On September 10th, queerXscape, a new exhibit in The Murthy Agora Studio at the Rubenstein Arts Center, opened. Sinan Goknur and Max Symuleski, PhD candidates in the Computational Media, Arts & Cultures Program, created the installation with digital prints of collages, cardboard structures, videos, and audio. Max explains that this multi-media approach transforms the studio from a room into a landscape which provides an immersive experience.
The two artists combined their experiences
with changing urban environments when planning this exhibit. Sinan reflects on
his time in Turkey where he saw constant construction and destruction,
resulting in a quickly shifting landscape. While processing all of this
displacement, he began taking pictures as “a way of coping with the world.”
These pictures later become layers in the collages he designed with Max.
Meanwhile, Max used their time in
New York City where they had to move from neighborhood to neighborhood as
gentrification raised prices. Approaching this project, they wondered, “What
does queer mean in this changing landscape? What does it mean to queer
something? Where are our spaces? Where do we need them to survive?” They had
previously worked on smaller collages made from magazines that inspired the
pair of artists to try larger-scale works.
Both Sinan and Max have watched the
exploding growth in Durham while studying at Duke. From this perspective, they
were able to tackle this project while living in a city that exemplifies the
themes they explore in their work.
Using a video that Sinan had made as inspiration for the exhibit, they began assembling four large digital collages. To collaborate on the pieces, they would send the documents back and forth while making edits. When it became time to assemble their work, they had to print the collage in large strips and then careful glue them together. Through this process, they learned the importance of researching materials and experimented with the best way to smoothly place the strips together. While putting together mound-like cardboard structures of building, tire, and ice cube cut-outs, Max realized that, “we’re now doing construction.” Consulting with friends who do small construction and maintenance jobs for a living also helped them assemble and install the large-scale murals in the space. The installation process for them was yet another example of the tension between various drives for and scales of constructions taking place around them.
While collage and video may seem like an odd combination, they work together in this exhibit to surround the viewer and appeal to both the eyes and ears. Both artists share a background in queer performance and are driven to the rough aesthetics of photo collage and paper. The show brings together aspects of their experience in drag performance, collage, video, photography, and paper sculpture of a balanced collaboration. Their work demonstrates the value of partnership that crosses genres.
When concluding their discussion of changing spaces, Max mentioned that, “our sense of resilience is tied to the domains where we could be queer.” Finding an environment where you belong becomes even more difficult when your landscape resembles shifting sand. Max and Sinan give a glimpse into the many effects of gentrification, destruction, and growth within the urban context.
The exhibit will be open until October 6. If you want to see the results of weeks of collaging, printing, cutting, and pasting together photography accumulated from near and far, stop by the Ruby.
Thomas Barlow ’21 finds inspiration in small everyday things most people overlook: a craggy lichen growing on a tree, a dead insect, the light reflected by a pane of glass. Where we might see a flower, Barlow looks past the showy pink petals to the intricate parts tucked within.
The 20-year-old is a Duke student majoring in biology. By day, he takes classes and does research in a lab. But in his spare time, he likes to take up-close photographs using objects he finds outside or around the lab: peach pits, fireflies. But also pipettes, pencils.
Barlow got interested in photography in middle school, while playing around with his dad’s camera. His dad, a landscape architect, encouraged the hobby by enlisting him to take photos of public parks, gardens and playgrounds, which have been featured on various architects’ websites and in national publications such as Architecture Magazine. But “I always wanted to get closer, to see more,” Barlow said.
In high school he started taking pictures of still lifes. But he didn’t just throw flowers and fruit onto a backdrop and call it art. His compositions were a mishmash of insects and plants arranged with research gadgets: glass tubes, plastic rulers, syringes, or silicon wafers like those used for computer chips.
“I like pairing objects you would never find
together normally,” Barlow said. “Removing them from their context and
generating images with interesting textures and light.”
Sometimes his mother sends him treasures from her garden in Connecticut to photograph, like the pale green wings of a luna moth. But mostly he finds his subjects just steps from his dorm room door. It might be as easy as taking a walk through Duke Gardens or going for one of his regular runs in Duke Forest.
Having found, say, a flower bud or bumblebee, he then uses bits of glass, metal, mirrors and other shiny surfaces — “all objects that interact with light in some interesting way” – to highlight the interaction of light and color.
“I used to be really obsessed with dichroic
mirrors,” pieces of glass that appear to change colors when viewed from
different angles, Barlow said. “I thought they were beautiful objects. You can
get so many colors and reflections out of it, just by looking at it in
In one pair of images, the white,
five-petaled flowers of a meadow anemone are juxtaposed against panels of
frosted glass, a pipette, a mechanical pencil.
Another image pair shows moth wings. One is zoomed in to capture the fine details of the wing scales. The other zooms out to show them scattered willy-nilly around a shimmering pink circle of glass, like the remnants of a bat’s dinner plate.
For extreme close-ups, Barlow uses his Canon
DSLR with a microscope objective mounted onto the front of a tube lens.
Shooting this close to something so small isn’t just a matter of putting a bug
or flower in front of the camera and taking a shot. To get every detail in
focus, he takes multiple images of the same subject, moving the focal point
each time. When he’s done he’s taken hundreds of pictures, each with a
different part of the object in focus. Then he merges them all together.
At high magnification, Barlow’s flower close-ups reveal the curly yellow stamens of a zinnia flower, and the deep red pollen-producing parts of a tiger lily.
“I love that you can see the spikey pollen
globules,” Barlow said.
When he first got to Duke he was taking photos using a DIY setup in his dorm room. Then he asked some of the researchers and faculty he knew if there was anything photography-related he could do for their labs.
“I knew I was interested in nature
photography and I wanted to practice it,” Barlow said.
One thing led to another, and before long he
moved his setup to the Biological Sciences building on Science Drive, where he’s
been photographing lichens for Daniele Armaleo and Jolanta Miadlikowska, both
“A lichen photo might not seem like anything special to an average person,” Barlow said. “But I think they’re really stunning.”
finish among top 1% in 100-hour math modeling contest against 11,000 teams
If you’ve ever visited the Louvre in Paris, you may have been too focused on snapping a selfie in front of the Mona Lisa to think about the nearest exit.
But one Duke team knows how to get out fast when it matters most, thanks to a computer simulation they developed for the Interdisciplinary Contest in Modeling, an international contest in which thousands of student teams participate each year.
Their results, published in the
Journal of Undergraduate Mathematics and Its Applications, placed them in the
top 1% against more than 11,000 teams worldwide.
With a record 10.2 million visitors
flooding through its doors last year, the Louvre is one of the most popular
museums in the world. Just walking through a single wing in one of its five
floors can mean schlepping the equivalent of four and a half football fields.
For the contest, Duke undergraduates
Vinit Ranjan, Junmo Ryang and Albert Xue had four days to figure out how long
it would take to clear out the whole building if the museum really had to evacuate
— if the fire alarm went off, for instance, or a bomb threat or a terror
attack sent people pouring out of the building.
It might sound like a grim premise.
But with a rise in terrorist activity in Europe in recent years, facilities are
trying to plan ahead to get people to safety.
The team used a computer program
called NetLogo to create a small simulated Louvre populated by 26,000 visitors,
the average number of people to wander through the maze of galleries each day.
They split each floor of the Louvre into five sections, and assigned people to
follow the shortest path to the nearest exit unless directed otherwise.
Their model uses simple flow rates — the number of people that can “flow” through an exit per second — and average walking speeds to calculate evacuation times. It also lets users see what happens to evacuation times if some evacuees are disabled, or can’t push through the throngs and start to panic.
If their predictions are right, the
team says it should be possible to clear everyone out in just over 24 minutes.
Their results show that the exit at
the Passage Richelieu is critical to evacuation — if that exit is blocked, the
main exit through the Pyramid would start to gridlock and evacuating would take
a whopping 15 minutes longer.
The students also identified several
narrow corridors and sharp turns in the museum’s ground floor that could
contribute to traffic jams. Their analyses suggest that widening some of these
bottlenecks, or redirecting people around them, or adding another exit door
where evacuees start to pile up, could reduce the time it takes to evacuate by
For the contest, each team of three
had to choose a problem, build a model to solve it, and write a 20-page paper
describing their approach, all in less than 100 hours.
“It’s a slog fest,” Ranjan said. “In
the final 48 hours I think I slept a total of 90 minutes.”
Duke professor emeritus David Kraines, who advised the team, says the students were the first Duke team in over 10 years to be ranked “outstanding,” one of only 19 out of the more than 11,200 competing teams to do so this year. The team was also awarded the Euler Award, which comes with a $9000 scholarship to be split among the team members.
Some stories are too good to forget. With almost formulaic accuracy, elements from classic narratives are constantly being reused and retained in our cultural consciousness, to the extent that a room of people who’ve never read Romeo and Juliet could probably still piece out its major plot points. But when stories are so pervasive, how can we tell what’s original and what’s Shakespeare with a facelift?
“We’re looking for invisible adaptations, or appropriations, of stories where there are underlying themes or the messages remain the same,” explains Elise Xia, a sophomore in mechanical engineering. “The goal of our project was to create a model where we could take one of these original stories, get data from it, and find other stories in literature, film, TV that are adaptations.”
The Lion King for example, is a
well-known appropriation of Hamlet. The savannahs of Africa are a far cry from
Denmark, and “Simba” bears no etymologic resemblance to “Hamlet”, yet they’re
fundamentally the same story: A power-hungry uncle kills the king and ousts the
heir to the throne, only for an eventually cataclysmic return of the prince. In
an alternate ending for the film,
Disney directors even considered quoting Hamlet.
“The only difference is that there’s no incest in The Lion King,” jokes Mikaela Johnson, an English and religious studies major and member of the Invisible Adaptations team.
With Hamlet as their model text, the team used a Natural Language Processing system to turn words into data points and compare other movie scripts and novels to the original play.
But the students had to strike a balance between
the more surficial yet comprehensive analysis of computers (comparing place
names, character names, and direct quotes) with the deeper textual analysis
that humans provide.
So, they developed another branch of analysis:
After sifting through about 30,000 scholarly texts on Hamlet to identify major
themes — monarchy, death, ghost, power, revenge, uncle, etc. – their computer
program screened Wikipedia’s database for those key words to identify new
adaptations. After comparing the titles found from both primary and secondary
sources, they had their final list of Hamlet adaptations.
“What we really tried to do was break down what a story is and how humans understand stories, and then try to translate that into a way a computer can do it,” says Nikhil Kaul, rising junior in computer science and philosophy. “And in a sense, it’s impossible.”
Finding the threshold between a unique story and derivative stories could have serious implications for copyright law and intellectual property in the future. But Grant Glass, UNC graduate student of English and comparative literature and the project manager of this study, believes that the real purpose of the research is to understand the context of each story.
“Appropriating without recognition removes the
historical context of how that story was made,” Glass explains. Often,
problematic facets of the story are too deeply ingrained to coat over with
fresh literary paint: “All of the ugliness of text shouldn’t be capable of
being whitewashed – They are compelling stories, but they’re problematic. We
owe past baggage to be understood.”
Adaptations include small hat-tips to their
original source; quoting the original or using character names. But
appropriations of works do nothing to signal their source to their audience,
which is why the Data+ team’s thematic analysis of Wikipedia pages was vital in
getting a comprehensive list of previously unrecognized adaptations.
adaptation would subvert expectations of the original text,” Glass says. Seth
Rogan’s animated comedy, Sausage Party, one of the more
surprising movie titles the students’ program found, does just that. “It’s a
really vulgar, pretty funny movie,” Kaul explains. “It’s very existential
and meta and has a lot of death at the end of it, much like Hamlet does. So,
the program picked up on those similarities.”
Without this new program, the unexpected resemblance could’ve gone unnoticed by literary academia – and whether or not Seth Rogan intended to parallel a grocery store to the Danish royal court, it undoubtedly spins a reader’s expectation of Hamlet on its head.
This is what 20 years of evictions looks like. It’s an animated heat map of Durham, the streets overlaid with undulating blobs of red and orange and yellow, like a grease stain.
Duke students in the summer research program Data+ have created a time-lapse map of the more than 200,000 evictions filed in Durham County since 2000.
Dark red areas represent eviction hotspots. These neighborhoods are where families cook their favorite meals, where children do their homework, where people celebrate holidays. They’re also where many people live one crisis away from losing their neighbors, or becoming homeless themselves.
Duke junior Samantha Miezio points to a single census tract along NC 55 where, in the wake of an apartment building sale, more than 100 households received an eviction notice in that spot in one month alone. It “just speaks to the severity of the issue,” Miezio said.
Miezio was part of a team that spent 10 weeks this summer mapping and analyzing evictions data from the Durham County Sheriff’s Office, thanks to an effort by DataWorks NC to compile such data and make it more accessible.
The findings are stark.
Every hour in Durham, at least one
renter is threatened with losing their home. About 1,000 eviction cases were
filed a month against tenants between 2010 and 2017. That’s roughly one for every
280 residents in Durham, where evictions per capita is one of the highest in the state and double the national
The data tell us that while Durham’s
evictions crisis has actually improved from where it was a few years ago,
stubborn hotspots persist, said team member Ellis Ackerman, a math major at
North Carolina State University.
When the students looked at the data
month by month, a few things stood out. For one, winter evictions are common.
While some countries such as France and Austria ban winter evictions to
keep from pushing people onto the street in the cold, in Durham, “January is
the worst month by far,” said team member Rodrigo Araujo, a junior majoring
in computer science. “In the winter months utility bills are higher; they’re
struggling to pay for that.”
The team also investigated the relationship between evictions and rents from 2012 to 2014 to see how much they move in tandem with each other. Their initial results using two years’ worth of rent data showed that when rents went up, evictions weren’t too far behind.
“Rents increased, and then two months later,
evictions increased,” Miezio said.
But the impacts of rising rents weren’t felt evenly. Neighborhoods with more residents of color were significantly affected while renters in white neighborhoods were not. “This crisis is disproportionately affecting those who are already at a disadvantage from historical inequalities,” Miezio said.
A person can be evicted for a number of reasons, but most evictions happen because people get behind on their rent. The standard guideline is no more than 30% of your monthly income before taxes should go to housing and keeping the lights on.
But in Durham, where 47% of households
rent rather than own a home, only half of renters meet that goal. As
of 2019 an estimated 28,917 households are living in rentals they can’t afford.
The reason is incomes haven’t kept
pace with rents, especially for low-wage workers such as waiters, cooks, or
home health aides.
Durham’s median rents rose from $798 in 2010 to $925 in 2016. That’s out of reach for many area families. A minimum wage worker in Durham earning $7.25/hour would need to work a staggering 112 hours a week — the equivalent of nearly three full-time jobs — to afford a modest two-bedroom unit in 2019 at fair market rent, according to a report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
Spending a sizable chunk of your
income on housing means having less left over for food, child care,
transportation, savings, and other basic necessities. One unexpected expense or
emergency — maybe the kid gets sick or the car needs repairs, or there’s a cut
back on hours at work — can mean tenants have a harder time making the rent.
“Evictions are traumatic life
experiences for the tenants,” and can have ripple effects for years, Miezio
Tenants may have only a few days to
pay what’s due or find a new place and move out. The Sheriff may come with
movers and pile a person’s belonging on the curb, or move them to a storage
facility at the tenant’s expense.
A forced move can also mean children
must change schools in the middle of the school year.
Benefits may go to the wrong address.
Families are uprooted from their social support networks of friends and
Not every case filed ends with the
tenant actually getting forced out, “but those filings can still potentially
inhibit their ability to find future housing,” Miezio said. Not to mention the
cost and hassle of appearing in court and paying fines and court fees.
Multiple groups are working to help
Durham residents avoid eviction and stay in their homes. In a partnership
between Duke Law and Legal Aid of North Carolina, the Civil Justice Clinic’s
Diversion Program provides free legal assistance to people who are facing
“The majority of people who have an
eviction filed against them don’t have access to an attorney,” Miezio said.
In a cost-benefit analysis, the team’s
models suggest that “with a pretty small increase in funding to reduce
evictions, on the order of $100,000 to $150,000, Durham could be saving
millions of dollars” in the form of reduced shelter costs, hospital costs, plus
savings on mental health services other social services, Ackerman said.
Moving forward, they’re launching a website in order to share their findings. “I’ve learned HTML and CSS this summer,” said Miezio, who is pursuing an individualized degree program in urban studies. “That’s one of the things I love about Data+. I’m getting paid to learn.”
Miezio plans to continue the project
this fall through an independent study course focused on policy solutions to
evictions, such as universal right to counsel.
“Housing access and stability are important to Durham,” said Duke’s vice president for Durham affairs Stelfanie Williams. “Applied research projects such as this, reflecting a partnership between the university and community, are opportunities for students to ‘learn by doing’ and to collaborate with community leaders on problem-solving.”
Data+ 2019 is sponsored by Bass Connections, the Rhodes Information Initiative at Duke, the Social Science Research Institute, the Duke Energy Initiative, and the departments of Mathematics and Statistical Science.
Other Duke sponsors include DTECH, Science, Law, and Policy Lab, Duke Health, Duke University Libraries, Sanford School of Public Policy, Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke Global Health Institute, Development and Alumni Affairs, the Duke River Center, Representing Migrations Humanities Lab, Energy Initiative, Franklin Humanities Institute, Duke Forge, the K-Lab, Duke Clinical Research, Office for Information Technology and the Office of the Provost, as well as the departments of Electrical & Computer Engineering, Computer Science, Biomedical Engineering, Biostatistics & Bioinformatics and Biology.
Government funding comes from the National Science Foundation. Outside funding comes from Exxon Mobil, the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), Global Financial Markets Center, and Tether Energy.
Earlier this year, the online DNA testing company Ancestry.com faced a media firestorm and social media backlash after posting a controversial ad on its YouTube page.
Titled “Inseparable,” the 30-second ad depicted a white man in the antebellum South asking an
African-American woman to flee to the North with him. Before the woman can answer,
the piece cuts to a tagline: “Only you can keep the story going. Uncover the
lost chapters of your family history with Ancestry.” Many
criticized the ad’s historical inaccuracy, showcasing a rosier portrayal of a
complicated past. To extinguish flames, Ancestry completely pulled the ad from
A recent Duke study of dozens of other ads across multiple DNA testing companies shows that this isn’t the only example of mixed messaging about race and identity from the world of genetic ancestry tests.
The tests are quite simple: order a kit, send off a
saliva sample and receive an ethnicity estimate within weeks. A test taker’s
ethnicity is broken down into percentages based off their DNA matches compared
to a globally referenced DNA database. Kits can range in price from $79 to$400.
Sales of DNA testing kits had reached 12 million people by 2017, as reported by
As part of the six-week summer research program Story+, Duke students Dakota Douglas, Mona Tong and Madelyn Winchester analyzed the messaging in 90 video ads from the companies 23andMe, AncestryDNA and MyHeritageDNA to see what they promise consumers.
Many of the ads lured customers with promises of a newfound identity and possible family members, the team found. One Ancestry.com ad, entitled “Kyle,” depicts a customer whose childhood was steeped in German culture, but discovers as an adult that he is also part Scottish and Irish. He happily “traded in his lederhosen for a kilt,” completely forgoing his previous heritage and reducing a newly discovered culture to stereotypes.
“There were a lot of advertisements
similar to that one,” said team member Mona Tong. “Many found a new identity
embracing it fully despite a lack of any cultural connections.”
“Kyle” illustrates a
phenomenon described in a 2018 study from the
University of British Columbia, which found that people
tended to “cherry-pick” the results, identifying more with certain ethnicities
and cultures to appear different. Whites were more likely to see their results
as “transformational” than their nonwhite counterparts.
“It’s not a bad idea to test your genes
for medical reasons,” said Patricia Bass, the team’s project mentor. “However,
these ads can be misleading by assuming that someone’s cultural and racial
heritage are determined by genes.”
While the majority of subjects featured within the ads were white, the few ads that featured people of color often glossed over the complicated history of someone’s lineage or conveniently left out difficult topics. Ancestry’s “Anthem” ad detailed historical reenactments of an African tribal women, prohibition gangsters, a man fleeing England for America and Native Americans somberly heading to a new land. A voiceover speaks with inspiration ending with a shot of a biracial woman.
In marketing the idea that we
are all one, the ads fetishized
mixed-race subjects, while ignoring the genocide and displacement of people,
the team found.
The team hopes future
research will further examine the impact of these ads on people’s view of
identity. Importantly, one could note if there were any focus groups to test
these ads before release.
“It furthers the idea of colorblindness,”
Tong said. “It assumes that relationships are contingent upon common ancestry
“In a way, companies are trying to help
by focusing on the interconnectivity and commonalities between people,” Tong
said. “But it hurts more than it helps.”
Story+ is a six-week undergraduate research program offered through the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute and Bass Connections, with support from the Duke University Libraries and Versatile Humanists at Duke.
On Friday, August 2, ten weeks of research by Data+ and Code+ students wrapped up with a poster session in Gross Hall where they flaunted their newly created posters, websites and apps. But they weren’t expecting to flaunt their poetry skills, too!
Data+ is one of the Rhodes Information Initiative programs at Duke. This summer, 83 students addressed 27 projects addressing issues in health, public policy, environment and energy, history, culture, and more. The Duke Research Blog thought we ought to test these interdisciplinary students’ mettle with a challenge: Transforming research into haiku.
Which haiku is your favorite? See all of their finished work below!
When Duke senior Rachel Baber began
her freshman year, she was under the impression that legitimate research had to
involve a white lab coat and a microscope.
But this summer she worked to study
human health without a pipette in sight, instead spending her time in a
computer lab, which was empty besides her and two fellow interns. A few yards
away from her shared workspace, blue metal double doors swing into a
As she sits at a table near the
entrance, dozens of men and women walk past in ones and twos, some with oil
smeared on their jeans and others pushing carts with cleaning supplies, talking
with one another and nodding to acknowledge Baber.
She’s been working all summer at
the Triangle Residential Options for Substance Abusers, Inc., better known as
TROSA, and everyone passing is a resident.
TROSA is acclaimed for their whole-person
approach to substance-abuse recovery and trauma resiliency, with multi-year
programming that provides treatment, educational opportunities, and vocational
training for their clients. TROSA has been providing services for 25 years and,
like most non-profit organizations, they have a running list of projects
with limited number of staff hours to commit to them.
“It’s not that they’re back-burner
issues,” explains Karen Kelley, the Chief Program Officer at TROSA. “It’s just
that we don’t have enough front burners.”
This summer, Duke’s undergraduates
stepped in to provide a little more stove space for TROSA’s needs.
Duke’s Global Health Institute
(DGHI) requires all students to spend one summer in a research training
program, which associate professor Sumi Ariely believes is a vital opportunity
for students to “work
deeply with a community partner and their vision, and to help disparities or
inequities in their community.”
“We have a responsibility to our
neighbors,” Ariely says. “‘Global is Local’ holds two meanings. As a geographic
term, it focuses on the Triangle or Durham area. It also holds philosophical value.
We in high-resource
areas don’t have all the answers, and entering global arenas flaunting our
‘solutions’ is just hubris,” she adds. “Working to solve pockets of deep
inequalities in our state and our country allows for multi-directional learning.
Local is Global acknowledges that we are
all fundamentally the same and in it together.”
Duke University and TROSA have had
a long history of collaboration. TROSA moving services are a common sight on
Duke’s campus, and Duke Health also contracts with providers who work on-site
at TROSA to give primary, behavioral health, and psychological care for
Having three DGHI interns allowed
TROSA to begin answering questions that they’d long been speculating about: How
does cigarette smoking impact the community as a rehabilitation center? How
could the program integrate sustainable practices like recycling and composting
on an institutional scale? How accessible are the classes that TROSA offers
residents and how do they affect resident growth and recovery?
Baber spent her time tackling the last
question, first classifying the full curriculum of TROSA’s courses into three
major categories: Therapeutic, vocational, and educational. Looking at past
courses that residents had taken, she began the process of setting course standards
for residents – what number of therapeutic courses are expected to be completed
at nine months into the program compared to 15 months, for example.
This number-crunching project also
provided an opportunity for the administration to reflect on course access.
Baber was able to find some patterns in curriculum, like how most residents
register for more classes as they advance through the program, and how female
residents often register for more therapeutic courses than men.
“I’d love to qualitatively look at residents’
impressions of the classes,” Baber explains. “Some people really enjoy a
certain category of courses, while others benefit more from working on a job
and dealing with problems as they come up.” Baber envisions that question,
along with identifying which classes have the highest graduation rate and
asking why that is, as possible projects for future interns.
Rebecca Graves, TROSA’s Director of Clinical
Operations, sees data and demographic review like this as a critical means of
assessment and improvement. “As a nonprofit, we use a quarterly review to pay
close attention to demographic changes. If 80% of applicants were female and
only 20% of our population was women, we’d need to review — What’s keeping
people out of the door? Are we inhibitive in some way?”
After working with often-incomplete data, Baber
and fellow interns Ashley Wilson (C’20) and Gabrielle Zegers (C’19) were able
to realize what information is missing, refine what TROSA should keep
collecting, and find what they could from the data they did have.
“Check them off as huge successes,” Graves
reiterates. “They’re making marked achievements, finding new data,
extrapolating new information, and creating new policies here. They all took
ownership as self-motivated researchers, and my dream is that they’d all stay.”
Beyond working on their assigned projects, the
three students were eager to invest themselves in the TROSA community,
attending a dance with new women in the program, volunteering at the TROSA
thrift store on weekends, volunteering at the medical center, and helping with
GED tutoring each Tuesday evening.
“Getting to learn from residents about their
recovery and what they’re doing to help themselves has been the best part of
this job,” Baber says. In global health, students often face large and looming
statistics surrounding the opioid epidemic. “It’s easy to dehumanize that
problem. It’s easy in global health to think ‘Oh, these numbers are so huge.
I’ll never make a difference.’ But talking to individuals personalizes the
matter, it makes you realize that positive change can happen.”
For more information about TROSA, visit: www.trosainc.org
Existential speculations are normal part of college, and parents shouldn’t worry too much if their child calls home freshman year to speculate on the writings of Immanuel Kant or Sigmund Freud with them. It’s all part of growing up.
But for Shenyang Huang (C’20), these existential questions aren’t just pastimes: They’re work.
As a neuroscience major and a participant in Duke’s Summer Neuroscience Program, Huang has spent eight weeks of his summer in the Imagination and Modal Cognition laboratory researching under Dr. Felipe De Brigard, a three-in-one professor of philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience. Huang has been working at the intersection of those fields with PhD student Matt Stanley to explore some hefty questions about morality and memory.
The team is grappling with our past mistakes, and how they’ve impacted who we are today. Specifically, how do we remember moments when we behaved immorally? And how do those moments shape the way we think of ourselves?
These questions have been approached from various angles in different studies. One such study, published in 2016 by Maryam Kouchaki and Frencesca Gino, claims that “Memories of unethical actions become obfuscated over time.” Or rather, we forget the bad things we’ve done in the past. According to their study, it’s a self-preservation method for our current concepts of self-worth and moral uprightness.
surprised when I read the Kouchaki and Gino study,” Huang explains. “They claim
that people try to forget the bad things they’d done, but that doesn’t feel
right. In my life, it’s not right.”
In their two-part study, Stanley and Huang surveyed nearly 300 online participants about these moments of moral failure. They reported memories ranging from slightly immoral events, like petty thievery and cheating on small assignments, to highly immoral incidences, like abusing animals or cheating on significant others. Through questionnaires, the team measured the severity of each incident, how vividly the person recollected the experience, how often the memory would bubble to consciousness on its own, how they emotionally responded to remembering, and how central each event was to the subject’s life.
preliminary results resonate more with Huang: Highly immoral actions were
recalled more vividly than milder transgressions, and they were generally
considered more central in subjects’ life narratives.
“Moral memories are central to one’s sense of self,” Huang says, “and the other paper didn’t discuss centrality in one’s life at all.”
Though contradictory to what Kouchaki and Gino found, the findings have a firm foundation in current psychology literature, De Brigard says. “There are a lot of studies backing the contrary [to Kouchaki and Gino], including research on criminal offenses. People who have committed crimes of passion are known to suffer from a kind of moral PTSD — they constantly relive the event.”
is only one branch of research in a comprehensive analysis of morality and
memory De Brigard is exploring now, with the help from the six graduate and
eight undergraduate students operating out of his lab.
“Working in a lab with philosophers, psychologists, and neuroscientists, you see different approaches to the same overarching problem,” Huang says. And as he begins to consider PhD programs in neuroscience, this interdisciplinary exposure is a huge asset.
“It’s helpful and inspiring — I can’t take every class, but I can sit
and overhear conversations in the lab about philosophy or psychology and learn
from it. It widens my perspective.”
The technical-sounding category of “light-driven
charge-transfer reactions,” becomes more familiar to non-physicists when you just
call it photosynthesis or solar electricity.
When a molecule (in a leaf or solar cell) is hit by an
energetic photon of light, it first absorbs the little meteor’s energy, generating
what chemists call an excited state. This excited state then almost immediately
(like trillionths of a second) shuttles an electron away to a charge acceptor
to lower its energy. That transference of charge is what drives plant life and
The energy of the excited state plays an important role in
determining solar energy conversion efficiency. That is, the more of that
photon’s energy that can be retained in the charge-separated state, the better.
For most solar-electric devices, the excited state rapidly loses energy,
resulting in less efficient devices.
But what if there were a way to create even more energetic
excited states from that incoming photon?
Using a very efficient photosynthesizing bacterium as their inspiration,
a team of Duke chemists that included graduate students Nick Polizzi and Ting
Jiang, and faculty members David Beratan and Michael Therien, synthesized a
“supermolecule” to help address this question.
“Nick and Ting discovered a really cool trick about electron
transfer that we might be able to adapt to improving solar cells,” said Michael
Therien, the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Chemistry. “Biology figured
this out eons ago,” he said.
“When molecules absorb light, they have more energy,” Therien said. “One of the things that these molecular excited states do is that they move charge. Generally speaking, most solar energy conversion structures that chemists design feature molecules that push electron density in the direction they want charge to move when a photon is absorbed. The solar-fueled microbe, Rhodobacter sphaeroides, however, does the opposite. What Nick and Ting demonstrated is that this could also be a winning strategy for solar cells.”
The chemists devised a clever synthetic molecule that shows the advantages of an excited state that pushes electron density in the direction opposite to where charge flows. In effect, this allows more of the energy harvested from a photon to be used in a solar cell.
“Nick and Ting’s work shows that there are huge advantages
to pushing electron density in the exact opposite direction where you want
charge to flow,” Therien said in his top-floor office of the French Family
Science Center. “The biggest advantage of an excited state that pushes charge the
wrong way is it stops a really critical pathway for excited state relaxation.”
“So, in many ways it’s a Rube Goldberg Like conception,”
Therien said. “It is a design strategy that’s been maybe staring us in the face
for several years, but no one’s connected the dots like Nick and Ting have
In a July 2
commentary for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Bowling
Green State University chemist and photoscientist Malcom D.E. Forbes calls this
work “a great leap forward,” and says it “should be regarded as one of the most
beautiful experiments in physical chemistry in the 21st century.”
CITATION: “Engineering Opposite Electronic Polarization of
Singlet and Triplet States Increases the Yield of High-Energy Photoproducts,”
Nicholas Polizzi, Ting Jiang, David Beratan, Michael Therien. Proceedings of
the National Academy of Sciences, June 10, 2019. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1901752116