Research Blog

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

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Students Dance Their Way Out of “AI Bias”

Martin Brooke is no ordinary Engineering professor at Duke University. He teaches computer scientists, engineers, and technology nerds how to dance.

Brooke co-teaches Performance and Technology, an interactive course where students create performance projects and discuss theoretical and historical implications of technologies in performance. In a unique partnership with Thomas DeFrantz, a professor of African and African American Studies and Dance students will design a technology based on “heart,” for example, in order to understand how human expression is embedded in technology. Two weeks later, they’ll interact with motion-sensing, robotic trees that give hugs; and 3D printed hearts that detect colors and match people, sort of like a robotic tinder.

Thomas DeFrantz (left) and Martin Brooke  watch their students perform in the Performance and Technology course .

Brooke loves that this class is fun and interactive, but more importantly he loves that this class teaches students how to consider people’s emotions, facial expressions, cultural differences, cultural similarities and interactions when designing new technologies.

Human interface is when a computerized program or device takes input from humans — like an image of a face — and gives an output — like unlocking a phone. In order for these devices to understand human interface, the programmer must first understand how humans express themselves. This means that scientists, programmers, and engineers need to understand a particular school of learning: the humanities. “There are very, very few scientists who do human interface research,” Brooke said.

The students designed a robotic “Tinder” that changes colors when it detects a match.

Brooke also mentioned the importance of understanding human expressions and interactions in order to limit computer bias. Computer bias occurs when a programmer’s prejudiced opinions of others are transferred into the computer products they design. For example, many recent studies have proven that facial recognition software inaccurately identifies black individuals when searching for suspects of a criminal case.

“It turns out one of the biggest problems with technology today is human interface,” Brooke said. “Microsoft found out that they had a motion sensitive Artificial Intelligence that tended to say women, [more often than men], were angry.”  Brooke said he didn’t consider the importance of incorporating the arts and humanities into engineering before coming to Duke. He suggested that it can be uncomfortable for some scientists to think and express themselves artistically. “[When] technologists [take Performance and Technology], for example, they are terrified of the performance aspects of it. We have some video of a guy saying, ‘I didn’t realize I was going to have to perform.’ Yeah, that’s what we were actually quite worried about, but in the end, he’s there in the video, doing slow motion running on stage — fully involved, actually performing, and really enjoying it.

Duke has a strong initiative to promote arts and humanities inclusion in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Brooke plans to bring Bass Connections, a research program that focuses on public outreach and cross-disciplinary work, to his Performance and Technology class before the end of the semester to demonstrate bias through a program he calls AI Bias In the Age of a Technical Elite.  

“You give it someone’s name and it will come up with a movie title, their role, and a synopsis of the movie,” Brooke said. “When I put in my name, which is an English name, it said that the movie I would be in is about a little boy who lives in the English countryside who turns into a monster and terrorizes the town.” This program shows even something as simple as a name can have so much stigma attached to it.

Bass Connections Students working on technology and engineering projects. (From the official Duke page for Bass Connections.)

Brooke’s hope is that his class teaches students to think about technology and human interface. “Hopefully that’s a real benefit to them when they get out actually designing products.”

Guest post by Jordan Anderson, a masters student in Science & Society

A Day of STEM for Girls

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

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

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

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

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

Staci Bilbo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Meghna Datta

Squirmy Science

Unearthing A New Way Of Studying Biology

Yes, students, worms will be on the test. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post by Rebecca Williamson

Undergraduate Research in Duke’s Wired! Lab

Meet Jules Nasco, a sophomore studying Political Science and Philosophy, Politics, and Economics.

Jules is intrigued by the theories behind “how and why people form governments.” Yet, beyond her participation in various theatrical performances, commitment to several social and living-learning communities, and multiple campus jobs — from being a tour guide to editing Twitter and the Medium blog for DukeStudents — Jules also brandishes the role of undergraduate researcher in the Wired! Lab.

Duke’s Wired Lab is dedicated to digital art history and visual culture. The group – facilitated by Olga Grlic and Bill Broom and comprised of three current undergraduates – works in conjunction with the University of Catania in Italy and senior researchers around the world. Jules works specifically on the Medieval Kingdom of Sicily database, “a collection of historic images of the medieval monuments and cities in the Kingdom of Sicily, available as an open-source resource for travelers, researchers, academics, and anyone curious about the history of this part of the world!”

Since the spring semester of her first year at Duke, Jules has been searching high and low through public and private “collections, museums, archives, libraries, and publications in search of relevant paintings, drawing, etchings, photographs, or other images for the database.” She says that this can be as straightforward and easy as checking the permissions of a digital photo and downloading it or as complicated as contacting persons about image rights or scanning and editing photos from old books. Jules also collects metadata about the images she compiles such as artist or photographer, the date it was produced, the reason for production, or any relevant notes about the work. This data is then reviewed and added onto by senior researchers before being added to the public database.

The work can lead to “super-duper cool discoveries.” Earlier this year, Jules found an illustration of Salerno in a book that was drawn over 500 years ago, which led the team to a collection containing another illustration – likely by the same unknown author – likely drawn solely to depict the event of someone’s execution. However, the execution drawing is now the oldest depiction collected by the Wired! Lab of Castel Nuovo in Naples, which is one of the most prominent monuments studied by the lab.

The photo of Castel Nuovo in Naples that undergraduate researcher Jules found.

Though she admits that more career-focused endeavors may eventually take precedence over her work in the database, it’s her passion for art history that initially drew Jules into the research. Knowing that other pursuits would fill her time at Duke, she wanted to keep her interests alive in other ways. After participating in the Medieval and Renaissance Europe FOCUS program, Jules’ professor introduced her to Olga and Bill and the project. “The rest is art history!”

Jules’ favorite part of the work is the feeling that she is “meaningfully contributing to a community of interested travelers, researchers, and academics.”

Jules is able to provide people globally with information about a part of the world that she believes may otherwise be too hard to find. Her work facilitates and spreads knowledge in an interactive way, which she says makes the sometimes-tedious parts all worth it. In their data review at the end of each semester, Jules is able to see where in the world the database has been accessed and finds it awesome to know that people in Africa, Asia, and Australia use the information she has helped provide.

Post by Cydney Livingston

First-Year Students Designing Real-World Solutions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fly Flipping Device

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

By Anna Gotskind


Teens Have the Feels About Their Family’s Standing

A study of British twins appearing this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that an adolescent’s sense of their own family’s social and economic standing is closely linked to that child’s physical and cognitive health.

In fact, the adolescent’s perception of status was a more powerful predictor of their well-being and readiness for further education than their family’s actual status. The study sample represented the full range of socioeconomic conditions in the U.K.

“Testing how young people’s perceptions related to well-being among twins provided a rare opportunity to control for poverty status as well as environmental and genetic factors shared by children within the same family,” said lead author Joshua Rivenbark, an MD/PhD student in Duke’s Medical School and Sanford School of Public Policy.

Joshua Rivenbark is an MD/PhD student in medicine and policy

“Siblings grew up with equal access to objective resources, but many differed in where they placed their family on the social ladder – which then signaled how well each twin was doing,” Rivenbark said.

Researchers followed 2,232 same-sex twins born in England and Wales in 1994-95 who were part of the Environmental Risk (E-Risk) Longitudinal Twin Study based at King’s College London. Adolescents assessed their family’s social ranking at ages 12 and 18. By late adolescence, these beliefs signaled how well the teen was doing, independent of the family’s access to financial resources, healthcare, adequate nutrition and educational opportunities. This pattern was not seen at age 12.

“The amount of financial resources children have access to is one of the most reliable predictors of their health and life chances,” said Candice Odgers, a professor of psychological science at the University of California, Irvine, who is the senior author of the report. “But these findings show that how young people see their family’s place in a hierarchical system also matters. Their perceptions of social status were an equally good, and often stronger, indicator of how well they were going to do with respect to mental health and social outcomes.”

Study findings also showed that despite growing up in the same family, the twins’ views were not always identical. By age 18, the twin who rated the family’s standing as higher was less likely to be convicted of a crime; was more often educated, employed or in training; and had fewer mental health problems than his or her sibling.

“Studies that experimentally manipulate how young people see their social position would be needed to sort out cause from effect,” Rivenbark said.

The E-Risk study was founded and is co-directed by Duke professors Avshalom Caspi and Terrie Moffitt at King’s College London.

Guest Post by Pat Harriman, UC-Irvine News @UCIPat

Sharing is Caring, But How Does it Start?

This is the second of several posts written by students at the North Carolina School of Science and Math as part of an elective about science communication with Dean Amy Sheck.

As an occasional volunteer at a local children’s museum, I can tell you that children take many different approaches to sharing. Some will happily lend others their favorite toys, while others will burst into tears at the suggestion of giving others a turn in an exhibit.

For Rita Svetlova Ph.D. at the Duke Empathy Development Lab, these behaviors aren’t just passing observations, they are her primary scientific focus. In November, I sat down with Dr. Svetlova to discuss her current research, past investigations, and future plans.

Margarita Lvovna Svetlova

Originally from Russia, Svetlova obtained an M.A. from Lomonosov Moscow State University in Moscow before earning her Ph.D in developmental psychology from the University of Pittsburgh. She later worked as a post-doctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

Now at Duke University as an assistant research professor of psychology and neuroscience and the principal investigator in the Empathy Development Lab, Svetlova looks at the development of ‘prosocial’ behavior in children — behaviors such as sharing, empathy, and teamwork.

Svetlova credits her mentor at the University of Pittsburgh, Dr. Celia Brownell, for inspiring her to pursue child psychology and development. “I’ve always been interested in prosociality, but when I was in Russia I actually studied linguistics,” she says. “When I moved to the U.S., I changed paths partly because I’ve always wanted to know more about human psychology. The reason I started studying children is partly because I was interested in it and partly because I met Dr. Brownell. I branched out a little bit, but I generally found it interesting.”

An unsuccessful sharing experience. (From Awkward Family Photos)

Although her passion for childhood development research began in Pittsburgh,  Svetlova has embraced her role as a Duke researcher, most recently tackling a scenario that most academically-inclined readers are familiar with — a partner’s failure to perform in a joint-commitment — in a co-authored May 2017 paper titled “Three-Year-Olds’ Reactions to a Partner’s Failure to Perform Her Role in a Joint Commitment.”

In the study, 144 three-year-olds were presented with a common joint commitment scenario: playing a game. For one third of the children, the game ended when their partner defected, while another third of the test group had a partner who didn’t know how to play.  The final third of the group saw the game apparatus break. Svetlova looked at how the children’s reactions varied by scenario: protesting defectors, teaching the ignorant partner, and blaming the broken apparatus. The results seem to suggest that three-year-olds have the ability to evaluate intentions in a joint commitment.

Another paper Svetlova co-authored, titled “Three- and 5-Year-Old Childrens’ Understanding of How to Dissolve a Joint Commitment,” compared the reactions of three- and five-year-olds when a puppet left a collaborative game with either permission, prior notification, or suddenly without prior notification. If the puppet left without warning, three-year-old subjects protested more and waited longer for the puppet’s return, but both age groups seemed to understand the agreement implicit in a joint commitment.

These joint commitments are only a small fraction of the questions that Svetlova hopes to address.

“A longitudinal study of prosociality would be amazing,” she says. “What I’m interested in now is the intersection of fairness understanding and in-group/out-group bias. What I am trying to look into is how children understand their in-group members vs. out-group members and whether there’s something we can do to make them more accepting of their out-group members.”

“Another one I am interested in is the neural basis of empathy and prosocial behavior. I haven’t started yet, but I’m planning a couple of studies on looking into the brain mechanisms of empathy in particular,” Svetolova says. “We plan to scan children and adults while experiencing an emotion themselves and compare that brain activation to the brain activation while witnessing someone experiencing an emotion, the question being ‘do we really feel others’ emotions as our own?’”

Svetlova also expressed her interest in the roles that gender, culture, and upbringing play in a child’s development of prosociality.

I had to ask her why teenagers seemed to “regress” in prosociality, seemingly becoming more selfish when compared to their childhood selves.

“I would distinguish between self-centered and selfish,” she assured me. “You are not necessarily selfish, it’s just that during teenagehood you are looking for your place in the world, in the ‘pack.’ That’s why these things become very important, other’s opinions about you and your reputation in this little group, people become very anxious about it, it doesn’t mean that they become selfish all of a sudden or stop being prosocial.” She added, “I believe in the good in people, including teenagers.”

Guest Post by Sellers Hill, NCSSM 2020

How Do You Engineer a Microbial Community?

This is the first of several posts written by students at the North Carolina School of Science and Math as part of an elective about science communication with Dean Amy Sheck.

Claudia Gunsch, the Theodore Kennedy distinguished associate professor in the department of civil and environmental engineering, wants to know how to engineer a microbial community. An environmental engineer with a fascination for the world at the micro level, Gunsch takes a unique approach to solving the problem of environmental pollution: She looks to what’s already been done by nature.

Claudia Gunsch, Ph.D.

Gunsch and her team seek to harness the power of microbes to create living communities capable of degrading contamination in the environment.

“How can you engineer that microbial community so the organisms that degrade the pollutant become enriched?” she asks. “Or — if you’re thinking about dangerous pathogenic organisms — how do you engineer the microbial community so that those organisms become depressed in that particular environment?”

The first step, Gunsch says, is to figure out who’s there. What microbes make up a community? How do these organisms function? Who is doing what? Which organisms are interchangeable? Which prefer to live with one another, and which prefer not living with one another?

“Once we can really start building that kind of framework,” she says, “we can start engineering it for our particular purposes.”

Yet identifying the members of a microbial community is far more difficult than it may seem. Shallow databases coupled with vast variations in microbial communities leave Gunsch and her team with quite a challenge. Gunsch, however, remains optimistic.

Map of U.S. Superfund Sites (2013)

“The exciting part is that we have all these technologies where we can sequence all these samples,” she says. “As we become more sophisticated and more people do this type of research, we keep feeding all of this data into these databases. Then we will have more information and one day, we’ll be able to go out and take that sample and know exactly who’s there.”

“Right now, it’s in its infancy,” she says with a smile. “But in the long-term, I have no doubt we will get there.”

Gunsch is currently working on Duke’s Superfund Research Center designing bioremediation technologies for the degradation of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) contamination. These pollutants are extremely difficult to break down due to their tendency to stick strongly onto soil and sediments. Gunsch and her team are searching for the right microbial community to break these compounds down — all by taking advantage of the innate capabilities of these microorganisms.

A photo montage from Dr. Gunsch’s lab page.

Step one, Gunsch says, has already been completed. She and her team have identified several different organisms capable of degrading PAHs. The next step, she explains, is assembling the microbial communities — taking these organisms and getting them to work together, sometimes even across kingdoms of life. Teamwork at the micro level.

The subsequent challenge, then, is figuring out how these organisms will survive and thrive in the environment they’re placed in, and which microbial seeds will best degrade the contamination when placed in the environment. This technique is known as “precision bioremediation” — similar to precision medicine, it involves finding the right solution in the right amounts to be the most effective in a certain scenario.

“In this particular case, we’re trying to figure out what the right cocktail of microbes we can add to an environment that will lead to the end result that is desired — in this case, PAH degradation,” Gunsch says.

Ultimately, the aim is to reduce pollution and restore ecological health to contaminated environments. A lofty goal, but one within sight. Yet Gunsch sees applications beyond work in the environment — all work dealing with microbes, she says, has the potential to be impacted by this research.

“If we understand how these organisms work together,” she says, “then we can advance our understanding of human health microbiomes as well.”

Post by Emily Yang, NCSSM 2021

Traveling Back in Time Through Smart Archaeology

The British explorer George Dennis once wrote, “Vulci is a city whose very name … was scarcely remembered, but which now, for the enormous treasures of antiquity it has yielded, is exalted above every other city of the ancient world.” He’s correct in assuming that most people do not know where or what Vulci is, but for explorers and historians – including Duke’s Bass Connections team Smart Archaeology – Vulci is a site of enormous potential.

Vulci, Italy, was an ancient Etruscan city, the remains of which are situated about an hour outside of Rome. The Etruscan civilization originated in the area roughly around Tuscany, western Umbria, northern Lazio, and in the north of Po Valley, the current Emilia-Romagna region, south-eastern Lombarty, southern Veneto, and some areas of Campania. The Etruscan culture is thought to have emerged in Italy around 900 BC and endured through the Roman-Etruscan Wars and coming to an end with the establishment of the Roman Empire. 

As a dig site, Vulci is extremely valuable for the information it can give us about the Etruscan and Roman civilizations – especially since the ruins found at Vulci date back beyond the 8th century B.C.E. On November 20th, Professor Maurizio Forte, of the Art, Art History and Visual Studies departments at Duke as well as Duke’s Dig@Lab, led a talk and interactive session. He summarized the Smart Archaeology teams’ experience this past summer in Italy as well as allowing audience members to learn about and try the various technologies used by the team. With Duke being the first university with a permit of excavation for Vulci in the last 60 years, the Bass Connections team set out to explore the region, with their primary concerns being data collection, data interpretation, and the use of virtual technology. 

Trying out some of the team’s technologies on November 20th (photo by Renate Kwon

The team, lead by Professor Maurizio Forte, Professor Michael Zavlanos, David Zalinsky, and Todd Barrett, sought to be as diverse as possible. With 32 participants ranging from undergraduate and graduate students to professionals, as well as Italian faculty and student members, the team flew into Italy at the beginning of the summer with a research model focused on an educational approach of practice and experimentation for everyone involved. With a naturally interdisciplinary focus ranging from classical studies to mechanical engineering, the team was divided, with people focusing on excavation in Vulci, remote sensing, haptics, virtual reality, robotics, and digital media. 

Professor Maurizio Forte

So what did the team accomplish? Well, technology was a huge driving force in most of the data collected. For example, with the use of drones, photos taken from an aerial view were patched together to create bigger layout pictures of the area that would have been the city of Vulci. The computer graphics created by the drone pictures were also used to create a video and aided in the process of creating a virtual reality simulation of Vulci. VR can be an important documentation tool, especially in a field as ever-changing as archaeology. And as Professor Forte remarked, it’s possible for anyone to see exactly what the researchers saw over the summer – and “if you’re afraid of the darkness of a cistern, you can go through virtual reality instead.” 

An example of one of the maps created by the team
The team at work in Vulci

In addition, the team used sensor technology to get around the labor and time it would take to dissect the entire site – which by the team’s estimate would take 300 years! Sensors in the soil, in particular, can sense the remnants of buildings and archaeological features up to five meters below ground, allowing researchers to imagine what monuments and buildings might have looked like. 

One of the biggest takeaways from the data the team collected based on discovering remnants of infrastructure and layout of the city was of the Etruscan mastery of water, developing techniques that the Romans also used. More work was also done on classification of Etruscan pottery, tools, and materials based on earlier work done by previous researchers. Discovering decorative and religious artifacts was also impactful for the team, because as Professor Forte emphasized, these objects are the “primary documentation of history.” 

But the discoveries won’t stop there. The Smart Archaeology team is launching their 2019-2020 Bass Connections project on a second phase of their research – specifically focusing on identifying new archaeological sites, analyzing the landscape’s transformation and testing new methods of data capturing, simulation and visualization. With two more years of work on site, the team is hopeful that research will be able to explain in even greater depth how the people of Vulci lived, which will certainly help to shine a light on the significance of the Etruscan civilization in global history.

By Meghna Datta

Stalking Elusive Ferns Down Under

Graduate student Karla Sosa (left) photographs and presses newly collected ferns for later analysis while Ashley Field (in truck) marks the GPS location of the find.

In Queensland, Australia, early March can be 96 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s summer in the Southern Hemisphere, but that’s still pretty hot.

Although hot, dry Australia probably isn’t the first place you’d think to look for ferns, that’s precisely why I’m here and the sole reason we’ve hit the road at 6 a.m. Our schedule for the day: to drive as far south as we can while still letting us come home at the end of the day.

My local colleague, Ashley Field, grew up just the next town over. A skinny, speedy man, he works at James Cook University in Cairns and knows most of northern Queensland like the back of his hand.

Cairns is on the coast at the upper right, where the little green airplane is.

The ferns I’m looking for today are interesting because some species can move from their original home in Australia to the tiny islands in the Pacific. But some cannot. Why? Understanding what makes them different could prove useful in making our crops more resilient to harsh weather, or preventing weeds from spreading.

We’ve been driving for four hours before we turn off onto a dirt road. If you haven’t been to Australia, it’s worth noting that four hours here is unlike any four hours I’ve experienced before. The roads are fairly empty, flat, and straight, meaning you can cover a lot of terrain. Australia is also incredibly big and most of the time you’re travelling through unpopulated landscapes. While it may be only four hours, your mind feels the weight of the distance.

Here’s the one they were looking for!
Cheilanthes tenuifolia with lots of little spore babies on the undersides of its leaves.

The dirt road begins to climb into the mountains. We are leaving behind low scrub and big granite rocks that sit on the flat terrain. Ashley knows where we can find the ferns I’m looking for, but he’s never driven this road before. Instead, we’re trusting researchers who came before us. When they explored this area, they took samples of plants that were preserved and stored in museums and universities. By reviewing the carefully labelled collections at these institutions, we can know which places to revisit in hopes of finding the ferns.

Often, however, having been collected before there was GPS, the location information on these samples is not very precise, or the plants may no longer live there, or maybe that area got turned into a parking lot, as happened to me in New Zealand. So, despite careful planning, you may drive five hours one way to come up empty handed.

As we move higher up the mountain, the soil turns redder and sparse eucalyptus forests begin to enclose us. We locate the previous collections coordinates, an area that seems suitable for ferns to grow. We park the truck on the side of the road and get out to look.

We comb 300 feet along the side of the road because these ferns like the edges of forest, and we find nothing. But as we trudge back to the truck, I spot one meager fern hiding behind a creeping vine! It’s high up off the road-cut and I try to scramble up but only manage to pull a muscle in my arm. Ashley is taller, so he climbs partway up a tree and manages to fetch the fern. It’s not the healthiest, only 6 inches tall for a plant that usually grows at least 12 to 14 inches. It’s also not fertile, making it less useful for research, and in pulling it out of the ground, Ashley broke one of its three leaves off. But it’s better than nothing!

This delicate beauty has no name yet. Karla has to compare it to other ferns in the area to know whether it’s just an odd-looking variant or possibly … a new species!

Ashley excels at being a field botanist because he is not one to give up. “We should keep looking,” he says despite the sweat dripping down our faces.

We pile back in and continue up the road. And who could have predicted that just around the bend we would find dozens of tall, healthy looking ferns! There are easily fifty or so plants, each a deep green, the tallest around 12 inches. Many others are at earlier stages of growth, which can be very helpful for scientists in understanding how plants develop. We take four or five plants, enough to leave a sample at the university in Cairns and for the rest to be shipped back to the US. One sample will be kept at Duke, and the others will be distributed amongst other museums and universities as a type of insurance.

The long hours, the uncertainty, and the harsh conditions become small things when you hit a jackpot like this. Plus, being out in remote wilderness has its own soothing charm, and chance also often allows us to spot cool animals, like the frilled lizard and wallaby we saw on this trip.

Funding for this type of fieldwork is becoming increasingly rare, so I am grateful to the National Geographic Society for seeing the value in this work and funding my three-week expedition. I was able to cover about 400 miles of Australia from north to south, visiting twenty-four different sites, including eight parks, and ranging from lush rainforest to dry, rocky scrub. We collected fifty-five samples, including some that may be new species, and took careful notes and photographs of how these plants grow in the wild, something you can’t tell from dried-up specimens.

Knowing what species are out there and how they exist within the environment is important not only because it may provide solutions to human problems, but also because understanding what biodiversity we have can help us take better care of it in the future.

Guest Post by graduate student Karla Sosa

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