Duke Research Blog

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

Category: Engineering (Page 1 of 8)

Duke’s Solar Benches Can Charge Your Phone

Aren’t the benches at Duke great? They’re nice structures where you can chill with your friends, eat your Panda Express, get homework done, or maybe even nap. But haven’t you ever been working on a bench outside the Bryan Center around dusk, and it’s getting hard to see those Econ notes? Or cursed under your breath because it’s such a beautiful day outside, but your laptop is about to die?

Benches with solar power have been installed in three spots, including the McClendon Bridge.

Yeah, me too.

That’s exactly what inspired Gerry Chen, a Junior here at Duke, to create the “Solar Bench.” With the support of Smart Home and ESG, Gerry adapted an ordinary swinging bench at Duke into one with iPhone chargers and fully controllable LED strip lights. So fear no more! Now you can send all the snaps you want on your phone without worries of draining your battery, or grind out hours of multi homework while watching the sunset. The best part? It’s all solar powered!

November 6-9 was Energy Week, and on Monday mechanical engineer Shomik Verma presented the “Smart Home Demo,” which featured the inception, design, and implementation of the Solar Bench idea (1). The main motive behind the benches is “to increase the vision and awareness of renewable energy around Duke.” In this sense Gerry took something that started off as a cool way to stay outside after dark, and expanded it into a mode of adding renewable energy to Duke’s campus.

Beneath the canopy is a weatherproof box with a power controller and a bunch of dongles.

These benches are a great addition, especially now that it gets dark at like 5:40 (I mean, come on). Right now there’s three of them—one on the McClendon Bridge, one in the Few Quad, and one at the Smart Home (which you should check out, too—there’s tons of cool stuff there).

It kind of seems like these benches can’t do that much, but keep in mind this is still a relatively new project which started in May. One upgrade that could be happening soon is implementing a way to monitor energy and bench usage. But Gerry’s also got some bigger plans in store. With “Gen 2” he hopes to add more durability, Wifi, laptop chargers, and even motion sensing technology. Now that’s a decked-out bench! There’s more solar benches to come, too. Gerry hopes to make the installation easier and ultimately increase production, especially on East Campus.

Right now, it costs about $950 to make one of these solar benches. Each one has a 250 Watt solar panel sitting on the roof that absorbs energy from the sun and stores it in a big battery at one end of the bench. Underneath the canopy, there’s a thing called a “charge controller” that takes the energy from the sun and battery and distributes it appropriately to the lights and chargers. That’s also where the on / off switch is, as well as knobs to adjust the brightness and color of the lights. On a full charge, the battery can last for four days with no more additional sunlight. Even late in the night, the bench has you covered.

Will demonstrates a proper solar-powered chill.

That’s what’s so cool about solar energy. It almost seems too easy. These benches are saving energy while also using a renewable source. In the process, they’re doing their part to inspire Duke to become a greener campus. In Shomik’s words, this is the sort of technology “that will revolutionize the daily lives of people throughout the world.”

Free, clean energy, that just powers this bad-ass bench nonstop? Who knew a star 93 million miles away could be so useful?!

Will SheehanBy Will Sheehan

Creative Solutions to Brain Tumor Treatment

Survival rates for brain tumors have not improved since the 1960s; NIH Image Gallery.

Invasive brain tumors are among the hardest cancers to treat, and thus have some of the worst prognoses.

Dean of the Pratt School of Engineering, Ravi Bellamkonda, poses for his portrait inside and outside CIEMAS.

Displaying the survival rates for various brain tumors to the Genomic and Precision Medicine Forum on Thursday, Oct. 26, Duke professor Ravi Bellamkonda noted, “These numbers have not changed in any appreciable way since the 1960s.”

Bellakonda is the dean of the Pratt School of Engineering and a professor of biomedical engineering, but he is first a researcher. His biomedical engineering lab is working toward solutions to this problem of brain tumor treatment.

Unlike many other organs, which can sacrifice some tissue and remain functional, the brain does not perform the same way after removing the tumor. So a tumor without clearly defined boundaries is unsafe to remove without great risk to other parts of the patient’s brain, and in turn the patient’s quality of life.

Bellakonda hypothesized that brain tumors have characteristics that could be manipulated to treat these cancers. One key observation of brain tumors’ behavior is the tendency to form along white matter tracts. Put simply, tumors often spread by taking advantage of the brain’s existing structural pathways.

Bellakonda set out to build a device that would provide brain tumors a different path to follow, with the hope of drawing the tumor out of the brain where the cells could be killed.

The results were promising. Tests on rats and dogs with brain tumors showed that the device successfully guided out and killed tumor cells. Closer examination revealed that the cells killed were not cells that had multiplied as the tumor grew into the conduit, but were actually cells from the primary tumor.

The Bellamkonda lab’s device successfully guided and killed brain tumors in rats.

In addition to acting as a treatment device, Bellakonda’s device could be co-opted for other uses. Monitoring the process of deep brain tumors proves a difficult task for neurooncologists, and by bringing cells from deep within the tumor to the surface, this device could make biopsies significantly easier.

Although the device presents promising results, Bellakonda challenged his lab to take what they have learned from the device to develop a less invasive technique.

Another researcher in the Bellakonda lab, Tarun Saxena, engaged in research to utilize the body’s natural protection mechanisms to contain brain tumors. Creating scar tissue around tumors can trick the brain into treating the tumor as a wound, leading to immunological responses that effectively contain and suppress the tumor’s growth.

Visiting researcher Johnathan Lyon proposed utilizing electrical fields to lead a tumor to move away from certain brain regions. Moving tumors away from structures like the pons, which is vital for regulation of vital functions like breathing, could make formerly untreatable tumors resectable. Lyon’s 3D cultures using this technique displayed promising results.

Another Bellakonda lab researcher, Nalini Mehta, has been researching utilizing a surprising mechanism to deliver drugs to treat tumors throughout the brain: salmonella. Salmonella genetically engineered to not invade cells but to easily pass through the extracellular matrix of the brain have proven to be effective at delivering treatment throughout the brain.

While all of these therapies are not quite ready to be used to treat the masses, Bellakonda and his colleagues’ work presents reasonable hope of progress in the way brain tumors are treated.

By Sarah Haurin

The Internet of Things: Useful or Dangerous?

The Internet of Things has tons of possibilities and applications, but some of them could be malicious.

This week, the Duke Digital Initiative (DDI) held an open house in the Technology Engagement Center (TEC) where you could go in and check out the new equipment they’ve installed. They all have one central theme: the Internet of Things (IoT). What is the Internet of Things? It’s pretty simple. The Internet of Things “refers to the interconnectivity of devices on the internet.” In other words, if something can connect to things like wifi, social media, or your phone, it makes it an IoT device!

A classic example of an IoT device I’m sure you’re all familiar with is the Amazon Echo. You could ask it to order you something, look up a word, what the weather is like… you get the idea. Echo and Alexa are just one kind of IoT. We’re also talking lightbulbs, outlets, robots, thermostats…  Eventually your whole house might become an IoT device. The future is here!

Devices such as the Echo Dot, Philips Hue Smart Lightbulb, Samsung Smart Outlet, Meccano Robot, and Swipe-O-Matic are all showcased in the TEC. It’s part of the DDI’s “IoT Initiative” this year to give Duke faculty, staff, and students a better understanding of the power of IoT devices. As one expert on site said, “the devices are everywhere.”

The Co-Lab had actually hacked the Echo Dot and programmed in some of their own commands, so it was responding to questions like “Who is Maria?” and “Where is this place?”

The Meccano Robot (named “Techy”) was fun to mess around with, and a big hit among attendees. He’s more of a consumer-friendly toy, but just by using voice-commands I got him to give me a high-five and even tango.

Me, cheesin’ with Techy

The smart lightbulb was low-key the coolest thing there. By using multiple lights you can customize different “environments” like a TV watching environment or party environment, and the lights will change color/brightness accordingly with just a tap on your phone. The smart outlets were cool, too. They can be controlled remotely from your phone and even have timers set.

The student-built Swipe-O-Matic added me to the Co-Lab mailing list, just by swiping my Duke card.

One device — the “Swipe-O-Matic”—was actually invented by Duke students, and we used it to add my name to the Co-Lab mailing list just by swiping my Duke Card.

While these devices are all fun and useful, one expert I spoke with noted “there’s lots of consequences to using them—good, and bad.”

As they become more consumer available, if your machine is particularly vulnerable, bad people could hack into parts of your life. Think about a smart door lock. It’s super useful—you can create virtual keys for family members, let someone in remotely, or give your housekeepers access at certain times of the day. However, this could obviously go pretty badly if someone were to hack it and enter your house.

But don’t worry. As technology progresses, IoT devices will eventually be all around us. While security is an issue, these devices have way more good to them than bad. “Snapchat spectacles” are sunglasses that can record video and upload it straight to the Snapchat app. Someone at the TEC had the idea for “smart window blinds” that know when to open and close. Imagine a plant pot that sent you a notification when it needed to be watered. The uses are seemingly endless!

Will SheehanPost by Will Sheehan

Engineering Design Pod: The Newest Innovation Center

You guys have to check out the brand new Engineering Design Pod! What used to be the Blue Express Cafe, this giant oval-shaped room with huge glass windows under the LSRC is now a space for creation.

Duke Engineering Design Pod entrance

Duke Engineering’s new Design Pod for students is in the Levine Science Research Center.

There’s essentially all the equipment in there that an engineer could ever want, organized ever so beautifully in labeled drawers and hung on walls: screwdrivers, nails, hammers, saws, pool noodles… plus, there are scientific-looking tables (a.k.a. workbenches), rolly-stools, extension chords that come down from the ceiling, even TVs… this place is frickin’ awesome!

worktables in Duke Engineering Design Pod

Everything in the Design Pod is on wheels for easy reconfiguration

The “Design Pod” was created alongside Duke’s new engineering design course in order to to foster learning through hands-on experience. Students have tested out the 3D printer to create items such as a skull and even chess pieces. There’s a massive laser printer, foam cutter, panel saw, and more to come. At one end of the  room there are lots of cubbies, used for holding backpacks so they don’t get in the way. In the future, team projects will be stored there, too. Several big whiteboards on wheels are scattered around the room, which students take advantage of to outline their work and draw up ideas. Almost everything is on wheels, in fact, because as Dr. Ann Saterbak explained to me, the pod is “designed to be a flexible space.” It really is a special place, carefully geared toward collaboration and innovation. Just being in there made me want to create something!

UNC chess board

Awkward! One student made a UNC-themed chessboard in Duke’s new Design Pod.

Kyra McDonald, a freshman currently taking the engineering design course, says it’s her favorite class. The class is split up into teams and each team picks from a list of projects that they will pursue for the whole semester — examples include things like a flexible lemur feeder and a drone water sampler. What she likes so much about the class is rather than a typical lecture where you listen and take notes the whole time, this design course is all about working in your team and applying what you know to real-world scenarios.

Dr. Saterbak further developed this point. Although this is her first year at Duke, in her experience students not only get a good sense of what engineers actually do, but also leave with a “concrete, practical thing” which they are proud of and can talk about at job interviews. All the cool features that make up the design pod — the tools, the room, the flexibility — are there so Dr. Saterbak’s previous experience can become a reality for Duke students.

Duke Engineering Design Pod

A 3D printed skull in the Design Pod

Because they’re still in the pre-design phase, the freshman in the class haven’t really needed to use the space to its full potential.

But that will come as soon as the physical creation starts happening. Students in the class will have special access to the design pod off-hours, so get ready because the innovation levels are about to be booming!

Story and Photos By Will Sheehan Will Sheehan

New Blogger Will Sheehan: Freshman with a Love of the Outdoors

Hi there! My name is Will Sheehan, and I’m a freshman at Duke. While I’m currently undecided, I plan on studying electrical and computer engineering and possibly double majoring in computer science. I grew up on Maui, Hawaii, but now live with my mom in Austin, Texas. I spend my summers and winters with my dad Will Sheehan by the oceanback on Maui surfing, dirt biking, hiking and more. I like to think that spending so much time in the outdoors has given me a deep appreciation for nature, and in return a fiery passion for sciences like physics and chemistry.

The summer before  junior year I traveled to Beijing, China to live with a host family for a month. Having to speak their language nearly the whole time, I turned to journaling in order to empty my thoughts. They effortlessly spilled onto the page; it felt as if I couldn’t write fast enough, and that my ideas would flee before I could cement them in ink.

I soon found a new love for personal writing. The next summer I interned for a company named ShakaCode, and while I learned the ins and outs of applying Ruby on Rails to website development I blogged about my experience. As soon as school started, my old calculus teacher approached me, saying how he had read my blogWill Sheehan riding a dirt bike and loved my style of writing as well as what I had to say. That year in advanced calculus he had our class use blogs as a way to track our progress in whatever project or research we were pursuing.

Attempting to communicate complex, specialized information is an intriguing challenge that I find satisfying to complete. I have developed this skill not only through my blogging experience but also through tutoring in math the past couple years. While I do plan on pursuing computer science, I am still entirely open to a career in scientific research. Discovering something new has been a dream of mine for as long as I can remember.

Will Sheehan on a cliffI hope that as a part of the Duke Research Blog I get to share new, important findings with our community as I further my own understanding along the way. I see this as a learning opportunity for both myself and those around me, and hope that Duke takes an interest in all that I have to say about the cool stuff they might not normally know about!

Post by Will Sheehan

From Solid to Liquid and Back Again

A black and white moving image of a ball being pulled out from under a pile of circular discs

Force chains erupt as an “intruder” is yanked from beneath a pile of circular discs, which are designed to simulate a granular material. The entire process takes less than one second. Credit: Yue Zhang, Duke University.

You can easily walk across the sand on a beach. But step into a ball pit, and chances are you’ll fall right through.

Sand and ball pits are both granular materials, or materials that are made of collections of much smaller particles or grains. Depending on their density and how much force they experience, granular materials sometimes behave like liquids — something you fall right through — and sometimes “jam” into solids, making them something you can stand on.

“In some cases, these little particles have figured out how to actually form solid-like structures,” said Robert P. Behringer, James B. Duke Professor of Physics. “So why don’t they always just go squirting sideways and relax all the stress?”

Physicists do not yet understand exactly when and how jamming occurs, but Behringer’s team at Duke is on the case. The group squishes, stretches, hits, and pulls at granular materials to get a better picture of how and why they behave like they do. The team recently presented a whopping 10 papers at the 2017 Powders and Grains Conference, which occurred from July 3-7, 2017 in Montpellier, France.

Many of these studies use one of the lab’s favorite techniques, which is to create granular materials from small transparent discs that are about half an inch to an inch in diameter. These discs are made of a material which, thanks to the special way it interacts with light, changes color when squished. This effect allows the team to watch how the stress within the material changes as various forces are applied.

A blue and green moving image of spinning discs

As the wheels turn, shear strain between the discs creates a dense web of inter-particle forces. Credit: Yiqiu Zhao, Duke University.

In one experiment, graduate student Yue Zhang used a high-speed camera to catch the stress patterns as a ball on a string is yanked out from a pile of these discs. In the video, the ball first appears to be stuck under the pile, and then suddenly gives way after enough force is applied — not unlike what you might experience pulling a tent stake out of the ground, or opening the lid on a pesky pickle jar.

“The amusing thing is that you start trying to pull, you add more force, you add more force, and then at some point you pull so hard that you hit yourself in the head,” Behringer said.

The team was surprised to find that the stress patterns created by the ball, which Behringer says look “like hair all standing on end,” are almost identical to the stress of impact, only in reverse.

“What you see is even though you are just gradually gradually pulling harder and harder, the final dynamics are in some sense the same dynamics that you get on impact,” Behringer said.

In another experiment, the team examined what happens in granular materials under shear strain, which is similar to the force your fingers exert on one another when you rub them together.

Graduate student Yiqiu Zhao placed hundreds of these discs onto a circular platform made of a series of flat, concentric rings, each of which is controlled by a separate motor. As the rings turn at different speeds, the particles rub against one another, creating a shear stress.

An image of an experimental set up in a lab

Beneath the small transparent discs lie a series of concentric wheels, each attached to its own motor. By turning these platforms at different speeds, Yiqiu Zhao can observe how shear strain affects the discs.

“We have about twenty stepper motors here, so that we can rotate all the rings to apply a shear not only from the outside boundary, but also from everywhere inside the bulk of the material,” Zhao said. This ensures that each particle in the circle experiences a similar amount of shear.

“One of the key intents of this new experiment was to find a way that we could shear until the cows come home,” Behringer said. “And if it takes a hundred times more shear than I could get with older experiments, well we’ll get it.”

As the rings turn, videos of the material show forces snaking out from the inner circle like lightning bolts. They found that by applying enough shear, it is possible to make the material like a solid at much lower densities than had been seen before.

“You can actually turn a granular fluid into a granular solid by shearing it,” Behringer said. “So it is like you don’t put your ice in the refrigerator, you put it in one of these trays and you shear the tray and it turns into ice.”

Kara J. Manke, PhDPost by Kara Manke

Cooking Up “Frustrated” Magnets in Search of Superconductivity

Sara Haravifard

A simplified version of Sara Haravifard’s recipe for new superconductors, by the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory

Duke physics professor Sara Haravifard is mixing, cooking, squishing and freezing “frustrated” magnetic crystals in search of the origins of superconductivity.

Superconductivity refers to the ability of electrons to travel endlessly through certain materials, called superconductors, without adding any energy — think of a car that can drive forever with no gas or electricity. And just the way gas-less, charge-less cars would make travel vastly cheaper, superconductivity has the potential to revolutionize electronics and energy industry.

But superconductors are extremely rare, and are usually only superconductive at extremely cold temperatures — too cold for any but a few highly specialized applications. A few “high-temperature” superconductors have been discovered, but scientists are still flummoxed at why and how these superconductors exist.

Haravifard hopes that her magnet experiments will reveal the origins of high-temperature superconductivity so that researchers can design and build new materials with this amazing property. In the process, her team may also discover materials that are useful in quantum computing, or even entirely new states of matter.

Learn more about their journey on this fascinating infographic by The National High Magnetic Field Laboratory.

Infographic describing magnetic crystal research

Infographic courtesy of the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory

Kara J. Manke, PhD

Post by Kara Manke

Trapping Light to Enhance Material Properties

Professor Mikkelsen is the Nortel Networks Assistant Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Assistant Professor of Physics at Duke University.

A version of this article appeared in Pratt’s 2017 DukEngineer magazine.

Professor Maiken H. Mikkelsen uses optics to tailor the properties of materials, making them stronger and lighter than anything found in nature. This distinguished researcher also teaches my ECE 340: Optics and Photonics course, giving me a wonderful opportunity to ask about her research and experience at the Photonics Asia conference held in China in October 2016.

Below is an edited transcript of our interview.

Q: What sparked your interest in optics and photonics?
I was really excited about doing hands-on research where you could actually probe nanoscale and quantum phenomena from optical experiments. I started out looking into condensed matter and quantum information science and currently observe delicately designed nanostructures. Optics is, to some extent, a tool to modify the properties of materials.

Q: What does your lab do and how do students contribute?
During the last few years, my students and I have been structuring materials on the nanoscale to modify the local electromagnetic environment, which makes these materials behave in new ways. Students play a key role in all aspects of the research, from nanofabrication to performing optical experiments and presenting the results to the scientific community at conferences all over the world. The lab uses tiny metal structures to concentrate the incoming electromagnetic field of light to very small volumes — a research area known as plasmonics. Placing other materials in the near field of this modified environment causes the electrons to behave completely differently.

Platform based on metal nanostructures that allows the lab to dramatically enhance the radiative properties of emitters and other materials.

By controlling how these electrons behave and modifying the geometry of the material, we can gain a deeper understanding of the light-matter interactions. Combining these techniques with our optical experiments shows modifications to material properties that are much stronger than has been seen before. It’s been very exciting!

Q: And this research is what you presented at the Photonics Asia conference?
Yes. With this knowledge, we can enhance the properties of materials significantly, which in the future could lead to ultra-fast and much better LEDs, more efficient photodetectors, or more efficient solar cells and sensors. In Beijing, China, I gave an overview of this research at the leading meeting for the photonics and optics industries in Asia, as well as several other conferences and universities. It was very fulfilling to see how the research I do in a dark lab actually gets noticed around the world. It is always deeply inspiring to learn about recent research breakthroughs from other research groups.

Q: What is the main purpose of trying to find these improved materials?
I am motivated by furthering our fundamental understanding, such as how do light and matter interact when we get to really small scales and how this interaction can be leveraged to achieve useful properties. I believe you often achieve the biggest technological breakthroughs when you’re not trying to solve one particular problem, but creating new materials that could lay the groundwork for a wide range of new technologies. For example, semiconductor materials, with a set of properties that are found naturally, are the cornerstone of most modern technologies. But if you imagine that you now have an entirely new set of building blocks with tailored properties instead, we could revolutionize a lot of different technologies down the road.

The Mikkelsen Research Group. Back row, left to right: Qixin Shen, Andrew Traverso, Maiken Mikkelsen, Guoce Yang, Jon Stewart, Andrew Boyce. Front row, left to right: Wade Wilson, Daniela Cruz, Jiani Huang, Tamra Nebabu.

By improving or completely changing the fabrication technique of these light-matter interactions, new properties begin to emerge. Generally, there’s always a big desire to have something that’s lighter, smaller, more efficient and more flexible. One of the applications we’re targeting with this research is ultrafast LEDs. While future devices might not use this exact approach, the underlying physics will be crucial.

About a year ago, Facebook contacted me and was interested in utilizing our research for omnidirectional detectors that could be ultrafast and detect signals from a large range of incidence angles. This has led to a fruitful collaboration and is one example of how fundamental research can have applications in a wide range of areas — some that you may not even have imagined when you started!

 

Q: What would be your advice to young researchers still trying to decide a career path for themselves or those interested in optics and photonics?
What really helped me was starting to do undergraduate research. I listened to talks by different faculty, asked them to do undergraduate research, and worked on a volunteer basis in their labs. I think that’s really a great way to see if you’re interested in research — use the amazing opportunities both at Duke and around the country. Doing research requires a lot of patience, but I think no two days are the same; there’s always a lot of creativity involved while troubleshooting new problems. After all, if it was easy or if we knew how to do it, it would have already been done. But it hasn’t, so we have to figure it out — I think that is a lot of fun. Doing internships in optics and photonics companies is also another option to learn more about research and development in the industry. Get as many experiences as possible and give things a chance!

Professor Mikkelsen is best known for the first demonstration of nondestructive readout of a single electron spin, ultrafast manipulation of a single spin using all-optical techniques, and extreme radiative decay engineering using nanoantennas.

Mikkelsen has received numerous accolades, including the Cottrell Scholar Award, the Maria Goeppert Mayer Award, and a “triple crown” of Young Investigator Awards from the Air Force, Army and Navy. Her work has been published in the journals Science, Nature Photonics, and Nature Physics, to name a few. Professor Mikkelsen enjoys hiking, gardening, playing tennis, and traveling in her free time.

Learn more at mikkelsen.pratt.duke.edu.

Written by Anika Radiya-Dixit

Students Share Research Journeys at Bass Connections Showcase

From the highlands of north central Peru to high schools in North Carolina, student researchers in Duke’s Bass Connections program are gathering data in all sorts of unique places.

As the school year winds down, they packed into Duke’s Scharf Hall last week to hear one another’s stories.

Students and faculty gathered in Scharf Hall to learn about each other’s research at this year’s Bass Connections showcase. Photo by Jared Lazarus/Duke Photography.

The Bass Connections program brings together interdisciplinary teams of undergraduates, graduate students and professors to tackle big questions in research. This year’s showcase, which featured poster presentations and five “lightning talks,” was the first to include teams spanning all five of the program’s diverse themes: Brain and Society; Information, Society and Culture; Global Health; Education and Human Development; and Energy.

“The students wanted an opportunity to learn from one another about what they had been working on across all the different themes over the course of the year,” said Lori Bennear, associate professor of environmental economics and policy at the Nicholas School, during the opening remarks.

Students seized the chance, eagerly perusing peers’ posters and gathering for standing-room-only viewings of other team’s talks.

The different investigations took students from rural areas of Peru, where teams interviewed local residents to better understand the transmission of deadly diseases like malaria and leishmaniasis, to the North Carolina Museum of Art, where mathematicians and engineers worked side-by-side with artists to restore paintings.

Machine learning algorithms created by the Energy Data Analytics Lab can pick out buildings from a satellite image and estimate their energy consumption. Image courtesy Hoël Wiesner.

Students in the Energy Data Analytics Lab didn’t have to look much farther than their smart phones for the data they needed to better understand energy use.

“Here you can see a satellite image, very similar to one you can find on Google maps,” said Eric Peshkin, a junior mathematics major, as he showed an aerial photo of an urban area featuring buildings and a highway. “The question is how can this be useful to us as researchers?”

With the help of new machine-learning algorithms, images like these could soon give researchers oodles of valuable information about energy consumption, Peshkin said.

“For example, what if we could pick out buildings and estimate their energy usage on a per-building level?” said Hoël Wiesner, a second year master’s student at the Nicholas School. “There is not really a good data set for this out there because utilities that do have this information tend to keep it private for commercial reasons.”

The lab has had success developing algorithms that can estimate the size and location of solar panels from aerial photos. Peshkin and Wiesner described how they are now creating new algorithms that can first identify the size and locations of buildings in satellite imagery, and then estimate their energy usage. These tools could provide a quick and easy way to evaluate the total energy needs in any neighborhood, town or city in the U.S. or around the world.

“It’s not just that we can take one city, say Norfolk, Virginia, and estimate the buildings there. If you give us Reno, Tuscaloosa, Las Vegas, Pheonix — my hometown — you can absolutely get the per-building energy estimations,” Peshkin said. “And what that means is that policy makers will be more informed, NGOs will have the ability to best service their community, and more efficient, more accurate energy policy can be implemented.”

Some students’ research took them to the sidelines of local sports fields. Joost Op’t Eynde, a master’s student in biomedical engineering, described how he and his colleagues on a Brain and Society team are working with high school and youth football leagues to sort out what exactly happens to the brain during a high-impact sports game.

While a particularly nasty hit to the head might cause clear symptoms that can be diagnosed as a concussion, the accumulation of lesser impacts over the course of a game or season may also affect the brain. Eynde and his team are developing a set of tools to monitor both these impacts and their effects.

A standing-room only crowd listened to a team present on their work “Tackling Concussions.” Photo by Jared Lazarus/Duke Photography.

“We talk about inputs and outputs — what happens, and what are the results,” Eynde said. “For the inputs, we want to actually see when somebody gets hit, how they get hit, what kinds of things they experience, and what is going on in the head. And the output is we want to look at a way to assess objectively.”

The tools include surveys to estimate how often a player is impacted, an in-ear accelerometer called the DASHR that measures the intensity of jostles to the head, and tests of players’ performance on eye-tracking tasks.

“Right now we are looking on the scale of a season, maybe two seasons,” Eynde said. “What we would like to do in the future is actually follow some of these students throughout their career and get the full data for four years or however long they are involved in the program, and find out more of the long-term effects of what they experience.”

Kara J. Manke, PhD

Post by Kara Manke

Hidden No More: Women in STEM reflect on their Journeys

Back when she was a newly-minted Ph.D., Ayana Arce struggled to picture her future life as an experimental physicist. An African American woman in a field where the number of black women U.S. doctorates is still staggeringly small, Arce could not identify many role models who looked like her.

“I didn’t know what my life would look like as a black postdoc or faculty member,” Arce said.

But in the end, Arce – an associate professor of physics at Duke who went on to join the international team of physicists who discovered the Higgs Boson in 2012 — drew inspiration from her family.

“I looked to the women such as my mother who had had academic careers, and tried to think about how I could shape my life to look something like that, and I realized that it could be something I could make work,” Arce said.

Adrienne Stiff-Roberts, Fay Cobb Payton, Kyla McMullen, Robin Coger and Valerie Ashby on stage at the Hidden Figures No More panel discussion.

Adrienne Stiff-Roberts, Fay Cobb Payton, Kyla McMullen, Robin Coger and Valerie Ashby on stage at the Hidden Figures No More panel discussion. Credit: Chris Hildreth, Duke Photography.

Arce joined five other African American women faculty on the stage of Duke’s Griffith Film Theater March 23 for a warm and candid discussion on the joys and continuing challenges of their careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

The panel, titled “Hidden Figures No More: Highlighting Phenomenal Women in STEM,” was inspired by Hidden Figures, a film which celebrates three pioneering African American women mathematicians who overcame racial segregation and prejudice to play pivotal roles in NASA’s first manned space flight.

The panel discussion was spearheaded by Johnna Frierson, Director of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at the Pratt School of Engineering, and co-sponsored by the Duke Women’s Center. It was followed by a free screening of the film.

Though our society has made great strides since the days depicted in the film, women and minorities still remain under-represented in most STEM fields. Those who do pursue careers in STEM must overcome numerous hurdles, including unconscious bias and a lack of colleagues and role models who share their gender and race.

“In my field, at some of the smaller meetings, I am often the only black woman present at the conference, many times I’m the only black person at all,” said Adrienne Stiff-Roberts, an Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Duke. “In that atmosphere often it can be very challenging to engage with others in the way that you are supposed to, and you can feel like an outsider.”

Valerie Ashby and Ayana Arce onstage at the Hidden Figures No More panel discussion

Valerie Ashby and Ayana Arce shared their experiences. Credit: Chris Hildreth, Duke Photography

Stiff-Roberts and the other panelists have all excelled in the face of these challenges, making their marks in fields that include physics, chemistry, computer science, mechanical engineering and electrical engineering. On Thursday they shared their thoughts and experiences with a diverse audience of students, faculty, community members and more than a few kids.

Many of the panelists credited teams of mentors and sponsors for bolstering them when times got tough, and encouraged young scientists to form their own support squads.

Valerie Ashby, Dean at Duke’s Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, advised students to look for supporters who have a vision for what they can become, and are eager to help them get there. “Don’t assume that your help might come from people who you might expect your help to come from,” Ashby said.

The importance of cheerleading from friends, and particularly parents, can never be overestimated, the panelists said.

“Having someone who will celebrate every single positive with you is a beautiful thing,” said Ashby, in response to a mother seeking advice for how to support a daughter majoring in biomedical engineering. “If your daughter is like many of us, we’ll do 99 great things but if we do one wrong thing we will focus on the one wrong thing and think we can’t do anything.”

Women in STEM can also be important and powerful allies to each other, noted Kyla McMullen, an Assistant Professor of Computer and Information Science at the University of Florida.

“I have seen situations where a woman suggests something and then the male next her says the same thing and gets the credit,” McMullen said. “That still happens, but one thing that I see help is when women make an effort to reiterate the points made by other women so people can see who credit should be attributed to.”

With all the advice out there for young people who are striving to succeed in STEM – particularly women and underrepresented minorities – the panelists advocated that everyone to stay true to themselves, above all.

“I want to encourage everyone in the room – whether you are a budding scientist or woman scholar – you can be yourself,” Ashby said. “You should make up in your mind that you are going to be yourself, no matter what.”

Kara J. Manke, PhD

Post by Kara Manke

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