Duke Research Blog

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

Category: Lecture (Page 1 of 12)

Long-Term Study Sees the Big Picture of Cannabis Use

Seventy percent of the United States population will have tried marijuana by the age of 30. As the debate on the legalization of the most commonly used illicit drug continues throughout the country, researchers like William Copeland, PhD, and Sherika Hill, PhD, from the Duke Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences are interested in patterns of marijuana use and abuse in the first 30 years of life.

Marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug.

The Great Smoky Mountain Study set out in 1992 to observe which factors contributed to emotional and behavioral problems in children growing up in western North Carolina. The study included over 1,000 children, including nearly 400 living on the Cherokee reservation. In addition to its intended purpose, the data collected has proven invaluable to understanding how kids and young adults are forming their relationship with cannabis.

The Great Smoky Mountains Study collected extensive medical and behavioral research from 11 counties in western North Carolina.

Using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) and patterns of daily use of the drug, Copeland and Hill found some unsurprising patterns: peak use of the drug is during young adulthood (ages 19-21), when kids are moving out of the home to college or to live alone.

But while most people adjust to this autonomy and eventually stop their usage of the drug, a small percentage of users (7%) keep using into their adulthood. Hill and Copeland have observed specific trends that apply both to this chronic user group as well as an even smaller percentage of users (4%) who begin using at a later stage in life than most people, termed the delayed-onset problematic users.

Looking at the demographics of the various types of users, Hill and Copeland found that males are twice as likely to engage in marijuana use to any extent than females. Of those who do use the drug, African Americans are five times more likely to be delayed-onset users, while Native Americans are twice as likely to decrease their use before it becomes problematic.

For both persistent and delayed-onset problematic users, family instability during childhood was 2-4 times more likely than in non-problematic users.

Persistent users were more likely to have endured anxiety throughout childhood, and delayed-onset users were more likely to have experienced some kind of trauma or maltreatment in childhood than other types of users.

The identification of these trends could prove a vital tool in predicting and preventing marijuana abuse, and the importance of this understanding is evidenced in the data collected that elucidates outcomes of marijuana use.

Looking at various measures of social and personal success, the team identified patterns with a resounding trend: recent use of marijuana is indicative of poorer outcomes. Physical health and financial or educational outcomes displayed the worst outcomes in chronic and delayed-onset users. Finally, criminal behavior was increased in every group that used; in other words, regardless of the extent of use, every group with use of marijuana fared worse than the group that abstained.

The results of Copeland and Hill’s work has important implications as legislators debate the legalization of marijuana. While understanding these patterns of use and their outcomes can provide useful insight on the current patterns of usage, decriminalization will certainly change the way marijuana is manufactured and consumed, and will thus also affect these patterns.
By Sarah Haurin

Who Gets Sick and Why?

During his presentation as part of the Chautauqua lecture series, Duke sociologist Dr. Tyson Brown explained his research exploring the ways racial inequalities affect a person’s health later in life. His project mainly looks at the Baby Boomer generation, Americans born between 1946 and 1964.

With incredible increases in life expectancy, from 47 years in 1900 to 79 today, elderly people are beginning to form a larger percentage of the population. However among black people, the average life expectancy is three and a half years shorter.

“Many of you probably do not think that three and half years is a lot,” Brown said. “But imagine how much less time that is with your family and loved ones. In the end, I think all of us agree we want those extra three and a half years.”

Not only does the black population in America have shorter lives on average but they also tend to have sicker lives with higher blood pressures, greater chances of stroke, and higher probability of diabetes. In total, the number of deaths that would be prevented if African-American people had the same life expectancy as white people is 880,000 over a nine-year span. Now, the question Brown has challenged himself with is “Why does this discrepancy occur?”

Brown said he first concluded that health habits and behaviors do not create this life expectancy gap because white and black people have similar rates of smoking, drinking, and illegal drug use. He then decided to explore socioeconomic status. He discovered that as education increases, mortality decreases. And as income increases, self-rated health increases. He said that for every dollar a white person makes, a black person makes 59 cents.

This inequality in income points to the possible cause for the racial inequality in health, he said.  Additionally, in terms of wealth instead of income, a black person has 6 cents compared to the white person’s dollar. Possibly even more concerning than this inconsistency is the fact that it has gotten worse, not better, over time. Before the 2006 recession, blacks had 10-12 cents of wealth for every white person’s dollar.

Brown believes that this financial stress forms one of many stressors in black lives including chronic stressors, everyday discrimination, traumatic events, and neighborhood disorder which affect their health.

Over time, these stressors create something called physiological dysregulation, otherwise known as wear and tear, through repeated activation of  the stress response, he said. Recognition of the prevalence of these stressors in black lives has lead to Brown’s next focus on the extent of the effect of stressors on health. For his data, he uses the Health and Retirement Study and self-rated health (proven to predict mortality better than physician evaluations). For his methods, he employs structural equation modeling. Racial inequalities in socioeconomic resources, stressors and biomarkers of physiological dysregulation collectively explain 87% of the health gap with any number of causes capable of filling the remaining percentage.

Brown said his next steps include using longitudinal and macro-level data on structural inequality to understand how social inequalities “get under the skin” over a person’s lifetime. He suggests that the next steps for society, organizations, and the government to decrease this racial discrepancy rest in changing economic policy, increasing wages, guaranteeing work, and reducing residential segregation.

Post by Lydia Goff

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

Piloting Aviation Mental Healthcare

With more than 100,000 flights taking off per day, the safety of air travel is a far-reaching issue.

Air travel remains one of the safest forms of transportation, but are there things we can do to make it safer?

While air travel is by far the safest method of transportation — you are more likely to die from a car crash or even a shark attack than from an airplane crash — accidents do happen and can result in highly publicized fatalities.

Chris Kenedi is working with the ICAO to improve treatment of mentally ill pilots.

Auckland Hospital internist and psychiatrist Chris Kenedi, MD, MPH, is working with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to improve safety of air travel by focusing on an issue that is usually only questioned in instances of tragedy: the mental health of pilots.

While screening procedures do currently exist, they are not enough for the extent of risk factors that are present in the pilot population.
Being a pilot is a high-stress job. It involves long hours, separation from family, and irregular sleep schedules, all of which can contribute to or exacerbate mental conditions.

Many pilots experiencing symptoms are unwilling to ask for help, because admitting mental illness can lead to a pilot’s license being revoked, which would not only affect financial circumstances but also be felt as a loss of identity.

Although data regarding aviation mental health is sparse, what is available suggests  mental health issues are among the greatest contributing factors to suicide and homicide-suicide incidents of plane accidents.

When Kenedi completed a systematic review of all data on the mental health of pilots and the current standard procedures, he found a deeply flawed system. Case studies of crashes caused by suicidal pilots showed that psychiatrists cleared them for flight even after episodes indicating a much deeper psychological imbalance.

One pilot who drove his car into a barrier, attempted to steal the car of a woman trying to help him, and slit his wrists so deeply that he required two years of rehabilitation before regaining all of his mobility, was diagnosed with a general anxiety disorder and cleared to fly without proper treatment.

In order to prevent further grave oversights, Kenedi suggests requiring the psychiatrist who assesses a pilot’s ability to fly to be separate from the treating psychiatrist. This separation prevents the assessing psychiatrist from having his or her judgement confounded by a relationship with the patient and thus becoming an advocate rather than an impartial assessor.

Kenedi said that alcohol and substance abuse treatments for pilots have been effective, however. Rather than relying on random drug and alcohol tests to disqualify impaired pilots, the system provides non-judgmental treatment and an opportunity to return to piloting.

Kenedi recommends a shift to treating mental illness in pilots in a similar way, so that individuals are not afraid to step forward and ask for help. Educating mental healthcare providers is also important, so that pilots are receiving the best care possible.

With proper resources and treatment, pilots with mental health concerns should be able to maintain their identity as pilots while gaining renewed resilience and support through the mental health system. This shift would hopefully help to prevent some of the small amount of air travel accidents that occur because of pilot issues.

By Sarah Haurin

 

How Climate Change Limits Educational Access

Regions with agricultural economies suffer greatly from climate change.

The effects of climate change can creep into nearly every aspect of life in heavy-hit areas. They may even limit children’s access to education, says Nicholas School of the Environment graduate Heather Randell.

“Investments in education are an important pathway out of poverty, yet lack of access remains a barrier,” Randall said in a presentation to Nicholas School students and faculty.

Randell became interested in the relationship between climate change and education when she visited Ethiopia before pursuing her doctorate. She noticed many school-age kids were working rather than pursuing an education, and began to wonder what factors influence children’s time use.

Heather Randell PhD is a sociologist and demographer for the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Cener (SESYNC).

Although the UN’s Millennium Development Goals and Beyond 2015 aimed to ensure universal primary education for all school-age children, 20 percent of children in Sub-Saharan Africa were still out of school in 2017.

Using data from the Ethiopian Rural Household Survey, Randell found that when children experience milder temperatures and more ample rainfall during their early life, they are more likely to stay in school longer. This trend can be attributed to the close ties between the economy and climate in agricultural areas like those in rural Ethiopia.

Agricultural economies are inherently dependent on temperature and rainfall. Increased temperature and decreased rainfall lower crop yield, which in turn decreases individual families’ incomes.

Children in Ethiopia are less likely to continue their education if they experienced hotter temperatures and less rainfall in their early childhood.

With less disposable income, families are more likely to spend their money on necessities like food rather than on schooling fees. Families are also more likely to pull children out of school so kids can work and contribute to the diminished family income.

After finding these patterns in Ethiopia, Randell expanded her research to include regions in the tropics, including Central America, the Caribbean, South America, East Africa, West Africa and Southeast Asia. Each of these regions has variations in their typical rainfall and temperatures, but all are inherently susceptible to climate change because of their location near the equator.

From her research in Ethiopia, Randell found two mechanisms by which climate change influences educational outcomes.

Comparing standardized census and climate data from these regions, Randell found a similar pattern, with increased temperature and changes in rainfall being associated with decreased educational outcomes.

This study also found that climate change and its negative effects often outweigh typical advantages that improve educational access, such as parents who have had a longer schooling.

Randell concluded her talk by stating that true and lasting change to educational accessibility will only be brought about by policy change. School must be less expensive and more accessible, and more importantly, livelihood diversification must be taught and encouraged. Families must learn how to generate income in ways other than agriculture so that their income and familial decisions are more resilient to climate variability.

By Sarah Haurin

Happy Patients, Healthy Lungs

Lung-shaped leaves

Evaluating a patient’s mental health before and after lung transplant surgery can help improve long-term outcomes. Source: tikyon, Flickr.

Diseases like Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and Cystic Fibrosis (CF) are hard to treat. Lung transplant is important option for people who do not benefit from other treatments, and understanding the outcomes for these patients is crucial.

Patrick Smith, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Duke Hospital, shared his research into predictors for outcomes of lung transplant with a group of transplant physicians and surgeons at the Duke Hospital on Sept. 14.

“Patients receive transplants to live longer and to feel better,” Smith said.

Focus on the first goal has increased the median survival time after a lung transplant to six years. But Smith began his research because of an interest in the second goal.

An incredibly complex, long, and difficult procedure, transplants require extensive testing and therapies before a patient enters the operating room (OR). Among the pre-operative testing is a mental health assessment to determine if any psychological issues exist that could make recovery more difficult. Mental health issues can affect adherence, or a patient’s commitment to continuing the prescribed post-op medication after release from the hospital.

Smith’s research found that some of these tests can be incredibly useful at predicting outcomes not previously explored; patients who show cognitive impairments before surgery were found to be more likely to fall victim to delirium, a post-operative state of confusion and psychosis that has been linked to an increased risk of complications and death.

While acknowledging the usefulness of pre-operative testing, Smith also pointed out the inadequacy of this model. Failing to continue psychological assessments after the surgery and throughout the recovery means that doctors are missing important clues that could indicate how well patients will recover.

Through his research, Smith has found that the presence of depressive symptoms after transplant is actually a much more useful and accurate tool for predicting risk of mortality than symptoms exhibited before surgery.  

This point is strengthened by a previous study that found that successful treatment of depressive symptoms in liver transplant patients reduced the mortality rate of depressive patients to that of their non-depressive counterparts.

These results are promising for the possibility of improving transplant outcomes; by valuing and treating both pre-operative and post-operative signs of risk, doctors can improve the outcomes for their patients and ensure the limited supply of organs is being used in the best and most successful way possible.

Post by Sarah Haurin

 

 

If the Cancer Doesn't Kill You, the Drug Prices Might

The medical community is growing alarmed about a creeping malady that can diminish the quality of life for patients in treatment and even shorten their lives.

It’s found everywhere in the United States, but not to the same degree in other developed countries. They’re calling it “Financial Toxicity.”

Yousuf Zafar is an oncologist and health policy researcher.

A cancer diagnosis more than doubles an American’s chance of declaring bankruptcy, Duke medical oncologist  Yousuf Zafar, MD, MHS,  told an audience of nursing faculty and students at a May 10 luncheon lecture sponsored by the Duke Center for Community and Population Health Improvement. And that bankruptcy, in turn, has been shown to decrease survival rates.

In addition to treating cancer patients, Zafar studies access to care and the cost of care at the Duke Cancer Institute, the Sanford School of Public Policy, and the Margolis Center for Health Policy.

Zafar told personal stories of two patients who waved off treatments because of the financial hardship they feared.

Gleevec (Imatinib) is an oral chemotherapy made by Novartis.

One of them had a job with health insurance, but no prescription drug coverage, which put him on the hook for $4,000 in medications to treat his rectal cancer for just a few weeks. Had either the patient or Dr. Zafar brought the topic up, the costs might have been avoided, but they never talked about money, he said.

The other patient passed up another round of treatment for his pancreatic cancer, for fear of the bills his family would be saddled with when he died.

Chemotherapy for cancer would typically cost $100/month in the 1970s, Zafar said. But today that figure can be “ten, or tens, of thousands per month.” (Inflation would make that 1970 dollar about $6, not $600.)

“Pricing in the European Union and the rest of the world is a completely different picture,” he said.  In the US, pricing “simply reflects what the market will bear.”

Another source of the steep climb is the advent of biologic drugs, which are expensive to develop, use and store, but offer more targeted therapy for individual patients. One of the most successful of these is Gleevec (Imatinib) an oral chemotherapy that became 158 percent more expensive from 2007 to 2014, Zafar said.

If you do a Google search for Gleevec, the first thing you find is a Novartis page with the headline “Understand Your Out-Of-Pocket Costs For Gleevec” that includes a link to financial assistance resources.

In the face of outrageous costs and questionable benefits, a treatment team in many cases can help patients find other means of support or alternative treatments to achieve the same end with less financial damage. But they have to have the conversation, Zafar said. He’d like to see Duke’s Cancer Center become the first in the country to be totally transparent about costs, but he acknowledged that it may be a difficult quest.

To help enable those conversations, Zafar developed a mobile app called Pathlight to help patients make more informed decisions and plan better for the financial burden of treatment. For some of the technology used in the project, Zafar has partnered with a software company called Vivor, which has found innovative ways to help patients navigate to financial assistance programs. That part of the project is supported by the NIH’s National Cancer Institute.

Even for people not in treatment, drugs have become more costly. Healthcare premiums rose 182 percent from 1999 to 2013, with workers paying an increasing share of the cost of their own employee health plans.

Is this any way to run a health system?

“I don’t have all the answers – I don’t think anybody does,” Zafar said. “But I think we need to move toward a single-payer system.”

Post by Karl Leif Bates

 

Closing the Funding Gap for Minority Scientists

DURHAM, N.C. — The barriers to minority students in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) don’t go away once they’ve finished school and landed a job, studies show. But one nationwide initiative aims to level the playing field once they get there.

With support from a 3-year, $500,0000 grant from the National Science Foundation, assistant professors and postdoctoral fellows who come from underrepresented minorities are encouraged to apply by May 5 for a free grant writing workshop to be held June 22-24 in Washington, D.C..

It’s no secret that STEM has a diversity problem. In 2015, African-Americans and Latinos made up 29 percent of the U.S. workforce, but only 11 percent of scientists and engineers.

A study published in the journal Science in 2011 revealed that minority scientists also were less likely to win grants from the National Institutes of Health, the largest source of research funding to universities.

Based on an analysis of 83,000 grant applications from 2000 to 2006, the study authors found that applications from black researchers were 13 percent less likely to succeed than applications from their white peers. Applications from Asian and Hispanic scientists were 5 and 3 percent less likely to be awarded, respectively.

Even when the study authors made sure they were comparing applicants with similar educational backgrounds, training, employers and publication records, the funding gap persisted — particularly for African-Americans.

Competition for federal research dollars is already tough. But white scientists won 29 percent of the time, and black scientists succeeded only 16 percent of the time.

Pennsylvania State University chemistry professor Squire Booker is co-principal investigator of a $500,000 initiative funded by the National Science Foundation to help underrepresented minority scientists write winning research grants.

“That report sent a shock wave through the scientific community,” said Squire Booker, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and chemistry professor at Pennsylvania State University. Speaking last week in the Nanaline H. Duke building on Duke’s Research Drive, Booker outlined a mentoring initiative that aims to close the gap.

In 2013, Booker and colleagues on the Minority Affairs Committee of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology decided to host a workshop to demystify the grant application process and help minority scientists write winning grants.

Grant success is key to making it in academia. Even at universities that don’t make funding a formal requirement for tenure and promotion, research is expensive. Outside funding is often required to keep a lab going, and research productivity — generating data and publishing results — is critical.

To insure underrepresented minorities have every chance to compete for increasingly tight federal research dollars, Booker and colleagues developed the Interactive Mentoring Activities for Grantsmanship Enhancement program, known as IMAGE. Program officers from NIH and NSF offer tips on navigating the funding process, crafting a successful proposal, decoding reviews and revising and resubmitting. The organizers also stage a mock review panel, and participants receive real-time, constructive feedback on potential research proposals.

Participants include researchers in biology, biophysics, biochemistry and molecular biology. More than half of the program’s 130 alumni have been awarded NSF or NIH grants since the workshop series started in 2013.

Booker anticipates this year’s program will include more postdoctoral fellows. “Now we’re trying to expand the program to intervene at an earlier stage,” Booker said.

To apply for the 2017 workshop visit http://www.asbmb.org/grantwriting/.  The application deadline is May 5.

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Post by Robin Smith

The Road to a Tastier Tomato

This week, I discovered that I’ve lived life deprived of a good tomato.

As a tomato-lover, I was surprised to learn from Professor Harry Klee of the University of Florida that the supermarket tomatoes I’ve enjoyed throughout my 18-year existence are all flavorless compared to the tomatoes of the past. He spoke at Duke as a guest of the University Program in Genetics and Genomics on Feb. 28.

It turns out that commercial tomato growers, by breeding more profitable (i.e. higher-yield, redder-color, larger-fruit) tomato varieties over the past 50 years, inadvertently excluded what Klee believes is the most important tomato trait of all:

Commercial tomato growers have bred larger, redder tomatoes that are less flavorful than heirloom and older varieties. Image courtesy of Harry Klee.

Flavor.

Apparently, I was one of very few people unaware of this issue. The public outcry in response to the increasing flavorlessness of commercial tomatoes began over a decade ago, when Klee first began to study tomato genetics.

From his research, Klee has drawn several important, unexpected conclusions, chief among them:

1: Flavor has more to do with smell than taste;

2: Lesser-known biochemical compounds called “volatiles” influence the flavor of tomatoes more than sugars, acids, and other well-known, larger compounds;

3: These “volatiles” are less present in modern tomato varieties than in tastier, older, and heirloom varieties;

But fear not—

4: Tomatoes can be back-bred to regain the genes that code for volatile compounds.

In other words, Klee has mapped the way back to the flavorful tomatoes of the past. His work culminated in a cover story of the Jan. 27 issue of Science. The corresponding paper describing the analysis of over 300 tomato strains to identify the chemicals associated with “good” and “bad” tomatoes.

Dr. Harry Klee and collaborators in his lab at the University of Florida. Image courtesy of Harry Klee.

To prove that modern tomatoes have less of the compounds that make them tasty, Klee and his team recruited a panel of 100 taste-testers to rank 160 representative tomato varieties. According to Klee, the team “developed statistical models to explain the chemistry of ‘liking’ [tomatoes],” then narrowed down the list of compounds that correlated with “liking” from 400 to 26. After tracing these 26 compounds to genetic loci, they used whole-genome sequencing to show that these loci are less expressed in modern tomatoes than in “cerasiforme” (i.e. old) and heirloom tomato varieties.

Further studies showed that tomato weight is inversely correlated with sugar content—in other words, “a gigantic fruit doesn’t taste as good,” Klee said.

If Klee can convince tomato growers that consumers value flavor over size, color, and quantity, then he might just single-handedly put flavorful tomatoes back on the shelves. Nevertheless—and despite the publicity surrounding his work—Klee understands it make take a while before commercial tomato growers see the light.

Klee and his team of scientists have genetically mapped the way back to the tasty tomatoes of the past. Image courtesy of Harry Klee.

“Growers get no more money if the tomato tastes good or bad; they’re paid for how many pounds of red objects they put in a box…[but] we can’t just blame the modern breeders. We’ve been selecting bigger and bigger fruit for millennia, and that has come at the cost of reducing flavor,” Klee said.

Post by Maya Iskandarani

The Man Who Knew Infinity, and his biggest fan

Ken Ono, a distinguished professor of mathematics at Emory University, was visibly thrilled to be at Duke last Thursday, January 26. Grinning from ear to ear, he announced that he was here to talk about three of his favorite things: math, movies, and “one of the most inspirational figures in my life”: Srinivasa Ramanujan.

Professor Ken Ono of Emory University poses with a bust of Newton and one of Ramanujan’s legendary notebook pages. Source: IFC Films.

Ramanujan, I learned, is one of the giants of mathematics; an incontestable genius, his scrawls in letters and notebooks have spawned whole fields of study, even up to 100 years after his death. His life story continues to inspire mathematicians around the globe—as well as, most recently, a movie which Ono helped produce: The Man Who Knew Infinity, featuring Hollywood stars Dev Patel and Jeremy Irons.

I didn’t realize until much too late that this lecture was essentially one massive spoiler for the movie. Nevertheless, I got to appreciate the brains and the heart behind the operation in hearing Ono express his passion for the man who, at age 16, inspired him to see learning in a new light. Ramanujan’s story follows.

Ramanujan was born in Kambakunam, India in 1887, the son of a cloth merchant and a singer at a local temple. He was visibly gifted from a young age, not only an outstanding student, but also a budding intellectual: by age 13, he had discovered most of modern trigonometry by himself.

Ramanujan’s brilliance earned him scholarships to attend college, only for him to flunk out not once, but twice: he was so engrossed in mathematics that he paid little heed to his actual schoolwork and let his grades suffer. His family and friends, aware of his genius, supported him anyway.

Thus, he spent the daytime in a low-level accounting job that earned him barely enough income to live, and spent the night scribbling groundbreaking mathematics in his notebooks.

A photo portrait of Srinivasa Ramanujan, a brilliant Indian mathematician born in the late 19th century. Source: IFC Films.

Unable to share his discoveries and explain their importance to those around him, Ramanujan finally grew so frustrated that, in desperation, he wrote to dozens of prominent English mathematics professors asking for help. The first of these to respond was G. H. Hardy (for any Biology nerds, this is the Hardy of the Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium), who examined the mathematics Ramanujan included in his letters and was so astounded by what he found that, at first, he thought it was a hoax perpetrated by his friend.

Needless to say, it wasn’t a hoax.

Ramanujan left India to join Hardy in England and publish his discoveries. The meat of the movie, according to Ono, is “the transformation of the relationship between these two characters:” one, a devout Hindu with no formal experience in higher education; the other, a haughty English professor who happened to be an atheist.

The two push past their differences and manage to jointly publish 30 papers based on Ramanujan’s work. Overcoming impossible odds—poverty, World War I, and racism in particular—Ramanujan’s discoveries finally found the light of day.

Sadly, Ramanujan’s story was cut short: a lifelong vegetarian, he fell ill of malnutrition while working in England, returning to India for the last year of his life in the hopes that the warmer climate would improve his health. He died in 1920, at 32 years old.

He continued writing to Hardy from his deathbed, his last letter including revolutionary ideas, which, like much of his work, were so far ahead of his time that mathematicians only began to wrap their minds around them decades after his death.

“Ramanujan was a great anticipator of mathematics, writing formulas that seemed foreign or random at the time but later inspired deep and revolutionary discoveries in math,” Ono said.

Ono’s infatuation with Ramanujan began when he was 16 years old, himself the son of a mathematics professor at Johns Hopkins University. Upon receiving a letter from Ramanujan’s widow, Ono’s father—by Ono’s account, a very stoic, stern man—was brought to tears. Shocked, Ono began to research the origin of the letter, discovering Ramanujan’s story and reaching a turning point in his own life when he realized that there were aspects to learning that were far more important than grades.

That seems to have worked out quite well for Ono, considering his success and expertise in his own area of study—not to mention that he now has “Hollywood producer” under his belt.

Professor Ken Ono chats with actor Dev Patel on the set of The Man Who Knew Infinity. Photo credit: Sam Pressman.

 

Post by Maya Iskandarani

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