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

Category: Science Communication & Education Page 1 of 20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Montgomery spoke in the Penn Pavilion at Duke.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I aspire to hope,” she says.

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

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

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

Post by Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

Dr. Laura Richman is Defining Health by its Social Determinates

Sticky post

In 2010, the Affordable Care Act sparked a nationwide debate on the extent of responsibility the American government has over our healthcare. But Dr. Laura Richman has been asking that question since long before that. 

Richman is a health psychologist. “I examine psychosocial factors that have an impact on health behaviors and health outcomes,” she explains, sitting across from me at the Law School café. (Neither of us were wearing a cardigan. It was rather hot outside). 

Laura Richman Ph.D. is an associate professor in population health sciences. (image: Scholars@Duke)

Richman is an associate professor at Duke in the Population Health Sciences, an associate of the Duke Initiative for Science & Society, and, coincidentally, my professor in the Science & the Public FOCUS cluster. She co-teaches the course Science, Law, and Policy with Dr. Yousef Zafar, in which we examine the social determinants of health through the lens of cancer screening, diagnosis, and treatment.

After graduating from the University of Virginia in 1997 with a Ph.D. in social psychology, Richman worked at a sort of think-tank for health professionals collaborating on social issues. This inspired her to pursue health research through the lens of social determinants.

“There was a lot of work on substance use, on mental health, on behavioral disorders. That certainly contributed to my continued interest in factors that have an influence on these [health] outcomes,” she said. 

Continuing in this work, she became a research associate at the School of Public Health at Harvard University; Richman described her time at Harvard as “exciting,” which is not a word used by many to describe empirical research environments. “Certainly there’s that really robust relationship between low income, low education, low job status and poor health outcomes, but a lot of those pathways— like the ones we talk about in class, Olivia— had not been studied.” 

She’s referring to the public health concept of ‘upstream’ and ‘downstream’ solutions. (The river parable goes as follows: when you observe a trend in people drowning in a certain river, you are presented with different ways of solving the problem. You can start pulling people out of the river and saving them one at a time, which is called a “downstream” solution in public health. You can also prevent people from falling into the river, which is called an “upstream” solution.)

(courtesy of SaludAmerica!)

Richman’s professional research explores another crucial social determinant of health we discussed in class: perceived versus actual discrimination. She asked whether marginalization — objectively or subjectively — can affect functioning, “both psychologically and cognitively. Like, how does it affect their thought processes? Their decision-making? Then, how does that affect their health?” You can read her study here

One thing I noted immediately was Richman’s affinity for creative research design. In a lab she headed at Duke, she conducted one experiment with a student that tested the aforementioned effect of marginalization on health decisions. They provided subjects with a choice between unhealthy and healthy snack options after watching a video of, reading a passage about, or imagining members of their community experience discrimination.

In one study we read for Science, Law, and Policy, the stress effect of discrimination towards Arabic-named individuals after 9/11 was measured through the birth outcomes of Arabic-named mothers pregnant during that time. When I asked her about this, she said, “Particularly working with students, I think that they just bring so much energy and creativity to the research. Surveys serve their purpose — I think they’re really important, but I think there are just lots of opportunities to do more with research designs and research questions. I like trying to approach things from a different angle.” 

Richman is also working on a book. She is studying relational health — health as determined by the opioid epidemic, the obesity crisis, and social isolation associated with aging. She hopes her project will be used in classrooms (and by the interested layman), and that the value of social determinants of health is reflected in increased funding dollars, more people interested in health disparities, more focus in medical education on the screening and referral system, and stimulating dialogue among people in positions of power on a policy level.

Post by Olivia Ares, Class of 2025

Deep Conversations Put the ‘Care’ in Healthcare

Sticky post

The Duke Medical Ethics Journal (DMEJ) is a golden opportunity to listen to the ways the world around me hurts and heals. It means asking questions – who is being marginalized in my communities? Where is the injustice in my community? What can I do about it? And when these questions feel too big and too heavy, DMEJ means having a community of mentors, friends, and soul-strengtheners to ask the questions with me. Some of my most cherished experiences at Duke since freshman year have been those rooted in exploring the humanities.

Engaging with the field of ethics through the Kenan Institute of Ethics Living Learning Community as well leading the Duke Medical Ethics Journal (DMEJ) has given me a strong appreciation for the utilization of humanities in healthcare.

Before I saw the Spring 2021 DMEJ edition come together, I never realized how deeply identity could influence health. I had always thought of peoples’ identity in terms of cultural identity, not enough in terms of fertility or neurodiversity, until I read the pieces written by my fellow DMEJ writers. I realized more than ever that healthcare at its deepest level is not just about the biomedical model but it’s also about care, care for the values the lives of its practitioners and patients.

COVID-19 has also naturally brought up questions on the importance of mask-wearing, social distancing, and now, vaccinating. Though most students interested in entering the healthcare field typically fall on one side of the argument, it is safe to say that all of us had to take up more responsibility for ourselves and for others. What does it take to do what is right? The ethics (and effort!) surrounding this responsibility makes for deep conversations puts the “care” in healthcare. And these deep conversations are what DMEJ is all about.

Our upcoming issue, winter 2021, will be about the post-covid era. What does a return to normalcy even mean in an age where normal has been changed forever? And two of our bloggers have already written deeply affecting pieces on post pandemic mental health. To stay up to date on what DMEJ is up to, subscribe to our listserv. We’re always looking for more voices to join our conversation. 🙂

Guest post by Sibani Ram, Class of 2023

How To Hold a Bee and Not Get Stung

Sticky post
Pictured from left to right are Lindsey Weyant, Andrew McCallum, and Will Marcus.

On Saturday, September 25, the Wild Ones club hosted an insect-themed outing with Fred Nijhout, an entomology professor at Duke. We visited a pond behind the Biological Sciences Building bordered by vegetation. Apparently, the long grasses and flowers are prime habitat for insects, which are often attracted to sunny areas and edge habitat. Along with several other students, I practiced “sweeping” for insects by swishing long nets through vegetation, a delightfully satisfying activity, especially on such a gorgeous fall day.

A species of skipper feeding on a flower. According to Fred Nijhout, the best way to distinguish butterflies (including skippers) from moths is by looking for knobbed antennae, characteristic of butterflies but not moths.

Professor Nijhout says much of his research focuses on butterflies and moths, but the insect biology class he teaches has a much broader focus. So does this outing. In just a couple hours, our group finds a wide array of species.

A milkweed bug (left) and a soldier beetle, two of the species we saw on Sunday.

Many of the insects we see belong to the order Hemiptera, a group sometimes referred to as “true bugs” that includes more than 80,000 species. We find leafhoppers that jump out of our nets while we’re trying to look at them, a stilt-legged bug that moves much more gracefully on its long legs than I ever could on stilts, spittlebugs that encase themselves in foam as larvae and then metamorphose into jumping adults sometimes called froghoppers, and yet another Hemipteran with a wonderfully whimsical name (just kidding): the plant bug.

Professor Nijhout shows us a milkweed leaf teeming with aphids (also in the order Hemiptera) and ants. He explains that this is a common pairing. Aphids feed on the sap in leaf veins, which is nutrient-poor, so “they have special pumps in their guts that get rid of the water and the sugars” and concentrate the proteins. In the process, aphids secrete a sugary substance called honeydew, which attracts ants.

The honeydew excreted as a waste product by the aphids provides the ants with a valuable food source, but the relationship is mutualistic. The presence of the ants affords protection to the aphids. Symbiosis, however, isn’t the only means of avoiding predation. Some animals mimic toxic look-alikes to avoid being eaten. Our group finds brightly colored hoverflies, which resemble bees but are actually harmless flies, sipping nectar from flowers. Professor Nijhout also points out a brightly colored milkweed bug, which looks toxic because it is.

Sixteen species of hoverfly, all of which are harmless. Note that hoverflies, like all flies, have only one pair of wings, whereas bees have two.
Image from Wikipedia user Alvesgaspar (GNU Free Documentation License, Creative Commons license).

Humans, too, can be fooled by things that look dangerous but aren’t. As it turns out, even some of our most basic ideas about risk avoidance—like not playing with bees or eating strange berries—are sometimes red herrings. When we pass clusters of vibrant purple berries on a beautyberry bush, Professor Nijhout tells us they’re edible. “They’re sweet,” he says encouragingly. (I wish I could agree. They’re irresistibly beautiful, but every time I’ve tasted them, I’ve found them too tart.) And on several occasions, to the endless fascination of the Wild Ones, he catches bees with his bare hands and offers them to nearby students. Male carpenter bees (which can be identified by the patch of yellow on their faces) have no stinger, and according to Professor Nijhout, their mandibles are too weak to penetrate human skin. It’s hard not to flinch at the thought of holding an angry bee, but there’s a certain thrill to it as well. When I cup my hands around one of them, I find the sensation thoroughly pleasant, rather like a fuzzy massage. The hard part is keeping them from escaping; it doesn’t take long for the bee to slip between my hands and fly away.

Professor Nijhout in his element, about to capture a male carpenter bee (below) by hand.

The next day, I noticed several bees feeding on a flowering bush on campus. Eager to test my newfound knowledge, I leaned closer. Even when I saw the telltale yellow faces of the males, I was initially hesitant. But as I kept watching, I felt more wonder than fear. For perhaps the first time, I noticed the way their buzzy, vibrating bodies go momentarily still while they poke their heads into blossoms in search of the sweet nectar inside. Their delicate wings, blurred by motion when they fly, almost shimmer in the sunlight while they feed.

Gently, I reached out and cupped a male bee in my hands, noticing the way his tiny legs skittered across my fingers and the soft caress of his gossamer wings against my skin. When I released him, his small body lifted into the air like a fuzzy UFO.

I realize this new stick-my-face-close-to-buzzing-bees pastime could backfire, so I don’t necessarily recommend it, especially if you have a bee allergy, but if you’re going to get face-to-face with a carpenter bee, you might at least want to check the color of its face.

Damla Ozdemir, a member of the Wild Ones, with a giant cockroach in Professor Nijhout’s classroom.

If you could hold all the world’s insects in one hand and all the humans in the other, the insects would outweigh us. More than 900,000 species of insects have been discovered, and there may be millions more still unknown to science. Given their abundance and diversity, even the experts often encounter surprises.“Every year I see things I’ve never seen before,” Professor Nijhout told us. Next time you step outside, take a closer look at your six-legged company. You might be surprised by what you see.

By Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

New Blogger Nidhi Srivaths: Attracted by Words

Before I moved to the U.S, the concept of a “Starbucks name” was foreign to me, but after six cups of coffee that read everything from “Nemo” to just an unintelligible scrawl, I understood the need for it. Back home in India, my name was quite common, but having to repeat myself multiple times only to still be misheard made suddenly made feel unusually unique.

Speech can often be tricky, and growing up in a family that speaks four languages interchangeably, I’ve always been acutely aware of that. Missing a tongue roll on the word for “tell” in Kannada makes it dinner-table inappropriate, and a small vowel slip in Telugu can completely alter conversational context. I lived in India’s objectively best city, Hyderabad, that has its special version of Hindi, which was unacceptable in conversation with my mother’s own dialect. Language was thus the most unique part of my upbringing, and the unconventionally twisted sentences that combined the vocabulary of two languages and the grammar of another are characteristic of my childhood.

Raised amidst the chaotic storm of my family’s polyglotism, I found my shelter under the pages of books. Writing soon became a beautiful structure of stability for me, and the decisiveness of ink on paper drew me to it. At first, I began to read simply because I loved dragging my finger across the smooth finish of my brother’s gigantic encyclopedia but soon my childish captivation with the book turned to fascination with its contents. I loved hunting for and sounding out difficult words, and my favorite ones would always be the scientific terms.

So, the world of science was the logical next destination.

My strange love for the word “bioluminescence” led me to the ocean, and for months, I dreamed of glowing plankton and starfish. When “constellation” caught my fancy, I spent years imagining myself flying through the vast expanse of outer space, journeying to the very ends of the universe as an astronaut. From the cozy confines of my bedroom, I traversed through Egyptian ruins with “pharaoh”, Norse myths with “valkyrie” and dinosaur dig sites with “paleontology.” Finally, it was an anatomy book that bound me to the world of healthcare and the human body, and my brother’s weekly technology magazine that pulled me towards automation, before I settled on the middle ground I now love – biomedical engineering. Now a sophomore majoring in BME and ECE, I learn new words every day!

Scientific innovations and advancements are often looked at as difficult to understand, discouraging many from learning more about them. But science is embedded in every facet of our daily lives, and I believe it is essential (now, more than ever!) that its literature and progress become more accessible and understandable. As a child, it was the simple, clear and concise language of informal blogs and books that convinced me that I belonged in the fields I read about, and as a blogger, I want to convince many more that the world of science is well within their reach! Fancy terms like glycolysis may seem daunting, but everything can be broken down and made simpler (in this case, quite literally!). Blogging for Duke Research, I hope to meet trailblazers, learn and write about research that fascinates me, and make it accessible to more people. Along the way, I want to introduce the next inquisitive little girl to the exotic word that feeds her imagination, propelling her into the world of science!

However, beyond my selfless mission of spreading the good word of science and technology far and wide, I recently found a new, far more relatable reason to love writing – I don’t need a Starbucks name! It’s a lot easier to just tell you my name is Nidhi.

Post by Nidhi Srivaths, Class of 2024

Carrying On a Legacy of “Whimsical” Gardening

A contorted hardy orange tree (Poncirus trifoliata) in the Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden. The brightly colored structures in the background are pollinator houses.

On Wednesday, September 15, the Sarah P. Duke Gardens hosted a drop-in event in the Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden, an area near the main entrance with a focus on organic and sustainable gardening. This part of Duke Gardens is almost ten years old, but Wednesday’s event, led by curator Jason Holmes and horticulturist Nick Schwab, showcased what makes it unique.

The entrance to the Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden is marked by a lovely arbor draped with vines. Inside, the winding paths are lined with flowers, fruiting trees, and beds of herbs and vegetables. Bees and butterflies flit here and there, bright against the rainy sky.

Holmes finds me admiring a display of carnivorous plants. He introduces himself and shows me around.

Flirting with danger: a fly perches on a Venus flytrap. The Venus flytrap is a carnivorous plant native only to parts of the Carolinas.

One of the first things I notice is the array of pollinator houses scattered amongst flowers and attached to wooden structures. Many plants rely on pollinators to reproduce, and the pollinator houses can help attract native species like mason bees and leaf-cutter wasps, but Holmes says they have another purpose as well: bringing awareness to the importance of pollinators.

Along with the pollinator houses, which are designed to attract native bees, the Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden has beehives for honey bees. Though honey bees are not originally native to the New World, they are important pollinators, and their populations are declining. Like many native bees, honey bees are threatened in part by habitat loss and pesticide use, but gardeners and landowners can help.

The Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden is only about an acre in size, but exploring it feels like walking through a museum, a new exhibit around every corner. Over here, raised beds of hot peppers, organized by level of spiciness. (“I don’t do spicy,” says Holmes, but even Schwab, who has sampled the garden’s hottest peppers, tells me he often finds the less spicy ones to be more enjoyable.) Over there, clusters of pumpkins. Despite the steamy day, the pumpkins are a reminder that fall is coming. I’ve been noticing subtle hints of fall for weeks—brisk mornings, breezes that send dry leaves skittering across pavement—but despite these tantalizing harbingers of autumn, some days still seem distinctly summery. As it turns out, this garden is experiencing a similar transition.

A recipe for “Peri-Peri Sauce” within a display of hot peppers. Peppers are common in many cuisines, but they are originally native to tropical America.

Holmes and Schwab, along with other dedicated gardeners, are in the process of phasing out summer vegetables like okra, melons, cucumbers, zucchini, and eggplant and planting crops like cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower in anticipation of cooler weather.

Change is something of a constant in the garden. Holmes likes to tell everyone who works with him that “every day’s going to be different.” When I ask if he has a favorite season in the garden, Holmes mentions two: “I love the cool-down of fall, and I love the rebirth of spring.” As for winter, Holmes describes it as a period of much-needed rest—for both the garden and the gardeners.

Potted succulents and clusters of bright orange pumpkins add to the garden’s whimsical feel.

The Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden is a fully functioning garden, donating most of its produce to the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina, but it is also a space for discovery. Since its inception in 2012, the garden has sought to foster curiosity about gardening and the natural world.

The garden also houses a chicken coop, which Holmes says is constructed out of recycled materials from local factories. Holmes picks up a white silkie chicken, holding her gently before prompting her to join the others in the enclosure outside. He tells me she’s acting “broody,” exhibiting a tendency to behave as though she is incubating eggs.

Jason Holmes with one of the chickens. Holmes also cares for chickens at his home, but not because he wants to eat their eggs. He considers them “companions” instead.

When I ask Holmes about Charlotte Brody, he describes a woman who lived in Kinston, North Carolina, and invited kids to her home to learn about organic gardening and discover its joys for themselves. Holmes says Brody had a “whimsical, free approach” to gardening.

“Whimsical” describes this garden well. Tiny, orange spheres dangling from bushes. A tree frog peering out from a pollinator house. Hand-written signs nestled amongst peppers, offering recipes for “Peri-Peri Sauce” and “Hot Honey.” Everything from cacti to chickens to oranges coexisting peacefully in the same garden.

Before I leave, I linger under the arbor. The sun streams through the dome above me. The frog is still hiding in the same pollinator house as before. Looking around, I see more than a small garden. I see the legacy of a woman who devoted her time to gardening joyfully and sustainably and teaching others to do the same.

The arbor at the entrance to the Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden. Despite the rain earlier in the afternoon, the sun had come out again by the time I left.

Jason Holmes, Nick Schwab, and the many workers and volunteers who have put their time and effort into this garden are continuing that legacy. Holmes hopes that visitors will find inspiration here, whatever that means to them. I know I did, and next time I come back, I’ll wander the paths and notice the changing seasons, ready to be inspired again.

By Sophia Cox, Class of 2025

New Blogger Vibhav Nandagiri: The Curious Student Blogger

Hey everyone! My name is Vibhav Nandagiri, I use he/him/his pronouns, and I’m currently a first-year student at Duke. Amidst the sea of continuous transition brought upon by college, one area of my identity that has stayed fairly constant is my geography. I’ve lived in North Carolina for sixteen of my eighteen years, and my current home lies just twenty minutes from campus in sunny, suburban Cary, NC.

The two missing years are accounted for through my adventures in my parents’ hometown–Hyderabad, India–as a toddler. Spending some of my earliest years surrounded by a large and loving family impacted my life profoundly, forever cementing a strong connection to my emotional, cultural, and linguistic roots.

The latter had a secondary impact on me, one I wouldn’t discover until my parents enrolled me in preschool after returning to the States. With hubris, I marched into my first day of class, ready to seize the day, until I soon discovered an uncomfortable fact: I couldn’t speak English. I am told through some unfortunate stories that I struggled considerably during my first month in a new, Anglicized environment; however, I soon learned the quirks of this language, and two-year-old me, perhaps realizing that he had some catching up to do, fully immersed himself in the English language.

Nowadays, I read quite a bit. Fiction and journalism, academic and satire, I firmly believe that all styles of literature play a role in educating people on the ebbs and flows of our world. In recent years, I’ve developed a thematic fascination with the future. The genre of far-future science fiction, with its rich exploration of hypothetical advanced societies, has led me to ask pressing questions about the future of the human species. How will society organize itself politically? What are the ethical implications of future medical advancements? Will we achieve a healthy symbiosis with technology? As a Duke Research Blogger, I hope to find answers to these questions while getting a front-row, multidisciplinary seat to what the future has to offer. It’s an invigorating opportunity to grow as a writer and communicator, to have my curiosity piqued on a weekly basis, to understand the futuristic visions of innovators at the top of their field.

Prior to Duke, I had the opportunity to conduct research at the Appalachian State University Pediatric Exercise and Physiology Lab, where I co-authored a published paper about adolescent fat metabolism. Not only was I introduced to the academic research process, but I also learned the importance of communicating my findings clearly through writing and presentations. I intend to bring these valuable lessons and perspectives to the Duke Research Blog.

Beyond exercise science, I am intrigued by a diverse range of research areas, from Public Health to Climate Change to Business to Neuroscience, the latter of which I hope to explore further through the Cognitive Neuroscience and Law FOCUS. I was drawn to the program for the opportunity to build strong relationships with professors and investigators; I intend to approach my work at the Duke Research Blog with a similar keenness to listen and connect with researchers and readers alike. When I’m not reading or typing away furiously at my computer, you can find me hitting on the tennis courts, singing Choral or Indian Classical music, or convincing my friends that my music taste is better than theirs.

Post By Vibhav Nandagiri, Class of 2025

New Blogger Nhu Bui: Discovering Science Communication

My name is Nhu Bui, pronounced “New Buoy.” I’m a sophomore from Cypress, Texas hoping to major in Environmental Science & Policy and English (that’s only two, I promise), and I’m thrilled to join the Duke Research Blog team.

Thanh-Nhu Bui, Nhu for short

I’ve loved science ever since I could waddle into my backyard to catch ladybugs and earthworms. For the longest time, I was convinced I was going to be a zookeeper, or maybe a veterinarian – anything that would allow me to work with animals. (I also toyed with the idea of becoming a physician, treating the most ferocious of creatures.) But I also knew that reading and writing were my fortes and that I was always happier in a library than in a laboratory. 

In high school, I joined the speech and debate team. My primary (and favorite) event was informative speaking: 10 minutes of educational entertainment on a topic of choice. I always chose to speak on environmental issues – from bees to coral reefs – and I loved it. The event was my perfect storm of science and communications… so imagine my excitement upon entering college and discovering that science communication is a whole thing.

Some highlights of my informative visual aids

With the blog, I hope to be able to discover new interests and explore my intrigues across the wide world of research at Duke University. But most importantly, I hope to be able to hone my craft. Effective science communication is more crucial than ever; issues like climate change and vaccination impact every aspect of life, but the public’s view of science is mired in perceptions of bias and manipulation. While science and politics are inextricable, trust and awareness are critical for a functioning society.

Of course, constantly questioning the world is also critical – it’s the foundation of scientific discovery – but as with everything, it’s all about balance. Who knows where that balance is? I’m still looking for it myself, but I’m hoping that joining the Duke Research Blog will help me on the way. 

Keeping a respectful distance while admiring monkeys.

Outside of my love for science and writing, here are the most important things to know about me: my favorite movies are Paddington 1 and 2 (can’t choose), my top genre on Spotify is show tunes (I’ve never done theater), and I once walked through a Whataburger drive-thru (it’s a Texas thing). 

Thanks for getting to know me, and I hope to see you back on the blog soon!

Post by Nhu Bui, Class of 2024

New Blogger Sophie Cox: Keep Asking Questions

Typing with one hand, especially my left hand, is not easy, but my right hand is currently occupied by freeze-dried mealworms and, momentarily, by a chittering wild bird.

My eagle-eyed supervisor is a Carolina wren, South Carolina’s official state bird.

“You have babies, don’t you?” I mutter as a small, brown bird with a white eyestripe wraps her long toes around my fingers.

She doesn’t answer–she never does–but she flutters repeatedly to my socked feet and from there to my hand, where she selects a mealworm and then flies to a flower box on my neighbor’s mailbox.

This bird and her mate are the pair of Carolina wrens who have spent the past year training me to hand-feed them. Life hack: if you’re being cornered by wild birds every time you step outside, I suggest keeping a bag of dried mealworms in your pocket.

I want to investigate the flower box, but I don’t want to betray the trust I’ve worked so hard to build. Instead, I wait until my little friend finishes her ritual before approaching the mailbox.

Among the fake hydrangea blossoms, I see a scruffy head poking out. Judging by its size, the youngster looks about ready to leave the nest. With a smile, I turn and walk away.

Along with observing wildlife, I enjoy reading, writing, playing board games, and spending time outside.

My name is Sophie, and I’m a freshman at Duke. At home in upstate South Carolina, I can often be found smearing fruity, fermenting moth bait onto tree trunks at dusk or curled up in a hammock swing with a good book while the Carolina wrens do their best to distract me.

They each have their own personalities (which is partly how I tell them apart), but both birds strike me as curious and even intelligent.

Lately, I’ve been wondering if Carolina wrens belong on the growing list of animals believed to possess theory of mind, the ability to understand mental states and to recognize that others’ thoughts and beliefs can differ from one’s own.

I have always associated the natural world with a sense of wonder that borders on enchantment.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I plan to major in biology. My lifelong aspiration to study science hasn’t faded, but science should be accessible to everyone, scientists or not. That is partly why I want to work for Duke’s research blog.

If the coronavirus pandemic has taught us anything, it’s the importance of having access to accurate information we can trust. Too often, data is manipulated and obscured, twisting facts and turning science into a political minefield. That should never be acceptable. My favorite news
sources are those that effectively bridge the gap between academia and the general public, providing information that is digestible and engaging without sacrificing scientific integrity.

Judging by the articles I have read, Duke’s research blog has a similar mission, and it’s a mission I firmly believe in.

Science is full of unanswered questions. At its simplest, my goal for the future is the same as it was ten years ago: to answer some of those questions.

This summer, I worked as a counselor and nature instructor at a residential summer camp. Campers often approached me throughout the day to enthusiastically describe their encounters with click beetles, squirrels, and frogs. I saw in their eyes the same exhilaration I feel when the Carolina wrens’ amber eyes meet mine or when a shimmery, pale golden moth flutters across my pajamas and then disappears soundlessly into the night, as beautiful and ephemeral as a
moonbeam.

One young boy, a seven-year-old who reminded me of myself at his age, was fascinated by my field guide to insects and spiders of North America. Again and again, he’d point to an insect or spider or worm, then hand the field guide to me and wait for me to find the right page. At one point, he even retrieved the book from my backpack. I don’t know if he could read, but he knew what the book was for, and he cared. He could neither hear nor speak, but maybe, in the end, it didn’t matter. You don’t need words to flip over stones and marvel at the life hidden beneath.

People want scientific knowledge. Studying science — and not just as scientists — brings us so tantalizingly close to the mysterious, the undiscovered, the unknown. Science is more than petri dishes, graphs, and Latin jargon. It is a world full of questions waiting to be asked. In my own scientific writing, mostly in the form of nature journals, I strive to be methodical but not impersonal. My goal as a blogger is similar: to be accurate and objective without sacrificing the mystery and excitement that makes science so engaging to begin with.

After college, I hope to pursue ecological field research. In the meantime, I’ll keep exploring. I’ll keep flipping over stones. I’ll keep talking to the wrens, even if they never talk back, and wondering what they’re thinking when their gaze meets mine. In short, I’ll keep asking questions. I think you should, too.

Post by Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

New Blogger Olivia Ares: Building Bridges

My name is Olivia Ares (she/her), and I’d like to provide the opportunity for you to get to know me better. In true blog post fashion, here are some quick facts at the outset:

  1. I’m from Johnson City, TN, which probably doesn’t mean anything to you unless you’re a fan of Mountain Dew or Logan from Gilmore Girls.
  2. I’m a freshman here at Duke, and I plan on majoring in Evolutionary Anthropology. For now.
  3. My party trick is knowing way too much about celebrities.
  4. I’m half-Cuban, but I’m also a vegetarian, which is a tragedy in seven words. At least I’ll always have moros y christianos.
  5. I play the fiddle; not the violin. What’s the difference, you ask?
  6. Those close to me claim I have a “cardigan problem.” (By that, they mean that I own an obscene amount of cardigans. If you ask me, that sounds like the exact opposite of a problem.)
Pictured here is my green three-quarter sleeve cardigan with flower-shaped buttons, which provides a colorful accent.

You may be asking yourself what interest I could possibly have in being a research blogger, since I’m clearly destined for a future in comedy (or cardigan connoisseurship). And especially since, as you’ll soon learn, I’m not a science person.

Like a lot of people during our year of virtual school, I went through a lifetime of hobby phases in a matter of months. I started with baking, which only lasted until the bread flour ran out. I watched a lot of movies that I had always wanted to see (which often disappointed), and I rewatched a lot of movies I loved (which never disappointed). I tried learning the guitar, but I never practiced enough to build up the right callouses, so I never practiced at all. I discovered a love for puzzles and an utter lack of skill for them. I downloaded The Sims 4 on a free trial, spent months building a super cool house, then deleted the whole game.

My three favorite things in one picture: lavender cold brew, Taylor Swift, and my blue wool cardigan.

The only thing that’s stuck so far has been reading. In middle school, we used to stay up late with a flashlight under our covers to finish books, then abruptly lost all motivation somewhere between The Giver and The Scarlet Letter. I think we forgot along the way that there are no rules to reading; there’s no one to impress. There’s no one to sample your sourdough or judge your twangy, painful acoustic cover of “Three Blind Mice.” Reading is something you do purely for yourself.

Reading makes information and ideas universally accessible; it connects worlds using only ink on a page. There’s this myth that analytical minds are not creative minds and vice versa, and it alienates people: people who would bring such great perspectives to the table if they hadn’t been defined by a checklist of abilities. Reading is for everyone to find what they love and to love what they find (or hate it; one of the great things about doing things for yourself is that you can just quit whenever you want to).

Scientific research, on the other hand, is something produced for everyone. Humans exploring more and more about the world is something that affects all of us, despite the research being conducted only by a select few of us.

My black long-sleeve cardigan is a personal favorite, as it goes with pretty much everything.

Freshman year of high school, I finished chemistry with a B, which was a miracle considering I was rocking a D around November. I had to change my way of looking at the material; I couldn’t remember the makeup of an atom, but I could remember it if I thought about the stories of individuals who built off of each model in succession. I didn’t understand stoichiometry, but I did understand you have to balance equations just like weights on a scale or kids on a see-saw.

My point is: everyone sees things differently. Exclusivity in different fields is fabricated to make information and education elitist, and it is not reflective of individuals’ ability to understand the world. If you want to read about cool science stuff, you shouldn’t feel left out because you’re more of an art history person. If you want to read about cool art history stuff, you shouldn’t feel left out because you’re an aerospace engineer.


So I like to think that I can be that bridge for some people; at the very least, I can do it for myself.

Post by Olivia Ares, Class of 2025

Page 1 of 20

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén