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

Category: Students Page 1 of 37

Duke’s Women Engineers Conquer a Texas-Sized Career Fair

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I never would have imagined a scenario where a blazer, a folder of 30 resumes, and a cowboy hat were all packed together in the same suitcase.

Yet these are the items I found sprawled across my floor on the eve of Wednesday, October 20, as I prepared to fly to Houston to attend the 2022 Society of Women Engineers Conference in Houston, Texas.

Members of the Duke Chapter of the Society of Women Engineers attend the annual conference in Houston, Texas. (I’m third from left in front row)

The Society of Women Engineers (SWE) is an international organization that empowers and advocates for women in engineering and technology. Founded in 1950, SWE is on a mission to establish engineering as an attractive profession to women, and provide the resources and opportunities necessary for them to pursue it. Through training programs, scholarships, and outreach, SWE builds leadership skills, creates opportunities, and promotes inclusion. The global network of women engineers across all ages and disciplines creates a valuable support system for underrepresented individuals in engineering.

The SWE conference is the world’s largest conference for women in engineering and technology. It has occurred on an annual basis ever since 1951 when the first convention was held in New York City. In the past few years, the SWE conference has been known to attract 8,000+ attendees, continuously growing and breaking attendance records.

Duke SWE members land in Houston airport after a three hour flight from Durham, eagerly anticipating the start of the conference the next morning.

Like many colleges, Duke has a SWE student chapter, and every year takes people to the national conference. This year, 22 students were able to attend the three-day conference, with their flights and hotel costs covered.

The weekend was full of inspirational keynote speakers, carefully crafted workshops, and endless opportunities to meet powerful and impressive female engineers from across the country. For the Duke students, the weekend was additionally a meaningful bonding experience, and a significant moment in the pursuit of our academic and professional goals.

For many attendees, the main event is the career fair, which takes place during the first and second days of the conference. Not having any experience at a nationwide conference, I was expecting an event similar to your average college career fair: cardboard posters on folding tables. This could not have been further from the truth for the SWE conference!

Companies had massive set-ups, towering displays, signs hanging from the ceiling, carpeting laid out underneath, tables and chairs, and a dozen employees representing the same company. The room itself was so big you couldn’t see one end from the other side. 

The career fair, which spans two days of the conference, is a main component of the conference for many attendees. With over 300 companies in attendance, there were plentiful opportunities for internships, jobs, and networking.

Crowds began to gather for half an hour before the fair began. Once the doors opened, the waves of people surged in and immediately dispersed, weaving between the booths and racing to their first destination. 

After separating from my peers and walking around a bit to get a feel for the environment, I gave myself a pep talk, pulled one resume out of my folder, and walked up to my first booth. After scanning a QR code to register, I was asked about my major and then directed to the right employee to talk to.

She scanned over my resume for about twenty seconds before slapping a post-it note on it, handing it to a man behind her, and instructing me to “go with him.”

Along with a few other nervous students, the man began leading us on a walk past all the booths. We reached the end of the room and kept walking, through a small opening in a big partition that stretched across the entire room. On the other side, we emerged into a much quieter atmosphere: an equally large room full not of booths, but of curtains. Dozens of rows of small rooms, created by curtain partitions, were set up for each company. After being directed to yet another person, I was brought inside one of the ominous curtain rooms for a spontaneous 15 minute interview.

I had heard from peers that on-site interviews are often conducted, but I was not prepared for the spontaneous and vastly accelerated nature of the process. After the interview, I was released back into the career fair to race to the next booth.

Almost every student left the conference with some level of success.

Throughout the day, constant messages were shot through various group chats announcing updates, interviews, new contacts, and other exciting revelations. It was easy to lose track of each other throughout the fair, but every notification felt like a wave of breaking news.

The conference is supposed to be an accelerated recruitment process – many people made connections or discovered opportunities that may lead to eventual jobs or internships. In an environment that was so uplifting and supportive of women, it was easy to celebrate each other’s victories, and be reminded that one person’s success was shared by all of us.

Duke women in engineering across grades and disciplines bond and relax over dinner after a long day at the conference.

While the first night at the hotel was spent mostly frantically preparing for interviews the next day, the second and third nights allowed plenty of time for group outings and exploring the city of Houston.

Whether looking for internships or full-time opportunities, female engineering students at Duke were brought together across grades and disciplines to share in an incredibly inspirational and memorable weekend. Through the highs and lows of the weekend, we were able to participate in the same shared experiences: stressing over interviews, navigating networking, and exploring our futures as engineers.

And, of course, one more extremely monumental memory from the trip was pretending to be part of a bachelorette party on the flight home (good thing we brought a cowboy hat!).

By Kyla Hunter, Class of ’23

Truman Scholar Maya Durvasula, T’18, on her Research Journey Through Duke and Beyond

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Maya Durvasula, T’18, and a current Ph.D. student at Stanford University, grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “And it’s hard to grow up there without a very keen sense of what it looks like when policy doesn’t work for people,” she remarks.

Maya Durvasula, T’18

After graduating high school with an interest in politics, she decided to take a gap year and bounced around organizations in New Mexico, working for the state legislature, political campaigns, and even a think tank. In hindsight, she says, “Having a block of time where you have time is super helpful.” One thing she learned was that she didn’t really want to do politics. “People were making policy, but debates were heavy on feelings and politics and light on facts.”

A high school mentor suggested that maybe she would get along better with economists than politicians, so once she got to Duke, she took that to heart.

As a first-year, she says, she knew she wanted to be exposed to a lot of things, and she knew she wanted to do research, but she wasn’t really sure what “research” meant for a first-year. In the beginning, she cold-emailed a lot of people and received multiple rejections.

After rejection, though, eventually something clicks, and for Durvasula, what clicked were three main research projects she undertook in her time at Duke.

The instinct is always to start with where you want to end up and then work backward, but you don’t know where you’re going to end up”

Maya Durvasula, T’18

Her first experience in a research group was a joint venture between an academic team in China and at UNC-Chapel Hill. Their group studied behavioral interventions to increase the uptake of health technologies, with a particular focus on sexual health. Usually, as a country industrializes, the rates of sexually transmitted infections will drop, but in China, rates of HIV and syphilis continued to rise as the economy grew. Durvasula and the team looked at different interventions that might make testing for HIV more attractive to patients, such as alternative testing locations, different advertisement design, and compensation.

She also did a project with Duke professor Bob Korstad in the history department and the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity, looking at the history of housing in Durham. Finally, she worked with her primary advisor, Duke economics professor Duncan Thomas, in his joint lab with UNC’s Elizabeth Frankenberg, on projects related to household decision-making in Indonesia.

Duke Economics Thesis Symposium in 2018

A notable part of her undergraduate time at Duke was winning the Truman Scholarship. What was most valuable to her about the Truman was the people she met. “Most people I’ve met are defined by picking something they care about and doing a lot with it,” she says. And it’s inspiring to be surrounded by people who love what they do and immerse themselves so wholly in it.

Duke Economics Graduation, 2018

Durvasula graduated Duke with numerous experiences and accolades under her belt. But from there, how did she find her way to doing a Ph.D. at the intersection of law, technology, and economics? As she describes it, the interplay between economics and law is inextricable. Both economic incentive and legal institutions affect the rate and direction of innovation, which affects how quickly technology is developed, and ultimately what products ends up in our hands. A question at the heart of her research is wondering how to make sure the value of this technology is distributed equally across society.

So five to ten years from now, where will we see Durvasula? She sees herself remaining in academia, although at some point she wants to work in public service. “I love learning new things, and I want to take advantage of being in a space where people are always willing to teach you things.”

And in that vein, her advice to a curious Duke student is to explore everything. “The instinct is always to start with where you want to end up and then work backward, but you don’t know where you’re going to end up,” she said.

Pursue the questions that you find exciting, and let that point you in the right direction – clearly, Durvasula is proof that this process will take you places.

Post by Meghna Datta, Class of 2023

Feeling Lonely? What We Want From Our Relationships Can Change With Age

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Not feeling the holiday cheer this year? The gap between expectations and reality can leave people feeling lonely. Photo by madartzgraphics.

Not everyone’s holiday plans resemble a Hallmark card.

If the “most wonderful time of the year” isn’t your reality, you’re not alone. You might have an idea of a festive picture-perfect holiday season, but what actually transpires doesn’t always measure up.

And that’s where loneliness comes from, says King’s College London graduate student Samia Akhter-Khan, first author of a new study on the subject.

“Loneliness results from a discrepancy between expected and actual social relationships,” Akhter-Khan said.

Together with Duke psychology and neuroscience Ph.D. Leon Li, Akhter-Khan and colleagues co-authored a paper on why people feel lonely, particularly in later life, and what we can do about it.

“The problem that we identified in current research was that we haven’t really thought about: What do people expect from their relationships?” Akhter-Khan said. “We work with this definition of expectations, but we don’t really identify what those expectations are and how they change across cultures or over the lifespan.”

In every relationship, we expect certain basics. We all want people in our lives who we can ask for help. Friends we can call on when we need them. Someone to talk to. People who “get” us. Someone we can trust. Companions with whom we can share fun experiences.

But the team’s theory, called the Social Relationship Expectations Framework, suggests that older people may have certain relationship expectations that have gone overlooked.

Akhter-Khan’s first clue that the causes of loneliness might be more complex than meets the eye came during a year she spent studying aging in Myanmar from 2018 to 2019. At first, she assumed people generally wouldn’t feel lonely — after all, “people are so connected and live in a very close-knit society. People have big families; they’re often around each other. Why would people feel lonely?”

But her research suggested otherwise. “It actually turns out to be different,” she said. People can still feel lonely, even if they don’t spend much time alone.

What efforts to reduce loneliness have neglected, she said, is how our relationship expectations change as we get older. What we want from social connections in, say, our 30s isn’t what we want in our 70s.

The researchers identified two age-specific expectations that haven’t been taken into account. For one, older adults want to feel respected. They want people to listen to them, to take an interest in their experiences and learn from their mistakes. To appreciate what they’ve been through and the obstacles they have overcome.

They also want to contribute: to give back to others and their community and pass along traditions or skills through teaching and mentoring, volunteering, caregiving, or other meaningful activities.

Finding ways to fulfill these expectations as we get older can go a long way towards combating loneliness in later life, but research has largely left them out.

“They’re not part of the regular scales for loneliness,” Li said.

Part of the reason for the oversight may be that often the labor and contributions of older people are unaccounted for in typical economic indices, said Akhter-Khan, who worked in 2019-20 as a graduate research assistant for a Bass Connections project at Duke on how society values care in the global economy.

“Ageism and negative aging stereotypes don’t help,” she added. A 2016 World Health Organization survey spanning 57 countries found that 60% of respondents said that older adults aren’t well respected.

Loneliness isn’t unique to older people. “It is a young people’s problem as well,” Akhter-Khan said. “If you look at the distribution of loneliness across the lifespan, there are two peaks, and one is in younger adulthood, and one is an old age.”

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, world leaders began sounding the alarm on loneliness as a public health issue. Britain became the first country to name a minister for loneliness, in 2018. Japan followed suit in 2021.

That’s because loneliness is more than a feeling – it can have real impacts on health. Persistent loneliness has been associated with higher risks of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease and stroke, and other health problems. Some researchers suggest it’s comparable or riskier than smoking and obesity.

The researchers hope that if we can better understand the factors driving loneliness, we might be better able to address it.

CITATION: “Understanding and Addressing Older Adults’ Loneliness: The Social-Relationship Expectations Framework,” Samia C. Akhter-Khan, Matthew Prina, Gloria Hoi-Yan Wong, Rosie Mayston, and Leon Li. Perspectives on Psychological Science, Nov. 2, 2022. DOI: 10.1177/17456916221127218

Robin Smith
By Robin Smith

Meet the Power Tools Pro Who Keeps Students Safe While They Learn by Doing

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When engineering student Katie Drinkwater signed up for the Machine Shop Tools Mastery Unit for her Engineering 101 class, she was completely unsure about what to expect. As a freshman with no prior experience, she felt intimidated by the prospect of stepping foot into a place with such powerful and potentially dangerous machinery. Now a senior in Pratt and a member of Duke Motorsports, Drinkwater has since become much more comfortable spending time around lathes, bandsaws and other power equipment. Along with many other members of the Duke community, she attributes much of her positive experience to the guidance and support of Duke Machine Shop Manager, Steve Earp.

The Welcome Night at the Student Machine Shop is an open-house event early in the semester that introduces new students into all that the Duke student machine shop has to offer.

“When I went in to make my first part, I was very nervous and intimidated,” Drinkwater says. “I thought that I would be expected to know how to use the machines, but this couldn’t have been farther from the truth. Steve helped my partner and me with every step but didn’t infringe on our ownership of the project. I always feel free to ask questions and check in with Steve, but I am still expected to do my own work.”

Drinkwater isn’t alone. “Steve is definitely a friendly face you can rely on in the Pratt student shop. His vast skills and experience are one thing, but being able to teach people new to the shop in such an engaging way sets him apart. Steve has helped me make custom tools, solve problems that seemed impossible, and has helped me learn something new every time I walk into the shop,” says John Smalley, ME ‘23 and president of Duke Aero Society.

Managing the Student Shop for nearly 15 years, Earp is a vital and beloved mentor to all students that frequent the shop. Not only responsible for the set-up, organization, and operation of the shop, Earp also ensures that thorough safety practices are properly established and upheld. Part of this dedication to safety involved spearheading a brand new initiative: The Student Shop Managers Consortium. 

Steve Earp (left), Jennifer Ganley, Connor Gregg, Alexandra Gray, Greg Bumpass, Josh Klinger (right) gather to show new students around the machine shop during the Welcome Night.

In 2013, following a tragic accident at Yale University that involved the death of a student using the student machine shop, Earp became determined to take action to ensure no such incidents ever occur again. “I started investigating, and trying to find other people that do my job at other universities,” he explained. After sending out an email to dozens of other engineering schools, Earp was left with no responses. However, he refused to let this deter him. “I had to drill down over the next two years and find that one guy or gal that operates and manages that shop,” he recalls. One by one, Earp built a network across the country, eventually organizing and hosting the first conference here at Duke University in 2015 with about 65 student shop managers. Earp recalls the positive feedback from all the attendees, revealing that this was the first time these individuals with the same job had been able to communicate with those in similar positions: “nobody ever knew that there was somebody like them somewhere else.” Since then, the conference has occurred on an annual basis, hosted by different universities from Yale to Washington University in St. Louis, and even virtually during the pandemic. Most importantly, this network has allowed for more conversation and accountability in making student safety a priority. Demonstrating his passion for student shops and commitment to student safety, Earp was recently named the President of this organization. 

The emphasis on safety is something Drinkwater has experienced since the first time she stepped in the shop to complete her Tools Mastery assignment. “A machine shop can be a very dangerous environment — something Steve knows from personal experience — so he and Greg take safety training very seriously,” she explains. “They want every student to respect the environment without being afraid of it.” After completing the very thorough online and in-person components of the safety training, Drinkwater felt proud to pick up her shop badge. In a sentiment echoed by all of the engineering community, Drinkwater concludes, “I feel very lucky to have Steve as our shop manager. His wealth of experience, genuine interest in students’ learning, and good-humored disposition are extremely valuable additions to the Pratt community.”

By Kyla Hunter, ’23

Duke Alum Dr. Quinn Wang on Medicine, a Healthcare Startup, and the Senior Thesis That Started it All

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As a senior at Duke University in 2010, Dr. Quinn Wang was simply Quinn, an undergraduate English major on the pre-med track, wondering how to combine her love for medicine with her love for English. This is how her senior thesis was conceived – Through the Lens of Medicine: Landscapes of Violence in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985), All the Pretty Horses (1992), and No Country for Old Men (2005) – which ended up winning the English department’s award for “Most Original Honors Thesis.”

Dr. Quinn Wang

Fast forward 12 years, and Wang can now call herself a double Dukie, having completed medical school here. She went on to complete ophthalmology residency at UCSF and this past Saturday, November 5, came back to her alma mater as part of the Duke Medical Ethics Journal’s Medicine, Humanities, and Business celebration to talk to an eager audience at Schiciano Auditorium about her path from Duke until now.  

She began her story during the infamous year of 2020, when she was forced to stop seeing patients at her private practice in California’s Bay Area due to COVID-19. Restless and anxious about how her patients were doing, she tried to keep up with them as best she could, but of course there were limitations. And then, a few months in, one of her patients went blind.

This tragic moment sparked a frustrating realization by Wang that in the tech capital of the world – San Francisco – there was still no good way to test people’s eyesight from home to prevent what should have been preventable. She decided to put together something herself, guided by the one question she thought was most important to answer until COVID-19 abated and people could come into clinics again – “how do we make sure people don’t go blind?”

Wang took common visual eye-testing tools used in clinics, and with some simple Photoshop editing and a little bit of code, turned them into a series of easy multiple-choice questions that could be answered from home. This simple but powerful transformation turned into Quadrant Eye, a start-up she co-founded with software engineer Kristine Hara.

A common visual tool used to test eyesight is the Snellen chart

The Quadrant Eye journey has taken her from running a private practice as an ophthalmologist to taking the plunge into business by applying to and getting selected for Y Combinator, which calls itself a “graduate school for startups”. YC invests $500,000 into a selection of early-stage startups twice a year. Then, for three intense months, they provide support to get startups off the ground and in good shape to present to investors for funding. At YC, Hara worked on turning Quadrant Eye into an app, and Wang renewed hundreds of prescriptions.

Quadrant Eye

Ultimately, though, the most significant place Quadrant Eye has led Wang to is a journey of self-mastery that applies to any human endeavor, from building a startup to doing research to just getting up every morning.  As she describes, startup life entails always learning new things and always messing up – which, for someone who professes that “I don’t like to do things I’m not good at” – can be challenging. She candidly admitted that she, like everyone, has bad days, when sometimes all she can do is throw in the towel and end work early. “I have more doubts than I care to admit,” Wang says, but at the end of the day, “we’re all climbing our own mountains”. Pushing through requires “superhuman effort” but it’s worth it.

And as for that English thesis? Wang describes how Quadrant Eye’s very first investor – “let’s call him Charlie” – asked her all the requisite questions investors ask early-stage startups (think Shark Tank). But he also asked her for something non-traditional – all fifty or so pages of her undergraduate honors thesis she had written ten years back. Apparently, he had seen a mention of it on LinkedIn and was intrigued. A few weeks later, Wang received a phone call that he was interested in investing – and he admitted that her thesis had played a part. To him, the uniqueness and quality of her thesis showed that Wang could problem-solve, communicate well, and think creatively, and Wang herself agrees. “My English thesis showed me that I can do hard things,” she said, and if Quadrant Eye is any indication, clearly, she can.

Post by Meghna Datta, Class of 2023

Insights on Health Policy Research from Undergraduate Cynthia Dong

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“After COVID-19,” senior Cynthia Dong (T’23) remarks, “so much of what was wrong with the medical system became visible.”

Duke undergraduate Cynthia Dong, Class of 2023

This realization sparked an interest in how health policy could be used to shape health outcomes. Dong, who is pursuing a self-designed Program II major in Health Disparities: Causes and Policy Solutions, is a Margolis Scholar in Health Policy and Management. Her main research focus is telehealth and inequitable access to healthcare. Her team looks at patient experiences with telehealth, and where user experience can be improved. In fact, she’s now doing her thesis as an offshoot of this work, researching how telehealth can be used to increase access to healthcare for postpartum depression.

Presenting research on telehealth

In addition to her health policy work, however, Dong also works as a research assistant in the neurobiology lab of Dr. Anne West, and her particular focus is on the transcription mechanism of the protein BDNF, or brain-derived neurotrophic factor.

While lab research can be clearly visualized by most people (think pipettes, rows of benches littered with bottles and plastic tubes, blue rubber gloves everywhere), health policy research is perhaps a little more abstract. When asked what the process of research through Margolis is like, Dong says that “it’s not team-based or individual – it’s a lot of both.” This looks like individual research on specific topics, talking to different stakeholder groups and people with certain expertise, and then convening for weekly team meetings.

With other Margolis Scholars

For Dong, research has been invaluable in teaching her to apply knowledge to something tangible. Doing that, you’re often “forced to understand that not everything is in my control.” But on the flip side, research can also be frustrating for her because so much of it is uncertain. “Will your paper get published? Is what you’re doing relevant to the research community? Will people invest in you?”

In that vein, research has humbled her a lot. “What it means to try to solve a societal problem is that it’s not always easy, you have to break it down into chunks, and even those chunks can be hard to solve.”

After graduation, Dong plans on taking a couple of gap years to be with family and scribe before ultimately pursuing an MD-MPH. Because research can be such a long, arduous process, she says that “It took me a long time to realize that the work we do matters.” In the future, though, she anticipates that her research through Margolis will directly inform her MPH studies, and that “with the skills I’ve learned, I can help create good policy that can address the issues at hand.”

An Interview With Undergraduate Researchers and Labmates Deney Li and Amber Fu (T’23)

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What brings seniors Deney Li and Amber Fu together? Aside from a penchant for photoshoots (keep scrolling) and neurobiology, both of them are student research assistants at the lab of Dr. Andrew West, which is researching the mechanisms underlying Parkinson’s in order to develop therapeutics to block disease progression. Ahead lie insights on their lab work, their lab camaraderie, and even some wisdom on life.

(Interview edited for clarity. Author notes in italics.)

What are you guys studying here at Duke? What brought you to the West lab?

DL:  I am a biology and psychology double major, with a pharmacology concentration. I started working at a lab spring semester of freshman year that focused on microbial and environmental science, but that made me realize that microbiology wasn’t really for me. I’ve always known I wanted to try something in pharmaceutics and translational medicine, so I transitioned to a new lab in the middle of COVID, which was the West lab. The focus of the West lab is neurobiology and neuropharmacology, and looking back it feels like fate that my interests lined up so well!

Deney Li

AF: I am majoring in neuroscience with minors in philosophy and chemistry, on the pre-med track. I knew I wanted to get into research at Duke because I had done research in high school and liked it. I started at the same time as Deney – we individually cold-emailed at the same time too, in the fall! I was always interested in neuroscience but wasn’t pre-med at the time. A friend in club basketball said her lab was looking for people, and the lab was focused on neurobiology – which ended up being the West lab!  

Amber Fu

What projects are you working on in lab?

DL: My work mainly involves immunoassays that test for Parkinson’s biomarkers. My postdoc is Yuan Yuan, and we’re looking at four drugs that are kinase inhibitors (kinases are enzymes that phosphorylate other proteins in the body, which turns them either on or off). We administer these drugs to mice and rats, and look at LRRK2, Rab10 and phosphorylated Rab10 protein levels in serum at different time points after administration. These protein levels are important and indicative because more progressive forms of Parkinson’s are related to higher levels of these proteins.

AF: For the past couple of years, I’ve been working under Zhiyong Liu (a postdoc in the lab). There are multiple factors affecting Parkinson’s, and different labs ones study different factors. The West lab largely studies genetic factors, but what we’re doing is unique for the lab. There’s been a lot of research on how nanoplastics can go past the blood-brain barrier, so we are studying how this relates to mechanisms involved in Parkinson’s disease. Nanoplastics can catalyze alpha-synuclein aggregation, which is a hallmark of the disease. Specifically, my project is trying to make our own polystyrene nanoplastics that are realistic to inject into animal models.

What I’m doing is totally different from Deney – I’m studying the mechanisms surrounding Parkinson’s, Deney is more about drug and treatments – but that’s what’s cool about this lab – there are so many different people, all studying different things but coming together to elucidate Parkinson’s.

Another important project

How much time do you spend in lab?

DL: I’m in lab Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 9 to 6. All my classes are on Tuesdays and Thursdays!

AF: I’m usually in lab Tuesdays and Thursdays from 12 to 4, Fridays from 9 to 11:45, and then whenever else I need to be.

Describe lab life in three words:

DL: Unexpected growth (can I just do two)?

AF: Rewarding, stimulating, eye-opening.

Lab life also entails goats and pumpkins

What’s one thing you like about lab work and one thing you hate?

DL: What I like about lab work is being able to trouble-shoot because it’s so satisfying. If I’m working on a big project, and a problem comes up, that forces me to be flexible and think on my toes. I have to utilize all the soft skills and thinking capabilities I’ve acquired in my 21 years of life and then apply them to what’s happening to the project. The adrenaline rush is fun! Something I don’t like is that there’s lots of uncertainty when it comes to lab work. It’s frustrating to not be able to solve all problems.

AF: I like how I’ve been able to learn so many technical skills, like cryosectioning. At first you think they’re repetitive, but they’re essential to doing experiments. A process may look easy, but there are technical things like how you hold your hand when you pipette that can make a difference in your results. Something I don’t like is how science can sometimes become people-centric and not focused on the quality of research. A lab is like a business – you have to be making money, getting your grants in – and while that’s life it’s also frustrating.

What do you want to do in the future post-Duke? How has research informed that?

DL: I want to do a Ph.D. in neuropharmacology. I’m really interested in research on neurodegeneration but also have been reading a lot about addiction. So I’ll either apply to graduate school this year or next year. My ultimate goal would be to get into the biotech startup sphere, but that’s more of a 30-years-down-the-road goal! Being in this lab has taught me a lot about the pros and cons of research, which I’m thankful for. Lab contradicts with my personality in some ways– I’m very spontaneous and flexible, but lab requires a schedule and regularity, and I like the fact that I’ve grown because of that.

AF: The future is so uncertain! I am currently pre-med, but want to take gap years, and I’m not quite sure what I want to do with them. Best case scenario is I go to London and study bioethics and the philosophy of medicine, which are two things I’m really interested in. They both influence how I think about science, medicine, and research in general. After medical school, though, I have been thinking a lot about doing palliative care. So if London doesn’t work out, I want to maybe work in hospice, and definitely wouldn’t be opposed to doing more research – but eventually, medical school.

What’s one thing about yourself right now that your younger, first-year self would be surprised to know?

DL: How well I take care of myself. I usually sleep eight hours a day, wake up to meditate in the mornings most days, listen to my podcasts… freshman-year-Deney survived on two hours of sleep and Redbull.

AF: Freshman year I had tons of expectations for myself and met them, and now I’m meeting my expectations less and less. Maybe that’s because I’m pushing myself in my expectations, or maybe because I’ve learned not to push myself that much in achieving them. I don’t necessarily sleep eight hours and meditate, but I am a little nicer to myself than I used to be, although I’m still working on it. Also, I didn’t face big failures before freshman year, but I’ve faced more now, and life is still okay. I’ve learned to believe that things work out.

A hard day’s work

What is Biblical Research, Anyway? The Answer Might Surprise You

This is part one of a two-part series; next week we will dive into the nitty-gritty of biblical research, but for now, we’re focusing on what biblical research is and why it matters.

Image courtesy of Duke Divinity School

To the uninitiated, “biblical research” might not conjure up images of dancing, or analyzing films, or studying engineering. But meet Maximillion Whelan. A third-year M.Div. student at Duke, Whelan runs a website for film aficionados focusing on analyzing movie scenes and was recently published in Quarterly Review of Film and Video for an article on theology and film. He notes: “Biblical research sheds light on how everyday activities effectively shape history and are also shaped by history. By “zooming in,” delving into the details and contexts, biblical research enables us to simultaneously “zoom out” – to see what things we are taking for granted, where our readings have led us, and how we take our readings into other spheres of life.”

Image courtesy of Nicole Kallson (as part of her course Introduction to Theology and the Arts)

Or take Divinity School student Nicole Kallson. She is pursuing a Master’s of Theological Studies with a Certificate in Theology and the Arts.

“As a theologian and dancer, I use my background in dance to assist my understanding of the Bible.” Kallson explains. “I tend to focus on ideas of embodiment, beauty, and inter- and intra- personal relationships.”

Both students—along with countless other Blue Devils and other mascot identities—use their studies as a lens through which to examine themselves and their passions. And isn’t that what we emphasize so clearly at Duke—the interdisciplinary, interpersonal, interfaith, international, interwoven identities of people, places, and things? Is that not what research is all about in the end? Perhaps the purpose of biblical research is not as foreign to us as we may think at first.

Degree-seekers may come from expertise in literature, classical studies, practical faith, or other backgrounds that may easily come to mind. But they also come from natural sciences, physical sciences, political science, art and media studies, creative writing, engineering, medicine, sociology, public policy, economics, and so much more. And each of these students is applying their research and understanding of the Bible to their understanding of the world at large, seeking to become better, more intentional academics in the process.

The new Dean of Duke Divinity School was born and raised in Puerto Rico; he has prayed with Pope Francis and presented him with writings on interfaith dialogues. He also has Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in mechanical engineering.

Dean Edgardo Colon-Emeric moderated a symposium on the Bible last Friday, October 11, 2022 through the Karsh Alumni Center Forever Learning Institute (part of the Policing Pages series, which Jakaiyah Franklin also wrote about for the Blog!).

“It might seem odd to have a series focused on the Bible as a banned book, given that it’s the most polished book in history,” he opened. He gave an example further; for a time in recent Guatemalan history, possession of the Bible was persecuted as a means of targeting perceived Communist empathizers. Even within Christain communities, he explains, there has been discourse among devotees of certain translations and versions—not all of them amenable.

The event also featured Brent Strawn of the Duke Divinity School and Jennifer Knust from Trinity College of Arts & Sciences Department of Religious Studies.

Jennifer Knust during the Forever Learning Institute’s Policing Pages presentation on the Bible

“The survival of the New Testament as a text and a collection is a theological and practical achievement,” noted Knust. “It is repeatedly refreshed in response to new circumstances, even as remains of past approaches continue to shape what can happen next.”

It is because of the differing opinions of so many people over such a long time that we have different faiths, and biblical research uses the lens of Christianity to evaluate that phenomenon.

Knust continues: “Today we know that there are over 5,000 manuscript copies of the New Testament, none of which are identical in every particular.”

She herself was a member of the board of the New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition—the most recent scholarly translation of the Bible, published in 2021. She elaborated on her feelings on the dynamics and fluidity of the text, describing a constant push and pull of desire and tradition. Perhaps researchers, in the present, past, or future, may desire to change words, meanings, or uses of the Bible, but they are contradicted by a tradition dictated by the populous.

Biblical research seeks to answer questions about the Bible— and by extension, the fruitfulness of humanity. The sustainability of religious texts of all kinds is a testament (pun intended) to the success of human minds compounded over thousands of years.

A 1611 copy of the Authorized Version Knust uses as an example of different Protestant translations.

On this PeopleMover-style tour of biblical research, I hope we’ve taken away some key points:

Firstly, the work of many biblical researchers is deeply personal. We’ve discovered through this that the work of any researcher in any field has the potential to be deeply personal.

Additionally, we learned that the interdisciplinary reach of biblical studies works inversely; students may turn to biblical research from other subjects to enhance their work, or they may even turn to other subjects to enhance their work in biblical research.

And finally, we arrive at our destination; next week we’ll talk more in-depth about what biblical research entails and meet some key players in those conversations.

Post by Olivia Ares, Class of 2025

It’s Their Future and Gen Z Has Already Seen a Lot

Young people have the power to generate change, whether they know it or not.

At least that was the sentiment expressed by the Director of Polling at the Harvard Institute of Politics, John Della Volpe at a seminar earlier this month. A leading authority on the intersection of young Americans and political influence, Della Volpe discussed the key role Generation Z will play in the 2022 and 2024 elections.

But does Generation Z really have what it takes to change the course of American politics?

“We spend a lot of time talking about Gen Z, and not enough time talking to you,” Della Volpe began as he addressed a crowd of young Duke students. “This is one of the rare occasions where I’m going to be doing most of the talking rather than most of the listening.”

Stanford Researcher Roberta Katz describes Generation Z — those born between 1997 and 2012 — as a highly collaborative cohort with a pragmatic attitude about generational issues like political engagement.

Exit Polls from NBC reveal that Gen Z was responsible for more than 9% of total votes in the 2020 presidential election, with that number only expected to grow. In Georgia and Arizona, young voters turned out to be critical for President Joe Biden’s victory, Della Volpe said.

Exit Polls From NBC show 2020 total votes for Biden compared to Trump, with Generation Z voting for Biden two-to-one.

He urges Gen Z to “remind elected officials that you did change things and that you will continue changing things.” Della Volpe predicts that Gen Z’s choices will also be crucial in the 2022 midterms.

Occupy Wall Street, the election of Trump, the Parkland Shooting, Greta Thunberg, and the killing of George Floyd were five events that Della Volpe believed were crucial in shaping this trajectory, as well as Gen Z’s political view as a whole.

“We have to look collectively at what you as a cohort saw and how that’s affecting you. In fact, I think that’s a far better way to think about our politics than what state you are in.”

The way parents think about bills and taxes, the way that weighs on your shoulders, that’s the way we think about living and dying.

Gen Z woman in conversation with John Della Volpe

“No generation in 70 years has dealt with more chaos, more trauma, more struggle before your brain is even fully developed,” Della Volpe asserted. He maintains that Generation Z is dealing with extremely complex issues much earlier than other generations.

Research from the American Psychological Association bears this out, indicating that Gen Zers are currently the most stressed demographic of people in the United States. They are also significantly more likely to rate their mental health as poor in comparison to other generations.

“I’m very cognizant of not putting any more pressure on you,” said Della Volpe. “You are already doing such a good job of managing yourselves and managing your situation.”

John Della Volpe’s book, published earlier this year.

Generation Z is managing so well, in fact, that Della Volpe argues they are essential to the success of US politics moving forward. In his book ‘Fight: How Generation Z is Channeling Their Fear and Passion to Save America,’ Della Volpe argues that the challenges unique to Gen Z prepare them to take control of their future in this nation.

Thanks to Della Volpe the answer is overwhelmingly clear: Gen Z does have what it takes to turn this nation around. So get out there and vote!

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Post By Skylar Hughes, Class of 2025

The Need for Title IX in STEM

The Panel:

In recognition of the 50th anniversary of Title IX, which was intended to make sex discrimination in education illegal, a panel of Duke women met on Thursday, September 29 to talk about whether Title IX could change STEM, (Science Technology, Engineering and Math). Unfortunately, the answer was not simple.

But just through the sharing of the statistics relevant to this problem, the stories, and their solutions, one could start to understand the depth of this problem. One takeaway was that all women in STEM, whether they be student, professor, or director, have faced gender discrimination.

The student panelists after a successful forum

Down to the Statistics:

Dr. Sherryl Broverman, a Duke professor of the practice in biology and global health, gave the audience an overview. Of all of Duke’s regular ranked, tenured-track faculty, only 30% are women. In contrast, women make up 60% of the non-tenure track faculty. Dr. Broverman said men are promoted in Duke at a higher frequency. This is especially seen with the associate professor title because, on average, men are associate professors for 4 to 5 years; whereas women are associate professors for up to 9 years.

To give an example, senior Nasya Bernard-Lucien, a student panelist who studied Biomedical Engineering and then Neuroscience informed me that she has had a total of two women professors in her entire STEM career. This is a common pattern here at Duke because taking a STEM class that has a woman professor is as rare as finding a non-stressed Duke student.

Dr. Kisha Daniels (left) and Dr. Whitney McCoy (right)

The Beginning of a Girl’s Career in STEM

This disproportionate demographic of women professors in STEM is not a new occurrence with Duke or the rest of the world because the disproportion of women in STEM can be seen as early as middle school. Two of the student panelists noted that during their middle school career, they were not chosen to join an honors STEM program and had to push their school’s administration when they asked to take more advanced STEM classes.

Dr. Kisha Daniels, an associate professor of the practice in education said on a faculty panel that one of her daughters was asked by her male peers, “what are you doing here?” when she attended her middle school’s honors math class. Gender discrimination in STEM begins in early childhood, and it extends its reach as long as women continue to be in a STEM field, and that is particularly evident here at Duke.

Women in STEM at Duke

Dr. Sherryl Broverman

The last panel of the Title IX @ 50 event was the student panel which consisted of undergraduate and graduate students. Even though they were all from different backgrounds, all acknowledged the gender disparity within STEM classes.

Student Bentley Choi said she was introduced to this experience of gender discrimination when she first arrived at Duke from South Korea. She noted how she was uncomfortable and how it was hard to ask for help while being one of the few women in her physics class. One would have hoped that Duke would provide a more welcoming environment to her, but that is not the case, and it is also not an isolated incident. Across the panel, all of the women have experienced discomfort in their STEM classes due to being one of the few girls in there.

The Future of Title IX

How can Title IX change these issues? Right now, Title IX and STEM are not as connected as they need to be; in fact, Title IX, in the past, has been used to attack programs created to remedy the gender disparity in STEM. So, before Title IX can change STEM, it needs to change itself.

Title IX needs to address that this problem is a systemic issue and not a standalone occurrence. However, for this change to happen, Dr. Whitney McCoy, a research scientist in Child and Family Policy, said it perfectly, “we need people of all backgrounds to voice the same opinion to create policy change.”

So, talk to your peers about this issue because the more people who understand this situation, the chances of creating a change increases. The last thing that needs to occur is that 50 years in the future, there will be similar panels like this one that talk about this very issue, and there are no panels that talk about how we, in the present, fixed it.

Post by Jakaiyah Franklin, Class of 2025

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