Research Blog

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

Students exploring the Innovation Co-Lab

To get a fuller picture of a forest, sometimes research requires a team effort

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Film by Riccardo Morrelas, Zahava Production

For some people, the word “rainforest” conjures up vague notions of teeming jungles. But Camille DeSisto sees something more specific: a complex interdependent web.

For the past few years, the Duke graduate student has been part of a community-driven study exploring the relationships between people, plants and lemurs in a rainforest in northern Madagascar, where the health of one species depends on the health of others.

Many lemurs, for example, eat the fruits of forest trees and deposit their seeds far and wide in their droppings, thus helping the plants spread. People, in turn, depend on the plants for things like food, shelter and medicines.

But increasingly, deforestation and other disturbances are throwing these interactions out of whack.

DeSisto and her colleagues have been working in a 750,000-acre forest corridor in northeast Madagascar known as the COMATSA that connects two national parks.

The area supports over 200 tree species and nine species of lemurs, and is home to numerous communities of people.

A red-bellied lemur (Eulemur rubriventer) in a rainforest in northeast Madagascar. Photo by Martin Braun.

“People live together with nature in this landscape,” said DeSisto, who is working toward her Ph.D. in ecology at the Nicholas School of the Environment.

But logging, hunting and other stressors such as poverty and food insecurity have taken their toll.

Over the last quarter century, the area has lost 14% of its forests, mostly to make way for vanilla and rice.

This loss of wild habitats risks setting off a series of changes. Fewer trees also means fewer fruit-eating lemurs, which could create a feedback loop in which the trees that remain have fewer opportunities to replace themselves and sprout up elsewhere — a critical ability if trees are going to track climate change.

DeSisto and her colleagues are trying to better understand this web of connections as part of a larger effort to maximize forest resilience into an uncertain future.

To do this work, she relies on a network of a different sort.

The research requires dozens of students and researchers from universities in Madagascar and the U.S., not to mention local botanists and lemur experts, the local forest management association, and consultants and guides from nearby national parks, all working together across time zones, cultures and languages.

Forest field team members at camp (not everyone present). Photo credit: Jane Slentz-Kesler.

Together, they’ve found that scientific approaches such as fecal sampling or transect surveys can only identify so much of nature’s interconnected web.

Many lemurs are small, and only active at night or during certain times of year, which can make them hard to spot — especially for researchers who may only be on the ground for a limited time.

To fill the gaps, they’re also conducting interviews with local community members who have accumulated knowledge from a lifetime of living on the land, such as which lemurs like to munch on certain plants, what parts they prefer, and whether people rely on them for food or other uses.

By integrating different kinds of skills and expertise, the team has been able to map hidden connections between species that more traditional scientific methods miss.

For example, learning from the expertise of local community members helped them understand that forest patches that are regenerating after clear-cutting attract nocturnal lemurs that may — depending on which fruits they like to eat — promote the forest’s regrowth.

Camille DeSisto after a successful morning collecting lemur fecal samples.

Research collaborations aren’t unusual in science. But DeSisto says that building collaborations with colleagues more than 9,000 miles away from where she lives poses unique challenges.

Just getting to her field site involves four flights, several bumpy car rides, climbing steep trails and crossing slippery logs.

“Language barriers are definitely a challenge too,” DeSisto said.

She’s been studying Malagasy for seven years, but the language’s 18 dialects can make it hard to follow every joke her colleagues tell around the campfire.

To keep her language skills sharp she goes to weekly tutoring sessions when she’s back in the U.S., and she even helped start the first formal class on the language for Duke students.

“I like to think of it as language opportunities, not just language barriers,” DeSisto said.”

“Certain topics I can talk about with much more ease than others,” she added. “But I think making efforts to learn the language is really important.”

When they can’t have face-to-face meetings the team checks in remotely, using videoconferencing and instant messaging to agree on each step of the research pipeline, from coming up with goals and questions and collecting data to publishing their findings.

“That’s hard to navigate when we’re so far away,” DeSisto said. But, she adds, the teamwork and knowledge sharing make it worth it. “It’s the best part of research.”

This research was supported by Duke Bass Connections (“Biocultural Sustainability in Madagascar,” co-led by James Herrera), Duke Global, The Explorers Club, Primate Conservation, Inc., Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, and the Garden Club of America.

Big Bets on Humanity: How Rajiv Shah’s Audacity is Winning the Fight Against Pandemics

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If your community relied on COVID-19 rapid tests to reopen safely during the first year of the pandemic, there’s a good chance Rajiv Shah had something to do with it. Not just for his ambition but also for his audacity to transform the nature of our response to pandemics: Rajiv Shah, the president of the Rockefeller Foundation, played a crucial role in scaling up diagnostic testing for COVID-19.

He’s also the man who tackled Ebola with the Obama Administration. Back then, Shah and his team embarked on a “big bet” to deploy 2,500 troops to fight the disease, not on the battlefield, but on the frontlines of human health.  Much like the name of his 2023 book “Big Bets,” he embarked on a journey to change the world. 

In a Jan. 31 talk hosted by the Duke Global Health Institute, Shah discussed his “big bet mindset” when it comes to tackling public health challenges.

Bet #1 Diagnostic Testing at Scale 

For starters, what’s a big bet? 

“It’s a big bet you take on the community to help young people get opportunities. Often, when we think of charitable endeavors, we imagine that doing a little bit is beneficial because it makes us feel good. In contrast, a big endeavor means taking on something significant and engaging in the hard work necessary. It’s about going beyond just doing the best we can; this isn’t merely a charitable endeavor, it’s a strategic approach to ensure national security.” Shah explained. 

Keeping true to his word, the goal was clear: administer 30 million tests per week to preempt the need for lockdowns and enable a safer, faster return to normalcy. This was not just a health initiative; it was a socio-economic strategy aimed at averting total disaster. He took a big bet, and the numbers spoke for themselves. The Rockefeller Foundation played a pivotal role in assisting schools with their reopening strategies during the pandemic. This support included the establishment of collaborative networks, the development of resources and guidelines, and the provision of expert recommendations. Now do you get why this man probably saved your life? It’s because he did! 

Bet #2 A Memo for Bill Gates 

It wasn’t all that easy for him though. He had his haters (don’t we all?). Perhaps the difference was, his hater was Bill Gates. But he successfully proved Gates wrong too. Thankfully, Gates and Shah are more like besties than anything now. Despite the initial dismissal of his ideas as “the stupidest thing,” Shah’s persistence and innovative thinking paved the way for a groundbreaking bond structure to fund vaccinations, ultimately saving millions of children’s lives. Shah and Gates – two greats in one room – inevitability led to the production of something good: The Vaccine Alliance. This meeting set the stage for a three-year roadmap focused on a bond structure to fund vaccinations. This initiative ultimately contributed to saving 16 million children’s lives. 

The Final Bet: The Power of Experimentation. 

I’ll be honest, I was intimidated walking into this room. I was in my Duke hoodie, not expecting fancy foods, and coat checks (good news: this meant they recorded his speech and uploaded it on YouTube. Check it out!).

At the heart of Shah’s philosophy is a belief in the power of experimentation and innovation. His call to “keep experimenting” embodies the spirit of resilience and creativity that is essential for tackling the world’s most daunting health challenges. Being amidst well-suited individuals while donned in a hoodie wasn’t an experiment in the scientific sense, but it was an experience that highlighted the contrast between expectations and reality, comfort zones and the unfamiliar. It served as a metaphor for the broader experiments we’re all a part of—those that push us beyond our boundaries, challenge our preconceptions, and ultimately lead to growth.

His book was called ‘Big Bets’ because the editors thought it was catchy. They were right. But this title doesn’t just grab our attention—it invites us into a world where daring to dream big and taking calculated risks can lead to monumental changes in public health and beyond.

Post by Noor Nazir, class of 2027

“Biodiversity Is Essential, and It’s Not a Nice-to-Have”

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Filmmaker Ashley Hillard and cinematographer Alan Dunkin in Yellowstone. Photo by Hillard.

“I have been interested in storytelling and the environment since my earliest memories,” says Ashley Hillard, a documentary filmmaker with an interest in wildlife management and conservation practices in the United States.

Hillard has a background in film, largely with production companies, talent agencies, and independent projects on the side, but she later shifted into climate tech recruitment. Now she is pursuing an environmental leadership Masters in Environmental Management degree at Duke while working on documentary projects. She is also a  Communications Assistant Intern in the Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic.

She has been working on a film called “Coexistence,” a documentary that spotlights North American species and wildlife management practices. Hillard got the idea for the project when she noticed that U.S.-based researchers often choose to study species in other countries, perhaps “because it’s easier to go over and say ‘Why don’t you try this?’ rather than having to deal with issues in your backyard.”

“We need to pay attention to our own backyards,” Hillard emphasizes. “The hope,” she says, is “more laws and policies and values change along with behaviors as we become more informed and more aware.” She also believes that “local efforts can usually go further.” Part of her goal in creating films about conservation is to help viewers realize that “individuals can be part of change.” Films and other forms of storytelling can inform people about specific species and conservation efforts, but Hillard hopes her work can help shift perspectives more broadly as well. Effective conservation is often “a social attitudes and values issue,” Hillard says. “There needs to be a shift in how we view the environment.”

An American bison that Hillard saw while filming in Yellowstone.
Photo by Hillard.

Shifting baseline syndrome is the idea that people’s expectations of how nature should look reflect their own experiences rather than an accurate picture of the natural state of landscapes, flora, fauna, and wildlife abundance. Our understanding of what nature “normally” looks like changes over generations and is skewed by the societies and time periods we inhabit. The more we damage our environments, the less we collectively remember what they looked like before—and the less motivated we may be to restore them to a condition most of us can’t remember.

When humans and wildlife come into conflict, our perceptions of how nature “should” be can matter tremendously. Gray wolves were recently delisted from the Endangered Species list, then re-listed in most places—both were controversial decisions—but their numbers are far lower than they were historically. Still, some think there are too many wolves. In the Western U.S., gray wolf conservation efforts often clash with the desires of ranchers and and hunters, who may view higher wolf populations as a threat to livestock or game animals like deer and elk. But some of these hunters and ranchers, Hillard says, “are real conservationists doing amazing work,” and she thinks they should get more attention.

While creating the film, Hillard has tried to capture the complexities of wildlife conservation. It’s not as simple as “They’re bad, they’re good, and this is how we solve it,” Hillard says.

There are different ideas about how conservation efforts should be conducted and which animals should be protected in the first place. The dominant approach to wildlife management in the U.S., Hillard says, is rooted in the idea that there are “good” species that people can use and “bad” species that people don’t like to live with, such as wolves and other predators. “This perspective,” she says, “came over with colonists.” She mentions Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf; the stories we tell about animals can reflect societal attitudes toward them. Many indigenous peoples, meanwhile, have traditionally viewed all species as kin. This “cultural aspect” affects people’s willingness to coexist with species like wolves, which in turn affects our conservation practices.

A gray wolf at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in Yellowstone.
Photo by Alan Dunkin, provided by Hillard.

In this country, very few people are killed by wildlife—about 700 annually, according to one review that counted deaths from bites, wildlife-vehicle collisions, and zoonotic diseases. Car accidents, on the other hand, are more than 60 times more deadly, killing about 43,000 people in the U.S. per year. “We have a certain acceptance of how we die,” Hillard says. “There are a number of things that kill people with much higher percentages [than deaths from wildlife] that we… accept as day-to-day,” but we don’t tend to hear calls to eliminate cars from society, while an animal that harms a human is often given a death sentence. Hillard thinks media in general should be more careful about how they share stories about wildlife, especially negative encounters. If stories focus only on rare but tragic incidents, it can distort perceptions of species and “feed into that doom loop.”

Films, Hillard says, can inspire people “to look at things differently and see things from different perspectives.” Storytelling is also a way of communicating scientific information and encouraging action. Hillard feels that some stories about environmental issues are told in a one-sided, black-and-white way, but the nuances of these problems are important. “Finding those complexities and working through them… and then trying to craft stories around that to share with the public so they can make more informed decisions” is part of the goal of Hillard’s films.

“Coexistence” focuses on well-known, often controversial species like red wolves and mountain lions. “Familiarity and awareness of a species can contribute to interest in protecting them,” Hillard says. Such species are sometimes referred to as charismatic megafauna and can be viewed as ambassadors for conservation or umbrella species whose protection helps other wildlife as well. But Hillard has concerns about the term charismatic megafauna. “It diminishes a species’s value and reduces them to ‘cute’ so you no longer see them as an intrinsic part of an ecosystem,” she says. She believes it’s important to emphasize protection of entire ecosystems, not just specific species within them.

A Mexican gray wolf pup at the California Wolf Center. The Mexican gray wolf is a gray wolf subspecies.
Photo by Hillard.

Hillard hopes that her films inspire more awareness of and interest in environmental issues. “There’s a lot of pressure to get it right,” she says. And storytelling can have its own issues when it comes to presenting accurate information. “Information can be left out or shaped in a way to make it more compelling,” Hillard acknowledges. She feels that many wildlife films focus first on scenery and animals, then discuss conservation issues at the end. But “Coexistence” is “very much focused on the issues.” It is expected to be released by early 2025.

“I strive to tell impactful stories in creative ways that are more upbeat in tone,” Hillard says. She believes it’s important for people to be aware of the challenges facing wildlife, but she also wants to inspire hope and the belief that individual actions can matter. “To feel powerless can make you feel hopeless, and there is a lot to be hopeful for,” she says. “But there needs to be a shift in how we view the environment.”

One major problem she sees is our consumerist, materialistic society. “We’re kind of consuming ourselves off the planet,” Hillard says. “How do you change behaviors within a society that’s so hyper-consumptive?”

Films and other forms of storytelling can make scientific information more accessible. “Communicating is that bridge to getting people to care, to understand it, to learn about it,” Hillard says. “Without communication, science studies and research may be siloed in academia.” When we lack accurate and accessible information, we may rely on “‘I heard someone say something about that thing’” rather than science to inform our understanding of issues.

Along with providing accurate information, Hillard wants to encourage “a view of mutualism with other species” and raise questions like “How can we be better neighbors to nonhuman species?”

Ultimately, she wants viewers to recognize that “biodiversity is essential, and it’s not a nice-to-have.”

Hillard at Lands End Lookout in San Francisco.
Photo credit Alan Dunkin, provided by Hillard.

Post by Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

Casting roles, casting votes: Lessons from Sesame Street on media representation and voting

Elmo greets the audience during a Sesame Street Live children’s show at Naval Support Activity Naples. Credit: U.S. Navy

La la la la, la la la la, Elmo’s world. La la la la, la la la la, Elmo’s world! 

After listening to Dr. Claire Duquennois, it’s come to my attention that we might actually be living in Elmo’s world. On February 29, Duquennois, an assistant professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Pittsburgh, spoke at the Sanford School of Public Policy about her research on the impact of “Sesame Street” on voter turnout and behavior. As the first of a series of papers on child media representation, Duquennois and her co-author Jiangnan Zeng examined the impact of the highly popular television show on voters born in the 1960s.

For those who didn’t have “Sesame Street” as a cornerstone of their childhood, the show first aired in November 1969, and quickly attracted a large audience of young children from 2-5 years old. The show was unique in its academic and socio-emotional curriculum, as well as in its diverse and integrated cast. Duquennois described the show as having two intents: the first was to create academic curriculum for preschool age children. But the second, more implicit goal was to improve children’s self image, increase their racial tolerance, and highlight the importance of different perspectives, cooperation, and fairness. This is exhibited by the amount of documentation from the creation of the show, as well as the consultation of psychiatrists like Dr. Chester Pierce, who was an expert in the consequences of racism and television’s impact on the portrayal of minorities.

Whereas other shows like “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” featured a more white and suburban cast and setting, “Sesame Street” aimed to relate to kids in more urban or low income areas. For example, both the adult and adolescent cast featured numerous people of color, and the show’s set was reminiscent of Harlem brownstones. The show also brought on numerous diverse guest stars, many of which were important figures in the Civil Rights movement. For many children living in white-dominated suburbs at the time, “Sesame Street” was their first introduction to people of different cultural backgrounds. This “hidden agenda” did not go unnoticed by more conservative governments. For example, the Mississippi commission for education TV vetoed the airing of “Sesame Street” due to the messaging of integration and diversity, although this decision was later overturned due to popular support for the show. Duquennois and Zeng wanted to know: Can child media reduce prejudice in the long-run, impacting voter preferences and behaviors in adulthood?

There had already been a lot of research on mass media in terms of short-term voting outcomes, Duquennois said. In particular, she spoke about research on the news and mass media creating a negative impact on racial and ethnic tensions. However, there was a lack of research on both child media and its impact on later life voting, as well as media’s ability to reduce biases in the majority group. In particular, Duquennois frequently referenced a paper by Melissa S. Kearney and Phillip B. Levine titled “Early Childhood Education by Television: Lessons from Sesame Street.” Duquennois also spoke on the previous research done on contact theory, which has proven that interactions with other groups can help to reduce biases. For example, research done on random college roommates has found that introducing college-age students to people from differing cultural backgrounds has a positive impact on reducing prejudice. 

To any readers still waiting to hear the connection, here it is. Duquennois used a difference in difference model with four different segments (really, a scale of low to high coverage, but she simplified for our sake). The treatment group is identified as children younger than six (“Sesame Street’s” target audience, as well as kids who would be home the majority of the day instead of at school) and with high coverage. This methodology is primarily based on Kearney and Levine’s 2019 study mentioned earlier. Since it’s impossible to tell which children were actually watching “Sesame Street,” Kearney and Levine relied on the statistic that nearly 50% of children were watching the show if it was available to them. They also controlled for general patterns in a particular cohort in that particular state like migration and attenuation bias. 

Kearney and Levine’s difference in difference chart referenced by Dr. Duquennois.
Kearney and Levine’s Sesame Street Coverage Map

In terms of getting voting reports, the study used election year responses from 2006-2020 on the Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES) as well as Implicit Association Test (IAT) scores. Specifically, the report used data in major party ballots for US House elections. 

In terms of results, Duquennois broke elections into various different demographic compositions. This included elections between two white men, a Republican white man and Democrat woman of color, vice versa and et cetera. 

The results were quite interesting. In the case of electoral participation, an increase in coverage by one standard deviation (20 ppts) increased the treated cohort’s voter turnout by 2.8 ppts (4.4%). Voter registration increased by 1.8 ppts (2.4%), and treated cohorts were more likely to know whether they were registered or not.

Additionally, those with more television coverage in their childhood later on expressed increased political knowledge, including more interest in public affairs, better recognition of elected officials’ names, and increased engagement for marginal voters. There was also increased identification with a party and political ideology. However, there were null effects on more costly forms of political engagement like protesting or primary turnout rates.

The most interesting part to me, however, is the impact on voter preferences. Duquennois found that former watchers of “Sesame Street” are more likely to vote for minority and female candidates, regardless of political party.

Dr. Duqennois’s data on voter patterns for minority candidates
Dr. Duqennois’s data on voting patterns for women candidates

Even more interesting, the decreased race and gender bias in voting patterns does not translate to policy views. There’s evidence that “Sesame Street” viewers both support gay marriage and restrictive immigration policies, which are often seen as opposing political views. That said, what is consistent is that those in the treated cohort were more likely to have an opinion, regardless of what the opinion actually is. 

Moreover, it appears that the hidden messaging of “Sesame Street” was effective in decreasing bias. According to the IAT score results, one standard deviation increase in television coverage reduced the race IAT scores of white subjects by 0.013 standard deviations. However, it had null effects on non-white respondents. There was no evidence of selection bias of taking the race IAT in treatment versus non-treatment groups. As for the gender-career IAT test scores, there was no clear change on bias results, but there was evidence of a selection bias with the treated cohort more likely to take the gender-career IAT.

Duquennois concluded her presentation with a few final takeaways: “Preschool age exposure to child media portraying an inclusive, egalitarian and diverse America reduced prejudice in the long run, with consequential implications for voter preferences.”

Written by Emily Zou, Class of 2027

Acknowledging America’s Unspoken Caste System

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson took the Page Auditorium stage on February 22 to discuss her most recent book, “Caste,” and its implications for modern-day America. Co-hosted by the Sanford School of Public Policy and the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture, the event featured a lecture and Q&A section.

A caste system is an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups.”

Isabel Wilkerson

When Wilkerson first published “Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents,” it spent 55 weeks on the U.S. best sellers list. Barack Obama put it in his 2020 reading list, and Oprah Winfrey sent the book to Fortune 500 CEOs around the world. Since then, it has sold over 1.56 million copies and has become a #1 New York Times best seller.

In other words: “Caste” is the Beyoncé of books.

Pictured: Author Isabel Wilkerson and her book, “Caste.”

Wilkerson began by reminding the audience of the recentness of our country’s progress. “In recent times it’s not been unusual to hear people say something along the lines of ‘I don’t recognize my country,’ Wilkerson began. “And whenever I hear that I’m reminded that tragically not enough of us have had the chance to know our country’s true and full history.” She described the U.S. as a patient with a preexisting health condition, asserting that America has been plagued by racism since its inception. Like a chronic disease, these roots continuously persist and flare up.

Pictured: A visual timeline of Black oppression in the United States

For context, the United States is 247 years old. A full 89 of those years were spent in slavery and 99 were spent in the Jim Crow era. For 227 years, race was considered an innate, factual construct (until the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003). Racial injustice isn’t a period of history in this country, it is this country’s history.

Wilkerson furthered her point by detailing the dehumanizing customs of the Jim Crow caste system in the South. “You could go to jail if you were caught playing checkers with a person of a different race,” Wilkerson said. “That means that someone had to have seen a Black person and a white person in some town square… And they felt that the entire foundation of southern civilization was in peril and took the time to write that down as a law.” Before the late 20th century, there was even a separate Black and White Bible to take an oath in court. “That means that the very word of God was segregated in the Jim Crow South,” Wilkerson said.

She described this system of racial oppression as an “arbitrary, artificial, graded ranking of human value” – in other words, a caste system. She highlighted how race was weaponized by early colonists to determine “who would be slave or free, who would have rights and no rights.”

This caste system wasn’t just a “sad, dark chapter,” Wilkerson said. It’s “the foundation of the country’s political, social, and economic order.”

For 6 million Black southerners, the caste system became so suffocating that migrating across the country (a movement called The Great Migration), seemed like the only path to freedom. “No other group of Americans has had to act like immigrants in order to be recognized as citizens,” Wilkerson said. “So this great migration was not a move. It was not about moving. It was a defection. A seeking of political asylum within the borders of one’s own country.”

But the U.S. caste system extends far past slavery and Jim Crow. Take the vastly different police response to the January 6 Capitol riot compared to BLM protests during the summer of 2020. “We alive today are tasked with explaining to succeeding generations how…a rioter could deliver the Confederate flag farther than Robert E. Lee himself.” The United States has never adequately dealt with its racist history, which is why it keeps repeating itself.

Photo Credit: NBC

In a powerful call to action, Wilkerson urged the audience to honor these histories and “teach the children so that we can end these divisions now with the next generation.” She shared the aspiration of novelist Richard Wright: “To transplant in alien soil…and perhaps just perhaps to bloom” in a more equitable world.

Want to learn more about Isabel Wilkerson’s work? Click here.

Written by: Skylar Hughes, Class of 2025

A Grueling Math Test So Hard, Almost No One Gets a Perfect Score

Yet hundreds of schools compete each year, and this time the Blue Devils made it into the top three

Duke places 3 out of 471 in North America’s most prestigious math competition. The top-scoring 2023 Putnam team consisted of (from L to R): Erick Jiang ’26, Kai Wang ’27, and Fletch Rydell ’26.
Duke placed third out of 471 schools in North America’s most prestigious math competition, the Putnam. The top-scoring team consisted of (L to R): Erick Jiang ’26, Kai Wang ’27, and Fletch Rydell ’26.

Every year, thousands of college students from across the U.S. and Canada give up a full Saturday before finals begin to take a notoriously difficult, 6-hour math test — and not for a grade, but for fun.

In “the Putnam,” as it’s known, contestants spend two 3-hour sessions trying to solve 12 proof-based math problems worth 10 points apiece.

More than 150,000 people have taken the exam in the contest’s 85-year history, but only five times has someone earned a perfect score. Total scores of 1 or 0 are not uncommon.

Despite the odds, the Blue Devils had a strong showing this year.

A total of 3,857 students from 471 schools competed in the December contest. In results announced Feb. 16, a Duke team consisting of Erick Jiang ’26, James “Fletch” Rydell ’26 and Kaixin “Kai” Wang ’27 ranked third in North America behind MIT and Harvard, winning a $15,000 prize for Duke and each taking home $600 for themselves.

According to mathematics professor Lenny Ng, it’s Duke’s best performance in almost 20 years.

“This is the first time a Duke team has placed this high since 2005,” said Ng, who was a three-time Putnam Fellow himself, finishing in the top five each year he was an undergraduate at Harvard.

Duke students sit for an all-day math marathon.

There’s no official syllabus for prepping for the Putnam. To get ready, the students practice working through problems and discussing their solutions in a weekly problem-solving seminar held each fall.

Students serve as the instructors, focusing on a different topic each week ranging from calculus to number theory.

“They get a sense of what the problems are like, so it’s not quite as intimidating as it might be if they went into the contest cold,” said math department chair Robert Bryant.

“Not only do they learn how to do the problems, but they also get to know each other,” said professor emeritus David Kraines, who has coached Duke Putnam participants for more than 30 years.

Kraines said 8-10 students take his problem-solving seminar for credit each fall. “We always get another 10 or so who come for the pizza,” Kraines said.

The biggest difference between a Putnam problem and a homework problem, said engineering student Rydell, is that usually with a homework problem you’ve already been shown what to do; you just have to apply it.

Whereas most of the time in math competitions like the Putnam, “there’s no clear path forward when you first see the problem,” Rydell said. “They’re more about finding some insight or way of looking at the problem in a different perspective.”

Putnam problems are meant to be solvable using only paper and pencil — no computing power required. The contestants work through each problem by hand, trying different paths towards a solution and spelling out their reasoning step-by-step.

This year, one problem involved determining how many configurations of coins are possible given a grid with coins sitting in some of the squares, if those coins are only allowed to move in certain ways.

Another question required knowing something about the geometry of a 20-sided shape known as a icosahedron.

“That was the one I struggled with the most,” said Wang, whose individual score nevertheless tied him for sixth place overall out of 3,857 contestants.

A sample of problems from the 84th Putnam Competition.

The most common question he gets asked about the Putnam, Rydell said, is not so much what’s on the test, but why people take it in the first place.

This year’s test was so challenging that a score of 78 out of 120 or better — just 65% — was enough to earn a spot in the top 10.

Most of the people who took it scored less than 10%, which means many problems went unsolved.

“For days after I took the Putnam, I would think about the problems and wonder: could I have done it better this way? You can become obsessed,” said Bryant, who took the Putnam in the 1970s as a college student at NC State.

Sophomores Jiang and Rydell, who both ranked in the top 5%, see it as an opportunity to “meet people who also enjoy problem solving,” Jiang said.

“I’m not a math major so I probably wouldn’t do much of this kind of problem solving otherwise,” Rydell said.

For Rydell it’s also the aha moment: “Just the reward of when you solve a problem, the feeling of making that breakthrough,” Rydell said.

Professor Kraines’ weekly problem-solving seminar, MATH 283S, takes place on Tuesday evenings at 6:15 p.m. during the fall semester. Registration for Fall 2024 begins April 3.

Robin Smith
By Robin Smith, Marketing & Communications

Reducing Food Insecurity and Creating Community at Durham’s Catawba Trail Farm

At Catawba Trail Farm in north Durham, the idea of community remains at the forefront of all that they do. A space dedicated to growing, learning, and diligent work, the farm invites all willing to become involved. Recently, students at Duke University had the opportunity to bear witness to these qualities, through a course taught by Dr. Brian McAdoo of Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

Picture of volunteers at Catawba Trail Farm (Credit: @UrbanCommunityAgrinomics on Instagram.)

The Catawba Trail Farm was once known as Snowhill Plantation, yet despite this co-founder Delphine Sellars refers to it as “a place of healing.” This is because Sellars recognizes the importance of acknowledging the past when attempting to shape the future. Sellars’ focus is on taking land formerly used to abuse enslaved people and transforming it into a place of empowerment and healing. This is seen through the connection between the farm and McAdoo’s course here at Duke. The course, “Exploring Earth Sciences: Surviving Anthropocene in North Carolina,” explores a range of themes such as food insecurity, environmental justice, and global change through the context of environmental studies. Additionally, McAdoo’s course has what is referred to as the ‘Catawba Trail Mission’ where Duke students, in partnership with Catawba Trail Farm, seek to not only target this food insecurity within the community, but also uncover the history hidden within the roots of the farm.  

Picture of Delphine Sellars (Credit: @UrbanCommunityAgrinomics on Instagram.)

The most recent progress of this mission can be seen through the class’s work with the gravesite of William Johnston, who established Snowhill Plantation in 1763. Through a geophysical survey, the class identified several unmarked graves of enslaved people buried with the Johnston family. Through this they have worked to trace their lineages to their loved ones and inform them of their findings. The class has also used this same technology to help identify and ensure that the traits and key aspects of the land are fully understood and respected. 

Picture of volunteers at Catawba Trail Farm (Credit: @UrbanCommunityAgrinomics on Instagram.)

Through the work between Duke and Catawba Trail Farm, students are granted the opportunity to take their learning beyond the textbook and truly begin to understand the depth behind the land outside of technological gadgets. Catawba Trail Farm helps in this journey while simultaneously learning more about the rich nature of the land and its inhabitants. This constant sense of learning and support is what makes students such as Duke master’s student, Roo Jackson, comfortable in saying Catawba Trail Farm “feels like home.” 

Post by Gabrielle Douglas, Class of 2027
Post by Gabrielle Douglas, Class of 2027

Democracy Threatened: Can We Depolarize Digital Spaces?

“Israeli Mass Slaughter.” “Is Joe Biden Fit to be President?” Each time we log on to social media, potent headlines encircle us, as do the unwavering and charged opinions that fill the comment spaces. Each like, repost, or slight interaction we have with social media content is devoured by the “algorithm,” which tailors the space to our demonstrated beliefs.

So, where does this leave us? In our own personal “echo chamber,” claim the directors of Duke’s Political Polarization Lab in a recent panel.

Founded in 2018, the lab’s 40 scholars enact cutting edge research on politics and social media. This unique intersection requires a diverse team, evident in its composition of seven different disciplines and career stages. The research has proven valuable: beneficiaries include government policy-makers, non-profit organizations, and social media companies. 

The lab’s recent research project sought to probe the underlying mechanisms of our digital echo-chambers: environments where we only connect with like-minded individuals. Do we have the power to shatter the glass and expand perspectives? Researchers used bots to generate social media content of opposing party views. The content was intermixed with subject’s typical feeds, and participants were evaluated to see if their views would gradually moderate.

The results demonstrated that the more people paid attention to the bots, the more grounded in their viewpoints or polarized they became. 

Clicking the iconic Twitter bird or new “X” logo signifies a step onto the battlefield, where posts are ambushed by a flurry of rebuttals upon release.

Chris Bail, Professor of Political and Data Science, shared that 90% of these tweets are generated by a meager 6% of Twitter’s users. Those 6% identify as either very liberal or very conservative, rarely settling in a midde area. Their commitment to propagating their opinions is rewarded by the algorithm, which thrives on engagement. When reactive comments filter in, the post is boosted even more. The result is a distorted perception of social media’s community, when in truth the bulk of users are moderate and watching on the sidelines. 

Graphic from the Political Polarization Lab presentation at Duke’s 2024 Research & Innovation Week

Can this be changed? Bail described the exploration of incentives for social media users. This means rewarding both sides, fighting off the “trolls” who wreak havoc on public forums. Enter a new strategy: using bots to retweet top content creators that receive engagement from both parties.

X’s (formerly Twitter’s) Community Notes feature allows users to annotate tweets that they find misleading. This strategy includes boosting notes that annotate bipartisan creators, after finding that notes tended towards the polarized tweets.

 The results were hard to ignore: misinformation decreased by 25-35%, said Bail, saving companies millions of dollars.

Social media is democracy’s public square

Christopher bail

Instead of simply bashing younger generation’s fixation on social media, Bail urged the audience to consider the bigger picture.

“What do we want to get out of social media?” “

What’s the point and how can it be made more productive?”

On a mission to answer these questions, the Polarization Lab has set out to develop evidence-based social media by creating custom platforms. In order to test the platforms out, researchers prompted A.I. to create “digital twins” of real people, to simulate users. 

Co-Director Alex Volfovsky described the thought process that led to this idea: Running experiments on existing social media often requires dumping data into an A.I. system and interpreting results. But by building an engaging social network, researchers were able to manipulate conditions and observe causal effects.

How can the presence of a “like button” or “repost” feature affect our activity on platforms? On LinkedIn, even tweaking recommended users showed that people gain the most value from semi-distant connections.

In this exciting new field, unanswered questions ring loud. It can be frightening to place our trust in ambiguous algorithms for content moderation, especially when social media usage is at an all-time high.

After all, the media I consume has clearly trickled into my day-to-day decisions. I eat at restaurants I see on my Instagram feed, I purchase products that I see influencers promote, and I tend to read headlines that are spoon-fed to me. As a frequent social media user, I face the troubling reality of being susceptible to manipulation.

Amidst the fear, panelists stress that their research will help create a safer and more informed culture surrounding social media in pressing efforts to preserve democracy.

Post by Ana Lucia Ochoa, class of 2026
Post by Ana Lucia Ochoa, class of 2026

The HIV/AIDS Epidemic: Revisiting the Early Days of a Global Health Crisis

On June 5, 1981, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported the first cases of a mysterious disease afflicting young, otherwise healthy men in a tiny suburb of Los Angeles, California. The disease, now known as AIDS, would go on to infect 85.6 million people around the world, sparking an epidemic that persists to this day.

On February 6, 2024, Duke’s Global Health Institute hosted a conversation with Dr. James Curran and Dr. Kevin M. De Cock, both former leaders at the CDC, about their experiences on the frontlines of the AIDS crisis in the earliest days of this epidemic. The conversation was moderated by Dr. Chris Beyrer and Dr. Nwora Lance Okeke, two Duke researchers in infectious disease.

Pictured from left to right: Dr. James Curran and Dr. Kevin M. De Cock

The Origin of the Epidemic

The first cases of AIDS were reported by Dr. Michael Gottlieb, a young immunologist from UCLA. His groundbreaking findings, published in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, described “previously healthy gay men from Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York, who presented with rare opportunistic infections,” said De Cock. These infections, known as PCP (Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia) and KS (Kaposi’s sarcoma), were extremely rare. Upon observation, Gottlieb identified a startling commonality among the cases: they were all sexually active gay men.

Michael Gottlieb: The Rutgers Alumnus Who First Identified the Deadly  Disease We Now Call AIDS | New Brunswick, NJ Patch

These findings “didn’t fit into any organizational unit at the CDC,” so a multispecialty task force was formed. Led by Curran, it recruited experts in STIs, parasitology, virology, cancer, and more.

Tracking the Epidemic

At the start of the epidemic, cases were phoned into the CDC by individual doctors. But this quickly became inadequate. The epidemic was growing fast, and CDC phone lines could not keep up. “The CDC, therefore, developed a surveillance case definition for the syndrome,” De Cock explained. “Cases meeting this definition were reported through health departments to the CDC.”

“I think we were able with the case definition for surveillance, to take advantage of the fact that all of these conditions were very serious and so unusual that the physician would say ‘I’ve never seen anything like it,’…,” Curran said. “The other conditions were far less specific and far less useful for tracking the disease.”

In October 1981, these tracking protocols helped identify AIDS as a sexually transmitted disease. A national case-control study found that sexual activity was a leading risk factor, and a cluster of cases in 10 US cities linked via sexual contact was discovered. “People just didn’t want to believe it,” Curran said. “They wanted to believe that it wasn’t something transmissible.” 

Expanding Epidemic

Over the next year, the epidemic expanded to include injection drug users, heterosexual partners of bisexual men, people of Haitian descent, and infants. But perhaps most surprising was the transmission occurring through blood transfusion. In December 1982, a case of AIDS-like illness was reported in a 20-month-old infant after receiving blood from a donor who later developed the virus.

“Until that December report of the infant, the mainstream media had actually paid very little attention to AIDS. But that suddenly changed,” said De Cock. “While AIDS was seen as a problem of marginalized groups… it was easy to ignore. But anyone might need a blood transfusion.”

In the following years, rumors surrounding transmission and contact sparked nationwide panic. Fear of contracting the disease caused AIDS patients to lose their jobs and housing. Although the CDC provided up-to-date information on the nature of the virus, quelling public fear was extremely difficult. “AIDS proved that you can’t separate prevention and treatment,” Curran explained.

Modern AIDS Era

As we get close… to 100 million HIV infections since the epidemic began- have we done as well as we should have?”

Dr. Kevin M. De Cock

In 1991, researchers successfully identified HIV (Human immunodeficiency virus) as the underlying cause of AIDS. Since then, scientific understanding of the disease has greatly improved. “Our success has made AIDS more normal, which has robbed the disease of some of its mystique,” De Cock expressed. However, there is still no known cure for AIDS. The disease is a lifelong battle that wreaks havoc on the people it infects.

HIV / AIDS - Our World in Data
Source: Our World in Data

De Cock and Curran’s contributions to the AIDS epidemic fundamentally shaped our understanding of the virus. Their work shines a light on the importance of frontline research and support. Their book, entitled ‘Dispatches from the AIDS Pandemic: A Public Health Story,’ is available to read here.

Written by Skylar Hughes, Class of 2025

Rosetta Reitz: The Life Behind the Music

A 1983 New Yorker article by Whitney Balliet argued that “Women don’t have the grace and poise to play jazz.” While this comment wasn’t uncommon for the time, it certainly wasn’t universally accepted. In fact, this comment is what feminist writer and producer, Rosetta Reitz, sought to disprove through her decades-long efforts to promote underrepresented records. 

This past Tuesday Feb. 6, the “Rosetta Reitz’s Musical Archive of Care” Bass Connections team hosted a discussion pertaining to the origins, findings, and thought process of this archive. Leading this discussion were researchers Anthony Kelley, Duke Professor, and Tift Merritt, Grammy-nominated musician.  In this, the pair explored the key theme of artistic empathy utilized through the archival process. Archival artistic empathy describes the act of not making yourself the center of your findings but allowing them to enlarge your compassion. This theme was pertinent not only for Merritt’s research journey but also for that of Reitz. 

Rosetta Rietz was a feminist, historian, and producer who recognized the absence of female voices within the jazz industry and sought to find the root cause. Through her efforts she quickly recognized that the women were there, they were simply unheard. Rosetta, determined to change this fact, began to collect information about the music of these women as a means of building a platform for them in Rosetta Records. This recording company was created for the sole purpose of promoting, rediscovering, and establishing the voices of women in the jazz industry, a rarity for the time period. With exactly 97 women under her records, Reitz was unwavering in her attempts to get their music picked up by major radio stations. Rosetta Records would go on to produce eighteen albums dedicated to many talented unknown singers and even some as big as Billie Holiday.  

From L to R: Tift Merritt, Annie Koppes and Anthony Kelley (Picture taken by Yasaman Baghban)

Rosetta was truly an influential creative whose influence extended beyond that of music. She was the owner of a bookstore in Greenwich Village. She went on to write one of the first books on menopause and on the absence of women in jazz.  She was an active member in her community seeking to recognize and correct injustices. Reitz was truly someone whose compassion and artistic empathy shone through. This is not to say that attempts at not centering herself were always successful. Reitz often faced backlash from the media for appearing disingenuous due to ethical and legal concerns surrounding her work. These concerns largely apply to works such as her Jailhouse Blues record which utilized the voices and struggles of women in a Mississippi prison, released by Mississippi congress, to create a record. Many questioned if these women consented to this, how they felt to find this, and the overall ethicality in creating this.  

Bass Connections team members Lindsay Frankfort and Trisha Santanam.

The legacy of Rosetta Reitz is one full of great passion and love for the art that is jazz and women’s place within it. The Bass Connections research team has managed to bring it to life by employing their own artistic empathy. They have created a full picture of the complexities, devotion and love Rosetta had for life’s work further cementing the fact that women indeed have a rightful place within the jazz industry.  

Post by Gabrielle Douglas, Class of 2027
Post by Gabrielle Douglas, Class of 2027

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