Duke Research Blog

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

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Sharing is Caring, But How Does it Start?

This is the second of several posts written by students at the North Carolina School of Science and Math as part of an elective about science communication with Dean Amy Sheck.

As an occasional volunteer at a local children’s museum, I can tell you that children take many different approaches to sharing. Some will happily lend others their favorite toys, while others will burst into tears at the suggestion of giving others a turn in an exhibit.

For Rita Svetlova Ph.D. at the Duke Empathy Development Lab, these behaviors aren’t just passing observations, they are her primary scientific focus. In November, I sat down with Dr. Svetlova to discuss her current research, past investigations, and future plans.

Margarita Lvovna Svetlova

Originally from Russia, Svetlova obtained an M.A. from Lomonosov Moscow State University in Moscow before earning her Ph.D in developmental psychology from the University of Pittsburgh. She later worked as a post-doctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

Now at Duke University as an assistant research professor of psychology and neuroscience and the principal investigator in the Empathy Development Lab, Svetlova looks at the development of ‘prosocial’ behavior in children — behaviors such as sharing, empathy, and teamwork.

Svetlova credits her mentor at the University of Pittsburgh, Dr. Celia Brownell, for inspiring her to pursue child psychology and development. “I’ve always been interested in prosociality, but when I was in Russia I actually studied linguistics,” she says. “When I moved to the U.S., I changed paths partly because I’ve always wanted to know more about human psychology. The reason I started studying children is partly because I was interested in it and partly because I met Dr. Brownell. I branched out a little bit, but I generally found it interesting.”

An unsuccessful sharing experience. (From Awkward Family Photos)

Although her passion for childhood development research began in Pittsburgh,  Svetlova has embraced her role as a Duke researcher, most recently tackling a scenario that most academically-inclined readers are familiar with — a partner’s failure to perform in a joint-commitment — in a co-authored May 2017 paper titled “Three-Year-Olds’ Reactions to a Partner’s Failure to Perform Her Role in a Joint Commitment.”

In the study, 144 three-year-olds were presented with a common joint commitment scenario: playing a game. For one third of the children, the game ended when their partner defected, while another third of the test group had a partner who didn’t know how to play.  The final third of the group saw the game apparatus break. Svetlova looked at how the children’s reactions varied by scenario: protesting defectors, teaching the ignorant partner, and blaming the broken apparatus. The results seem to suggest that three-year-olds have the ability to evaluate intentions in a joint commitment.

Another paper Svetlova co-authored, titled “Three- and 5-Year-Old Childrens’ Understanding of How to Dissolve a Joint Commitment,” compared the reactions of three- and five-year-olds when a puppet left a collaborative game with either permission, prior notification, or suddenly without prior notification. If the puppet left without warning, three-year-old subjects protested more and waited longer for the puppet’s return, but both age groups seemed to understand the agreement implicit in a joint commitment.

These joint commitments are only a small fraction of the questions that Svetlova hopes to address.

“A longitudinal study of prosociality would be amazing,” she says. “What I’m interested in now is the intersection of fairness understanding and in-group/out-group bias. What I am trying to look into is how children understand their in-group members vs. out-group members and whether there’s something we can do to make them more accepting of their out-group members.”

“Another one I am interested in is the neural basis of empathy and prosocial behavior. I haven’t started yet, but I’m planning a couple of studies on looking into the brain mechanisms of empathy in particular,” Svetolova says. “We plan to scan children and adults while experiencing an emotion themselves and compare that brain activation to the brain activation while witnessing someone experiencing an emotion, the question being ‘do we really feel others’ emotions as our own?’”

Svetlova also expressed her interest in the roles that gender, culture, and upbringing play in a child’s development of prosociality.

I had to ask her why teenagers seemed to “regress” in prosociality, seemingly becoming more selfish when compared to their childhood selves.

“I would distinguish between self-centered and selfish,” she assured me. “You are not necessarily selfish, it’s just that during teenagehood you are looking for your place in the world, in the ‘pack.’ That’s why these things become very important, other’s opinions about you and your reputation in this little group, people become very anxious about it, it doesn’t mean that they become selfish all of a sudden or stop being prosocial.” She added, “I believe in the good in people, including teenagers.”

Guest Post by Sellers Hill, NCSSM 2020

How Do You Engineer a Microbial Community?

This is the first of several posts written by students at the North Carolina School of Science and Math as part of an elective about science communication with Dean Amy Sheck.

Claudia Gunsch, the Theodore Kennedy distinguished associate professor in the department of civil and environmental engineering, wants to know how to engineer a microbial community. An environmental engineer with a fascination for the world at the micro level, Gunsch takes a unique approach to solving the problem of environmental pollution: She looks to what’s already been done by nature.

Claudia Gunsch, Ph.D.

Gunsch and her team seek to harness the power of microbes to create living communities capable of degrading contamination in the environment.

“How can you engineer that microbial community so the organisms that degrade the pollutant become enriched?” she asks. “Or — if you’re thinking about dangerous pathogenic organisms — how do you engineer the microbial community so that those organisms become depressed in that particular environment?”

The first step, Gunsch says, is to figure out who’s there. What microbes make up a community? How do these organisms function? Who is doing what? Which organisms are interchangeable? Which prefer to live with one another, and which prefer not living with one another?

“Once we can really start building that kind of framework,” she says, “we can start engineering it for our particular purposes.”

Yet identifying the members of a microbial community is far more difficult than it may seem. Shallow databases coupled with vast variations in microbial communities leave Gunsch and her team with quite a challenge. Gunsch, however, remains optimistic.

Map of U.S. Superfund Sites (2013)

“The exciting part is that we have all these technologies where we can sequence all these samples,” she says. “As we become more sophisticated and more people do this type of research, we keep feeding all of this data into these databases. Then we will have more information and one day, we’ll be able to go out and take that sample and know exactly who’s there.”

“Right now, it’s in its infancy,” she says with a smile. “But in the long-term, I have no doubt we will get there.”

Gunsch is currently working on Duke’s Superfund Research Center designing bioremediation technologies for the degradation of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) contamination. These pollutants are extremely difficult to break down due to their tendency to stick strongly onto soil and sediments. Gunsch and her team are searching for the right microbial community to break these compounds down — all by taking advantage of the innate capabilities of these microorganisms.

A photo montage from Dr. Gunsch’s lab page.

Step one, Gunsch says, has already been completed. She and her team have identified several different organisms capable of degrading PAHs. The next step, she explains, is assembling the microbial communities — taking these organisms and getting them to work together, sometimes even across kingdoms of life. Teamwork at the micro level.

The subsequent challenge, then, is figuring out how these organisms will survive and thrive in the environment they’re placed in, and which microbial seeds will best degrade the contamination when placed in the environment. This technique is known as “precision bioremediation” — similar to precision medicine, it involves finding the right solution in the right amounts to be the most effective in a certain scenario.

“In this particular case, we’re trying to figure out what the right cocktail of microbes we can add to an environment that will lead to the end result that is desired — in this case, PAH degradation,” Gunsch says.

Ultimately, the aim is to reduce pollution and restore ecological health to contaminated environments. A lofty goal, but one within sight. Yet Gunsch sees applications beyond work in the environment — all work dealing with microbes, she says, has the potential to be impacted by this research.

“If we understand how these organisms work together,” she says, “then we can advance our understanding of human health microbiomes as well.”

Post by Emily Yang, NCSSM 2021

A Research Tour of Duke’s Largest Lab

“Lightning is like a dangerous animal that wants to go places. And you can’t stop it,” smiled Steve Cummer, Ph.D. as he gestured to the colorful image on the widescreen TV he’d set up outside his research trailer in an open field in Duke Forest.

Cummer, the William H. Younger Professor of electrical and computer engineering at Duke, is accustomed to lecturing in front of the students he teaches or his peers at conferences. But on this day, he was showing spectacular videos of lightning to curious members of the public who were given exclusive access to his research site on Eubanks Road in Chapel Hill, about 8 miles west of campus.

Steve Cummer shows a time-lapse video of lightning to the visitors on the annual Duke Forest Research Tour in the Blackwood Division of the Duke Forest.

More than two dozen members of the community had signed up for a tour of research projects in the Blackwood Division of Duke Forest (which recently expanded), a research-only area that is not normally open to the public. Cummer’s research site was the last stop of the afternoon research tour. The tour also covered native trees, moths and geological features of the Blackwood Division with biologist and ecologist Steve Hall, and air quality monitoring and remote sensing studies with John Walker and Dave Williams, from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The Hardwood Tower in the Blackwood Division is used for air quality monitoring and remote sensing studies. Researchers frequently climb the 138 foot tall tower to sample the air above the tree canopy.

Cummer’s research on lightning and sprites (electrical discharges associated with lightning that occur above thunderstorm clouds) sparked a lively question and answer session about everything from hurricanes to how to survive if you’re caught in a lightning storm. (Contrary to popular belief, crouching where you are is probably not the safest solution, he said. A car is a great hiding spot as long as you don’t touch anything made of metal.)

Cummer kept his tone fun and casual, like a live science television host, perched on the steps of his research trailer, referring to some of the scientific equipment spread out across the field as “salad bowls,” “pizza pans” and “lunar landers,” given their odd shapes. But the research he talked about was serious. Lightning is big business because it can cause billions of dollars in damage and insurance claims every year.

An ash tree (Fraxinus spp.) being examined by one of the visitors on the Duke Forest Research tour. Blackwood Division ash trees are showing signs of the highly destructive emerald ash borer invasion.

Surprisingly little is known about lightning, not even how it is first formed. “There are a shocking number of things,” he said, pausing to let his pun sink in, “that we really don’t understand about how lightning works. Starting with the very beginning, nobody knows exactly how it starts. Like, really the physics of that.”  But Cummer loves his research and has made some advances in this field (like devising more precise sensor systems), “When you’re the first person to understand something and you haven’t written about it yet or told anyone about it… that’s the best feeling.”

The Duke Forest hosted 49 research projects last year, which —with less than half of the projects reporting—represented over a million dollars of investment in Duke Forest-based work. 

“The Duke Forest is more than just a place to walk and to jog. It’s an outdoor classroom. It’s a living laboratory. It’s where faculty and teachers and students of all ages come to learn and explore,” explained Sara Childs, Duke Forest director.

The Duke Forest offers their research tour every year. Members of the public can sign up for the email newsletter to be notified about future events.

Post by Véronique Koch

Visualizing Climate Change, Self, and Existential Crises

Nothing excites Heather Gordon like old Duke Forest archives do. (“Forestry porn,” she calls it.) Except maybe the question of whether a copy is inherently worse than its original. Or the fear of unperceived existence and dying into oblivion. Or a lot of things, actually.

Gordon, a visiting artist at Duke’s Rubenstein Arts Center, is blending data and art through origami folding patterns. She doesn’t usually fold her designs into three-dimensional figures (“I hate sculptures”), but the outcome is nevertheless just as—perhaps even more—exciting that way.

Heather Gordon, Durham artist
Heather Gordon, visiting artist at the Rubenstein Arts Center.
Photo by Michelle Lotker

Gordon happened to stumble upon the idea simply by proceeding through day-to-day life. Namely, she found herself growing increasingly frustrated by online security questions. “They’re always asking stupid things like ‘what’s your favorite pet’s name?’, and I can’t remember what I put 10 years ago,” she said. (And Gordon says she loves all her pets equally.)

Instead, she thought that data visualizations could make for a much more effective security protocol by making use of personal data that only the individual in question would know and remember. “A shape could define you,” she said.

Most recently at the Ruby, Gordon worked with the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library and the Duke University Archives to collect old photographs, spreadsheets, letters, and other documents that would contribute to her arts project. Gordon says she knew it was something she had to do when she found an archived letter addressed to Duke’s Dr. Clarence Korstian reading, “Thanks very much for the two shipments of twigs.” 

But what was most artistically compelling to Gordon was the light intensity data. Using the documented entries and calculations, she noticed that there were four quadrants in each plot, with 10 readings in each quadrant. Given this, Gordon used a compass to create a series of concentric arcs reminiscent of ripples in a pond. The final product put all four quadrants together to create a painting.

abstract painting
This pattern was derived from archival data on light intensity in the Duke Forest.
Photo by Robert Zimmerman

The second half of the Ruby project is directly linked to its title, UNLESS. Inspired by Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, Gordon took the word “UNLESS,” converted each letter into its respective ASCII value, and mapped those numbers into a tree pattern. As in The Lorax, she hoped to tackle issues of resource management and climate change and the idea that unless something is done, climate collapse remains imminent.

For the final product, Gordon used tape to display the tree patterns in colored stripes onto the glass windows of the Ruby. The trees will remain on display into Spring 2020.

tape piece on the Ruby's windows
Gordon’s UNLESS on display at the Rubenstein Arts Center.
Photo by Robert Zimmerman

Yet Gordon’s portfolio neither begins nor ends with UNLESS.

For instance, she’s created an installation called ECHO, inspired by an old personal project of mapping a series of mostly failed “intimate communications” over the course of a year. “I realized I was just seeing what I wanted to see,” Gordon said, reflecting on the project. And thus ECHO was born as an examination of self-awareness, reflection, and authenticity.

The installation itself used strips of mirror tape in a pattern derived from dates of correspondence with Gordon’s close friends. With dancer Justin Tornow, she also put on a dance performance within the space. Unintentionally, ECHO also became a case study in the perception of copies versus originals; a hundred or so audience members chose to crowd around a tiny door to watch Tornow dance, even though the exact same performance was being broadcast live on TVs just a few feet away.

ECHO_Company_092
Tornow’s dance performance.
Photo courtesy of Heather Gordon

In another project, titled And Then The Sun Swallowed Me, Gordon revisits a childhood fear: “I was obsessed with the idea that the sun could go into supernova at any moment, and you wouldn’t know,” she explained. Even now, a similar panic persists. “I’m afraid of unperceived existence,” Gordon said. “No one will know about me 3,000 years later, and I stress about it.”

The folding pattern was made using the atomic radii of elements in suns that are capable of supernovas. Wrapped in black tape around the walls of a large room, the installation is explosive. In the center, a projection shows a swimmer swimming, though moving neither forward nor backward. It’s a Sisyphian swimmer, Gordon explains, forced to go through the motions but unable to find purpose.

And Then The Sun Swallowed Me, featuring a projected Sisyphian swimmer.
Photo courtesy of Heather Gordon

Gordon finds connections where most people can’t. There has long existed a gap between the sciences and the arts, but she seems to suggest that there need no longer be. And she also somehow manages to blend philosophy and existentialism quite gracefully with humor, youthfulness, and creativity. 

In essence, Gordon knows that there’s a lot in this world that’s worth freaking out over, but she handles it quite expertly.

By Irene Park

Republican to RepublicEn: Climate Change for Conservatives

My mom’s calling—we talk every day. She asks me if I’ve eaten, and I complain about the usual: essays, exams, horrifying clumps of hair on the shower floor. 

Bob Inglis, former Congressman and speaker at the Change My Mind Symposium during Duke Energy Week.

I sit on the steps of the chapel, a warm yellow against a silent sky. Durham is chilly tonight. Cloudy, starless, I feel rain coming. My fingers — naked, against my phone and ear —fare worst, somewhere between cold and numb. They crave my pocket’s warmth, and I tell my mother goodbye.

“Wait, Mom, before I go, did you see the climate change report?”

And with a single sentence, cordial relations are over, and little things like “familial love” fall away. Constructed arguments become a battle of volume. Mom, if we don’t do anything, millions will die. But, Jeremy, she says, climate change is natural — and these summits, they’re PR moves, politicians don’t actually care. In the ring, it’s Me vs. Mother, Ali vs. Frazier, Democrat vs. Republican. An hour in, I’ve forgotten the cold — hell, I’m sweating in self-righteous anger.

These little spats parallel increasingly intense partisanship in the United States. Hot-button topics fuel the divide, with gun control, abortion rights, and impeachment splitting Democrats and Republicans along party lines. Particularly contentious is climate change. While 84% of Democrats “consider climate change a ‘major threat,’” only a fourth of Republicans feel the same. 

Enter Bob Inglis, former US Congressman and 1981 Duke alumnus. Inglis represented South Carolina’s 4th House district, one of the reddest regions in the nation. Initially, he wasn’t so hot on global warming himself. “For years, I was in Congress saying climate change was nonsense,” he says, laughing. “I didn’t know anything about it except that Al Gore was for it.

But what changed his mind?

“Inglis 2.0,” as he calls it, began with his son in 2004, who pushed him to adopt greener policies. Next was the increasing body of evidence that proved climate change undeniable. But it would take a spiritual awakening to transform Inglis’s views. On a snorkeling trip to the Great Barrier Reef, Inglis met oceanographer Scott Heron. The two were kindred spirits, and in Heron’s conservation work, Inglis saw a love for God. For Inglis, “Conservation became loving God and loving people,” he says.        

Inglis addresses free-enterprise solutions to climate change
(Source: Duke University Energy Initiative)

In 2009, he introduced the “Raise Wages, Cut Carbon Act” designed to curb global warming. Central to the bill was a carbon tax, which puts a price on carbon-based fuel use. Voter backlash was swift. “They were having a Tea Party— and I was specifically uninvited,” Inglis chuckles. In the 2010 election, he was soundly defeated in a primary race against Trey Gowdy, largely in response to the carbon tax. 

But Inglis didn’t stop there. In 2012, he founded republicEn, an organization that promotes free enterprise solutions to global warming. republicEn targets a right-wing audience—those most hesitant to accept global warming. 

The core of republicEn is its online community. Thousands of members convene in local events and write letters to Congress advocating a carbon tax solution. Dedicated spokespeople also tour the nation to promote the need for conservative leadership. Both benefit from republicEn’s media wing, which gives conservative voices a platform for climate change.

Inglis firmly believes that conservative solutions are key to fighting climate change. Citing the explosion of smartphones, he poses a question: would the cell phone industry have grown as rapidly had it been intensely regulated? He doubts it. Similarly, he sees free market solutions as the fastest way to slow global warming.

republicEn has no set timeline, no five-year plan. But Inglis is hopeful: “You weren’t there when we marched in Selma, but you can be there when we solve climate change.” 

Post by Jeremy Jacobs

Traveling Back in Time Through Smart Archaeology

The British explorer George Dennis once wrote, “Vulci is a city whose very name … was scarcely remembered, but which now, for the enormous treasures of antiquity it has yielded, is exalted above every other city of the ancient world.” He’s correct in assuming that most people do not know where or what Vulci is, but for explorers and historians – including Duke’s Bass Connections team Smart Archaeology – Vulci is a site of enormous potential.

Vulci, Italy, was an ancient Etruscan city, the remains of which are situated about an hour outside of Rome. The Etruscan civilization originated in the area roughly around Tuscany, western Umbria, northern Lazio, and in the north of Po Valley, the current Emilia-Romagna region, south-eastern Lombarty, southern Veneto, and some areas of Campania. The Etruscan culture is thought to have emerged in Italy around 900 BC and endured through the Roman-Etruscan Wars and coming to an end with the establishment of the Roman Empire. 

As a dig site, Vulci is extremely valuable for the information it can give us about the Etruscan and Roman civilizations – especially since the ruins found at Vulci date back beyond the 8th century B.C.E. On November 20th, Professor Maurizio Forte, of the Art, Art History and Visual Studies departments at Duke as well as Duke’s Dig@Lab, led a talk and interactive session. He summarized the Smart Archaeology teams’ experience this past summer in Italy as well as allowing audience members to learn about and try the various technologies used by the team. With Duke being the first university with a permit of excavation for Vulci in the last 60 years, the Bass Connections team set out to explore the region, with their primary concerns being data collection, data interpretation, and the use of virtual technology. 

Trying out some of the team’s technologies on November 20th (photo by Renate Kwon

The team, lead by Professor Maurizio Forte, Professor Michael Zavlanos, David Zalinsky, and Todd Barrett, sought to be as diverse as possible. With 32 participants ranging from undergraduate and graduate students to professionals, as well as Italian faculty and student members, the team flew into Italy at the beginning of the summer with a research model focused on an educational approach of practice and experimentation for everyone involved. With a naturally interdisciplinary focus ranging from classical studies to mechanical engineering, the team was divided, with people focusing on excavation in Vulci, remote sensing, haptics, virtual reality, robotics, and digital media. 

Professor Maurizio Forte

So what did the team accomplish? Well, technology was a huge driving force in most of the data collected. For example, with the use of drones, photos taken from an aerial view were patched together to create bigger layout pictures of the area that would have been the city of Vulci. The computer graphics created by the drone pictures were also used to create a video and aided in the process of creating a virtual reality simulation of Vulci. VR can be an important documentation tool, especially in a field as ever-changing as archaeology. And as Professor Forte remarked, it’s possible for anyone to see exactly what the researchers saw over the summer – and “if you’re afraid of the darkness of a cistern, you can go through virtual reality instead.” 

An example of one of the maps created by the team
The team at work in Vulci

In addition, the team used sensor technology to get around the labor and time it would take to dissect the entire site – which by the team’s estimate would take 300 years! Sensors in the soil, in particular, can sense the remnants of buildings and archaeological features up to five meters below ground, allowing researchers to imagine what monuments and buildings might have looked like. 

One of the biggest takeaways from the data the team collected based on discovering remnants of infrastructure and layout of the city was of the Etruscan mastery of water, developing techniques that the Romans also used. More work was also done on classification of Etruscan pottery, tools, and materials based on earlier work done by previous researchers. Discovering decorative and religious artifacts was also impactful for the team, because as Professor Forte emphasized, these objects are the “primary documentation of history.” 

But the discoveries won’t stop there. The Smart Archaeology team is launching their 2019-2020 Bass Connections project on a second phase of their research – specifically focusing on identifying new archaeological sites, analyzing the landscape’s transformation and testing new methods of data capturing, simulation and visualization. With two more years of work on site, the team is hopeful that research will be able to explain in even greater depth how the people of Vulci lived, which will certainly help to shine a light on the significance of the Etruscan civilization in global history.

By Meghna Datta

Wellness and the Ritual of Baking Challah

People find lots of different ways to cope with the stress of everyday life. One day Beth Ricanati, an internist at the Cleveland Clinic and the mother of three young children, was particularly overwhelmed. A friend of hers suggested that she make challah for the Jewish New Year,  Rosh Hashana

Challah is a traditional braided bread eaten on Shabbat, the Jewish sabbath as well as major Jewish holidays. It is customary to bake a round challah on Rosh Hashanah to symbolizes the year coming to a close and a new one beginning. 

A Traditional Loaf of Challah

Ricanati decided to take her friend’s advice. That Friday, before the sun went down signifying the start of Shabbat, she carved out thirty minutes to bake a loaf of Challah. 

Ricanati explained, “It was the most transformative experience because I just stopped.”

The talk was sponsored by Duke’s Forum for Scholars & Publics, a weekly forum where local, national, and global scholars can interact with the Duke community to generate greater exchange between the university and the broader world. It was facilitated by Duke Professor Kelly Alexander who brought the students in her first-year seminar “How ideas about food circulate across cultures and across film.”

Beth Ricanati
Kelly Alexander

Baking challah is a cultural and ritualistic practice. Ricanati explained that the first step of the recipe is to stop and think. When baking challah, it’s important to have an intention, to consider “why am I here and in whose merit am I making this bread?” This intention can be for others or for yourself. After the bread has risen the baker blesses it and takes a small piece off which represents the offerings that used to be made at the temple in Jerusalem. 

Ricanati is a women’s health expert and medical professional. She had never really baked before this. “Challah is not necessarily about the end product, about making a perfect challah. It is about the process.”

There are 613 mitzvot or commandments in the Jewish tradition and only three of them are specifically designated for women. Baking Challah is one of them. Challah is special because it is intended to nourish us both physically and spiritually.

Ricanati added, “When I took the challah out of the oven that day my house became a home.”

She enjoyed this experience so much that she decided to continue baking challah every Friday. Not only did it create thirty minutes a week for her to stop and reflect but it brought wellness into her life. As a result, she ended up writing a book titled Braided: a journey of 1000 challahs. The book focused on thinking about food as medicine and how to create wellness in one’s life. 

“To be well is more than just physical,” Ricanati said. Wellness is about both the mind and the body; it’s about a holistic treatment of the whole person. “Making challah, for me, is a way to embrace stress management.”

As a medical professional, Ricanati also explained the idea of Neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change continuously throughout one’s life. Our behaviors aren’t fixed and new behaviors have to be enjoyable in order to be sustainable. 

“The more I made the bread, the easier it became and the easier it became the more I made the bread,” she said.

After publishing her book, Ricanati got to meet others who had been inspired to start the ritual of baking challah in there own homes. Similarly, they too felt that the ritual brought unexpected wellness into their lives. Beyond this, Challah has the ability to strengthen a community — not only does baking lend itself to being a group event but there are people baking challah on Fridays all over the world.

“It is a gift to bake Challah because it feeds both your soul and your tummy.”

Post by Anna Gotskind

Understanding and Addressing Vaccine Hesitancy

In the midst of increasing outbreaks of vaccine-preventable disease, Duke global health researcher Lavanya Vasudevan (PhD, MPH, LPH) is investigating the reasons for vaccine hesitancy with focus on America and Tanzania.

Vaccine hesitancy refers to the refusal of or delay in accepting vaccinations, despite their availability. Vasudevan hopes to figure out what interventions will change the minds of target populations on such a heated topic.

She presented at Duke’s Global Health Institute on November 15th about her “big 5 research areas:” identification of sub-optimal vaccine uptake, contextualization of barriers to uptake, measuring parental concern, debunking misinformation, and developing and testing strategies aimed at addressing vaccine hesitancy.

Lavanya Vasudevan presenting at Duke’s Global Health Institute.

Globally, Vasudevan says that there are too many kids playing catch-up with their vaccines, meaning that even when children are getting vaccinated, the vaccinations they receive are not on time with the scheduled progression of immunizations, putting them at risk for contracting disease. Different countries measure vaccination coverage in different ways and on different timelines, which makes it harder to understand where sub-optimal vaccine uptake is happening. A better standard for assessing timeliness of vaccines is crucial. Vasudevan is working to confront this issue to gain better understanding of who and where hesitancy is coming from.

Identification of specific regions of vaccine hesitancy is crucial to navigating interventions, she added. Vasudevan wants to be able to pinpoint areas and understand the context-specific issues that vary across time, place, and vaccine type in order to be most effective.

She said that her work in Tanzania has provided insight to the problem of geographic accessibility and lack of proper supplies in the country, prompting delayed and missed vaccinations among 72% of children, according to self-reporting by their mothers. Tanzanian mothers expressed their frustrations during interviews. They frequently arrange to go to a clinic where vaccinations are offered on specific dates and travel long distances to get there. However, if there are not enough kids who come to be vaccinated, the facilities just won’t vaccinate those who did manage to show up for immunizations.  

Though the qualitative data gained through extensive interviewing and group discussions has been extremely useful and rich, Vasudevan says there is a need for quantitative tools that can rapidly screen for parent’s concerns when it comes to the vaccination of their children. Qualitative data is simply not informative on a large scale.

A review of pre-existing measures evaluated 159 studies, but the quantitative scales found were often complex and context-specific, as well as designed and validated for high-income settings. On this basis, Vasudevan and her larger research team decided to design a scale for use in Tanzania because of its specificity in addressing the contexts of the region. Tailored counseling is also being used to address the local concerns and issues.

Another parallel research project that Vasudevan is involved with aims to identify common vaccine myths, creating a taxonomy to tag these myths and developing and testing an intervention that will highlight and debunk misinformation found on the internet. The current end-goal for the work being done is a “vaccine fact-checker” that could be used on web browsers to identify the myths in vaccine-related information found online.

A common example of needles and vials containing immunization products (Creative Commons).

In closing, Vasudevan identified three main areas for developing and testing intervention strategies. She says these are behavioral nudges, educational strategies, and vaccination policy and legislation.

There is a need for parent-focused strategies that recognize parental concern for their child’s safety on all sides of the vaccination issue, she said. Stringent policies are likely to alienate hesitant parents rather than increasing vaccine uptake. This is why Vasudevan is so focused on understanding and contextualizing issues specific to hesitancy among parents. It seems that increase of vaccinations and improvement of immunization timeliness lies in hearing and reconciling with parental apprehensions and underlying root causes of these hesitations.

One area of focus that Vasudevan feels is underutilized is pre-natal care. Reduction of the divide between obstetrician/gynecologists (OBGYNs) and pediatric care may be a crucial component to educate parents and enrich their understanding about vaccinations following the birth of the child.

Beyond everything else, she said, building trust is essential; simply providing information to parents is not enough. It takes time and empathy to be enable parents to make healthy vaccination choices. Providing credible resources in a safe environment while tuning in to the causes of hesitancy may be the next step to the reduction of vaccine-preventable disease, a current top ten threat to global health.

Post by Cydney Livingston

Responding to the Climate Crisis Through Dance

Kimerer LaMothe began her talk in an unconventional way, by singing a song. As she reached the refrain she repeated the words “everybody dances” and invited the audience to join her. 

She then posed an intriguing question: How can dance be a response to the climate crisis? In the western world, dance is usually seen as a recreational activity and here LaMothe was asking how it could be used as a tool or even as the solution to one of the largest issues of our time. I was definitely a little skeptical. 

Image by Geoffry Gee

The talk was a part of Duke’s Ruby Fridays organized by the staff of Duke Arts and the Rubenstein Arts Center. LaMothe was invited to contribute to the series which features casual art talks with the intention of connecting art across a multitude of disciplines.

Her response to the climate crisis began with a discussion about the body. LaMothe explained that for three and a half billion years after the planet was formed, there were no complex bodies on the planet, just microbes. She said they developed multicellular bodies because they needed to move.

“We build our knowledge of the world through the bodily movements we make,” she said.

The idea is that a body’s ability to move and interact with the world around it is a form of dance. This is especially demonstrated by how human babies interact with their caregivers. Human babies, unlike many other animals, are extremely reliant on their caregivers and must find a way to communicate with them. Thus, they use movement to garner attention. They have an impulse to connect and use patterns of movement like a smile or a snuggle to make sure they are taken care of. What results is something like a dance.

LaMothe described it as, “A vital human expression of kinectivity.”

Using movement and dance as a way to connect or interact, however, is important to human life past infancy. Many different cultures around the world use dance as the primary ritual of their community.

One example LaMothe gave was the healing dance practiced by the Bushmen of the African Kalahari. They use dance to “stir energy” and understand any pain. As the dancing intensifies the energy grows. 

LaMothe explained that this allows them to “enter what they call first creation, a perception of reality where everything is changed and everything is changing.”

Through this, the healer can see the capacity of that pain to change and help the members release the pain. The idea is that to dance is to heal both themselves and the earth. 

Still, the question remains: How does dance heal the earth? The earth that is facing ecosystem collapse, species extinction, and overexploitation. The past five hundred years have exponentially brought us to the brink of the climate crisis. These are the same centuries that Europeans traveled around the world colonializing and overtaking native lands. One of the main ways colonists tried to make native people civilized was by stopping them from dancing.

LaMothe stated, “Native communities were told to stop dancing and instead make “progress towards civilization.”

In many places, it actually became a crime to dance. In fact, until 1932 it was against the law for native people to engage in ceremonial dances in the United States. Furthermore, in efforts to “civilize” people, a focus was placed on learning through reading and forsaking movement as a way to gain knowledge. This “civilized” culture also abandoned the awareness and respect native communities showed towards the environment around them. Dance not only allowed them to connect with each other but with the earth. This connection was reflected in the other parts of their life resulting in sustainable living and caring for the earth.

In LaMothe’s words, “dance can catalyze a sensory awareness of our own movement making.” 

An Image from LaMothe’s Presentation Featuring People Participating in
Climate Conscious Dance

She explained that through climate-conscious dance we can reconnect ourselves with the environment and help restore the earth.

One example she gave of how to do this is through events like Global Water Dances where people can participate in events all over the world to dance and raise consciousnesses about how to protect water.

In 2005 after teaching at both Brown and Harvard, LaMothe moved to a farm with her family so she could write and dance in an environment closer to nature. She has written six books, created several dance concerts and even a full-length musical titled “Happy If Happy When.” She spends her time writing, singing, dancing, and tending to the farm alongside her family.

Post by Anna Gotskind

Scientists Made a ‘T-Ray’ Laser That Runs on Laughing Gas

‘T-Ray’ laser finally arrives in practical, tunable form. Duke physicist Henry Everitt worked on it over two decades. Courtesy of Chad Scales, US Army Futures Command

It was a Frankenstein moment for Duke alumnus and adjunct physics professor Henry Everitt.

After years of working out the basic principles behind his new laser, last Halloween he was finally ready to put it to the test. He turned some knobs and toggled some switches, and presto, the first bright beam came shooting out.

“It was like, ‘It’s alive!’” Everitt said.

This was no laser for presenting Powerpoint slides or entertaining cats. Everitt and colleagues have invented a new type of laser that emits beams of light in the ‘terahertz gap,’ the no-man’s-land of the electromagnetic spectrum between microwaves and infrared light.

Terahertz radiation, or ‘T-rays,’ can see through clothing and packaging, but without the health hazards of harmful radiation, so they could be used in security scanners to spot concealed weapons without subjecting people to the dangers of X-rays.

It’s also possible to identify substances by the characteristic frequencies they absorb when T-rays hit them, which makes terahertz waves ideal for detecting toxins in the air or gases between the stars. And because such frequencies are higher than those of radio waves and microwaves, they can carry more bandwidth, so terahertz signals could transmit data many times faster than today’s cellular or Wi-Fi networks.

“Imagine a wireless hotspot where you could download a movie to your phone in a fraction of a second,” Everitt said.

Yet despite the potential payoffs, T-rays aren’t widely used because there isn’t a portable, cheap or easy way to make them.

Now Everitt and colleagues at Harvard University and MIT have invented a small, tunable T-ray laser that might help scientists tap into the terahertz band’s potential.

While most terahertz molecular lasers take up an area the size of a ping pong table, the new device could fit in a shoebox. And while previous sources emit light at just one or a few select frequencies, their laser could be tuned to emit over the entire terahertz spectrum, from 0.1 to 10 THz.

The laser’s tunability gives it another practical advantage, researchers say: the ability to adjust how far the T-ray beam travels. Terahertz signals don’t go very far because water vapor in the air absorbs them. But because some terahertz frequencies are more strongly absorbed by the atmosphere than others, the tuning capability of the new laser makes it possible to control how far the waves travel simply by changing the frequency. This might be ideal for applications like keeping car radar sensors from interfering with each other, or restricting wireless signals to short distances so potential eavesdroppers can’t intercept them and listen in.

Everitt and a team co-led by Federico Capasso of Harvard and Steven Johnson of MIT describe their approach this week in the journal Science. The device works by harnessing discrete shifts in the energy levels of spinning gas molecules when they’re hit by another laser emitting infrared light.

Their T-ray laser consists of a pencil-sized copper tube filled with gas, and a 1-millimeter pinhole at one end. A zap from the infrared laser excites the gas molecules within, and when the molecules in this higher energy state outnumber the ones in a lower one, they emit T-rays.

The team dubbed their gizmo the “laughing gas laser” because it uses nitrous oxide, though almost any gas could work, they say.

Duke professor Henry Everitt and MIT graduate student Fan Wang and colleagues have invented a new laser that emits beams of light in the ‘terahertz gap,’ the no-man’s-land of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Everitt started working on terahertz laser designs 35 years ago as a Duke undergraduate in the mid-1980s, when a physics professor named Frank De Lucia offered him a summer job.

De Lucia was interested in improving special lasers called “OPFIR lasers,” which were the most powerful sources of T-rays at the time. They were too bulky for widespread use, and they relied on an equally unwieldy infrared laser called a CO2 laser to excite the gas inside.

Everitt was tasked with trying to generate T-rays with smaller gas laser designs. A summer gig soon grew into an undergraduate honors thesis, and eventually a Ph.D. from Duke, during which he and De Lucia managed to shrink the footprint of their OPFIR lasers from the size of an axe handle to the size of a toothpick.

But the CO2 lasers they were partnered with were still quite cumbersome and dangerous, and each time researchers wanted to produce a different frequency they needed to use a different gas. When more compact and tunable sources of T-rays came to be, OPFIR lasers were largely abandoned.

Everitt would shelf the idea for another decade before a better alternative to the CO2 laser came along, a compact infrared laser invented by Harvard’s Capasso that could be tuned to any frequency over a swath of the infrared spectrum.

By replacing the CO2 laser with Capasso’s laser, Everitt realized they wouldn’t need to change the laser gas anymore to change the frequency. He thought the OPFIR laser approach could make a comeback. So he partnered with Johnson’s team at MIT to work out the theory, then with Capasso’s group to give it a shot.

The team has moved to patent their design, but there is still a long way before it finds its way onto store shelves or into consumers’ hands. Nonetheless, the researchers — who couldn’t resist a laser joke — say the outlook for the technique is “very bright.”

This research was supported by the U.S. Army Research Office (W911NF-19-2-0168, W911NF-13-D-0001) and by the National Science Foundation (ECCS-1614631) and its Materials Research Science and Engineering Center Program (DMR-1419807).

CITATION: “Widely Tunable Compact Terahertz Gas Lasers,” Paul Chevalier, Arman Armizhan, Fan Wang, Marco Piccardo, Steven G. Johnson, Federico Capasso, Henry Everitt. Science, Nov. 15, 2019. DOI: 10.1126/science.aay8683.

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