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

Category: Students Page 1 of 31

A Virtual Stroll through the 2021 Bass Connections Showcase

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Posters, presentations, and formalwear: despite the challenge of a virtual environment, this year’s annual Fortin Foundation Bass Connections Showcase still represented the same exciting scholarship and collegiality as it has in years past.

While individuals could no longer walk around to see each of this year’s 70+ teams present in person, they were instead able to navigate a virtual hall with “floors” designated for certain teams. With labels on each virtual table, it almost mimicked the freedom of leisurely strolls down a hall lined with posters, stopping at what catches your eye. Three sessions were held over Thursday, April 15 and Friday, April 16.

The beginning of each session featured five-minute “lightning” presentations by a diverse set of teams, representing the range of research that students and faculty participated in.  One such presentation was lead by Juhi Dattani ’22 (NCSU) and Annie Roberts ’21, who covered research generated by their team, “Regenerative Grazing to Mitigate Climate Change.” The team was an inter-institutional project bringing together UNC, NCCU, NCSU, and Duke. And as they aptly summarized, “It’s not the cow, but how.” Cows can help fight instead of contribute to the climate crisis, through utilizing regenerative grazing – which is an indigenous practice that has been around for hundreds of years – to improve soil health and boost plant growth.

The team during the 2019-2020 year, pre-COVID, on the Triangle Land Conservancy’s Williamson Preserve.

Research is not just relegated to the physical sciences. Brittany Forniotis, a PhD candidate ’26, and Emma Rand ’22 represented the team “Mapping History: Seeing Premodern Cartography through GIS and Gaming.” Their team was as interdisciplinary as it gets, drawing from the skills of individuals in everything from art history to geography to computer science. They posited that mapmakers use features of map to argue how people should see the world, not necessarily how they saw the world. To defend this hypothesis, they annotated maps to record and categorize data and even converted maps to 3D to make them virtual, explorable worlds. The work of this team enabled the launch of Sandcastle, which aims to “enable researchers to visualize non-cartesian, premodern images of places in a comparative environment that resembles the gestural, malleable one used by medieval and early modern cartographers and artists.”

The work of the team added to a project launch of Sandcastle.

Sophie Hurewitz (T ’22) and Elizabeth Jones (MPP ’22) presented on behalf of the “North Carolina Early Childhood Action Plan: Evidence-based Policy Solutions”, Their recommendations for alleviating childhood food insecurity in North Carolina as outlined by the North Carolina Early Childhood Action Plan will provide a roadmap for NC Integrated Care for Kids (NC InCK) to consider certain policy changes.

One of the most remarkable parts of Bass Connections is how it opens doors for students to pursue avenues and opportunities that they may have never been exposed to otherwise. Hurewitz said that “Being a part of this team led me and a team member to apply for the 2021 Bass Connections Student Research Award, which we were ultimately awarded to study the barriers and facilitators to early childhood diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) among Black and Latinx children in North Carolina.” In addition to the award, Hurewitz and fellow team member Ainsley Buck were able to present their team’s research at the APA Region IV Annual Meeting.

The 2019-2020 team, pre-COVID.

From gene therapy for Alzheimer’s disease to power grids on the African continent, this year’s teams represented a wide range of research and collaboration. Erica Langan ’22, a member of the team “REGAIN: Roadmap for Evaluating Goals in Advanced Illness Navigation”, said that “For me, Bass Connections has been an extraordinary way to dive into interdisciplinary research. It’s an environment where I can bring my existing skills and knowledge to the table and also learn and grow in new ways.” This interdisciplinary thinking is a hallmark of not just Bass Connections, but Duke as a research institution, and it’s clear that this spirit is alive and well, even virtually.

Post by Meghna Datta

Are You Funnier Than a Duke Postdoc?

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Odds are, probably not.

On Saturday, April 10th, Duke Postdoc Comedy Club hosted Are We There Yet?, a virtual comedy showcase featuring Triangle-based comedians. The show was moderated by Bo Ma and featured six comics: Tori Grace Nichols, Amy Mora, Josh Rosenstein, Nat Davis, Yutian Feng, and headliner Isatu Kamara (in order of appearance). 

The virtual comedy club was sponsored by the Duke Office of Research, The Graduate School, and the Division of Student Affairs, who collectively scraped together a whopping $15 to pay each of the up-and-coming comedians, giving the audience their first laugh of the night. Let’s see $8 billion endowment… subtract the product of 15 times 6… carry the one… wait, how many zeroes is that again? Good one, Duke. 

Given that the show was free, I definitely felt like I got a lot more than I paid for.

I was shocked at how many of the performers had prior comedy experience in the community; almost all of the comics had extensive performance resumes both in Durham and outside of the Triangle area. Prevalent themes of the night included jokes related to gender and racial identity, COVID-induced weight gains (dubbed by Amy Mora as the “quarantine fifteen”), and the less than prolific employment prospects currently awaiting postdoctoral students.

Yutian Feng’s setup for Are We There Yet?. Tropical paradise or kitchen island? Guess we’ll never know…

One of the highlights of the show was radiology postdoc Yutian Feng’s set. A self-described PhD, which he clarified stood for “permanent head damage,” his hobbies included identifying as a straight white male “because it’s the only way to get elected in this country,” and conversing with Siri on his Apple Watch, which he has programmed to congratulate him with a salty profanity every time he finishes exercising. After watching his set, all I can think to say is congratulations (salty profanity) — being that funny must’ve been quite the workout! 

Isatu Kamara and Jimmy Carter (vaguely visible on her left).

The show’s headliner was Isatu Kamara, an up-and-coming Durham-based comedian who tuned in alongside her cat, Jimmy Carter.

Kamara’s set revolved around her identities, particularly as a “stay-at-home daughter” and non-rich person, lamenting about the recent invasion of “gentrification scooters” and the sunroom epidemic in Durham.

Future plans? Kamara hopes to upgrade from the shopping cart that they have at the grocery store specifically for single people. You know, the one that’s “half of the size of the Happy Family™ shopping cart” and only has room for “a pack of White Claws, a bottle of wine, and some cat food?” A very ambitious goal but, hey, we’re rooting for you, Isatu. 

Though the fruits of their research careers remain unknown, the comedic future seems promising for the Postdoc Comedy Club’s self-described “two to three” members. After all, as Yutian aptly pointed out during his set, they all have the opportunity to move “from the most underpaid job to the second most underpaid job” — a drop in the bucket when compared to their masses of student debt and cure their similarly high degrees of self-loathing, but hey, at least they got fifteen bucks?

Post by Rebecca Williamson

Duke Junior Mixes Memory Research with Criminal Justice Reform

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What do you get when you mix double majors in Philosophy and Psychology with a certificate in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics? You get someone like Kelis Johnson, a junior from Lithonia, Georgia in suburban Atlanta, who works in not one research lab at Duke, but two.

Kelis is a member of The Marsh Lab studying learning and memory in Psychology and Neuroscience, and The Wilson Center for Science and Justice at Duke Law, using legal and scientific research to advance criminal justice reform.

Kelis Johnson, member of the Marsh Lab and the Wilson Center for Science and Justice

“Managing two research assistant positions while working as an embedded writing consultant with the Thompson Writing Studio, on top of my academics, can definitely be a challenge,” Kelis says. But, she said, “The way that I have been able to manage these positions along with the rest of my busy schedule is cohesion: Although working in a lab provides a different context than the material from my classes, I think my lab work and classwork supplement one another in a profound way.”

After taking a class with Elizabeth Marsh, the lab’s Principal Investigator, Kelis found herself “interested in deepening [her] knowledge of and experience with memory research,” so she reached out to get involved in the summer of 2020. The lab has provided her a means to explore her interests in the “intersections between memory and personal identity, education and the law.”

Simultaneously, in the midst of the (first) Covid-19 summer, Kelis worked with the Microworlds Lab. She conducted historical research that profiled Black female activists. “I felt like my interests and passions began to converge on activism and bringing about change while also exploring empirical research,” she said, “This passion aligned with the work being done at the Wilson Center who use research to advance civil rights.” She joined her second lab in the fall of 2020.

Dr. Elizabeth Marsh surrounded by research assistants of the Marsh Lab

In both positions, Kelis meets weekly with her fellow colleagues to discuss an overview of the labs work or the current research in the field. She finds this fulfilling, knowing that the work she and fellow research assistants have contributed to is providing “concrete advancements … in the labs and the world more broadly.” Kelis’ work consists mostly of coding or scoring data. This means reading study participants’ responses and using a codebook (like a grading rubric) to determine how each response compares to the standard established in the experimental protocol. Kelis also participates in literature reviews and stimuli creation, where she generates relevant material such as questions, statements, or images that will be used in experiments to test research questions.

This work has enabled Kelis to meet fellow undergraduates, along with graduate students and faculty mentors, who have similar interests to her own. She has learned more about grant writing, research ethics, and statistical tools. Along with providing her invaluable research experience, strengthening her passions for criminal justice reform, and reinforcing her plans to go to law school following graduation from Duke, through her work with the Wilson Center, Kelis has been able to learn more about Durham and North Carolina. This prompted her to think deeper about her role in the larger communities around her.

Image of Duke Law School, where the Wilson Center is located.

Kelis’ research is valuable outside of the lab. “Memory research is essential to how we learn, how we structure our life and personal identity, and how we form relationships with others,” Kelis said. She also stated that, “Learning about and reforming our criminal justice system is something we must all care about. In order to attack the systematic oppression of marginalized groups, we have to understand it.”

Unfortunately, due to Covid-19, Kelis has been unable to participate in person with either of her labs. This is something she is emphatically looking forward to. However, the virtual realm has enabled other forms of meaningful interactions and experiences through digital platforms. Kelis says she really appreciates “the events hosted by the [Wilson Center] Lab that often feature exonerated individuals who speak about their experience within the criminal justice system.”

Kelis’ contributions to projects from memory difference in older and younger adults to autobiographical memory are surely only the first steps in a planned lifetime of standing at the intersection between memory, identity, and the structures of our society.

Post by Cydney Livingston

Meet a Duke Senior at the Intersection Of Computation, Neuroscience and T-Pain

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As Daniel Sprague ‘21 prepares to graduate from Duke this Spring with a double major in Computer Science and Neuroscience, I had the opportunity to interview him on his undergraduate research experience. In his final semester, Sprague reflects on what he accomplished and learned in the three research labs he was a part of over his four years at Duke.

Outside of the lab, Sprague is also active in the arts community at Duke. He has been a member of Hoof ‘n’ Horn since his freshman year and has performed in four student-run musical theater productions. He is also a part of Speak of the Devil, one of Duke’s acapella groups that he was the president of during his Junior year. Recently, a video they uploaded more than two years ago has picked up speed and acquired over 150,000 views on YouTube. I think it’s fair to say Sprague is even more than a triple threat.

Sprague was interested in neuroscience and biology before he came to Duke and knew he wanted to participate in undergraduate research when he arrived. His first year, planning on pursuing pre-med, he joined Rima Fathi Kaddurah-Daouk’s lab where he worked with metabolomics, the large-scale study of small molecules within cells, biofluids, tissues, or organisms as it relates to neuropsychiatric disorders. While he learned a lot and enjoyed working in this lab, Sprague was eager to explore more.

The summer after his first year, Sprague was accepted to the Huang Fellows Program run by Duke’s Science & Society initiative. 

Sprague described their focus as, “The way that research, science, communication, and medicine interact with social issues and ethics.”

As a part of the program, Sprague was matched and placed in Ornit Chiba-Falek’s lab. There he conducted work in genomics and neuroscience, centered around neurodegenerative diseases, specifically, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. His job involved processing mouse brains to extract neurons for genomic sequencing. From there, the lab would conduct genome-wide association studies to correlate specific human or animal genotypes with genetic markers.

“We were trying to identify SNPs (Single-nucleotide polymorphism) which are single base pair variations in a genome that correlated with Alzheimer’s” Sprague explained

Along with working in a lab, Sprague also attended research seminars, learned about how science publishing works, and participated in a  science symposium at the culmination of the summer experience.

Daniel Sprague presents his research at Duke Science and Society’s Huang Fellows Program Poster Session

“Research is a slow iterative process and it rarely ever works how you expect it to.”

Daniel sprague

Sprague continued working in the Chiba-Falek lab through his sophomore year and contributed to the publication of two research papers: Shared genetic etiology underlying Alzheimer’s disease and major depressive disorder and Bioinformatics strategy to advance the interpretation of Alzheimer’s disease GWAS discoveries: The roads from association to causation. However, partway through the year, he realized he missed math and computational thinking. He began taking more math and computer science classes. After learning more, he realized he really wanted to find a lab doing research at the intersection of computation, math, and neuroscience.

Junior year brought Sprague to the John Pearson’s Lab where they build modeling and analysis tools for brain data.

He also began taking courses in machine learning which he brought into his lab work. His role involved working on the lab’s code base and aiding in the development of a software system for analyzing the brain. He was specifically looking at calcium imaging data. Sprague explained that there are a lot of different ways to do neuroimaging and visualize brain cell function. His work involved using fluorescent calcium.

“When brain cells spike, they release a fluorescent calcium trace that we can visualize with a camera to detect brian cell function with a high degree of temporal and spatial specificity,” Sprague said. “This allows us to accurately detect brain cell function on a millisecond and single cell scale.”

In many neuroscience studies, a stimulus is presented to an organism and the response is observed. The Pearson lab wants to be able to dynamically adjust which stimulus they present based on the intermediary results during the experiment.

“A big limitation in neuroscience research is it just has an absurd amount of data, even for a very small organism,” Sprague said. “Even a couple thousand brain cells will provide so much data that it can’t be visualized or analyzed quick enough to adjust the experiment in ways that would improve it.”

As a result of this limitation, they are trying to adapt conventional computational neuroscience methods to be used in an “online fashion,” which means working with the data as it comes in. Ultimately, they are developing methods to analyze data that traditionally would take hours due to computational time and trying to condense it to a millisecond.

“There are a lot of similar problems that computer scientists work on, but they focus on theoretical analyses of types of functions and how mathematical functions work. What’s cool about this is that it’s very applied with the constraints of a biological system and also requires knowledge of multiple disciplines.”

daniel sprague

Sprague will continue to apply these skills as he begins working next year as an associate consultant at Bain & Company in San Francisco. He is very interested in the connection between science, tech, and society.

Additionally, he is hoping to learn more about how artificial intelligence and machine learning are used in industry as well as their future directions, ethical dilemmas, and legal considerations. Consulting is becoming an increasingly data-driven industry and Sprague hopes to continue developing his domain knowledge and work with these ideas in an applied setting.

As Sprague prepares to leave Duke he reflects on his time here and the research he has had the opportunity to participate in. 

“One thing I’m grateful for is having the chance to have different experiences but still settle into one lab for two years. Don’t be afraid to get involved early, and don’t feel like you have to stay in the same lab for four years.”

daniel Sprague

Post by Anna Gotskind

Bass Connections Teams Tackling COVID-19 Problems, from Food Security to Voting-by-Mail

Most people at Duke are familiar with Bass Connections, the powerhouse interdisciplinary research program that brings together students and faculty from a wide variety of backgrounds to tackle complex problems.

Like most people, when the country went on COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, team leaders and members within Bass Connections needed to adapt their approach.

Instead of merely adapting, though, some Bass Connections teams saw a problem-solving opportunity. They pivoted to address some of the most pressing problems that the pandemic has created or exacerbated. On Tuesday, March 2nd, eight teams gathered to present their research at the first Bass Connections Works in Progress Symposium.

Equity and Efficiency of Using Wearables Data for COVID-19 Monitoring was one team that presented at the Symposium.

These teams tackled issues ranging from the ethics of contact tracing to the availability and access to contraception.

One team focused on the issue of food security amongst Latinx populations in Durham. Their presentation was lead by Elaijah Lapay, Faraan Rahim, and Karina Moreno Bueno. The team aimed to tackle three major goals: “How is the pandemic affecting the food security of Latinx residents, and how do environmental public health factors contribute to this population’s risk for COVID-19 infection? How does the incorporation of fresh, local foods mitigate these effects? How is the pandemic affecting the food assistance services locally, nationally, and internationally for the Latinx community?”

Of the Hispanic/Latinx respondents to the 2019 Durham Community Health Survey, 20.9% said they sometimes skipped or limited their meals. Combining that with the fact that 36% of the total number of COVID-19 cases in Durham have been within the Hispanic population, it’s fairly clear that there is a link between food security and health outcomes.

To this end, the Bass Connections team partnered with Root Causes to help advance their project goals through Root Cause’s Fresh Produce Program. Root Causes is an organization started by Duke Medical School students prior to the pandemic that previously provided fresh produce to food-insecure patients at the Duke Outpatient Clinic. But in order to adapt to contactless delivery and new needs due to COVID-19, Root Causes and the Bass team partnered to expand its reach to nearly 150 households in Durham.

Pipeline for Fresh Produce Program, taken from the symposium presentation of Improving Food Security to Increase Resiliency to COVID-19 for Latinx Populations

This expansion was aided immensely by the Duke Campus Farm, which despite the pandemic mobilized to change the produce it grew to be more culturally relevant to the households they were supporting.

In the future, the team hopes to continue to expand their survey data in the Triangle and continue to assess the impact of the Fresh Produce Program.  

Another Bass Connections team broadly addressed the challenges COVID-19 posed to the election process, through three sub-projects focusing on absentee balloting, organizing, and overall voter participation. The symposium presentation for the absentee balloting research was lead by Chase Johnson, Emma Shokeir, and Kathryn Thomas.

To hear more about the work of this Bass Connections team, watch the presentation above.

The 2020 election saw more people than ever relying on absentee voting, either by the one-stop process or by voting through mail. However, this team aimed to address the many voters that are disenfranchised because their votes are rejected due to errors in their ballot. While NC courts ruled that voters are required to be notified if their ballot needs curing, the difficulty of curing one’s ballot often dissuades people from even starting the process, leading to those votes not being counted.

The team utilized the app BallotTrax, a company that the North Carolina State Board of Elections hired to track these ballots. The team then focused on phone banking to increase BallotTrax usage, and then analyzed voter outcomes.

In the future, they hope to analyze the effect that BallotTrax outreach had on voting success, the efficacy of BallotTrax for voters in North Carolina, and the efficiency of North Carolina’s vote-by-mail system compared to other states.

A goal of this symposium for many teams was to ask audience members for suggestions on ways to direct their research further. The beauty of seeing research midway through the process is that it opens the door for collaborative thinking, out-of-the-box ideas, and being open about obstacles and mistakes.

This virtual Symposium is a testament not just to Duke’s collaborative research spirit, which is alive and well despite the pandemic, but to the adaptability of Duke student researchers and faculty. There’s no doubt that these eight Bass Connections Teams, among the many other teams part of the program this year, have been generating relevant and impactful knowledge and will continue to do so.

Post by Meghna Datta

Student Team Quantifies Housing Discrimination in Durham

Home values and race have an intimate connection in Durham, NC. From 1940 to 2020, if mean home values in Black-majority Census tracts had appreciated at rates equal to those in white Census tracts, the mean home value for homes in Black tracts would be $94,642 higher than it is.

That’s the disappointing, but perhaps not shocking, finding of a Duke Data+ team.

Because housing accounts for the biggest portion of wealth for families that fall outside of the top 10% of wealth in the U.S., this figure on home values represents a pervasive racial divide in wealth.

What started as a Data+ project in the summer of 2020 has expanded into an ongoing exploration of the connection between persistent wealth disparities across racial lines through housing. Omer Ali (Ph.D.), a postdoctoral associate with The Samuel Dubois Cook Center on Social Equity, is leading undergraduates Nicholas Datto and Pei Yi Zhuo in the continuation of their initial work. The trio presented an in-depth analysis of their work and methods Friday, February 5th during a Data Dialogue.

The team used a multitude of data to conduct their analyses, including the 1940 Census, Durham County records, CoreLogic data for home sales and NC voter registrations. Aside from the nearly $100,000 difference between mean home values between Black census tracts (defined as >50% Black homeowners from 1940-2020) and white census tracts (defined as >50% white homeowners from 1940-2020), Ali, Datto, and Zhou also found that over the last 10 years, home values have risen in Black neighborhoods as they have been losing Black residents. Within Census tracts, the team said that Black home-buyers in Durham occupy the least valuable homes.

Home Owners Loan Corporation data

Datto introduced the concept of redlining — systemic housing discrimination — and explained how this historic issue persists. From 1930-1940, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) and Federal Housing Administration (FHA) designated certain neighborhoods unsuitable for mortgage lending. Neighborhoods were given a desirability grade from A to D, with D being the lowest.

In 1940, no neighborhoods with Black residents were designated as either A or B districts. That meant areas with non-white residents were considered more risky and thus less likely to receive FHA-guaranteed mortgages.

Datto explained that these historic classifications persist because the team found significant differences in the amount of accumulated home value over time by neighborhood rating. We are “seeing long-lasting effects of these redlined maps on homeowners in Durham, “ said Datto, with even “significant differences between white [and non-white] homeowners, even in C and D neighborhoods.”

Zhou explained the significance of tracking the changes of each Census tract – Black, white, or integrated – over the last 50 years. The “white-black disparity [in home value] has grown by 287%” in this time period, he said. Homes of comparable structural design and apparent worth are much less valuable for simply existing in Black neighborhoods and being owned by Black people. And the problem has only expanded.

Along with differences in home value, both Black and white neighborhoods have seen a decline in Black homeowners in the 21st Century, pointing to a larger issue at hand. Though the work done so far merely documents these trends, rather than looking for correlation that may get at the underlying causes of the home-value disparity, the trends pair closely with other regions across the country being impacted by gentrification.

“Home values are going up in Black neighborhoods, but the number of Black people in those neighborhoods is going down,” said Datto.

Ali pointed out that there are evaluation practices that include evaluation of the neighborhood “as opposed to the structural properties of the home.” When a house is being evaluated, he said a home of similar structure owned by white homeowners would never be chosen as a comparator for a Latinx- or Black-owned home. This perpetuates historical disparities, as “minority neighborhoods have been historically undervalued” it is a compounding, systemic cycle.

The team hopes to export their methodology to a much larger scale. Thus far, this has presented some back-end issues with data and computer science, however “there is nothing in the analysis itself that couldn’t be [applied to other geographical locations,” they said.

Large socioeconomic racial disparities prevail in the U.S., from gaps in unemployment to infant mortality to incarceration rates to life expectancy itself. Though it should come as no surprise that home-values represent another area of inequity, work like Ali, Datto, and Zhou are conducting needs more traction, support, and expansion.

Post by Cydney Livingston

Pardon the Irruption: Winged Northern Visitors Massed for Tasty NC Mast

One morning in November, during a visit to my parents’ house in Richmond, Virginia, I woke up to a text from my mom. “Evening Grosbeaks at the river. Want to go?” Obviously I wanted to go. I’d heard that they had left their normal range, but I was shocked that they’d made it to Richmond—Evening Grosbeaks hadn’t come this far south in decades.

Evening Grosbeaks on a feeder in Hillsborough. The males are bright (lower right), the females more understated (upper left and right). A Purple Finch (center), another northern visitor, has joined them. (Lane Scher)

This winter has been a special treat for birdwatchers—a huge “irruption” year for many northern bird species, like the Evening Grosbeak. Many irruptive species are in the finch family, which includes siskins, redpolls, crossbills and some grosbeaks. These species usually spend their winters in the northern US and Canada, but every so often they’ll journey farther south. What causes these birds to make massive flights some years and not others? It’s simple—food.

Many birds eat seeds from trees, which scientists call “mast,” in winter. But mast is produced irregularly in cycles—lots of mast one year, and little the next. Birds with irruptive migratory patterns move around to find food in winter. During years of large mast production, irruptive birds can stay in their preferred range farther north. But when food is scarce, they fly south.

Mast is an important food source not only for these irruptive bird species, but also for local bird species and mammals. In fact, mast cycles impact the entire forest food web. Years of high seed production, sometimes called “bumper crops”, lead to larger rodent populations, which then eat the eggs of songbirds. Mast might also be tied to outbreaks of tick-borne diseases like Lyme disease: rodent populations grow in big mast years, which means there are more hosts for ticks, leading to more disease.

Mast cycles can have such massive impacts on animal populations because the seed production of each tree species is synchronized across large geographic areas. That means that in one year, trees of a particular species in one area will produce many seeds, but in a neighboring region the same species might produce few seeds. These patterns create a food landscape that is dynamic across both space and time.

Ecologists want to understand how mast cycles work—and Duke is home to the founder and headquarters of MASTIF, a global network with exactly this goal. Dr. Jim Clark of the Nicholas School of the Environment wants to understand how climate drives mast cycles, and how these cycles will change under climate change. The MASTIF network is a huge collaboration that now includes over 2.5 million data points, each representing the mast produced by one tree in one year.

The Evening Grosbeak map from
Peterson’s Field Guide to Eastern Birds shows that food-seeking irruptions can indeed reach Florida, as they have this year.

As a PhD student in Dr. Clark’s lab, I’m studying the relationship between mast cycles and the bird populations they support. I want to understand how birds respond to an environment that is constantly changing—in this case, how they respond to spatial and temporal changes in food availability. This historic irruption year is a perfect example of exactly this question: a year of low mast in the north has caused bird species to travel far outside their normal range to find food.

Interestingly, the association between these irruptive birds and food availability is so strong that it can be predicted fairly easily. The Winter Finch Forecast is based on a survey of mast crops across northern North America, which is then translated into a prediction of irruption patterns. The 2020 forecast noted that Evening Grosbeak populations would be larger this year due to outbreaks of spruce budworm, an important food source during the breeding season. This increase in the population size, combined with low winter food abundance, has led to a historic flight south.

The Clark Lab’s goal of understanding and predicting mast cycles would further our knowledge of these bird species’ unique migration patterns. With a more thorough understanding of mast patterns, we could better anticipate irruptions and implement informed conservation strategies. In addition to monitoring trees in long-term forest plots, the team uses data collected by citizen scientists through the MASTIF project on iNaturalist. With over 7,000 observations from 81 people across the world, these citizen scientists have contributed a huge amount of data.

I was thrilled to see the Evening Grosbeaks in November, and I assumed it would be my only chance. But since then, they’ve been seen throughout the Carolinas and into northern Florida. Recently, a homeowner in Hillsborough spotted a group of Evening Grosbeaks in his yard. He reported them to eBird, a citizen science project that collects data from birders around the world, and that birders use to locate rare species.

Since he reported them, birders have flocked to his yard in numbers almost as stunning as the birds themselves. Over the last few weeks, he’s counted up to 60 grosbeaks on a good day, and his yard has been visited by over 250 birders. Birders don’t want to miss this—no one knows when the next big irruption will be.

Guest post by Lane Scher, a Ph.D. student in Ecology at the Nicholas School of the Environment.

Invisible No More, the Cervix

How many people have seen their cervix? Obscured from view and stigmatized socially, the cervix is critical to women’s, transgender-men’s, and non-binary folks’ health — and potential reproductive health issues. A team formed through Duke’s Center for Global Women’s Health Technologies (GWHT) has created a device that not only holds immense medical potential but the potential to empower people with cervixes across the globe: It makes visible a previously invisible organ. 

Nimmi Ramanujam (Ph.D.), founder of GWHT and Professor of Engineering at Duke University, heads the team. Mercy Asiedu (Ph.D.), Gita Suneja (M.D.) Wesley Hogan (Ph.D.), and Andrea Kim have all been integral members of the interdisciplinary collaboration. Dr. Suneja is Associate Professor of Radiation Oncology at the University of Utah School of Medicine and a clinical researcher. Asiedu, former PhD student with Dr. Ramanujam and current postdoc at MIT, was integral to the development of Callascope.

The Callascope allows women and others who have cervixes, along with health professionals, to perform cervical exams without use of traditional examination tools that are larger, cannot be used for self-examinations, and often scary-looking.

When Wesley Hogan, director of Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies and research professor, heard about the idea “she was hooked.” Andrea Kim graduated from Duke University in 2018. Her senior thesis was a 12 minute documentary focused on the Callascope and its potential uses. Following graduation, over the last two years, she expanded the film to a 50-minute piece titled  “The (In)visible Organ” that was screened January 14, 2021. Kim moderated a panel with Ramanujam, Asiedu, Suneja and Hogan January 28th, 2021. 

Callascope: A handheld device that can be used to conduct cervical screenings. All that’s needed is a smart phone.

The Callascope addresses a dire global health need for better women’s reproductive health. Further, it empowers women as self-advocates of their own gynecological and reproductive health through reinvention of gynecological examination. Cervical cells have an “orderly progression,” says Suneja, we have a “great idea” of how cells become cancerous over time, “with multiple places to intervene.” Cervical examinations, however, are necessary for assessing cervical health and potential disease progression.

Originally from Ghana, Dr. Asiedu was interested in using her engineering skills to develop technology to “improve health outcomes,” particularly in countries like her own, which may lack adequate access to preventative healthcare and could benefit most from Callascope. Many women in underserved countries, as well as underserved areas of the United States, suffer disproportionately from cervical cancer — a preventable disease. 

Dr. Ramanujam, who served as a voluntary test-subject for Asiedu’s Callascope prototypes, says that it’s a really important tool “in actually changing [the cervix’s] narrative in a positive way” — it is an organ “that is indeed invisible.”

The hope is that with more awareness about and use of Callascope, cervical screenings, and vaginal health, cervixes may become more de-stigmatized and cultural norms surrounding them may shift to become more positive and open. Dr. Hogan stated that when Ramanujam pitched her the Callascope idea they were in a public restaurant. Hearing Ramanujam say words like “vagina” and “cervix” loud enough for others to hear made Hogan recognize her own embarrassment surrounding the topic and underscored the importance of the project. 

The project and the team serve as a wonderful example of intersectional work that bridges the sciences and humanities in effective, inspiring ways. One example was the Spring 2019 art exhibit, developed in conjunction with the team’s work, presented at the Nasher Museum which exposed the cervix through various mediums of art.

Multidisciplinary Bass Connections research teams contributed to this work and other interdisciplinary projects focused on the Callascope. Dr. Asiedu believes documentaries like Kim’s are “really powerful ways to communicate global health issues.” Kim who directed and produced “The (In)visble Organ” hopes to continue exploring how “we can create more cultures of inclusion …when it comes to reproductive health.” 

A piece of artwork from the (In)visible Organ art exhibit at Duke’s Nasher Museum in the spring of 2019.

Ramanujam emphasized the need to shift biomedical engineering focus to create technologies that center on “the stakeholders for whom [they] really [matter].” It is multi-dimensional thinkers like Ramanujam, Asiedu, Hogan, and Kim who are providing integrative and inventive ways to address health disparities of the 21st century — both the obvious and the invisible. 

Post by Cydney Livingston

Claire Engstrom, a Student Researcher Working to Treat Duchenne’s Muscular Dystrophy by Optimizing CRISPr-cas9

Meet Claire Engstrom, a Senior from Pasadena California. Claire is a Biology major who works in the Gersbach Lab at Duke. 

Claire first got involved with on-campus research through her pre-orientation program, PSearch that introduces incoming first-years to undergraduate research. Following her experience in PSearch, Claire got her first work-study research position in the Tung Lab where she worked closely with Jenny Tung, an Associate Professor in the Departments of Evolutionary Anthropology and Biology at Duke and a Faculty Associate of the Duke University Population Research Institute. 

In the Tung Lab, Claire’s research focused on how DNA methylation is passed through generations. Essentially looking at the inheritance of DNA whose methylation was impacted by environmental factors and how that affects future generations. 

Duke has research opportunities available in all disciplines as well as across departments. Approximately 53% of undergraduates graduate with research experience. Not only can students participate in groundbreaking research, but they can receive funding from the university as well to support the work they are doing.

Within the Biology department, there is a fellowship called B-SURF, the Biological Sciences Undergraduate Research Fellowship, an 8-week summer research program for rising sophomores. Claire applied for and was accepted to the fellowship and placed in one of Duke’s biomedical science laboratories. She also received a $4,000 stipend for her summer research.

Claire was placed in Charles Gersbach’s Lab focused on researching Genome Editing for Gene and Cell Therapy. Dr, Gersbach is a Rooney Family Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering and has conducted groundbreaking work in genome editing.

Members of the Gersbach Lab in Fall 2019

Gersbach is doing research in several different domains of biomedical engineering. Claire’s project focuses on using CRISPR-Cas9, a technology that allows scientists to change an organism’s DNA using clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats and CRISPR-associated protein 9. faster, cheaper, more accurate, and more efficient than other existing genome editing methods. 

Prior to joining his lab, Claire had already heard a lot about Gersbach in her course Biology 201 as well as through reading his papers. The project she would spend the next two and a half years working on focused on using and optimizing CRISPR-Cas9 to treat Duchenne’s Muscular Dystrophy and lessen the severity of the symptoms. 

Duchenne’s Muscular Dystrophy is a muscle wasting disease that affects one in every five thousand male births.

“People are diagnosed when they are around five and then they lose the ability to walk and their heart can’t pump blood because of the lack of muscles.” Claire explained.  

“CRISPR-based genome editing restores dystrophin expression in mouse models of Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Cross-sections of muscle tissue where the dystrophin protein has been labeled green, including normal, healthy tissue (left), tissue from a mouse model of Duchenne muscular dystrophy (middle), and tissue from the same mouse model that has been treated with the CRISPR gene editing system (right). Nelson et al., Science (2016)”

Thus, those affected often die in early adulthood despite current advances in cardiovascular and respiratory treatments. Duchenne’s Muscular Dystrophy generally occurs as a result of a frameshift mutation of the dystrophin gene. As a result, one’s muscles can no longer connect to anything making it nearly impossible to contract and function properly. In the Gersbach lab they are trying to treat the mutation by using CRISPR-Cas9 to remove an exon or coding region of the gene in order to shift the reading frame back into its normal place. 

This shift produces a less severe phenotype that lessens the effects of Duchenne’s Muscular Dystrophy. The result will significantly improve the quality of life and life spans for affected patients. 

Claire will be continuing her work in the Gersbach lab full time in Spring 2021 as she graduated early, with distinction in the Fall. Her thesis on the work she did in the Gersbach lab was recently approved and her results will be published in a larger paper in the future. After this year she plans to take a gap year an then return to California to hopefully attend grad school and pursue a Ph.D. in Biology.

By Anna Gotskind

Wednesdays, My New Favorite Day

After my freshman fall, I swore I’d never take another 8AM class. Yet, when a microbiology lab was the only opportunity I had for an in-person course in Duke’s disrupted Fall 2020 semester, I jumped at the chance to take it. Wednesdays have become my on-campus days, and though they start at 7AM and are often jam-packed until 7PM, they are my favorite days of the week.  

I’m usually the first to arrive in sub-basement of the Biological Sciences building on Wednesdays. As my six lab-mates join me, we stand in line on top of stickers spaced according to 6-foot social-distancing guidelines and talk about questions from class or the lab we’re going to perform that day. Sometimes it’s difficult to hear one another through our masks. When our TA is ready for us to enter the classroom, we do so one at a time, only after she’s verified our Symptom Monitoring status and taken our temperature.

Our lab stations are spaced so that we are appropriately distanced from one another, but able to work and collaborate as a team as best we can. We have a no-contact drop-zone for placing and picking up shared lab items, though each students’ space is equipped with most everything we need for our lab on most occasions. The stations are close enough so that we can chat, compare results, and ask each other for assistance as we work. Everyone wears a face shield over a face mask. Each lab session we exchange our “home” face mask for a disposable “lab” face mask. Since we work with potentially pathogenic microbes, this step is for our safety to make sure we don’t carry harmful bacteria out of our lab space. Unlike previous years, gloves are worn at all times, but the lab coats we wear have always been a standard part of the microbiology lab attire.  

The infamous “no contact drop zone” for use of shared materials during lab.

What used to be two, two-hour lab sessions twice a week has been condensed into a single four-hour lab-session to minimize exposure to one another. At the beginning of the semester it felt strange and uncomfortable to wear a mask for the whole lab period and for the rest of the day on campus. But like many changes due to Covid-19, I’ve simply gotten used to it. It’s worth it to have face-to-face interactions with fellow students and to have hands-on experience in the lab. In many ways, these experiences feel much more real and meaningful than my fully online classes, in which I interact exclusively virtually with peers and instructors.

This semester we’ve also been doing science at home, having been tasked with an independent research project to be performed outside of lab. The kitchen in my apartment has become a makeshift space for inoculating TSA plates and perplexing my roommate with my experiment.

At home experimental set-up and data collection in my apartment.

After microbiology, I grab a quick lunch at West Union…which I’m still figuring out how to navigate. There’s more online ordering and different routes for lines I haven’t gotten used to. Though it’s significantly less crowded than it used to be – which has its advantages – the energy and fervor that made up Duke is certainly missing. Though I feel it in spurts when I run into the rare upperclassman on the Plaza or in the Bryan Center while trying to find a spot to study, campus is unequivocally not the same.

I leave the central part of campus and return to the basement of BioSci to work in my research lab, the Steve Nowicki Lab. According to our Covid plan, a grad student must be present to supervise me at all times and each of us works on opposite sides of the lab space. It’s really not all that different than it used to be.

In the Nowicki Lab, I test the categorical color perception of Zebra finches. After being trained for the trials, the birds are tested to see if they can detect color differences between a background color and two “odd color out” chips. Colors one and eight are most starkly different, but when comparing colors seven and eight, for example, I sometimes struggle to tell the two colors apart.

Background color 8 versus odd-color-out 7. Can you tell the difference? (Color 7 is in wells 1 and 7)

Following a five-month hiatus from running trials, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself in the rhythm of things with only a few marginal mishaps. Within a half-hour of being back in the lab, I was running experiments at full speed again. For a moment it felt like I’d never left, and like it could have been the Wednesday before spring break, before the pandemic took full effect. Sometimes still when I’m running trials, I imagine I could walk out of BioSci’s basement and find that everything would be just as it had been when I left in March.

I spend three hours with the birds, running a refresher round followed by five experimental trials. And usually, I listen to podcasts while I work. The time passes quickly, sometimes more quickly than I’d hope.

Example of bird during experiments.

Since I’m already on campus, most Wednesdays I stick around and attend my online history seminar from a spot around campus. Though I can’t perch myself on the third floor of Perkins Library these days, I’ve found a new spot I like on the second level of the Bryan Center and I’ve made it work for me.

On Wednesdays, I am reminded of the reasons I fell in love with Duke and of all the things I miss about it in these strange and uncertain times. I wonder if the Duke I knew will ever be the same. Or if something has fundamentally shifted in our institution, and more largely in each of us individually, that only leaves us with a path forward to a new Duke, rather than a return to the old.

I am team Crystal Violet #2 and this is my bag for placing my “home mask” in when gearing up for lab.

As I return to my car in Blue Zone, I take a longing look at the Chapel. Then I make my way to my car, turn on some tunes for the drive home, and patiently wait for my alarm to wake me at 7AM the next Wednesday morning.

Most of the time I’m left thinking about the Duke that used to be, despite the fact that I certainly admire the socially-responsible and safe Duke that is. We’re doing well, all things considered. But still, it’s not the same. The Duke that the first years know is not the Duke I remember.

Post by Cydney Livingston, Trinity 2022

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