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Leveraging Google’s Technology to Improve Mental Health

Last Tuesday, October 10 was World Mental Health Day. To mark the holiday, the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, in partnership with other student wellness organizations, welcomed Dr. Megan Jones Bell, PsyD, the clinical director of consumer and mental health at Google, to discuss mental health. Bell was formerly chief strategy and science officer at Headspace and helped guide Headspace through its transformation from a meditation app into a comprehensive digital mental health platform, Headspace Health. Bell also founded one of the first digital mental health start-ups, Lantern, where she pioneered blended mental health interventions leveraging software and coaching. In her conversation with Dr. Murali Doraiswamy, Duke professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, and Thomas Szigethy, Associate Dean of Students and Director of Duke’s Student Wellness Center, Bell revealed the actions Google is taking to improve the health of the billions of people who use their platform. 

She began by defining mental health, paraphrasing the World Health Organization’s definition. She said, “Mental health, to me, is a state of wellbeing in which the individual realizes his or her or their own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, work productively and fruitfully, and can contribute to their own community.” Rather than taking a medicalized approach to mental health, she argued, mental health should be recognized as something that we all have. Critically, she said that mental health is not just mental  disorders; the first step to improving mental health is recognition and upstream intervention.

Underlining the critical role Google plays in global mental health, Bell cited multiple statistics: three out of four people turn to the internet first for health information. On Google Search, there are 100 million searches on health everyday; Youtube boasts 25 billion views of mental health content. Given their billions of users, Bell intimated Google’s huge responsibility to provide people with accurate, authoritative, and empathetic information. The company has multiple goals in terms of mental health that are specific to different communities. There are three principal audiences that Bell described Google’s goals for: consumers, caregivers, and communities. 

Google’s consumer-facing focus is providing access to high quality information and tools to manage their users’ health. With regards to caregivers, Google strives to create strong partnerships to create solutions to transform care delivery. In terms of community health, the company works with public health organizations worldwide, focusing on social determinants of health and aiming to open up data and insights to the public health community. 

Szigethy followed by launching a discussion of Google’s efforts to protect adolescents. He referenced the growing and urgent mental health crisis amongst adolescents; what is Google doing to protect them? 

Bell mentioned multiple projects across different platforms in order to provide youth with safer online experiences. Key to these projects is the desire to promote their mental health by default. On Google Search, this takes the form of the SafeSearch feature. SafeSearch is on by default, filtering out explicit or inappropriate results. On Youtube, default policies include various prevention measures, one of which automatically removes content that is considered “immitable.” Bell used the example of disordered eating content in order to explain the policy– in accordance with their prevention approach, YouTube removes dangerous eating-related content containing anything that the viewer can copy. YouTube also has age-restricted videos, unavailable to users under 18, as well as certain product features that can be blocked. Google also created an eating disorder hotline with experts online 24/7. 

Jokingly, Bell assured the Zoom audience that Google wouldn’t be creating a therapist chatbot anytime soon — she asserted that digital tools are not “either or.” When the conversation veered towards generative AI, Bell admitted that AI has enormous potential for helping billions of people, but maintained that it needs to be developed in a responsible way. At Google, the greatest service AI provides is scalability. Google.org, Bell said, recently worked with The Trevor Project and ReflexAI on a crisis hotline for veterans called HomeTeam. Google used AI that stimulated crises to help scale up training for volunteers. Bell said, “The human is still on the other side of the phone, and AI helped achieve that”. 

Next, Bell tackled the question of health information and misinformation– what she called a significant area of focus for Google. Before diving in, however, Bell clarified, “It’s not up to Google to decide what is accurate and what is not accurate.” Rather, she said that anchoring to trusted organizations is critical to embedding mental health into the culture of a community. When it comes to health information and misinformation, Bell encapsulated Google’s philosophy in this phrase: “define, operationalize, and elevate high quality information.” In order to combat misinformation on their platform, Google asked the National Academy of Medicine to help define what accurate medical sources are. The Academy then put together a framework of authoritative health info, which WHO then nationalized. YouTube then launched its “health sources” feature, where videos from the framework are the first thing that you see. In effect, the highest quality information is raised to the top of your page when you make a search. Videos in this framework also have a visible badge on the watch panel that features a  phrase like “from a healthcare professional” or “from an organization with a healthcare professional.” Bell suggested that this also helps people to remember where their information is coming from, acting as a guardrail in itself. Additionally, Google continues to fight medical misinformation with an updated medical misinformation policy, which enables them to remove content that is contradictory to medical authorities or medical consensus. 

Near the end of the conversation, Szigethy asked Bell if she would recommend any behaviors for embracing wellbeing. A prevention researcher by background, Bell stressed the importance of early and regular action. Our biggest leverage point for changing mental health, she asserted, is upstream intervention and embracing routines that foster our mental health. She breaks these down into five dimensions of wellbeing: mindfulness, sleep, movement and exercise, nutrition, and social connection. Her advice is to ask the question: what daily/weekly routines do I have that foster each of these? Make a list, she suggests, and try to incorporate a daily routine that addresses each of the five dimensions. 

Before concluding, Bell advocated that the best thing that we can do is to approach mental health issues with humility and listen to a community first. She shared that, at Headspace, her team worked with the mayor’s office and community organizations in Hartford, Connecticut to co-define their mental health goals and map the strengths and assets of the community. Then, they could start to think about how to contextualize Headspace in that community. Bell graciously entered the Duke community with the same humility, and her conversation was a wonderful commemoration of World Mental Health Day. 

By Isa Helton, Class of 2026

How Our Brain Deconstructs A World in Constant Motion

It’s a miracle that people aren’t constantly getting into car accidents.

Whizzing by at 65 miles per hour in a car, the brain rapidly decodes millions of photons worth of information from the eyes, and then must use that information to instantly figure out where it is and where it needs to go. Is that a pedestrian approaching the sidewalk or a mailbox? Do I need to take this offramp or the next one? What color is the traffic light up ahead?

Was it a stop sign? I didn’t notice. (US Marine Corps, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Most motorists, miraculously, get to work or school without a scratch.

After nearly a decade worth of research, Duke scientists have figured out how the brain juggles all of this so effortlessly and tirelessly in a surprisingly inefficient way: by making quick, low-level models of the world to help form a clear view of the road ahead. The new findings expand the understanding of how the brain sees the world, and might one day help clinicians better understand what goes awry in people with psychiatric issues defined by perceptual problems, like schizophrenia.

Most neuroscientists think our brain cells figure out what we’re looking at by quickly comparing what’s in front of us to past experience and prior knowledge. Like a biological detective, they might determine you are looking at a house by using past experiences of neighborhoods you have been in and houses you have lived in. Enthusiasts of this Bayesian theory have long reasoned that these quick, probability-based analyses are what help people see a stable world despite sensory and motor noise from eye movement and constant environmental uncertainties, like a glare from the sun or a backdrop of a moving crowd.

A recent paper in the online journal eNeuro however, suggests neuroscientists have overlooked a simpler explanation: that brain cells are also rapidly decoding a constant stream of information from the eyes using simple pattern recognition, like determining you’re looking at a house from the visual evidence of windows, a tall rectangular opening, and a manicured lawn.

Marc Sommer

“That discriminative model has some advantages because it’s really quick, logical, and flexible,” said Marc Sommer, Ph.D., a professor of biomedical engineering at Duke and senior author of the new study. “You can learn the boundaries between decisions, and you can apply all sorts of statistical pattern-matching at a very low level. You don’t have to create a model of the world, which is a big task for a brain.”

Sommer initially hoped to confirm the general consensus in neuroscience—that the brain builds on a working model of the world instead of recognizing patterns from the ground up. But after putting the Bayesian theory to the test with Duke neurobiology alumna Divya Subramanian, Ph.D., now a postdoctoral researcher at the National Institutes for Health, he’s hoping to extend their newfound results to other processes in the brain.

To ferret out which theory would hold up, Sommer and Subramanian recruited 45 adults for an eye test. Participants looked at a computer screen and were quizzed about where a shape on the screen moved to, or if it moved at all. Throughout the test, Subramanian subtly made movements trickier and less obvious to tease out how the brain compensates when there is increasing uncertainty, from changing the contrast of the shape to the shape itself.

After scoring the eye exams, Sommer and Subramanian were surprised to find that the brain didn’t solely rely on a Bayesian approach.

People scored worse when the visual noise was dialed up, but only when they were asked where the target moved to. Test scores were mostly unaffected with noisier scenes when people were asked if a shape moved on the screen, suggesting that—to the team’s surprise—people don’t always use prior experiences when they are more uncertain about what they are seeing, like our biological detective would.

The team spent the next several years parsing through results and replicating their findings “three times to believe it,” Subramanian said, but it always led them to the same conclusion: for some forms of perception, brain cells stick to low-level patterns to draw conclusions about the world around them.

“You can collect data forever and ever. And at some point, you just realize you have enough,” Sommer said.

Sommer now plans to disrupt the dogma for other sensory systems, like spoken language, to see if beloved theories hold up to the scrutiny of testing.

The hope is that by understanding how the brain solves other perceptual problems, Sommer and others can better understand psychiatric and motor disorders, like Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia, or obsessive-compulsive disorder, and develop more effective treatments as a result.

“There are some sub-circuits of the brain that are probably pretty well-understood to be involved with these disorders. That’s a biological description,” Sommer said. “And there’s also neurotransmitter deficits, like lacking dopamine in Parkinson’s. That’s a chemical explanation. But there are very few big-picture, explanations of why people have certain psychiatric or motor disorders.”

CITATION: “Bayesian and Discriminative Models for Active Visual Perception Across Saccades,” Divya Subramanian, John Pearson, Marc A. Sommer. eNeuro, July 14, 2023. DOI: 10.1523/ENEURO.0403-22.2023

Guest post by Isabella Kjaerulff, Class of 2025

New Blogger Ana Lucia Ochoa: Straying From My Path

“What is a gene?”

At 12 years old, I scribbled in my brand new pink notebook, covered in owls. I dubbed it my “question notebook,” filled with about twenty other easily-googleable questions. “A blueprint to our bodies,” was the result of my first internet search for the definition of a gene. But this blueprint had failed so many, even my own grandfather. Could it fail me down the road? Could I one day find an explanation?

By 16, I had been steadfast for years in my decision to pursue medicine. But, on the other side of perseverance is tunnel-vision. At Lyons Township High School in Western Springs, Illinois, I refused to stray the path I had meticulously designed for myself. I confined myself to chemistry, math, and biology. I bounded my limits to only APs, and only extracurriculars that “made sense.”

Perhaps the only time I strayed from the path was by pursuing competitive gymnastics until I graduated, despite 20-hour weeks and numerous insistences from my parents to quit. I was determined to keep something that did not belong to my future.

It wasn’t until class selection for my first Duke semester that I allowed myself to magnify this idea of straying from my path. I wasn’t loading up my schedule with Organic Chemistry or Physics, seeking to check off requirements for the MCAT. Instead, I was selecting Computer Science 101.

Upon beginning my new life at Duke, I felt a strange taste in my mouth whenever I was asked what I was studying. I was no longer “pre-med.” My years spent taking rigorous STEM classes and conducting independent research projects felt like a waste. I wasn’t even a gymnast anymore.

Two huge pieces of my identity had been excised, leaving gaping holes that I felt clueless at how to fill.

Sophomore year, I have been seeking out more ways in which I can stray. In pursuit of the elusive software engineering internship, I felt myself settling into a familiar mindset of: “What is most practical?” I refuse to enter this rut again. So, I enrolled in film editing, a class that has long-since sparked my interest.

I love the quote: “the best ideas are the most disruptive.” This summer, I fell in love with hiking, the solitude enveloping me in a cocoon of my wildest ideas. Alone, I can craft a business idea, or conceive an unusual plot for a movie. I can weave together the bits and pieces of my imagination.

I was drawn to film editing because of the analogy that the editor clears a path in a forest. With so many directions to go, they are responsible for compelling emotion out of the audience. I’ve found that a disruptive idea will do the same.

My draw to the Duke Research Blog stemmed from two places. First, I wanted to continue to stray from my path by re-exploring my childhood love for writing. Second, I craved time to learn about other’s disruptive ideas, in hopes of getting inspiration for some of my own.

Post by Ana Lucia Ochoa, Class of 2026

New Blogger Michelle Li: Shrek, Minecraft, and Discovering New Things

My mom likes to introduce me by telling a childhood story. She’s told the same one for years, but it never fails to crack her up. (Watch out—she will genuinely cry from laughter!) It goes like this:

I was in second grade, and I was taking the ESL test. It’s straightforward—they show you flashcards, and you name them in English. I breezed through tree and house; but when I saw a bird, I fell silent.

“Don’t you know what a bird is?” my mom asked.

Cheeks red, I responded, “I knew it was a bird, I just wasn’t sure what species.”

At this point we’re both chortling, and she tells me that aiyah, Michelle, you were always so serious as a child.

That’s me on the left looking resolute at preschool graduation.

Which is a fair analysis—I was shy. I overthought. And I was a perfectionist. If I didn’t have the best answer or the most interesting remark, I was often too scared to speak at all.

But I love formulating answers, and I love talking to people. So going into high school, I told myself this mindset would change. I would shoot every shot and carpe every diem, fear be darned.

Like all new things, it was difficult. The learning curve was so steep it may as well have had a vertical asymptote. (If you liked that math joke, ask me about my calculus-themed promposal!)

Fortunately, life has a way of placing us in situations that help us grow. Sophomore year, I volunteered to teach STEM classes to middle schoolers. The chaos of pre-teens with pent-up quarantine energy is unparalleled—needless to say, I was terrified. But I found solace in the familiarity of science—as I rambled about CRISPR-Cas9 and coral ecology, I became more comfortable speaking to others.

I learned that Shrek is an icon, Minecraft is a competitive sport, and I should never click links in the Zoom chat—lest I be lured into a Rickroll. I also discovered that it didn’t matter whether my presentation was perfect or even if I acted a little weird.

Zooming with my middle school STEM buddies—note the Elmo background.

What mattered was watching students who’d never heard of engineering before prototyping egg parachutes and Rube Goldberg machines. What mattered was seeing Vicky return for a second year, evolving from student to TA. What mattered was watching a kid’s face light up with the joy of learning something new.

That’s what I hope to accomplish with the Duke Research Blog. As a freshman, I know the endless possibilities on campus—while a blessing—can be intimidating. STEM and academia have seemingly high barriers to entry. But I’ve also seen that discovering something new can be the best feeling in the world. I hope to play a small part in helping you, the reader, get there.

And as a baby Dukie, I hope to connect with the inspiring community here. Whether through a Research Blog interview or a quick conversation on the crowded C1, I am so excited to meet y’all.

So, if you see me around campus, come say hello! And if you’re a people-person-but-introverted like me and could use a conversation starter, here are a couple:

  • Tell me what songs you’re jamming to! I’m currently looping Gracie Abrams and Wallows. Debussy and Tchaikovsky are also regulars—String Quartet No. 1 goes so hard.
  • Talk about football! As a lifelong Cincinnatian, Joe Burrow is our king.
  • Share whatever you’re working on! Whether it be uber-complicated math (shoutout to Nikhil) or the perfect matcha latte (shoutout to Krishna), I’d love to know what you’re experimenting with.

Until then, remember to stay hydrated and keep discovering new things. ☺️

Post by Michelle Li, Class of 2027

New Blogger Sophia Irion: Subject to Change

My cat Eve is meowing to go on her second walk of the night as I begin to write this. I adopted Eve at the beginning of my second semester. I am constantly observing her behavior. She doesn’t like being held, is most active early in the morning or late at night, and when my friends whistle at her she desperately tries to find the bird they must be hiding in their mouths.

This is Eve.

I can attribute her behaviors to the fact that she is both prey and predator. I adapt to her because as her caretaker I love her unconditionally. This type of love was new to me and has taught me how to be a better caretaker of myself and the people I love.

My two sisters and I each have two middle names. I’m the middle child. I’ve grown to see this as a wonderful thing since I get to be both an older and a younger sister. My older sister cares deeply about our well-being in a very motherly way. We’re each two years apart. This closeness in age has given me the opportunity to learn to care for my older sister as she cares for me.

Here I am caving. This gap is called the birth canal. I went on this trip with Duke Outing Club https://www.lostworldcaverns.com/about/

I’ve been changing drastically at least internally for the past three years. So, I feel that in this introduction it is important to note I am subject to change. I’m a sophomore whose interests academically range from creative writing to marine biology. I currently plan to major in Biology and/or Psychology with the failsafe being one as a major and one as a minor.

My love for Biology began in the woods. My childhood was principally outdoors or reading (including the many audiobooks I listened to). My sisters would act out stories though my younger sister and I grew tired of my older sister always being the princess. We would run off and make mud pies or make obstacle courses for trails of ants.

When I was ten, I started public school because I was not correctly homeschooled and ridiculously behind. This setback is why I am at Duke today. It created a hatred of ignorance within myself, which pushed me to learn in all areas.

The way this is currently manifesting is in my ballet class. I barely ran track and cross country in middle school, but played no other sports. I have zero rhythm. Yet, I have always found dancing so incredibly beautiful, ballet especially. It is certainly a push out of my comfort zone to stumble through sequences my classmates are achieving. I encourage others who have never danced to explore beginner classes at Duke. (Social dancing is a PE course and not listed.)

My love of Psychology began around ten when I noticed the changes happening in my mind. I would occasionally reflect through the years of my childhood how I was mentally developing. I still do this today as I approach that magical twenty-five marker when I will have a fully developed prefrontal cortex. There were also traumatic experiences I learned to process through psychology. It was easier for me to deal with the irrational behavior of loved ones through scientific observation. I also read memoirs by women with similar experiences.

Educated by Tara Westover:

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/35133922-educated

What My Bones Know by Stephanie Foo

https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/58214328

Writing has always been a dream of mine. I’ve been journaling for as long as I can remember and attempting to emulate my favorite authors. I hope through this position with Duke Research Blog I can make science accessible through writing and showcase the amazing people I am surrounded by.

Kaylee and I having lunch in the Brodhead Center.

My best friend Kaylee for example is a Chemistry major and I am constantly listening to her “nerd out.” Chemistry is not my strong suit but her passion is contagious. It’s energy like this from people who love what they do that inspires me to keep learning. I hope to share these sources of inspiration here.

The best thing about Duke to me is the possibility to have a fascinating conversation with anyone. My friends and I have our separate intellectual passions; yet when one of us has a question, the other always seems to have an answer.

Post by Jacqueline “Sophia” Irion, Class of 2026

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

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