Duke Research Blog

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

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The Making of queerXscape

Sinan Goknur

On September 10th, queerXscape, a new exhibit in The Murthy Agora Studio at the Rubenstein Arts Center, opened. Sinan Goknur and Max Symuleski, PhD candidates in the Computational Media, Arts & Cultures Program, created the installation with digital prints of collages, cardboard structures, videos, and audio. Max explains that this multi-media approach transforms the studio from a room into a landscape which provides an immersive experience.

Max Symuleski

The two artists combined their experiences with changing urban environments when planning this exhibit. Sinan reflects on his time in Turkey where he saw constant construction and destruction, resulting in a quickly shifting landscape. While processing all of this displacement, he began taking pictures as “a way of coping with the world.” These pictures later become layers in the collages he designed with Max.

Meanwhile, Max used their time in New York City where they had to move from neighborhood to neighborhood as gentrification raised prices. Approaching this project, they wondered, “What does queer mean in this changing landscape? What does it mean to queer something? Where are our spaces? Where do we need them to survive?” They had previously worked on smaller collages made from magazines that inspired the pair of artists to try larger-scale works.  

Both Sinan and Max have watched the exploding growth in Durham while studying at Duke. From this perspective, they were able to tackle this project while living in a city that exemplifies the themes they explore in their work.

One of the cardboard structures

Using a video that Sinan had made as inspiration for the exhibit, they began assembling four large digital collages. To collaborate on the pieces, they would send the documents back and forth while making edits. When it became time to assemble their work, they had to print the collage in large strips and then careful glue them together. Through this process, they learned the importance of researching materials and experimented with the best way to smoothly place the strips together. While putting together mound-like cardboard structures of building, tire, and ice cube cut-outs, Max realized that, “we’re now doing construction.” Consulting with friends who do small construction and maintenance jobs for a living also helped them assemble and install the large-scale murals in the space. The installation process for them was yet another example of the tension between various drives for and scales of constructions taking place around them.

While collage and video may seem like an odd combination, they work together in this exhibit to surround the viewer and appeal to both the eyes and ears. Both artists share a background in queer performance and are driven to the rough aesthetics of photo collage and paper. The show brings together aspects of their experience in drag performance, collage, video, photography, and paper sculpture of a balanced collaboration. Their work demonstrates the value of partnership that crosses genres.

Poster for the exhibit

When concluding their discussion of changing spaces, Max mentioned that, “our sense of resilience is tied to the domains where we could be queer.” Finding an environment where you belong becomes even more difficult when your landscape resembles shifting sand. Max and Sinan give a glimpse into the many effects of gentrification, destruction, and growth within the urban context. 

The exhibit will be open until October 6. If you want to see the results of weeks of collaging, printing, cutting, and pasting together photography accumulated from near and far, stop by the Ruby.

Post by Lydia Goff

Combining Up-Close Views of Science, Nature With the Magic of Light

Zinnia stamen by Thomas Barlow, Duke University

Thomas Barlow ’21 finds inspiration in small everyday things most people overlook: a craggy lichen growing on a tree, a dead insect, the light reflected by a pane of glass. Where we might see a flower, Barlow looks past the showy pink petals to the intricate parts tucked within.

The 20-year-old is a Duke student majoring in biology. By day, he takes classes and does research in a lab. But in his spare time, he likes to take up-close photographs using objects he finds outside or around the lab: peach pits, fireflies. But also pipettes, pencils.

A handheld laser pointer and flitting fireflies become streaks of light in this long-exposure image in Duke Forest. By Thomas Barlow.

Barlow got interested in photography in middle school, while playing around with his dad’s camera. His dad, a landscape architect, encouraged the hobby by enlisting him to take photos of public parks, gardens and playgrounds, which have been featured on various architects’ websites and in national publications such as Architecture Magazine. But “I always wanted to get closer, to see more,” Barlow said.

In high school he started taking pictures of still lifes. But he didn’t just throw flowers and fruit onto a backdrop and call it art. His compositions were a mishmash of insects and plants arranged with research gadgets: glass tubes, plastic rulers, syringes, or silicon wafers like those used for computer chips.

“I like pairing objects you would never find together normally,” Barlow said. “Removing them from their context and generating images with interesting textures and light.”

Sometimes his mother sends him treasures from her garden in Connecticut to photograph, like the pale green wings of a luna moth. But mostly he finds his subjects just steps from his dorm room door. It might be as easy as taking a walk through Duke Gardens or going for one of his regular runs in Duke Forest.

Having found, say, a flower bud or bumblebee, he then uses bits of glass, metal, mirrors and other shiny surfaces — “all objects that interact with light in some interesting way” – to highlight the interaction of light and color.

“I used to be really obsessed with dichroic mirrors,” pieces of glass that appear to change colors when viewed from different angles, Barlow said. “I thought they were beautiful objects. You can get so many colors and reflections out of it, just by looking at it in different ways.”

In one pair of images, the white, five-petaled flowers of a meadow anemone are juxtaposed against panels of frosted glass, a pipette, a mechanical pencil.

Another image pair shows moth wings. One is zoomed in to capture the fine details of the wing scales. The other zooms out to show them scattered willy-nilly around a shimmering pink circle of glass, like the remnants of a bat’s dinner plate.

Luna moth wings and wing scales with dichroic mirror, Thomas Barlow

For extreme close-ups, Barlow uses his Canon DSLR with a microscope objective mounted onto the front of a tube lens. Shooting this close to something so small isn’t just a matter of putting a bug or flower in front of the camera and taking a shot. To get every detail in focus, he takes multiple images of the same subject, moving the focal point each time. When he’s done he’s taken hundreds of pictures, each with a different part of the object in focus. Then he merges them all together.

At high magnification, Barlow’s flower close-ups reveal the curly yellow stamens of a zinnia flower, and the deep red pollen-producing parts of a tiger lily.

“I love that you can see the spikey pollen globules,” Barlow said.

Stomata and pollen on the underside of a tiger lily stamen, by Thomas Barlow

When he first got to Duke he was taking photos using a DIY setup in his dorm room. Then he asked some of the researchers and faculty he knew if there was anything photography-related he could do for their labs.

“I knew I was interested in nature photography and I wanted to practice it,” Barlow said.

One thing led to another, and before long he moved his setup to the Biological Sciences building on Science Drive, where he’s been photographing lichens for Daniele Armaleo and Jolanta Miadlikowska, both lichenologists.

“A lichen photo might not seem like anything special to an average person,” Barlow said. “But I think they’re really stunning.”

Leaving the Louvre: Duke Team Shows How to Get out Fast

Students finish among top 1% in 100-hour math modeling contest against 11,000 teams worldwide


Imagine trying to move the 26,000 tourists who visit the Louvre each day through the maze of galleries and out of harm’s way. One Duke team spent 100 straight hours doing just that, and took home a prize.

If you’ve ever visited the Louvre in Paris, you may have been too focused on snapping a selfie in front of the Mona Lisa to think about the nearest exit.

But one Duke team knows how to get out fast when it matters most, thanks to a computer simulation they developed for the Interdisciplinary Contest in Modeling, an international contest in which thousands of student teams participate each year.

Their results, published in the Journal of Undergraduate Mathematics and Its Applications, placed them in the top 1% against more than 11,000 teams worldwide.

With a record 10.2 million visitors flooding through its doors last year, the Louvre is one of the most popular museums in the world. Just walking through a single wing in one of its five floors can mean schlepping the equivalent of four and a half football fields.

For the contest, Duke undergraduates Vinit Ranjan, Junmo Ryang and Albert Xue had four days to figure out how long it would take to clear out the whole building if the museum really had to evacuate — if the fire alarm went off, for instance, or a bomb threat or a terror attack sent people pouring out of the building.

It might sound like a grim premise. But with a rise in terrorist activity in Europe in recent years, facilities are trying to plan ahead to get people to safety.

The team used a computer program called NetLogo to create a small simulated Louvre populated by 26,000 visitors, the average number of people to wander through the maze of galleries each day. They split each floor of the Louvre into five sections, and assigned people to follow the shortest path to the nearest exit unless directed otherwise.

Computer simulation of a mob of tourists as they rush to the nearest exit in a section of the Louvre.

Their model uses simple flow rates — the number of people that can “flow” through an exit per second — and average walking speeds to calculate evacuation times. It also lets users see what happens to evacuation times if some evacuees are disabled, or can’t push through the throngs and start to panic.

If their predictions are right, the team says it should be possible to clear everyone out in just over 24 minutes.

Their results show that the exit at the Passage Richelieu is critical to evacuation — if that exit is blocked, the main exit through the Pyramid would start to gridlock and evacuating would take a whopping 15 minutes longer.

The students also identified several narrow corridors and sharp turns in the museum’s ground floor that could contribute to traffic jams. Their analyses suggest that widening some of these bottlenecks, or redirecting people around them, or adding another exit door where evacuees start to pile up, could reduce the time it takes to evacuate by 15%.

For the contest, each team of three had to choose a problem, build a model to solve it, and write a 20-page paper describing their approach, all in less than 100 hours.

“It’s a slog fest,” Ranjan said. “In the final 48 hours I think I slept a total of 90 minutes.”

Duke professor emeritus David Kraines, who advised the team, says the students were the first Duke team in over 10 years to be ranked “outstanding,” one of only 19 out of the more than 11,200 competing teams to do so this year. The team was also awarded the Euler Award, which comes with a $9000 scholarship to be split among the team members.

Robin Smith – University Communications

Hamlet is Everywhere. To Cite, or Not to Cite?

Some stories are too good to forget. With almost formulaic accuracy, elements from classic narratives are constantly being reused and retained in our cultural consciousness, to the extent that a room of people who’ve never read Romeo and Juliet could probably still piece out its major plot points. But when stories are so pervasive, how can we tell what’s original and what’s Shakespeare with a facelift?

This summer, three Duke undergraduate students in the Data+ summer research program built a computer program to find reused stories.

“We’re looking for invisible adaptations, or appropriations, of stories where there are underlying themes or the messages remain the same,” explains Elise Xia, a sophomore in mechanical engineering. “The goal of our project was to create a model where we could take one of these original stories, get data from it, and find other stories in literature, film, TV that are adaptations.”

The Lion King for example, is a well-known appropriation of Hamlet. The savannahs of Africa are a far cry from Denmark, and “Simba” bears no etymologic resemblance to “Hamlet”, yet they’re fundamentally the same story: A power-hungry uncle kills the king and ousts the heir to the throne, only for an eventually cataclysmic return of the prince. In an alternate ending for the film, Disney directors even considered quoting Hamlet.

“The only difference is that there’s no incest in The Lion King,” jokes Mikaela Johnson, an English and religious studies major and member of the Invisible Adaptations team.

With Hamlet as their model text, the team used a Natural Language Processing system to turn words into data points and compare other movie scripts and novels to the original play.

But the students had to strike a balance between the more surficial yet comprehensive analysis of computers (comparing place names, character names, and direct quotes) with the deeper textual analysis that humans provide.

So, they developed another branch of analysis: After sifting through about 30,000 scholarly texts on Hamlet to identify major themes — monarchy, death, ghost, power, revenge, uncle, etc. – their computer program screened Wikipedia’s database for those key words to identify new adaptations. After comparing the titles found from both primary and secondary sources, they had their final list of Hamlet adaptations.

“What we really tried to do was break down what a story is and how humans understand stories, and then try to translate that into a way a computer can do it,” says Nikhil Kaul, rising junior in computer science and philosophy. “And in a sense, it’s impossible.”

Finding the threshold between a unique story and derivative stories could have serious implications for copyright law and intellectual property in the future. But Grant Glass, UNC graduate student of English and comparative literature and the project manager of this study, believes that the real purpose of the research is to understand the context of each story.

“Appropriating without recognition removes the historical context of how that story was made,” Glass explains. Often, problematic facets of the story are too deeply ingrained to coat over with fresh literary paint: “All of the ugliness of text shouldn’t be capable of being whitewashed – They are compelling stories, but they’re problematic. We owe past baggage to be understood.”

Adaptations include small hat-tips to their original source; quoting the original or using character names. But appropriations of works do nothing to signal their source to their audience, which is why the Data+ team’s thematic analysis of Wikipedia pages was vital in getting a comprehensive list of previously unrecognized adaptations.

“A good adaptation would subvert expectations of the original text,” Glass says. Seth Rogan’s animated comedy, Sausage Party, one of the more surprising movie titles the students’ program found, does just that. “It’s a really vulgar, pretty funny movie,” Kaul explains. “It’s very existential and meta and has a lot of death at the end of it, much like Hamlet does. So, the program picked up on those similarities.”

 Without this new program, the unexpected resemblance could’ve gone unnoticed by literary academia – and whether or not Seth Rogan intended to parallel a grocery store to the Danish royal court, it undoubtedly spins a reader’s expectation of Hamlet on its head.

By Vanessa Moss

Digging Into Durham’s Eviction Problem

This is what 20 years of evictions looks like. It’s an animated heat map of Durham, the streets overlaid with undulating blobs of red and orange and yellow, like a grease stain.

Duke students in the summer research program Data+ have created a time-lapse map of the more than 200,000 evictions filed in Durham County since 2000.

Dark red areas represent eviction hotspots. These neighborhoods are where families cook their favorite meals, where children do their homework, where people celebrate holidays. They’re also where many people live one crisis away from losing their neighbors, or becoming homeless themselves.

Duke junior Samantha Miezio points to a single census tract along NC 55 where, in the wake of an apartment building sale, more than 100 households received an eviction notice in that spot in one month alone. It “just speaks to the severity of the issue,” Miezio said.

Miezio was part of a team that spent 10 weeks this summer mapping and analyzing evictions data from the Durham County Sheriff’s Office, thanks to an effort by DataWorks NC to compile such data and make it more accessible.

The findings are stark.

Every hour in Durham, at least one renter is threatened with losing their home. About 1,000 eviction cases were filed a month against tenants between 2010 and 2017. That’s roughly one for every 280 residents in Durham, where evictions per capita is one of the highest in the state and double the national average.

The data tell us that while Durham’s evictions crisis has actually improved from where it was a few years ago, stubborn hotspots persist, said team member Ellis Ackerman, a math major at North Carolina State University.

When the students looked at the data month by month, a few things stood out. For one, winter evictions are common. While some countries such as France and Austria ban winter evictions to keep from pushing people onto the street in the cold, in Durham, “January is the worst month by far,” said team member Rodrigo Araujo, a junior majoring in computer science. “In the winter months utility bills are higher; they’re struggling to pay for that.”

Rodrigo Araujo (Computer Science, 2021) talks about the Durham evictions project.

The team also investigated the relationship between evictions and rents from 2012 to 2014 to see how much they move in tandem with each other. Their initial results using two years’ worth of rent data showed that when rents went up, evictions weren’t too far behind.

“Rents increased, and then two months later, evictions increased,” Miezio said.

But the impacts of rising rents weren’t felt evenly. Neighborhoods with more residents of color were significantly affected while renters in white neighborhoods were not. “This crisis is disproportionately affecting those who are already at a disadvantage from historical inequalities,” Miezio said.

A person can be evicted for a number of reasons, but most evictions happen because people get behind on their rent. The standard guideline is no more than 30% of your monthly income before taxes should go to housing and keeping the lights on.

But in Durham, where 47% of households rent rather than own a home, only half of renters meet that goal. As of 2019 an estimated 28,917 households are living in rentals they can’t afford.

The reason is incomes haven’t kept pace with rents, especially for low-wage workers such as waiters, cooks, or home health aides.

Durham’s median rents rose from $798 in 2010 to $925 in 2016. That’s out of reach for many area families. A minimum wage worker in Durham earning $7.25/hour would need to work a staggering 112 hours a week — the equivalent of nearly three full-time jobs — to afford a modest two-bedroom unit in 2019 at fair market rent, according to a report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Spending a sizable chunk of your income on housing means having less left over for food, child care, transportation, savings, and other basic necessities. One unexpected expense or emergency — maybe the kid gets sick or the car needs repairs, or there’s a cut back on hours at work — can mean tenants have a harder time making the rent.

“Evictions are traumatic life experiences for the tenants,” and can have ripple effects for years, Miezio said.

Tenants may have only a few days to pay what’s due or find a new place and move out. The Sheriff may come with movers and pile a person’s belonging on the curb, or move them to a storage facility at the tenant’s expense.

A forced move can also mean children must change schools in the middle of the school year.

Benefits may go to the wrong address. Families are uprooted from their social support networks of friends and neighbors.

Not every case filed ends with the tenant actually getting forced out, “but those filings can still potentially inhibit their ability to find future housing,” Miezio said. Not to mention the cost and hassle of appearing in court and paying fines and court fees.

Multiple groups are working to help Durham residents avoid eviction and stay in their homes. In a partnership between Duke Law and Legal Aid of North Carolina, the Civil Justice Clinic’s 2-year-old Eviction Diversion Program provides free legal assistance to people who are facing eviction.

“The majority of people who have an eviction filed against them don’t have access to an attorney,” Miezio said.

In a cost-benefit analysis, the team’s models suggest that “with a pretty small increase in funding to reduce evictions, on the order of $100,000 to $150,000, Durham could be saving millions of dollars” in the form of reduced shelter costs, hospital costs, plus savings on mental health services other social services, Ackerman said.

Ellis Ackerman, a senior math major from NC State University, talks about the Durham evictions research project.

Moving forward, they’re launching a website in order to share their findings. “I’ve learned HTML and CSS this summer,” said Miezio, who is pursuing an individualized degree program in urban studies. “That’s one of the things I love about Data+. I’m getting paid to learn.”

Miezio plans to continue the project this fall through an independent study course focused on policy solutions to evictions, such as universal right to counsel.

“Housing access and stability are important to Durham,” said Duke’s vice president for Durham affairs Stelfanie Williams. “Applied research projects such as this, reflecting a partnership between the university and community, are opportunities for students to ‘learn by doing’ and to collaborate with community leaders on problem-solving.”

Data+ 2019 is sponsored by Bass Connections, the Rhodes Information Initiative at Duke, the Social Science Research Institute, the Duke Energy Initiative, and the departments of Mathematics and Statistical Science.

Other Duke sponsors include DTECH, Science, Law, and Policy Lab, Duke Health, Duke University Libraries, Sanford School of Public Policy, Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke Global Health Institute, Development and Alumni Affairs, the Duke River Center, Representing Migrations Humanities Lab, Energy Initiative, Franklin Humanities Institute, Duke Forge, the K-Lab, Duke Clinical Research, Office for Information Technology and the Office of the Provost, as well as the departments of Electrical & Computer Engineering, Computer Science, Biomedical Engineering, Biostatistics & Bioinformatics and Biology.

Government funding comes from the National Science Foundation. Outside funding comes from Exxon Mobil, the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), Global Financial Markets Center, and Tether Energy.

Writing by Robin Smith; Video by Wil Weldon
Post by Robin Smith Video by Wil Weldon

Do DNA Tests Sell Rosy Ideas About Race for Profit?

Earlier this year,  the online DNA testing company Ancestry.com faced a media firestorm and social media backlash after posting a controversial ad on its YouTube page.

The DNA testing company Ancestry.com took down its ad, “Inseparable,” in April 2019 in response to criticism that it romanticized slavery.

Titled “Inseparable,” the 30-second ad depicted a white man in the antebellum South asking an African-American woman to flee to the North with him. Before the woman can answer, the piece cuts to a tagline: “Only you can keep the story going. Uncover the lost chapters of your family history with Ancestry.” Many criticized the ad’s historical inaccuracy, showcasing a rosier portrayal of a complicated past. To extinguish flames, Ancestry completely pulled the ad from its platforms.

A recent Duke study of dozens of other ads across multiple DNA testing companies shows that this isn’t the only example of mixed messaging about race and identity from the world of genetic ancestry tests.

The tests are quite simple: order a kit, send off a saliva sample and receive an ethnicity estimate within weeks. A test taker’s ethnicity is broken down into percentages based off their DNA matches compared to a globally referenced DNA database. Kits can range in price from $79 to$400. Sales of DNA testing kits had reached 12 million people by 2017, as reported by ScienceLine.

As part of the six-week summer research program Story+, Duke students Dakota Douglas, Mona Tong and Madelyn Winchester analyzed the messaging in 90 video ads from the companies 23andMe, AncestryDNA and MyHeritageDNA to see what they promise consumers.

Many of the ads lured customers with promises of a newfound identity and possible family members, the team found. One Ancestry.com ad, entitled “Kyle,” depicts a customer whose childhood was steeped in German culture, but discovers as an adult that he is also part Scottish and Irish. He happily “traded in his lederhosen for a kilt,” completely forgoing his previous heritage and reducing a newly discovered culture to stereotypes.

“There were a lot of advertisements similar to that one,” said team member Mona Tong. “Many found a new identity embracing it fully despite a lack of any cultural connections.”

“Kyle” illustrates a phenomenon described in a 2018 study from the University of British Columbia, which found that people tended to “cherry-pick” the results, identifying more with certain ethnicities and cultures to appear different. Whites were more likely to see their results as “transformational” than their nonwhite counterparts.

“It’s not a bad idea to test your genes for medical reasons,” said Patricia Bass, the team’s project mentor. “However, these ads can be misleading by assuming that someone’s cultural and racial heritage are determined by genes.”

While the majority of subjects featured within the ads were white, the few ads that featured people of color often glossed over the complicated history of someone’s lineage or conveniently left out difficult topics. Ancestry’s “Anthem” ad detailed historical reenactments of an African tribal women, prohibition gangsters, a man fleeing England for America and Native Americans somberly heading to a new land. A voiceover speaks with inspiration ending with a shot of a biracial woman.

In marketing the idea that we are all one, the ads fetishized mixed-race subjects, while ignoring the genocide and displacement of people, the team found.

The team hopes future research will further examine the impact of these ads on people’s view of identity. Importantly, one could note if there were any focus groups to test these ads before release.

“It furthers the idea of colorblindness,” Tong said. “It assumes that relationships are contingent upon common ancestry and genes.”

“In a way, companies are trying to help by focusing on the interconnectivity and commonalities between people,” Tong said. “But it hurts more than it helps.”

Story+ is a six-week undergraduate research program offered through the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute and Bass Connections, with support from the Duke University Libraries and Versatile Humanists at Duke.

By Deja Finch

Science in haiku: // Interdisciplinary // Student poetry

On Friday, August 2, ten weeks of research by Data+ and Code+ students wrapped up with a poster session in Gross Hall where they flaunted their newly created posters, websites and apps. But they weren’t expecting to flaunt their poetry skills, too! 

Data+ is one of the Rhodes Information Initiative programs at Duke. This summer, 83 students addressed 27 projects addressing issues in health, public policy, environment and energy, history, culture, and more. The Duke Research Blog thought we ought to test these interdisciplinary students’ mettle with a challenge: Transforming research into haiku.

Which haiku is your
favorite? See all of their
finished work below!

Eric Zhang (group members Xiaoqiao Xing and Micalyn Struble not pictured) in “Neuroscience in the Courtroom”
Maria Henriquez and Jake Sumner on “Using Machine Learning to Predict Lower Extremity Musculoskeletal Injury Risk for Student Athletes”
Samantha Miezio, Ellis Ackerman, and Rodrigo Aruajo in “Durham Evictions: A snapshot of costs, locations, and impacts”
Nikhil Kaul, Elise Xia, and Mikaela Johnson on “Invisible Adaptations”
Karen Jin, Katherine Cottrell, and Vincent Wang in “Data-driven approaches to illuminate the responses of lakes to multiple stressors”.

By Vanessa Moss

Global Health is Local Too

DGHI interns, left to right: Gabrielle Zegers (C’19), Ashley Wilson (C’20), and Rachel Baber (C’20).

When Duke senior Rachel Baber began her freshman year, she was under the impression that legitimate research had to involve a white lab coat and a microscope.

But this summer she worked to study human health without a pipette in sight, instead spending her time in a computer lab, which was empty besides her and two fellow interns. A few yards away from her shared workspace, blue metal double doors swing into a linoleum-floored cafeteria.

As she sits at a table near the entrance, dozens of men and women walk past in ones and twos, some with oil smeared on their jeans and others pushing carts with cleaning supplies, talking with one another and nodding to acknowledge Baber.

She’s been working all summer at the Triangle Residential Options for Substance Abusers, Inc., better known as TROSA, and everyone passing is a resident.

TROSA is acclaimed for their whole-person approach to substance-abuse recovery and trauma resiliency, with multi-year programming that provides treatment, educational opportunities, and vocational training for their clients. TROSA has been providing services for 25 years and, like most non-profit organizations, they have a running list of projects with limited number of staff hours to commit to them.

“It’s not that they’re back-burner issues,” explains Karen Kelley, the Chief Program Officer at TROSA. “It’s just that we don’t have enough front burners.”

This summer, Duke’s undergraduates stepped in to provide a little more stove space for TROSA’s needs.

Duke’s Global Health Institute (DGHI) requires all students to spend one summer in a research training program, which associate professor Sumi Ariely believes is a vital opportunity for students to “work deeply with a community partner and their vision, and to help disparities or inequities in their community.”

Program options range from looking at health impacts of gold mining in Ghana to screening for glaucoma in Honduras, but 2019 was DGHI’s first season offering TROSA as a research site, opening new avenues for students to give back to the Durham community.

“We have a responsibility to our neighbors,” Ariely says. “‘Global is Local’ holds two meanings. As a geographic term, it focuses on the Triangle or Durham area. It also holds philosophical value. We in high-resource areas don’t have all the answers, and entering global arenas flaunting our ‘solutions’ is just hubris,” she adds. “Working to solve pockets of deep inequalities in our state and our country allows for multi-directional learning.  Local is Global acknowledges that we are all fundamentally the same and in it together.”

Duke University and TROSA have had a long history of collaboration. TROSA moving services are a common sight on Duke’s campus, and Duke Health also contracts with providers who work on-site at TROSA to give primary, behavioral health, and psychological care for clients.

Having three DGHI interns allowed TROSA to begin answering questions that they’d long been speculating about: How does cigarette smoking impact the community as a rehabilitation center? How could the program integrate sustainable practices like recycling and composting on an institutional scale? How accessible are the classes that TROSA offers residents and how do they affect resident growth and recovery?

 Baber spent her time tackling the last question, first classifying the full curriculum of TROSA’s courses into three major categories: Therapeutic, vocational, and educational. Looking at past courses that residents had taken, she began the process of setting course standards for residents – what number of therapeutic courses are expected to be completed at nine months into the program compared to 15 months, for example.

This number-crunching project also provided an opportunity for the administration to reflect on course access. Baber was able to find some patterns in curriculum, like how most residents register for more classes as they advance through the program, and how female residents often register for more therapeutic courses than men.

“I’d love to qualitatively look at residents’ impressions of the classes,” Baber explains. “Some people really enjoy a certain category of courses, while others benefit more from working on a job and dealing with problems as they come up.” Baber envisions that question, along with identifying which classes have the highest graduation rate and asking why that is, as possible projects for future interns.

Rebecca Graves, TROSA’s Director of Clinical Operations, sees data and demographic review like this as a critical means of assessment and improvement. “As a nonprofit, we use a quarterly review to pay close attention to demographic changes. If 80% of applicants were female and only 20% of our population was women, we’d need to review — What’s keeping people out of the door? Are we inhibitive in some way?”

After working with often-incomplete data, Baber and fellow interns Ashley Wilson (C’20) and Gabrielle Zegers (C’19) were able to realize what information is missing, refine what TROSA should keep collecting, and find what they could from the data they did have.

“Check them off as huge successes,” Graves reiterates. “They’re making marked achievements, finding new data, extrapolating new information, and creating new policies here. They all took ownership as self-motivated researchers, and my dream is that they’d all stay.”

Beyond working on their assigned projects, the three students were eager to invest themselves in the TROSA community, attending a dance with new women in the program, volunteering at the TROSA thrift store on weekends, volunteering at the medical center, and helping with GED tutoring each Tuesday evening.

“Getting to learn from residents about their recovery and what they’re doing to help themselves has been the best part of this job,” Baber says. In global health, students often face large and looming statistics surrounding the opioid epidemic. “It’s easy to dehumanize that problem. It’s easy in global health to think ‘Oh, these numbers are so huge. I’ll never make a difference.’ But talking to individuals personalizes the matter, it makes you realize that positive change can happen.”


For more information about TROSA, visit: www.trosainc.org


By Vanessa Moss

An Undergraduate Student Grapples with Morality

Existential speculations are normal part of college, and parents shouldn’t worry too much if their child calls home freshman year to speculate on the writings of Immanuel Kant or Sigmund Freud with them. It’s all part of growing up.

But for Shenyang Huang (C’20), these existential questions aren’t just pastimes: They’re work.

As a neuroscience major and a participant in Duke’s Summer Neuroscience Program, Huang has spent eight weeks of his summer in the Imagination and Modal Cognition laboratory researching under Dr. Felipe De Brigard, a three-in-one professor of philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience. Huang has been working at the intersection of those fields with PhD student Matt Stanley to explore some hefty questions about morality and memory.

Shenyang Huang is a rising senior Neuroscience student at Duke. (Image provided by Huang)

The team is grappling with our past mistakes, and how they’ve impacted who we are today. Specifically, how do we remember moments when we behaved immorally? And how do those moments shape the way we think of ourselves?

These questions have been approached from various angles in different studies. One such study, published in 2016 by Maryam Kouchaki and Frencesca Gino, claims that “Memories of unethical actions become obfuscated over time.” Or rather, we forget the bad things we’ve done in the past. According to their study, it’s a self-preservation method for our current concepts of self-worth and moral uprightness.

“I was surprised when I read the Kouchaki and Gino study,” Huang explains. “They claim that people try to forget the bad things they’d done, but that doesn’t feel right. In my life, it’s not right.”

In their two-part study, Stanley and Huang surveyed nearly 300 online participants about these moments of moral failure. They reported memories ranging from slightly immoral events, like petty thievery and cheating on small assignments, to highly immoral incidences, like abusing animals or cheating on significant others. Through questionnaires, the team measured the severity of each incident, how vividly the person recollected the experience, how often the memory would bubble to consciousness on its own, how they emotionally responded to remembering, and how central each event was to the subject’s life.

Their preliminary results resonate more with Huang: Highly immoral actions were recalled more vividly than milder transgressions, and they were generally considered more central in subjects’ life narratives.

“Moral memories are central to one’s sense of self,” Huang says, “and the other paper didn’t discuss centrality in one’s life at all.”

Felipe DeBrigard is an assistant professor of philosophy and a member of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences. (Les Todd, Duke Photo)

Though contradictory to what Kouchaki and Gino found, the findings have a firm foundation in current psychology literature, De Brigard says. “There are a lot of studies backing the contrary [to Kouchaki and Gino], including research on criminal offenses. People who have committed crimes of passion are known to suffer from a kind of moral PTSD — they constantly relive the event.”

Huang’s study is only one branch of research in a comprehensive analysis of morality and memory De Brigard is exploring now, with the help from the six graduate and eight undergraduate students operating out of his lab.

“Working in a lab with philosophers, psychologists, and neuroscientists, you see different approaches to the same overarching problem,” Huang says. And as he begins to consider PhD programs in neuroscience, this interdisciplinary exposure is a huge asset.

“It’s helpful and inspiring — I can’t take every class, but I can sit and overhear conversations in the lab about philosophy or psychology and learn from it. It widens my perspective.”


by Vanessa Moss

Nature Shows a U-Turn Path to Better Solar Cells

The technical-sounding category of “light-driven charge-transfer reactions,” becomes more familiar to non-physicists when you just call it photosynthesis or solar electricity.

When a molecule (in a leaf or solar cell) is hit by an energetic photon of light, it first absorbs the little meteor’s energy, generating what chemists call an excited state. This excited state then almost immediately (like trillionths of a second) shuttles an electron away to a charge acceptor to lower its energy. That transference of charge is what drives plant life and photovoltaic current.

A 20 Megawatt solar farm ( Aerial Innovations via wikimedia commons)

The energy of the excited state plays an important role in determining solar energy conversion efficiency. That is, the more of that photon’s energy that can be retained in the charge-separated state, the better. For most solar-electric devices, the excited state rapidly loses energy, resulting in less efficient devices.

But what if there were a way to create even more energetic excited states from that incoming photon?

Using a very efficient photosynthesizing bacterium as their inspiration, a team of Duke chemists that included graduate students Nick Polizzi and Ting Jiang, and faculty members David Beratan and Michael Therien, synthesized a “supermolecule” to help address this question.

“Nick and Ting discovered a really cool trick about electron transfer that we might be able to adapt to improving solar cells,” said Michael Therien, the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Chemistry. “Biology figured this out eons ago,” he said.

“When molecules absorb light, they have more energy,” Therien said. “One of the things that these molecular excited states do is that they move charge. Generally speaking, most solar energy conversion structures that chemists design feature molecules that push electron density in the direction they want charge to move when a photon is absorbed. The solar-fueled microbe, Rhodobacter sphaeroides, however, does the opposite. What Nick and Ting demonstrated is that this could also be a winning strategy for solar cells.”

Ting Jiang
Nick Polizzi

The chemists devised a clever synthetic molecule that shows the advantages of an excited state that pushes electron density in the direction opposite to where charge flows. In effect, this allows more of the energy harvested from a photon to be used in a solar cell. 

“Nick and Ting’s work shows that there are huge advantages to pushing electron density in the exact opposite direction where you want charge to flow,” Therien said in his top-floor office of the French Family Science Center. “The biggest advantage of an excited state that pushes charge the wrong way is it stops a really critical pathway for excited state relaxation.”

“So, in many ways it’s a Rube Goldberg Like conception,” Therien said. “It is a design strategy that’s been maybe staring us in the face for several years, but no one’s connected the dots like Nick and Ting have here.”

In a July 2 commentary for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Bowling Green State University chemist and photoscientist Malcom D.E. Forbes calls this work “a great leap forward,” and says it “should be regarded as one of the most beautiful experiments in physical chemistry in the 21st century.”

Here’s a schematic from the paper.
(Image by Nick Polizzi)

CITATION: “Engineering Opposite Electronic Polarization of Singlet and Triplet States Increases the Yield of High-Energy Photoproducts,” Nicholas Polizzi, Ting Jiang, David Beratan, Michael Therien. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, June 10, 2019. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1901752116 Online: https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2019/07/01/1908872116

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