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Senior Presenters Explore Cultural Dynamics and Justice Around the World

When we think about global interconnectedness we often focus on varied cultures, but we tend to forget about innumerable systemic dynamics that could enrich our understanding of the world. The senior presentations given by students in International Comparative Studies to mark the end of the term shared their mission to understand the world better through research.

The exploration of language ideologies in Mauritius, the complex yet fascinating web of transitional justice, the contentious aspects of medical missions in global health, and the intersection between superficiality and urban dynamics in Los Angeles all demonstrated understanding the unseen world at play.

Language and Identity in Mauritius

Katy Turner’s research into the Mauritian education system sheds light on the complex interplay between language and colonial histories. Even though one could argue colonialism is a tale of the past, Turner’s research proved otherwise. In Mauritius, where the creole language — formed by enslaved individuals and now a mother tongue — meets societal resistance, the educational emphasis remains on English and French. Turner’s exploration raises critical questions: How do Mauritian primary school teachers perceive the role of Mauritian Creole, especially given its contentious status? How has the colonial past shaped these perceptions?

Her findings reveal a conflicted landscape. While some view the Mauritian Creole as a relic of the past, advocating for a future aligned with English, others see it as vital for a holistic educational experience. Its colloquial use in classrooms helps connect students with their history, and according to her observation, students didn’t mind its use over English and French, but their parents very much did. They preferred English and French over their own local language. This put me in a daze. Afterall, being Pakistani born and raised, this wasn’t a surprise: English is the language of the rich, and Urdu is the language of the poor. These complex linguistic preferences of these countries highlight how colonized some developing countries are till today.

In Mauritius, the narratives of slaves, parents and educational policies often discourage this practice. This ‘hidden curriculum‘ suggests a deep-seated struggle with identity and linguistic heritage, hinting at a broader dialogue about language as a carrier of culture and history. This colonial hangover is one we need to fight to connect with what our culture really means. 

The Anti-Politics of Memory in Transitional Justice

Grace Endrud delves into the “anti-politics” of memory, examining how transitional justice often morphs into a universal narrative that may overlook local truths. Her focus on the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) illuminates the challenges of defining justice in varied contexts — ranging from criminal justice to truth commissions. The ICTJ’s extensive work is reflected in their archival collections spanning several decades. Grace sat in the library searching through archives for days, and went to great lengths (like analyzing the order they were in) to show their global influence also reveals tensions, such as in Iraq where document manipulation was used to sway electoral outcomes.

Blindfolded suspected militants, with possible links to al-Qaeda, are seen at Iraqi police headquarters in Diyala province, north of Baghdad December 5, 2011. Police forces arrested 30 suspected militants during a raid in Diyala province, a police source said. REUTERS/Stringer

This research was inspired by James Ferguson’s analysis in “The Anti-Politics Machine.” It suggested that transitional justice can sometimes strip away the political layers that are essential for understanding and addressing the root causes of injustice.

Reassessing Medical Missions Through a Decolonial Lens

Catherine Purnell’s investigation into medical missions driven by evangelical Christian beliefs poses questions about the possibility of decolonizing global health. The narrative that divides the world into those who help and those who need help is deeply entrenched in the ethos of many medical missions. Purnell’s interviews with medical missionaries reveal an underlying intention to provide care in remote areas, which often includes building schools and water systems alongside healthcare.

However, the real challenge lies in shifting these missions from a model of evangelical humanitarianism to one of genuine decolonization. According to her, true decolonized care would prioritize giving autonomy back to local communities and focusing on solidarity rather than charity. Purnell’s findings suggest a fundamental conflict between the traditional goals of medical missions and the emerging needs of decolonial, equitable healthcare practices.

The Multicultural Dynamics of Urban Spaces

Jess Blumenthal’s exploration into the complex narratives of multiculturalism in Los Angeles offers a fascinating lens through which to view urban dynamics and identity. Starting with the historic intersections in neighborhoods like Little Tokyo/Bronzeville, Jess examines the fluid and often contentious shifts in community compositions and their cultural implications. Originally a Japanese neighborhood, Bronzeville became predominantly African American during World War II when Japanese residents were interned. Such shifts underscore the impermanence and adaptability of urban ethnic landscapes. 

Jess connects these historical and cultural narratives to broader literary works like “Tropic of Orange” and Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower.” These works critique the superficiality of multiculturalism, suggesting a more interconnected and deeply woven fabric of society that transcends simplistic understandings of diversity. Jess uses these stories to highlight a poignant metaphor: just as characters in Butler’s work envision a destiny among the stars, our own societal evolution might be seen as an ongoing journey towards a more genuinely integrated multiculturalism.

Conclusion

Together, these presentations accentuated the complexities of cultural identity, memory politics, and health equity in a globalized world. They challenge us to think critically about how languages shape national identity, how justice processes can reflect deeper truths without falling into the traps of depoliticization, and how global health initiatives might genuinely respect and uplift the communities they intend to serve. As our world becomes increasingly interconnected, these discussions are crucial for fostering a more just and equitable global society.

Post by Noor Nazir, class of 2027

Students Offer Their Voices of Change to Climate Commitment

Sticky post

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

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

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

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

L to R: Toddi Steelman and Tavey Capps

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blake Tedder leading the Research Breakout Room.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Grueling Math Test So Hard, Almost No One Gets a Perfect Score

Yet hundreds of schools compete each year, and this time the Blue Devils made it into the top three

Duke places 3 out of 471 in North America’s most prestigious math competition. The top-scoring 2023 Putnam team consisted of (from L to R): Erick Jiang ’26, Kai Wang ’27, and Fletch Rydell ’26.
Duke placed third out of 471 schools in North America’s most prestigious math competition, the Putnam. The top-scoring team consisted of (L to R): Erick Jiang ’26, Kai Wang ’27, and Fletch Rydell ’26.

Every year, thousands of college students from across the U.S. and Canada give up a full Saturday before finals begin to take a notoriously difficult, 6-hour math test — and not for a grade, but for fun.

In “the Putnam,” as it’s known, contestants spend two 3-hour sessions trying to solve 12 proof-based math problems worth 10 points apiece.

More than 150,000 people have taken the exam in the contest’s 85-year history, but only five times has someone earned a perfect score. Total scores of 1 or 0 are not uncommon.

Despite the odds, the Blue Devils had a strong showing this year.

A total of 3,857 students from 471 schools competed in the December contest. In results announced Feb. 16, a Duke team consisting of Erick Jiang ’26, James “Fletch” Rydell ’26 and Kaixin “Kai” Wang ’27 ranked third in North America behind MIT and Harvard, winning a $15,000 prize for Duke and each taking home $600 for themselves.

According to mathematics professor Lenny Ng, it’s Duke’s best performance in almost 20 years.

“This is the first time a Duke team has placed this high since 2005,” said Ng, who was a three-time Putnam Fellow himself, finishing in the top five each year he was an undergraduate at Harvard.

Duke students sit for an all-day math marathon.

There’s no official syllabus for prepping for the Putnam. To get ready, the students practice working through problems and discussing their solutions in a weekly problem-solving seminar held each fall.

Students serve as the instructors, focusing on a different topic each week ranging from calculus to number theory.

“They get a sense of what the problems are like, so it’s not quite as intimidating as it might be if they went into the contest cold,” said math department chair Robert Bryant.

“Not only do they learn how to do the problems, but they also get to know each other,” said professor emeritus David Kraines, who has coached Duke Putnam participants for more than 30 years.

Kraines said 8-10 students take his problem-solving seminar for credit each fall. “We always get another 10 or so who come for the pizza,” Kraines said.

The biggest difference between a Putnam problem and a homework problem, said engineering student Rydell, is that usually with a homework problem you’ve already been shown what to do; you just have to apply it.

Whereas most of the time in math competitions like the Putnam, “there’s no clear path forward when you first see the problem,” Rydell said. “They’re more about finding some insight or way of looking at the problem in a different perspective.”

Putnam problems are meant to be solvable using only paper and pencil — no computing power required. The contestants work through each problem by hand, trying different paths towards a solution and spelling out their reasoning step-by-step.

This year, one problem involved determining how many configurations of coins are possible given a grid with coins sitting in some of the squares, if those coins are only allowed to move in certain ways.

Another question required knowing something about the geometry of a 20-sided shape known as a icosahedron.

“That was the one I struggled with the most,” said Wang, whose individual score nevertheless tied him for sixth place overall out of 3,857 contestants.

A sample of problems from the 84th Putnam Competition.

The most common question he gets asked about the Putnam, Rydell said, is not so much what’s on the test, but why people take it in the first place.

This year’s test was so challenging that a score of 78 out of 120 or better — just 65% — was enough to earn a spot in the top 10.

Most of the people who took it scored less than 10%, which means many problems went unsolved.

“For days after I took the Putnam, I would think about the problems and wonder: could I have done it better this way? You can become obsessed,” said Bryant, who took the Putnam in the 1970s as a college student at NC State.

Sophomores Jiang and Rydell, who both ranked in the top 5%, see it as an opportunity to “meet people who also enjoy problem solving,” Jiang said.

“I’m not a math major so I probably wouldn’t do much of this kind of problem solving otherwise,” Rydell said.

For Rydell it’s also the aha moment: “Just the reward of when you solve a problem, the feeling of making that breakthrough,” Rydell said.

Professor Kraines’ weekly problem-solving seminar, MATH 283S, takes place on Tuesday evenings at 6:15 p.m. during the fall semester. Registration for Fall 2024 begins April 3.

Robin Smith
By Robin Smith, Marketing & Communications

Rosetta Reitz: The Life Behind the Music

A 1983 New Yorker article by Whitney Balliet argued that “Women don’t have the grace and poise to play jazz.” While this comment wasn’t uncommon for the time, it certainly wasn’t universally accepted. In fact, this comment is what feminist writer and producer, Rosetta Reitz, sought to disprove through her decades-long efforts to promote underrepresented records. 

This past Tuesday Feb. 6, the “Rosetta Reitz’s Musical Archive of Care” Bass Connections team hosted a discussion pertaining to the origins, findings, and thought process of this archive. Leading this discussion were researchers Anthony Kelley, Duke Professor, and Tift Merritt, Grammy-nominated musician.  In this, the pair explored the key theme of artistic empathy utilized through the archival process. Archival artistic empathy describes the act of not making yourself the center of your findings but allowing them to enlarge your compassion. This theme was pertinent not only for Merritt’s research journey but also for that of Reitz. 

Rosetta Rietz was a feminist, historian, and producer who recognized the absence of female voices within the jazz industry and sought to find the root cause. Through her efforts she quickly recognized that the women were there, they were simply unheard. Rosetta, determined to change this fact, began to collect information about the music of these women as a means of building a platform for them in Rosetta Records. This recording company was created for the sole purpose of promoting, rediscovering, and establishing the voices of women in the jazz industry, a rarity for the time period. With exactly 97 women under her records, Reitz was unwavering in her attempts to get their music picked up by major radio stations. Rosetta Records would go on to produce eighteen albums dedicated to many talented unknown singers and even some as big as Billie Holiday.  

From L to R: Tift Merritt, Annie Koppes and Anthony Kelley (Picture taken by Yasaman Baghban)

Rosetta was truly an influential creative whose influence extended beyond that of music. She was the owner of a bookstore in Greenwich Village. She went on to write one of the first books on menopause and on the absence of women in jazz.  She was an active member in her community seeking to recognize and correct injustices. Reitz was truly someone whose compassion and artistic empathy shone through. This is not to say that attempts at not centering herself were always successful. Reitz often faced backlash from the media for appearing disingenuous due to ethical and legal concerns surrounding her work. These concerns largely apply to works such as her Jailhouse Blues record which utilized the voices and struggles of women in a Mississippi prison, released by Mississippi congress, to create a record. Many questioned if these women consented to this, how they felt to find this, and the overall ethicality in creating this.  

Bass Connections team members Lindsay Frankfort and Trisha Santanam.

The legacy of Rosetta Reitz is one full of great passion and love for the art that is jazz and women’s place within it. The Bass Connections research team has managed to bring it to life by employing their own artistic empathy. They have created a full picture of the complexities, devotion and love Rosetta had for life’s work further cementing the fact that women indeed have a rightful place within the jazz industry.  

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

Computer Science Students Say: Let’s Talk About Microaggressions

Soon after taking a seat in her high-level computer science class, Duke student Kiara de Lande surveyed the room. The realization that she was one of only three women of color washed over her. It left a tang of discomfort and confusion. In her gut, she knew that she was capable of success. But then, why were there so few students that looked like her? Doubt ensued: perhaps this was not a place for her. 

de Lande was one of five members of the student advisory board for AiiCE (Alliance for Identity-Inclusive Computing Education) who reflected on their experiences as minority students in computer science in a virtual panel held Jan. 23.

As de Lande shared her story, undergraduate Kianna Bolante nodded in agreement. She too, felt that she had to “second-guess her sense of belonging and how she was perceived.” 

Berkeley ’24 graduate Bridget Agyare added that group work is crucial to success in CS classes, stressing the need for inclusion. The harm of peer micro-aggressions was brought up, the panel emphasizing the danger of stifling minority voices: “When in groups of predominantly males,” de Lande said, “my voice is on the back-burner.”

To not feel heard is to feel isolated, compounding the slam of under-confidence. Small comments here and there. Anxiety trickling in when the professor announces a group project. Peers delegating to you the “front-end” or “design” aspects, leaving the more intricate back-end components for themselves. It’s subtle. It feels like nothing glaring enough to bring attention to. So you shove the feelings to the side.

“No one reaches this level of education by mistake,” said Duke CS graduate student Jabari Kwesi. But over time, these subtle slights chip away at the assurance in your capabilities. 

Kwesi remembers the first time he spoke to a Black female professional software engineer (SWE). “Finally,” he said, “someone who understands what you’re talking about for your experience in and outside academia.”

He made this connection in a Duke course structured to facilitate conversations between students and professionals in the technology industry. In similar efforts, the Duke organization DTech is devoted to non-males in tech. Mentors provide support with peer advisors, social gatherings, and recruiter connections. It also provides access to a database of internships, guiding members during competitive job-hunting cycles. 

As university support continues to grow, students have not shied away from taking action. Bolante, for example, created her own social computing curriculum: focused on connecting student’s identities to the course material. The initiative reflects her personal realization of finding the value in her voice. 

“My personal experiences, opinions, ideas are things no one can take away from me. My voice is my strongest asset and power,” she said. 

As I listened to the declaration, I felt the resilience behind her words. It was evident that the AiiCE panelists are united in their passion for an inclusive and action-driven community. 

Kwesi highlighted the concept of “intentionality.” As a professor, one has to be conscious of the commitment to improvement. This includes making themselves available to students and accepting feedback. Some suggestions amongst the panel were “spotlights” on impactful minorities in CS. Similarly, in every technical class, mandating a societal impact section is key. Technology does not exist in a vacuum: deployment affects real people. For example, algorithms are susceptible to biases against certain groups. Algorithms are designed for tools like resume scanners and medical evaluations. These are not just lines of code- people’s livelihoods are at stake. With the surge of developments in artificial intelligence, technology is advancing more rapidly than ever. To keep bias in check, assembling interdisciplinary teams can help ensure diverse perspectives.

Above all, we must be willing to continue this conversation. There is no singular curriculum or resource that will permanently correct inequities. Johns Hopkins ’25 graduate Rosa Gao reminded the audience that inclusivity efforts are “a practice,” and “a way of moving through space” for professors and peers alike.

It can be as simple as a quick self-evaluation. As a peer: “Am I being dismissive?” “Am I holding everyone’s opinions at an equal weight?” As a professor: “How can I create assignments that will leverage the student voice?”

Each individual experience must be valued, and even successful initiatives should continue to be reinvented. As minorities, to create positive change, we must take up space. As a greater community, we must continue to care, to discuss, and to evolve. 

By Ana Lucia Ochoa, Class of 2026

On the — Very Cold — Ground for the Iowa Caucus

As a kid who grew up on the west coast, the midwest has always befuddled me. This land of blizzards, corn fields, cheese, and a severe lack of ocean was a complete mystery. And to be quite frank, this was a mystery I had zero desire in solving. 

Evan Brown, Olivia Schramkoswki, Anne Dillon, Amaia Clayton, and Emily Zou at the Fox News Town Hall with Nikki Haley.

However, from January 4 to 9, I found myself in Des Moines, Iowa with a group of around 20 other Duke students. I put on my best ski gear and braved the snow to observe a truly Iowan experience — the presidential caucuses. Although we missed the caucus itself because we had to be back in Durham for the first day of classes, we had amazing opportunities to meet presidential candidates, get behind-the-scenes tours of debate stages, meet with journalists and campaign teams, and speak with Iowans to understand their voting priorities. 

“My favorite part of the trip was getting to meet all of the presidential candidates and ask them questions of my own,” said first-year political science major Evan Brown. 

Duke professor Mark Dalhouse has been taking students to the Iowa caucus for multiple election cycles starting in 2008, first at Vanderbilt, then at Elon, and now at Duke. Students who are interested in politics visit Iowa to observe rallies, volunteer for presidential campaigns, and to learn more about the Iowa caucus. He says the trip is intended to help students learn lessons in bipartisanship and make our campus less politically polarized. 

When asked about polarization on Duke’s campus, Professor Dalhouse said “I think the very first step is doing what we did in Iowa; talking to individuals and learning their story, seeing people who might have different belief systems than we do as people, not as “them.” I think this demystifies stereotypes and enables us to see that we have a lot more in common with those on the other side of the political fence than we might think.”

Vivek Ramaswamy at his rally in Toledo, IA on January 4.

The Iowa caucus is a way of nominating a party’s presidential candidate. As a party-run process, Democrats and Republicans both have their own particular methods for caucusing. For 50 years, Iowa has been the first state that each party has held their caucus in. However, after Biden took office in 2021, he changed the processes for Democrats. You can read more about that decision here. That means that this year, only Republican Iowans participated in this coveted first-primary-of-the-election-season tradition. Registered Republicans across Iowa come together in school gymnasiums, church basements, and community centers to advocate for their primary candidate of choice and submit a secret vote. 

Nikki Haley at her rally in Indianola, IA on January 6.

On the first day, we attended a Vivek Ramaswamy rally and back-to-back CNN town halls with Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis. The Ramaswamy event took place in a small room in a motel; he brought out his wife and kids.

“I thought that Vivek was a very intelligent man and very well-spoken,” Brown said. “But, at that event, the solutions to our country’s problems that he proposed solidified, to me, the fact that he is not my candidate.”

Ramswamy suspended his campaign on caucus night after an underwhelming performance that he felt left no real shot at a presidential nomination. 

At the CNN town halls, we got to see the media-trained versions of Haley and DeSantis as Iowan voters asked their questions to the two candidates. 

Nikki Haley at her CNN Town Hall, with me.

The second day, we went to a DeSantis rally at a wine bar. He was accompanied by Representative Chip Roy of Texas. Freshman public policy major Amaia Clayton said, “The DeSantis rally was packed, and people seemed especially eager to engage and ask him lots of questions.” DeSantis finished second in the caucuses but suspended his campaign on January 21.

We attended a Ron DeSantis rally and got to meet him.

On the third day, we saw Haley at her own event at a vineyard. She was introduced by New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu. Clayton said, “She had a unique method of talking about her policy goals… [she] was very intentional in explaining the ‘why’ behind many of her policies.”

We also attended an event for former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson at a restaurant. As an underdog in the Iowa caucus, he dropped out of the presidential race shortly after the results came out. “It was interesting to see that when he had a much smaller audience than the other candidates, of which many were students, he altered the issues that he spent the most time talking about,” Brown said.

This year, the Republican primary candidates were heavily overshadowed by former President Donald Trump. With 51% of the votes, he was crowned the winner of the Iowa caucus only minutes into the vote counting process, proving his decisive lead in the polls. Following behind him was Ron DeSantis with 21.2% and Nikki Haley with 19.1%. Vivek Ramaswamy received 7.7% of the votes and candidates Ryan Binkley, Asa Hutchinson, and Chris Christie (who called off his campaign days before the caucus) all received less than one point. 

When speaking to voters, the candidates very clearly fell into two camps: pro-Trump and anti-Trump. Voters at Ramaswamy, Haley, and DeSantis rallies all echoed their disapproval of the chaos that tended to follow Trump. Although all three candidates had praises for Trump’s policy priorities, they emphasized his tendency to get caught up with media frenzy and make enemies. That said, Trump won every single district in Iowa except Johnson County, where he was losing to Haley by a single vote as of January 17.

Asa Hutchinson at his event in Waukee, IA on January 7.

On the topic of Trump, Professor Dalhouse said, “Trump changed this Caucus just by the steady accumulation of his continued command of the front pages in the news. He is the story and everything else is tangential. His four trials, his successful planting of the idea that our voting system is “rigged,” and his successful articulation of the anger I referred to earlier made him the prohibitive favorite in Iowa. Also, he has a much better on the ground organization than in 2016 when Ted Cruz beat him.”

“If you crunch the numbers from this Iowa Caucus, it’s quite interesting,” Dalhouse said. “In Iowa, there are 719,000 registered Republicans. Only about 56,000 came out on Caucus Night; of those, nearly half voted AGAINST Trump. This suggests to me that he has some structural weaknesses even among Republicans. I think this also suggests the strong potential that he will bleed votes all year long into November and that number will go up if he is convicted of even one felony between now and November. I think that will give a lot more Republicans pause before voting for him. As the old baseball saying goes, ‘it ain’t over ‘til it’s over.’” 

As someone who was raised in a very Democratic area and family, I had never truly been immersed in Republican politics like I had on this trip. Although I went into the trip with caution, I can confidently say that it was an extremely eye-opening experience.

Talking with Iowan Republicans, it was obvious to see that they were Americans who had much in common with me. At the rallies, it was clear that Democrats and Republicans both saw similar problems with our country: increasing rates of mental health disorders, a broken immigration system, a lack of access to affordable housing, and much more. Obviously, the pathways to solving those problems are where the political parties tend to diverge.

This did leave me with a lot more perspective on political polarization. On one hand, common viewpoints can spark bipartisan and productive conversation. On the other, the two parties so clearly see the same things from completely different angles.

The next step for the candidates still in the running is the New Hampshire primary, which will take place on January 23. You can read more about the NH primaries and what to expect here.

Post by Emily Zou, Class of 2027

Liam Frumkin and AHAV: Improving Lives Through Simple Snacks

We’re all familiar with the quintessential elementary school bake sale: hand-drawn posters, homemade treats, and shockingly high price tags, all in the name of charity. However, for Duke sophomore Liam Frumkin, his Few Quad bake sale resulted in a potential Shark Tank Product.

Liam Frumkin, Trinity '26
Liam Frumkin, Trinity ’26

Frumkin is a 20 year old economics major who recently got back from a gap year developing AHAV, a snack company specializing in healthy treats. AHAV, which means “to love” in Hebrew, has a mission statement “To Improve Lives Through Simple Snacks and Simple Ingredients!” Through selling healthy cookie dough bites and donating a portion of the proceeds to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) and No Kid Hungry, Frumkin has been able to turn his bake sale into an amazing entrepreneurial venture. 

Frumkin’s story started seven years ago when he began to develop an eating disorder. Throughout his freshman and sophomore years of high school, Frumkin remembers losing unhealthy amounts of weight through constant exercise and eating very little. At grocery stores, he was overwhelmed by ingredient lists and nutritional contents of the snacks lining the aisles. 

His eating disorder came to its peak during his junior year, when he was hospitalized and began professional treatment for his eating disorder. Throughout treatment, Frumkin began to cook more in order to create snacks that both satisfied his cravings, and felt comfortable and safe to eat. At first, he says, Frumkin was doing this “just for [him]self”. 

When Frumkin arrived at Duke in August of 2021, he continued cooking in his dorm kitchens. Intrigued, his dorm-mates and friends would stop by to inquire and try Frumkin’s creations. Frumkin said he received stellar feedback about the nutritional value and deliciousness of his treats (I can confirm, having tried AHAV chocolate chip cookie dough bites, that they are, in fact, delicious). Because of his obsession with Shark Tank (I’m sure we can all relate), Frumkin began looking into how to capitalize on his passion of creating nutritional snacks. 

Liam and his very first batch of cookie dough bites.

And so, Frumkin began to hold bake sales in front of Few Quad on West Campus, selling ziploc bags of his homemade treats. Within a couple of months, he had made thousands of dollars, far surpassing my elementary school bake sales. When the Duke Administration caught wind of Frumkin’s bake sales, they informed him that the sale of foods without a license were illegal and encouraged him to find a professional kitchen.

Frumkin agreed with Duke and began searching for a professional kitchen, eventually finding a Duke alumnus who had started their own food business through an accelerator program called Union Kitchen. Union Kitchen accepts eight people a year and in exchange for 10% equity, allows access to kitchens, resources, and connections.

Frumkin applied to the program with zero expectations, not even telling his parents about his plans. However, after receiving the good news, his parents were nothing but supportive.

Liam and his parents in the AHAV kitchen.

With nothing but a few suitcases and ziploc bags of cookie dough bites, Frumkin began his semester off, moved to Washington D.C., and started work on AHAV. 

Pretty soon, a gap semester turned into a gap year, and Frumkin launched AHAV on January 1, 2023. At the time of the launch, Frumkin had already partnered with local retail stores to sell AHAV products in-store. When I talked with Frumkin, he expressed immense appreciation for Union Kitchen’s connections and their help getting his company off the ground.

Liam and the first bag of AHAV ever produced.

Frumkin turned to TikTok and Instagram to share his own journey with his eating disorder and to market AHAV, receiving resounding support from his followers, who resonated with both Frumkin’s story and AHAV’s mission. AHAV has more than 120,000 followers across various social media platforms and a team of six full-time employees based out of Washington D.C.

The AHAV logo

From applying for Shark Tank, to grocery stores like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, AHAV clearly has a bright future. AHAV has also donated over 120,000 meals to kids in need and helped over 6,000 kids get treatment for their eating disorders. Frumkin’s philanthropy has really lived up to AHAV’s meaning of “to love” and the heart-based logo. 

During his time-off, Frumkin found himself struggling with loneliness, having no consistent interactions with students his own age. Since he’s been back, Frumkin says he’s still searching for that perfect work-life-school balance. Despite this, he still says it is hands-down the smartest decision he’s ever made, which he largely credits to Duke’s support. During his time-off, Frumkin said Time Away From Duke was extremely supportive and accommodating. Since being back on campus, he’s reached out to the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Office and connected with fellow Duke students who are eager to help with video editing, marketing, etc. Frumkin also found support from Duke’s extensive alumni network, which he met through the pre-orientation group Project Edge, as well as the Duke in Silicon Valley program. 

Frumkin says that as a freshman, he still continued to struggle with disordered eating. He frequently met with a nutritionist from Duke Student Health, who he says was very helpful, specifically around his obsession with nutrients and ingredients. Frumkin stressed that students with eating disorders can fight their battles together. He says one of the most rewarding parts of starting AHAV has been sharing his journey and helping other people realize that they’re not alone. 

By Emily Zou, Class of 2027

Who Really Benefits from Big Bucks College Athletics?

The furious dribbles across the hardwood floors. The seas of blue consuming the stands. Anyone who has ever attended, or even heard of the legendary Duke Vs UNC basketball game likely holds a vivid picture of the intense nature of this game.

While there is little question that this multi-million dollar event is the most beneficial of the year for both programs, a recent collaboration between the faculty from both schools raised the question: Beneficial for whom? 

Friday, Nov. 10, I had the pleasure of attending a sports symposium organized by Duke and UNC with a focus on the exploitive nature of collegiate athletics. Duke hosted, but both schools brought in a multitude of faculty members, attorneys, and media professionals to discuss a wide range of topics regarding the relationship between college sports and the detrimental effects on athletes. Despite the immense range of topics, there was a common consensus among all speakers and attendees of the event: Some things must change. 

Panelists (l-r) Victoria Jackson, Maddie Salamone, Olu Kopano, and Payton Barish.

They said there are three major problems that currently plague the world of college athletics: the lack of representation, the lack of long-term benefits, and most importantly, the illusion of success portrayed to these athletes.  

Among athletes, a lack of representation in decision-making spheres appears to be a double-sided problem. Any remedy seems far-fetched without major structural changes.

A number of decision-making bodies exist for the purpose of addressing athletic issues and decisions. One of the most notable is the NCAA’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC), a representative body created for the purpose of granting athletes a voice. However, its limited scope, the athletes’ lack of knowledge on certain issues, and the lack of authority granted to the athletes’ decisions highlight the conference’s inability to serve as a proper representative body.

Many attribute this lack of representation to the fact that athletes are stretched far too thin, stripping them of the time needed to truly understand the expectations of the rules established by the NCAA. Symposium speakers argued that time and resources need to be built into their schedules, and not used as an extra burden, to grant them clarity on their rights, structural changes, and shifts in power that affect them. 

Panelists also said many athletes emerge from college without developing fundamental life skills such as being able to do their own taxes. Many are left unable to properly afford to manage injuries sustained in college as they aren’t granted any long-term/lifelong healthcare services. And many international athletes are unequipped to deal with the visa-based issues  that may arise from an inability to not only manage expectations set by their sport but also those set by their schools, and even ICE.

Throughout the symposium, a common point made was the fact that there are abundant staff present for the development of the game, but few staff for the development of the athletes as individuals.

This idea formed the second consensus of the discussion: there needs to be a more intentional focus on the resources for athletes, not only based in athletic performance, but also within the scope of mental, physical and long-term health across the board. 

Finally, the illusion of success offered to athletes was a major grievance expressed during the symposium. When signing athletes on to the team, it is customary for recruiters to essentially promise athletes an idea of future success, whether it be through going pro or earning financial liberation. This, however, has proven to not be the case for everyone, as most careers end after those four years of college. This idea is detrimental to athletes who’s intense dedication and tunnel vision toward these goals often prevent them from developing a Plan B. Many become susceptible to difficulties recovering from this, fueled by a lack of resources and representation. 

While athletes are now able to receive compensation for their “names, images and likenesses” (NIL), it is still breadcrumbs compared to the amount going to coaches and staff. This illusion is fueled by scholarships and third-party sponsorships that allow the parties currently bringing in million dollars salaries to under-compensate the source of this income: the athletes themselves. Many at the symposium concluded that this was a job for the athletes to fix, while others claimed that this problem belonged to the coaches, recruiters, and universities. Both parties, however, agreed that this change must come immediately, or these issues will continue to hurt many more athletes in the long run. 

Keynote speaker Dr. Victoria Jackson of Arizona State University during her opening statements.

By Gabrielle Douglas, Class of 2027

Leveraging Google’s Technology to Improve Mental Health

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Isa Helton, Class of 2026

How Our Brain Deconstructs A World in Constant Motion

It’s a miracle that people aren’t constantly getting into car accidents.

Whizzing by at 65 miles per hour in a car, the brain rapidly decodes millions of photons worth of information from the eyes, and then must use that information to instantly figure out where it is and where it needs to go. Is that a pedestrian approaching the sidewalk or a mailbox? Do I need to take this offramp or the next one? What color is the traffic light up ahead?

Was it a stop sign? I didn’t notice. (US Marine Corps, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Most motorists, miraculously, get to work or school without a scratch.

After nearly a decade worth of research, Duke scientists have figured out how the brain juggles all of this so effortlessly and tirelessly in a surprisingly inefficient way: by making quick, low-level models of the world to help form a clear view of the road ahead. The new findings expand the understanding of how the brain sees the world, and might one day help clinicians better understand what goes awry in people with psychiatric issues defined by perceptual problems, like schizophrenia.

Most neuroscientists think our brain cells figure out what we’re looking at by quickly comparing what’s in front of us to past experience and prior knowledge. Like a biological detective, they might determine you are looking at a house by using past experiences of neighborhoods you have been in and houses you have lived in. Enthusiasts of this Bayesian theory have long reasoned that these quick, probability-based analyses are what help people see a stable world despite sensory and motor noise from eye movement and constant environmental uncertainties, like a glare from the sun or a backdrop of a moving crowd.

A recent paper in the online journal eNeuro however, suggests neuroscientists have overlooked a simpler explanation: that brain cells are also rapidly decoding a constant stream of information from the eyes using simple pattern recognition, like determining you’re looking at a house from the visual evidence of windows, a tall rectangular opening, and a manicured lawn.

Marc Sommer

“That discriminative model has some advantages because it’s really quick, logical, and flexible,” said Marc Sommer, Ph.D., a professor of biomedical engineering at Duke and senior author of the new study. “You can learn the boundaries between decisions, and you can apply all sorts of statistical pattern-matching at a very low level. You don’t have to create a model of the world, which is a big task for a brain.”

Sommer initially hoped to confirm the general consensus in neuroscience—that the brain builds on a working model of the world instead of recognizing patterns from the ground up. But after putting the Bayesian theory to the test with Duke neurobiology alumna Divya Subramanian, Ph.D., now a postdoctoral researcher at the National Institutes for Health, he’s hoping to extend their newfound results to other processes in the brain.

To ferret out which theory would hold up, Sommer and Subramanian recruited 45 adults for an eye test. Participants looked at a computer screen and were quizzed about where a shape on the screen moved to, or if it moved at all. Throughout the test, Subramanian subtly made movements trickier and less obvious to tease out how the brain compensates when there is increasing uncertainty, from changing the contrast of the shape to the shape itself.

After scoring the eye exams, Sommer and Subramanian were surprised to find that the brain didn’t solely rely on a Bayesian approach.

People scored worse when the visual noise was dialed up, but only when they were asked where the target moved to. Test scores were mostly unaffected with noisier scenes when people were asked if a shape moved on the screen, suggesting that—to the team’s surprise—people don’t always use prior experiences when they are more uncertain about what they are seeing, like our biological detective would.

The team spent the next several years parsing through results and replicating their findings “three times to believe it,” Subramanian said, but it always led them to the same conclusion: for some forms of perception, brain cells stick to low-level patterns to draw conclusions about the world around them.

“You can collect data forever and ever. And at some point, you just realize you have enough,” Sommer said.

Sommer now plans to disrupt the dogma for other sensory systems, like spoken language, to see if beloved theories hold up to the scrutiny of testing.

The hope is that by understanding how the brain solves other perceptual problems, Sommer and others can better understand psychiatric and motor disorders, like Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia, or obsessive-compulsive disorder, and develop more effective treatments as a result.

“There are some sub-circuits of the brain that are probably pretty well-understood to be involved with these disorders. That’s a biological description,” Sommer said. “And there’s also neurotransmitter deficits, like lacking dopamine in Parkinson’s. That’s a chemical explanation. But there are very few big-picture, explanations of why people have certain psychiatric or motor disorders.”

CITATION: “Bayesian and Discriminative Models for Active Visual Perception Across Saccades,” Divya Subramanian, John Pearson, Marc A. Sommer. eNeuro, July 14, 2023. DOI: 10.1523/ENEURO.0403-22.2023

Guest post by Isabella Kjaerulff, Class of 2025

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