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Glowing Waterdogs and Farting Rivers: A Duke Forest Research Tour

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Jonny Behrens looks for aquatic macroinvertebrates with Duke Forest Research Tour participants.

“Who would be surprised if I told you that rivers fart?”

Nick Marzolf, Ph.D., went on to explain that streams release greenhouse gases from decaying matter and gas-producing bacteria. This revelation was one of several new facts I learned at the annual Duke Forest Research Tour in December.

“First and foremost,” says Duke Forest Senior Program Coordinator Maggie Heraty, “the Duke Forest is a teaching and research laboratory.” The Office of the Duke Forest hosts an annual Research Tour to showcase research activities and connect to the wider community. “Connecting people to science and nature, and demystifying scientific research, is a key part of our goals here,” Heraty says.

Duke Forest, which consists of over 7,000 acres in  Durham, Orange, and Alamance Counties, lies within the Cape Fear and Neuse river basins, two of seventeen river basins in North Carolina. What exactly is a river basin? Heraty quoted a poetic definition from North Carolina Environmental Education:

“A river basin encompasses all the land surface drained by many finger-like streams and creeks flowing downhill into one another and eventually into one river, which forms its artery and backbone. As a bathtub catches all the water that falls within its sides and directs the water out its drain, a river basin sends all the water falling within its surrounding ridges into its system of creeks and streams to gurgle and splash downhill into its river and out to an estuary or the ocean.”

Located within the Cape Fear River Basin, the headwaters of New Hope Creek, which passes through the Korstian Division of Duke Forest, are fed by roughly 33,000 acres of land, over 5,000 of which are in the Duke Forest. Land outside of the Forest is of vital importance, too. Duke Forest is working in partnership with other local conservation organizations through the Triangle Connectivity Collaboration, an initiative to connect natural areas, create wildlife corridors, reduce habitat fragmentation, and protect biodiversity in the Triangle region.

New Hope Creek in the Korstian Division of the Duke Forest.

Dwarf waterdogs

We walked down a short trail by the creek, and the tour split into two groups. Our group walked farther along the stream to meet two herpetologists studying the elusive dwarf waterdog.

Bryan Stuart, Ph.D., Research Curator of Herpetology at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, and Ron Grunwald, Ph.D., Duke University Senior Lecturer Emeritus, are involved in a study looking for dwarf waterdog salamanders (Necturus punctatus) in New Hope Creek. Dwarf waterdogs are paedomorphic, Stuart said, meaning they retain larval characteristics like external gills and a flat tail throughout their lives. In fact, the genus name Necturus means “tail swimmer” in reference to the species’s flat tail.

According to Stuart, on October 3, 1954, Duke professor and herpetologist Joe Bailey collected a dwarf waterdog in New Hope Creek. It was the first record of the species in Orange County.

The Duke Forest is in the westernmost part of the species’ Piedmont range, though it extends farther west in parts of the sandhills. “To have a dwarf waterdog record in Orange County—that’s almost as interesting as it gets,” Stuart said.

Ron Grunwald and Bryan Stuart discuss dwarf waterdog research at New Hope Creek.
Photo provided by The Office of the Duke Forest.

In the late 1960s, Michael A. Fedak, Bailey’s graduate student, did a thesis on dwarf waterdogs in the area. His specimens are still stored in the collections of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.

No one had studied this population since—until now.

Dwarf waterdogs are very sensitive to pollution and habitat disturbance, Stuart said, on top of the fact that New Hope Creek is already at the edge of the species’s habitat. When Fedak studied them several decades ago, the salamanders were abundant. Are they still?

Stuart, Grunwald, and other researchers want to find out. “The challenge of salamander biology,” Grunwald said, “is that it always happens when it’s freezing.” Surveying salamander populations, he explains, isn’t like watching birds or counting trees. It requires you to go where the salamanders are, and for dwarf waterdog research, that means dark, cold streams on nights when the water temperature is below 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

Researchers bait funnel traps with chicken liver or cat food and set them underwater overnight. Sometimes they catch crayfish. Sometimes they catch nothing. And sometimes they catch exactly what they’re hoping to find: the elusive dwarf waterdog. After all this time, these slippery, nocturnal, chicken-liver-loving salamanders are still here.

Two dwarf waterdogs in a funnel trap before being released back into New Hope Creek.

Though the traps have been successful at capturing some individuals, they will never catch them all, so researchers calculate the recapture rate to estimate the total population. Imagine a bag of rice, Grunwald said. You could count each individual grain, but that would be challenging and time-consuming. Alternatively, you could pull out one grain of rice, color it, and put it back in the bag, then estimate the total number by calculating the probability of pulling out the same colored grain of rice again. In a very small bag, you might draw the same rice grain several times. But the more rice you have, the less likely you are to draw the same grain twice.

To figure out if any of the dwarf waterdogs they catch are recaptures, the researchers mark each individual with a visual implant elastomer, which is “just a fancy way of saying rubber that we can see,” Grunwald said. The material is injected under a salamander’s “armpit” with a small syringe, creating a pattern visible under ultraviolet light. With two colors (fluorescent yellow and red) and four possible injection locations (one behind each leg), there are plenty of distinct combinations. Grunwald showed us a waterdog that had already been marked. Under a UV flashlight, a spot just below its right foreleg glowed yellow.

Captured dwarf waterdogs are injected with a special rubber material that glows under a UV light. Each salamander is marked with a distinct pattern so researchers can recognize it if it’s ever recaptured.

Establishing a recapture rate is essential to predicting the total population in the area. The current recapture rate? Zero. The sample size so far is small—about a dozen individuals—and none of them have been caught twice. That’s an obstacle to statistical analysis of the population, but it’s good news for the salamanders. Every new individual is one more dwarf waterdog survivor in New Hope Creek.

Ron Grunwald with Research Tour participants looking at dwarf waterdogs in bags.
Photo provided by The Office of the Duke Forest.

Stream health

Next, at a different spot along the stream, we met Nick Marzolf, Ph.D., a postdoctoral scholar, and Jonny Behrens, a Ph.D. student, to learn more about New Hope Creek itself. Marzolf and Behrens have both been involved with aquaterrestrial biogeochemistry research in the lab of Emily Bernhardt, Ph.D., at Duke University.

Nick Marzolf (right) and Jonny Behrens discuss stream health.
Photo provided by The Office of the Duke Forest.

Protecting New Hope Creek requires understanding individual organisms—like dwarf waterdogs—but also temperature, precipitation, oxygen levels, pesticide runoff, and biodiversity overall. When humans get stressed, Behrens said, different organs have different physiological reactions. Similarly, different organisms in a stream play different roles and respond to stress in different ways.

Jonny Behrens and Research Tour participants look at aquatic macroinvertebrate samples.
Photo provided by The Office of the Duke Forest.

Behrens passed around vials containing aquatic macroinvertebrates—specimens big enough to see with the naked eye—such as the larvae of mayflies, crane flies, stoneflies, and dragonflies. They are known for being good indicators of stream health because there are many species of macroinvertebrates, and they have different tolerances to stressors like pollution or changes in water temperature.

Aquatic macroinvertebrates can indicate the health of a stream through their species diversity and abundance.
Photo provided by The Office of the Duke Forest.

The water downstream of a nearby wastewater treatment plant is much warmer in winter than other waterways in the area, so researchers see more emergent adult midges and caddisflies there than they do here. Aside from temperature, organisms need to adapt to other changing conditions like oxygen levels and storms.

“Rain is really fun to watch in streams,” Behrens said. The water level rises, pulling up organic matter, and sand bars change. You can tell how high the water got in the last storm by looking for accumulated debris on trees along river banks.

Farting rivers and the peanut butter cracker hypothesis

Marzolf studies hydrology, or “how water moves through not only the landscape but also the river itself.”

Nick Marzolf demonstrates a technique to measure gasses in streams using a syringe.

Part of his research involves measuring gases in water. Streams, like cars and cows and people, release greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide and methane. In fact, Marzolf and colleagues hypothesize that New Hope Creek contributes more CO2 to the atmosphere per unit area than anywhere else in the Duke Forest.

Decaying matter produces CO2, but that isn’t the only source of greenhouse gasses in the creek. Microscopic organisms, like methane-producing bacteria, produce gases as well.

The “peanut butter cracker hypothesis,” Marzolf said, compares organic matter such as leaves to a cracker, while the “peanut butter,” which makes the cracker more palatable, is the microbes. Scrumptious.

Disturbing the sediment at the bottom of New Hope Creek causes bubbles to rise to the surface due to the metabolic activities of gas-producing bacteria.

Marzolf turned to Behrens. “Do you want to walk around and see if you can stir up some methane bubbles?” Behrens waded into the stream, freeing bubbles from the pressure of the overlying water keeping them in leaf mats. We watched the bubbles rise to the surface, evidence of the activities of organisms too small to see.

Behrens walks around in New Hope Creek to stir up gas bubbles from aquatic bacteria.

Restoring a stream to protect its pigtoe

Finally, Sara Childs, Executive Director of the Duke Forest, discussed stream restoration projects. Though structures in the Duke Forest like remnants of old mills and dams can alter and damage ecosystems, they can also have historical and cultural significance. Duke Forest prioritizes restoration projects that have meaningful ecological, teaching, and research benefits while honoring the history of the land.

For instance, the Patterson Mill Dam was built in the late 1700s and probably remained in use for about 100 years. The stream has already adapted to the structure’s presence, and there isn’t necessarily ongoing degradation because of it. Duke Forest restoration projects, Childs said, don’t revolve around very old structures like the Patterson Mill Dam. Instead, they are planning to remove two more recent structures that are actively eroding banks, threatening wildlife habitat, and creating impounded, oxygen-poor areas in the stream.

One of the structures they are hoping to remove is a concrete bridge that’s endangering a threatened freshwater mussel species called the Atlantic pigtoe (Fusconaia masoni). Freshwater mussels, according to Childs, require a fish species to host the developing mussel larvae on their gills, and the Atlantic pigtoe favors the creek chub (Semotilus atromaculatus). The concrete bridge forms a barrier between the pigtoe and the chub, but removing it could reunite them.

Before starting construction, they will relocate as many mussels as possible to keep them out of harm’s way.

New Hope Creek, home to waterdogs and pigtoe and farting microbes, is precious to humans as well. Heraty describes it as “a really spectacular and beautiful waterway that we are lucky to have right in our backyards here in Durham.”

Post by Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

Inventors, Assemble: The Newest Gadgets Coming Out of Duke

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What do a smart toilet, an analog film app, and metamaterial computer chips have in common? They were all invented at Duke!

The Office for Translation & Commercialization—which supports Duke innovators bringing new technologies to market—recently hosted its fifth annual Invented at Duke celebration. With nine featured inventors and 300 attendees, it was an energetic atmosphere to network and learn.

Attendees mingle in Penn Pavilion. Credit: Brian Mullins Photography.

When event organizer Fedor Kossakovski was selecting booths, the name of the game was diversity—from medicine to art, from graduate students to faculty. “Hopefully people feel like they see themselves in these [inventors] and it’s representative of Duke overall,” he said. Indeed, as I munched through my second Oreo bar from the snack table and made the rounds, this diversity became apparent. Here are just two of the inventions on display:

Guided Medical Solutions

The first thing you’ll notice at Jacob Peloquin’s booth is a massive rubber torso.

As he replaces a punctured layer of rubber skin with a shiny new one, Peloquin beckons us over to watch. Using his OptiSETT device, he demonstrates easy insertion and placement of a chest tube.

“Currently, the method that’s used is you make an incision, and then place your fingers through, and then take the tube and place that between your fingers,” Peloquin explained. This results in a dangerously large incision that cuts through fascia and muscle; in fact, one-third of these procedures currently end in complications.

Peloquin’s device is a trocar—a thin plastic cylinder with a pointed tip at one end and tubing coming out of the other. It includes a pressure-based feedback system that tells you exactly how deep to cut, avoiding damage to the lungs or liver, and a camera to aid placement. Once the device is inserted, the outer piece can be removed so only the tubing remains.

Peloquin demonstrates his OptiSETT device. Credit: Brian Mullins Photography.

Peloquin—a mechanical engineering graduate student—was originally approached by the surgeons behind OptiSETT to assist with 3D printing. “They needed help, so I kind of helped those initial prototypes, then we realized there might be a market for this,” he said. Now, as he finishes his doctorate, he has a plethora of opportunities to continue working on OptiSETT full-time—starting a company, partnering with the Department of Defense, and integrating machine learning to interpret the camera feed.

It’s amazing how much can change in a couple years, and how much good a rubber torso can do.

GRIP Display

This invention is for my fellow molecular biology enthusiasts—for the lovers of cells, genes, and proteins!

The theme of Victoria Goldenshtein’s booth is things that stick together. It features an adorable claw machine that grabs onto its stuffed animal targets, and a lime green plastic molecule that can grab DNA. Although the molecule looks complex, Goldenshtein says its function is straightforward. “This just serves as a glue between protein and the DNA [that encodes it].”

Goldenshtein—a postdoctoral associate in biomedical engineering—uses her lime green molecular model to demonstrate GRIP’s function. Credit: Brian Mullins Photography.

Goldenshtein applies this technology to an especially relevant class of proteins—antibodies. Antibodies are produced by the immune system to bind and neutralize foreign substances like disease. They can be leveraged to create drug therapies, but first we need to know which gene corresponds to which antibody and which disease. That’s where GRIP steps in.

“You would display an antibody and you would vary the antibody—a billion different variations—and attach each one to the system. This grabs the DNA,” Goldenshtein said.

Then, you mix these billions of antibody-DNA pairs with disease cells to see which one attaches. Once you’ve found the right one, the DNA is readily available to be amplified, making an army of the same disease-battling antibody. Goldenshtein says this method of high-throughput screening can be used to find a cancer cure.

Although GRIP be but small, its applications are mighty.

Explore Other Booths

  • Coprata: a smart toilet that tracks your digestive health
  • inSoma Bio: a polymer that aids soft-tissue reconstruction
  • Spoolyard: a platform for exploring digital footage with analog film techniques
  • FaunaLabs: smart watches for our furry friends
  • G1 Optics: a tonometer to automatically detect eye pressure
  • TheraSplice: precision RNA splicing to treat cancer
  • Neurophos: metamaterial photonics for powering ultra-fast AI computation

As I finished my last Oreo bar and prepared for the trek back to East Campus, I was presented with a parting gift—a leather notebook with “Inventor” embossed on the cover. “No pressure,” said the employee who was handing them out with a wink.

I thought about the unique and diverse people I’d met that night—an undergraduate working in the Co-Lab, an ECE graduate student, and even a librarian from UNC—and smiled. As long as we each keep imagining and scribbling in our notebooks, there’s no doubt we can invent something that changes the world.

Post by Michelle Li, Class of 2027

It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Comic Medicine!

Picture a comic book. Maybe you think of Superman or the Hulk, all cosmic green and razzmic berry, pressed into the glossy pages of your favorite childhood graphic novel. Or maybe you think of the Sunday paper. Calvin and Hobbes inked between the op-eds and the sports column. Maybe you think of punk rock zines, or political cartoons, or Mad magazine.

Now, put your first thought aside. Walk to the Duke Medical School library and descend to the first floor. Nestled in the quiet reading room, among the serious tomes on pancreatic enzymes and brain anatomy, is a collection of comic books. 

They don’t chronicle the kryptonite of superheroes or the adventures of Asterix. Instead, the curated Graphic Medicine Collection features soldiers with PTSD, mothers of children with Down Syndrome, and transgender patients’ gender-affirming care. They illustrate child loss, chronic illness, addiction, anxiety, autism, epilepsy, COVID, cancer, heart disease, reproductive health, and so on and so forth. 

photo credit: @dukemedlibrary (Instagram)

In 2007, physician and cartoonist Ian Williams coined the term “graphic medicine.” He writes that the “use of the word ‘medicine’ was not meant to connote the foregrounding of doctors over other healthcare professionals or over patients or comics artists, but, rather the suggestion that use of comics might have some sort of therapeutic potential – ‘medicine’ as in the bottled panacea, rather than the profession.” 

Dr. Ian Williams, GP and cartoonist

Duke’s Graphic Medicine Collection seeks to destigmatize, depicting everything from a patient’s experience with terminal cancer to STI prevention. Unsurprisingly, comics have long been used to educate and to challenge social taboos.

In 1954, they were controversial enough to trigger a congressional hearing. Despite grossing nearly $75 million in nickels and dimes (the cost of a comic in 1948), comic books fed the flames (often literally) of moral panics that came to dominate the Cold War era. 

In 1949, a small town Missouri girl scout troop burned a six foot tall stack of comics at the behest of their parents, teachers, and the local priest. This event followed the publication of an article written by New York City psychiatrist Dr. Fredric Wertham which drew a correlation between the occasional vulgar language and violent imagery in comic book and increased incidence of juvenile delinquency.   

Although Congress found no correlation between comics and criminal activity, ultimately disagreeing with Wertham, the comic industry created the “Comics Code Authority” out of fear of government censorship. Comics with everything from violence to werewolves, zombies, vampires and ghosts were banned. Though the comic code undeniably cowed their content, cartoonists continued to use the medium to criticize and confront stigmas. 

In the 60s and 70s, for example, “subversive women cartoonists, queer cartoonists, [and] cartoonists of color” disseminated their work in political circles. Later, in 1989, cartoonist Garry Trudeau depicted the first openly gay comic character Andy Lippincott’s diagnosis with HIV/AIDS. Though some gay activists criticized Trudeau’s portrayal, his comics nonetheless challenged the public’s stereotypes, fears, and ostracization of HIV/AIDS patients and Lippincott’s impact was wide-felt and humanizing.

Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury comic character Andy Lippincott is depicted here in the fictional AIDS quilt. Lippincott was later given a real panel in the quilt.

In fact, in 1990, when Trudeau illustrated Lippincott’s death due to AIDS complications, an obituary was written for the fictional character in the San Francisco Chronicle: “… Lippincott, an affable man who had attempted to cope with the devastating disease with a continual patter of gallows humor, dies quietly in his bed, the window open to a sunny day and a coveted C.D. of the Beach Boys ‘Wouldn’t It be Nice’ playing.”

In the 2000s, like so many other middle school girls, when I turned 10 or 11, I was handed the American Girl’s “Care and Keeping of You.” The book includes comic strip-esque graphics and informational panels about everything from menstrual health to acne. It revolutionized the conversations that were and, more importantly, weren’t happening around girl’s health and puberty.

To put it simply: “Girls didn’t seem to have the courage to ask their own mothers these questions, but they were sending them to faceless magazine staffers in Middleton, Wisconsin.” Since its publication in 1998, “The Care & Keeping of You” has sold 7 million copies and counting. 

From cancer to STIs to AIDS to puberty, comics clearly do have a place in medicine. 

In recent decades, there has been a push in American healthcare for the medical humanities — a holistic movement that advocates for the intersection of science and art in medicine and medical education. Keith Wailoo, an American historian and professor at Princeton University, writes about the need for medical humanities:

“… [P]rofessional and human crisis has spawned the search for meaning and introspection about life, illness, recovery, human suffering, the care of the body and spirit, and death. Medicine’s social dilemmas, its professional controversies, human health crises, social tensions over topics from AIDS to abortion and genetics, as well as the profession’s very identity and its claim to authority have catalyzed and fed a growing demand for answers about meaning.”

Among the serious tomes included in Duke’s collection is the following spread from Tessa Brunton’s autobiographical “Notes from a Sickbed,” illustrating the onset and progression of her chronic illness. As Brunton writes, “catharsis” seems to best embody Duke’s Graphic Medicine collection. Like so many other comic strips, “Notes from a Sickbed” is a “bottled panacea.” Brunton confronts her illness and grapples with her own “search for meaning,” depicting her reality with humor, earnestness, and dialogue bubbles.

All of this to say: comics continue to have a place in medicine.

Here are a few texts in Duke’s Graphic Medicine Collection:

“Notes from a Sickbed” by Tessa Brunton
“Camouflage: the hidden lives of autistic women” by Dr. Sara Bargiela
“Kimiko Does Cancer” by Kimiko Tobimatsu
“First Year Out” by Sabrina Symington

You can check out the entire Comic Medicine Collection here: https://mclibrary.duke.edu/about/blog/new-graphic-medicine-collection

Post by Alex Clifford, Class of 2024

Leveraging Google’s Technology to Improve Mental Health

Last Tuesday, October 10 was World Mental Health Day. To mark the holiday, the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, in partnership with other student wellness organizations, welcomed Dr. Megan Jones Bell, PsyD, the clinical director of consumer and mental health at Google, to discuss mental health. Bell was formerly chief strategy and science officer at Headspace and helped guide Headspace through its transformation from a meditation app into a comprehensive digital mental health platform, Headspace Health. Bell also founded one of the first digital mental health start-ups, Lantern, where she pioneered blended mental health interventions leveraging software and coaching. In her conversation with Dr. Murali Doraiswamy, Duke professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, and Thomas Szigethy, Associate Dean of Students and Director of Duke’s Student Wellness Center, Bell revealed the actions Google is taking to improve the health of the billions of people who use their platform. 

She began by defining mental health, paraphrasing the World Health Organization’s definition. She said, “Mental health, to me, is a state of wellbeing in which the individual realizes his or her or their own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, work productively and fruitfully, and can contribute to their own community.” Rather than taking a medicalized approach to mental health, she argued, mental health should be recognized as something that we all have. Critically, she said that mental health is not just mental  disorders; the first step to improving mental health is recognition and upstream intervention.

Underlining the critical role Google plays in global mental health, Bell cited multiple statistics: three out of four people turn to the internet first for health information. On Google Search, there are 100 million searches on health everyday; Youtube boasts 25 billion views of mental health content. Given their billions of users, Bell intimated Google’s huge responsibility to provide people with accurate, authoritative, and empathetic information. The company has multiple goals in terms of mental health that are specific to different communities. There are three principal audiences that Bell described Google’s goals for: consumers, caregivers, and communities. 

Google’s consumer-facing focus is providing access to high quality information and tools to manage their users’ health. With regards to caregivers, Google strives to create strong partnerships to create solutions to transform care delivery. In terms of community health, the company works with public health organizations worldwide, focusing on social determinants of health and aiming to open up data and insights to the public health community. 

Szigethy followed by launching a discussion of Google’s efforts to protect adolescents. He referenced the growing and urgent mental health crisis amongst adolescents; what is Google doing to protect them? 

Bell mentioned multiple projects across different platforms in order to provide youth with safer online experiences. Key to these projects is the desire to promote their mental health by default. On Google Search, this takes the form of the SafeSearch feature. SafeSearch is on by default, filtering out explicit or inappropriate results. On Youtube, default policies include various prevention measures, one of which automatically removes content that is considered “immitable.” Bell used the example of disordered eating content in order to explain the policy– in accordance with their prevention approach, YouTube removes dangerous eating-related content containing anything that the viewer can copy. YouTube also has age-restricted videos, unavailable to users under 18, as well as certain product features that can be blocked. Google also created an eating disorder hotline with experts online 24/7. 

Jokingly, Bell assured the Zoom audience that Google wouldn’t be creating a therapist chatbot anytime soon — she asserted that digital tools are not “either or.” When the conversation veered towards generative AI, Bell admitted that AI has enormous potential for helping billions of people, but maintained that it needs to be developed in a responsible way. At Google, the greatest service AI provides is scalability. Google.org, Bell said, recently worked with The Trevor Project and ReflexAI on a crisis hotline for veterans called HomeTeam. Google used AI that stimulated crises to help scale up training for volunteers. Bell said, “The human is still on the other side of the phone, and AI helped achieve that”. 

Next, Bell tackled the question of health information and misinformation– what she called a significant area of focus for Google. Before diving in, however, Bell clarified, “It’s not up to Google to decide what is accurate and what is not accurate.” Rather, she said that anchoring to trusted organizations is critical to embedding mental health into the culture of a community. When it comes to health information and misinformation, Bell encapsulated Google’s philosophy in this phrase: “define, operationalize, and elevate high quality information.” In order to combat misinformation on their platform, Google asked the National Academy of Medicine to help define what accurate medical sources are. The Academy then put together a framework of authoritative health info, which WHO then nationalized. YouTube then launched its “health sources” feature, where videos from the framework are the first thing that you see. In effect, the highest quality information is raised to the top of your page when you make a search. Videos in this framework also have a visible badge on the watch panel that features a  phrase like “from a healthcare professional” or “from an organization with a healthcare professional.” Bell suggested that this also helps people to remember where their information is coming from, acting as a guardrail in itself. Additionally, Google continues to fight medical misinformation with an updated medical misinformation policy, which enables them to remove content that is contradictory to medical authorities or medical consensus. 

Near the end of the conversation, Szigethy asked Bell if she would recommend any behaviors for embracing wellbeing. A prevention researcher by background, Bell stressed the importance of early and regular action. Our biggest leverage point for changing mental health, she asserted, is upstream intervention and embracing routines that foster our mental health. She breaks these down into five dimensions of wellbeing: mindfulness, sleep, movement and exercise, nutrition, and social connection. Her advice is to ask the question: what daily/weekly routines do I have that foster each of these? Make a list, she suggests, and try to incorporate a daily routine that addresses each of the five dimensions. 

Before concluding, Bell advocated that the best thing that we can do is to approach mental health issues with humility and listen to a community first. She shared that, at Headspace, her team worked with the mayor’s office and community organizations in Hartford, Connecticut to co-define their mental health goals and map the strengths and assets of the community. Then, they could start to think about how to contextualize Headspace in that community. Bell graciously entered the Duke community with the same humility, and her conversation was a wonderful commemoration of World Mental Health Day. 

By Isa Helton, Class of 2026

New Blogger Michelle Li: Shrek, Minecraft, and Discovering New Things

My mom likes to introduce me by telling a childhood story. She’s told the same one for years, but it never fails to crack her up. (Watch out—she will genuinely cry from laughter!) It goes like this:

I was in second grade, and I was taking the ESL test. It’s straightforward—they show you flashcards, and you name them in English. I breezed through tree and house; but when I saw a bird, I fell silent.

“Don’t you know what a bird is?” my mom asked.

Cheeks red, I responded, “I knew it was a bird, I just wasn’t sure what species.”

At this point we’re both chortling, and she tells me that aiyah, Michelle, you were always so serious as a child.

That’s me on the left looking resolute at preschool graduation.

Which is a fair analysis—I was shy. I overthought. And I was a perfectionist. If I didn’t have the best answer or the most interesting remark, I was often too scared to speak at all.

But I love formulating answers, and I love talking to people. So going into high school, I told myself this mindset would change. I would shoot every shot and carpe every diem, fear be darned.

Like all new things, it was difficult. The learning curve was so steep it may as well have had a vertical asymptote. (If you liked that math joke, ask me about my calculus-themed promposal!)

Fortunately, life has a way of placing us in situations that help us grow. Sophomore year, I volunteered to teach STEM classes to middle schoolers. The chaos of pre-teens with pent-up quarantine energy is unparalleled—needless to say, I was terrified. But I found solace in the familiarity of science—as I rambled about CRISPR-Cas9 and coral ecology, I became more comfortable speaking to others.

I learned that Shrek is an icon, Minecraft is a competitive sport, and I should never click links in the Zoom chat—lest I be lured into a Rickroll. I also discovered that it didn’t matter whether my presentation was perfect or even if I acted a little weird.

Zooming with my middle school STEM buddies—note the Elmo background.

What mattered was watching students who’d never heard of engineering before prototyping egg parachutes and Rube Goldberg machines. What mattered was seeing Vicky return for a second year, evolving from student to TA. What mattered was watching a kid’s face light up with the joy of learning something new.

That’s what I hope to accomplish with the Duke Research Blog. As a freshman, I know the endless possibilities on campus—while a blessing—can be intimidating. STEM and academia have seemingly high barriers to entry. But I’ve also seen that discovering something new can be the best feeling in the world. I hope to play a small part in helping you, the reader, get there.

And as a baby Dukie, I hope to connect with the inspiring community here. Whether through a Research Blog interview or a quick conversation on the crowded C1, I am so excited to meet y’all.

So, if you see me around campus, come say hello! And if you’re a people-person-but-introverted like me and could use a conversation starter, here are a couple:

  • Tell me what songs you’re jamming to! I’m currently looping Gracie Abrams and Wallows. Debussy and Tchaikovsky are also regulars—String Quartet No. 1 goes so hard.
  • Talk about football! As a lifelong Cincinnatian, Joe Burrow is our king.
  • Share whatever you’re working on! Whether it be uber-complicated math (shoutout to Nikhil) or the perfect matcha latte (shoutout to Krishna), I’d love to know what you’re experimenting with.

Until then, remember to stay hydrated and keep discovering new things. ☺️

Post by Michelle Li, Class of 2027

“Wonders and Realities of the Universe”: Rachel Carson’s Legacy

Rachel Carson was a twentieth-century marine scientist, conservationist, and writer. She is the author of Silent Spring, a groundbreaking book about the dangers of DDT and other pesticides.
Photo courtesy of the Rachel Carson Council.

Robert K. Musil, Ph.D., M.P.H., recently visited Duke to talk about Rachel Carson’s environmental legacy and its implications for North Carolina today. Musil is the president and CEO of the Rachel Carson Council, an environmental organization founded in 1965 by friends and colleagues of Rachel Carson — a twentieth-century marine scientist, conservationist, and writer — after her death.

Robert K. Musil, Ph.D., M.P.H., president and CEO of the Rachel Carson Council.
Photo courtesy of Musil.

Musil began his presentation with a stirring quote by Carson: “The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us the less taste we shall have for the destruction of our race. Wonder and humility are wholesome emotions, and they do not exist side by side with a lust for destruction.”

Rachel Carson is famous for writing Silent Spring, a groundbreaking book warning of the dangers of DDT and other pesticides. Carson published Silent Spring in 1962. She died in 1964. In 1972, the United States banned DDT.

More than half a century later, in our world of climate crisis and biodiversity loss, Carson’s devotion to the natural world is still incredibly timely. 

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring documented how the insecticide DDT was harming not just insects but also animals farther up the food chain, human health, and the environment as a whole. The book spent thirty-one weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.
Image courtesy of the Rachel Carson Council.

Carson, Musil says, “believed that you had to develop real empathy for other creatures, other beings, other people, other nations… that unless you loved it, you would destroy it.” In Carson’s first book, Under the Sea-Wind, she takes the perspective of animals like the black skimmer, the mackerel, and the eel. Carson was writing about the perils facing marine ecosystems, but she was doing it “from the point of view of the ‘other,’” as Musil puts it, focusing our attention on creatures other than ourselves.

A black skimmer, a bird Rachel Carson wrote about in Under the Sea-Wind.
“Black skimmer (Rynchops niger) in flight” by Charles J. Sharp is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

“With the dusk a strange bird came to the island from its nesting grounds on the outer banks. Its wings were pure black, and from tip to tip their spread was more than the length of a man’s arm. It flew steadily and without haste across the sound, its progress as measured and as meaningful as that of the shadows which little by little were dulling the bright water path. The bird was called Rynchops, the black skimmer.”

-A passage from Under the Sea-Wind by Rachel Carson. Rynchops, Carson’s name for the black skimmer, comes from the bird’s genus name.

Musil describes how Carson would lie on the beach and hear crabs scratching the sand and listen to birds and imagine “how this life came to be, how these creatures, incredibly unique, came to this place in evolution.”

Carson was a marine scientist well before she published Silent Spring. She attended graduate school in marine biology with a full fellowship to Johns Hopkins University. At the same time, Musil says, she was working as a research assistant, teaching part-time at the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins, and caring for extended family. Afterward, she worked for the Department of Fish and Wildlife and eventually became an author. Under the Sea-Wind was her first book; she wrote Silent Spring two decades later.

Carson is credited with spurring the modern environmental movement. Silent Spring and the concerns Carson raised about DDT prompted the President’s Science Advisory Committee, under the orders of John F. Kennedy, to investigate its dangers. Ultimately, DDT was banned in the United States, though Carson didn’t live to see it.

Rachel Carson and Hawk Mountain - Rachel Carson Council
An “iconic photo” by Shirley Briggs of Rachel Carson on Hawk Mountain.
Photo courtesy of the Rachel Carson Council.

But Musil emphasizes that throughout all Carson’s accomplishments, she did not act alone. He shows an “iconic photo,” as he describes it, of Rachel Carson sitting on Hawk Mountain and looking off into the distance through binoculars. The same photo is on the cover of Musil’s book Rachel Carson and Her Sisters: Extraordinary Women Who Have Shaped America’s Environment. He looks at the audience and asks a question: “Is Rachel alone on top of the mountain?” In the photo, Carson seems to be alone in a great expanse of wilderness, but the obvious answer to Musil’s question is no. Someone, after all, had to be there to take the picture.

That someone was Shirley Briggs, a friend of Carson’s and a scientist in her own right. “Rachel Carson,” Musil emphasizes, “was not alone.” Friends, colleagues, and mentors worked alongside her. And many of those people continued her work after she was gone. Before Carson died, Musil says, she asked Shirley Briggs and others to form an organization to carry on her work. The Rachel Carson Council was founded the following year. Nearly six decades later, the Council is still committed to “Carson’s ecological ethic that combines scientific concern for the environment and human health with a sense of wonder and reverence for all forms of life in order to build a more sustainable, just, and peaceful future,” according to a statement on their website.

According to Musil, North Carolina was one of Carson’s favorite places. After she had a breast cancer operation, he says, “she took refuge at Nags Head and walked its beaches.” The Rachel Carson Reserve commemorates Carson and preserves coastal habitats and wildlife. Musil believes that Carson’s legacy has broader environmental implications as well. One pressing issue in North Carolina today is Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs, where many animals are raised in confinement. North Carolina produces ten billion gallons of hog waste from CAFOs each year—enough to fill 1500 Olympic swimming pools, according to Musil.

This is an ecological and animal welfare issue but also an environmental justice case. CAFOs are more often built near lower income and minority communities, and the waste from CAFOs can negatively affect human health, pollute waterways, and lead to fish kills and other ecological problems. Living near CAFOs is associated with higher rates of asthma and other health conditions, according to Musil. He acknowledged Francesca Cetta in the audience, who along with Lucy Goldman, both Duke Stanback Fellows at the Rachel Carson Council, did the research and writing on the Rachel Carson Council report, Swine and Suffering: An Introduction to the Hidden Harms of Factory Farms.

Environmental justice was not a term Carson used, but she had similar concerns about who was most affected by environmental issues. In Silent Spring, Musil says, Carson wrote about farmers who dealt directly with DDT and how unjust that was. Today, environmental justice is gaining momentum as organizations and governments wrestle with fairness and equality in the environmental sphere.

In spite of ongoing environmental degradation, Musil remains hopeful. “I have incredible hope for the future,” he says, because of his organization and its mentoring of future generations of environmentalists. “It’s not like every single person has to go out and go birdwatching — though I would recommend it,” he says, but he does believe it is important to learn about and appreciate the natural world and to recognize how it intersects with, for instance, capitalism and social justice. “Designing a much more equitable, greener society is critical,” he says, and when it comes to working toward that future, he is “never going to stop.” 

He references the photo he showed earlier of Carson on the mountain: “I like to think instead of looking at hawks, she’s looking across those ridges and seeing… ranks and ranks of young people from Duke and across the country carrying on her vision.”

Post by Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

New Blogger Sophia Irion: Subject to Change

My cat Eve is meowing to go on her second walk of the night as I begin to write this. I adopted Eve at the beginning of my second semester. I am constantly observing her behavior. She doesn’t like being held, is most active early in the morning or late at night, and when my friends whistle at her she desperately tries to find the bird they must be hiding in their mouths.

This is Eve.

I can attribute her behaviors to the fact that she is both prey and predator. I adapt to her because as her caretaker I love her unconditionally. This type of love was new to me and has taught me how to be a better caretaker of myself and the people I love.

My two sisters and I each have two middle names. I’m the middle child. I’ve grown to see this as a wonderful thing since I get to be both an older and a younger sister. My older sister cares deeply about our well-being in a very motherly way. We’re each two years apart. This closeness in age has given me the opportunity to learn to care for my older sister as she cares for me.

Here I am caving. This gap is called the birth canal. I went on this trip with Duke Outing Club https://www.lostworldcaverns.com/about/

I’ve been changing drastically at least internally for the past three years. So, I feel that in this introduction it is important to note I am subject to change. I’m a sophomore whose interests academically range from creative writing to marine biology. I currently plan to major in Biology and/or Psychology with the failsafe being one as a major and one as a minor.

My love for Biology began in the woods. My childhood was principally outdoors or reading (including the many audiobooks I listened to). My sisters would act out stories though my younger sister and I grew tired of my older sister always being the princess. We would run off and make mud pies or make obstacle courses for trails of ants.

When I was ten, I started public school because I was not correctly homeschooled and ridiculously behind. This setback is why I am at Duke today. It created a hatred of ignorance within myself, which pushed me to learn in all areas.

The way this is currently manifesting is in my ballet class. I barely ran track and cross country in middle school, but played no other sports. I have zero rhythm. Yet, I have always found dancing so incredibly beautiful, ballet especially. It is certainly a push out of my comfort zone to stumble through sequences my classmates are achieving. I encourage others who have never danced to explore beginner classes at Duke. (Social dancing is a PE course and not listed.)

My love of Psychology began around ten when I noticed the changes happening in my mind. I would occasionally reflect through the years of my childhood how I was mentally developing. I still do this today as I approach that magical twenty-five marker when I will have a fully developed prefrontal cortex. There were also traumatic experiences I learned to process through psychology. It was easier for me to deal with the irrational behavior of loved ones through scientific observation. I also read memoirs by women with similar experiences.

Educated by Tara Westover:

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/35133922-educated

What My Bones Know by Stephanie Foo

https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/58214328

Writing has always been a dream of mine. I’ve been journaling for as long as I can remember and attempting to emulate my favorite authors. I hope through this position with Duke Research Blog I can make science accessible through writing and showcase the amazing people I am surrounded by.

Kaylee and I having lunch in the Brodhead Center.

My best friend Kaylee for example is a Chemistry major and I am constantly listening to her “nerd out.” Chemistry is not my strong suit but her passion is contagious. It’s energy like this from people who love what they do that inspires me to keep learning. I hope to share these sources of inspiration here.

The best thing about Duke to me is the possibility to have a fascinating conversation with anyone. My friends and I have our separate intellectual passions; yet when one of us has a question, the other always seems to have an answer.

Post by Jacqueline “Sophia” Irion, Class of 2026

New Blogger Gabrielle Douglas: Reviving a Love for Learning

As a child, the ability to become anything is the most fundamental component of life. The prospect of adversity, or hardship seems almost unfathomable while carefully tending to your dreams.

Growing up, if you asked me what I aspired to do as an adult I likely would’ve rattled off an incomprehensible plan detailing jobs as big as exploring uncharted waters in faraway lands to jobs as simple as being able to make pancakes by myself as I had seen my older cousins do before me.

However, when asked the same question nowadays I find myself struggling to bring in the childlike excitement I held growing up. In fact, most days I find the most excitement when successfully completing the tongue twister I perform attempting to explain that I simply hope to study law.

After speaking with my peers, I have come to recognize that this is not a unique experience. In fact, viewing education as a process as opposed to an enriching journey seems to be the biggest shared experience among students everywhere. This recognition has led me here to Duke’s research blog.

My name is Gabrielle Douglas, I am a first-year student at Duke, and I hope to use my role as a research blogger to revive a love for learning!

I was born in Brooklyn, New York in 2005, but I was primarily raised in Houston, Texas (an experience that can only be summed up by one word: Hot). I spent a great portion of my childhood surrounded by stories of people from all walks of life because moving served as a constant in my life.

Through this experience, I was able to recognize from a young age that learning was truly a passion for me. J.M Barrie describes childhood as a place in which “dreams are born and time is never planned,” and for me nothing was truer. Throughout my youth, I came to realize that my love for learning people’s stories translated into the even larger realm of humanities. I spent hours learning how different parts of the world operate simply because I could. I filled my days with writing on topics I held dear to me. And most importantly I basked in the excitement that came with knowing that I understood another factor of life.

As I aged however, my lessons began to grow in uniformity in an effort to emulate a set curriculum. That was one of the driving factors in my dwindling love for learning. The learning process seemed to lose the spark of creativity that allowed for joy to surge within the process.

For this reason, embarking on this journey is so important to me. I hope to utilize this position to go beyond my comfort zone and begin exploring uncharted areas as my younger self once aspired to do.

I hope to provide you as readers with articles deeply intertwined with the joys associated with new discoveries. Most importantly, I hope to return to the space in which “dreams are born, and time is never planned.”

Post by Gabrielle Douglas, Class of 2027

Highlights from Duke in Australia

Duke in Australia 2023 in front of 1.9-billion-year-old stone in the Northern Territory. Photo by one of our tour guides.

Australia. For years it was more of a nebulous concept to me than a concrete place. It was a colorful patch on maps, home to animals I’d read about but never seen. Now it’s a place where I’ve run my hands over 1.9-billion-year-old stone, watched a platypus emerge from a river at dawn, gotten bitten on the tongue by an ant with a tasty green butt (long story), and spent a thousand other moments with wonderful people in places I hope to never forget.

That’s all thanks to Duke in Australia, a month-long biogeography course led by Alex Glass, Ph.D., and Nancy Lauer, Ph.D., that delves into Australian flora, fauna, geology, history, and culture. When people ask about my experience there this summer, I have a hard time answering. “Wonderful” doesn’t begin to cover it. The experience still doesn’t feel entirely real to me. Even when I was in Australia, watching a platypus or a parrot or standing on a beach with a sunrise on one side and a rainbow on the other, I sometimes couldn’t entirely believe where I was.

Sunrise at Myall Beach on Cape Tribulation, where the Daintree Rainforest meets the Great Barrier Reef.

Disclaimer: When I say “Highlights from Duke in Australia,” I’m referring to my own personal highlights—some of which, let me assure you, were not universally popular with my classmates. Like the enormous crickets we saw on our rainforest night hike, or the time I found the shed skin of a huntsman spider and went around showing it to everyone nearby, or the delightfully squelchy mud coating the trail on one of our last hikes. For more detailed accounts of our day-to-day activities, check out the student blogs on the Duke in Australia 2023 website.

From the moment we landed in Sydney, I was keeping my eyes peeled for bird sightings. (I am slightly into birds. Just slightly.) Unless you count an ambiguous white flash seen through a bus window, my first bird sighting in Australia was a small group of rainbow lorikeets flying over the city. With a blue head and stomach, a green back, an orange-red breast, and flashes of yellow under the wings, the species is very well named.

Lorikeets weren’t the only birds we saw in Sydney. Common mynas, which always looked vaguely sinister to me, watched us while we ate dinner the first night. Pigeons strutted along the sidewalks—the only bird species I saw in Australia that I’d also seen in the US, except a possible peregrine falcon that I caught only a brief glimpse of during a hike. There were also Australian ibises all over the city, colloquially known as bin chickens for their dumpster-diving habits. Personally, I thought the ibises were lovely, regal birds.

There are other birds, however, that can no longer call Sydney home. One of my favorite sites in Sydney was the Forgotten Songs art installation at Angel Place. It is a short alley engraved with the names of fifty bird species that can no longer survive in the city. Empty bird cages hang suspended above the street. Our tour guide told us that the exhibit normally plays recordings of the birds, but that part was under renovation, so it was playing music instead. A few days later, I returned to the exhibit on my own so I’d have time to read every bird name. Those empty cages still haunt me.

An eleven-armed seastar in one of the tide pools at Bondi Beach. (Eleven-armed seastars do not always have eleven arms.) Below it, you can see Neptune’s necklace, a type of algae resembling strings of beads.

On our first full day in Sydney, we went to Bondi Beach to explore the tidepools. There were crabs and octopi, seastars and anemones, necklace-like algae and tiny blue snails called little blue periwinkles. That afternoon, we sat on the beach and learned about microplastics from Lauer. (Not-so-fun fact: we eat a credit card’s worth of microplastics every week on average.) Some of us lingered on the beach afterward and went swimming. The water was frigid, but it was there, with cold water and sand swirling around me in a part of the ocean I’d never seen, much less swum in, that the reality of being on a new continent completely hit me.

Sunshine wattle flowers on our hike at North Head, viewed through a hand lens.

Our first group hike was overwhelming, almost dizzying. Outside of urban Sydney, it was easier for me to recognize just how different Australia was from the US, and it was impossible to absorb everything at once. In every direction were unfamiliar plants and landscapes. Norfolk pine, coastal rosemary, mountain devil, sunshine wattle, Darwinia, flannel flower, gray spider flower…. I was especially entranced by casuarina, which looks shockingly like a pine tree but is actually a flowering plant that has evolved conifer-like traits to preserve water. We were in a heath, characterized by low-growing plants adapted to dry, nutrient-poor conditions. Nothing about it looked like the woods and fields and mountains back home.

Our focus that day was studying plants, but I was having a hard time focusing on any one thing for more than about a second. At one point, we were supposed to be observing a beautiful plant to my right, but half the group had already moved on to another species farther up the trail, and meanwhile, a bird I had certainly never seen in my life was perched remarkably cooperatively on a bush off to the left. There are too many things happening, I remember thinking. I was juggling my field notebook, hand lens, phone camera, and binoculars, and I didn’t even know where to look. I chose to stare at the bird, following the logic that it could fly away at any moment, whereas the plants would stay exactly where they were. That brilliant plan turned out to be faulty. The plants might stay still, but we wouldn’t—so much to see, so little time.

A galah, a species of cockatoo, in Katoomba.

Our next stop was Katoomba, a small mountain town in New South Wales.  It was a quiet, peaceful place, vastly different from Sydney. When I think of Katoomba, I think of the sulfur-crested cockatoo perched on a bakery sign just feet away from me and the flock of strikingly pink cockatoos called galahs in a local park. I think of the superb lyrebird that crossed our path directly in front of us and the rare Wollemi pine growing beside a road.

We took a hike at Wentworth Falls, where Darwin himself once walked. It’s part of the Great Dividing Range, but we learned that the mountains are actually “incised terrain,” formed when valleys were cut into a plateau, leaving “mountains” behind. We also drove to the Jenolan Caves and explored cavernous underground spaces bursting with crystal formations like stalactites, flowstone, and hollow soda straws. These lovely, fragile cave structures, or speleothems, are formed by the gradual deposition of dissolved minerals as water drips through a cave. Before we left, we saw an underground river with water so clear that I didn’t immediately realize I was looking at water at all.

Part of the Jenolan Caves. Gradual geologic processes form decorative structures, or speleothems, in caves.

Another day in Katoomba, our group took a gorgeous hike through a eucalypt forest. Literally everywhere I looked in that forest, there was something extraordinary. Ancient tree ferns. Ruby-red sap seeping out of a tree trunk. The Three Sisters rock formation framed by the aptly named Blue Mountains. Towering eucalypt and turpentine trees. At the end of the hike, we rode the Scenic Railway, the steepest in the world. It was terrifying—awesome, but terrifying.

A view from one of our hikes in the Blue Mountains.

Next, we flew to the Northern Territory, where we checked into our hostel in Darwin. We were now in crocodile country, home to the world’s largest reptile: the saltwater or estuarine crocodile. We were instructed to avoid going in any body of water, saltwater or otherwise, unless it was specifically designated as safe for swimming. (The name “saltwater crocodile” is misleading—the crocodiles can inhabit fresh water as well, and they are extremely aggressive and dangerous.) It was very important to be crocwise.

A rainbow bee-eater at the George Brown Darwin Botanic Gardens in Darwin, a city in the Northern Territory.

The first few days in Darwin, we didn’t see any crocodiles, but there were birds seemingly everywhere. Varied triller, which I originally misidentified as the buff-sided robin until a local eBird reviewer emailed me and asked me to correct my eBird report. Rainbow bee-eater, remarkably common for a bird that looks too beautiful to be real. Peaceful dove. Blue-faced honeyeater. Australasian figbird.

We took a hike that went through a beautiful mangrove, where we learned that the term mangrove isn’t specific to any particular type of plant; it’s used to refer to many very different species that have all adapted to the same challenges, including salinity, changing tides, and nutrient-poor soil. There were crabs and snails and birds—so many birds, some of which I still haven’t identified, like the group of black, crested birds with bright red inside their beaks.

Green weaver ants. Note their distinctive green abdomens, which contain ascorbic acid and have an interesting taste.

When we emerged from the mangrove, we came across a nest of green weaver ants. Their bright green abdomens are rich in ascorbic acid, and the ants have traditionally been used for purposes ranging from treating colds to making a sort of “lemonade” to stimulating milk production. Many of us were eager to taste the ants, though Glass warned us that they “bite vigorously.” Some of my classmates carefully held an ant with their fingers while giving the abdomen a quick lick. I, on the other hand, decided to let an ant crawl onto my notebook while I licked it so it couldn’t bite my fingers. Clever, right? Well, it worked—the ant didn’t bite my fingers. It bit my tongue instead. “Vigorously.” Its mouthparts remained latched on even as I was spitting out ant parts onto the ground. I can’t blame it—I’d be upset, too, if a giant tried to lick me.

Before long, it was time for the jumping crocodile tour. We boarded a tour boat and floated down a seemingly peaceful river while our guide dangled hunks of meat from big fishing rods to bait the crocodiles to leap several feet out of the water and snap their jaws around the food. Their bite force, incidentally, is the highest of any living animal, up to 3700 pounds per square inch. Jumping is natural for the crocodiles—they hunt that way to snag animals like birds and wallabies that venture too close to the water. Being that close to enormous predators roused some deep, primeval fear in me. To a crocodile, I would make excellent prey. The jumping crocodile tour, needless to say, was very memorable. Our class later had a long and far-ranging discussion on the many types of ecotourism experiences we’d participated in and their costs, benefits, and ethical implications.

One of the crocodiles on the jumping crocodile tour.

The next day, we left for a three-day camping trip in Kakadu and Litchfield National Parks. It was the dry season, and the weather was hot, dry, and sunny. We went hiking and snorkeling (in croc-free swimming holes), saw the breathtaking magnetic and cathedral termite mounds, and learned about geology and Aboriginal cultures. Some of the places we visited were sacred sites of the people who have inhabited the region for more than 65,000 years. One of the rock art paintings we were able to see was of a Tasmanian tiger, an animal that’s been completely extinct for close to a century and extinct in the Kakadu region for thousands of years. But right there on the wall was the preserved memory of a time when Tasmanian tigers still roamed the area.

Me with a stick insect at our campground in Kakadu National Park in Australia’s Northern Territory. Photo by Letar Jia, another student in the Duke in Australia program this summer.

One of the coolest places we stopped was a rock cut-out along a highway. The stone was striped with zigzagging layers created when it was buried underground at a pressure high enough to fold solid rock. It was formed 1.9 billion years ago, when the earth was “a geologist’s dream,” according to Glass–relatively barren, with no soil, plants, or animals, just microscopic organisms and lots and lots of rock. I was touching 1.9 billion years of history.

We spent the third night at a different campsite. Some of us spotted what seemed to be a large spider in the bathroom, but one of the tour guides informed me that it was actually just the shed skin of a huntsman spider, not the spider itself. I walked around camp introducing people to my “little friend,” but oddly enough, they didn’t seem as delighted as I was.

That night, while we were theoretically sleeping, periodic cacophonies of eerie, wailing screams reverberated through the air. My half-asleep brain was convinced they were from wallabies, but the sound actually came from a bird called the bush stone-curlew or bush thick-knee. The next morning, there was a gecko in the bathroom, and I wasn’t sure my day could possibly get any better. But later that day, we visited a fragment of an ancient rainforest, and there were giant fruit bats practically dripping from the canopy and giant golden orb weaver spider webs strung between trees, and I think that was even better than the bathroom gecko.

A female giant golden orb weaver, with my hand for scale. The tiny, orange spider on her back is the male.

After departing Darwin, we headed to Cape Tribulation, where the Great Barrier Reef meets the Daintree Rainforest—believed to be the oldest rainforest on the planet. Some rainforests, Glass explained, exist because they’re near the equator. But the rainforests in Australia are remnants of ancient rainforests that developed when the continents were arranged very differently and Australia was considerably farther south. Australia’s climate has become more arid over time, but pockets of its ancient rainforests remain intact.

While we were on Cape Tribulation, we had the chance to snorkel on the Great Barrier Reef. It was overcast and very windy that day, and the small boat that took us out to the reef turned into a rollercoaster as it slid up and down waves. But windy or not, the reef was gorgeous. We saw sea turtles, a sea cucumber, a small shark, and fishes and corals in endless colors.

We also had the incredible opportunity to hike through the rainforest at night. Of all the amazing things we did, that may have been my favorite. There were huge crickets and spiders, thorny vines called wait-a-whiles (because you’ll be waiting a while if you get stuck on one), and flowering plants that looked like mushrooms. And partway along the boardwalk, Glass spotted a creature so unusual and elusive that he had never seen one before. This, he told us, was probably the rarest animal we’d seen on the whole trip. A velvet worm. It looked a bit like a caterpillar or a centipede at first glance, but velvet worms have an entire phylum all their own. (Caterpillars and centipedes share the Arthropoda phylum, along with all insects, spiders, crustaceans, and various others. Velvet worms are in the Onychophora phylum.) The ancestors of velvet worms are thought to represent a link between arthropods and segmented worms. They are ancient, unique, and rarely seen.

The velvet worm.

Just moments later, Glass announced another incredible find: a peppermint stick. I raced ahead to see it. Earlier that day, I’d seen signs about peppermint stick insects, which excrete a peppermint-scented liquid as a defense mechanism, and I’d been keeping my eyes peeled ever since. The creature had developed a sort of mythical status in my mind; I’d been fantasizing about seeing one but hadn’t actually expected to. But there it was, right in front of us, large and stick-like, its color a blue-green so bright that it almost seemed to glow.

A platypus in a river in Yungaburra.

In Yungaburra, our next-to-last stop, we saw enormous fig trees and gorgeous waterfalls. On our last morning, several of us left the motel around dawn and walked to a nearby trail along a river in search of the platypus and the tree kangaroo, an arboreal kangaroo species. We found both. It was a fitting almost-ending to our trip. Both platypuses and kangaroos seem so iconically Australian. The platypuses slipped in and out of the water, their dark bodies visible even in the low light. The tree kangaroo watched us silently from its perch above us and then slowly began to move elsewhere.

A tree kangaroo in Yungaburra.

Before long, it was time to go home. We spent a couple days in Cairns first, where I saw a shiny, emerald green beetle and a tree positively full of squawking lorikeets. Even in the city, there were bright and beautiful animals. In places like the ones we visited, it is easy to find awe and wonder and beauty everywhere you look. But there are endless treasures here, too, fascinating and beautiful sights that we walk past every day, like the way spiderwebs turn silver in the sunlight, or the gray catbird that eats bright red magnolia fruits in the courtyard in front of my dorm window, or the tiny, bluish purple flowers on the Al Buehler Trail, soft and fuzzy and damp when I brushed my face against them. Duke in Australia was an unforgettable adventure. It was also a reminder to step out of the human bubble and immerse myself in the worlds of other living things—whether here or across the globe.

Post by Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

Meet Some of the Teams at the Bass Connections Showcase

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

Open floor presentations at the 2023 Bass Connections Showcase

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

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

Building sustainable university-community partnerships

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

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

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

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

Ensuring post-radiation wellness for women

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

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

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

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

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

From dolphins to humans

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

Sophomores Noelle Fuchs and Jack Nowacek

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

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

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

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

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

Post by Meghna Datta, Class of 2023

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