Duke Research Blog

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

Category: Science Communication & Education (Page 1 of 14)

Global Health Research from Zika to Economics

Brazil, Kenya and China: this week, the sixth annual Global Health Research Showcase proved that Global Health majors truly represent global interests.

This past summer, Duke PhD student Tulika Singh explored complementary diagnosis techniques for Zika virus pregnant women in Vitoria, Brazil. Zika is difficult to diagnose “because the PCR-based test can only tell if you’ve had Zika virus within about ten days of the infection,” Singh said. “That’s a big problem for enrolling pregnant women into our study on Zika transmission and maternal immunity.”

To combat this issue, Singh and her thesis advisor Sallie Permar trained collaborators to use the whole virion ELISA (WVE) laboratory technique which may reveal if an individual has been exposed to Zika. ELISA detects Zika through testing for the antibodies that most likely would have been produced during a Zika infection. Singh’s work allows the research team to better assess whether women have been exposed to Zika virus during pregnancy, and will ultimately guide Zika vaccine design. 

Master of Science in Global Health candidate Carissa Novak examined why some HPV positive women in Western Kenya are not seeking preventive measures against cervical cancer. All the women diagnosed with HPV were referred to the Country Hospital but only “33 to 42 percent actually sought treatment” leading to Novak’s main research question, “Why did so few women seek treatment?” To answer this question, she sent out quantitative questionnaires to 100 women and then followed up by interviewing 20 of them. She surveyed and interviewed both women who had and had not sought treatment. Her results showed that transportation and cost hinder treatment acquirement and that the women who did seek treatment were often directed to by a health worker or actively trying to prevent cervical cancer. Novak believes that increasing women’s trust and understanding of the health care system will assist in improving the percentage who seek treatment.

In Kunshan, China, Brian Grasso evaluated the development of Kunshan’s health system in relation to its economic development. “Kunshan is now China’s richest county-level city and it used to be a small farm town…My main take away was that economic growth has strengthened Kunshan’s health systems while also creating new health challenges,” Grasso said. What are some of these new health challenges? Some of them include air pollution, increased stress in manufacturing jobs and more car accidents. Grasso determines that other developing health systems should learn from Kunshan that without proper regulations poor health can result in the midst of progress.

Post by Lydia Goff

Library’s Halloween Exhibit Fascinates and Thrills

Research is not always for the faint of heart.

scary doll_Duke Library

Screamfest V combed through centuries of Rubenstein materials to find the very spookiest of artifacts

At least, that’s what Rubenstein Library seemed to be saying this Halloween with the fifth installment of its sometimes freaky, always fascinating “Screamfest” exhibition. With everything from centuries-old demonology textbooks, to tarot cards, to Duke-based parapsychology studies, Screamfest V took a dive into the deep end of the research Duke has gathered throughout its long history.

There’s a lot to unpack about this exhibit, but one of the most unsettling parts has to be the 1949 written exchange between Duke parapsychologist Joseph Rhine and Lutheran Reverend Duther Schulze, speaking about a boy they thought could be demonically possessed.

“Now he has visions of the devil and goes into a trance and speaks a strange language,” Duther wrote.

Anything about that sound familiar? If so, that might be because this case was the basis for the 1973 horror classic The Exorcist. (And people say research isn’t cool!)

The Rubenstein also exhibited a pack of cards used by Rhine’s parapsychology lab to test for extrasensory perception. Inscribed with vaguely arcane symbols, one of these “Zener cards” would be flipped over by a researcher behind a screen, and a test subject on the other side would attempt to “sense” what card the researcher displayed.

Zener cards for ESP

A pack of “Zener cards” Duke researchers once used to test for ESP

Although the results of this test were never replicated outside of Duke and are today widely considered debunked, Rhine’s research did create a stir in some circles at the time. One of the most interesting things about this exhibit, in fact, was the way it showed how much methods and topics in science have changed over time.

A 1726 publication of the book Sadducismus triumphatus: or, A full and plain evidence concerning witches and apparitions, for example, was loaded with supernatural “research” and “findings” every bit as dense and serious as the title would suggest. The section this tome was opened to bore this subheading: “Proving partly by Holy Scripture, partly by a choice Collection of Modern Relations, the Real EXISTENCE of Apparitions, Spirits, & Witches.”

A similar book titled The Discoverie of Witchcraft, was also on display—only this one was printed over two centuries later, in 1930.

A Depression-era miniature of the Duke mascot, somewhat worse for wear.

Other historical gems the exhibit offered included an a threadbare ‘blue devil’ doll from the ‘30s; a book made up of a lengthy collection of newspaper clippings following the case of Lizzie Borden, a reported axe murderer from the 1890s; and an ad for the 1844 “Life Preserving Coffin … for use in doubtful cases of death.”

It’s not every day research will leave the casual viewer quaking in their boots, but Screamfest V was quick to live up to its name. Covering a broad swath of Duke materials from several centuries, this exhibit successfully pulled off vibes of education, spookiness, and Halloween fun, all at the same time.

Post by Daniel Egitto

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

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

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

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

From Sunfish-Seeker to Planet-Saver: Dr. Tierney Thys

Marine biologist Tierney Thys believes that science make us superheroes. In her words, the tools of science are the superpowers that “allow us to explore worlds that are invisible to the naked eye.”

As a National Geographic Explorer, Research Associate at the California Academy of Sciences, and, in my humble opinion, one of the most effective, passionate science communicators out there, she may as well be a superhero already.

Dr. Tierney Thys snorkels with some aquatic research subjects. Photo credit: Tierney Thys.

Thys, an alumna of Duke’s Biology Department, presented at the Marine Science and Conservation Leaders’ (MSCL) inaugural Marine Science Symposium on Saturday, March 25. She was one of four featured speakers — all women in STEM— whose research interests range from marine biology to physical oceanography.

Though she discussed her own research and life story in depth, the main point Thys drove home was the importance of (and science behind) powerful science communication.

Like most marine biologists, Thys’ love for the ocean began when she was a child. She received her Ph.D. from Duke in 1998, an endeavor which, she said, “looked interminable while [she] was in the midst of grad school but, in retrospect, was just a blink of an eye.”

Among the many fun tidbits she has gleaned studying ocean science are the following:

  • As adults, humans retain a lot of characteristics from our fish-like time in the womb; e.g. “we can thank fish for washboard abs.”
  • Humans, for all our obsession with large brains, have nothing on the African elephantfish, which has a “higher brain weight to body weight ratio than any other vertebrate.”
  • Fish had the gender continuum “totally nailed” before it became trendy among humans, with fish of many species having the ability to change sex at will.

Thys, right, and her dissertation advisor, Dr. Stephen Wainwright, left. Photo credit: Tierney Thys.

Her most impactful lesson out of Duke, however, came from her dissertation advisor Stephen Wainwright, James B. Duke Professor emeritus of zoology. Wainwright is the founder of Duke’s Bio-Design Studio, an art studio within a scientific research laboratory employing a full-time sculptor “to create three-dimensional working models of biological systems for research,” as reported by Duke Magazine. Exposure to this unique melding of disciplines in the final stages of Thys’ education set her on what she said was “an eclectic career path” that would also seek to fuse the artistic and the scientific.

Thys’ research specialty out of graduate school is the Mola mola, more commonly known as the Ocean sunfish—the heaviest bony fish on the planet. According to Thys, sunfish can grow to “60 million times their starting weight,” the equivalent of a human child growing to the weight of six Titanic ships. The heaviest Mola ever caught weighed over 5000 lbs., though, surprisingly, jellies (what most folks would call jellyfish) comprise most of the adult sunfish’s diet.

Thys hailed pop-off satellite tags as the “superpower” of science that allows her to track sunfish through the world ocean, generating data that can improve environmental protection of the species.

A fun graphic Thys used in her presentation to explain the technology of pop-off tags for tracking Mola mola, pictured right. Photo credit: Mike Johnson.

“Studying the sunfish has eclipsed studying any other fish for me. [They’re ] a massive part of the bycatch in driftnet fisheries all over the world—[but] we need to keep our jelly-eaters intact. With data, we can figure out the [sunfish] hotspots, and work to protect those areas,” Thys said.

Thys has tackled this problem herself by adapting the discipline-blending approach of her advisor, Wainwright. She has primarily used filmmaking to bridge the gap between the arts and sciences, playing key roles in high-profile documentary projects meant to improve public understanding of marine science, technology, and conservation. These include the Strange Days on Planet Earth series with National Geographic, The Shape of Life series with PBS, and several short documentary films. She has also collaborated with dance companies to create conservation-oriented dance productions, K-6 schools for educational art projects, and prisons to improve inmates’ scientific literacy with nature imagery—all to widen the scope of her science-education efforts. Thys supports her creative ideas with science itself:

“One very large filter exists between our conscious mind and subconscious mind, she said. “Our conscious mind can only process a tiny amount of the information gathered by our subconscious mind.”

“A good story can cut through these filters and light up our brains in new ways,” Thys said “By using different forms of art to tell stories infused with scientific information, we can message in profound ways. We can reach people who might not otherwise be interested or receptive to science. The arts are not a luxury, but rather a powerful vehicle for helping message, teach and share our vital scientific findings,” Thys said.

A mural Thys made with students out of bottle caps at a California elementary school, one of Thys’ many efforts to spread public awareness of scientific issues. Photo credit: Tierney Thys.

As though she hadn’t already empowered everyone in the audience to save the world, Thys concluded with a compelling piece of advice: “Be a part of something much bigger than yourself.”

Post by Maya Iskandarani

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

Young Scientists, Making the Rounds

“Can you make a photosynthetic human?!” an 8th grader enthusiastically asks me while staring at a tiny fern in a jar.

He’s not the only one who asked me that either — another student asked if Superman was a plant, since he gets his power from the sun.

These aren’t the normal questions I get about my research as a Biology PhD candidate studying how plants get nutrients, but they were perfect for the day’s activity –A science round robin with Durham eighth-graders.

Biology grad student Leslie Slota showing Durham 8th graders some fun science.

After seeing a post under #scicomm on Twitter describing a public engagement activity for scientists, I put together a group of Duke graduate scientists to visit local middle schools and share our science with kids. We had students from biomedical engineering, physics, developmental biology, statistics, and many others — a pretty diverse range of sciences.

With help from David Stein at the Duke-Durham Neighborhood Partnership, we made connections with science teachers at the Durham School of the Arts and Lakewood Montessori school, and the event was in motion!

The outreach activity we developed works like speed dating, where people pair up, talk for 3-5 mins, and then rotate. We started out calling it “Science Speed Dating,” but for a middle school audience, we thought “Science Round-Robin” was more appropriate. Typically, a round-robin is a tournament where every team plays each of the other teams. So, every middle schooler got to meet each of us graduate students and talk to us about what we do.

The topics ranged from growing back limbs and mapping the brain, to using math to choose medicines and manipulating the different states of matter.

The kids were really excited for our visit, and kept asking their teachers for the inside scoop on what we did.

After much anticipation, and a little training and practice with Jory Weintraub from the Science & Society Initiative, two groups of 7-12 graduate students armed themselves with photos, animals, plants, and activities related to our work and went to visit these science classes full of eager students.

First-year MGM grad student Tulika Singh (top right) brought cardboard props to show students how antibodies match up with cell receptors.

“The kids really enjoyed it!” said Alex LeMay, middle- and high-school science teacher at the Durham School of the Arts. “They also mentioned that the grad students were really good at explaining ideas in a simple way, while still not talking down to them.”

That’s the ultimate trick with science communication: simplifying what we do, but not talking to people like they’re stupid.

I’m sure you’ve heard the old saying, “dumb it down.” But it really doesn’t work that way. These kids were bright, and often we found them asking questions we’re actively researching in our work. We don’t need to talk down to them, we just need to talk to them without all of the exclusive trappings of science. That was one thing the grad students picked up on too.

“It’s really useful to take a step back from the minutia of our projects and look at the big picture,” said Shannon McNulty, a PhD candidate in Molecular Genetics and Microbiology.

The kids also loved the enthusiasm we showed for our work! That made a big difference in whether they were interested in learning more and asking questions. Take note, fellow scientists: share your enthusiasm for what you do, it’s contagious!

Another thing that worked really well was connecting with the students in a personal way. According to Ms. LeMay, “if the person seemed to like them, they wanted to learn more.” Several of the grad students would ask each student their names and what they were passionate about, or even talk about their own passions outside of their research, and these simple questions allowed the students to connect as people.

There was one girl who shared with me that she didn’t know what she wanted to do when she grew up, and I told her that’s exactly where I was when I was in 8th grade too. We then bonded over our mutual love of baking, and through that interaction she saw herself reflected in me a little bit; making a career in science seem like a possibility, which is especially important for a young girl with a growing interest in science.

Making the rounds in these science classrooms, we learned just as much from the students we spoke to as they did from us. Our lesson being: science outreach is a really rewarding way to spend our time, and who knows, maybe we’ll even spark someone who loves Superman to figure out how to make the first photosynthesizing super-person!

Guest post by Ariana Eily , PhD Candidate in Biology, shown sharing her floating ferns at left.

 

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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