The Wild Ones club recently visited the Duke Forest with biology professor Paul Manos, Ph.D., and herpetology professor Ron Grunwald, Ph.D., to look for salamander eggs and other early spring delights.
It was warm and sunny, and wildflowers sprouted up alongside the trail, but most of the trees were still bare. “It’s kind of nice to look in a forest without any leaves,” says Manos. “They get in the way a lot.” We examined winged elm and shagbark hickory at the trailhead, then windflower and bluets right beside the path. Many early spring wildflowers take advantage of the higher levels of sunlight that reach the forest floor before trees develop leaves.
Manos was delighted to find a patch of sphagnum moss beside the trail. He says sphagnum, also known as peat moss, is usually found in higher latitudes, like the United Kingdom and Canada, where it grows in huge fields known as moorlands or quaking bogs.
When we reached a small pond, Grunwald swept a long-handled net through the water and leaf litter and pulled out a gelatinous glob that promptly became a highlight of my week/month/year: spotted salamander eggs. I don’t know what the rest of you spent your childhoods doing, but I spent a good portion of mine looking for frog eggs (and sometimes finding them) and wanting to find salamander eggs (and never finding them). But here they were, in front of me, tinted green with algae and glinting in the sunlight and close enough to touch.
This strikes me as an appropriate retort to many unrelated things. Calculus test? Yeah, okay, but I saw salamander eggs. The grosbeaks that Wild Ones went looking for two weeks ago are still thwarting me? Yes, and I still haven’t gotten over it. However: salamander eggs.
The egg mass was less firm and less slimy than I expected. It felt remarkably similar to jelly. “This gel,” Manos says, “apparently doesn’t allow oxygen to move through it very well,” but the developing spotted salamander larvae need oxygen. The solution is ingenious: a partnership with green algae. A species of algae grows on the egg masses and penetrates individual eggs, and eggs with more algae grow and develop faster.
The algae are photosynthetic, creating carbon and oxygen products from carbon dioxide gas and sunlight. That process likely provides supplemental oxygen to the salamander embryos, and one study found that the salamanders also absorb carbon produced by the algae’s photosynthesis.
That carbon fixation is the first known example of carbon transfer from algae to a vertebrate host, though similar partnerships have been found in invertebrates, and the authors of the study speculate that similar processes may be occurring in other amphibians as well.
The particular species of algae that grows on spotted salamander eggs is in the Oophila, which according to Manos means “egg lover.” The partnership, however, is temporary. “It’s a very short-lived, ephemeral story,” Manos says.
In addition to the spotted salamander eggs, Grunwald also found a marbled salamander larva. Marbled salamanders and spotted salamanders are in the same genus, but they have different approaches to breeding. Marbled salamanders, Grunwald explains, lay their eggs in the fall “where they think a pond is going to be” instead of waiting for ephemeral pools to develop in spring. How do they decide where to lay eggs if the pond isn’t even there yet? Scientists aren’t sure, but salamanders “live in a chemical world,” Grunwald says, relying on taste and chemical signals.
Since marbled salamanders laid their eggs last fall, their larvae have had time to hatch and start developing, though they aren’t yet adults. Spotted salamanders, meanwhile, don’t breed until spring—when the ponds actually exist—so their eggs haven’t yet hatched. For the larvae of both species, developing in small, temporary ponds helps protect them from large predators like fish.
Both marbled and spotted salamanders are in a genus sometimes called mole salamanders because they live underground when they’re not breeding. “There’s an entire city underground here of burrows and holes and crevices,” Grunwald says, a “whole porous network of spaces.” The mole salamanders can shelter underground, but they can’t travel far without coming back to the surface. “It’s not a highway,” Grunwald says.
I would like to know what it is like to be a mole salamander, navigating by taste and smell and spending much of the year in small spaces underground.
Before we left the forest, we went searching for lycophytes, an ancient lineage of plants that first evolved hundreds of millions of years ago. “In the Carboniferous Period 350 million years ago, these guys ruled,” Manos says. The lycophytes we saw in the Duke Forest were tiny, bright green sprigs in a small stream, but their ancestors were trees. Those ancient lycophyte trees are “responsible for all of the coal that we use,” says Manos. “The transformation of their organic material via millions of years of heat and pressure to metamorphic carbonized rock is the definition of coal.”
The lycophytes in the stream are members of the Isoetes genus, also known as quillworts. They look and feel much like grasses, but they are only distant relatives of true grasses. Grasses are flowering plants, while quillworts are lycophytes. Flowering plants and lycophytes diverged hundreds of millions of years ago. Lycophytes use spores to reproduce and have a life cycle similar to ferns. Even their leaves are anatomically and evolutionarily different from the leaves of flowering plants; lycophytes use “their own approach to making leaves,” according to Manos.
I have a nemesis (a bird that defies my searching). Actually, Ihaveseveral, but I have been preoccupied with this particular nemesis for months.
I have seen an evening grosbeak exactly once, in a zoo, which emphatically does not count. For years, I have been fixated on-and-off (mostly on) with the possibility of seeing one in the wild.
They have thick, conical beaks. The males are sunset-colored. (But good luck finding one at sunset, even though the first recorded sighting supposedly happened at twilight, hence their name.) I daydream about flocks of them descending on my bird feeders at home or wandering onto Duke’s campus. That hasn’t happened yet (unless it has happened while I have not been watching, an excruciating possibility I will simply have to live with).
Evening grosbeaks usually live in Canada and the northern U.S., but they are known to irrupt into areas farther south. Irruptions often occur in response to lower supplies of seeds and cones in a bird’s typical range, making it possible to predict bird irruptions, at least if you’re the famous finch forecaster. (Fun fact: “irrupt” literally means “break into,” whereas “erupt” means “break out.”)
Breaking news: The grosbeaks are in Durham, and they have been since December. I will wait while you perform any necessary reactions, including screaming, jumping up and down in delight, charging outside because you simply have to go find them right now, or telling me I must be mistaken.
I am not mistaken. There is a flock of evening grosbeaks overwintering at Flat River Impoundment, 11.8 miles from Duke University. I know this because I get hourly rare bird alerts by email, and I have been receiving emails about evening grosbeaks nearly every day for almost three months. Put another way, evening grosbeaks have been actively and no doubt intentionally taunting me for weeks on end.
Wild Ones, a student organization I’m involved with, had been thinking of organizing a birding trip. For reasons I will not even attempt to deny, I suggested Flat River Waterfowl Impoundment. Last Sunday, seven undergraduates drove there, armed with field guides and binoculars and visions of evening grosbeaks bursting into sight (okay, maybe that was just me).
The morning was chilly but sunny. Flat River is a gorgeous, swampy place full of small ponds and stretches of long grass edged with trees. As soon as we got there, we were serenaded with birdsong: the high, musical trill of pine warblers, the haunting coo of mourning doves, lilting Carolina wren songs, and squeaky-dog-toy brown-headed nuthatch calls.
It wasn’t long before people got to experience the frustrating side of birding. We were admiring a sparrow in a ditch, trying to guess its identity. Someone pulled out a field guide and flipped through the sparrow section only to turn back to the bird and find it gone. Birds can fly. But fortunately, we’d collectively noticed enough field marks to feel reasonably confident identifying it as a swamp sparrow.
Not long after the eagle sighting, we saw another flying raptor: an osprey. In fact, it must have been a good day for raptors because by the end of our trip we had recorded one osprey, two Cooper’s hawks, three bald eagles, and two red-tailed hawks.
We also saw a lot of birders—perhaps two dozen others, maybe more, not counting our own group. Each time we passed a group going in the opposite direction, I asked them if they’d found the grosbeaks.
I think everyone I asked had seen them, and they were all eager to point us in the right direction. Birders like to use landmarks like “by the eagles’ nest” and “the fifth pine on the right” and “past the crossbills.” We found the eagles’ nest, with help from some of the local birders. We think we found the fifth pine on the right, but there were a lot of pines there, so we’re not sure.
We did not find the red crossbills, another irruptive bird species overwintering here this year. (Crossbills are aptly named. The tips of their mandibles really do cross, which helps them access seeds inside cones.)
We found the spot where the evening grosbeaks had most recently been seen — just twenty minutes before we got there, according to the people we were talking to. We waited. We scrutinized the pine trees. We watched red-tailed hawks and bald eagles circle high above us. We admired the eagles’ nest, a huge collection of sticks high in a pine tree.
Would you like to guess what we did not find? My nemesis. Because the evening grosbeaks have devious minds and clearly flew all the way to Durham with the sole intent of hiding from me, dodging me, flying away as soon as I approached, and flying back again as soon as I was gone. (No, really. Other people reported them at Flat River that same day, both before and after our trip there.)
Birding can be intensely frustrating. It can plant images in your mind that will haunt you and taunt you for the rest of your life. Like, for instance, the tiny blue bird I caught a brief glimpse of in the trees one early morning in Yellowstone. For years, I wondered if it could have been a cerulean warbler, but cerulean warblers don’t live in the western U.S. Or let’s talk about the green bird—yes, I swear it was green; no, I can’t prove it—that came to my bird feeders several years ago and never came back. Not while I was watching, anyway. The only thing I can think of for that one is a female painted bunting, but painted buntings aren’t usually in upstate South Carolina. (If my local volunteer eBird reviewer in South Carolina ever happens to read this, I promise I won’t report either of those mystery sightings to eBird.) Or, of course, the evening grosbeaks that flew away twenty minutes before we arrived.
Birding can also be thrilling, meditative, and by all accounts wonderful. Yes, that little blue bird in Yellowstone and the maybe-green one in my backyard are branded in my memory, as are countless more moments of maybe and almost and what if? I will never know what they were. I will probably never get over it.
But there are other moments that stick in my mind just as clearly. The bald eagle soaring above us on this Wild Ones trip. The black-capped chickadee that landed on my finger years ago while my brother and I rested our hands on a bird feeder and waited to see what would happen. My first glimpse of a black-throated blue warbler (I am so proud of whoever named that bird species), chasing an equally tiny Carolina chickadee in my backyard.
The Cape May warbler I saw with a close friend in a small field covered in purple wildflowers. The first time I heard the loud, ringing Teacher-teacher-teacher! song of the ovenbird. A blackpoll warbler, the first I’d ever seen, in a grove of trees in a swampy field that only birders seem to find reason to visit.
The moment two Carolina wrens took food from my hand for the first time. Prothonotary warblers (another nemesis bird) practically dripping from the trees on a rainy, buggy hike along a boardwalk. The downy woodpecker that landed on my gloved hand, apparently too impatient to wait for me to finish what I was doing with the suet feeder, and pecked at the suet with that sharp beak, her black tongue flicking in and out, her talons clinging to me with a trust that brought tears to my eyes.
Birding can change you. It can make your world come alive in a whole new way. It can make traveling somewhere new feel all the more magical — a new soundscape, new flashes of colors and patterns, a new set of beings that make a place what it is. In the same way, birding can make home feel all the more like home. Even when I can’t name all the birds that are making noise in my yard, there is a familiarity to their collective symphony, a comforting sense of “You are here.” I encourage you to watch and listen to birds, too, to join the quasi-cult that birding can be, to trek through somewhere wet and dark when the sky is just beginning to lighten—or to simply step outside, wherever you are, and listen and watch and wait right here and right now. You don’t even need to know their names (though once you start, good luck stopping). And you certainly don’t need a nemesis bird. In fact, your birding experience will be calmer without one. But that might not be up to you, in the end. Nemesis birds have minds of their own.
Since coming to Duke nine years ago, I gained the realization that all rural communities are virtually the same… the infrastructure neglect is still the same.”
Catherine Coleman Flowers
Catherine Coleman Flowers is no stranger to action. Since the start of her career, she’s accomplished everything from working as the Vice Chair of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council to founding the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice. An internationally recognized advocate for public health, Flowers has worked tirelessly to improve water and sanitation conditions across rural America.
On February 9th, Duke University students got to hear from Flowers in a powerful seminar sponsored by Trinity College. A Practitioner in Residence at the Nicholas School of the Environment, Flowers discussed her incredible activism journey.
“I became an activist very, very young,” she said. Her family heritage nurtured her love for the environment early on, as well as her home state of Alabama. In high school, she began to read about the sanitation crisis happening in rural Alabama, Lowndes County in particular.
“I learned that poor people (there) were being targeted for arrest because they couldn’t afford sanitation systems,” Flowers said. The poverty rate in this historically Black county is double the national average, and sewage treatment is not provided for many residents. For those who can afford sanitation systems, they are often far from adequate, such as poorly maintained septic tanks. Issues like exposure to tropical parasites and improper installations are rampant throughout the county.
“It builds upon the structural inequalities that make sure these areas remain poor,” Flowers said. Across the US, millions of rural areas face the same complications. From places like ‘Cancer Alley’ in New Orleans to the city of Mount Vernon in New York, sanitation systems are failing miserably.
“We saw families that couldn’t live in their houses half the time because of the sewage that was running into their home,” Flowers explained. Unsurprisingly, almost all of the areas facing these issues are home to minority communities. “The narrative used to be, ‘they don’t know how to maintain it,’ but that isn’t true. The technology isn’t working at all.”
In November of 2021, Flowers filed the first-ever civil rights complaint against sanitation in Lowndes County. Thanks to her, as well as other prominent community activists, the issue garnered nationwide attention. In less than a year, the county received a $2.1 million grant from the USDA to begin solving the sewage crisis. Similar funding efforts have also been seen in Mount Vernon. “That is an example of what a solution can look like,” Flowers said.
“That’s the kind of power that you have as a Duke student,” Flowers said in closing. With almost one million dollars available for student funding annually and access to one of the greatest networks in the world, Duke students are in a remarkable position to make a change, she said. In North Carolina, counties like Duplin and Halifax are in need of outside help. “Growing up in the computer age, you can bring those skills needed to assist those applying for funds.”
So, what can you do? Above all, Flowers emphasizes the importance of leading frombehind. ” Don’t go in the community and try to lead from the front… People from the community need to be involved from the design to the implementation.”
As students, our assistance is needed in the form of support. From assisting with grant applications, to utilizing our network access to spread the word, there are so many ways to get involved. True equity is found not when we speak for the community, but rather when we strengthen the community’s ability to speak for itself.
Click here to get in contact with Ms.Catherine Coleman Flowers, and click here for more information about work you can do in the local community!
A low buzzing erupts into a loud static noise that fills the Duke lecture hall.
University of Michigan neuroscientist Gregory Gage describes the noise as the “most beautiful sound in the world.” It’s not the sound itself that evokes such fascination, but the source: this is the sound of electrical signals coming from neurons inside an amputated cockroach leg.
With a background in electrical engineering, Gage credits this sound as the moment that got him interested in neuroscience. He now travels the country as an educator to bring his experiments to the public and encourage interest in neuroscience. His organization, Backyard Brains aims to bring research outside of the lab, and make it accessible to children and students everywhere. On Feb. 2, he presented the Gastronauts Seminar in the Nanaline Duke Building.
His first on-stage experiment aims to understand how information is encoded inside neurons, specifically the neurons located inside the barbs on cockroach legs. In order to record the signals without the roach running off, the first step is to amputate the cockroach leg. For all those worried for the well-being of the roach, rest assured that it was first “anesthetized” in a bath of ice water. (It’s still up for debate if cockroaches can truly feel pain, but Gage likes to err on the side of caution). Importantly, cockroaches also have the ability to regenerate limbs. In about five weeks a new leg will start to grow to replace the one that has been lost, and the entire regrowth will be completed in about 3 to 5 months.
The second step is to place electrode pins through the legs. Two pins are required so that the current will flow through the leg. One pin is located where there are very few neurons, serving as the ‘ground.” This experiment will measure the difference between the two pins, multiplied by the gain provided by an amplifier which makes the signal easier to see and hear.
Turning up a volume knob on the amplifier, a low static buzzing becomes audible throughout the lecture hall. As Gage is the first to admit, “it doesn’t sound like much” at first. There are a few possibilities: maybe there is no neuron activity, maybe the leg is dead, or maybe it’s just not stimulated. The leg barbs contain stretch receptors: important sensory structures that play critical roles in detecting vibration, pressure, and touch.
These receptors are a type of ion channel, which are proteins located in the plasma membrane of cells that form a passageway through the membrane. They have the ability to open and close in response to chemical or mechanical signals. Stretch-activated ion channels respond to membrane deformation. When compressed, they allow ions to flow through, creating an immediate change in the transmembrane gradient and allowing for a rapid signaling response. The flow of ions is a flow of charge, and constitutes an electric current.
The opening and closing of ion channels underlie all electrical signaling of nerves and muscles. Why has the nervous system evolved to use electricity (as opposed to a chemical diffusion process)? Because it’s fast. And often our lives (or that of a cockroach) depend on responding quickly.
At the direction of Gage, a volunteer lightly brushes the cockroach leg. Suddenly, a change in the noise: short static bursts in volume correspond with each stroke of the cockroach leg. These are “single-unit recordings,” a sampling of the activity of individual or small clusters of neurons. The sound we are hearing is a burst of activity: the neurons rapidly firing in response to the stimuli, and attempting to send the electrical message up the brain.
Next, Gage pulls up his screen and shows a visual representation of the electrical signals. Along with the sound, it is clear to see the large spikes that correspond with the neurons firing. These spikes are called action potentials, and they occur when the membrane potential of a specific cell location rapidly rises and falls. When touching the leg hairs with more pressure, the number of action potentials per second increases. Measuring the number of spikes that occur per second is called rate coding, and it can be used to answer complex questions about how neurons respond to stimuli.
This experiment demonstrated how neurons send electrical impulses to the brain. But the brain does not just receive electrical impulses, it also sends them out. What happens if we tried to simulate the electrical impulses sent by the brain to the cockroach’s leg? In his second on-stage experiment, Gage demonstrates exactly this, using hip-hop music from his iPod as his electrical current.
The buds of a pair of headphones are cut off and replaced with small clips that attach to the electrode pins sticking out of the leg. Dr. Gage presses play on the music on his iPod, and immediately, the end of the cockroach leg begins to twitch and jump. The leg moves most dramatically with the bass of the music: lower frequencies have the longest waves, which correspond to the largest amount of current.
One final experiment combines both of the previous ones: how nerves encode information, and how nerves can be stimulated. A group of undergraduates at the University of Chile developed a system that uses an app to control the mind of a roach. Cockroaches use their antennae to observe the environment around them. If you take a cockroach and fit a wire inside each antenna (think of them like hollow tubes filled with neurons), you can stimulate those neurons, tricking the cockroach brain into thinking it has detected an outside stimulus. Using an Arduino microcontroller, the team of students created a little “hat” for the cockroach, and connected it via bluetooth to a smartphone app that can be used to send electrical impulses. Stimulating the right antennae causes the cockroach to move to the left, and stimulating the left antennae causes the cockroach to move to the right.
Why a cockroach? It’s a question that a volunteer stops to ask after finding herself up close and personal with the creature. Gage explains that they actually have brains very similar to our own. If we can learn “a little about how their brain works, we’re gonna learn a lot about ours.”
He ends his presentation with a parting message to all the researchers in the room: “I spend my life working on weird things like this, because each one tells a little story. Through these stories we can bring experiments to classrooms, democratize science and make it more accessible to everyone.”
What are the trials and tribulations one can expect? And conversely, what are the highlights? To answer these questions, Duke Research & Innovation Week kicked off with a panel discussion on Monday, January 23.
Moderated by George A. Truskey, Ph.D, the Associate Vice President for Research & Innovation and a professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, the panelists included…
Claudia K. Gunsch, Ph.D., a professor in the Departments of Civil & Environmental Engineering, Biomedical Engineering, and Environmental Science & Policy. Dr. Gunsch is the director of the NSF Engineering Research Center for Microbiome Engineering (PreMiEr) and is also the Associate Dean for Duke Engineering Research & Infrastructure.
Yiran Chen, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering. Dr. Chen is the director of the NSF AI Institute for Edge Computing (Athena).
Stephen Craig, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Chemistry. Dr. Craig is the director of the Center for the Chemistry of Molecularly Optimized Networks (MONET).
As the panelists joked, a catchy acronym for a research center is almost an unspoken requirement. Case in point: PreMiEr, Athena, and MONET were the centers discussed on Monday. As evidenced by the diversity of research explored by the three centers, large externally-funded centers run the gamut of academic fields.
PreMiEr, which is led by Gunsch, is looking to answer the question of microbiome acquisition. Globally, inflammatory diseases are connected to the microbiome, and studies suggest that our built environment is the problem, given that Americans spend on average less than 8% of time outdoors. It’s atypical for an Engineering Research Center (ERC) to be concentrated in one state but uniquely, PreMieR is. The center is a joint venture between Duke University, North Carolina A&T State University, North Carolina State University, the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill and the University of North Carolina – Charlotte.
Dr. Chen’s Athena is the first funded AI institute for edge computing. Edge computing is all about improving a computer’s ability to process data faster and at greater volumes by processing data closer to where it’s being generated. AI is a relatively new branch of research, but it is growing in prevalence and in funding. In 2020, 7 institutes looking at AI were funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), with total funding equaling 140 million. By 2021, 11 institutes were funded at 220 million – including Athena. All of these institutes span over 48 U.S states.
MONET is innovating in polymer chemistry with Stephen Craig leading. Conceptualizing polymers as operating in a network, the center aims to connect the behaviors of a single chemical molecule in that network to the behavior of the network as a whole. The goal of the center is to transform polymer and materials chemistry by “developing the knowledge and methods to enable molecular-level, chemical control of polymer network properties for the betterment of humankind.” The center has nine partner institutions in the U.S and one internationally.
Research that matters
Dr. Gunsch talked at length about how PreMiEr aspires to pursue convergent research. She describes this as identifying a large, societal challenge, then determining what individual fields can “converge” to solve the problem.
Because these centers aspire to solve large, societal problems, market research and industry involvement is common and often required in the form of an industry advisory group. At PreMiEr, the advisory group performs market analyses to assess the relevance and importance of their research. Dr. Chen also remarked that there is an advisory group at Athena, and in addition to academic institutions the center also boasts collaborators in the form of companies like Microsoft, Motorola, and AT&T.
Commonalities in structure
Most research centers, like PreMiEr, Athena, and MONET, organize their work around pillars or “thrusts.” This can help to make research goals understandable to a lay audience but also clarifies the purpose of these centers to the NSF, other funding bodies, host and collaborating institutions, and the researchers themselves.
How exactly these goals are organized and presented is up to the center in question. For example, MONET conceptualizes its vision into three fronts – “fundamental chemical advances,” “conceptual advances,” and “technological advances.”
At Athena, the research is organized into four “thrusts” – “AI for Edge Computing,” “AI-Powered Computer Systems,” “AI-Powered Networking Systems,” and “AI-Enabled Services and Applications.”
Meanwhile, at PreMiEr, the three “thrusts” have a more procedural slant. The first “thrust” is “Measure,” involving the development of tracking tools and the exploration of microbial “dark matter.” Then there’s “Modify,” or the modification of target delivery methods based on measurements. Finally, “Modeling” involves predictive microbiome monitoring to generate models that can help analyze built environment microbiomes.
A center is about the people
“Collaborators who change what you can do are a gift. Collaborators who change how you think are a blessing.”
Dr. stephen craig
All three panelists emphasized that their centers would be nowhere without the people that make the work possible. But of course, humans complicate every equation, and when working with a team, it is important to anticipate and address tensions that may arise.
Dr. Craig spoke to the fact that successful people are also busy people, so what may be one person’s highest priority may not necessarily be another person’s priority. This makes it important to assemble a team of researchers that are united in a common vision. But, if you choose wisely, it’s worth it. As Dr. Craig quipped on one of his slides, “Collaborators who change what you can do are a gift. Collaborators who change how you think are a blessing.”
In academia, there is a loud push for diversity, and research centers are no exception. Dr. Chen spoke about Athena’s goals to continue to increase their proportions of female and underrepresented minority (URM) researchers. At PreMiEr, comprised of 42 scholars, the ratio of non-URM to URM researchers is 83-17, and the ratio of male to female researchers is approximately 50-50.
In conclusion, cutting-edge research is often equal parts thrilling and mundane, as the realities of applying for funding, organizing manpower, pushing through failures, and working out tensions with others sets in. But the opportunity to receive funding in order to start and run an externally-funded center is the chance to put together some of the brightest minds to solve some of the most pressing problems the world faces. And this imperative is summarized well by the words of Dr. Craig: “Remember: if you get it, you have to do it!”
Su, a mathematician and professor at Harvey Mudd College, displayed “Hope,” an 1886 painting by George Frederic Watts. He asked the audience to look at it, really look at it, and think about what’s happening in the painting. At first glance, it shows a blindfolded woman holding a wooden object. She seems to be in pain. But the more time we spend looking, the more we notice. We might notice that there’s a single star above her. We might notice that the wooden object is a lyre with only one string left attached. We might notice, too, that the woman is plucking that final string and straining to hear its music.
If we take the time to explore the history of the painting, we might learn that Martin Luther King, Jr., talked about the same painting in a sermon. Su quoted a line from that sermon: “Who has not had to face the agony of blasted hopes and shattered dreams?” We find beauty in art, and often we find it relatable as well. Art invites us to look closer, to wonder, to feel, to ask questions, to imagine.
“Why,” Su asks then, “don’t we approach mathematics the way that we approach art?”
Whether we consider ourselves “math people” or not, we rarely if ever hear mathematics discussed as an affirmation of human virtues and desires—love, beauty, truth, the “expectation of enchantment.” Su wants to change that. In his book “Mathematics for Human Flourishing” and in his talk at Duke, he envisions mathematics as beautiful, inclusive, and accessible to anyone.
Along with the painting “Hope,” Su’s first slide shows a quote by Simone Weil: “Every being cries out silently to be read differently.” Simone Weil, according to Su, was a “French religious mystic” and “widely revered philosopher,” but she also had a deep interest in math. Her older brother, André Weil, was an influential mathematician whose mathematical achievements often overshadowed her own. In a letter to a friend published posthumously in the book “Waiting for God,” Simone Weil wrote: “I did not mind having no visible successes, but what did grieve me was the idea of being excluded from that transcendent kingdom to which only the truly great have access and wherein truth abides.” Su sometimes wonders how Simone’s relationship to mathematics would have been different if André had not been her brother. Again, “Every being cries out silently to be read differently.” According to Su, when Simone Weil speaks of “reading” someone, she means “to interpret or make a judgment about them.”
Su has a friend, Christopher Jackson, who is an inmate in a high-security prison, serving a thirty-two year sentence for involvement in armed robberies as a teenager. When you think about people who do math, Su asks, would you think of Chris? “We create societal norms about who does math,” and Chris doesn’t fit those norms. And yet he has been studying mathematics for years. After studying algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus while in prison, he sent a letter to Su requesting help in furthering his mathematics education. The two men still correspond regularly, and Chris is now studying topology and other branches of mathematics.
“Every being cries out silently to be read differently.”
Why do math in the first place? Just as you can take your car to a mechanic without fully understanding how it works yourself, we might think of math as “only for the elite few” or perhaps as “a means to an end,” a tool “to make you ‘college and career ready.’” Su sees it differently. He views math in terms of human flourishing, “a wholeness of being and doing.” He points to three words from other languages: eudaemonia, a Greek term for “the overarching good in life”; shalom, a Hebrew word often used as a greeting and roughly translated as “peace”; and salaam, an Arabic word with a similar meaning to shalom.
“What attracts me to music,” Su says, “isn’t playing scales over and over again.” But once you “experience a symphony,” you might see the value in playing scales. Can we learn to think of math the same way? Here, Su quoted mathematician Olga Taussky-Todd: “The yearning for and the satisfaction gained from mathematical insight brings the subject near to art.”
Beauty and awe probably aren’t the first words that come to mind when most of us think of math, but Su believes math can unlock “transcendent beauty.” He references a quote by C.S. Lewis: “the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.” That is what math at its best can do for us. It can help us see the big picture and realize that we’re “just scratching the surface of something really profound.”
“Math is not a single ‘ability,’” Su says. “In reality, math is a multi-dimensional set of virtues.” When learning or teaching math, we often focus more on skills like recalling facts and algorithms, factoring polynomials, or taking a derivative. But Su believes more important lessons are at play: virtues like persistence, creativity, a thirst for deep knowledge, and what he calls the expectation of enchantment. And, he says, employers are often much more interested in virtues than in skills. “If you want to be really practical about this—and I don’t, with mathematics, but if you do—then it’s actually the virtues that are more important than the skills,” Su says.
One basic human desire that Su believes math can help fulfill is the desire for truth, which, in turn, can help build virtues like a thirst for deep knowledge and the ability to think for oneself, which can help us figure out what’s true instead of just blindly trusting authorities. “Truth is under attack,” Su says. “Misinformation is everywhere.” Su wants to teach his students “to think, to be ‘that person who doesn’t need to look at the Ikea instructions.’” But he also wants them to view math as more than just a means to an end. “It’s my responsibility to help my students remember the beauty” in math and to understand that their dignity as human beings isn’t dependent on their grades.
Along with truth and beauty, he believes math can and should bring opportunities for exploration and discovery. “My role isn’t to be a teacher,” he says. “My role is to be a co-explorer.” He recalls his own excitement when he first saw a Menger cube, or Menger sponge, cut along its diagonal. The resulting cross-section is beautiful and, yes, enchanting. “What would it look like for classrooms to be like that?” During the pandemic, Su started adding more reflection-focused questions to his exams, questions like “Consider one mathematical idea from the course that you have found beautiful, and explain why it is beautiful to you.” Even more traditional math questions can be phrased in an “exploratory” way. Su gives the example of a question that asks students to make two rectangles, one with a bigger perimeter and one with a bigger area.
Another desire or virtue important in the field of mathematics is justice. Su wants math to be accessible to all, but not everyone has had positive experiences with math or feels like they belong there. As an analogy, Su talks about receiving dishes from a “secret menu” when visiting certain Chinese restaurants with friends who are fluent in Chinese. When he goes there on his own and requests the “secret menu,” however, he is sometimes turned away or told that he wouldn’t like those dishes. “Are people side-by-side in the same restaurant having different experiences” in math, too? “Who are you to say they do or don’t belong in mathematics?”
Even Su himself hasn’t always had wholly positive experiences in math. One of his professors once told him he didn’t “have what it takes to become a successful mathematician,” and he almost quit his Ph.D. program. Instead, he switched to a different advisor who had encouraged him to stick with it. Meanwhile, he surrounded himself with people who could remind him why he loved math. Math as a field can be competitive, but “if you think of mathematics as human flourishing… then that’s not a zero-sum game anymore.”
In Su’s words, “we’re all math teachers” because “we all pass on attitudes about math to others.” He says studies show that parents can pass on “math anxiety” to their kids. But Su encourages people to “believe that you and everyone can flourish in mathematics.” Simone Weil. Christopher Jackson. And you.
With mask mandates being overturned and numerous places going back to “normal,” COVID is becoming more of a subconscious thought. Now, this is not a true statement for the entire population, since there are people who are looking at the effects of the pandemic and the virus itself.
I attended a poster presentation for the “The Pandemic Divide” event hosted here at Duke by the Samuel Dubois Cook Center on Social Equity. To me, all the poster boards conveyed the theme of how COVID-19 had affected our lives in more ways than just our health. One connection that particularly caught my eye would be the one between American Education and COVID.
As a student who lived through COVID while attending high school, I can safely say that the pandemic has affected education. However, based on the posters I saw, it is important to know that education, too, has a strong and impactful impact on COVID-19.
The first evidence I saw was from Donald J. Alcendor, an associate professor of microbiology and immunology at Meharry Medical College in Nashville. His poster was about the hesitancy surrounding COVID-19 vaccines. One way he and his team figured out to lessen the hesitance from the public was to improve the public’s trust. To achieve this, Alcendor and his team sent trusted messengers into the community. One of the types of messengers they provided was scientists who studied COVID-19. These scientists were able to bring factual information about the disease, how it spreads, and the best course of action to act against it. Alcendor and his research team also brought in “vaccine ambassadors” to the community and a mobile unit to help give the community vaccines. He noted that this was accomplished with support from the Bloomberg Foundation’s Greenwood Initiative, which addresses Black health issues.
With this mobile unit, Alcendor and his team were able to reach people and help those who were otherwise unable to receive help for themselves because of their lack of transportation. They provided people from all backgrounds with help and valuable information.
Alcindor said he and his team planned pop-up events based on where the community they were trying to reach congregates. With the African American community, he planned pop-up events at churches and schools. Then for the Latino community, he planned pop-events where families tend to gather, and he held events in Latin0 neighborhoods. In addition, he made sure that the information was available in Spanish at all levels, from the flyers and the surveys, to the vaccinators themselves.
All of these amenities that he and his group provided were able to educate the community about COVID-19 and improve their trust in the scientists working on the disease. Alcendor and his team were able to impact COVID-19 through education, and by going to the event, it was evident to me that he was not the only one who accomplished this.
Colin Cannonier, an associate professor of economics at Belmont University in Nashville, asked and answered the question, “does education have an impact on COVID? Specifically, does it change health and wellbeing?” To answer this question, he researched how education about COVID can affect a person. He discovered that when a person is more educated about COVID, how it is spread, and its symptoms, they are more likely to keep the pandemic in check through their behavior. He came to this conclusion because he realized that when higher educated people know more about COVID, they exhibit behaviors to remain healthy, meaning that they would follow the health protocols given by the health officials.
While this may seem like common sense that the more educated a person is, the more they make smart choices pertaining to COVID, this shows how important education is and how deadly ignorance is. Cannonier’s research gave tangible evidence to show that education is a weapon against diseases. Unfortunately, it is evident that some officials did not believe in educating the public about the virus or the virus itself, and that proved to be extremely deadly.
To fully capture the relationship between COVID and education, one must also talk about how COVID-19 affected education.
Stacey Akines, a history graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University, studied how education was changed by the pandemic.
First, she realized that COVID schooling crossed over with homeschooling. Then she uncovered that more Black people started to research and teach their children about Black history. This desire to teach youth more about their history caused an increase in the number of Black homeschoolers. In fact, the number of Black homeschoolers doubled during the fall of 2020. While to some, this change to homeschooling may have a negative impact on one’s life, it actually gives the student more opportunities to learn things.
It is no secret that there are many books being banned here in the U.S., and there are many state curriculums that are changing to erase much of Black history. Homeschooling a child gives the parent an opportunity to ensure that the education they receive is true to and tells their history
Unlike me, where during high school, education felt lackluster and limited because of COVID, some parents saw an opportunity to better their child’s education.
I hope that it is clear that the relationship between COVID and education is a complex one. Both can greatly impact each other, whether it’s for the better or for the worse. COVID thrives when we are uneducated, and it very nearly destroyed education too, but for the efforts of some dedicated educators.
Last Monday, Oct. 17, Duke University students who had conducted global health research had the opportunity to present their work. From North Carolina to Sub-Saharan Africa, the 2022 Global Health Research Showcase featured works that tackle some of the world’s most pressing health issues. Over 40 undergraduate, Masters, and PhD student projects examined a broad range of issues, determinants, and phenomena in countries from almost every continent. Here’s a few project highlights, in case you missed it:
Maeve Salm, pursuing her Master of Science in Global Health, went to Tanzania to study contraceptive use. Tanzania’s youth are highly impacted by teen pregnancy, and Salm wanted to understand desires for contraceptive use among adolescents affected by HIV. She learned that, much like in the U.S., stigma influences access to sexual healthcare for adolescents. This qualitative study aimed to support young people in achieving their desired health outcomes and reducing HIV transmission by examining barriers and facilitators to family planning. Findings indicate that youth agency in reproductive health is of utmost importance.
Wondering about the Covid-19 response in other countries? Master of Science in Global Health Candidate Stephanie Stan explored the barriers and enablers to the pandemic response in Peru. Per capita, Peru experienced the highest mortality rate form the disease compared to any other country. Due to several challenging factors, they were slow to receive COVID-19 vaccines. However, they implemented highly successful vaccination campaigns once vaccines were obtained. What can be learned from Peru’s pandemic response? Prolonged and proactive collaborations between sectors (healthcare, academics, and government) enable swift public health responses in a crisis. It’s important to have elected officials who are empowered to make decisions promoting science.
“Definitely meeting all the incredible people that I interviewed and learning about their work and involvement in Peru’s pandemic response. Learning about what happens moving forward from their point of view.”
Stephanie Stan, when asked about her global health research experience
Winning the first-place Graduate Student Research Award, Judith Mwobobia’s project examined the stigma of cancer in sub-Saharan Africa. Stigma is a huge barrier to receiving treatment, which is a problem considering that 70% of global cancer deaths originate from Africa. Perceptions of financial stress, misconceptions about cancer, and fear of death were common attitudes driving cancer stigma. Proposed interventions included education and policy recommendations for low-resourced communities. Mwobobia is pursuing her Master of Science in Global Health. Clearly a supportive group, her classmates erupted in cheers when the award was announced.
We might not always think about the sounds around us, but our brains are always listening, said Northwestern University professor Nina Kraus.
Kraus, auditory researcher and author of “Of Sound Mind: How Our Brain Constructs a Meaningful Sonic World,” spoke via Zoom to a Duke audience in October. She has published more than four hundred papers on the auditory system in humans and other animals and how it’s affected by conditions like autism, aging, and concussion. She discussed some of her findings and how “the sound mind” affects us in our day-to-day lives.
“I think of the sound mind as encompassing how we think, how we move, how we sense, and how we feel,” Kraus said. We live in a “visually dominated world,” but for hearing people, sound plays an important role in language, music, rhythm, and how we perceive the world.
Kraus discussed the auditory system and how much of what we think of as hearing takes place in the brain. We can think of sound as signals outside the head and electricity as signals inside the head (neural processing). When those two merge, learning occurs, and we can make sound-to-meaning connections.
Despite how sensitive our neurons and brains are to sound, things can get lost in translation. Kraus studies how conditions like concussions and hearing loss can adversely affect auditory processing. Even among healthy brains, we all hear and interpret sounds differently. People have unique “sonic fingerprints” that are relatively stable over time within an individual brain but differ between people. These patterns of sound recognition are apparent when scientists record brain responses to music or other sounds.
“One of the biological measures that we have been using in human and in animal models,” Kraus said, is FFR (frequency following response) to speech. FFR-to-speech can be used to analyze an individual’s auditory processing system. It also allows scientists to convert brain responses back into sound waves. “The sound wave and the brainwave resemble each other, which is just remarkable.”
This technology helps reveal just how attuned our brains are to sound. When we hear a song, our brain waves respond to everything from the beat to the melody. Those brain waves are so specific to that particular song or sound that when scientists convert the brain waves back into sound, the resulting music is still recognizable.
When scientists try this on people who have experienced a concussion, for instance, the recreated music can sound different or garbled. Experiments that compare healthy and unhealthy brains can help reveal what concussions do to the brain and our ability to interpret sound. But not everything that affects auditory processing is bad.
Musical training is famously good for the brain, and experiments done by Kraus and other scientists support that conclusion. “The musician signature—something that develops over time—” has specific patterns, and it can enhance certain components of auditory processing over time. Making music might also improve language skills. “The music and language signatures really overlap,” Kraus said, “which is why making music is so good for strengthening our sound mind.” Kids who can synchronize to a beat, for example, tend to have better language skills according to some of the experiments Kraus has been involved with.
Musicians are also, on average, better at processing sound in noisy environments. Musicians respond well in quiet and noisy environments. Non-musicians, on the other hand, respond well in quiet environments, but that response “really breaks down” in noisy ones.
Interestingly, “Making music has a lifelong impact. Making music in early life can strengthen the sound mind when one is seventy or eighty years old.”
Exercise, too, can improve auditory processing. “Elite division 1 athletes have especially quiet brains” with less neural noise. That’s a good thing; it lets incoming information “stand out more.”
In experiments, healthy athletes also have a more consistent response over time across multiple trials, especially women.
These benefits aren’t limited to elite athletes, though. According to Kraus, “Being fit and flexible is one of the best things you can do for your brain,” Kraus said.
Kraus and her team have a regularly updated website about their work. For those who want to learn more about their research, they have a short video about their research approach and an online lecture Kraus gave with the Kennedy Center.
The list of professions that have been pushed to the brink during the pandemic is ever-expanding. However, the sea change that swept over nursing in the past three years rivals that of almost any occupation, said panelists in a Sept. 28 event hosted by Duke University School of Nursing.
Already one of the most overworked professions, the pandemic only seemed to magnify nursing’s enduring problems, according to panelist and journalist Lauren Hilgers. A few months into the pandemic, nurses around the country began quitting in droves due to both burnout and undervaluation by their employers. As the front lines dwindled, hospitals working at full capacity needed to meet patient demand by any means necessary.
Enter travel nursing agencies, independent staffing organizations that matched nurses from across the country with hospitals dealing with acute labor shortages. Already increasing in popularity in the lead-up to the pandemic, demand for travel nurses in recent times has exploded. As this fundamental change in the make-up of the nursing labor pool occurred, people started to take notice.
In February of 2022, an article was published in the New York Times titled “Nurses Have Finally Learned What They’re Worth”. In the piece, Hilgers chronicles the major trends in the nursing workforce over the past three years. Hilgers describes the unique proposition facing the nurses who chose not to quit: remain as a staff nurse on their current salaries or sign up with a traveling agency and uproot their lives, albeit for higher pay. And the pay bump was substantial. Certain travel nurse jobs paid up to $10,000 a week, many times what staff nurses were earning. These nurses would often stay at a hospital anywhere from a couple of weeks to months, providing much-needed relief to healthcare systems. However, as the practice spread, questions soon began to emerge about the disparities in pay between staff and travel nurses, the sustainability of travel nurse programs, and, moreover, how the American healthcare system enabled travel nursing to rise to such prominence in the first place?
“Nursing is the largest segment of the healthcare workforce…yet what we contribute to the health and wellbeing of our country is invisible,” mentioned Dean Ramos at the discussion’s outset.
Smalheer agreed, adding that nurses today are contributing to patient care in ways that were vastly outside of their scope of practice just twenty years ago. A unique combination of technical proficiency, aptitude during crisis response, and ability to provide feelings of care and comfort, Hilgers describes nursing as one of, if not the only, profession in healthcare that considers the “entirety of a patient.”
A frequently cited statistic during the panel presentation referenced results from a Gallup poll indicating that nursing was rated as the most trusted profession for the 20th year in a row. While nurses were always aware of their influence and worth, getting healthcare systems to agree proved to be a much larger effort, one that only grew in importance as COVID-19 progressed.
“The pandemic has hardened us,” explains Smallheer. No longer were nurses willing to tolerate slights against their treatment as a profession. And they had tolerated plenty. Barraza, one of the protagonists of Hilgers’ piece, described the relentless search for purpose amidst constant burnout, especially during the pandemic’s heaviest waves. From finding efficient triage methods during a surge of cases to celebrating patient discharges, Barraza actively sought out ways to be “consistent when there was no consistency.” A charge nurse located in a region with severe labor shortages, Barraza had seen the influx of travel nurses firsthand every week. What ultimately kept him from traveling across the country in the pursuit of a more lucrative job, however, was the relationships he had forged within the hospital. Nurses, students, patients-they had all left an indelible mark on Barraza and enabled him to push through the long and grueling hours. Tennyson reinforced Barraza’s story by claiming that “you can be burnt out and still find value in a profession.” This seemingly contradictory duality may have proved sufficient to retain nurses during the pandemic, but as for long-term solutions, the panelists agree that significant change must occur at a systemic level.
One of the central tensions of Hilgers’ article is that between the hospital and the worker. The explosion of travel nursing during the pandemic was but a manifestation of decades of undervaluation by hospitals of nurses. In order to undo this narrative and enact concrete change, Tennyson argues that nurses must be represented in more interdisciplinary professional spaces, from healthcare administration to policy to business. Hilgers restates this idea more broadly, saying that nurses “need to have a seat at the table” in reshaping the healthcare system post-COVID-19.
Much of this work begins at the level of the educational institution. Smallheer and Tennyson spoke at length about how nurses can better be prepared to navigate the ever-changing healthcare workforce. They both highlighted a few of the Duke School of Nursing’s novel instructional methods, including early exposure to complicated patient cases, extensive practice with end-of-life scenarios, and recognition of overstimulation points in the field. Also important for nurses-in-training and existing nurses, according to all panelists, was collective action. Through supporting state and national nursing associations, writing to local politicians, and speaking to healthcare administrators, they argued that nurses will be better equipped to voice their demands.
As the panel reached its closing stages, one of the main talking points centered around changing the narrative of nursing as solely a burnout profession. Hilgers in particular remains critical of the portrayal of nurses, and more broadly those involved in care work, in popular media. She strongly advocates for authentic storytelling that including the voices of actual nurses, nurses such as Barraza. Ramos describes Barraza as someone who “represent[s] the best in nursing,” and the panelists maintained a strong desire to see such stories of resilience and passion spotlighted more frequently.
There is no simple formula to reform the nursing profession in the United States. However, through a combination of effective storytelling, more current educational standards, greater interdisciplinary involvement, and collective action, the panelists of the Dean’s Lecture Series firmly believe that lasting change is possible.