Duke Research Blog

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

Category: Guest Post (Page 1 of 9)

New Summer Program Aims at Diversity in Physical Therapy

The demand for physical therapists is growing tremendously in the United States. And although greater numbers of graduates from physical therapy (PT) training programs helps meet this demand, talented minority students are still vastly underrepresented. As a result, the profession lacks racial, ethnic and gender diversity compared to the increasingly diverse population it serves.

PT Summer Discovery students climbed Duke Chapel on a beautiful June day. (Colin A. Huth, HuthPhoto.com)

To begin to address the problem, Duke’s Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) Division hosted its first Summer Discovery Program in June, inviting 20 students from underrepresented minority groups to campus for five days to learn more.

“Our profession is fairly young compared to its medical counterparts,” says Kai Kennedy, assistant professor and director of community and global outreach for the DPT Division. “Part of the impetus for developing the Summer Discovery Program was to ultimately end up with a PT workforce that more broadly represents our population.”

“One of the challenges is that most students from underrepresented minorities don’t know what PT is,” says Chad Cook, Program Director of the DPT program at Duke. “It’s a necessary step to increase their awareness of professions other than medicine. The summer program will help their preparation and increase their potential, making them more competitive when applying for PT school.”

Summer discovery students met with students, faculty and staff of Duke’s Doctor of Physical Therapy division. (Colin A. Huth, HuthPhoto.com

More than 200 candidates applied for the program. The candidates chosen met one of the following eligibility requirements: the socioeconomic status of their family, their association with a minority group underrepresented in the physical therapy profession, whether they were first-generation college students, or were interested in helping underserved populations. With this approach, the program reached a broader demographic group of potential students.

“This strategy is common, it’s just never been applied in PT,” says Michel Landry, professor and Chief of the DPT Division at Duke. “Dentistry, medicine and nursing have a history of doing these short-duration, high-intensity events, specifically with the aim of scaling up the competencies of people who would not typically consider a career in the health professions.”

The students participated in an intensive schedule of academic sessions, guest lectures and physical activities. They visited the anatomy laboratory and other clinical facilities, learned about research opportunities in PT, and received in-depth walk-throughs of the applications process with an admissions coordinator. Sessions in orthopedics, neurology, geriatrics, pediatrics, musculoskeletal injury and global health provided exposure to the interdisciplinary nature of the profession, and students also received lessons in professional communication, leadership and community engagement. Structured sessions with current physical therapy students offered insight into student life at Duke, and networking events with faculty completed the immersion experience.

Program participants included (L-R) Kenneth Broeker, Jenny Hernandez and Brian Washington. (Colin A., Huth, HuthPhoto.com)

“I have kept in touch with the various doctors I met there,” says Brian Washington, a rising senior at University of North Carolina, Greensboro, majoring in kinesiology. “I am going to apply to Duke, just because of what the program has opened my eyes to. The people who put this program together made all of us believe that someone who thinks they aren’t good enough for something, actually is.”

“We could not have asked for a better group of students,” says Mya Shackleford, Assistant Director of Admissions for the DPT program at Duke. “Each one of them is going to be successful in their own right. To have these types of programs on the professional level that can expose students at an early stage is important, because a lot of people don’t know their options.”

To maximize the effectiveness of the program, the summer program also served as a kick-off to the Duke Tiered Mentorship program, which connects physical therapy professionals and students committed to creating a more diverse  workforce. A large network of faculty, current students and practicing clinicians volunteered as mentors and will stay in touch with summer program participants.

The division plans to track the summer students’ matriculation into physical therapy programs at Duke or elsewhere, as well as their overall academic and career paths. As a member of the American Physical Therapy Association’s Staff Work Group on Diversity and Inclusion, Kennedy also intends to garner perspective and support from other physical therapists around the country, and disseminate her experience with this program. And, by discussing the Summer Discovery Programat national conferences, Kennedy and Shackleford hope to encourage the development of similar programs at other institutions, and collectively increase diversity in the profession nationwide.

“I have been working as a PT for a long time, and I’ve never seen an institution have a commitment to diversity in this particular way,” says Kennedy. “It was an unparalleled opportunity for me to address something I feel very passionate about as an underrepresented minority in this field.”

Greer ArthurGuest Post by Greer Arthur, a postdoctoral researcher at NC State

A Summer Well-Spent In and Around Toxic Waste Sites

Edison, NJ is just 40 miles from Manhattan and 70 miles from Philadelphia. It’s also home to the US EPA’s Emergency Response Team (ERT), where I spent the summer as an intern.

Stella Wang and an EPA contractor used lifts to test oil being pumped out of these huge tanks. It was found to be contaminated with mercury, benzene and lead.

At the start of my internship, I had little idea of how ERT functioned. Unlike the 10 regional offices of the Environmental Protection Agency, ERT is a “headquarters” or Washington, DC-based group, which means it responds to incidents all over the country such as oil spills, train derailments, and natural disasters.

For example, my mentor, an air specialist who generally works from his cubicle in Edison, aided in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina by employing equipment to analyze air for hazardous pollutants. Other ERT team members have conducted sediment sampling to expedite the hazardous waste removal process, given consultation advice to other EPA members for long-term remedial site work, and led the innovation of new technology.

I was able to shadow and help my mentor and fellow ERT members with their Superfund site removal work. I created accurate maps showing injection well locations, learned how to use air monitoring instruments, and helped perform chemical lab experiments that will be employed for future site analysis.

Perhaps my favorite part of the internship was traveling to a myriad of active sites. At these sites, I not only got to see how ERT members worked with EPA’s on-scene coordinators, but also observed the physical removal and remediation processes. I was fortunate to visit a particular site multiple times — I witnessed the removal of contaminated oil from an abandoned lot as the summer progressed.

Stella Wang (left) and an EPA air specialist calibrating a air monitoring instrument before a public event.

At another site, I saw the beginning of an injection process intended to prevent the contamination of underground drinking water by hexavalent chromium. By pumping sodium lactate into underground wells, the hexavalent is converted into the insoluble and benign chromium-3 ion. If the injection process works, the community will no longer be threatened by this particular hazardous material.

ERT also acts in anticipation of possible contamination to protect the public. At largely attended events like the Democratic National Convention, a few ERT members will arrive with monitoring equipment. They pride themselves in their real-time data collection for a reason: throughout the event, they can detect whether a contaminant has been released and immediately instigate an emergency response to protect attendees.

Thanks to various ERT members, I felt accepted and welcome. They were open and patient with my never-ending questions about their career paths and other things. They’ve graciously taken me out to lunch so that they could get to know me better, ensuring my inclusion in their small community.

Of course, the experiences I had this summer, while brief, have taught me a tremendous amount and I have a clearer sense of how this division of the US federal government functions. But, it would be inaccurate and unjust to omit the impact that its people made on me.

Stella Wang, Duke 2019Guest post by Stella Wang, Class of 2019

Not Your Basic Bench: Zebrafish Reveal Secrets of the Developing Gut

Our intestine is a highly complex organ – a tortuous, rugged channel built of many specialized cell-types and coated with a protective, slimy matrix. Yet the intestine begins as a simple tube consisting of a central lumen lined by a sheet of epithelial cells, which are smooth cells that lie on the surface of the lumen. These intestinal epithelial cells are central players in many human diseases.

A portrait of Daniel Levic

Daniel Levic, a postdoctoral research associate in the department of cell biology at the Duke University Medical Center.

Daniel Levic of the Bagnat Lab is using zebrafish as experimental models to understand how intestines are formed in hopes of finding new ways to combat disease. He wants to learn how the intestinal lumen forms during early development, and how intestinal epithelial cells take on their physiological functions.

Levic, a postdoctoral research associate in the department of cell biology at the Duke University Medical Center, focuses on projects in both basic and translational science. Daniel uses zebrafish to analyze the formation of the lumen and the polarity of epithelial cells — how specialized they are for carrying out different functions —  at the genetic and cellular level. He focuses on how membrane proteins are sorted into different, specialized domains of the cell surface and how this process affects intestinal formation. Additionally, Daniel studies how inflammation is evaded in intestinal epithelial cells in Crohn’s disease using a combination of patient biopsy samples and animal studies in zebrafish. This project is a collaborative effort aided by clinicians and human geneticists at the Duke University Medical Center.

A microscope image of a zebrafish gut

The developing gut of a zebrafish, magnified.

Though complex human diseases can’t be fully mimicked in animal models like zebrafish, this type of research can be extremely useful. These model organisms can be used to study the basic, fundamental cellular mechanisms that ultimately underlie disease. An example is Daniel’s work on Crohn’s disease, where he is trying to understand how inflammatory signaling networks become activated, specifically in intestinal epithelial cells. This problem is difficult, if not impossible, to address using exclusively human biopsy samples.

Overall, Daniel hopes that his translational research will provide new knowledge of the role of intestinal epithelial cells in Crohn’s disease and provide biomarkers that will aid clinicians in predicting how patients will respond to therapeutic interventions. Daniel’s research and basic science research are rapidly changing the way we diagnose disease, treat patients, and interact with the world around us.

Guest post by Vaishnavi Siripurapu

Immerse Yourself in Virtual Reality on the Quad

Open since September 2016, the Virtual Reality Room on the first floor lounge of Edens 1C allows students to experience virtual reality using the HTC Vive headset and controllers.

DURHAM, N.C. — The virtual reality headset looked like something out of a science fiction film. It was tethered by a long cable to a glass-encased PC, which in turn was connected to thick hoses filled with glowing blue coolant.

I slipped the mask over my head and was literally transported to another world.

In real life, I was in the lower level of Edens residence hall testing out the recently opened BoltVR gaming room during an event hosted by the Duke Digital Initiative (DDI). Virtual reality is one of the technologies that DDI is exploring for its potential in teaching and learning.

Rebekkah Huss shoots invaders with a virtual bow and arrow in Duke's newest virtual reality space.

Rebekkah Huss shoots invaders with a virtual bow and arrow in Duke’s newest virtual reality space. Open to students 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. on weekdays, noon to midnight on weekends.

BoltVR is a virtual reality space outfitted with the immersive room-scale technology of the HTC Vive, an $800 gaming system consisting of the headset, hand-held controllers and motion sensors in the room. The VR experience is a new addition to the Bolt gaming suite that opened in 2015 for Duke students.

Once I had the headset on, suddenly the bare walls and carpet were replaced by the yellow lined grid of the Holodeck from Star Trek. It was like nothing I’d ever seen. This is like the home screen for the gaming system, explained  Mark-Everett McGill the designer of the BoltVR game room, as he scrolled through the more than 70 downloaded VR experiences on the BoltVR online account at Steam.

McGill chose a story experience so that I could adjust to being able to move around physical objects in a virtual space.

It was like the floor melted away. On a tiny asteroid in front of me The Little Prince and his rose played out their drama from the cover of the classic children’s book. The stars surrounded me and I tilted my head back to watch a giant planet fly over.

I could walk around the prince’s tiny asteroid and inspect the little world from all angles, but I found it disorienting to walk with normal stability while my eyes told me that I was floating in space. The HTC Vive has a built-in  guidance system called the Chaperone that used a map of the room to keep me from crashing into the walls, I still somehow managed to bump a spectator.

“A lot of people get motion sickness when they use VR because your eyes are sensing the movement but your ears are telling you, you aren’t doing anything.” said, McGill.

Lucky for me, I have a strong stomach and suffered no ill effects while wearing the headset. The HTC Vive also helps counteract motion sickness because is room scale design allows for normal walking and movement.

There was however, one part of the experience that felt very odd, and that was the handheld controllers. The controllers  are tracked by wall-mounted sensors so they show up really well in the VR headset. The problem was that in the titles I played my hands and body were invisible to me.

The headset and controller themselves are incredibly sensitive and accurate. I think most people would intuitively understand how to use them, especially if they have a gaming background, but I missed having the comfort of my own arms. So while the VR worlds are visually believable and the technology powering them is absolutely fascinating, there is still lots of room for new innovations.

Once I started playing games though, I no longer cared about the limitations of the tech because I was having so much fun!

The most popular student choice in the BoltVR is a subgame of The Lab by Valve, it’s a simple tower defense game where the player uses a bow and arrow to shoot little 2D stickmen and stop their attack.

Everything about using the bow felt pretty realistic like loading arrows, and using angles to control the trajectory of a shot. There was even a torch that I used to light my arrow on fire before launching it at an attacker. With unlimited ammunition, I happily guarded my tower from waves of baddies until I finally had to let someone else have a turn.

To learn more about VR experiences for teaching and learning at Duke, join the listserv at https://lists.duke.edu/sympa/subscribe/vr2learn.

Post by Rebekkah Huss

Post by Rebekkah Huss

Duke Scientists Visit Raleigh to Share Their Work

This post by graduate student Dan Keeley originally appeared on Regeneration NEXT. It is a followup to one of our earlier posts.

As a scientist, it is easy to get caught up in the day-to-day workflow of research and lose sight of the bigger picture. We are often so focused on generating and reporting solid, exciting data that we neglect another major aspect of our job; sharing our work and its impacts with the broader community. On Tuesday May 23rd, a group of graduate students from Duke went to the North Carolina legislative building to do just that.

L-R: Andrew George, Representative Marcia Morey (Durham County), Senator Terry Van Duyn (Buncombe County), Sharlini Sankaran, Dan Keeley, and Will Barclay at the NC legislative building.

Dr. Sharlini Sankaran, Executive Director of Duke’s Regeneration Next Initiative, organized a group of graduate students to attend the North Carolina Hospital Associations (NCHA) “Partnering for a Healthier Tomorrow!” advocacy day at the state legislature in Raleigh. The event gave representatives from various hospital systems an opportunity to interact with state legislators about the work they do and issues affecting healthcare in the state. Andrew George, a graduate student in the McClay Lab, Will Barclay, a graduate student in the Shinohara Lab, and I joined Dr. Sankaran to share some of the great tissue regeneration-related research going on at Duke.

Our morning was busy as elected officials, legislative staff, executive branch agency officials, and staff from other hospital systems stopped by our booth to hear what Regeneration Next is all about. We talked about the focus on harnessing Duke’s strengths in fundamental research on molecular mechanisms underlying regeneration and development, then pairing that with the expertise of our engineers and clinicians. We discussed topics including spine and heart regeneration mechanisms from the Poss Lab, advances in engineering skeletal muscle from the Bursac Lab, and clinical trials of bioengineered blood vessels for patients undergoing dialysis from Duke faculty Dr. Jeffrey Lawson.

It was remarkable to hear how engaged everyone was, we got great questions like ‘what is a zebrafish and why do you use them?’ and ‘why would a bioengineered ligament be better than one from an animal model or cadaver?’.  Every person who stopped by was supportive and many had a personal story to share about a health issue experienced by friends, family, or even themselves. As a graduate student who does basic research, it really underscored how important these personal connections are to our work, even though it may be far removed from the clinic.

Communicating our research to legislators and others at NCHA advocacy day was a great and encouraging experience. Health issues affect all of us. Our visit to the legislature on Tuesday was a reminder that there is support for the work that we do in hopes it will help lead to a healthier tomorrow.

Guest post by Dan Keeley, graduate student in BiologyDan Keeley

Scientists Engineer Disease-Resistant Rice Without Sacrificing Yield

Researchers have developed a way to make rice more resistant to bacterial blight and other diseases without reducing yield. Photo by Max Pixel.

Researchers have successfully developed a novel method that allows for increased disease resistance in rice without decreasing yield. A team at Duke University, working in collaboration with scientists at Huazhong Agricultural University in China, describe the findings in a paper published May 17, 2017 in the journal Nature.

Rice is one of the most important staple crops, responsible for providing over one-fifth of the calories consumed by humans worldwide. Diseases caused by bacterial or fungal pathogens present a significant problem, and can result in the loss of 80 percent or more of a rice crop.

Decades of research into the plant immune response have identified components that can be used to engineer disease-resistant plants. However, their practical application to crops is limited due to the decreased yield associated with a constantly active defense response.

“Immunity is a double-edged sword, ” said study co-author Xinnian Dong, professor of biology at Duke and lead investigator of the study. “There is often a tradeoff between growth and defense because defense proteins are not only toxic to pathogens but also harmful to self when overexpressed,” Dong said. “This is a major challenge in engineering disease resistance for agricultural use because the ultimate goal is to protect the yield.”

Previous studies have focused on altering the coding sequence or upstream DNA sequence elements of a gene. These upstream DNA elements are known as promoters, and they act as switches that turn on or off a gene’s expression. This is the first step of a gene’s synthesis into its protein product, known as transcription.

By attaching a promoter that gives an “on” signal to a defense gene, a plant can be engineered to be highly resistant to pathogens, though at a cost to growth and yield. These costs can be partially alleviated by attaching the defense gene to a “pathogen specific” promoter that turns on in the presence of pathogen attack.

To further alleviate the negative effects of active defense, the Dong group sought to add an additional layer of control. They turned newly discovered sequence elements, called upstream open reading frames (uORFs), to help address this problem. These sequence elements act on the intermediate of a gene, or messenger (RNA, a molecule similar to DNA) to govern its “translation” into the final protein product. A recent study by the Dong lab in an accompanying paper in Nature has identified many of these elements that respond in a pathogen-inducible manner.

The Dong group hypothesized that adding this pathogen-inducible translational regulation would result in a tighter control of defense protein expression and minimize the lost yield associated with enhanced disease resistance.

To test this hypothesis, the researchers started with Arabidopsis, a flowering plant commonly used in laboratory research. They created a DNA sequence that contains both the transcriptional and translational elements (uORFs) and fused them upstream of the potent “immune activator” gene called snc1. This hybrid sequence was called a “transcriptional/translational cassette” and was inserted into Arabidopsis plants.

When plants have snc1 constitutively active, they are highly resistant to pathogens, but have severely stunted growth. Strikingly, plants with the transcriptional/translational cassette not only have increased resistance, but they also lacked growth defects and resembled healthy wild-type plants. These results show the benefits of adding translational control in engineering plants that have increased resistance without significant costs.

The Dong group then sought to apply these findings to engineer disease-resistant rice, as it is one of the world’s most important crops. They created transgenic rice lines containing the transcriptional/translational cassette driving expression of another potent “immune activator” gene called AtNPR1. This gene was chosen as it has been found to confer broad spectrum pathogen resistance in a wide variety of crop species, including rice, citrus, apple and wheat.

The dry yellowish leaves on these rice plants are a classic symptom of bacterial blight, a devastating disease that affects rice fields worldwide. Photo by Meng Yuan.

The transgenic rice lines containing the transcriptional/translational cassette were infected with bacterial/fungal pathogens that cause three major rice diseases — rice  blight, leaf streak, and fungal blast. These showed high resistance to all three pathogens, indicating broad spectrum resistance could be achieved. Importantly, when grown in the field, their yield — both in terms of grain quantity and quality per plant — was almost unaffected. These results indicate a great potential for agricultural applications.

This strategy is the first known use of adding translational control for the engineering of disease-resistant crops with minimal yield costs. It has many advantages, as it is broadly applicable to a variety of crop species against many pathogens. Since this strategy involves activating the plants’ endogenous defenses, it may also reduce the use of pesticides on crops and hence protect the environment.

Additionally, these findings may be broadly applicable to other systems as well. These upstream elements (uORFs) are widely present in organisms from yeast to humans, with nearly half of all human transcripts containing them. “The great potential in using these elements in controlling protein translation during specific biological processes has yet to be realized,” Dong said.

Corresponding author Xinnian Dong can be reached at xdong@duke.edu or (919) 613-8176.

CITATION:  “uORF-Mediated Translation Allows Engineered Plant Disease Resistance Without Fitness Costs,” Guoyong Xu, Meng Yuan,   Chaoren Ai, Lijing Liu, Edward Zhuang, Sargis Karapetyan, Shiping Wang and Xinnian Dong. Nature, May 17, 2017. DOI: 10.1038/nature22372

 

Guest post by Jonathan Motley

Where Some Ski, Others Do Science

For most people, Lost Trail is a ski spot located at 7,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains on the border of Idaho and Montana. Skiers and snowboarders descend down steep slopes, past forests and alpine meadows that get more than 25 feet of snow each year. But for a team of researchers led by Duke biology professor Thomas Mitchell-Olds, buried beneath the snow is a hidden population of native plants on the cusp of dividing into two new species.

Molly Rivera-Olds shovels snow at Lost Trail Pass.

Studying a spindly North American wildflower called Boechera stricta, Mitchell-Olds and colleagues suspected that a process called chromosomal inversion — in which part of a chromosome breaks off and reattaches itself upside down — plays a central role in speciation. To test the idea, they planted Boechera stricta seedlings in a mountaintop meadow near the Lost Trail resort.

To reach the meadow, the researchers carried thousands of seedlings up the mountain in specially constructed backpacks. They also lugged up nine empty garbage cans and filled them with snow to water the plants throughout the summer.

Once the seedlings matured, the researchers measured flowering time, seed production, and survival. They found that plants with the chromosomal inversion had a leg up on the steep slopes of the Rocky Mountains. Eventually, the researchers say, this can lead to plants with the inverted DNA splitting off and forming a new species.

The findings were published April 3, 2017 in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

# # #

CITATION:  “Young Inversion with Multiple Linked QTLs Under Selection in a Hybrid Zone,” Cheng-Ruei Lee, Baosheng Wang et al. Nature Ecology & Evolution, April 3, 2017. DOI:10.1038/s41559-017-0119.

Guest post by Molly Rivera-Olds

 

 

 

 

 

Durham Students Give Themselves a Hand Up

Picture this: a group of young middle schoolers are gathered trying to get a “hand” they’ve built out of drinking straws, thread and clay to grasp a small container. What could such a scene possibly have to do with encouraging kids to stay in school and pursue science? It turns out, quite a lot!

brothers keeper

Angelo Moreno (right), a graduate student in molecular genetics and microbiology, helps students with their soda straw hand.

This scene was part of an event designed just for boys from Durham schools that took place one March evening at the Durham Marriot and Convention Center. It was hosted by Made in Durham, a local non-profit focused on helping Durham’s young people graduate from high school, go to college, and ultimately be prepared for their careers, and My Brother’s Keeper Durham, the local branch of former President Obama’s mentoring initiative for young men of color.

The first evening of a convention centered on building equity in education and was geared toward career exploration. Each of the boys got to choose from a series of workshops that highlighted careers in science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics — also known as STEAM. The workshops ranged from architectural design to building body parts, which was where they learned to build the artificial hands.

Sharlini Sankaran, the executive director of Duke’s Regeneration Next Initiative, who heard about my outreach activities from earlier this year, contacted me, and together we drummed up a group of scientists for the event.

With the help of Victor Ruthig in Cell Biology, Angelo Moreno in Molecular Genetics and Microbiology, Ashley Williams in Biomedical Engineering, and Devon Lewis, an undergraduate in the Biology program, we dove into the world of prosthetics and tissue engineering with the young men who came to our workshop.

Biology undergrad Devon Lewis (top) worked with several of the students.

After some discussion on what it takes to build an artificial body part, we let the boys try their hand at building their own. We asked them what the different parts of the hand were that allowed us to bend them and move them in certain ways, and from there, they developed ideas for how to turn our household materials into fully functioning hands. We used string as tendons and straws as finger bones, cutting notches where we wanted to create joints.

There was a lot of laughter in the room, but also a lot of collaboration between the different groups of kids. When one team figured out how to make a multi-jointed finger, they would share that knowledge with other groups. Similar knowledge sharing happened when one group figured out how to use the clay to assemble all their fingers into a hand. Seeing these young men work together, problem solve, and be creative was amazing to watch and be a part of!

According to feedback from event organizers, “ours was the most popular session!” Sharlini said. When we reached the end of our session, the kids didn’t want to leave, and instead wanted to keep tinkering with their hands to see what they could accomplish.

The boys had a lot of fun, asked a lot of good questions, and got to pick our brains for advice on staying in school and using it to propel them towards career success. I have distilled some of the best pieces of advice from that night, since they’re good for everyone to hear:

  • Don’t be afraid to ask a lot of questions.
  • Don’t be discouraged when someone tells you no. Go for it anyways.
  • Don’t be afraid of failure.
  • And don’t think you have to fit a particular mold to succeed at something.

“I left feeling really inspired about our future generation of scientists and engineers,” Sharlini said. ”It’s good to know there are so many Duke students with the genuine and selfless desire to help others.”

It was a joy to participate in this event. We all had fun, and left having learned a lot — even the parents who came with their sons!

Outreach like this is incredibly important. Being mentors for young people with a budding interest in science can make the difference between them pursuing it further or dropping it altogether. Engaging with them to show them the passion we have for our work and that we were kids just like they are allows them to see that they can do it too.

Guest Post by Ariana Eily

Mental Shortcuts, Not Emotion, May Guide Irrational Decisions

If you participate in a study in my lab, the Huettel Lab at Duke, you may be asked to play an economic game. For example, we may give you $20 in house money and offer you the following choice:

  1. Keep half of the $20 for sure
  2. Flip a coin: heads you keep all $20; tails you lose all $20

In such a scenario, most participants choose 1, preferring a sure win over the gamble.

Now imagine this choice, again starting with $20 in house money:

  1. Lose half of the $20 for sure
  2. Flip a coin: heads you keep all $20; tails you lose all $20

In this scenario, most participants prefer the gamble over a sure loss.

If you were paying close attention, you’ll note that both examples are actually numerically identical – keeping half of $20 is the same as losing half of $20 – but changing whether the sure option is framed as a gain or a loss results in different decisions to play it safe or take a risk. This phenomenon is known as the Framing Effect. The behavior that it elicits is weird, or as psychologists and economists would say, “irrational”, so we think it’s worth investigating!

Brain activity when people make choices consistent with (hot colors) or against (cool colors) the Framing Effect.

Brain activity when people make choices consistent with (hot colors) or against (cool colors) the Framing Effect.

In a study published March 29 in the Journal of Neuroscience, my lab used brain imaging data to test two competing theories for what causes the Framing Effect.

One theory is that framing is caused by emotion, perhaps because the prospect of accepting a guaranteed win feels good while accepting a guaranteed loss feels scary or bad. Another theory is that the Framing Effect results from a decision-making shortcut. It may be that a strategy of accepting sure gains and avoiding sure losses tends to work well, and adopting this blanket strategy saves us from having to spend time and mental effort fully reasoning through every single decision and all of its possibilities.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), we measured brain activity in 143 participants as they each made over a hundred choices between various gambles and sure gains or sure losses. Then we compared our participants’ choice-related brain activity to brain activity maps drawn from Neurosynth, an analysis tool that combines data from over 8,000 published fMRI studies to generate neural maps representing brain activity associated with different terms, just as “emotions,” “resting,” or “working.”

As a group, when our participants made choices consistent with the Framing Effect, their average brain activity was most similar to the brain maps representing mental disengagement (i.e. “resting” or “default”). When they made choices inconsistent with the Framing Effect, their average brain activity was most similar to the brain maps representing mental engagement (i.e. “working” or task”). These results supported the theory that the Framing Effect results from a lack of mental effort, or using a decision-making shortcut, and that spending more mental effort can counteract the Framing Effect.

Then we tested whether we could use individual participants’ brain activity to predict participants’ choices on each trial. We found that the degree to which each trial’s brain activity resembled the brain maps associated with mental disengagement predicted whether that trial’s choice would be consistent with the Framing Effect. The degree to which each trial’s brain activity resembled brain maps associated with emotion, however, was not predictive of choices.

Our findings support the theory that the biased decision-making seen in the Framing Effect is due to a lack of mental effort rather than due to emotions.

This suggests potential strategies for prompting people to make better decisions. Instead of trying to appeal to people’s emotions – likely a difficult task requiring tailoring to different individuals – we would be better off taking the easier and more generalizable approach of making good decisions quick and easy for everyone to make.

Guest post by Rosa Li

Venturing Out of the Lab to Defend Science

It’s 6 p.m. on a Wednesday and the grad students aren’t at their lab benches. IM softball doesn’t start till next week, what gives?

We’ve snuck out of our labs a bit early to take in a dose of U.S. policy for the evening.

Politics fall far outside our normal areas of expertise. I’m a biology Ph.D. student studying plants — even with my liberal arts education, politics isn’t my bread and butter.

Buz Waitzkin of Science & Society (blue shirt) gave grad students a highly accelerated intro to matters of science policy.

But the current political climate in the U.S. has many scientists taking a more careful look into politics. Being scholars who have a sense of the world around us has become more important than ever.

“Agency regulation, funding, it’s all decided by our branches of government,” says Ceri Weber, a 3rd year Ph.D. candidate in Cell Biology.

Weber, a budding “sci-pol” enthusiast and the general programming chair for the student group INSPIRE, feels passionately about getting scientists informed about policy.

So she organized this event for graduate scientists to talk with the deputy director of Duke Science & Society, Buz Waitzkin, who previously served as special counsel to President Bill Clinton, and now teaches science policy classes cross-listed between Duke’s Biomedical Science programs and the Law School.

Seated with food and drinks—the way to any grad student’s heart—we found ourselves settling in for an open discussion about the current administration and the impact its policies could have on science.

We covered a lot of ground in our 2-hour discussion, though there was plenty more we would love to continue learning.

We discussed: lobbying, executive orders, the balances of power, historical context, tradition, and civil actions, to name a few.

There were a lot of questions, and a lot of things we didn’t know.

Even things as simple as “what exactly is a regulation?” needed to be cleared up. We’ve got our own definition in a biological context, but regulation takes on a whole new meaning in a political one. It was neat having the chance to approach this topic from the place of a beginner.

We were floored by some of the things we learned, and puzzled by others. Importantly, we found some interesting places of kinship between science and policy.

When we discussed the Congressional Review Act, which impacts regulations—the main way science policy is implemented—we learned there is ambiguity in law just like there is in science.

One area on all of our minds was how we fit into the picture. Where can our efforts and knowledge as scientists and students can make a difference?

I was shocked to learn of the lack of scientists in government: only five ever in Congress, and three in the Cabinet.

But luckily, there is space for us as science advisors in different affiliations with the government. There are even Duke graduate students working on a grant to develop science policy fellowships in the NC state legislature.

At the end of the night, we were all eager to learn more and encouraged to participate in politics in the ways that we can. We want to be well-versed in policy and take on an active role to bring about change in our communities and beyond.

Hopefully, as the years go on, we’ll have more opportunities to deepen our knowledge outside of science in the world around us. Hopefully, we’ll have more scientists who dare to step out of the lab.

Guest Post by Graduate Student Ariana Eily

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