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Blueberrying and More: Expanding the History of Bennett Place

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Two of the buildings at Bennett Place, a preserved family farm in Durham known largely for its role in a Civil War surrender. Kalei Porter, a Duke Liberal Studies graduate student, recently led an event focusing on the natural history and land use of Bennett Place over time.

Bennett Place, a North Carolina State Historic Site in Durham, is known for its role in a Civil War surrender, but a recent event focusing on the site’s natural history sought to broaden that story. Kalei Porter, a Graduate Liberal Studies student at Duke, led the event, which focused on changing land use at Bennett Place over time.

Jim Barrett, a volunteer tour guide, led a tour of Bennett Place focused on the more well known parts of its history. “The Civil War was a series of five military surrenders,” he explains. The first occurred in Appomattox Court House in Virginia, but while that marked a symbolic end to the war, technically only the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia surrendered there. Another surrender meeting occurred on the land now known as Bennett Place, where Union General Sherman and Confederate General Johnston met at the Bennett family’s small farm to discuss their terms of surrender.

That meeting ultimately led to the preservation of the farm as a historic site, but the history of Bennett Place “should not be an exclusive Civil War story,” Porter says. She has a degree in environmental biology, and her work at Bennett Place combines her interests in ecology and history.

For the past two academic years, Porter has been involved with the North Carolina Lives and Legacies Project, which uses research to tell more nuanced, inclusive stories about land use at sites like Bennett Place. The project, which is based in Duke’s Information Science + Studies, has also received support from Bass Connections in the Vice Provost’s Office for Interdisciplinary Studies and Duke University Libraries. This summer, Kalei will continue her research as a Graduate Project Manager in a History+ team.

James Bennett and his family were small-scale, yeoman farmers. They had about 200 acres, Porter says, “sustaining four to ten people.” They grew most of their own food and sold handmade clothing and crops like watermelons and vegetables at a local market, Barrett says. The site was preserved by civil leaders, including one of Washington Duke’s sons, according to Barrett. The original house was destroyed in a fire in 1921 but was rebuilt in 1962 with material from a similar house, Porter explains. On Barrett’s tour, he mentioned that Sherman brought an illustrator to the surrender meeting, and the pictures from that day still exist, so we know what the house originally looked like. The new house was rebuilt to resemble the old one.

Porter’s event included a display of plants from Duke’s herbarium. The dried plants she chose were collected in North Carolina in different decades, preserving important information about flowering time and native flora in specific sites. “You have a little slice of spring from as far back as the 30’s,” Porter says about the plants she chose.

Two large sheets of blotter paper with dried plants carefully arranged and taped in place upon them. Each herbarium specimen sheet also includes a small envelope for seeds and a one paragraph label and description.
Plants from Duke’s herbarium were on display at the event. Specimens like these can preserve important information like what time of year plants were flowering in different decades.

The exhibit at the event includes other items, too, like a list of who has used this land at different points in history. Before 1782, according to a sign at the event, several Native American tribes inhabited the area, including the Seponi, Cheraw, Catawba, Lumbee, Occaneechi, and Shakori. In 1782, Jacob Baldwin purchased the land, and it changed hands at least twice again before James Bennett bought it in 1846.

There is also a detailed soil map from 1920 on display. Such surveys can make farming more profitable since different crops do best in different soil conditions. Porter says the first geological survey in North Carolina was conducted in the 1850s, making North Carolina only the third state—and the first state in the South—to do soil surveys.

Porter has been working on transcribing Bennett’s ledger papers, which she describes as “a cross between a diary, a planner, and a credit card log.” They provide a record of daily life for a small farmer in North Carolina. Porter says Bennett made a lot of notes about fixing his tools.

Later in the day, Porter led a tour of the site with a focus on natural history. We start on a path lined with fences. Historically, it was a road that went from Raleigh to Hillsborough, and it also “roughly lines up with some of the Native American trading routes that predated the property,” Porter says.

The Unity Monument at Bennett Place. The monument was built in the 1920s, and its original meaning isn’t entirely clear.

We stop at the Unity monument, built in the 1920s soon after the Bennett house burned down. Robert Buerglener, Research Associate, Duke Information Science + Studies, explained to me earlier that the Unity monument may have survived because its meaning is more ambiguous than many Confederate monuments. Porter says the monument incorporated stone from the North, West, and South to represent the theme of unity.

We tour the house and separate kitchen. Both give glimpses into the lives of the Bennett Family. A ladle made from a dried gourd. Jars of persimmon seeds and other items that, according to Barrett, were used as wartime replacements for more typical ingredients. Wood siding on the house that Porter says dates from the 1850s.

It’s not just the buildings that reveal the story of this land. Porter points out trees, shrubs, and fences as well.

Before the Civil War, she says, livestock here roamed free. Buildings and gardens would have been fenced to keep the livestock out. After the war, however, fencing became more expensive, and people started creating fences around the livestock instead and building cheaper, less sturdy fences.

As we walk toward a nature trail at the back of the property, Porter draws our attention to the pine trees. Both loblolly and shortleaf pines grow here. Historically, shortleaf would have been more common in this area, but places that have been recently managed for timber tend to have loblolly. Most of these pines are still relatively young; they were not here when the Bennetts lived on this land.

In the forest, many of the low-growing plants we pass are species of blueberry. Porter has searched through digitized North Carolina newspapers for records of the word “blueberry.” It was first mentioned in the 1880s as a verb, blueberrying (women going out to pick wild blueberries) but wasn’t grown commercially in this area until the 1930s.

Porter ends her tour by asking us to look at the sky. Even the sky could have changed in the centuries since the Bennetts farmed this land. Today it’s clear and blue, but modern pollution could make it less blue than it used to be, Porter says, and some days we might see airplane contrails, which the Bennetts would never have seen back then. “Sometimes the sky is even asynchronous with time,” Porter says.

Post by Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

We Are Killing Birds. Solutions Exist. Research Can Help.

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Look at the nearest window. What did you see first—the glass itself or what was on the other side? For birds, that distinction is a matter of life and death.

A dead red-eyed vireo above the entrance to the Brodhead Center at Duke. Every year, millions of birds die after colliding with windows. Buildings with lots of glass are particularly dangerous.

Every year, up to one billion birds die from hitting windows. Windows kill more birds than almost any other cause of human-related bird mortality, second only to feral and domestic cats. Both the transparency and reflectiveness of glass can confuse flying birds. They either don’t see the glass at all and try to fly through it, or they’re fooled by reflections of safe habitat or open sky. And at night, birds may be disoriented by lit-up buildings and end up hitting windows by mistake. In all cases, the result is usually the same. The majority of window collision victims die on impact. Even the survivors may die soon after from internal bleeding, concussions, broken bones, or other injuries.

Madison Chudzik,  a biology Ph.D. student in the Lipshutz Lab at Duke, studies bird-window collisions and migrating birds. “Purely the fact that we’ve built buildings is killing those birds,” she says.

Every spring and fall, billions of birds in the United States alone migrate to breeding and wintering grounds. Many travel hundreds or thousands of miles. During peak migration, tens of thousands of birds may fly across Durham County in a single night. Not all of them make it.

Chudzik’s research focuses on nocturnal flight calls, which migrating birds use to communicate while they fly. Many window collision victims are nocturnal migrants lured to their deaths by windows and lights. Chudzik wants to know “how we can use nocturnal flight calls as an indicator to examine collision risks in species.”

Chudzik (back) setting up one of her recording devices on the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. The devices record flight calls from birds migrating at night.
Image courtesy of Chudzik.

Previous research, Chudzik says, has identified a strong correlation between the number of flight calls recorded on a given night and the overall migration intensity that night. “If sparrows have a high number of detections, there is likely a high number migrating through the area,” Chudzik explains. But some species call more than others, and there is “taxonomic bias in collision risk,” with some species that call more colliding less and vice versa. Chudzik is exploring this relationship in her research.

Unlike bird songs, nocturnal flight calls are very short. The different calls are described with technical terms like “zeep” and “seep.” Chudzik is part of a small but passionate community of people with the impressive ability to identify species by the minute differences between their flight calls. “It’s a whole other world of… language, basically,” Chudzik says.

Chudzik can identify a species not only by hearing its flight call but also by seeing its spectrogram, a visual representation of sound. This spectrogram, from a recording on Adler Planetarium, has flight calls from four species. The x-axis represents time, while the y-axis shows frequency. The brightness or intensity indicates amplitude.
Image from Chudzik.

She began studying nocturnal flight calls for research she did as an undergraduate, but her current project no longer needs to rely on talented humans to identify every individual call. A deep learning model called Nighthawk, trained on a wealth of meticulous flight call data, can identify calls from their spectrograms with 95% accuracy. It is free and accessible to anyone, and much of the data it’s been trained on comes from non-scientists, such as submissions from a Facebook community devoted to nocturnal flight calls. Chudzik estimates that perhaps a quarter of the people on that Facebook page are researchers. “The rest,” she says, “are people who somehow stumbled upon it and… fell in love with nocturnal flight calling.”

In addition to studying nocturnal flight calls, Chudzik’s research will investigate how topography, like Lake Michigan by Chicago, affects migration routes and behavior and how weather affects flight calls. Birds seem to communicate more during inclement weather, and bad weather sometimes triggers major collision events. Last fall in Chicago, collisions with a single building killed hundreds of migratory birds in one night.

Chudzik had a recorder on that building. It had turned off before the peak of the collision event, but the flight call recordings from that night are still staggering. In one 40-second clip, there were 300 flight calls identified. Normally, Chudzik says, she might expect a maximum of about seven in that time period.

Nights like these, with enormous numbers of migrants navigating the skies, can be especially deadly. Fortunately, solutions exist. The problem often lies in convincing people to use them. There are misconceptions that extreme changes are required to protect birds from window collisions, but simple solutions can make a huge difference. “We’re not telling you to tear down that building,” Chudzik says. “There are so many tools to stop this from happening that… the argument of ‘well, it’s too expensive, I don’t want to do it…’ is just thrown out the window.”

A yellow-bellied sapsucker collision casualty in front of the French Family Science Center last year.

What can individuals and institutions do to prevent bird-window collisions?

Turn off lights at night.

For reasons not completely understood, birds flying at night are attracted to lit-up urban areas, and lights left on at night can become a death trap. Though window collisions are a year-round problem, migration nights can lead to high numbers of victims, and turning off non-essential lights can help significantly. One study on the same Chicago building where last year’s mass collision event occurred found that halving lighted windows during migration could reduce bird-window collisions by more than 50%.

Chudzik is struck by “the fact that this is such a big conservation issue, but it literally just takes a flip of a switch.” BirdCast and Audubon suggest taking actions like minimizing indoor and outdoor lights at night during spring and fall migration, keeping essential outdoor lights pointed down and adding motion sensors to reduce their use, and drawing blinds to help keep light from leaking out.

Use window decals and other bird-friendly glass treatments.

There are many products and DIY solutions intended to make windows safer for birds, like window decals, external screens, patterns of dots or lines, and strings hanging in front of a window at regular intervals. For window treatments to be most effective, they should be applied to the exterior of the glass, and any patterning should be no more than two inches apart vertically and horizontally. This helps protect even the smallest birds, like kinglets and hummingbirds.

It can be hard to see from a distance, but these windows on Duke’s Fitzpatrick Center have been retrofitted with tiny white dots, an effective strategy to reduce bird-window collisions.

A 2016 window collision study at Duke conducted by several scientists, including Duke Professor Nicolette Cagle, Ph.D., identified the Fitzpatrick Center as a window collision hotspot. As a result, Duke retrofitted some of the building’s most dangerous windows with bird-friendly dot patterning. Ongoing collision monitoring has revealed about a 70% reduction in collisions for that building since the dots were added.

One obstacle to widespread use of bird-friendly design practices and window treatments is concerns about aesthetics. But bird-friendly windows can be aesthetically pleasing, too, and “Dead birds hurt your aesthetic anyway.”

If nothing else, don’t clean your windows.

Bird-window collisions don’t just happen in cities and on university campuses. In fact, most fatal collisions involve houses and other buildings less than four stories tall. Window treatments like the dots on the Fitzpatrick building can be costly for homeowners, but anything you can put on the outside of a window will help.

“Don’t clean your windows,” Chudzik suggests—smudges may also help birds recognize the glass as a barrier.

Window collisions at Duke

The best thing Duke could do, Chudzik says, is to be open to treating more windows. Every spring, students in Cagle’s Wildlife Surveys class, which I am taking now, collect data on window collision victims found around several buildings on campus. Meanwhile, a citizen science iNaturalist project collects records of dead birds seen by anyone at campus. If you find a dead bird near a window at Duke, you can help by submitting it to the Bird-window collisions project on iNaturalist. Part of the goal is to identify window collision hotspots in order to advocate for more window treatments like the dots on the Fitzpatrick Center.

Spring migration is happening now. BirdCast’s modeling tools estimate that 260,000 birds crossed Durham County last night. They are all protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. However, Chudzik says, “We haven’t thought to protect them while they’re actually migrating.” The law is intended to protect species that migrate, but “it’s not saying ‘while you are migrating you have more protections,’” Chudzik explains. Some have argued that it should, however, suggesting that the Migratory Bird Treaty Act should mandate safer windows to help protect migrants while they’re actually migrating.

“This whole world comes alive while we’re asleep, and… most people have no idea,” Chudzik says about nocturnal flight calls. She is shown here on Northwestern University, one of the Chicago buildings where she has placed recorders for her research. 
Photo courtesy of Chudzik.

We can’t protect every bird that passes overhead at night, but by making our buildings safer, we can all help more birds get one step closer to where they need to go.

Post by Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

Students Offer Their Voices of Change to Climate Commitment

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In a society where it seems like the power to create meaningful change on climate concerns is concentrated in the hands of few, witnessing the youth attempt to counter this dynamic is always inspiring.

Last week, members of Duke University’s Climate and Sustainability Office convened with students for a town hall meeting to discuss current progress, areas for improvement, and aspirations for the future. During this meeting, great emphasis was placed on the opinions and perspectives of students, as the leaders of the Duke climate commitment recognized the importance of their voices within this process.  

The meeting began with two thought-provoking questions by Toddi Steelman, Vice President and Vice Provost for Climate and Sustainability, and Tavey Capps, Executive Director of Climate and Sustainability and Sustainable Duke: “What is one word to describe your feelings towards climate change, and what energizes you about climate change?”

These two questions immediately brought the room to life as students began to express their climate anxiety, fears, and frustrations, alongside the ways in which they hoped to one day see change. This passionate discussion set the stage for a deep dive into the objectives and goals of Duke’s Climate Commitment.  

L to R: Toddi Steelman and Tavey Capps

The Climate Commitment is a university-wide effort aimed at creating initiatives to correct our current climate crisis by creating a sustainable environment for all.

Within the commitment, there are five areas of focus: Research, Education, External Engagement, Operations, and Community Connections. The research sector is focused on connecting Duke’s schools across the board for interdisciplinary research. Education is geared towards ensuring learning occurs in and beyond the classroom. External Engagement focuses on informing policy and decision makers alongside engaging community members within this mission. Operations studies the food, water, waste, energy, and carbon supply chain on campus. Lastly, Community Connections asks: how do we authentically engage with the community and partners alike? 

This commitment serves as a broad scale invitation for everyone to get involved, and Duke students did not hesitate to take advantage of this invitation. The town hall was organized through breakout rooms for the students to collectively share ideas.

The first breakout room was focused on the idea of communication. In this, students discussed the ways that they felt the commitment could best reach their peers on campus. Some proposed utilizing the popular social media platform, TikTok by creating short eye-catching videos. Others discussed using professors, posters, and BC Plaza to ensure engagement. Most agreed that email listservs and newsletters also held some merit in getting their classmate’s attention.

Above all, students came to the consensus that informing the student body would be one of the most important missions of the Climate Commitment. 

Following the communication session, I attended the research breakout room led by Blake Tedder from the Office of Sustainability and formerly the Director of Engagement at the Duke Forest. He asked again about the most pressing climate issue. From this, many students delved into issues surrounding biodiversity financing, carbon offsetting, access to clean water, and the ways climate change disproportionately affects marginalized communities.

Blake Tedder leading the Research Breakout Room.

Conversation about these concerns quickly bled into issues surrounding the larger prospect of interdisciplinary studies. Many students felt that this was best done through Duke’s RESILE initiative (Risk Science for Climate Resilience), Bass Connections, and even greater connection between Duke’s main campus and its Kunshan Campus. 

The final room I attended was geared towards making the fight against climate change one that is inclusive and diverse. This talk was coordinated by Jason Elliot from Sustainable Duke.

The question that guided the discussion was: “How can we ensure our goals do not come at the expense of the community?” To this, students proposed a range of ideas. Chief among these were becoming more in tune with the needs of the community and finding ways to actively attend local farms, and other places in need.

Jason Elliot leading the Justice, Diversity, and Equity Inclusion Breakout Room.

In addition, many suggested diversifying speakers to ensure representation and voices from all parts of the community. Some students even narrowed in on engagement within our own campus, suggesting greater collaboration among groups such as the Climate Coalition, Keep Durham Beautiful, and Alpha Phi Omega to achieve these goals. 

This town hall was simply one of many future engagements expected from  Duke’s Climate Commitment in the coming years. While there is still much more work to be done, the diligent efforts of students and faculty alike make the future look promising in the fight against Climate Change. 

Post by Gabrielle Douglas, Class of 2027
Post by Gabrielle Douglas, Class of 2027

“Biodiversity Is Essential, and It’s Not a Nice-to-Have”

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Filmmaker Ashley Hillard and cinematographer Alan Dunkin in Yellowstone. Photo by Hillard.

“I have been interested in storytelling and the environment since my earliest memories,” says Ashley Hillard, a documentary filmmaker with an interest in wildlife management and conservation practices in the United States.

Hillard has a background in film, largely with production companies, talent agencies, and independent projects on the side, but she later shifted into climate tech recruitment. Now she is pursuing an environmental leadership Masters in Environmental Management degree at Duke while working on documentary projects. She is also a  Communications Assistant Intern in the Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic.

She has been working on a film called “Coexistence,” a documentary that spotlights North American species and wildlife management practices. Hillard got the idea for the project when she noticed that U.S.-based researchers often choose to study species in other countries, perhaps “because it’s easier to go over and say ‘Why don’t you try this?’ rather than having to deal with issues in your backyard.”

“We need to pay attention to our own backyards,” Hillard emphasizes. “The hope,” she says, is “more laws and policies and values change along with behaviors as we become more informed and more aware.” She also believes that “local efforts can usually go further.” Part of her goal in creating films about conservation is to help viewers realize that “individuals can be part of change.” Films and other forms of storytelling can inform people about specific species and conservation efforts, but Hillard hopes her work can help shift perspectives more broadly as well. Effective conservation is often “a social attitudes and values issue,” Hillard says. “There needs to be a shift in how we view the environment.”

An American bison that Hillard saw while filming in Yellowstone.
Photo by Hillard.

Shifting baseline syndrome is the idea that people’s expectations of how nature should look reflect their own experiences rather than an accurate picture of the natural state of landscapes, flora, fauna, and wildlife abundance. Our understanding of what nature “normally” looks like changes over generations and is skewed by the societies and time periods we inhabit. The more we damage our environments, the less we collectively remember what they looked like before—and the less motivated we may be to restore them to a condition most of us can’t remember.

When humans and wildlife come into conflict, our perceptions of how nature “should” be can matter tremendously. Gray wolves were recently delisted from the Endangered Species list, then re-listed in most places—both were controversial decisions—but their numbers are far lower than they were historically. Still, some think there are too many wolves. In the Western U.S., gray wolf conservation efforts often clash with the desires of ranchers and and hunters, who may view higher wolf populations as a threat to livestock or game animals like deer and elk. But some of these hunters and ranchers, Hillard says, “are real conservationists doing amazing work,” and she thinks they should get more attention.

While creating the film, Hillard has tried to capture the complexities of wildlife conservation. It’s not as simple as “They’re bad, they’re good, and this is how we solve it,” Hillard says.

There are different ideas about how conservation efforts should be conducted and which animals should be protected in the first place. The dominant approach to wildlife management in the U.S., Hillard says, is rooted in the idea that there are “good” species that people can use and “bad” species that people don’t like to live with, such as wolves and other predators. “This perspective,” she says, “came over with colonists.” She mentions Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf; the stories we tell about animals can reflect societal attitudes toward them. Many indigenous peoples, meanwhile, have traditionally viewed all species as kin. This “cultural aspect” affects people’s willingness to coexist with species like wolves, which in turn affects our conservation practices.

A gray wolf at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in Yellowstone.
Photo by Alan Dunkin, provided by Hillard.

In this country, very few people are killed by wildlife—about 700 annually, according to one review that counted deaths from bites, wildlife-vehicle collisions, and zoonotic diseases. Car accidents, on the other hand, are more than 60 times more deadly, killing about 43,000 people in the U.S. per year. “We have a certain acceptance of how we die,” Hillard says. “There are a number of things that kill people with much higher percentages [than deaths from wildlife] that we… accept as day-to-day,” but we don’t tend to hear calls to eliminate cars from society, while an animal that harms a human is often given a death sentence. Hillard thinks media in general should be more careful about how they share stories about wildlife, especially negative encounters. If stories focus only on rare but tragic incidents, it can distort perceptions of species and “feed into that doom loop.”

Films, Hillard says, can inspire people “to look at things differently and see things from different perspectives.” Storytelling is also a way of communicating scientific information and encouraging action. Hillard feels that some stories about environmental issues are told in a one-sided, black-and-white way, but the nuances of these problems are important. “Finding those complexities and working through them… and then trying to craft stories around that to share with the public so they can make more informed decisions” is part of the goal of Hillard’s films.

“Coexistence” focuses on well-known, often controversial species like red wolves and mountain lions. “Familiarity and awareness of a species can contribute to interest in protecting them,” Hillard says. Such species are sometimes referred to as charismatic megafauna and can be viewed as ambassadors for conservation or umbrella species whose protection helps other wildlife as well. But Hillard has concerns about the term charismatic megafauna. “It diminishes a species’s value and reduces them to ‘cute’ so you no longer see them as an intrinsic part of an ecosystem,” she says. She believes it’s important to emphasize protection of entire ecosystems, not just specific species within them.

A Mexican gray wolf pup at the California Wolf Center. The Mexican gray wolf is a gray wolf subspecies.
Photo by Hillard.

Hillard hopes that her films inspire more awareness of and interest in environmental issues. “There’s a lot of pressure to get it right,” she says. And storytelling can have its own issues when it comes to presenting accurate information. “Information can be left out or shaped in a way to make it more compelling,” Hillard acknowledges. She feels that many wildlife films focus first on scenery and animals, then discuss conservation issues at the end. But “Coexistence” is “very much focused on the issues.” It is expected to be released by early 2025.

“I strive to tell impactful stories in creative ways that are more upbeat in tone,” Hillard says. She believes it’s important for people to be aware of the challenges facing wildlife, but she also wants to inspire hope and the belief that individual actions can matter. “To feel powerless can make you feel hopeless, and there is a lot to be hopeful for,” she says. “But there needs to be a shift in how we view the environment.”

One major problem she sees is our consumerist, materialistic society. “We’re kind of consuming ourselves off the planet,” Hillard says. “How do you change behaviors within a society that’s so hyper-consumptive?”

Films and other forms of storytelling can make scientific information more accessible. “Communicating is that bridge to getting people to care, to understand it, to learn about it,” Hillard says. “Without communication, science studies and research may be siloed in academia.” When we lack accurate and accessible information, we may rely on “‘I heard someone say something about that thing’” rather than science to inform our understanding of issues.

Along with providing accurate information, Hillard wants to encourage “a view of mutualism with other species” and raise questions like “How can we be better neighbors to nonhuman species?”

Ultimately, she wants viewers to recognize that “biodiversity is essential, and it’s not a nice-to-have.”

Hillard at Lands End Lookout in San Francisco.
Photo credit Alan Dunkin, provided by Hillard.

Post by Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

Glowing Waterdogs and Farting Rivers: A Duke Forest Research Tour

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

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

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