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How Faculty Can Improve Neurodiverse Student Experiences

We all have the teachers who changed our lives. They paid special attention to us, taught with grace and generosity, and just seemed to understand us on another level. 

For Navya Adhikarla, that professor opened her to a new understanding of herself. As an international graduate student, her professor helped her participate in class discussions, feel comfortable asking questions on class material, and, most importantly, navigate her neurodiversity and accommodations. 

These experiences and more were shared at the Neurodiversity Student Perspectives Panel hosted by Neurodiversity Student Connections on September 26. The panel was an opportunity for faculty and staff to learn more about accommodating and understanding neurodiverse students.

Duke Neurodiversity Connections defines neurodiversity as “[recognizing] the diversity of human minds and the inherent worth of all individuals. As a social justice movement, the neurodiversity movement aims to celebrate the strengths and advocate for the needs of those with autism, ADHD, and other neurological differences.” The organization works with students like Adhikarla to create a positive campus culture and academic environment. You can read more about Duke Neurodiversity Connections and their resources on their website

Panel participants from left to right: Jadyn Cleary, Alex Winn, Sam Brandsen, Ph.D., Navya Adhikarla

The three panelists came from a variety of experiences and backgrounds. Alex Winn is a recent 2023 graduate who is currently the technical director of the Duke Cyber team and does research with the Department of Mathematics. Jadyn Cleary is a senior at Duke who is in the Duke Disability Alliance and acts as the President of The Clubhouse. Navya Adhikarla is a graduate student in the Master of Engineering Management program. She serves as the Student Program Director at Duke GPSS. The panel was moderated by Sam Brandsen, Ph.D., who graduated from Duke and is currently a research scholar at the Center for Autism and Brain Development.

The panelists talked about the various barriers they’ve encountered at Duke: feeling ashamed to use their accommodations, a lack of psychological safety on work teams, and inaccessibility to resources. Cleary talked about the barriers within the accommodations themselves. She said that even when accommodations are given, it often feels like “[they’re pushing you into] how to make you act like a neurotypical student when you aren’t” instead of genuinely serving neurodiverse students.

However, a common thread was the power of a professor to change a student’s experience. All three panelists spoke about how individual professors were the ones to connect them to resources such as the Duke Student Disability Access Office (SDAO), the Duke Disability Alliance, the Clubhouse, Duke Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS), DukeReach, and Duke Neurodiversity Connections. Without these professors, the panelists said they wouldn’t have been able to find these resources themselves. Instead, it was simply luck that they had run into professors who could inform them of the support that Duke offers. 

Because of this shared experience, the panelists wished for resources to be explicitly accessible by publicizing them during orientation week and other visible places. They also suggested creating resources like self-advocacy groups, catered career coaches, and specialized mental health services. 

Another common piece of advice was for professors to “pre-accommodate” all students. This could look like allowing mental health days with no questions asked, giving multiple forms to complete an assignment (essay, voice recording, infographic, etc.), using various modes of communication, offering explicit instructions for assignments, and giving adequate time for all students to finish the exam. By doing so, professors eliminate singling out students with accommodations, preventing the fear of embarrassment from peers that neurodiverse students often face. 

The panelists offered numerous specific examples of how Duke administration and faculty can create a more inclusive environment. At the end of the session, all three panelists urged professors to educate themselves on how to make their classrooms inclusive. But the overwhelming sentiment was asking for professors to care. Winn, in particular, emphasized the importance of the power of example when it comes to professors, graduate students, or TAs sharing their own experiences with neurodiversity: “Seeing others be comfortable in that way has always helped me be comfortable in that way.”

Adhikarla said about the professor who changed her perspective: “She really cared, that’s all she did. She really cared.”

By Emily Zou, Class of 2027

New Blogger Gabrielle Douglas: Reviving a Love for Learning

As a child, the ability to become anything is the most fundamental component of life. The prospect of adversity, or hardship seems almost unfathomable while carefully tending to your dreams.

Growing up, if you asked me what I aspired to do as an adult I likely would’ve rattled off an incomprehensible plan detailing jobs as big as exploring uncharted waters in faraway lands to jobs as simple as being able to make pancakes by myself as I had seen my older cousins do before me.

However, when asked the same question nowadays I find myself struggling to bring in the childlike excitement I held growing up. In fact, most days I find the most excitement when successfully completing the tongue twister I perform attempting to explain that I simply hope to study law.

After speaking with my peers, I have come to recognize that this is not a unique experience. In fact, viewing education as a process as opposed to an enriching journey seems to be the biggest shared experience among students everywhere. This recognition has led me here to Duke’s research blog.

My name is Gabrielle Douglas, I am a first-year student at Duke, and I hope to use my role as a research blogger to revive a love for learning!

I was born in Brooklyn, New York in 2005, but I was primarily raised in Houston, Texas (an experience that can only be summed up by one word: Hot). I spent a great portion of my childhood surrounded by stories of people from all walks of life because moving served as a constant in my life.

Through this experience, I was able to recognize from a young age that learning was truly a passion for me. J.M Barrie describes childhood as a place in which “dreams are born and time is never planned,” and for me nothing was truer. Throughout my youth, I came to realize that my love for learning people’s stories translated into the even larger realm of humanities. I spent hours learning how different parts of the world operate simply because I could. I filled my days with writing on topics I held dear to me. And most importantly I basked in the excitement that came with knowing that I understood another factor of life.

As I aged however, my lessons began to grow in uniformity in an effort to emulate a set curriculum. That was one of the driving factors in my dwindling love for learning. The learning process seemed to lose the spark of creativity that allowed for joy to surge within the process.

For this reason, embarking on this journey is so important to me. I hope to utilize this position to go beyond my comfort zone and begin exploring uncharted areas as my younger self once aspired to do.

I hope to provide you as readers with articles deeply intertwined with the joys associated with new discoveries. Most importantly, I hope to return to the space in which “dreams are born, and time is never planned.”

Post by Gabrielle Douglas, Class of 2027

Bolivia’s Lithium is Like White Gold in the Salar de Uyuni

As the world undergoes the great energy transition — from fossil fuels to alternative energy and batteries — rare earth metals are becoming more precious.

Open The Economist, Forbes, or Fortune, and you’ll see an article nearly every day on Lithium, Nickel, or Copper. For investors seeking to profit off of the transition, lithium seems like a sure bet. Dubbed “white gold” for electric vehicles, the lightweight metal plays a key role in the cathodes of all types of lithium-ion batteries that power electric vehicles (EVs). Although EVs produce fewer greenhouse gasses than gas- or diesel-powered vehicles, their batteries require more minerals, particularly lithium. 

On Sept. 26, Duke’s campus welcomed the first in a series of discussions on climate and energy diplomacy focused on the challenges and opportunities of mining and development in South America’s Lithium Triangle. In a room crowded with curious undergraduate and graduate students alike, some lucky enough to have snagged a seat while others stood at the perimeters, three experts discussed the possible future of Bolivia as a major player in the global lithium market. 

Professor Avner Vengosh of the Nicholas School

Duke Distinguished Professor Avner Vengosh, Nicholas Chair of Environmental Quality in the Nicholas School of the Environment, began by highlighting the staggering EV growth in 2020-2022: Sales of electric cars have more than tripled in three years, from around 4% of new car sales in 2020 to 14% in 2022. That number is expected to rise to 29.50% in 2028. Speaking of the critical element to EV production, lithium, Vengosh said frankly, “we don’t have enough.” 

Lithium is mined from two major sources, Vengosh explained. The first is from hard-rock pegmatite, where lithium is extracted through a series of chemical processes. Most of these deposits are found in Australia, the world’s biggest source. The second is from lithium-rich brines, typically found in Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile, also known as the “Lithium Triangle.” These brine deposits are typically found in underground reservoirs beneath salt flats or saltwater lakes. The Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia is the world’s largest salt lake, and the largest lithium source in the world. It stretches more than 4,050 square miles and attracts tourists with its reflective, mirror-like surface. 

Mountains surrounding the Uyuni salt flat during sunrise By Diego Delso, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47617647
Mountains surrounding the Uyuni salt flat during sunrise, (Diego Delso)

A group of Duke students led by a PhD candidate pursuing research on Bolivian lithium development recently traveled to Bolivia to understand different aspects of lithium mining. They asked questions including: 

  • How renewable is the lithium brine? 
  • Are there other critical raw minerals in the lithium-rich brines? 
  • What are the potential environmental effects of lithium extraction?
  • What is the water footprint of the lithium extraction process?
  • Is water becoming a limiting factor for lithium production?

The Duke team conducted a study with the natural brine in the Salar, taking samples of deep brines, evaporation ponds, salts from evaporation ponds, wastewaters, and the lithium carbonate. Vengosh said that “we can see some inconsistency in the chemistry of the water that is flowing into the chemistry of the brine.”

This indicates that there is a more complex geological process in the formation of the brine than the simple flow of water into the lake. The team also confirmed the high purity of the lithium carbonate product and that there are no impurities in the material. Additionally, the Duke team found that the wastewater chemistry produced after lithium carbonate production is not different from that of the original brines. Thus, there are no limitations for recycling the water back to the Salar system.

After Vengosh shared the findings of the Duke research team, Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Andean Information Network (AIN) in Cochabamba, Bolivia and Dr. Scott MacDonald, chief economist at Smith’s Research & Gradings and a Caribbean Policy Consortium Fellow, discussed Bolivia’s lithium policy. With the largest untapped lithium deposits in the world, Bolivia has constructed a pilot plan for their lithium production, but Ledebur highlighted that the biggest hurdle is scaling. Additionally, with a unique prior-consultation system in place between the central government and 36 ethnic and indigenous groups in Bolivia, natural resources are a key topic of concern and grassroots action. Ledebur said, “I don’t see that issue changing any time soon.”

Another hurdle is that Bolivian law requires that the extraction process is controlled by the state (the state must own 51%). Foreign investors have been hesitant to work with the central government, which nationalized lithium in 2008 despite, critics said, lacking much of the necessary technology and expertise. 

Maxwell Radwin, a writer for Mongabay, writes, “Evo Morales, the former socialist president who served from 2006 to 2019, nationalized the industry, promising that foreign interests wouldn’t plunder Bolivia’s natural resources as they had in the past. Instead, he said, lithium would propel the country to the status of a world power. Morales didn’t just want to export lithium, though; he wanted to produce batteries and cars for export. This complicated deals with potential investors from France, Japan, Russia and South Korea, none of which came to fruition because, among other things, they were required to take on YLB (the state-owned lithium company) as an equal partner.”

Ledebur said, “At this point in time, the Bolivian government has signed three contracts… and I think things will fall into place.” 

Naysayers say that the Bolivian government hasn’t done anything to take advantage of the massive market sitting beneath their Salars and that grassroot consultations don’t work. Ledebur said, “I don’t think that it’s perfect, but it’s happening.”

Duke students will return to Bolivia with professor Vengosh next year to conduct more research on the lithium extraction process. Then, they’ll be able to see the effects of this ‘happening’ first-hand. 

By Isa Helton, Class of 2026

How to Vaccinate Your Kids Against Racist Misinformation

Raise your hand if you learned about Mendel and his peas in high school biology.

It is a common misconception that this model of simple genetic traits applies for all traits. As a result, many students adhere to the idea of genetic essentialism, which concludes that even complex traits like skin color and intelligence are determined solely by someone’s genetics.

Dr. Brian Donovan

This is a notion that has been widely disproven in the scientific community for the past 20 years. However, there is a clear, historical roadblock in the community’s ability to translate this to the public — in a study to be published next month in Science, this group of scientists thinks they found a way.

Brian Donovan is a senior research scientist at BSCS Science Learning, and the principal investigator for a $1.29 million NSF project studying the effects of changing genetics education in American high schools.

On Wednesday evening, he gave a special talk at Duke to a standing-room-only crowd filled with the Biology and Evolutionary Anthropology departments, as well as about 50 assorted undergrads who were scribbling notes like they were going to be tested (myself included).

This talk is especially salient for the crowd in attendance: Duke has one of the most innovative introductory Biology courses in the nation (as anyone who has taken BIO202 with Dr. Willis will tell you), aimed specifically at combatting prejudice from misconceptions in genetic education.

Biological Sciences, Room 141, packed to the brim.

Donovan’s grandparents were Holocaust survivors from Poland who experienced ethnic persecution at its highest, and he was inspired to combat these prejudices. Many people don’t realize that Nazism borrowed many of their tenets from Jim Crow laws, he discussed in the presentation. Not to mention the basic genetic model used in classrooms across the country — the Punnett Square — was developed in accordance with eugenics.

Donovan’s pitch was simple: a vaccine against racism.

According to numbers calculated in the study based on teenagers’ social media use and content, 13% of high school students in the U.S. could be exposed to racist manifestation during their high school career. And 98% of these kids take high school biology. Combatting racism with proper, well-rounded education on common misconceptions about genetics and race could be part of the solution.

But this doesn’t mean we need to nix Mendel altogether, Donovan says — we just need to restructure the narrative.

Dr. Brian Donovan giving a lecture on Wednesday in the Biological Sciences building.

The new-and-improved curriculum (called “human(e) genetics,” which is very clever, if you ask me) focused on facets of genetics that are commonly considered fact by the scientific community.

  • 0.1% of the human genome is variable between people.
  • There is statistically more genetic variation within human populations than between them.
  • Complex traits, like skin color and height, have very weak association with genetics alone.
  • The relationship between environment and genetics is hard to quantify exactly. Studies in humans would be very unethical.

Height is a complex trait, just like skin color, says Donovan. These traits exist on a continuum. But you don’t make assumptions about people’s background based on their relative heights, yet the continuum of height variety is just as discrete as the continuum of skin color variety.

So, if all of this is such common knowledge, why is it not taught in classrooms already? Take this quote from a 1941 textbook called Biological and Human Affairs:

“There are no studies on how that impacted kids.” Donovan declared. “But I don’t think we need one after reading that. I think we can tell.”

After crunching a lot of numbers, Donovan’s team calculated that, considering the success rate of their humane genetics curriculum in experimental groups (the number of students who changed from agreeing with genetic essentialism to disagreeing with it), 52% of the original 13% exposed to racist ideals online would be protected from following them after this new education model.

Of course, this model can be expanded to address more issues than just racial prejudices. Donovan’s team has also conducted studies on the effects of humane genetics education on gender perception.

These studies have even more relevance today in the age of controversy in history and biology education in Florida and the CRT controversy across the nation. In the question-and-answer session, students critiqued the feasibility of instituting humane genetics education in these states as a result.

The best way to educate adults, Donovan answered, is to educate the masses. “I have to ask you all,” he gestured to the room, “to publish. We need to publish papers that confirm we have a scientific consensus.”

Post by Olivia Ares, Class of 2025

New Blogger Noor Nazir: Mental Health With a Pakistani Twist

My name is Door but replace the ‘D’ with an ‘N’.

Yes, I’m Noor and yes again, that is exactly how I introduced my freshman self to everyone in my year. Before you wonder, it’s an Arabic name and no I’m not from the Middle East! I’m a die-hard Pakistani with an overwhelming – and embarrassing – amount of love for Taylor Swift and Local Pakistani Music (stream Talha Anjum, you’ll be surprised!).

My personality mainly encompasses my thirteen-month-old niece, Alaya. I like to think she’s my mini doppelganger (she is not) and the last eight months of my life have been encapsulated by her cute presence, smelly diapers and charming smile. We spend most of our time listening to Taylor Swift, and – sometimes – the nursery rhyme, One Little Finger.  Other times, we play the guitar and sing for fun (your average Duke freshman).

Although, contrary to the ‘average Duke freshman’ who is sure about the trajectory of their next twenty years, I am not – at all. I find my mind wandering to several distinct fields of interest; whenever a classmate asks me “but where is your mind really at?”, my deliberate and circumspect answer is always “four to be exact: economics, political science, psychology and public policy”’. This answer is invariably met by an overt facial expression screaming their internal thought “oh so she’s really not sure”. But that side eye is beside the point since that uncertainty is precisely what led me to the Duke Research Blog.

In high school, whether it was the debate club or my interest in mental health, I always found a research angle to it. For debate, I’d research different case studies in order to formulate argumentation and rebuttals; for mental health, I’d utilize such case studies and would recreate what worked. My proudest creation, the Safe Space Society (a society in my alma matter, International School Lahore), was nothing short of a camaraderie and a community fostered with love and empathy. In my eyes, such a creation was only made possible because of extensive and life-long research by dedicated professionals.

Not only is research the perfect way to navigate my interests in a fulfilling manner, but it also acts as the tunnel vision to a transfigured world. Since my navigation wishes to find its destination in a declared major, I’m incredibly excited to write and learn about research revolving science, mental health, and anything Duke brings my way.

I am, however, most excited to translate and decode complex and seemingly mundane ideas in a nuanced and amusing way. The blog seems to be on a mission to make potential engineers excited about the next big thing in mental health research; this is a mission I’m excited and honored to take part in.  To sum it up, my goal at Duke Research Blog is to attend the research events you don’t want to and then write about them to make you regret not attending those events!

– A serious warning: you will see me bringing a Pakistani twist to every article I write! It’s just what us Pakistanis do (for a sample look at the sentence above). –

Noor Nazir, Class of 2027
Noor Nazir, Class of 2027

New Blogger Isa Helton: Asking AND Listening

When I studied abroad in Paris, France, this summer, I became very familiar with the American tendencies that French people collectively despise. As I sat in a windowless back room of the school I would be studying at in the sixth arrondissement of Paris, the program director carefully warned us of the biggest faux-pas that would make our host families regret welcoming a foreign student into their home and the habitudes that would provoke irritated second glances on the street.

Eiffel Tower and the Seine at dusk
La Seine at dusk with Tour Eiffel.

One: American people are loud. Don’t be loud. We are loud when we talk on the phone, loud putting on our shoes, loud stomping around the Haussmanian apartment built in the 1800s with creaky parquet flooring.

Two: Americans smile too much. Don’t smile at people on the street. No need for a big, toothy grin at every passerby and at every unsuspecting dog-walker savoring the few tourist-free morning hours.

Three: Why do Americans love to ask questions without any intention of sticking around to hear the response? When French people ask you how you’re doing – Comment ça va?– how you slept – Vous-avez bien dormi? – how the meal was – Ça vous a plu? – they stand there and wait for an answer after asking the question. So when Americans exchange a jolly “How are you today!” in passing, it drives French people crazy. Why ask a question if you don’t even want an answer?

This welcome post feels a little bit like that American “How are you today!” Not to say that you, reader, are not a patient, intrigued Frenchman or woman, who is genuinely interested in a response –  I am well-assured that the readers of Duke’s Research Blog are just the opposite. That is to say that the question of “who are you?” is quite complicated to answer in a single, coherent blog post. I will proudly admit that I am still in the process of figuring out who I am. And isn’t that what I’m supposed to be doing in college, anyway?

I can satisfyingly answer a few questions about me, though, starting with where I am from. I’m lucky enough to call Trabuco Canyon, California my home– a medium-sized city about fifteen minutes from the beach, and smack-dab in the middle of San Diego and Los Angeles. Demographically, it’s fairly uninteresting; 68% White, 19% Hispanic, and 8% Asian. I’ve never moved, so I suppose this would imply that most of my life has been fairly unexposed to cultural diversity. However, I think one of the things that has shaped me the most has been experiencing different cultures in my travels growing up.

My dad is a classically-trained archaeologist turned environmental consultant, and I grew up observing his constant anthropological analysis of people and situations in the countries we traveled to. I learned from him the richness of a compassionate, empathetic, multi-faceted life that comes from traveling, talking to people, and being curious. I am impassioned by discovering new cultures and uncovering new schools of thought through breaking down linguistic barriers, which is one of the reasons I am planning on majoring in French Studies.

Perhaps from my Korean mother I learned perseverance, mental strength, and toughness. I also gained practicality, which explains my second major, Computer Science. Do I go crazy over coding a program that creates a simulation of the universe (my latest assignment in one of my CS classes)? Not particularly. But, you have to admit, the degree is a pretty good security blanket.

Why blog? Writing is my therapy and has always been one of my passions. Paired with an unquenchable curiosity and a thirst to converse with people different from me, writing for the Duke Research Blog gives me what my boss Karl Bates – Executive Director, Research Communications – calls “a license to hunt.”

Exclusive, top-researcher-only, super-secret conference on campus about embryonics? I’ll be making a bee-line to the speakers with my notepad in hand, thank you. Completely-sold-out talk by the hottest genome researcher on the academic grapevine? You can catch me in the front row. In short, blogging on Duke Research combines multiple passions of mine and gives me the chance to flex my writing muscles.

Thus, I am also cognizant of the privilege and the responsibility that this license to hunt endows me with. It must be said that elite universities are famously – and in reality – extremely gated-off from the rest of society. While access to Duke’s physical space may still be exclusive, the knowledge within is for anyone’s taking.

In this blog, I hope to dismantle the barrier between you and what can sometimes seem like intimidating, high-level research that is being undertaken on Duke’s campus. I hope to make my blogs a mini bi-monthly revelation that can enrich your intellect and widen your perspective. And don’t worry – when it comes to posing questions to researchers, I plan to stick around to hear the response.

Read my summer blogs from my study abroad in Paris HERE!

Post by Isabella Helton, Class of 2026

New Blogger Emily Zou: Bound By a Promise

My eyes peered at my mom’s hand, rarely blinking. My ever-bouncing leg had stilled. My mind caught every subtle movement, attempting to decipher the pattern. I watched, entranced, as my mom’s fingers nimbly wove together the pieces of red thread into the bracelet I would wear every day for the rest of my life.

My senior photo, red string bracelet on my left wrist.

Chinese red string bracelets are a symbol of luck, prosperity, health, protection, and courage. In ancient China, the emperor would give his first, therefore most important, wife a red string bracelet. Similarly, red string bracelets are gifted to newlywed couples to commemorate their true love and wish them well in a new stage of their lives. Close relatives also gift a red string bracelet to women and girls on their 本命年 (Year of Birth), in order to protect them from the negative energy they will face that year.

A bracelet serves as a physical representation of a promise. Most obviously, a friendship bracelet shows a promise to love and trust your matching bracelet wearer. But any string on your wrist represents a promise. A W.W.J.D. band serves as a promise of faith and to live like Christ. A 4Ocean beaded bracelet is a promise to care for the Earth’s aquatic life. Even an Apple Watch is a promise to live healthily.

I was given my red string bracelet by my mom in 2016 (the Year of the Monkey). When I wear it, I remember my family’s unconditional love for me and the history of my Chinese heritage. The bracelet serves as a mutual agreement between my family and me: to protect and look after one another.

My name is Emily Zou and I’m a freshman from a suburb outside of Portland, Oregon. The bracelet my mom made 6 years ago sat on my wrist the entire flight from PDX to RDU. Similarly, my parents’ promise is what has landed me here. Throughout the past 18 years of my life, my parents have taken care of me: they cooked me dinner at 9 pm after school board meetings, drove me 4 hours to debate tournaments at 4 a.m., cut endless bowls of fruit for late night study sessions, and of course, are paying my college tuition.

My mom and I at Blue Devils Day, when I committed to Duke. Notice the left wrist 😉

A promise is a unique moral obligation. The obligation isn’t inherent; there’s no biological or evolutionary reason to keep a promise. It’s also not for fear of consequence; simply breaking a promise does not inflict physical or emotional damage on you, but rather the consequence is the act itself. And yet, promises are expected to be kept universally, regardless of scope, culture, or time period. This is because just like a red string bracelet, a promise is made with intentionality. Just like each knot must be precisely made, so must each part of a promise.

Now, it’s my turn to uphold my end of the promise. I’m extremely lucky to attend a university like Duke, and I plan to use every opportunity possible to someday give my parents even half of what they’ve given me throughout my childhood. And not just to my parents, but to the rest of the world, as well. I believe that each one of us wears a metaphorical bracelet symbolizing our promises to society. To protect one another and leave this world better than how we found it.

My bracelet sits perfectly positioned against the pulsing heartbeat in my wrist’s veins, pumping its promise into my veins to accompany the red blood cells to every part of my body. It remains visible as I ride the C1 to my Economics lecture, code an APT, or throw a ceramic piece on the wheel. As long as a bracelet is worn, its wearer swears to keep their promise. However, much like a bracelet worn every day, it’s often easy to forget the various commitments in daily life. Friendship bracelets fray, W.W.J.D. bands become stained, and Apple Watches become simply a way to check text messages.

Our society’s foundation is based on promises: promises to value community, act with integrity, abide by the law, show up to work or school, put our shopping carts away, etc. Some of the most important promises are made by leaders and institutions. If we anthropomorphize the American government, we can imagine the slew of red string bracelets it hands out to its citizens, each representing a different promise. These promises are explicitly laid out in the preamble to the Constitution: to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” More specifically, each amendment lays out a specific promise from the government to the people about certain rights and privileges. However, it seems that in its daily wear and tear, the US Government has forgotten about its promise to its people as we experience daily violations of these promises.

My mom and I at graduation; again, you can see my red string bracelet on my left wrist.

This is what I want to discuss at Duke, and more specifically, on the Duke Research Blog. Promises transcend so many different academic and research fields: the promises parents make to their children, promises schools make to their students, promises countries make to their citizens.

When we tie the knot around our wrist for the very first time, the bracelet’s strings taut and secure, it’s simple to uphold its promise for the days following. Hyper aware of its presence, each time we move our arm, we recognize it: I made an effort to improve my Mandarin during the first days of the Year of the Monkey; the recently converted attend church every Sunday; Apple Watch users take their 10,000 steps. However, as our minds become used to the bracelet, or overwhelmed by the fresh new ones, its promises become obsolete. This phenomenon can only be reversed when we ground ourselves in the intentions of our bracelets: to protect one another, the marginalized, and our planet.

At Duke, I’m weaving my bracelets from scratch, which includes the Duke Research Blog. But a lot of my future bracelets are still up in the air. I’m still collecting my strings, and I’m learning that that is okay. And moving forward, not all of my posts will wax so philosophical, actually, probably none of them will. I just figured if I get one opportunity to make a first impression, I might as well share my life philosophy.

Post by Emily Zou, Class of 2027

Highlights from Duke in Australia

Duke in Australia 2023 in front of 1.9-billion-year-old stone in the Northern Territory. Photo by one of our tour guides.

Australia. For years it was more of a nebulous concept to me than a concrete place. It was a colorful patch on maps, home to animals I’d read about but never seen. Now it’s a place where I’ve run my hands over 1.9-billion-year-old stone, watched a platypus emerge from a river at dawn, gotten bitten on the tongue by an ant with a tasty green butt (long story), and spent a thousand other moments with wonderful people in places I hope to never forget.

That’s all thanks to Duke in Australia, a month-long biogeography course led by Alex Glass, Ph.D., and Nancy Lauer, Ph.D., that delves into Australian flora, fauna, geology, history, and culture. When people ask about my experience there this summer, I have a hard time answering. “Wonderful” doesn’t begin to cover it. The experience still doesn’t feel entirely real to me. Even when I was in Australia, watching a platypus or a parrot or standing on a beach with a sunrise on one side and a rainbow on the other, I sometimes couldn’t entirely believe where I was.

Sunrise at Myall Beach on Cape Tribulation, where the Daintree Rainforest meets the Great Barrier Reef.

Disclaimer: When I say “Highlights from Duke in Australia,” I’m referring to my own personal highlights—some of which, let me assure you, were not universally popular with my classmates. Like the enormous crickets we saw on our rainforest night hike, or the time I found the shed skin of a huntsman spider and went around showing it to everyone nearby, or the delightfully squelchy mud coating the trail on one of our last hikes. For more detailed accounts of our day-to-day activities, check out the student blogs on the Duke in Australia 2023 website.

From the moment we landed in Sydney, I was keeping my eyes peeled for bird sightings. (I am slightly into birds. Just slightly.) Unless you count an ambiguous white flash seen through a bus window, my first bird sighting in Australia was a small group of rainbow lorikeets flying over the city. With a blue head and stomach, a green back, an orange-red breast, and flashes of yellow under the wings, the species is very well named.

Lorikeets weren’t the only birds we saw in Sydney. Common mynas, which always looked vaguely sinister to me, watched us while we ate dinner the first night. Pigeons strutted along the sidewalks—the only bird species I saw in Australia that I’d also seen in the US, except a possible peregrine falcon that I caught only a brief glimpse of during a hike. There were also Australian ibises all over the city, colloquially known as bin chickens for their dumpster-diving habits. Personally, I thought the ibises were lovely, regal birds.

There are other birds, however, that can no longer call Sydney home. One of my favorite sites in Sydney was the Forgotten Songs art installation at Angel Place. It is a short alley engraved with the names of fifty bird species that can no longer survive in the city. Empty bird cages hang suspended above the street. Our tour guide told us that the exhibit normally plays recordings of the birds, but that part was under renovation, so it was playing music instead. A few days later, I returned to the exhibit on my own so I’d have time to read every bird name. Those empty cages still haunt me.

An eleven-armed seastar in one of the tide pools at Bondi Beach. (Eleven-armed seastars do not always have eleven arms.) Below it, you can see Neptune’s necklace, a type of algae resembling strings of beads.

On our first full day in Sydney, we went to Bondi Beach to explore the tidepools. There were crabs and octopi, seastars and anemones, necklace-like algae and tiny blue snails called little blue periwinkles. That afternoon, we sat on the beach and learned about microplastics from Lauer. (Not-so-fun fact: we eat a credit card’s worth of microplastics every week on average.) Some of us lingered on the beach afterward and went swimming. The water was frigid, but it was there, with cold water and sand swirling around me in a part of the ocean I’d never seen, much less swum in, that the reality of being on a new continent completely hit me.

Sunshine wattle flowers on our hike at North Head, viewed through a hand lens.

Our first group hike was overwhelming, almost dizzying. Outside of urban Sydney, it was easier for me to recognize just how different Australia was from the US, and it was impossible to absorb everything at once. In every direction were unfamiliar plants and landscapes. Norfolk pine, coastal rosemary, mountain devil, sunshine wattle, Darwinia, flannel flower, gray spider flower…. I was especially entranced by casuarina, which looks shockingly like a pine tree but is actually a flowering plant that has evolved conifer-like traits to preserve water. We were in a heath, characterized by low-growing plants adapted to dry, nutrient-poor conditions. Nothing about it looked like the woods and fields and mountains back home.

Our focus that day was studying plants, but I was having a hard time focusing on any one thing for more than about a second. At one point, we were supposed to be observing a beautiful plant to my right, but half the group had already moved on to another species farther up the trail, and meanwhile, a bird I had certainly never seen in my life was perched remarkably cooperatively on a bush off to the left. There are too many things happening, I remember thinking. I was juggling my field notebook, hand lens, phone camera, and binoculars, and I didn’t even know where to look. I chose to stare at the bird, following the logic that it could fly away at any moment, whereas the plants would stay exactly where they were. That brilliant plan turned out to be faulty. The plants might stay still, but we wouldn’t—so much to see, so little time.

A galah, a species of cockatoo, in Katoomba.

Our next stop was Katoomba, a small mountain town in New South Wales.  It was a quiet, peaceful place, vastly different from Sydney. When I think of Katoomba, I think of the sulfur-crested cockatoo perched on a bakery sign just feet away from me and the flock of strikingly pink cockatoos called galahs in a local park. I think of the superb lyrebird that crossed our path directly in front of us and the rare Wollemi pine growing beside a road.

We took a hike at Wentworth Falls, where Darwin himself once walked. It’s part of the Great Dividing Range, but we learned that the mountains are actually “incised terrain,” formed when valleys were cut into a plateau, leaving “mountains” behind. We also drove to the Jenolan Caves and explored cavernous underground spaces bursting with crystal formations like stalactites, flowstone, and hollow soda straws. These lovely, fragile cave structures, or speleothems, are formed by the gradual deposition of dissolved minerals as water drips through a cave. Before we left, we saw an underground river with water so clear that I didn’t immediately realize I was looking at water at all.

Part of the Jenolan Caves. Gradual geologic processes form decorative structures, or speleothems, in caves.

Another day in Katoomba, our group took a gorgeous hike through a eucalypt forest. Literally everywhere I looked in that forest, there was something extraordinary. Ancient tree ferns. Ruby-red sap seeping out of a tree trunk. The Three Sisters rock formation framed by the aptly named Blue Mountains. Towering eucalypt and turpentine trees. At the end of the hike, we rode the Scenic Railway, the steepest in the world. It was terrifying—awesome, but terrifying.

A view from one of our hikes in the Blue Mountains.

Next, we flew to the Northern Territory, where we checked into our hostel in Darwin. We were now in crocodile country, home to the world’s largest reptile: the saltwater or estuarine crocodile. We were instructed to avoid going in any body of water, saltwater or otherwise, unless it was specifically designated as safe for swimming. (The name “saltwater crocodile” is misleading—the crocodiles can inhabit fresh water as well, and they are extremely aggressive and dangerous.) It was very important to be crocwise.

A rainbow bee-eater at the George Brown Darwin Botanic Gardens in Darwin, a city in the Northern Territory.

The first few days in Darwin, we didn’t see any crocodiles, but there were birds seemingly everywhere. Varied triller, which I originally misidentified as the buff-sided robin until a local eBird reviewer emailed me and asked me to correct my eBird report. Rainbow bee-eater, remarkably common for a bird that looks too beautiful to be real. Peaceful dove. Blue-faced honeyeater. Australasian figbird.

We took a hike that went through a beautiful mangrove, where we learned that the term mangrove isn’t specific to any particular type of plant; it’s used to refer to many very different species that have all adapted to the same challenges, including salinity, changing tides, and nutrient-poor soil. There were crabs and snails and birds—so many birds, some of which I still haven’t identified, like the group of black, crested birds with bright red inside their beaks.

Green weaver ants. Note their distinctive green abdomens, which contain ascorbic acid and have an interesting taste.

When we emerged from the mangrove, we came across a nest of green weaver ants. Their bright green abdomens are rich in ascorbic acid, and the ants have traditionally been used for purposes ranging from treating colds to making a sort of “lemonade” to stimulating milk production. Many of us were eager to taste the ants, though Glass warned us that they “bite vigorously.” Some of my classmates carefully held an ant with their fingers while giving the abdomen a quick lick. I, on the other hand, decided to let an ant crawl onto my notebook while I licked it so it couldn’t bite my fingers. Clever, right? Well, it worked—the ant didn’t bite my fingers. It bit my tongue instead. “Vigorously.” Its mouthparts remained latched on even as I was spitting out ant parts onto the ground. I can’t blame it—I’d be upset, too, if a giant tried to lick me.

Before long, it was time for the jumping crocodile tour. We boarded a tour boat and floated down a seemingly peaceful river while our guide dangled hunks of meat from big fishing rods to bait the crocodiles to leap several feet out of the water and snap their jaws around the food. Their bite force, incidentally, is the highest of any living animal, up to 3700 pounds per square inch. Jumping is natural for the crocodiles—they hunt that way to snag animals like birds and wallabies that venture too close to the water. Being that close to enormous predators roused some deep, primeval fear in me. To a crocodile, I would make excellent prey. The jumping crocodile tour, needless to say, was very memorable. Our class later had a long and far-ranging discussion on the many types of ecotourism experiences we’d participated in and their costs, benefits, and ethical implications.

One of the crocodiles on the jumping crocodile tour.

The next day, we left for a three-day camping trip in Kakadu and Litchfield National Parks. It was the dry season, and the weather was hot, dry, and sunny. We went hiking and snorkeling (in croc-free swimming holes), saw the breathtaking magnetic and cathedral termite mounds, and learned about geology and Aboriginal cultures. Some of the places we visited were sacred sites of the people who have inhabited the region for more than 65,000 years. One of the rock art paintings we were able to see was of a Tasmanian tiger, an animal that’s been completely extinct for close to a century and extinct in the Kakadu region for thousands of years. But right there on the wall was the preserved memory of a time when Tasmanian tigers still roamed the area.

Me with a stick insect at our campground in Kakadu National Park in Australia’s Northern Territory. Photo by Letar Jia, another student in the Duke in Australia program this summer.

One of the coolest places we stopped was a rock cut-out along a highway. The stone was striped with zigzagging layers created when it was buried underground at a pressure high enough to fold solid rock. It was formed 1.9 billion years ago, when the earth was “a geologist’s dream,” according to Glass–relatively barren, with no soil, plants, or animals, just microscopic organisms and lots and lots of rock. I was touching 1.9 billion years of history.

We spent the third night at a different campsite. Some of us spotted what seemed to be a large spider in the bathroom, but one of the tour guides informed me that it was actually just the shed skin of a huntsman spider, not the spider itself. I walked around camp introducing people to my “little friend,” but oddly enough, they didn’t seem as delighted as I was.

That night, while we were theoretically sleeping, periodic cacophonies of eerie, wailing screams reverberated through the air. My half-asleep brain was convinced they were from wallabies, but the sound actually came from a bird called the bush stone-curlew or bush thick-knee. The next morning, there was a gecko in the bathroom, and I wasn’t sure my day could possibly get any better. But later that day, we visited a fragment of an ancient rainforest, and there were giant fruit bats practically dripping from the canopy and giant golden orb weaver spider webs strung between trees, and I think that was even better than the bathroom gecko.

A female giant golden orb weaver, with my hand for scale. The tiny, orange spider on her back is the male.

After departing Darwin, we headed to Cape Tribulation, where the Great Barrier Reef meets the Daintree Rainforest—believed to be the oldest rainforest on the planet. Some rainforests, Glass explained, exist because they’re near the equator. But the rainforests in Australia are remnants of ancient rainforests that developed when the continents were arranged very differently and Australia was considerably farther south. Australia’s climate has become more arid over time, but pockets of its ancient rainforests remain intact.

While we were on Cape Tribulation, we had the chance to snorkel on the Great Barrier Reef. It was overcast and very windy that day, and the small boat that took us out to the reef turned into a rollercoaster as it slid up and down waves. But windy or not, the reef was gorgeous. We saw sea turtles, a sea cucumber, a small shark, and fishes and corals in endless colors.

We also had the incredible opportunity to hike through the rainforest at night. Of all the amazing things we did, that may have been my favorite. There were huge crickets and spiders, thorny vines called wait-a-whiles (because you’ll be waiting a while if you get stuck on one), and flowering plants that looked like mushrooms. And partway along the boardwalk, Glass spotted a creature so unusual and elusive that he had never seen one before. This, he told us, was probably the rarest animal we’d seen on the whole trip. A velvet worm. It looked a bit like a caterpillar or a centipede at first glance, but velvet worms have an entire phylum all their own. (Caterpillars and centipedes share the Arthropoda phylum, along with all insects, spiders, crustaceans, and various others. Velvet worms are in the Onychophora phylum.) The ancestors of velvet worms are thought to represent a link between arthropods and segmented worms. They are ancient, unique, and rarely seen.

The velvet worm.

Just moments later, Glass announced another incredible find: a peppermint stick. I raced ahead to see it. Earlier that day, I’d seen signs about peppermint stick insects, which excrete a peppermint-scented liquid as a defense mechanism, and I’d been keeping my eyes peeled ever since. The creature had developed a sort of mythical status in my mind; I’d been fantasizing about seeing one but hadn’t actually expected to. But there it was, right in front of us, large and stick-like, its color a blue-green so bright that it almost seemed to glow.

A platypus in a river in Yungaburra.

In Yungaburra, our next-to-last stop, we saw enormous fig trees and gorgeous waterfalls. On our last morning, several of us left the motel around dawn and walked to a nearby trail along a river in search of the platypus and the tree kangaroo, an arboreal kangaroo species. We found both. It was a fitting almost-ending to our trip. Both platypuses and kangaroos seem so iconically Australian. The platypuses slipped in and out of the water, their dark bodies visible even in the low light. The tree kangaroo watched us silently from its perch above us and then slowly began to move elsewhere.

A tree kangaroo in Yungaburra.

Before long, it was time to go home. We spent a couple days in Cairns first, where I saw a shiny, emerald green beetle and a tree positively full of squawking lorikeets. Even in the city, there were bright and beautiful animals. In places like the ones we visited, it is easy to find awe and wonder and beauty everywhere you look. But there are endless treasures here, too, fascinating and beautiful sights that we walk past every day, like the way spiderwebs turn silver in the sunlight, or the gray catbird that eats bright red magnolia fruits in the courtyard in front of my dorm window, or the tiny, bluish purple flowers on the Al Buehler Trail, soft and fuzzy and damp when I brushed my face against them. Duke in Australia was an unforgettable adventure. It was also a reminder to step out of the human bubble and immerse myself in the worlds of other living things—whether here or across the globe.

Post by Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

Helping People and Wildlife Coexist in Ways That Benefit Both, Using Math

Duke team wins top prize in mathematical modeling contest


Safari-goers watch a pride of lions in the Maasai Mara, a famous game reserve in Kenya. Credit: Ray in Manila, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Safari-goers watch a pride of lions in the Maasai Mara, a famous game reserve in Kenya. Credit: Ray in Manila, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Of all the math competitions for college students, the annual Mathematical Contest in Modeling (MCM) is one of the biggest. And this year, Duke’s team took home a coveted top prize.

Undergraduates Erik Novak, ’24, Nicolas Salazar, ’23, and Enzo Moraes Mescall, ’24, represented the Blue Devils at this year’s contest, a grueling 4-day event where teams of undergraduates use their mathematical modeling skills to solve a real-world problem. The results are finally in, and the Duke team was chosen as one of the top 22 outstanding winners out of more than 11,200 teams worldwide.

Their task: to analyze some of the challenges facing a nature reserve in Kenya known as the Maasai Mara. This region is named for the local Maasai people, a tribe of semi-nomadic people who make a living by herding cattle. It’s also teeming with wildlife. Each year, more than a million wildebeests, zebras and gazelles travel in a loop from neighboring Tanzania into Kenya’s Maasai Mara Reserve and back, following the seasonal rains in search of fresh grass to eat.

Some 300,000 safari-goers also flock to the area to witness the massive migration, making it a major player in Kenya’s billion-dollar tourism industry. But protecting and managing the land for the benefit of both wildlife and people is a delicate balancing act.

The reserve relies on tourism revenue to protect the animals that live there. If tourism slumps — due to political unrest in Kenya, or the COVID-19 pandemic — desperate communities living around the park resort to poaching to get by, threatening the very wildlife that tourism depends on.

Poachers aren’t the only problem: wild animals such as lions, leopards and elephants sometimes venture into human settlements in search of food. Conservationists must strike a balance between protecting these animals and managing the dangers they pose by raiding crops or killing valuable domestic livestock.

Tourism is a mixed blessing, too. While safari-goers bring money into the region, they can also disturb the animals and pollute the Mara River, and off-road drivers can erode the soil with their jeeps.

The mission facing the Duke team was to identify ways to mitigate such conflicts between wildlife and people.

From left: Teammates Erik Novak, ’24, Nicolas Salazar, ’23, and Enzo Moraes Mescall ’24 finished in the top 0.1% in the 2023 Mathematical Contest in Modeling.

This year’s contest ran over a single weekend in February. Camped out on the third floor of Perkins library, the team of three worked 12 hours a day, fueled by a steady supply of Red Bull and poke bowls. During that time, they built a model, came up with budget and policy recommendations, and wrote a 25-page report for the Kenyan Tourism and Wildlife Committee, all in less than 96 hours.

They built a mathematical model consisting of a system of six ordinary differential equations. According to the model’s predictions, they said, it should theoretically be possible to increase the reserve’s animal populations by about 25%, reduce environmental degradation by 20%, nearly eliminate retaliatory lion killings, and cut poaching rates in half — all while increasing the average yearly flow of tourists by 7.5%.

Participating in a smaller-but-similar contest last fall, the Triangle Competition in Mathematical Modeling, helped them prepare. “It’s kind of like a practice for the MCM,” Salazar said.

Veronica Ciocanel

“They did not win that contest, but they took everything they learned and look what they did with it. I’m very proud,” said assistant professor of mathematics and biology Veronica Ciocanel, who coached the team and co-organized the Triangle competition.

In addition to finishing in the top 0.1% of competitors, the Duke team got three additional awards for their performance; the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) award, the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) prize, and an International COMAP Scholarship Award of $10,000.

The problems in these contests tend to be much more open-ended than typical coursework. “We didn’t know what the solution was supposed to be or what tools to use,” Novak said.

Modeling, computation and coding skills are certainly important, Ciocanel said. “But really what matters more is practice, teamwork, and communicating their results in a written report. Students who have a solid course background don’t need to do anything else to prepare, they just need to be creative about using what they know from the courses they already took.”

“Use what you have and work well together,” Ciocanel said. “That I think is the most important thing.”

Robin Smith
By Robin Smith

Shifting from Social Comparison to “Social Savoring” Seems to Help

The face of a brown-eyed girl with freckles, bangs and new adult teeth fills most of the frame. Superimposed to the right are the icons of multiple real and imagined social media apps in a semicircular arrangement. Image by geralt, via Pixabay.
Image by geralt, via pixabay.

The literature is clear: there is a dark side to engaging with social media, with linkages to depressive symptoms, a sense of social isolation, and dampened self-esteem recently revealed in the global discourse as alarming potential harms.

Underlying the pitfalls of social media usage is social comparison—the process of evaluating oneself relative to another person—to the extent that those who engage in more social comparison are at a significantly higher risk of negative health outcomes linked to their social media consumption.

Today, 72 percent of Americans use some type of social media, with most engaging daily with at least one platform.(1) Particularly for adolescents and young adults, interactions on social media are an integral part of building and maintaining social networks.(2-5) While the potential risks to psychosocial well-being posed by chronic engagement with these platforms have increasingly come to light within the past several years, mitigating these adverse downstream effects poses a novel and ongoing challenge to researchers and healthcare professionals alike.

The intervention aimed to supplant college students’ habitual social comparison … with social savoring: experiencing joyful emotions about someone else’s experiences.

A team of researchers led by Nancy Zucker, PhD, professor in Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences and director of graduate studies in psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, recently investigated this issue and found promising results for a brief online intervention targeted at altering young adults’ manner of engagement with social media. The intervention aimed to supplant college students’ habitual social comparison when active on social media with social savoring: experiencing joyful emotions about someone else’s experiences.

A cartoon depicts a small man in a ball cap standing on a table with a smartphone nearby. A larger person on the right with a cat-like nose regards him with tears in her eyes.
Image from Andrade et al

Zucker’s team followed a final cohort of 55 college students (78 percent female, 42 percent White, with an average age of 19.29) over a two-week period, first taking baseline measures of their mental well-being, connectedness, and social media usage before the students returned to daily social media usage. On day 8, a randomized group of students received the experimental intervention: an instructional video on the skill of social savoring. These students were then told to implement this new skill when active on social media throughout days 8 to 14, before being evaluated with the rest of the cohort at the two-week mark.

For those taught how and why to socially savor their daily social media intake, shifting focus from social comparison to social savoring measurably increased their performance self-esteem—their positive evaluation—as compared with the control group, who received no instructional video. Consciously practicing social savoring even seemed to enable students to toggle their self-esteem levels up or down: those in the intervention group reported significantly higher levels of self-esteem on days during which they engaged in more social savoring.

Encouragingly, the students who received the educational intervention on social media engagement also opted to practice more social savoring over time, suggesting they found this mode of digesting their daily social media feeds to be enduringly preferable to that of social comparison. The team’s initial findings suggest a promising future for targeted educational interventions as an effective way to improve facets of young adults’ mental health without changing the quantity or quality of their media consumption.

Of course, the radical alternative—forgoing social media platforms altogether in the name of improved well-being—looms in the distance as an appealing yet often unrealistic option for many; therefore, thoughtfully designed, evidence-based interventions such as this research team’s program seem to offer a more realistic path forward.

Read the full journal article.

References

  1. Auxier B, Anderson M. Social media use in 2021: A majority of Americans say they use YouTube and Facebook, while use of Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok is especially common among adults under 30. 2021.
    2. McKenna KYA, Green AS, Gleason MEJ. Relationship formation on the Internet: What’s the big attraction? J Soc Issues. 2002;58(1):9-31.
    3.Blais JJ, Craig WM, Pepler D, Connolly J. Adolescents online: The importance of Internet activity choices to salient relationships. J Youth Adolesc. 2008;37(5):522-536.
    4. Valkenburg PM, Peter J. Preadolescents’ and adolescents’ online communication and their closeness to friends. Dev Psychol. 2007;43(2):267-277.
    5. Michikyan M, Subrahmanyam K. Social networking sites: Implications for youth. In: Encyclopedia of Cyber Behavior, Vols. I – III. Information Science Reference/IGI Global; 2012:132-147.

Guest Post by Eleanor Robb, Class of 2023

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