Duke University’s incredible research opportunities were extremely enticing when considering this school. One of the top 10 research institutions in the United States, Duke University’s research community spends over 1 billion dollars annually to fund its projects, which includes notable research facilities like the Duke Center for Human Genetics, the Duke Cancer Institute, the Duke Center for AIDS Research, and the Duke Human Vaccine Institute.

However, the amount of opportunity in this area can be overwhelming to approach, and as a student you often have no clue where to start.

Summer undergraduate research in cancer biology at the Duke University School of Medicine.

That’s where Muser comes in.

Duke introduces: Muser.com

Muser is a website created by Sheila Patek, a Duke biology professor who used grant money from the National Science Foundation to create a more equitable and straightforward way to connect undergraduates with professors with research opportunities. The resource allows researchers to post ongoing research positions with a direct application through the website.

Muser can sort research projects by compensation, hours, year, and project category, simplifying Duke’s incredibly complex research community by a lot.

“Muser posts research projects in 4 rounds throughout the year, a Fall round (August), a late Fall round for Spring projects (October/November), a Spring round for Summer projects (February/March), and a Spring round for Fall projects (March/April),” according to its website. Muser makes it easy to accommodate research positions into the part of your semester that works with your busy schedule.

I connected with some Duke students who have found success with the growing research platform, and though their interests were diverse, the success was all-encompassing.

“My experience with my Muser Project for the summer of 2021 was great overall,” said Elaijah Lapay, class of 2025. “It was essentially a history research assistantship helping a professor in the history department conduct research on elderly and eldercare in North Carolina. I was able to go to the NC State archives as well as archives across eastern North Carolina to really dive into the question of treatment of the elderly during the 20th century.”

Lapay’s research is so fruitful that the professor, James Chappel, the Gilhuly Family Associate Professor of History, is continuing to pursue this project for the rest of the school year. “I truly felt one-of-a-kind… I definitely feel like I’ve learned a lot and it’s sparked a passion in me for geriatrics and eldercare.”

A look inside Dr. Laurie Sanders’s lab here at Duke University.

“I got the chance to work in the Sanders lab under principal investigator Dr. Laurie Sanders and post-doctorate Dr.Claudia Gonzalez-Hunt!” said Shreya Goel, class of 2025. This lab was the first to link a genetic mutation to mitochondrial DNA damage which was ultimately discovered to be a marker for sporadic Parkinson’s disease.

“I get to work with human cells to induce and track mitochondrial and nuclear DNA mutations to determine their effect on the progression of the cell cycle,” Goel said. Her research position is making a difference and it allows her to gain tangible experience in a field she is passionate about.

The success stories are copious, and the opportunity that this platform has brought to prodigious students like these is without question.

At a billion-dollar research school, understanding where to begin can be intimidating. Muser alleviates these worries by connecting researchers and students through an accessible platform.

Have more questions? Visit Muser’s FAQ page to get more information and get into contact with one of Muser’s staff.

Post by Skylar Hughes
Class of 2025

C is For Cookie (and for Circles of Care)

Anyone remember the Sesame Street episode where Big Bird tackles the opioid crisis?

Me neither. However, that isn’t to say that Sesame Street isn’t doing its part to help parents and children alike to cope with this, among other pressing issues that plague our society.

Jeanette Betancourt, Ed. D. is Senior Vice President for U.S. Social Impact at Sesame Workshop, a division of the Sesame Street organization striving to positively impact children’s early learning, health, and well-being. Betancourt is deeply involved in the Sesame Street in Communities initiative (ssic.org), which she came to discuss with the Sanford School of Public Policy on January 18th.

Sesame Street in Communities aims to bring public awareness to prominent societal issues in what Betancourt labels a “non-stigmatizing way.” Their efforts are specifically targeted to impact children coping with traumatic experiences and their families – resources on the Sesame Street in Communities website span from Elmo’s Special-Special Comfort video for children who have fallen victim to violence, to Abby’s Expressing Feelings video for children divided between divorced parents.

Not all the videos are as heavy as one might think: some of the content promotes behavioral routines, such as tooth-brushing or schedule-making, designed to build children a more stable foundation that they can use to tackle trauma, should it arise.

Some of the most recent resources posted to the Sesame Street in Communities website.

Betancourt says that their strategy hinges heavily upon leveling, or presenting the same messaging in a variety of mediums (videos, storybooks, live-action films), for more complete comprehension. This is reflected heavily on their website: their Autism series alone includes multiple workshops, printables, articles, videos, interactives, and storybooks. The content and learning strategies promoted by Sesame Street in Communities are all founded upon clinical research, developmental psychology, and other forms of testing to ensure that they have a measurable impact on young children and their families.

Sesame Street' Introduces 2 New Black Muppets To Teach Kids About Racial  Literacy | CafeMom.com
Wes and Elijah Walker, the faces of the Coming Together: Racial Justice project.

One of the most recent initiatives described by Betancourt is the Coming Together: Racial Justice project. In this series of content (found on ssic.org), the viewer is introduced to the Wes and Elijah Walker, two humanoid Muppets that, according to Betancourt, are intended to represent the Black experience.

In the video, five-year old Wes and his father Elijah are sitting in the park when they are approached by Elmo, who wants to know about the pigmentation of their skin. Elijah explains to Elmo that all humans have different amounts of melanin in their skin, hence why some individuals have lighter or darker skin. Elijah also tells Elmo that, even though their skin may look different, “we’re all part of the human race.”

To make this concept easier for children to understand, Elijah connects this to the color of the changing leaves in the park, telling Elmo that leaves of different colors all came from the same tree.

If you know a child or a family that could benefit from such materials, more information can be found on ssic.org.

Post by Rebecca Williamson, Class of 2022

Duke University Energy Week Part 1: The Energy Conference

Organized by students with support from the Duke University Energy Initiative and the Center for Energy, Development, and the Global Environment (EDGE) at The Fuqua School of Business, the 2021 Energy Week at Duke brought together business and technology leaders within the energy industry to provide audience members insight into the industry’s future.

The focal point of this article will be the Energy Conference, which occurred on November 10. If you’re curious about the future of clean energy within North Carolina, my colleague at the Duke Research Blog, Nhu Bui (Class of 2024), wrote a fascinating piece on the Energy Innovation Showcase.

Duke Energy Conference Organizing Team (photo by Jacob Hervey)

Over the course of eight hours, the Conference schedule alternated between a series of keynote addresses and fireside chats. The latter centered around a particular topical focus; each chat involved a faculty moderator and three industry experts whose organizations lie at the cutting edge of the climate transition within the private sector. In addition to the moderator’s questions, conference participants were invited to ask questions about the visions and innovations of their company.

The first fireside chat – Energy Transition Plans, Projects, and Pathways – broadly centered around the decarbonization of the energy industry. The speakers were Mallik Angalakudati, SVP of Strategy & Innovation at Washington Gas, Kirsten Knoepfle-Thorne, General Manager of Strategy at Chevron, and Jon Rodriguez, Energy Business Director of Engine Power Plants at Wartsila. All three acknowledged their companies’ traditional reliance on fossil fuels and stressed the need for emissions reduction moving into the future. The avenues each company was pursuing to reach this end varied considerably from green hydrogen to battery energy storage systems to carbon capture.

The second chat – Renewable Transportation – sought to highlight the latest innovations of firms within the burgeoning electric vehicle (EV) market. The panel consisted of Liz Finnegan (Fuqua ’17), Electric Vehicle Infrastructure and Energy at Rivian, Pei-Wen Hsu (Fuqua ’97), Global EV Marketing Director at Ford, and Kameale Terry, Co-Founder and CEO of ChargerHelp!. From launching new vehicles to servicing software breakdowns at charging stations across the nation, these speakers brought a wealth of perspectives to a high-growth market. They reinforced the certainty and necessity of mass consumer adoption of EV innovations, offering multiple roadmaps for the coming decades in transportation technologies.

Speakers from second fireside chat engaging with audience (photo by Jacob Hervey)

The third chat – Investing in Climate Tech Solutions – addressed the financial side of climate tech solutions. The speakers were Nneka Kibuule, SVP at Aligned Climate Capital, Lisa Krueger, President of US Operations at AES, and Sophie Purdom, co-founder of Climate Tech VC and an early-stage investor. Each speaker targeted climate solutions at different developmental stages, from early-stage ventures to companies ready for their IPOs. Taken as a whole, their firms reflected the robust nature of the financial ecosystem available to aspiring climate entrepreneurs and firms.

The three fireside chats engaged a number of angles through which the private sector can collectively curb climate change. As lab-developed technologies reach sufficient scale, the efficacy of climate solutions depend not solely on the quality of the innovation, but rather the quality of their implementation.

The conference conveniently coincided with the final few days of the COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow, Scotland. As policy leaders half a world away wrangled over the minutiae of coal usage and climate financing, it became clear that a different sort of conversation was taking place on our campus. By engaging with the Energy Conference, even the most ardent skeptics of climate change progress would find it hard to deny the tangible shift in priorities that have occurred over the past few years. The prioritization of environmental concerns by the energy industry is now a given. The bigger question to consider is whether their plans and promises are sufficient to avert climate disaster.

Post by Vibhav Nandagiri, Class of 2025

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