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

Category: Science Communication & Education Page 1 of 18

A Day of STEM for Girls

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On any average weekday at Duke University, a walk through the Engineering Quad and down Science Drive would yield the vibrant and exciting sight of bleary-eyed, caffeine-dependent college students heading to labs or lectures, most definitely with Airpods stuck in their ears.

But on Saturday, February 22nd, a glance towards this side of campus would have shown you nearly 200 energetic and chatty female and female-identifying 4th to 6th graders from the Durham area. As part of Capstone, an event organized by Duke FEMMES, these students spent the day in a series of four hands-on STEM activities designed to give them exposure to different science, technology, engineering, and math disciplines.

Nina MacLeod, 10, gets grossed out when viewing fruit fly larvae through a microscope while her guide, Duke first-year Sweta Kafle, waits patiently. (Jared Lazarus)

FEMMES, which stands for Females Excelling More in Math, Engineering, and Science, is an organization comprised of Duke students with the aim of improving female participation in STEM subjects. Their focus starts young: FEMMES uses hands-on programming for young girls and hosts various events throughout the year, including after-school activities at nearby schools and summer camps. 

Capstone was a day of fun STEM exposure divided into four events stationed along Science Drive and E-Quad — two in the morning, and two in the afternoon, with a break for lunch. Students were separated into groups of around eight, and were led by two to three Duke undergraduates and a high school student. The day started bright and early at 8:45 A.M with keynote speaker Stacy Bilbo, Duke professor of Psychology and Neuroscience. 

Staci Bilbo

Bilbo explained that her work centers around microglial cells, a type of brain cell. A series of slides about her journey into a science career sparked awe, especially as she remarked that microglial cells are significant players in our immune system, but scientists used to know nearly nothing about them. Perhaps most impactful, however, was a particular slide depicting microglial cells as macrophages, because they literally eat cellular debris and dead neurons.

A cartoon depiction of this phenomenon generated a variety of reactions from the young audience, including but not limited to: “I’m NEVER being a doctor!”, “I wish I was a microglial cell!”, “Ew, why are brains so gross?”, and “I’m so glad I’m not a brain because that’s SO weird.”

Even in 2020, while fields like medicine and veterinary science see more women than men, only 20% of students that earn bachelor’s degrees in physical sciences, math, and engineering disciplines are female. What accounts for the dramatic lack of female participation in STEM disciplines? The reasons are nuanced and varied. For example, according to a 2010 research report by the American Association of University Women, girls tend to have more difficulty acquiring spatial thinking and reasoning skills – all because of the type of play young female children are more likely to engage in. 

Durham area students learned how to perform a blood pressure check during a FEMMES session taught by Duke EMS, an all-volunteer, student-run division of the police department and Duke Life Flight. Duke senior Kayla Corredera-Wells (center) put the blood pressure cuff on sophomore Pallavi Avasarala. (Jared Lazarus)

This creates a chicken-and-egg story: girls don’t enter STEM at the same rate as their male counterparts, and as a result, future generations of girls are discouraged from pursuing STEM because they don’t see as many accomplished, visibly female scientists to look up to. Spaces like Capstone which encourage hands-on activity are key to exposing girls to the same activities that their male counterparts engage in on a regular basis – and to exposing girls to a world of incredible science and discovery led by other females. 

After Bilbo’s talk, it was off to the activities, led by distinguished female professors at Duke — a nod to the importance of representation when encouraging female participation in science. For example, one of the computer science activities, led by Susan Rodger, taught girls how to use basic CS skills to create 3-D interactive animation.

An introduction to categorizing different minerals based on appearance was led by Emily Klein, while one of the medicine-centered activities involved Duke EMS imparting first aid skills onto the students. 

For one of the biology-themed activities, Nina Sherwood and Emily Ozdowski (dubbed “The Fly Ladies”) showed students fruit flies under a microscope. The activity clearly split the group: girls who stared in glee at unconscious flies, shrieking “It’s SO BIG, look at it!” and girls who exchanged disgusted looks, edging their swivel chairs as far as physically possible from the lab benches. Elizabeth Bucholz, a Biomedical Engineering professor, led one of the engineering activities, showing students how CT scans generate images using paper, a keychain light and a block (meant to represent the body). In math, meanwhile, Shira Viel used the activity of jump-roping to show how fractions can untangle the inevitable and ensuing snarls.

The day definitely wasn’t all science. During lunch in LSRC’s Love Auditorium, most groups spread out after scarfing down pizza and spent intense focus over learning (and recording) TikTok dances, and when walking down Science Drive under blue and sunny skies, conversations ranged from the sequins on someone’s Ugg boots to how to properly bathe one’s dog, to yelling erupting over someone confidently proclaiming that they were a die-hard Tar Heel.

Nina Sherwood, Associate Professor of Biology, showed Emma Zhang, 9, some fruit flies, which we study because they share 75% of their genes with humans. (Jared Lazarus)

A raffle at the end of the day for the chance to win Duke merchandise inspired many closed eyes and crossed fingers (“I want a waterbottle so bad, you have no idea!”) And as newfound friends said goodbye to each other and wistfully bonded over how much fun they had at the end of the day, one thing was clear: events like Capstone are crucial to instilling confidence and a love of STEM in girls. 

By Meghna Datta

Squirmy Science

Unearthing A New Way Of Studying Biology

Yes, students, worms will be on the test. 

Eric Hastie, a post-doctoral researcher in the David Sherwood Lab, has designed a hands-on course for undergraduates at Duke University in which biology students get to genetically modify worms. Hastie calls the course a C.U.R.E. — a course-based undergraduate experience. The proposed course is designed as a hands-on, semester-long exploration of molecular biology and CRISPR genome editing.

An image taken of the adult gonad structure of a C. elegans worm in the Sherwood Lab,

In the course, the students will learn the science behind genome editing before getting to actually try it themselves. Ideally, at the course’s end, each student will have modified the genome of the C. elegans worm species in some way. Over the course of the semester, they will isolate a specific gene within one of these worms by tagging it with a colored marker. Then they will be able to trace the inserted marker in the offspring of the worm by observing it through a microscope, allowing for clear imaging and observation of the chosen characteristic.

When taught, the course will be the third in the nation of its kind, offering undergraduates an interactive and impactful research experience. Hastie designed the course with the intention of giving students transferrable skills, even if they choose careers or future coursework outside of research.

“For students who may not be considering a future in research, this proposed class provides an experience where they can explore, question, test, and learn without the pressures of joining a faculty research lab,” he told me.

Why worms? Perhaps not an age-old question, but one that piqued my interest all the same. According to Hastie, worms and undergraduate scientific research pair particularly well: worms are cost-effective, readily available, take up little space (the adults only grow to be 1mm long!), and boast effortless upkeep. Even among worms, the C. elegans species makes a particularly strong case for its use. They are clear, giving them a ‘leg up’ on some of their nematode colleagues—transparency allows for easy visibility of the inserted colored markers under a microscope. Additionally, because the markers inserted into the parent worm will only be visible in its offspring, C. elegans’ hermaphroditic reproductive cycle is also essential to the success of the class curricula.  

Undergraduate researcher David Chen studying one of his worm strains under a microscope.

“It’s hard to say what will eventually come of our current research into C. elegans, but that’s honestly what makes science exciting,” says undergraduate researcher David Chen, who works alongside Hastie.  “Maybe through our understanding of how certain proteins degrade over time in aging worms, we can better understand aging in humans and how we can live longer, healthier lives.”

The kind of research Hastie’s class proposes has the potential to impact research into the human genome. Human biology and that of the transparent, microscopic worms have more in common than you might think— the results derived from the use of worms such as C. elegans in pharmaceutical trials are often shown to be applicable to humans. Already, some students working with Hastie have received requests from other labs at other universities to test their flagged worms. So perhaps, with the help of Hastie’s class, these students can alter the course of science.

“I certainly contribute to science with my work in the lab,” said junior Ryan Sellers, a research contributor. “Whether it’s investigating a gene involved in a specific cancer pathway or helping shape Dr. Hastie’s future course, I am adding to the collective body of knowledge known as science.”

Post by Rebecca Williamson

#UniqueScientists Is Challenging Stereotypes About Who Becomes a Scientist

University of North Carolina cell biologist Efra Rivera-Serrano says he doesn’t look like a stereotypical scientist: he’s gay, Puerto Rican, and a personal trainer.

Known on Twitter as @NakedCapsid or “the guy who looks totally buff & posts microscopy threads,” he tweets about virology and cell biology and aims to make science more accessible to the non-science public.

But science communication encompasses more than posting the facts of viral transmission or sending virtual valentines featuring virus-infected cells, Rivera-Serrano says. As a science communicator, he’s also committed to conveying truths that are even more rarely expressed in the science world today. He’s committed to diversity.

Rivera-Serrano’s path through academia has been far from linear — largely because of the microaggressions (which are sometimes not so micro) that he’s faced within educational institutions. He’s been approached while shopping by a construction work recruiter and told by a graduate adviser in biology to “stop talking like a Puerto Rican.”

Efra Rivera-Serrano, Ph.D.
He’s a scientist at UNC—and also a personal trainer.
Photo from @NakedCapsid Twitter

And the worst part is that he’s far from being the only one in this kind of position. That’s why Rivera-Serrano holds one simple question close to heart:

What would a cell do?

“I use this question to shape the way I tackle problems,” Rivera-Serrano says. After all, a key component of virology is the importance of intercellular communication in controlling disease spread. Similarly, a major goal of diversity-related science communication is “priming” others to fight stereotypes and biases about who belongs in science.

Virology’s “herd immunity” theory operates under the principle that higher vaccination rates mean fewer infections. For some viruses, a 90% vaccination rate is all it takes to completely eradicate an infection from existing in a population. Rivera-Serrano, therefore, hopes to use inclusive science communication as a vaccination tool of sorts to combat discriminatory practices and ideologies in science. He isn’t looking for 100% of the world to agree with him—only enough to make it work.

Herd immunity places value on community rather than individuals.
Image by Tkarcher via Wikimedia Commons

This desire for “inclusive science communication” led Rivera-Serrano to found Unique Scientists, a website that showcases and celebrates diverse scientists from across the globe. Scientists from underrepresented backgrounds can submit a biography and photo to the site and have them published for the world’s aspiring scientists to see.

Some Unique Scientists featured on Rivera-Serrano’s site!

Generating social herd immunity needs to start from an early age, and Unique Scientists has proven itself useful for this purpose. Before introducing the website, school teachers asked their students to draw a scientist. “It’s usually a man who’s white with crazy hair,” according to Rivera-Serrano. Then, they were given the same instructions after browsing through the site, and the results were remarkable.

“Having kids understand pronouns or see an African American in ecology—that’s all something you can do,” Rivera-Serrano explains. It doesn’t take an insane amount of effort to tackle this virus.

What it does take, though, is cooperation. “It’s not a one-person job, for sure,” Rivera-Serrano says. But maybe we can get there together.

by Irene Park

Contaminated Drinking Water in Our Backyard

About 70% of the human body is made up of water. Water is something we consume on a daily basis. Therefore, when a community’s water source is threatened or contaminated it can be extremely detrimental. 

In 2017, it became apparent that there was water contamination in eastern North Carolina. Specifically, PFAS or per- and polyfluoroalkyl Alkyl chemicals were found in the water supply. As a result, several legislative mandates were issued in 2018 establishing a PFAS Testing Network to investigate the contamination.

Lee Ferguson, an Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Duke and Kathleen Gray, a professor at UNC’s Institute for the Environment, are testing PFAS water contamination and communicating any risks to the public. 

Gray is part of the network’s risk communication team. She explained that PFASs are hard to address because the health effects are unknown and they have yet to determine a standard or guideline for these substances. However, because this water contamination affects the lives of everyone connected to the water supply it is extremely important to communicate risk to the affected community but without eliciting panic. 

Gray explained that people often ask, “Are my family and I safe?” “What can I do to protect myself and my family?” “Why did this happen?” and “Why wasn’t it prevented?”

In the last year Ferguson and his research team have tested 409 sites in North Carolina for PFAS compounds.

He explained that PFAS substances are particularly dangerous because they are non-degradable, potentially toxic and constantly changing. Long-chain PFASs are being replaced by fluorinated alternatives.

Ferguson described this phenomenon as “playing environmental ‘whack-a-mole’ with different substances.”

Ferguson and his testing team have found two contaminated water supply sites in North Carolina. Dangerous contamination is based on the EPA health advisory level of 70ng/Liter. The exceedances were found in Maysville and Orange Water and Sewer Authority. Maysville was able to switch to the Jones County water source once the problem was identified.

New data that came in within the last couple weeks found high month-to-month variability in PFAS in the Haw River near Pittsboro. Ferguson and his team predict that it is coming downstream from a waste treatment plant. 

Brunswick County is shown having the worst PFAS concentrations. However, Dr. Ferguson and his team have recently found that the contamination in Haw River is even worse.

While all of this information may seem very alarming, Gray and Ferguson both reiterated that it is not necessary to panic. Instead, people should make sure they are drinking filtered water or invest in a water filter. 

Ferguson added, “The best choice is reverse osmosis.”

Gray and Ferguson presented their work at a SciComm Lunch-and-Learn, a monthly event sponsored by Duke Science & Society Initiative that explores interesting and innovative aspects of science communication. The event is free and open to anyone in the Duke community.

By Anna Gotskind

First-Year Students Designing Real-World Solutions

In the first week of fall semester, four first-year engineering students, Sean Burrell, Teya Evans, Adam Kramer, and Eloise Sinwell, had a brainstorming session to determine how to create a set of physical therapy stairs designed for children with disabilities. Their goal was to construct something that provided motivation through reward, had variable step height, and could physically support the students. 

Evans explained, “The one they were using before did not have handrails and the kids were feeling really unstable.”

,
Teya Evans is pictured stepping on the staircase her team designed and built. With each step, the lightbox displays different colors.

The team was extremely successful and the staircase they designed met all of the goals set out by their client, physical therapists. It provided motivation through the multi-colored lightbox, included an additional smaller step that could be pulled out to adjust step height, had a handrail to physically support the students and could even be taken apart for easy transportation.

This is a part of the Engineering 101 course all Pratt students are required to take. Teams are paired with a real client and work together throughout the semester to design and create a deliverable solution to the problem they are presented with. At the end of the semester, they present their products at a poster presentation that I attended. It was pretty incredible to see what first-year undergraduates were able to create in just a few months.

The next poster I visited focused on designing a device to stabilize hand tremors. The team’s client, Kate, has Ataxia, a neurological disorder that causes her to have uncontrollable tremors in her arms and hands. She wanted a device that would enable her to use her iPad independently, because she currently needs a caregiver to stabilize her arm to use it. This team, Mohanapriya Cumaran, Richard Sheng, Jolie Mason, and Tess Foote, needed to design something that would allow Kate to access the entire screen while stabilizing tremors, being comfortable, easy to set up and durable.

The team was able to accomplish its task by developing a device that allowed Kate to stabilize her tremors by gripping a 3D printed handlebar. The handlebar was then attached to two rods that rested on springs allowing for vertical motion and a drawer slide allowing for horizontal motion.

“We had her [Kate] touch apps in all areas of the iPad and she could do it.” Foote said. “Future plans are to make it comfier.”

The team plans to improve the product by adding a foam grip to the handlebar, attaching a ball and socket joint for index finger support, and adding a waterproof layer to the wooden pieces in their design. 

The last project I visited created a “Fly Flipping Device.” The team, C. Fischer, E. Song, L. Tarman, and S. Gorbaly, were paired with the Mohamed Noor Lab in the Duke Biology Department as their client. 

Tarman explained, “We were asked to design a device that would expedite the process of transferring fruit flies from one vial to another.”

The Noor lab frequently uses fruit flies to study genetics and currently fly flipping has to be done by hand, which can take a lot of time. The goal was to increase the efficiency of lab experiments by creating a device that would last for more than a year, avoid damaging the vials or flies, was portable and fit within a desk space. 

The team came up with over 50 ideas on how to accomplish this task that they narrowed down to one that they would build. The product they created comprised of two arms made of PVC pipe resting on a wooden base. Attached to the arms were “sleeves” 3D printed to hold the vials containing flies. In order to efficiently flip the flies, one of the arms moves about the axis allowing for multiple vials to be flipped that the time it would normally take to flip one vial. The team was very successful and their creation will contribute to important genetic research.

The Fly Flipping Device

It was mind-blowing to see what first-year students were able to create in their first few months at Duke and I think it is a great concept to begin student education in engineering through a hands-on design process that allows them to develop a solution to a problem and take it from idea to implementation. I am excited about what else other EGR 101 students will design in the future.

By Anna Gotskind


Republican to RepublicEn: Climate Change for Conservatives

My mom’s calling—we talk every day. She asks me if I’ve eaten, and I complain about the usual: essays, exams, horrifying clumps of hair on the shower floor. 

Bob Inglis, former Congressman and speaker at the Change My Mind Symposium during Duke Energy Week.

I sit on the steps of the chapel, a warm yellow against a silent sky. Durham is chilly tonight. Cloudy, starless, I feel rain coming. My fingers — naked, against my phone and ear —fare worst, somewhere between cold and numb. They crave my pocket’s warmth, and I tell my mother goodbye.

“Wait, Mom, before I go, did you see the climate change report?”

And with a single sentence, cordial relations are over, and little things like “familial love” fall away. Constructed arguments become a battle of volume. Mom, if we don’t do anything, millions will die. But, Jeremy, she says, climate change is natural — and these summits, they’re PR moves, politicians don’t actually care. In the ring, it’s Me vs. Mother, Ali vs. Frazier, Democrat vs. Republican. An hour in, I’ve forgotten the cold — hell, I’m sweating in self-righteous anger.

These little spats parallel increasingly intense partisanship in the United States. Hot-button topics fuel the divide, with gun control, abortion rights, and impeachment splitting Democrats and Republicans along party lines. Particularly contentious is climate change. While 84% of Democrats “consider climate change a ‘major threat,’” only a fourth of Republicans feel the same. 

Enter Bob Inglis, former US Congressman and 1981 Duke alumnus. Inglis represented South Carolina’s 4th House district, one of the reddest regions in the nation. Initially, he wasn’t so hot on global warming himself. “For years, I was in Congress saying climate change was nonsense,” he says, laughing. “I didn’t know anything about it except that Al Gore was for it.

But what changed his mind?

“Inglis 2.0,” as he calls it, began with his son in 2004, who pushed him to adopt greener policies. Next was the increasing body of evidence that proved climate change undeniable. But it would take a spiritual awakening to transform Inglis’s views. On a snorkeling trip to the Great Barrier Reef, Inglis met oceanographer Scott Heron. The two were kindred spirits, and in Heron’s conservation work, Inglis saw a love for God. For Inglis, “Conservation became loving God and loving people,” he says.        

Inglis addresses free-enterprise solutions to climate change
(Source: Duke University Energy Initiative)

In 2009, he introduced the “Raise Wages, Cut Carbon Act” designed to curb global warming. Central to the bill was a carbon tax, which puts a price on carbon-based fuel use. Voter backlash was swift. “They were having a Tea Party— and I was specifically uninvited,” Inglis chuckles. In the 2010 election, he was soundly defeated in a primary race against Trey Gowdy, largely in response to the carbon tax. 

But Inglis didn’t stop there. In 2012, he founded republicEn, an organization that promotes free enterprise solutions to global warming. republicEn targets a right-wing audience—those most hesitant to accept global warming. 

The core of republicEn is its online community. Thousands of members convene in local events and write letters to Congress advocating a carbon tax solution. Dedicated spokespeople also tour the nation to promote the need for conservative leadership. Both benefit from republicEn’s media wing, which gives conservative voices a platform for climate change.

Inglis firmly believes that conservative solutions are key to fighting climate change. Citing the explosion of smartphones, he poses a question: would the cell phone industry have grown as rapidly had it been intensely regulated? He doubts it. Similarly, he sees free market solutions as the fastest way to slow global warming.

republicEn has no set timeline, no five-year plan. But Inglis is hopeful: “You weren’t there when we marched in Selma, but you can be there when we solve climate change.” 

Post by Jeremy Jacobs

Malaria Hides In People Without Symptoms

It seems like the never-ending battle against Malaria just keeps getting tougher. In regions where Malaria is hyper-prevalent, anti-mosquito measures can only work so well due to the reservoir that has built up of infected humans who do not even know they carry the infection.

In high-transmission areas, asymptomatic malaria is more prevalent than symptomatic malaria. Twenty-four percent of the people in sub-Saharan Africa are estimated to harbor an asymptomatic infection, including 38 to 50 percent of the school-aged children in western Kenya. Out of the 219 million malaria cases in 2017 worldwide, over 90%  were in sub-Saharan Africa.  

Using a special vacuum-like tool, Kelsey Sumner, a former Duke undergraduate now completing her Ph.D. at UNC-Chapel Hill, collected mosquitoes in households located in rural western Kenya. These weekly mosquito collections were a part of her pre-dissertation study on asymptomatic, or invisible, malaria. She visited Duke in September to catch us up on her work in Data Dialogue event sponsored by the mathematics department.

Sumner and colleague Verona Liao, in front of a sticky trap for mosquitoes

People with asymptomatic malaria carry the infection but have no idea they do because they do not have any indicators. This is incredibly dangerous because without symptoms, they will not get treated and can then infect countless others with the disease. As a result, people with an asymptomatic infection or infections have become a reservoir for malaria — a place for it to hide. Reservoirs are a group that is contributing to transmission at a higher rate or proportion than others.

Sumner’s study focused on examining the effect of asymptomatic malaria on malaria transmission as well as whether asymptomatic malaria infections would protect a person against future symptomatic infections from the same or different malaria infections. They were particularly looking into Plasmodium falciparum malaria. In Kenya, more than 70% of the population lives in an area with a high transmission of this potentially lethal parasite.

“P. falciparum malaria is very diverse in the region,” she said. “It’s constantly mutating, which is why it’s so hard to treat. But because of that, we’re able to actually measure how many infections people have at once.” 

The researchers discovered that many study participants were infected with multiple, genetically-distinct malaria infections. Some carried up to fourteen strains of the parasite.

Participants in the study began by filling out an enrollment questionnaire followed by monthly questionnaires and dried blood spot collections. The project has collected over nearly 3,000 dried blood spots from participants. These blood spots were then sent to a lab where DNA was extracted and tested for P. falciparum malaria using qPCR

“We used the fact that we have this really diverse falciparum species in the area and sequenced the DNA from falciparum to actually determine how many infections people have,” Sumner said. “And then, if there’s a shared infection between humans and mosquitoes.”

Sumner and her team also visited symptomatic participants who would fill out a behavioral questionnaire and undergo a rapid diagnostic test. Infected participants were able to receive treatment. 

While people in the region have tried to prevent infection through means like sleeping under insecticide-treated nets, malaria has persisted. 

One of the Kenyan staff members hanging a CDC light trap for mosquitoes

Sumner is continuing to analyze the collected DNA to better understand asymptomatic malaria, malarial reservoirs and how to best intervene to help stop this epidemic. 

“We’re basically looking at how the number of shared infections differ between those that have asymptomatic malaria versus those that have symptomatic malaria.”

She and her team hypothesize that there are more asymptomatic infections that would result in and explain the rapid transmission of malaria in the region.

Post by Anna Gotskind

Vaping: Crisis or Lost Opportunity?

Wikimedia Commons

Whether you’re doing vape tricks for YouTube views or kicking yourself for not realizing that “USB” was actually your teenager’s Juul, you know vaping is all the rage right now. You probably also know that President Trump has called on the FDA to ban all flavored e-cigarettes to combat youth vaping. This comes in reaction to the mysterious lung illness that has affected 1,080 people to date. 18 of them have died.

At Duke Law School’s “Vaping: Crisis or Lost Opportunity” panel last Wednesday, three experts shared their views. 

Jed Rose, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and director of the Duke Center for Smoking Cessation, has worked in tobacco research since 1979, focusing on smoking cessation and helping pioneer the nicotine patch. Rose also directs Duke’s Center for Smoking Cessation.

According to Rose, e-cigarettes are more effective than traditional Nicotine Replacement Therapy (NRT). A recent study found that e-cigarettes were approximately twice as effective as the state-of-the-art NRT in getting smokers to quit combustible cigarettes (CCs). This makes sense because smokers are addicted to the action of puffing, so a smoking cessation tool that involves inhaling will be more successful than one that does not, like the patch.

Rose also took issue with the labeling of the current situation surrounding vaping as an “epidemic.” He called it a “crisis of exaggeration,” then contrasted the 18 deaths from vaping to the 450 annual deaths from Tylenol poisoning

Even in the “pessimistic scenario,” where e-cigarettes turn out to be far more harmful than expected, Rose said deaths are still averted by replacing cigarettes with e-cigarettes. 

The enemy, Rose argued, is “disease and death, not corporations”, like the infamous (and under-fire) Juul. 

James Davis, MD, an internal medicine physician and medical director for the Center for Smoking Cessation, works directly with patients who suffer from addiction. His research focuses on developing new drug treatments for smoking cessation. Davis also spearheads the Duke Smoke-Free Policy Initiative.

Davis began by calling for humility when using statistics regarding e-cigarette health impacts, as long-term data is obviously not yet available. 

Davis did present some known drawbacks of e-cigarettes, though, stating that e-cigarettes are similarly addictive compared to conventional cigarettes, and that a whopping 21% of high school students and 5% of middle school students use e-cigarettes. Davis also contended that “When you quit CCs with e-cigarettes, you are merely transferring your addiction to e-cigarettes. Eighty-two percent [of test subjects who used e-cigarettes for smoking cessation] were still using after a year.” 

However, according to Davis, there is a flipside. 

Similar to Rose, Davis looked to the “potential for harm reduction” — e-cigarettes’ morbidity is projected to be only 5-10% that of CCs. If the main priority is to get smokers off CC, Davis argues e-cigarettes are important: 30-35% of CC smokers say they would use an e-cigarette to quit smoking, where only 13% would use a nicotine patch. 

Furthermore, Davis questioned whether the mysterious lung disease is attributable to e-cigarettes themselves — a recent study found that 80% of a sample of afflicted subjects had used (often black-market) THC products as well.

Lauren Pacek, an assistant professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke, examines smoking in the context of addiction and decision-making.

Pacek stated that flavored electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS) are important to youth: 61-95% of current youth ENDS users use flavored products, and 84% of young users say they would not use the products without flavors. So, banning flavored ENDS would ostensibly reduce young adults’ use, potentially keeping them off nicotine entirely.

However, Pacek pointed to the importance of flavors for adult users too: the ones that are purportedly using ENDS not for recreation or social status (as young people have been known to do), but for smoking cessation. Many former CC smokers report that flavored ENDS were important for their cessation. By banning flavored ENDS, the products look less appealing, and smokers are more likely to return to much more harmful cigarettes.  

So where do we go from here? 

Pacek did not take a concrete stance, but said her “take-home message” was that policymakers need to consider the impact of the ban on the non-target population, those earnest cigarette smokers looking to quit, or at least turn to a less harmful alternative. 

Rose also did not offer a way forward, but made clear that he does not support the FDA’s impending ban on flavored e-cigarettes and thinks the hysteria around vaping is mostly unfounded.

Davis did not suggest a course of action for the US, but as leader of Duke’s Smoke-Free Policy Initiative, he certainly suggested a course of action for Duke. The Initiative prohibits combustible forms of tobacco at Duke, but does not (yet) prohibit e-cigarettes. 

By Zella Hanson

Big SMILES All Around for Polymer Chemists at Duke, MIT and Northwestern

Science is increasingly asking artificial intelligence machines to help us search and interpret huge collections of data, and it’s making a difference.

But unfortunately, polymer chemistry — the study of large, complex molecules — has been hampered in this effort because it lacks a crisp, coherent language to describe molecules that are not tidy and orderly.

Think nylon. Teflon. Silicone. Polyester. These and other polymers are what the chemists call “stochastic,” they’re assembled from predictable building blocks and follow a finite set of attachment rules, but can be very different in the details from one strand to the next, even within the same polymer formulation.

Plastics, love ’em or hate ’em, they’re here to stay.
Foto: Mathias Cramer/temporealfoto.com

Chemistry’s old stick and ball models and shorthand chemical notations aren’t adequate for a long molecule that can best be described as a series of probabilities that one kind of piece might be in a given spot, or not.

Polymer chemists searching for new materials for medical treatments or plastics that won’t become an environmental burden have been somewhat hampered by using a written language that looks like long strings of consonants, equal signs, brackets, carets and parentheses. It’s also somewhat equivocal, so the polymer Nylon-6-6 ends up written like this: 

{<C(=O)CCCCC(=O)<,>NCCCCCCN>}

Or this,

{<C(=O)CCCCC(=O)NCCCCCCN>}

And when we get to something called ‘concatenation syntax,’ matters only get worse.  

Stephen Craig, the William T. Miller Professor of Chemistry, has been a polymer chemist for almost two decades and he says the notation language above has some utility for polymers. But Craig, who now heads the National Science Foundation’s Center for the Chemistry of Molecularly Optimized Networks (MONET), and his MONET colleagues thought they could do better.

Stephen Craig

“Once you have that insight about how a polymer is grown, you need to define some symbols that say there’s a probability of this kind of structure occurring here, or some other structure occurring at that spot,” Craig says. “And then it’s reducing that to practice and sort of defining a set of symbols.”

Now he and his MONET colleagues at MIT and Northwestern University have done just that, resulting in a new language – BigSMILES – that’s an adaptation of the existing language called SMILES (simplified molecular-input line-entry system). They they think it can reduce this hugely combinatorial problem of describing polymers down to something even a dumb computer can understand.

And that, Craig says, should enable computers to do all the stuff they’re good at – searching huge datasets for patterns and finding needles in haystacks.

The initial heavy lifting was done by MONET members Prof. Brad Olsen and his co-worker Tzyy-Shyang Lin at MIT who conceived of the idea and developed the set of symbols and the syntax together. Now polymers and their constituent building blocks and variety of linkages might be described like this:

Examples of bigSMILES symbols from the recent paper

It’s certainly not the best reading material for us and it would be terribly difficult to read aloud, but it becomes child’s play for a computer.

Members of MONET spent a couple of weeks trying to stump the new language with the weirdest polymers they could imagine, which turned up the need for a few more parts to the ‘alphabet.’ But by and large, it holds up, Craig says. They also threw a huge database of polymers at it and it translated them with ease.

“One of the things I’m excited about is how the data entry might eventually be tied directly to the synthetic methods used to make a particular polymer,” Craig says. “There’s an opportunity to actually capture and process more information about the molecules than is typically available from standard characterizations. If that can be done, it will enable all sorts of discoveries.”

BigSMILES was introduced to the polymer community by an article in ACS Central Science last week, and the MONET team is eager to see the response.

“Can other people use it and does it work for everything?” Craig asks. “Because polymer structure space is effectively infinite.” Which is just the kind of thing you need Big Data and machine learning to address. “This is an area where the intersection of chemistry and data science can have a huge impact,” Craig says.

Vulci 3000: Technology in Archaeology

This is Anna’s second post from a dig site in Italy this summer. Read the first one here.

Duke PhD Candidate Antonio LoPiano on Site

Once home to Etruscan and Roman cities, the ruins found at Vulci date to earlier than the 8th century B.C.E.

As archaeologists dig up the remains of these ancient civilizations, they are better able to understand how humans from the past lived their daily lives. The problem is, they can only excavate each site once.

No matter how careful the diggers are, artifacts and pieces of history can be destroyed in the process. Furthermore, excavations take a large amount of time, money and strenuous labor to complete. As a result, it’s important to carefully choose the location.

Map of the Vulci Landscape Created Using GIS Technology

In response to these challenges Dr. Maurizio Forte decided to supplement the excavation of ancient Vulci sites by using innovative non-invasive technologies. 

Considering that it once housed entire cities, Vulci is an extremely large site. To optimize excavation time, money, and resources, Dr. Forte used technologies to predict the most important urban areas of the site. Forte and his team also used remote sensing which allowed them to interpret the site prior to digging. 

Georadar Imaging
Duke Post Doc Nevio Danelon Gathering Data for Photogrammetry

Having decided where on the site to look, the team was then able to digitally recreate both the landscape as well as the excavation trench in 3D. This allowed them to preserve the site in its entirety and uncover the history that lay below. Maps of the landscape are created using Web-GIS (Geographic Information Systems). These are then combined with 3D models created using photogrammetry to develop a realistic model of the site.

Forte decided to make the excavation entirely paperless. All “paperwork”  on site is done on tablets. There is also an onsite lab that analyzes all of the archaeological discoveries and archives them into a digital inventory.

This unique combination of archaeology and technology allows Forte and his team to study, interpret and analyze the ancient Etruscan and Roman cities beneath the ground of the site in a way that has never been done before. He is able to create exact models of historic artifacts, chapels and even entire cities that could otherwise be lost for good.

3D Model Created Using Photogrammetry

Forte also thinks it is important to share what is uncovered with the public. One way he is doing this is through integrating the excavation with virtual reality applications.

I’m actually on site with Forte and the team now. One of my responsibilities is to take photos with the Insta360x which is compatible with the OculusGo, allowing people to experience what it’s like to be in the trench with virtual reality. The end goal is to create interactive applications that could be used by museums or individuals. 

Ultimately, this revolutionary approach to archaeology brings to light new perspectives on historical sites and utilizes innovative technology to better understand discoveries made in excavations.

By: Anna Gotskind ’22

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