Raise your hand if you learned about Mendel and his peas in high school biology.
It is a common misconception that this model of simple genetic traits applies for all traits. As a result, many students adhere to the idea of genetic essentialism, which concludes that even complex traits like skin color and intelligence are determined solely by someone’s genetics.
This is a notion that has been widely disproven in the scientific community for the past 20 years. However, there is a clear, historical roadblock in the community’s ability to translate this to the public — in a study to be published next month in Science, this group of scientists thinks they found a way.
Brian Donovan is a senior research scientist at BSCS Science Learning, and the principal investigator for a $1.29 million NSF project studying the effects of changing genetics education in American high schools.
On Wednesday evening, he gave a special talk at Duke to a standing-room-only crowd filled with the Biology and Evolutionary Anthropology departments, as well as about 50 assorted undergrads who were scribbling notes like they were going to be tested (myself included).
This talk is especially salient for the crowd in attendance: Duke has one of the most innovative introductory Biology courses in the nation (as anyone who has taken BIO202 with Dr. Willis will tell you), aimed specifically at combatting prejudice from misconceptions in genetic education.
Donovan’s grandparents were Holocaust survivors from Poland who experienced ethnic persecution at its highest, and he was inspired to combat these prejudices. Many people don’t realize that Nazism borrowed many of their tenets from Jim Crow laws, he discussed in the presentation. Not to mention the basic genetic model used in classrooms across the country — the Punnett Square — was developed in accordance with eugenics.
Donovan’s pitch was simple: a vaccine against racism.
According to numbers calculated in the study based on teenagers’ social media use and content, 13% of high school students in the U.S. could be exposed to racist manifestation during their high school career. And 98% of these kids take high school biology. Combatting racism with proper, well-rounded education on common misconceptions about genetics and race could be part of the solution.
But this doesn’t mean we need to nix Mendel altogether, Donovan says — we just need to restructure the narrative.
The new-and-improved curriculum (called “human(e) genetics,” which is very clever, if you ask me) focused on facets of genetics that are commonly considered fact by the scientific community.
0.1% of the human genome is variable between people.
There is statistically more genetic variation within human populations than between them
Complex traits, like skin color and height, have very weak association with genetics alone.
The relationship between environment and genetics is hard to quantify exactly. Studies in humans would be very unethical.
Height is a complex trait, just like skin color, says Donovan. These traits exist on a continuum. But you don’t make assumptions about people’s background based on their relative heights, yet the continuum of height variety is just as discrete as the continuum of skin color variety.
So, if all of this is such common knowledge, why is it not taught in classrooms already? Take this quote from a 1941 textbook called Biological and Human Affairs:
“There are no studies on how that impacted kids.” Donovan declared. “But I don’t think we need one after reading that. I think we can tell.”
After crunching a lot of numbers, Donovan’s team calculated that, considering the success rate of their humane genetics curriculum in experimental groups (the number of students who changed from agreeing with genetic essentialism to disagreeing with it), 52% of the original 13% exposed to racist ideals online would be protected from following them after this new education model.
These studies have even more relevance today in the age of controversy in history and biology education in Florida and the CRT controversy across the nation. In the question-and-answer session, students critiqued the feasibility of instituting humane genetics education in these states as a result.
The best way to educate adults, Donovan answered, is to educate the masses. “I have to ask you all,” he gestured to the room, “to publish. We need to publish papers that confirm we have a scientific consensus.”
Yes, I’m Noor and yes again, that is exactly how I introduced my freshman self to everyone in my year. Before you wonder, it’s an Arabic name and no I’m not from the Middle East! I’m a die-hard Pakistani with an overwhelming – and embarrassing – amount of love for Taylor Swift and Local Pakistani Music (stream Talha Anjum, you’ll be surprised!).
My personality mainly encompasses my thirteen-month-old niece, Alaya. I like to think she’s my mini doppelganger (she is not) and the last eight months of my life have been encapsulated by her cute presence, smelly diapers and charming smile. We spend most of our time listening to Taylor Swift, and – sometimes – the nursery rhyme, One Little Finger. Other times, we play the guitar and sing for fun (your average Duke freshman).
Although, contrary to the ‘average Duke freshman’ who is sure about the trajectory of their next twenty years, I am not – at all. I find my mind wandering to several distinct fields of interest; whenever a classmate asks me “but where is your mind really at?”, my deliberate and circumspect answer is always “four to be exact: economics, political science, psychology and public policy”’. This answer is invariably met by an overt facial expression screaming their internal thought “oh so she’s really not sure”. But that side eye is beside the point since that uncertainty is precisely what led me to the Duke Research Blog.
In high school, whether it was the debate club or my interest in mental health, I always found a research angle to it. For debate, I’d research different case studies in order to formulate argumentation and rebuttals; for mental health, I’d utilize such case studies and would recreate what worked. My proudest creation, the Safe Space Society (a society in my alma matter, International School Lahore), was nothing short of a camaraderie and a community fostered with love and empathy. In my eyes, such a creation was only made possible because of extensive and life-long research by dedicated professionals.
Not only is research the perfect way to navigate my interests in a fulfilling manner, but it also acts as the tunnel vision to a transfigured world. Since my navigation wishes to find its destination in a declared major, I’m incredibly excited to write and learn about research revolving science, mental health, and anything Duke brings my way.
I am, however, most excited to translate and decode complex and seemingly mundane ideas in a nuanced and amusing way. The blog seems to be on a mission to make potential engineers excited about the next big thing in mental health research; this is a mission I’m excited and honored to take part in. To sum it up, my goal at Duke Research Blog is to attend the research events you don’t want to and then write about them to make you regret not attending those events!
– A serious warning: you will see me bringing a Pakistani twist to every article I write! It’s just what us Pakistanis do (for a sample look at the sentence above). –
When I studied abroad in Paris, France, this summer, I became very familiar with the American tendencies that French people collectively despise. As I sat in a windowless back room of the school I would be studying at in the sixth arrondissement of Paris, the program director carefully warned us of the biggest faux-pas that would make our host families regret welcoming a foreign student into their home and the habitudes that would provoke irritated second glances on the street.
One: American people are loud. Don’t be loud. We are loud when we talk on the phone, loud putting on our shoes, loud stomping around the Haussmanian apartment built in the 1800s with creaky parquet flooring.
Two: Americans smile too much. Don’t smile at people on the street. No need for a big, toothy grin at every passerby and at every unsuspecting dog-walker savoring the few tourist-free morning hours.
Three: Why do Americans love to ask questions without any intention of sticking around to hear the response? When French people ask you how you’re doing – Comment ça va?– how you slept – Vous-avez bien dormi? – how the meal was – Ça vous a plu? – they stand there and wait for an answer after asking the question. So when Americans exchange a jolly “How are you today!” in passing, it drives French people crazy. Why ask a question if you don’t even want an answer?
This welcome post feels a little bit like that American “How are you today!” Not to say that you, reader, are not a patient, intrigued Frenchman or woman, who is genuinely interested in a response – I am well-assured that the readers of Duke’s Research Blog are just the opposite. That is to say that the question of “who are you?” is quite complicated to answer in a single, coherent blog post. I will proudly admit that I am still in the process of figuring out who I am. And isn’t that what I’m supposed to be doing in college, anyway?
I can satisfyingly answer a few questions about me, though, starting with where I am from. I’m lucky enough to call Trabuco Canyon, California my home– a medium-sized city about fifteen minutes from the beach, and smack-dab in the middle of San Diego and Los Angeles. Demographically, it’s fairly uninteresting; 68% White, 19% Hispanic, and 8% Asian. I’ve never moved, so I suppose this would imply that most of my life has been fairly unexposed to cultural diversity. However, I think one of the things that has shaped me the most has been experiencing different cultures in my travels growing up.
My dad is a classically-trained archaeologist turned environmental consultant, and I grew up observing his constant anthropological analysis of people and situations in the countries we traveled to. I learned from him the richness of a compassionate, empathetic, multi-faceted life that comes from traveling, talking to people, and being curious. I am impassioned by discovering new cultures and uncovering new schools of thought through breaking down linguistic barriers, which is one of the reasons I am planning on majoring in French Studies.
Perhaps from my Korean mother I learned perseverance, mental strength, and toughness. I also gained practicality, which explains my second major, Computer Science. Do I go crazy over coding a program that creates a simulation of the universe (my latest assignment in one of my CS classes)? Not particularly. But, you have to admit, the degree is a pretty good security blanket.
Why blog? Writing is my therapy and has always been one of my passions. Paired with an unquenchable curiosity and a thirst to converse with people different from me, writing for the Duke Research Blog gives me what my boss Karl Bates – Executive Director, Research Communications – calls “a license to hunt.”
Exclusive, top-researcher-only, super-secret conference on campus about embryonics? I’ll be making a bee-line to the speakers with my notepad in hand, thank you. Completely-sold-out talk by the hottest genome researcher on the academic grapevine? You can catch me in the front row. In short, blogging on Duke Research combines multiple passions of mine and gives me the chance to flex my writing muscles.
Thus, I am also cognizant of the privilege and the responsibility that this license to hunt endows me with. It must be said that elite universities are famously – and in reality – extremely gated-off from the rest of society. While access to Duke’s physical space may still be exclusive, the knowledge within is for anyone’s taking.
In this blog, I hope to dismantle the barrier between you and what can sometimes seem like intimidating, high-level research that is being undertaken on Duke’s campus. I hope to make my blogs a mini bi-monthly revelation that can enrich your intellect and widen your perspective. And don’t worry – when it comes to posing questions to researchers, I plan to stick around to hear the response.
Read my summer blogs from my study abroad in Paris HERE!
My eyes peered at my mom’s hand, rarely blinking. My ever-bouncing leg had stilled. My mind caught every subtle movement, attempting to decipher the pattern. I watched, entranced, as my mom’s fingers nimbly wove together the pieces of red thread into the bracelet I would wear every day for the rest of my life.
Chinese red string bracelets are a symbol of luck, prosperity, health, protection, and courage. In ancient China, the emperor would give his first, therefore most important, wife a red string bracelet. Similarly, red string bracelets are gifted to newlywed couples to commemorate their true love and wish them well in a new stage of their lives. Close relatives also gift a red string bracelet to women and girls on their 本命年 (Year of Birth), in order to protect them from the negative energy they will face that year.
A bracelet serves as a physical representation of a promise. Most obviously, a friendship bracelet shows a promise to love and trust your matching bracelet wearer. But any string on your wrist represents a promise. A W.W.J.D. band serves as a promise of faith and to live like Christ. A 4Ocean beaded bracelet is a promise to care for the Earth’s aquatic life. Even an Apple Watch is a promise to live healthily.
I was given my red string bracelet by my mom in 2016 (the Year of the Monkey). When I wear it, I remember my family’s unconditional love for me and the history of my Chinese heritage. The bracelet serves as a mutual agreement between my family and me: to protect and look after one another.
My name is Emily Zou and I’m a freshman from a suburb outside of Portland, Oregon. The bracelet my mom made 6 years ago sat on my wrist the entire flight from PDX to RDU. Similarly, my parents’ promise is what has landed me here. Throughout the past 18 years of my life, my parents have taken care of me: they cooked me dinner at 9 pm after school board meetings, drove me 4 hours to debate tournaments at 4 a.m., cut endless bowls of fruit for late night study sessions, and of course, are paying my college tuition.
A promise is a unique moral obligation. The obligation isn’t inherent; there’s no biological or evolutionary reason to keep a promise. It’s also not for fear of consequence; simply breaking a promise does not inflict physical or emotional damage on you, but rather the consequence is the act itself. And yet, promises are expected to be kept universally, regardless of scope, culture, or time period. This is because just like a red string bracelet, a promise is made with intentionality. Just like each knot must be precisely made, so must each part of a promise.
Now, it’s my turn to uphold my end of the promise. I’m extremely lucky to attend a university like Duke, and I plan to use every opportunity possible to someday give my parents even half of what they’ve given me throughout my childhood. And not just to my parents, but to the rest of the world, as well. I believe that each one of us wears a metaphorical bracelet symbolizing our promises to society. To protect one another and leave this world better than how we found it.
My bracelet sits perfectly positioned against the pulsing heartbeat in my wrist’s veins, pumping its promise into my veins to accompany the red blood cells to every part of my body. It remains visible as I ride the C1 to my Economics lecture, code an APT, or throw a ceramic piece on the wheel. As long as a bracelet is worn, its wearer swears to keep their promise. However, much like a bracelet worn every day, it’s often easy to forget the various commitments in daily life. Friendship bracelets fray, W.W.J.D. bands become stained, and Apple Watches become simply a way to check text messages.
Our society’s foundation is based on promises: promises to value community, act with integrity, abide by the law, show up to work or school, put our shopping carts away, etc. Some of the most important promises are made by leaders and institutions. If we anthropomorphize the American government, we can imagine the slew of red string bracelets it hands out to its citizens, each representing a different promise. These promises are explicitly laid out in the preamble to the Constitution: to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” More specifically, each amendment lays out a specific promise from the government to the people about certain rights and privileges. However, it seems that in its daily wear and tear, the US Government has forgotten about its promise to its people as we experience daily violations of these promises.
This is what I want to discuss at Duke, and more specifically, on the Duke Research Blog. Promises transcend so many different academic and research fields: the promises parents make to their children, promises schools make to their students, promises countries make to their citizens.
When we tie the knot around our wrist for the very first time, the bracelet’s strings taut and secure, it’s simple to uphold its promise for the days following. Hyper aware of its presence, each time we move our arm, we recognize it: I made an effort to improve my Mandarin during the first days of the Year of the Monkey; the recently converted attend church every Sunday; Apple Watch users take their 10,000 steps. However, as our minds become used to the bracelet, or overwhelmed by the fresh new ones, its promises become obsolete. This phenomenon can only be reversed when we ground ourselves in the intentions of our bracelets: to protect one another, the marginalized, and our planet.
At Duke, I’m weaving my bracelets from scratch, which includes the Duke Research Blog. But a lot of my future bracelets are still up in the air. I’m still collecting my strings, and I’m learning that that is okay. And moving forward, not all of my posts will wax so philosophical, actually, probably none of them will. I just figured if I get one opportunity to make a first impression, I might as well share my life philosophy.
Australia. For years it was more of a nebulous concept to me than a concrete place. It was a colorful patch on maps, home to animals I’d read about but never seen. Now it’s a place where I’ve run my hands over 1.9-billion-year-old stone, watched a platypus emerge from a river at dawn, gotten bitten on the tongue by an ant with a tasty green butt (long story), and spent a thousand other moments with wonderful people in places I hope to never forget.
That’s all thanks to Duke in Australia, a month-long biogeography course led by Alex Glass, Ph.D., and Nancy Lauer, Ph.D., that delves into Australian flora, fauna, geology, history, and culture. When people ask about my experience there this summer, I have a hard time answering. “Wonderful” doesn’t begin to cover it. The experience still doesn’t feel entirely real to me. Even when I was in Australia, watching a platypus or a parrot or standing on a beach with a sunrise on one side and a rainbow on the other, I sometimes couldn’t entirely believe where I was.
Disclaimer: When I say “Highlights from Duke in Australia,” I’m referring to my own personal highlights—some of which, let me assure you, were not universally popular with my classmates. Like the enormous crickets we saw on our rainforest night hike, or the time I found the shed skin of a huntsman spider and went around showing it to everyone nearby, or the delightfully squelchy mud coating the trail on one of our last hikes. For more detailed accounts of our day-to-day activities, check out the student blogs on the Duke in Australia 2023 website.
From the moment we landed in Sydney, I was keeping my eyes peeled for bird sightings. (I am slightly into birds. Just slightly.) Unless you count an ambiguous white flash seen through a bus window, my first bird sighting in Australia was a small group of rainbow lorikeets flying over the city. With a blue head and stomach, a green back, an orange-red breast, and flashes of yellow under the wings, the species is very well named.
Lorikeets weren’t the only birds we saw in Sydney. Common mynas, which always looked vaguely sinister to me, watched us while we ate dinner the first night. Pigeons strutted along the sidewalks—the only bird species I saw in Australia that I’d also seen in the US, except a possible peregrine falcon that I caught only a brief glimpse of during a hike. There were also Australian ibises all over the city, colloquially known as bin chickens for their dumpster-diving habits. Personally, I thought the ibises were lovely, regal birds.
There are other birds, however, that can no longer call Sydney home. One of my favorite sites in Sydney was the Forgotten Songs art installation at Angel Place. It is a short alley engraved with the names of fifty bird species that can no longer survive in the city. Empty bird cages hang suspended above the street. Our tour guide told us that the exhibit normally plays recordings of the birds, but that part was under renovation, so it was playing music instead. A few days later, I returned to the exhibit on my own so I’d have time to read every bird name. Those empty cages still haunt me.
On our first full day in Sydney, we went to Bondi Beach to explore the tidepools. There were crabs and octopi, seastars and anemones, necklace-like algae and tiny blue snails called little blue periwinkles. That afternoon, we sat on the beach and learned about microplastics from Lauer. (Not-so-fun fact: we eat a credit card’s worth of microplastics every week on average.) Some of us lingered on the beach afterward and went swimming. The water was frigid, but it was there, with cold water and sand swirling around me in a part of the ocean I’d never seen, much less swum in, that the reality of being on a new continent completely hit me.
Our first group hike was overwhelming, almost dizzying. Outside of urban Sydney, it was easier for me to recognize just how different Australia was from the US, and it was impossible to absorb everything at once. In every direction were unfamiliar plants and landscapes. Norfolk pine, coastal rosemary, mountain devil, sunshine wattle, Darwinia, flannel flower, gray spider flower…. I was especially entranced by casuarina, which looks shockingly like a pine tree but is actually a flowering plant that has evolved conifer-like traits to preserve water. We were in a heath, characterized by low-growing plants adapted to dry, nutrient-poor conditions. Nothing about it looked like the woods and fields and mountains back home.
Our focus that day was studying plants, but I was having a hard time focusing on any one thing for more than about a second. At one point, we were supposed to be observing a beautiful plant to my right, but half the group had already moved on to another species farther up the trail, and meanwhile, a bird I had certainly never seen in my life was perched remarkably cooperatively on a bush off to the left. There are too many things happening, I remember thinking. I was juggling my field notebook, hand lens, phone camera, and binoculars, and I didn’t even know where to look. I chose to stare at the bird, following the logic that it could fly away at any moment, whereas the plants would stay exactly where they were. That brilliant plan turned out to be faulty. The plants might stay still, but we wouldn’t—so much to see, so little time.
Our next stop was Katoomba, a small mountain town in New South Wales. It was a quiet, peaceful place, vastly different from Sydney. When I think of Katoomba, I think of the sulfur-crested cockatoo perched on a bakery sign just feet away from me and the flock of strikingly pink cockatoos called galahs in a local park. I think of the superb lyrebird that crossed our path directly in front of us and the rare Wollemi pine growing beside a road.
We took a hike at Wentworth Falls, where Darwin himself once walked. It’s part of the Great Dividing Range, but we learned that the mountains are actually “incised terrain,” formed when valleys were cut into a plateau, leaving “mountains” behind. We also drove to the Jenolan Caves and explored cavernous underground spaces bursting with crystal formations like stalactites, flowstone, and hollow soda straws. These lovely, fragile cave structures, or speleothems, are formed by the gradual deposition of dissolved minerals as water drips through a cave. Before we left, we saw an underground river with water so clear that I didn’t immediately realize I was looking at water at all.
Another day in Katoomba, our group took a gorgeous hike through a eucalypt forest. Literally everywhere I looked in that forest, there was something extraordinary. Ancient tree ferns. Ruby-red sap seeping out of a tree trunk. The Three Sisters rock formation framed by the aptly named Blue Mountains. Towering eucalypt and turpentine trees. At the end of the hike, we rode the Scenic Railway, the steepest in the world. It was terrifying—awesome, but terrifying.
Next, we flew to the Northern Territory, where we checked into our hostel in Darwin. We were now in crocodile country, home to the world’s largest reptile: the saltwater or estuarine crocodile. We were instructed to avoid going in any body of water, saltwater or otherwise, unless it was specifically designated as safe for swimming. (The name “saltwater crocodile” is misleading—the crocodiles can inhabit fresh water as well, and they are extremely aggressive and dangerous.) It was very important to be crocwise.
The first few days in Darwin, we didn’t see any crocodiles, but there were birds seemingly everywhere. Varied triller, which I originally misidentified as the buff-sided robin until a local eBird reviewer emailed me and asked me to correct my eBird report. Rainbow bee-eater, remarkably common for a bird that looks too beautiful to be real. Peaceful dove. Blue-faced honeyeater. Australasian figbird.
We took a hike that went through a beautiful mangrove, where we learned that the term mangrove isn’t specific to any particular type of plant; it’s used to refer to many very different species that have all adapted to the same challenges, including salinity, changing tides, and nutrient-poor soil. There were crabs and snails and birds—so many birds, some of which I still haven’t identified, like the group of black, crested birds with bright red inside their beaks.
When we emerged from the mangrove, we came across a nest of green weaver ants. Their bright green abdomens are rich in ascorbic acid, and the ants have traditionally been used for purposes ranging from treating colds to making a sort of “lemonade” to stimulating milk production. Many of us were eager to taste the ants, though Glass warned us that they “bite vigorously.” Some of my classmates carefully held an ant with their fingers while giving the abdomen a quick lick. I, on the other hand, decided to let an ant crawl onto my notebook while I licked it so it couldn’t bite my fingers. Clever, right? Well, it worked—the ant didn’t bite my fingers. It bit my tongue instead. “Vigorously.” Its mouthparts remained latched on even as I was spitting out ant parts onto the ground. I can’t blame it—I’d be upset, too, if a giant tried to lick me.
Before long, it was time for the jumping crocodile tour. We boarded a tour boat and floated down a seemingly peaceful river while our guide dangled hunks of meat from big fishing rods to bait the crocodiles to leap several feet out of the water and snap their jaws around the food. Their bite force, incidentally, is the highest of any living animal, up to 3700 pounds per square inch. Jumping is natural for the crocodiles—they hunt that way to snag animals like birds and wallabies that venture too close to the water. Being that close to enormous predators roused some deep, primeval fear in me. To a crocodile, I would make excellent prey. The jumping crocodile tour, needless to say, was very memorable. Our class later had a long and far-ranging discussion on the many types of ecotourism experiences we’d participated in and their costs, benefits, and ethical implications.
The next day, we left for a three-day camping trip in Kakadu and Litchfield National Parks. It was the dry season, and the weather was hot, dry, and sunny. We went hiking and snorkeling (in croc-free swimming holes), saw the breathtaking magnetic and cathedral termite mounds, and learned about geology and Aboriginal cultures. Some of the places we visited were sacred sites of the people who have inhabited the region for more than 65,000 years. One of the rock art paintings we were able to see was of a Tasmanian tiger, an animal that’s been completely extinct for close to a century and extinct in the Kakadu region for thousands of years. But right there on the wall was the preserved memory of a time when Tasmanian tigers still roamed the area.
One of the coolest places we stopped was a rock cut-out along a highway. The stone was striped with zigzagging layers created when it was buried underground at a pressure high enough to fold solid rock. It was formed 1.9 billion years ago, when the earth was “a geologist’s dream,” according to Glass–relatively barren, with no soil, plants, or animals, just microscopic organisms and lots and lots of rock. I was touching 1.9 billion years of history.
We spent the third night at a different campsite. Some of us spotted what seemed to be a large spider in the bathroom, but one of the tour guides informed me that it was actually just the shed skin of a huntsman spider, not the spider itself. I walked around camp introducing people to my “little friend,” but oddly enough, they didn’t seem as delighted as I was.
That night, while we were theoretically sleeping, periodic cacophonies of eerie, wailing screams reverberated through the air. My half-asleep brain was convinced they were from wallabies, but the sound actually came from a bird called the bush stone-curlew or bush thick-knee. The next morning, there was a gecko in the bathroom, and I wasn’t sure my day could possibly get any better. But later that day, we visited a fragment of an ancient rainforest, and there were giant fruit bats practically dripping from the canopy and giant golden orb weaver spider webs strung between trees, and I think that was even better than the bathroom gecko.
After departing Darwin, we headed to Cape Tribulation, where the Great Barrier Reef meets the Daintree Rainforest—believed to be the oldest rainforest on the planet. Some rainforests, Glass explained, exist because they’re near the equator. But the rainforests in Australia are remnants of ancient rainforests that developed when the continents were arranged very differently and Australia was considerably farther south. Australia’s climate has become more arid over time, but pockets of its ancient rainforests remain intact.
While we were on Cape Tribulation, we had the chance to snorkel on the Great Barrier Reef. It was overcast and very windy that day, and the small boat that took us out to the reef turned into a rollercoaster as it slid up and down waves. But windy or not, the reef was gorgeous. We saw sea turtles, a sea cucumber, a small shark, and fishes and corals in endless colors.
We also had the incredible opportunity to hike through the rainforest at night. Of all the amazing things we did, that may have been my favorite. There were huge crickets and spiders, thorny vines called wait-a-whiles (because you’ll be waiting a while if you get stuck on one), and flowering plants that looked like mushrooms. And partway along the boardwalk, Glass spotted a creature so unusual and elusive that he had never seen one before. This, he told us, was probably the rarest animal we’d seen on the whole trip. A velvet worm. It looked a bit like a caterpillar or a centipede at first glance, but velvet worms have an entire phylum all their own. (Caterpillars and centipedes share the Arthropoda phylum, along with all insects, spiders, crustaceans, and various others. Velvet worms are in the Onychophora phylum.) The ancestors of velvet worms are thought to represent a link between arthropods and segmented worms. They are ancient, unique, and rarely seen.
Just moments later, Glass announced another incredible find: a peppermint stick. I raced ahead to see it. Earlier that day, I’d seen signs about peppermint stick insects, which excrete a peppermint-scented liquid as a defense mechanism, and I’d been keeping my eyes peeled ever since. The creature had developed a sort of mythical status in my mind; I’d been fantasizing about seeing one but hadn’t actually expected to. But there it was, right in front of us, large and stick-like, its color a blue-green so bright that it almost seemed to glow.
In Yungaburra, our next-to-last stop, we saw enormous fig trees and gorgeous waterfalls. On our last morning, several of us left the motel around dawn and walked to a nearby trail along a river in search of the platypus and the tree kangaroo, an arboreal kangaroo species. We found both. It was a fitting almost-ending to our trip. Both platypuses and kangaroos seem so iconically Australian. The platypuses slipped in and out of the water, their dark bodies visible even in the low light. The tree kangaroo watched us silently from its perch above us and then slowly began to move elsewhere.
Before long, it was time to go home. We spent a couple days in Cairns first, where I saw a shiny, emerald green beetle and a tree positively full of squawking lorikeets. Even in the city, there were bright and beautiful animals. In places like the ones we visited, it is easy to find awe and wonder and beauty everywhere you look. But there are endless treasures here, too, fascinating and beautiful sights that we walk past every day, like the way spiderwebs turn silver in the sunlight, or the gray catbird that eats bright red magnolia fruits in the courtyard in front of my dorm window, or the tiny, bluish purple flowers on the Al Buehler Trail, soft and fuzzy and damp when I brushed my face against them. Duke in Australia was an unforgettable adventure. It was also a reminder to step out of the human bubble and immerse myself in the worlds of other living things—whether here or across the globe.
Duke team wins top prize in mathematical modeling contest
Of all the math competitions for college students, the annual Mathematical Contest in Modeling (MCM) is one of the biggest. And this year, Duke’s team took home a coveted top prize.
Undergraduates Erik Novak, ’24, Nicolas Salazar, ’23, and Enzo Moraes Mescall, ’24, represented the Blue Devils at this year’s contest, a grueling 4-day event where teams of undergraduates use their mathematical modeling skills to solve a real-world problem. The results are finally in, and the Duke team was chosen as one of the top 22 outstanding winners out of more than 11,200 teams worldwide.
Their task: to analyze some of the challenges facing a nature reserve in Kenya known as the Maasai Mara. This region is named for the local Maasai people, a tribe of semi-nomadic people who make a living by herding cattle. It’s also teeming with wildlife. Each year, more than a million wildebeests, zebras and gazelles travel in a loop from neighboring Tanzania into Kenya’s Maasai Mara Reserve and back, following the seasonal rains in search of fresh grass to eat.
Some 300,000 safari-goers also flock to the area to witness the massive migration, making it a major player in Kenya’s billion-dollar tourism industry. But protecting and managing the land for the benefit of both wildlife and people is a delicate balancing act.
The reserve relies on tourism revenue to protect the animals that live there. If tourism slumps — due to political unrest in Kenya, or the COVID-19 pandemic — desperate communities living around the park resort to poaching to get by, threatening the very wildlife that tourism depends on.
Poachers aren’t the only problem: wild animals such as lions, leopards and elephants sometimes venture into human settlements in search of food. Conservationists must strike a balance between protecting these animals and managing the dangers they pose by raiding crops or killing valuable domestic livestock.
Tourism is a mixed blessing, too. While safari-goers bring money into the region, they can also disturb the animals and pollute the Mara River, and off-road drivers can erode the soil with their jeeps.
The mission facing the Duke team was to identify ways to mitigate such conflicts between wildlife and people.
This year’s contest ran over a single weekend in February. Camped out on the third floor of Perkins library, the team of three worked 12 hours a day, fueled by a steady supply of Red Bull and poke bowls. During that time, they built a model, came up with budget and policy recommendations, and wrote a 25-page report for the Kenyan Tourism and Wildlife Committee, all in less than 96 hours.
They built a mathematical model consisting of a system of six ordinary differential equations. According to the model’s predictions, they said, it should theoretically be possible to increase the reserve’s animal populations by about 25%, reduce environmental degradation by 20%, nearly eliminate retaliatory lion killings, and cut poaching rates in half — all while increasing the average yearly flow of tourists by 7.5%.
“They did not win that contest, but they took everything they learned and look what they did with it. I’m very proud,” said assistant professor of mathematics and biology Veronica Ciocanel, who coached the team and co-organized the Triangle competition.
In addition to finishing in the top 0.1% of competitors, the Duke team got three additional awards for their performance; the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) award, the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) prize, and an International COMAP Scholarship Award of $10,000.
The problems in these contests tend to be much more open-ended than typical coursework. “We didn’t know what the solution was supposed to be or what tools to use,” Novak said.
Modeling, computation and coding skills are certainly important, Ciocanel said. “But really what matters more is practice, teamwork, and communicating their results in a written report. Students who have a solid course background don’t need to do anything else to prepare, they just need to be creative about using what they know from the courses they already took.”
“Use what you have and work well together,” Ciocanel said. “That I think is the most important thing.”
The literature is clear: there is a dark side to engaging with social media, with linkages to depressive symptoms, a sense of social isolation, and dampened self-esteem recently revealed in the global discourse as alarming potential harms.
Underlying the pitfalls of social media usage is social comparison—the process of evaluating oneself relative to another person—to the extent that those who engage in more social comparison are at a significantly higher risk of negative health outcomes linked to their social media consumption.
Today, 72 percent of Americans use some type of social media, with most engaging daily with at least one platform.(1) Particularly for adolescents and young adults, interactions on social media are an integral part of building and maintaining social networks.(2-5) While the potential risks to psychosocial well-being posed by chronic engagement with these platforms have increasingly come to light within the past several years, mitigating these adverse downstream effects poses a novel and ongoing challenge to researchers and healthcare professionals alike.
The intervention aimed to supplant college students’ habitual social comparison … with social savoring: experiencing joyful emotions about someone else’s experiences.
A team of researchers led by Nancy Zucker, PhD, professor in Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences and director of graduate studies in psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, recently investigated this issue and found promising results for a brief online intervention targeted at altering young adults’ manner of engagement with social media. The intervention aimed to supplant college students’ habitual social comparison when active on social media with social savoring: experiencing joyful emotions about someone else’s experiences.
Zucker’s team followed a final cohort of 55 college students (78 percent female, 42 percent White, with an average age of 19.29) over a two-week period, first taking baseline measures of their mental well-being, connectedness, and social media usage before the students returned to daily social media usage. On day 8, a randomized group of students received the experimental intervention: an instructional video on the skill of social savoring. These students were then told to implement this new skill when active on social media throughout days 8 to 14, before being evaluated with the rest of the cohort at the two-week mark.
For those taught how and why to socially savor their daily social media intake, shifting focus from social comparison to social savoring measurably increased their performance self-esteem—their positive evaluation—as compared with the control group, who received no instructional video. Consciously practicing social savoring even seemed to enable students to toggle their self-esteem levels up or down: those in the intervention group reported significantly higher levels of self-esteem on days during which they engaged in more social savoring.
Encouragingly, the students who received the educational intervention on social media engagement also opted to practice more social savoring over time, suggesting they found this mode of digesting their daily social media feeds to be enduringly preferable to that of social comparison. The team’s initial findings suggest a promising future for targeted educational interventions as an effective way to improve facets of young adults’ mental health without changing the quantity or quality of their media consumption.
Of course, the radical alternative—forgoing social media platforms altogether in the name of improved well-being—looms in the distance as an appealing yet often unrealistic option for many; therefore, thoughtfully designed, evidence-based interventions such as this research team’s program seem to offer a more realistic path forward.
With so many different career options in life, how do you know that you’ve found the right one for you?
Graduate students Edric Tam and Andrew McCormack, when asked what they hope to be doing in ten years, said they’d choose to do exactly the kind of work they’re doing right now – so clearly, they’ve found the right path. Tam, who obtained his undergraduate degree in Biomedical Engineering Neuroscience and Applied Mathematics from Johns Hopkins University, and McCormack, who came from the University of Toronto with a degree in Statistics, are now 5th-year PhD students in the Department of Statistical Sciences. Tam works with Professor David Dunson, while McCormack works with Professor Peter Hoff, and both hope to pursue research careers in statistics.
For the past five years, McCormack has been doing more theoretical research, looking at how geometry can lend insights into statistical models. The example he gives is of the Fisher information matrix, a statistical model that many undergraduate statistics majors learn in their third or fourth year.
Tam, meanwhile, looks at data with unique graphical and connectivity structures that aren’t quite linear or easily modeled, such as a brain connectome or a social network. In doing so, he works on answering two questions – how can you model data like this, and how can you leverage the unique structure of the data in the process?
What both Tam and McCormack like about the field of statistics is that, as Tam puts it, “you get to play in everyone’s backyard.” Moreover, as McCormack says, the beauty of theoretical research is that, while it’s certainly more time-consuming and incremental, it is often timeless, giving insight into something previously unknown.
On walking the research path
What does it take to be a successful PhD student? Both McCormack and Tam agree that a PhD is just a degree – anyone can get one if you work hard. But what sustains both through a career in research is a passion for what they do. Tam says that “you need inherent motivation, curiosity, passion, and drive.” McCormack adds that it helps if you work on problems that are interesting to you.
Tam, who spent some time in a biomedical engineering lab during his undergraduate years, remembers reading about math and statistics the entire time he was there, which signaled to him that maybe, biomedical engineering wasn’t for him. McCormack’s defining moment occurred in the proof-based classes he took while as an undergraduate. He initially wanted to pursue a career in finance, but he quickly became enamored by the elegant precision of mathematical proofs – “even if all you’re proving is that 1+1=2!”
“You need inherent motivation, curiosity, passion, and drive.”
Edric tam, on what it takes to pursue a career in research
Even with passion for what you do, however, research can have its ups and downs. McCormack describes the rollercoaster of coming up with a new idea, convinced that “this is a paper right here”, and then a day later, after he’s had time to think about the idea, realizing that it isn’t quite up to the mark. Tam, who considers himself a pretty laidback person, sometimes finds the Type A personalities in research, as in any career field, too intense. Both McCormack and Tam prefer to not take themselves too seriously, and both exude a love for – and a trust of – the process.
Reflections on the past and the future
Upon graduation, McCormack will move to Germany to pursue a post-doc before beginning a job as Assistant Professor in Statistics at the University of Alberta. Tam will continue his research at Duke before applying to post-doc programs. In reflecting on their paths that have brought them till now, both feel content with the journey they’ve taken.
Tam sees the future in front of him – from PhD to post-doc to professorship – as “just a change in the title, with more responsibility”, and is excited to embark on his post-doc, where he gets to continue to do the research he loves. “It doesn’t get much better than this,” he laughs, and McCormack agrees. When McCormack joins the faculty at the University of Alberta, he’s looking forward to mentoring students in a much larger capacity, although he comments that the job will probably be challenging and he’s expecting to feel a little bit of imposter syndrome as he settles in.
When asked for parting thoughts, both Tam and McCormack emphasize that the best time to get into statistics and machine learning is right now. The advent of ChatGPT, for example, could replace jobs and transform education. But given their love for the field, this recommendation isn’t surprising. As Tam succinctly puts it, “given a choice between doing math and going out with friends, I would do math – unless that friend is Andy!”
Artists and scientists in today’s world often exist in their own disciplinary silos. But the Laboratory Art in Practice Bass Connections team hopes to rewrite this narrative, by engaging Duke students from a range of disciplines in a 2-semester series of courses designed to join “the artist studio, the humanities seminar room, and the science lab bench.” Their work culminated in “re:process” – an exhibition of student artwork on Friday, April 28, in the lobby of the French Family Science Center. Rather than science simply engaging artistic practice for the sake of science, or vice versa, the purpose of these projects was to offer an alternate reality where “art and science meet as equals.”
Liuren Yin, a junior double-majoring in Computer Science and Visual and Media Studies, developed an art project to focus on the experience of prosopagnosia, or face blindness. Individuals with this condition are unable to tell two distinct faces apart, including their own, often relying on body language, clothing, and the sound of a person’s voice to determine the identity of a person. Using her experience in computer science, she developed an algorithm that inputs distinct faces and outputs the way that these faces are perceived by someone who has prosopagnosia.
Next to the computer and screen flashing between indistinguishable faces, she’s propped up a mirror for passers-by to look at themselves and contemplate the questions that inspired her to create this piece. Yin says that as she learned about prosopagnosia, where every face looks the same, she found herself wondering, “how am I different from a person that looks like me?” Interrogating the link between our physical appearance and our identity is at the root of Yin’s piece. Especially in an era where much of our identity exists online and appearance can be curated any way one wants, Yin considers this artistic piece especially timely. She writes in her program note that “my exposure to technologies such as artificial intelligence, generative algorithms, and augmented reality makes me think about the combination and conflict between human identity and these futuristic concepts.”
Eliza Henne, a junior majoring in Art History with a concentration in Museum Theory and Practice, focused more on the biological world in her project, which used a lavender plant in different forms to ask questions like “what is truthful, and what do we consider real?” By displaying a live plant, an illustration of a plant, and pressings from a plant, she invites viewers to consider how every rendition of a commonly used model organism in scientific experiments omits some information about the reality of the organism.
For example, lavender pressings have materiality, but there’s no scent or dimension to the plant. A detailed illustration is able to capture even the way light illuminates the thin veins of the leaf, but is merely an illustration of a live being. The plant itself, which is conventionally real, can only further be seen in this sort of illustrative detail under a microscope or in a diagram.
In walking through the lobby of FFSC, where these projects and more are displayed, you’re surrounded by conventionally scientific materials, like circuit boards, wires, and petri dishes, which, in an unusual turn of events are being used for seemingly unscientific endeavors. These endeavors – illustrating the range of human emotion, showcasing behavioral patterns like overconsumption, or demonstrating the imperfection inherent to life – might at first glance feel more appropriate in an art museum or a performing arts stage.
But the students and faculty involved in this exhibition see that as the point. Maybe it isn’t so unnatural to build a bridge between the arts and the sciences – maybe, they are simply two sides of the same coin.
This annual celebration of Bass Connections research projects featured more than 40 interdisciplinary teams made up of Duke faculty, graduate students, undergraduate students, and even partners from other research institutions.
Research teams presented posters and lightning talks on their findings. You might have heard from students aiming to increase representation of women in philosophy; or perhaps you chatted with teams researching physiotherapy in Uganda or building earthquake warning systems in Nepal. Below, meet three such teams representing a wide variety of academic disciplines at Duke.
Building sustainable university-community partnerships
As Bass Connections team member Joey Rauch described, “this is a poster about all of these other posters.” Rauch, who was presenting on behalf of his team, Equitable University-Community Research Partnerships, is a senior double-majoring in Public Policy and Dance. His interest in non-profit work led him to get involved in the team’s research, which aims to offer a framework for ethical and effective university-community research collaboration – exactly what teams do in Bass Connections. The group looked at complicated factors that can make equitable relationships difficult, such as university incentive structures, power dynamics along racial, socioeconomic, and ethnic lines, and rigid research processes.
Along the lines of rigid research, when asked about what his favorite part of Bass Connections has been, Rauch remarked that “research is oddly formal, so having a guiding hand through it” was helpful. Bass Connections offers an instructive, inclusive way for people to get involved in research, whether for the first or fourth time. He also said that working with so many people from a variety of departments of Duke gave him “such a wealth of experience” as he looks to his future beyond Duke.
For more information about the team, including a full list of all team members, click here.
The project has been around for three years and this year’s study, which looked at improving female sexual wellness after pelvic radiation procedures, was in fact a sister study to a study done two years prior on reducing anxiety surrounding pelvic exams.
As Huang described, graduate students and faculty conducted in-depth interviews with patients to better understand their lived experiences. This will help the team develop interventions to help women after life events that affect their pelvic and sexual health, such as childbirth or cancer treatment. These interventions are grounded in the biopsychosocial model of pain, which highlights the links between emotional distress, cognition, and pain processing.
For more information about the team, including a full list of all team members, click here.
From dolphins to humans
Sophomores Noelle Fuchs and Jack Nowacek were manning an interactive research display for their team, Learning from Whales: Oxygen, Ecosystems and Human Health. At the center of their research question is the condition of hypoxia, which occurs when tissues are deprived of an adequate oxygen supply.
Hypoxia is implicated in a host of human diseases, such as heart attack, stroke, COVID-19, and cancer. But it is also one of the default settings for deep-diving whales, who have developed a tolerance for hypoxia as they dive into the ocean for hours while foraging.
The project, which has been around for four years, has two sub-teams. Fuchs, an Environmental Science and Policy major, was on the side of the team genetically mapping deep-diving pilot whales, beaked whales, and offshore bottlenose dolphins off the coast of Cape Hatteras to identify causal genetic variants for hypoxia tolerance within specific genes. Nowacek, a Biology and Statistics double-major, was on the other side of the research, analyzing tissue biopsies of these three cetaceans to conduct experiences on hypoxia pathways.
The team has compiled a closer, more interactive look into their research on their website.
And when asked about her experience being on this team and doing this research, Fuchs remarked that Bass Connections has been a “great way to dip my toe into research and figure out what I do and don’t want to do,” moving forward at Duke and beyond.
For more information about the team, including a full list of all team members, click here.