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

Category: Students Page 1 of 34

Blake Fauskee and the ‘Little Typos’ of Fern DNA

Blake Fauskee, third-year Biology PhD student, pitched his graduate project to advisor Kathleen Pryer (Ph.D.) as an undergrad. Fauskee, who researches RNA editing sites in ferns, told me about the project that he’s been working on for the last several years. His research could push back against the idea that DNA is the end-all, be-all molecule for encoding life as we know it.

Blake Fauskee, third-year Biology PhD student

Fauskee broke down RNA editing for me. “RNA editing is this extra step in the whole central dogma, the whole gene expression process, that happens in plant organellar DNA,” he said. This process takes place in plant mitochondrial and chloroplast genomes.

Fauskee uses a lot of metaphors to describe his work, which I find both helpful and admirable. Science can often be dense and lack feasible connections to processes that most of us are familiar with. “Basically, in [plant] DNA, there are little typos almost. The wrong nucleotide is encoded at certain spots. When those genes are going to be expressed, they get turned into RNA and then other proteins from the nucleus come in and find the little typos so that in the end you get the correct protein.”

This image shows a simplified diagram of how RNA editing works.

Fauskee calls RNA editing an “interesting and strange process” that neither animals nor humans have. His work attempts to study the evolution of this process, the patterns of RNA editing, and why it came to be. He uses DNA and RNA sequence data and the help of computational tools to do his work. He explains that when sequencing DNA, you can think of the fragmented base pairs “as little puzzle pieces.” “So, I take all those little puzzle pieces and try to put back together the chloroplast genome, which is about 150,000 base pairs. It’s like a thousand-piece puzzle.”

Next, he figures out where the fern’s gene sequences are on the DNA strands, making use of genomic databases that contain known genomes. He then aligns RNA sequences to the genes he has mapped. Fauskee looks for the “typos” or “little differences” between the DNA and RNA: “That’s how we find the RNA editing sites.” Finally, he evaluates how the proteins would be changed by the typos in the DNA if the RNA was not edited after being transcribed.

“So, a lot of these fern genes will have a STOP codon right in the middle, which is really, really bad if you don’t fix because you are only going to get half a protein,” Fauskee said. STOP codons signal to the protein-building ribosomes that the protein is finished once it reads this portion of the RNA. Fauskee explained that these types of errors are the ones would expect organisms to lose, but it turns out they are the ones that are conserved in ferns. “Is there an extra function there? Is it helpful? Is it adaptive?” Fauskee asked.

An image of different ferns.

Comparative analyses between fern species are important. By looking at whether there are common editing sites and common amino acid changes, Fauskee says, “We’re trying to understand if certain editing sites may be advantageous and what kinds of fluctuation we see between certain types of changes.”

Fauskee underscored the importance of his work. “RNA editing is a really interesting process that kind of undermines what I learned in molecular biology…They always tell you DNA is the bedrock, it’s the be-all, end-all. But what happens when the DNA is wrong? What’s the other added layer on this?”

Simply put, Fauskee, says that because of RNA editing, “We have to rethink central dogma a little bit.” In some plants, 10% of all their gene products contribute to RNA editing, Fauskee tells me. “That’s a big chunk and that’s got to be important,” Fauskee said, “Why would evolution keep such a burden going?”

Biology’s central dogma is the idea that DNA is transcribed into RNA and then translated into proteins. RNA editing adds an extra step before translation and protein production.

There may also be implications for how RNA editing sites affect the way that genetic relationships are mapped through phylogenetics. If differences between the DNA of different species at RNA editing sites, this could be misleading. Though the DNA indicates a change in base pair, RNA editing could lead to the same output in protein despite the seeming change. “If you took [RNA editing] into account,” Fauskee says, “does it give you a different answer?”

Fauskee studies ferns because of the amount of editing sites found in these plants. While flowering plants have lost editing sites over time, ferns have not. “For RNA editing, you can look at all angiosperms (flowering plants) and for the whole chloroplast genome, they might have 30-50 RNA editing sites. When you get into ferns, that number jumps up to 300-500 and I am trying to understand why.”

Botanical science first captured Fauskee’s interest while he completed his undergraduate degree in his home state at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). As a sophomore at UMD, Fauskee was taken under the wing of Amanda Grusz (Ph.D.). Grusz received her PhD in biology from Duke and worked under Pryer during her own time at the university. “I’m like my advisor’s academic grandson, which is kind of funny.” Clara Howell, who is part of Fauskee’s PhD cohort and who I spoke with last Fall, is also an academic grandchild in her own lab.

Being an “academic grandson” has worked out well for Fauskee. His key advice to me for any person considering a PhD, “Make sure your advisor is not someone you just admire as a scientist, but as a person.” On a day-to-day basis, Fauskee says that advisor Katheen Pryer “is pretty hands off” but is also “one of the most supportive people ever.” “I’m pretty much the driver of my own ship. If I am falling off the road, she’ll push me back on the road, but she’ll give me freedom to swerve around on that road.”

Fauskee also emphasized a piece of wisdom that Pryer passed down to him. “If whatever you’ve got going on is working and everyone else is doing something different, who cares?” he said.

Though Fauskee says that “lab work can be frustrating,” getting his long analyses to run after wrangling lots of data is very rewarding. Fauskee, who does not have a background in coding or computer languages, likes to “tell people that [his] floor of biology combined is one competent coder.” When he’s not stealing bits of his biology neighbor’s code, Fauskee loves to attend Duke Basketball games and is a fan of the television show Survivor.

A Conversation with Emily Levy, Soon-to-Be Biology PhD

Sticky post

Emily Levy studies how the physical and social environments that baboons experience affect their physiology and life outcomes. The Massachusetts native, who works under advisor Susan Alberts (PhD), is in the final year of her Biology PhD and will defend her thesis later this Spring.

Though Duke’s in-person classes have been delayed until next week, I caught up with Levy over Zoom. The wall of her home office displays a fascinating Russian map of Chicago from the cold war era that shows bridges with their weight capacity. Levy tells me that she had no idea how her husband, who is from Evanston, found the map.

Emily Levy, an almost-PhD in Duke Biology

Levy’s research stems from the Amboseli Baboon Research Project – a nearly 50-year-old, ongoing study of wild baboons in Kenya. Duke’s Alberts has been studying these baboons for over 35 years and is a renowned primatologist involved with the project. Alberts’ lab collaborates with field researchers in Kenya to receive data and samples that are imperative to much of their work.

“Something that I really appreciate about Susan and the way she runs the lab is that she starts first-year grad students on a starter project,” Levy told me. Following a discussion about Levy’s interests, this project led to her first work on dominance rank, stress levels, and what this means physiologically for baboons. Levy also “poked around” at how scientists study dominance rank and found that the methods used for assessing rank “matter a lot.”

In her more recent project, Levy is trying to figure out what early life environments mean for adulthood in baboons. “So, we know that baboons that experience a really harsh early life, if they survive to adulthood, have really, really reduced lifespans as adults – like half as long – as baboons that had no adverse events,” Levy said.

“I’m focusing on two hypotheses to get at what might be happening under the skin that could have something to do with longer term effects on health and mortality.” One hypothesis is that a tough early life environment, especially nutritional stress, could stunt baboon growth and impinge adult activities like foraging or maintaining dominance rank. The other hypothesis proposes that early life adversity disrupts immune development, leading to an immune system that is either always inflamed or produces an overpowering inflammatory response when a baboon does get sick.

The second hypothesis is one that has been supported by human research, but Levy’s preliminary results “are the exact opposite.” This highlights one facet of the importance of her research: Its implications and parallels to human health and mortality. But Levy says her research is also “cool because it’s just cool” and appreciates what her work may add to basic science beyond human application.

In her journey to Duke, Levy said that she “tried a few ways of studying” animals before arriving at the work she conducts now.  Levy, who really liked animals, enjoyed time outside, and was “hooked on biology” in high school, began her undergraduate career at Williams College with this in mind. “In college, I took biology and neuroscience and then took animal behavior my sophomore year and was like Oooo, this is cool!,” Levy exclaimed with a big smile on her face, “And it felt sort of light-bulby.”

Along the journey to her PhD, Levy studied plants and insect pollinators and spent a few weeks in Madagascar in a tent filled with fleas. Though Levy said that these experiences of field work became “one of my favorite things about my job,” they also helped shape her trajectory as a scientist as she figured out which model systems and research questions “did and did not spark her joy.”

It was during her undergraduate thesis assessing social behavior in rats that she felt a strong “click” for studying social behavior in animals. Taking a couple years to work in a clinical research lab that conducted work on autism in humans, Levy enjoyed working on research to aid in special needs people. “But pretty quickly,” Levy said, “I was like, Alright, I don’t want to study humans for my whole life.”

“I’d basically been crossing things off my list up until this point,” Levy continued, “I now knew I wanted to study social animal behavior in non-human animals.” In her year away from research, Levy worked as an outdoor educator in Wyoming while she applied to grad school with this study plan in mind. Her time in Jackson Hole, Wyoming narrowed her interests even more, pushing her towards behavioral ecology because of her observation of an amazing, unbroken natural ecosystem.

Levy says she ultimately ended up at Duke because “the Baboon Project is amazing,” “Susan Alberts is amazing,” and “the Duke Biology Department is really wonderful.”

While Levy enjoys working with Alberts and mentoring undergraduates, as well as using grant writing as a “fun way to develop really exciting ideas and hypotheses,” she also shared some of her frustrations with me. “Science is very slow — often, not always — and a project from start to finish takes a long time. And the publication process is so long. I struggle with that pace sometimes” Additionally, as someone who was raised to never take herself too seriously, Levy also said that she has felt a lot of pressure in grad school to take herself more seriously than she should as part of academic culture.

Levy loves teaching and her hope is to become a faculty member at a small liberal arts college or undergraduate institution following a post-doc, for which she is currently in the application process. Through this future work, Levy aspires to “bring undergrads through the scientific process.”

In her time away from the lab and science, Emily is an avid baker. “One of my goals in grad school has been to acknowledge and own what I am good at, and I know I am good at baking,” Levy said with a grin. Chocolate chip cookies are her specialty.

If she could give any aspiring science PhDs a word of advice, Levy offered that you should have fun and “pay attention to the non-intellectual, as well as intellectual, things that you enjoy most.” As exemplified by her path to figuring out what exactly it was in science that inspired her, Levy says not to worry as much about figuring out where you are going, and when, but reaping the lessons and insights of the experiences along the way.

Post by Cydney Livingston, Class of 2022

LowCostomy: the Low-Cost Colostomy Bag for Africa

Sticky post

It’s common for a Pratt engineering student like me to be surrounded by incredible individuals who work hard on their revolutionary projects. I am always in awe when I speak to my peers about their designs and processes.

So, I couldn’t help but talk to sophomore Joanna Peng about her project: LowCostomy.

Rising from the EGR101 class during her freshman year, the project is about building  a low-cost colostomy bag — a device that collects excrement outside the patient after they’ve had their colon removed in surgery. Her device is intended for use in under-resourced Sub-Saharan Africa.

“The rates in colorectal cancer are rising in Africa, making this a global health issue,” Peng says. “This is a project to promote health care equality.”

The solution? Multiple plastic bags with recycled cloth and water bottles attached, and a beeswax buffer.

“We had to meet two criteria: it had to be low cost; our max being five cents. And the second criteria was that it had to be environmentally friendly. We decided to make this bag out of recycled materials,” Peng says. 

Prototype of the LowCostomy bag

For now, the team’s device has succeeded in all of their testing phases. From using their professor’s dog feces for odor testing, to running around Duke with the device wrapped around them for stability testing, the team now look forward to improving their device and testing procedures.

“We are now looking into clinical testing with the beeswax buffer to see whether or not it truly is comfortable and doesn’t cause other health problems,” Peng explains.

Poster with details of the team’s testing and procedures

Peng’s group have worked long hours on their design, which didn’t go unnoticed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Out of the five prizes they give to university students to continue their research, the NIH awarded Peng and her peers a $15,000 prize for cancer device building. She is planning to use the money on clinical testing to take a step closer to their goal of bringing their device to Africa.

Peng shows an example of the beeswax port buffer (above). The design team of Amy Guan, Alanna Manfredini, Joanna Peng, and Darienne Rogers (L-R).

“All of us are still fiercely passionate about this project, so I’m excited,” Peng says. “There have been very few teams that have gotten this far, so we are in this no-man’s land where we are on our own.”

She and her team continue with their research in their EGR102 class, working diligently so that their ideas can become a reality and help those in need.

Post by Camila Cordero, Class of 2025

Junior Alec Morlote Pursues a Love for Biology Via Fruit Flies

Sticky post

As Alec Morlote emphasizes, he’s a Biology major because “I’m really interested in it. I’d definitely be a Biology major whether I was pre-med or not.”

Morlote, a Trinity junior from northern New Jersey, works in the lab of Dr. Pelin Volkan studying the neurobiology of fruit flies. Why fruit flies, of all things? Well, Morlote initially signed up for a research fellowship program during the summer following his freshman year.

Of course, in March of that year, COVID-19 happened, so Morlote ended up postponing his work to this past summer. He got paired with the Volkan lab because he didn’t want to work in an area of research that was very familiar to him.

“I wanted to use research as an opportunity to learn something completely new,” he said. The neurobiology of fruit flies hit the nail on the head.

Alec Morlote

The Volkan Lab is a cell biology and neurobiology lab that studies how social behavior, specifically courting, is affected by stimuli, using fruit flies as a model organism. Morlote’s specific project has to do with olfactory stimuli – the things flies smell. In flies, as he explained, one gene is responsible for courtship behavior in male flies. If you take out the olfactory receptor of the fly, however, that gene won’t be active.

Morlote is interested in seeing how the olfactory receptor is critical to the expression of this gene.

To do this, he has been working on imaging the antennae of flies – work he describes as “cool, but tedious.” It’s incredibly detailed work to pick apart the antenna off of such a tiny creature.  Once isolated, neurotransmitters in the antenna that have been tagged with green fluorescent protein (GFP) light up, thus showing the expression pattern of all cells expressing the neurotransmitter.

Humans clearly don’t have as simplistic a courtship behavior as fruit flies, but the simplicity of the fruit fly makes it an incredibly valuable organism for studying neurobiology. All discoveries in humans initially started with some sort of watered-down version of the human anatomy, whether mice or in this case, fruit flies. Discoveries into the neurobiology and neuroplasticity of fruit flies just might yield significant discoveries into the neurobiology and neuroplasticity of the human brain.

When asked about his favorite and least favorite parts about his research, Morlote laughed.

“I don’t like doing work for three months and getting no results at all,” he remarked in reference to the initial work he started on this summer – but alas, such is the nature of scientific research. But he adds that the best part of research is getting results, any at all. And even no results can mean something.

Morlote’s poster from his summer research

Research was a way for Morlote to narrow his post-graduation plans. He knows now that he wants to pursue an MD, or possibly an MD/PhD. But initially, research was a way for him to see whether this was the path for him at all. When asked why he chose to be pre-med, Morlote said that “it just seemed like the most practical way to apply a love for science.” Biology is the science that he loves the most, and so being pre-med seemed like a no-brainer.

It’s also a family business. Both of Morlote’s parents are doctors, so medicine “is not unfamiliar territory to me.” Being Latin American, both his parents have worked extensively with Latin communities in New Jersey, which is work he hopes to emulate in the future.

Whether or not benchwork stays a part of his life, Morlote knows that he wants his career to involve research somehow. The way he sees it, “you’re doing the bare minimum if you’re just a doctor but you’re not trying to better medicine in some way.” 

Contributing to research just might become his way.

Post by Meghna Datta, Class of 2023

The Most Important 26 Hours of My First Term at Duke

Sticky post

As any first-year will tell you, the scramble for joining new clubs can be a daunting one. As the dust settled from the Involvement Fair, I looked at the fistful of flyers overflowing from my desk. One of these flyers stood out to me in particular: Student Collaborative on Health Policy (SCOHP). The program, backed by the Duke Margolis Center for Health Policy, seeks to educate, serve, and research within the Duke and Durham community regarding the social, economic, and political determinants of health care.

The Four Committees of SCOHP

Intrigued, I ventured to the Social Sciences building the following Sunday afternoon for their inaugural GBM. The event was lively, filled with a dizzying number of avenues for involvement. One such avenue that was the SCOHP-organized Health Policy Case Competition, advertised as a two-day team sprint to develop and pitch solutions to a pressing health care problem. The prizes were handsome: $1,000 for 1st place, $500 for 2nd place, and $250 for 3rd place, courtesy of the Margolis Center and RTI International. Furthermore, participants would be given access to mentors and industry leaders with vast experience in the area of public health.

Six teams, each consisting of three to five members, participated in the case-writing festivities. On Friday, September 10 at 5:00 PM, the case document was released. Our task: to develop a five-year plan aimed at increasing the screening for human papillomavirus (HPV) in either Malawi, South Africa, or Eswatini via a novel imaging technology known as microbeads. A considerably complex task given the vast number of social, institutional, and political barriers lying between the new technology and the women who needed it the most, not to mention the potential for HPV developing into cervical cancer if left undetected and untreated.

The Case Competition Title Document

Our team, Team J, assumed the role of a local NGO partnering with the Eswatini government. The preliminary hours of the competition were spent sifting through a sea of research. We read reviews of tissue imaging technology, feasibility studies on drug distribution networks, and mathematical projections of healthcare costs. At once invigorating and ceaselessly frustrating, the process of developing a comprehensive solution required significant mental and physical rearrangement. The nine hours following the release of the case were spent in a variety of popular campus study spots, from Bostock to Rubenstein Library, The Coffeehouse to dorm common rooms. In the early morning hours, our plan had finally begun to take shape.

A meager five hours of rest separated Day One of the competition from Day Two. After a night of brainstorming and research, we were left with three hours to finalize our five-minute proposals before a hard 12:00 PM deadline. As the deadline approached, we changed into our best attire from the clavicle up (the marvels of Zoom) and sat down. For the next hour and change, ideas flowed thickly and quickly; eager and persuasive tones emanating from our screens, tense silence as the judges moved into breakout rooms for deliberation.

The top three teams, Team J included, were selected for a final presentation round. The guidelines for this round: strengthen the argument, lengthen the presentation. We were in the final stretch. What followed was two hours of remarkably focused work, the likes of which I had never experienced in a team setting. As we sat down for the deciding presentation of the competition, I felt an immense sense of pride, not only in our solution, but also in our twenty-six hour transformations from perplexed receivers to confident presenters. This confidence and breadth of knowledge was visible in all three teams over the course of their fifteen-minute presentations and subsequent five-minute Q&A’s.

Team J’s Final Round Presentation Over Zoom

As the clock struck 7:00 PM on Saturday, September 11, the judges had submitted their verdict, at which point the teams turned towards the screen with rapt attention. The SCOHP organizers began reading the final standings. In what was described as an extremely close decision for the judges, Team J ended up winning first place. Battling the equally powerful forces of disbelief and sleep deprivation, we let out a collective breath. It was all over.

At the time of the competition, I had yet to complete a month at Duke. I didn’t know it then, but those twenty-six hours would end up being some of the most impactful in my first semester. The competition offered an entirely different approach to learning, one that was grounded in interdisciplinary inquiry and effective collaboration. And to think–it all started with a flyer buried underneath many other flyers.

Post by Vibhav Nandagiri, Class of 2025

Decentralized Finance and the Power of Smart Contracts

Sticky post

When people use apps or services like Netflix, Instagram, Amazon, etc. they sign, or rather virtually accept, digital user agreements. Digital agreements have been around since the 1990s. These agreements are written and enforced by the institutions that create these services and products. However, in certain conditions, these systems fail and these digital or service-level agreements can be breached, causing people to feel robbed. 

A recent example of this is the Robinhood scandal that occurred in mid-2021. Essentially, people came together and all wanted to buy the same stock. However, Robinhood ended up restricting buying, citing issues with volatile stock and regulatory agreements. As a result, they ended up paying $70 million dollars in fines for system outages and misleading customers. And individual customers were left feeling robbed. This was partially the result of centralization and Robinhood having full control over the platform as well as enforcing the digital agreement.

Zak Ayesh Presenting on Chainlink
and Decentralized Smart Contracts

Zak Ayesh, a developer advocate at Chainlink recently came to Duke to talk about decentralized Smart Contracts that could solve many of the problems with current centralized digital agreements and traditional paper contracts as well. 

What makes smart contracts unique is that they programmatically implement a series of if-then rules without the need for a third-party human interaction. While currently these are primarily being used on blockchains, they were actually created by computer scientist Nick Szabo in 1994. Most smart contracts now run on blockchains because it allows them to remain decentralized and transparent. If unfamiliar with blockchain refer to my previous article here. 

Smart contracts are self-executing contracts with the terms of the agreement being directly written into computer code.

Zak Ayesh

There are several benefits to decentralized contracts. The first is transparency. Because every action on a blockchain is recorded and publicly available, the enforcement of smart contracts is unavoidably built-in. Next is trust minimization and guaranteed execution. With smart contracts, there is reduced counterparty risk — that’s the probability one party involved in a transaction or agreement might default on its contractual obligation because neither party has control of the agreement’s execution or enforcement. Lastly, they are more efficient due to automation. Operating on blockchains allows for cheaper and more frictionless transactions than traditional alternatives. For instance, the complexities of cross-border remittances involving multiple jurisdictions and sets of legal compliances can be simplified through coded automation in smart contracts.

Dr. Campbell Harvey, a J. Paul Sticht Professor of International Business at Fuqua, has done considerable research on smart contracts as well, culminating in the publication of a book, DeFi and the Future of Finance which was released in the fall of 2021.

In the book, Dr. Harvey explores the role smart contracts play in decentralized finance and how Ethereum and other smart contract platforms give rise to the ability for decentralized application or dApp. Additionally, smart contracts can only exist as long as the chain or platform they live on exists. However, because these platforms are decentralized, they remove the need for a third party to mediate the agreement. Harvey quickly realized how beneficial this could be in finance, specifically decentralized finance or DeFi where third-party companies, like banks, mediate agreements at a high price.  

“Because it costs no more at an organization level to provide services to a customer with $100 or $100 million in assets, DeFi proponents believe that all meaningful financial infrastructure will be replaced by smart contracts which can provide more value to a larger group of users,” Harvey explains in the book

Beyond improving efficiency, this also creates greater accessibility to financial services. Smart contracts provide a foundation for DeFi by eliminating the middleman through publicly traceable coded agreements. However, the transition will not be completely seamless and Harvey also investigates the risks associated with smart contracts and advancements that need to be made for them to be fully scalable.

Ultimately, there is a smart contract connectivity problem. Essentially, smart contracts are unable to connect with external systems, data feeds, application programming interfaces (APIs), existing payment systems, or any other off-chain resource on their own. This is something called the Oracle Problem which Chainlink is looking to solve.

Harvey explains that when a smart contract is facilitating an exchange between two tokens, it determines the price by comparing exchange rates with another similar contract on the same chain. The other smart contract is therefore acting as a price oracle, meaning it is providing external price information. However, there are many opportunities to exploit this such as purchasing large amounts on one oracle exchange in order to alter the price and then go on to purchase even more on a different exchange in the opposite direction. This allows for capitalization on price movement by manipulating the information the oracle communicates to other smart contracts or exchanges. 

That being said, smart contracts are being used heavily, and Pratt senior Manmit Singh has been developing them since his freshman year along with some of his peers in the Duke Blockchain Lab. One of his most exciting projects involved developing smart contracts for cryptocurrency-based energy trading on the Ethereum Virtual Machine allowing for a more seamless way to develop energy units.

One example of how this could be used outside of the crypto world is insurance. Currently, when people get into a car accident it takes months or even a year to evaluate the accident and release compensation. In the future, there could be sensors placed on cars connected to smart contracts that immediately evaluate the damage and payout.

Decentralization allows us to avoid using intermediaries and simply connect people to people or people to information as opposed to first connecting people to institutions that can then connect them to something else. This also allows for fault tolerance: if one blockchain goes down, the entire system does not go down with it. Additionally, because there is no central source controlling the system, it is very difficult to gain control of thus protecting against attack resistance and collusion resistance. While risks like the oracle problem need to be further explored, the world and importance of DeFi, as well as smart contracts, is only growing.

And as Ayesh put it, “This is the future.”

Post by Anna Gotskind, Class of 2022

New Blogger Velda Wang: My Two Loves

Sticky post

Hello! My name is Velda Wang, and by an unspoken rule, I also have to tell you what year I am, where I’m from, and my major. And who am I to break the rules? I am a first-year student from Atlanta, and I am thinking about majoring in neuroscience. 

My love for scientific research was sparked by participating in the 6th grade science fair. My friend and I took our goal of determining whether orange juice or Gatorade had more electrolytes quite seriously (surprise! It’s orange juice). For the first time, I was directing my own learning. The scientific method was our creed. Designing the experiment was like navigating with only a map–we knew the final destination but we had to explore which steps to take to reach that destination. Sometimes we went down the wrong path and had to backtrack, but these detours taught us a lot nonetheless. Collecting data was like viewing beautiful scenery along the way–both are exciting and help make the journey worth it. 

Image taken from Prevention.com

Our nervous anticipation from the prospect of having to present our experiment in front of judges led us to color-coordinate our outfits a week in advance and write a script for our presentation. However, on the day of the science fair, as more judges approached us, the nervousness turned into excitement and adrenaline, and we soon deviated from the script to add other interesting observations and background information. Though we conducted the experiment on the kitchen table in my house, it was enough of a taste of the research process to know that I wanted more.   

I could also spend hours reading and listening to stories. One of my favorite books of all time is When Breath Becomes Air by the late neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi. 

Image taken from Amazon.com

In the book, Kalanithi shares how literature and neuroscience are both avenues to understand the meaning of life and the human condition because literature is written by people who have had rich life experiences about people who go through rich life experiences and the brain is directly related to our every thought, feeling, and action. The book opened up my eyes to the power of words in connecting people and understanding life. It is with this realization that I came into college with a goal: get better at writing (and also study neuroscience!).

The Duke Research Blog combines my two loves, and I am incredibly excited to bring you stories about fascinating research happening right here at Duke. I am grateful for the opportunity to grow as a writer and to be able to help make science communication a little more accessible for you.

Hope to see you again soon!    

By Velda Wang, Class of 2025

Science Behind the Scenes: Get To Know a Zebrafish Lab Technician

Sticky post

It’s 7:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning, and Mark McDonough is making a very familiar journey through a very unfamiliar mode. With the light rain pelting down on his gelled hair, he’s walking the 2-mile trek from East Campus to West Campus. The C1 doesn’t run until 8:30 a.m. on weekends, and his job is simply too important to wait for Duke-provided transportation.

Since his third week as a freshman, Mark has held the position of Lab Technician at the Duke University School of Medicine Zebrafish Core Facilities. Through the job, which he earned via the university’s work-study program, Mark has had the opportunity to make his college experience more affordable while completing the behind-the-scenes work that keeps the university’s labs running.

Upon arriving at work every morning, Mark spends anywhere from thirty minutes to an hour cleaning the filters on the fish tanks, after which he removes feces and inserts food. These three tasks are just a microcosm of his duties as a lab technician, but without them, a majority of his assigned fish would die before their biological characteristics could be fully measured.

As a freshman, Mark McDonough (pictured) has had the opportunity to work in a lab that does cutting-edge research.

Mark’s day-to-day responsibilities are similar to those of many lab technicians. Hundreds of Duke’s affiliated research labs make use of living subjects and biological specimens which must be sheltered, fed, and closely monitored. Without the presence of lab technicians, studies involving these subjects could lead to inconsequential or misleading results.

Mark’s supervisor, Z-Core Facilities Manager Karina Olivieri, fully understands the importance of the three lab technicians in her five zebrafish facilities. Says Olivieri, technicians ensure the “health of the fish and quality of their water so that researchers can collect measurements and make valuable insights.” As the demand for zebrafish grows on Duke’s campus, she expects the number of lab technician roles to grow as well. This trend will likely not be unique to Duke.

The zebrafish’s see-through embryo, rapid life cycle, and well-documented genome make it a “model organism” for biological experiments.

Nationwide, demand for lab technicians has accelerated in many of the largest research corporations and academic institutions. According to the Foundation for Biomedical Research, almost every U.S. drug must pass through animal testing in order to reach FDA approval, meaning that larger amounts of living specimens must be preserved as the pharmaceutical industry grows. The rising presence of these experimental subjects may be why the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that lab technician roles are increasing at a rate of 11%, which beats the national average for STEM occupations.

Though lab technicians don’t present work at prestigious conferences or see their names printed at the top of cutting-edge research articles, their work is pivotal for ensuring that innovative research can be conducted at Duke and beyond. So in the unlikely event that you recognize a passing stranger as a lab technician, make sure to thank them for their service to the Duke community. They keep the university’s vibrant research scene – and its fish – thriving.

Post by Shariar Vaez-Ghaemi, class of 2025

What Happens When You Give People Money?

Paige Stampatori

What happens when you give people money? Dr. Aisha Nyandoro and Natalie Foster know: through their research, they’ve seen the impacts of guaranteed income firsthand.

On November 9, as part of the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy’s Sulzberger Distinguished Lecture series, these experts discussed their work and what we can learn from it at “What Happens When You Give People Money: The Future of Economic Security for Children and Families.”

Natalie Foster

Foster, co-founder and co-chair of the Economic Security Project, began with the big idea of guaranteed income. Before the pandemic, wealth and income inequality were at all-time highs — disparities that “can be traced back to the origins of racialized capitalism.” But recently, things have gotten even harder. Wages have remained stagnant despite increases in productivity — and despite inflation, making it harder to afford things like rent. Foster denounced the “strong ideology that says that lack of security in this system is a personal failing. That if you can’t pull yourself up, there’s something wrong with you.” There’s something wrong with the system, Foster said. “People are working. The economy isn’t.”

Foster explained that the 1996 “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act” fundamentally changed welfare by converting the old New Deal-era unlimited grant program into the flat-funded block grant we now know as TANF, leaving determination of eligibility to state discretion and generally “making welfare more punitive.” The Act, Foster said, was built on racist stereotypes, like that of the welfare queen. To make matters worse, it was passed against the backdrop of a persistent devaluation of the labor of people of color

Foster said that even though there didn’t appear to be room in these political conditions to do things differently, she had the “audacity to imagine something else: the ‘adjacent possible.’” She wanted to give cash to people directly, ensuring an income floor regardless of whatever crises that may abound.

Foster worked with the mayor of Stockton, California on the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration (SEED), which provided 125 Stockton residents with $500 monthly payments for two years. 

Dr. Aisha Nyandoro

Foster was connected by a mutual friend to Nyandoro, the CEO of Springboard to Opportunities. Nyandoro had launched The Magnolia Mother’s Trust, which provides low-income Black mothers in Jackson, Mississippi with $1,000 monthly payments for one year. 

With The Magnolia Mother’s Trust, Nyandoro sought to shift away from economic policy “rooted in ‘what is,’ and toward ‘what could be.’” This concept has a rich history, she said, and includes the work of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Panthers. She had a specific ‘what if’ in mind: “What if when Black women told us what they needed, we believed them?” What if we sought to overturn the very structures that keep these people down, and subverted the “paternalistic nature of the social safety net”? 

Nyandoro stated that as a researcher, when she has questions, she “goes back to the people.” When she did, she found that although people’s needs were individual, “cash was ubiquitous” — cash was a solution that could address every single one of the problems that she heard. Giving cash directly could help combat a system that “penalizes people for being poor, rather than trying to lift them out of poverty.” 

Why low-income Black mothers? Nyandoro explained that in order to do the work of economic liberation, one must identify what’s wrong with the system. In this case, that meant identifying those who are the most negatively impacted by the system, and using what limited resources are available to help them specifically.

Nyandoro turned to her findings: giving people cash works. These mothers are often working tirelessly, holding down two or three jobs and struggling to make ends meet. After receiving the money, people continue to work and often do so at higher rates (a major fear of opponents of guaranteed income). As a result, their income is often doubled — with life-changing results

Beyond the numbers, Nyandoro emphasized that “we are seeing joy. We don’t talk about joy enough as it relates to Black women.” This money allowed Black women to feel free, to be entrepreneurial: to “dare to dream for the first time — for themselves and for their families.” 

She referenced Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s famous speech “The Danger of a Single Story,” explaining that in order to change the narrative, “we need to change the narrator.” It’s time to think about whose voices we center.

In Jackson, Mississippi and Stockton, California, the pair had carried out research about the ‘adjacent possible.’ They’d used cities and states as “laboratories in democracy.” Foster said that their work was paving the way for gradual advances in guaranteed income — slowly, but surely. Then, the pandemic hit.

Suddenly, ideas that had recently been dismissed as too radical were viewed as necessary. Often unable to work, people needed money fast in order to put food on the table and cover their most urgent needs. The federal government rose to the challenge with the American Rescue Plan, providing stimulus checks and pandemic unemployment insurance, plus expanding the Child Tax Credit. “The ‘adjacent possible’”, Foster said, “had become the possible.”

The country saw an “immediate drop in poverty.” The pandemic was revealing, said Foster. It revealed that cash provides time, stress reduction, and resilience. It revealed that cash serves as a tool to create economic security and “build back better.” Above all, it revealed that “poverty is a policy choice that we’re currently making. We could make a different policy choice in order to eliminate it.”

The pandemic also revealed that stimulus checks and the Child Tax Credit were “very popular policies.” Nyandoro has observed support in the form of petitions for monthly cash transfers, the founding of organizations like Mayors for a Guaranteed Income and Guaranteed Income Community of Practice, and the launch of over a hundred guaranteed income pilots of some sort. All these efforts, Nyandoro said, are pushing toward “the same North Star”: centering the needs of families and achieving economic liberation through federal policy.

Foster turned the discussion toward next steps: “these victories have been immense, but could disappear” if the Build Back Better Act does not pass. The Act includes a year-long extension of the expanded Child Tax Credit, a key instantiation of guaranteed income. The Child Tax Credit has bipartisan support

If the extension of the Child Tax Credit passes, then according to Foster, guaranteed income is one step closer to becoming a cornerstone of social policy. This would be a “nail in the coffin of the way we’ve done policy for the last fifty years — that you’re only worth what you do in the world. Every human has dignity and worth, and we have the opportunity to build a policy that says just that.” 

Nyandoro agreed with Foster. As an anti-poverty advocate, she believes in a world without poverty: a world where “everyone can have a life of dignity for themselves and their families.” She believes that the ‘adjacent possible’ is achievable if “we can move beyond our own individual needs in order to view life as a collective, where prosperity is shared rather than hoarded.” She ended by quoting Toni Morrison: “if you have some power, then your job is to empower someone else.”

Last Friday, the House voted to pass the Build Back Better Act, which now heads to the Senate.

Post by Zella Hanson

Building a Just Foundation for Our Energy Transition

Swine Country Documentary Project

As conversations about the energy transition away from fossil fuels become increasingly important (and time-sensitive), some experts in environmental policy aren’t just worried about the conversations themselves. They’re worried about who has a seat at the table — and who doesn’t. 

Sherri White-Williams

On November 8, at “Building a Just Foundation for Our Energy Transition,” a few of these experts — Sherri White-Williamson, Environmental Justice Policy Director at the NC Conservation Network; Josh McClenney, the North Carolina Field Coordinator at Appalachian Voices; and J. Spenser Darden, the Assistant Dean for Diversity and Inclusion at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy — spoke about this and other issues. Thomas Klug, a Research Associate at the Duke Energy Access Project, moderated the panel, which was put together by the Sanford Energy & Environment Club.

Klug asked the panelists to define what a “just transition” really means in the context of the panelists’ work, and whether it differs from a diverse and inclusive transition.

J. Spenser Darden

McClenney answered that a just transition entails recognizing that Black, brown, and indigenous communities, as well as low socio-economic status individuals, have historically faced the worst effects of fossil fuel economies. Living in the “physical and economic traction zones,” they’re the ones that lose jobs — like coal miners, in the case of McClenney’s work with Appalachian Voices. 

However, where a diverse and inclusive transition involves “getting people to the table,” just policies will actually reflect the conversations had at the table. An unjust transition, McClenney said, is one where “people clap themselves on the back for doing such a great job having these diverse, inclusive discussions — then make policies that work against their participants.” Ensuring inclusion for communities that have historically been excluded is important, but it’s equally important to make sure the resulting policies are actually inclusive.

Josh McClenney

White-Williams agreed with McClenney — inclusion should never end at “checking the box.” The goal should be to incorporate the input of marginalized voices into resulting policy. White-Williams also added that fairness, while not necessarily guaranteed by diversity and inclusivity, is a key part of a just energy transition. 

Spenser stressed the need to move away from “extractive, colonial” ways of thinking about energy and who makes up society, and to instead incorporate indigenous ways of thinking. He stated that diversity and inclusion is reactive: people realize flaws in the way they’ve built something and try to address it later by incorporating new elements. A just system, on the other hand, is built to be “for and by” communities that have been excluded from the very start.

Klug asked the panelists to recount some of the ways they’ve seen organizations, utilities, and decision makers putting the processes required for a just transition into practice.

McClenney spoke of revelations from the onset of COVID-19 in March 2020. Preventing utility shutoffs became critically important: people were losing jobs or forced to stay at home. They couldn’t come up with the money to pay their utility bills. While fighting utility shutoffs with Appalachian Voices, he saw a group of Knoxville organizations, including Knoxville Water and Energy for All, bringing attention to the fact that the shutoffs were not just a COVID problem. For some Black and brown communities, McClenney said, “keeping the lights on had always been an issue.” These grassroot groups’ advocacy expanded beyond the pandemic: they wanted energy and water recognized as human rights.

Klug asked the panelists how they feel about President Joe Biden’s performance with regard to just transitions in the energy sector — specifically, his January executive orders and recent bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill

White-Williams cited a major concern with Biden’s policies: they don’t give enough attention to rural issues. In Sampson county here in North Carolina, massive hog farms overwhelmingly surround communities of color. North Carolina’s new Farm Act will allow Smithfield Foods to build a system to trap methane from hog waste to be processed and eventually used as renewable electricity. But residents living near hog farms already experience toxic water, unbearable stench, and heightened risk of other diseases, and this system would likely make the problem even worse. It’s a textbook example of an unjust energy transition. That’s why environmental and civil rights organizations have asked the EPA to intervene — to no avail, at least thus far. (White-Williams is featured in this article about the current state of affairs.) “Rural America is suffering,” White-Williams said. She wants to see federal agencies using their power to ensure a just energy transition.

McClenney echoed White-Williams’ concern about hog farms, adding that deaths have resulted from providing workers with limited information about the conditions they would be working in — especially those who don’t speak English and whose undocumented status puts them in a vulnerable position. 

On a different note, he thinks Biden’s expansions to Broadband and clean water are a step in the right direction. He stated that with North Carolina’s House Bill 951, which requires the Utilities Commission to cut emissions by 70% by 2030 (even more ambitious than Biden’s executive order, which seeks to cut US emissions in half by 2030), “there are opportunities right now to effect positive change — we just have to do a good job.” It’s about how we get to that carbon reduction goal.

Klug asked how people at universities — faculty, students, and staff alike — can contribute to this work in policy and in advocacy.

White-Williams told the audience to recognize that “having a degree does not make you an expert when you walk into these communities.” Community members have lived experience: they can tell policymakers and activists what they need, not the other way around. Change should be a partnership, and so should research: “Academics have a research question before they’ve even spoken to anyone.” Instead, “listen and learn from the people who have been there all their lives.”

Spenser invited the audience to think about “who the real experts are” in unique and different ways. Institutions like Duke are often separate from the communities they inhabit, serving as a sort of beacon on the hill. “We need to invert this paradigm,” he said.

McClenney added to Spenser’s criticism of schools like Duke, who “throw food out every day and hold dorm rooms empty during the summer while people go hungry and unhoused.” What’s needed is a fundamental reimagination of the university’s relationship to the community it inhabits. He also added to White-Williams’ point about research: it can be merely “another type of extraction” if not carried out in a just manner.

Klug asked the panelists whether we need to assess the impacts of energy policy differently through the lens of research.

McClenney flagged the words “affordability” and “reliability” in energy research, asking the audience to consider who that applies to. Affordability is not just about how rates compare to New York City or California, but whether someone has to forego insulin or go hungry in order to make a payment. By thinking through these words and what they really mean, we can “begin to understand impacts on a deeper level.”

Spenser implored researchers to use an intersectional lens: instead of considering economic impact and efficiency in isolation, to consider the way in which policies “contribute or ameliorate historic disparities.” In order to truly measure impact, efficacy, and outcome, researchers must be “historically aware and community invested.”

White-Williams agreed with McClenney and Spenser, asking researchers to consider whether policies are a “band-aid or a true fix.” She cited North Carolina’s Weatherization Assistance Program, which allocates tens of millions of dollars toward fixing “patched-up” homes that may have serious underlying problems. She wonders whether it may be better to simply spend the money on programs to place people in housing that is “actually livable.”

Klug opened the panel to questions. One audience member asked the panelists what concrete steps they recommend in order to “harness the power of diversity.”

White-Williams reiterated the importance of working with impacted communities, stressing the need for local leaders who can serve as experts on the needs of the community. Elected officials might “sacrifice the needs of these communities for some other interest,” but local advocates can apply pressure where needed.

Spenser pushed back on the question, stating that instead of urgency and speed, “we need to commit to a longer process” — honoring historical legacies and “spending time helping people understand what the conversation is.” 

“Environmental policy isn’t sexy,” Spenser concluded. (“Except,” he added, “for pipelines.”)

Maybe not. But it’s important that it gets made — and that it gets made justly.

Post by Zella Hanson

Page 1 of 34

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén