Research Blog

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

Will the Humanities Save the World?

Lorenzo Gritti

The bad news about the energy transition, according to Dr. Matthew Huber, is that it’s not happening. At least, not at the scale we need it to. A June report stated that the share of fossil fuels in the world’s total energy mix is still about 80%, as it has been for several decades. “We still live in a system fueled by fossil fuels,” Huber said. 

Matthew Huber
Jennifer Wenzel

On October 18, Huber, author of Lifeblood: Oil, Freedom, and the Forces of Capital and a professor at Syracuse University, joined Dr. Imre Szeman, author of On Petrocultures: Globalization, Culture, and Energy and professor at the University of Waterloo, and Dr. Jennifer Wenzel, author of The Disposition of Nature: Environmental Crisis and World Literature and professor at Columbia University.

Moderated by Dr. Ranjana Khanna, professor and director of the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute here at Duke, the panel discussion “What Can the Humanities Contribute to the Global Energy Transition?” explored the potential of humanities fields to help supplement perspectives offered by the sciences, teaching us about new ways of living for a greener world.

Imre Szeman

Khanna posed the titular question: what do the panelists think that the humanities have to contribute to the energy transition?

Huber responded that in dealing with climate disaster, the “critical issue of our time,” there’s a civic responsibility to engage with the “public and political struggle” for change.

Humanities scholars excel in the art of persuasion and argumentation, and they can use that in public forms, like the Op-Ed and social media. Whereas the public conversation is skewed towards economics and engineering, humanities scholars can emphasize the equally important political and cultural barriers toward the energy transition. 

Huber also called on history scholars to help recover the “deleted history” of what is politically possible.

“After four decades of neoliberalism we’ve forgotten what the public sector can actually do,” Huber said, “but when we remember the Soviet-style planned economy during World War II, and the New Deal, we recover that these large mass scale transformations have happened, and are possible,” Huber said. He also lamented that the social movements of today’s Left have become “atomized, neutralized, and largely ineffective” such that “students don’t believe in large-scale social change anymore.” With public history, activists can show how and why struggles of abolition have won in the past, and how that could be applied to the struggle for carbon abolition. 

As the Climate Critic in the Green Party of Canada’s Shadow Cabinet, Dr. Imre Szeman drafted the Green Party’s proposal for the energy transition. He says that upon seeing the recommendation to end all production of fossil fuels, journalists asked Szeman, “Is this realistic? Here? Now?” They seemed to view such a change as “impossible — even though they might want it.”

Szeman argued that whether climate solutions are considered ‘realistic’ isn’t so much a question of cost, but of “our ability to conceptualize another way of being in the world,” which is where humanities fields come into play. He then posed a series of questions, including “What do we love about our current habits and behaviors? Who is culpable for the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? How did we get here, and what does this say about our ability to get somewhere else?” He said that the role of the humanities in the energy transition is to answer all of these questions — and to remind us of the need to ask them in the first place.

Wenzel agreed, explaining that energy humanities can help us examine the literary and cultural narratives that shape our experience. She explained that fossil fuels enable a “chain of ease” wherein the primary mode of thinking about fossil fuels in everyday life is not thinking at all. She discussed the oil inventory activity she does with her students, where they account for the ubiquitous significance of oil in their lives. We develop an “embodied attachment” to the things that oil makes possible — the smoothness of plastic, the speed of auto, the smell of a butane stove. This leads us to an “impasse: we know where we stand, but we’re unable or unwilling to take action at the scale we know we need to.” 

Wenzel explained that the oil inventory was actually invented by the oil industry with an insidious intention — to get consumers to consider the indispensability of petroleum products in their lives “to produce wonder and appreciation.” She showed the audience an Exxon commercial, in which scenes of vast, interconnected energy grids play across the screen as a soothing voice tell us, “you don’t need to think about the energy that makes our lives possible. Because we do.

Wenzel emphasized that the effect of rhetoric like Exxon’s is to “ensure passivity.” The lesson? When we take stock of the impact of oil on our lives, how we use that information matters most. Climate activists must reclaim the oil inventory to “disrupt habits of mind” rather than entrench them.

Khanna noted that one of the humanities’ core methods is a “revelatory gesture of critique,” and asked the panelists what they thought about “moving past that initial gesture, toward some broader consensus for change.” 

Wenzel said that doing the work of the oil inventory is powerful, but “not the last move.” We must make other moves, and in terms of thinking about what we might do otherwise, we must take care to be “forward thinking, but deeply, critically, historically informed.”

Huber said that we need to interrogate the “politics that attach oil to life,” because it’s a strategy of moving politics away from work, production, and who decides its conditions. Production today feels invisible — it’s offshore, outsourced — so that we fail to ask questions about who’s controlling it, and to what effect. He called upon the 1930s, when a “radical politics of production was on the table,” and said that climate-conscious humanities scholars need to work to recover this history.

Szeman had one “next move,” in the words of Wenzel: to realize that oil companies in the US are private, unlike in much of the rest of the world. “There’s a decision made very early on” about how and in what quantities oil is to be used — a decision that could be amenable to change.

Khanna opened the panel to questions. One audience member asked about how to advocate for an energy transition in light of the fact that capitalism is ultimately responsible for much of the status quo and the damage it has caused. How can humanities scholars critique the status quo without critiquing capitalism to the point of suspicion from would-be supporters?

Szeman emphasized the need for recognition that there are some things that one can do in the political sphere, and some things one can’t. Even though the Green Party falls squarely on the political left, “we don’t explicitly criticize capitalism right off the bat, because that doesn’t seem like the winning position.” It’s important to give voice to discussions about change “to the extent possible within the official political sphere.”

Wenzel told the audience about giving a talk on energy humanities at the Pipeline Safety Trust conference. She had to “stand in front of the oil industry” — regulators, landowners, executives — which meant “thinking about which values and assumptions to share.” By establishing credibility, she could “make conversations about this problem, which implicates all of us, possible” — despite their different perspectives.

Huber contended that when the enemy is as abstract as the quasi-global system of capitalism, it can “induce paralysis.” He’s “not sure we can absolish capitalism on the time scale” necessary for the energy transition. He quipped that the earth is not dying, it’s being killed, and “those who are killing it have names and addresses.” Those people are the target, he said — just as in the abolition of slavery, when the target of struggle was the slave owning class, another oligarchical power representing about 1% of the population. Although he supports a systemic critique of capitalism, right now “we need to be more concrete. These people have names and addresses,” he reiterated.

Another audience member asked about how to “break down the concepts of beauty and pleasure” that support the current oil regime.

Huber discussed the need for “low-carbon luxury” and an investment in open green space as part of any Green New Deal. Climate politics has often been about “shame, fear, guilt, sacrifice,” he said, and “we’re not going to win on that.” A beautiful, pleasurable vision of the future is what’s needed to win people over.

Wenzel identified the role of literature in “collecting and borrowing” ideas of beauty, arguing that beauty is always constructed. To those who view renewable energy, like wind and solar, as an eyesore, Wenzel posed the question: “Are oil spills ‘beautiful’?” (Take a glimpse.)

Someone asked a question about science fiction’s ability to “dream futures into being” — what should humanities scholars aspire to read and write? 

Wenzel said that there are many ways to think about the future, and that apocalyptic renditions of science fiction are essentially “practicing for possible bad futures.” Huber agreed, stating that apocalyptic visions can be galvanizing — but there must be a positive vision that wins people over (he pointed to AOC’s “Message From the Future”).

Szeman said that utopian narratives tend to say more about the viewpoint by which a fictional world is considered a utopia than a “prescriptive way to get there,” and suggested that humanities scholars interested in fiction might consider creating more of the latter.

Revolutionary ideas were discussed during the two hours, and panelists acknowledged that humanities fields can’t do all of this work alone. 

Wenzel told the audience about a discussion she had with an economist from the Energy Policy Center. She’d said, “we’re interested in the non-technological obstacles to transition and non-technological tools to foster public demand for these changes. We want to understand why people remain so attached to the world that fossil fuels have created.” The economist said, “Right. We call that demand-side management.”

The audience laughed, understanding the frustration that often results from the disparate methodologies of science and humanities fields. Wenzel said she “felt a bit deflated” — but also learned a word she could use in future collaborations with economists and policymakers. 

The humanities have many valuable contributions to the energy transition: recovering histories, disrupting the status quo, crafting new narratives. But what’s important right now is communicating this. Wenzel left us with an instruction: “We need to learn to build bridges across different disciplines.”

This event was organized by the Energy Humanities Working Group in partnership with the Duke University Energy Initiative, Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, and John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute. Duke students or faculty members can join the Energy Humanities Working Group by contacting Dr. Tom Cinq-Mars (tom.cinq.mars@duke.edu).

Post by Zella Hanson

Back in Action: HackDuke’s 2021 “Code for Good”

If you walked across Duke’s Engineering Quad between 9AM on Saturday, October 23rd, and 5PM on Sunday, October 24th, the scene might’ve looked like that of any other day: students gathered in small groups, working diligently.

But then you’d see the giant banner and realize something special was afoot. These students were participating in HackDuke’s “Code for Good,” one of the most eminent social good hackathons in the country.

Participants have to “build something, not just an idea,” said Anita Li, co-director of HackDuke. Working in teams, students develop software, hardware, or quantum solutions to problems in one of four tracks: inequality, health, education, and energy and environment.

Participants can win “track prizes,” where $2,400 in total donations are made in winners’ names ($300 for first, $200 for second, $100 for third) to charities doing work in that track. There are other prizes too. Sponsors, including Capital One, Accenture, and Microsoft give incentives: if participants incorporate their technology or use their database, they’re qualified to win that sponsor’s prize (gift cards, usually, or software worth hundreds of dollars).

This year, Duke’s department of Student Affairs sponsored the health track, in hopes that participants might come up with ideas that could help promote student wellness here at Duke. “It’s a great space for thinking about these issues,” Li said.

Li told me they had more than 1,000 registrations, though there’s always a little less turnout. HackDuke is open to all students and recent graduates, so that “you get to see these cool ideas from everywhere.”

Just under half of this year’s participants were from Duke, almost 10% hailed from UNC, and the rest were from other universities across the US and the world. 30 percent of participants were women — a significant increase from the last HackDuke covered by the Research Blog, in 2014. 

This year is “particularly interesting,” Li said, because of the hybrid model. Last year, everything was virtual. This year, about 300 (vaccinated) students attended in person, making HackDuke one of the few Major League Hacking events with an in-person component this year. With the hybrid model, talks, workshops, and demos are all livestreamed so that no one misses out.

Some social events also had online elements: you could zoom into the Bob Ross painting session as well as the open mic, which Li said quickly turned into karaoke night. The spicy ramen challenge was “a little harder over Zoom.”

I came across Sydney Wang and Ray Lennon, along with teammate Jean Rabideau, as they were building a web app called JamJar for the Education Track contest. In the app, students give real-time feedback to teachers about how well they’re understanding the material. There are three categories: engagement (you can rank your engagement along a scale from “mentally I’m in outer space” to “locked in), understanding (“where am I?” to “crystal clear”), and speed (“a glacial pace” to “TOO FAST!”). Student responses get compiled and graphed to show mean markers of understanding over time. 

Lennon said he’s participating because “this is the best way to learn: to be thrown in the fire and have to learn as you go.” Wang felt the same way. She’s new to coding, and feels like she’s learning a lot from Lennon.

Like Lennon and Wang, many participants see HackDuke as an opportunity to learn. There are technical workshops where participants can learn HTML and CSS. There are talks where speakers discuss working in the coding and social good sector. The CTO of change.org, Elaine Zhou, flew to Durham to speak to participants about her experience. So there’s a networking opportunity, too — participants can meet people like Zhou doing the work they want to do, and professors and company representatives who can help them on their journey to get there.

There were challenges. Staying hydrated was one: by Sunday morning, they’d gone through seven cases of water, 16 cases of soda, and three cases of red bull. “It takes a lot of liquids,” Li said. And then there’s sleep — or lack thereof. When Li was participating in her freshman year, she slept for about three hours. Many people pull all-nighters, but “nap sporadically everywhere,” Li said. “It’s like finals season, with everyone knocked out.” She saw a handful of guys sleeping on the floor in Fitzpatrick. She gave them bed pads. 

Li’s love for HackDuke is contagious. She loves to see participants focusing on social good and drawing on their awareness of what’s happening in the world. “People are thinking about things that are intense; they’re really worrying about issues facing certain communities,” Li said.

At HackDuke, people really are coding for good.

Post by Zella Hanson

If Homer Had a Guitar

Most ninth-graders in the U.S. read The Odyssey for English class. Not that many sing it, though. 

Since 2001, Joe Goodkin has traveled the U.S. performing his retelling of The Odyssey. “These poems were meant to be felt, not studied, and I think my work can add that element back into how we encounter them today,” he says. 

Last week, he premiered his new work: an American Blues re-telling of The Iliad. 

The Duke Classical Studies Department hosted Goodkin to perform this piece on Friday, October 22nd in the Sarah P. Duke Gardens (The weather being lovely, he remarked: “Thank you, Zeus. I must have performed the right number of hecatombs”).

The Blues of Achilles re-tells The Iliad from eleven different perspectives. “This is what I envisioned these songs being,” Goodkin confessed to his audience. “Us doing exactly what they did 3,000 years ago— sitting around, listening to stories of the Trojan War.”

He’s referring to the fact that epic poems were written to be sung as performances rather than read as stories (Although if you’re like me and your only prior knowledge of the Trojan War came from Madeline Miller, you might be confused). Homer’s The Odyssey and The Iliad lose some of their musicality when translated into English and read off of a page, but Goodkin aims to re-invigorate those stories. 

Goodkin’s work is a form of artistic research used to better understand Greek culture. He gives the example of The Singer of Tales, a book about the importance of oral tradition as a form of research. Written in 1960 by Harvard professor Albert Lord, The Singer of Tales focuses on illiterate oral poets of former Yugoslavia and compares their methods to Homeric epic. Cool, right? While it seems a bit far-fetched, Goodkin is actually doing something similar.

“While I don’t expect my work to be as important or scholarly as that book,” Goodkin notes, “I think [my work] can be a way for modern audiences to treat the epic poems as experiences rather than just artifacts.”

Joe Goodkin performed in the Sarah P. Duke Gardens on Friday, Oct. 22.

Homer’s works were integral to Greek life and values. Storytelling, to the Greeks, was the main form of broad communication and cultural unity. Modern organizations like the International Storytelling Center recognize the importance of oral literature and its effect on our cultural understanding.

We tell stories all day every day (heck, you’re even reading one right now!); Goodkin, and other storytellers, use this link to connect with their audience and convey an understanding of other cultures and viewpoints. Goodkin’s The Blues of Achilles reflects many attributes of the original, as well. For one, the chronology of the story is reversed. “I wanted my audience to have the same sort of idea a Greek audience would have about the end of the story. You have different things in play when the audience knows the end of the story. Even thinking about time in The Iliad, it’s very elastic and funky. So I wanted to recreate some of that disorientation,” he explained. 

The Blues of Achilles is a blues composition— and blues music, like epic poems, is a culture-specific art form. In explaining his interpretations, Goodkin said: “I thought, ‘If Homer’s Iliad is “The Wrath of Achilles”, I have to interpret that line in a different way, like a poet would.’” (Author’s note: Remind you of anything?) “For one, ‘blues’ is in his name— áchos laós means the grief of the people.”

In re-telling these epics, Goodkin is not only bringing another perspective to the classics scene, but connecting it to American culture. “Blues music is our oral tradition. It was composed and came to be as an art form largely the same way the Greek epic did, by these bards-slash-singer-songwriters,” he explains. 

Homer retellings, interpretations, and translations differ across time and perspective, but they all intend to revive the poems for their audience. Whether or not we see the connections to our lives, these myths originated many archetypes we are familiar with (Just ask Meg Ryan). In the end, Greek myths are all human stories about tragedy, war, love, loss, and morality, and they are as relevant today as they were 3,000 years ago.

If you’re interested in working with the Gardens for your class or research, contact kati.henderson@duke.edu or visit this link.

Post by Olivia Ares, Class 2025

How Freshman Engineers Solve Real-World Problems in EGR 101

The sound of drills whirring, the smell of heated plastic from the 3D printers, and trying to see through foggy goggles. As distracting as it may sound, this is a normal day for a first-year engineering student (including myself) in class. 

During these past few weeks, freshmen engineers have been brainstorming and building projects that have piqued their interest in their EGR101 class. Wanting to know more, I couldn’t help but approach Amanda Smith, Jaden Fisher, Myers Murphy, and Christopher Cosby, and ask about their goal to make an assistive device to help people with limited mobility take trash cans up an inclined driveway that is slippery and wet.

“Our client noticed the problem in his neighborhood in Chapel Hill with its mainly-elderly population, and asked for a solution to help them,” Fisher says. “We thought it would be cool to give back to the community.” Their solution: a spool with a motor. 

Coming from a mechanical engineering mindset, the team came up with the idea to create a spool-like object that has ropes that connect to the trash can, and with a motor, it would twist, pull up the trash can, and then slowly unroll it back down the driveway. As of now, they are currently in the prototyping phase, but they are continuing to work hard nonetheless. 

“For now, our goal is to slowly begin to scale up and hopefully be able to make it carry a full trash can. Maybe one day, our clients can implement it in real life and help the people that need it,” says Smith.

Low-fidelity prototype of the spool

All of this planning and building is part of the Engineering Design & Communication class, also known as EGR 101, which all Pratt students have to take in their first year. Students are taught about the engineering design process, and then assigned a project to implement what they learned in a real life situation by the end of the semester.

“This is a very active learning type of class, with an emphasis on the design process,” says Chip Bobbert, one of the EGR 101 professors. “We think early exposure will be something that will carry forward with student’s careers.”

Not only do the students deal with local clients, but some take on problems from  nationwide companies, like Vivek Tarapara, Will Denton, Del Cudjoe, Ken Kalin, Desmond Decker, and their client, SKANSKA, a global construction company.

“They have an issue scheduling deliveries of materials to their subcontractors, which causes many issues like getting things late, dropped in the wrong areas, etc.,” Tarapara explains. “There is a white board in these construction sites, but with people erasing things and illegible handwriting, we want to make a software-based organizational tool so that everyone involved in the construction is on the same page.”

Watching the team test their code and explain to me each part of their software, I see they have successfully developed an online form that can be accessed with a QR code at the construction site or through a website. It would input the information on a calendar so that users can see everything at any time, where anyone can access it, and a text bot to help facilitate the details.

“We are currently still working on making it look better and more fluid, and make a final solution that SKANSKA will be satisfied with,” Denton says, as he continues to type away at his code.

Vivek Tarapara (left) and Will Denton (right) working on their code and text bot

One final project, brought up by Duke oral surgeon Katharine Ciarrocca, consists of students Abigail Paris, Fernando Rodriguez, Konur Nordberg, and Camila Cordero (hey, that’s me!), and their mouth prop design project. 

After many trials and errors, my team has created a solution that we are currently in the works of printing with liquid silicone rubber. “We have made a bite block pair, connected by a horizontal prism with a gap to clip on, as well as elevated it to give space for the tongue to rest naturally,” Paris elaborates.

The motivation behind this project comes from COVID-19. With the increase of ICU patients, many receiving endotracheal intubations, doctors have come to realize that these intubations are causing other health issues such as pressure necrosis, biting on the tongue, and bruising from the lip. Dr. Ciarrocca decided to ask the EGR 101 class to come up with a device to help reduce such injuries.

Medium-fidelity prototype of mouth prop inside of mouth model with an endotracheal intubation tube

Being part of this class and having first-hand look at all the upcoming projects, it’s surprising to see freshman students already working on such real-world problems.

“One of the things I love about engineering and this course is that we’re governed by physics and power, and it all comes to bear,” says Steven McClelland, another EGR 101 professor. “So this reckoning of using the real world and beginning to take theory and take everything into consideration, it’s fascinating to see the students finally step into reality.”

Not only does it push freshmen to test their creativity, but it also creates a sense of teamwork and bonding between classmates, even in the most unordinary class setting.

“I look around the room and there’s someone wearing a pool noodle, another boiling alcohol, and another trying to measure the inside of their mouth,” says Bobberts as he scans the area quickly. “I’m excited to see people going and doing stuff together.”

Post by Camila Codero, Class of 2025

Discipline Makes You Free: Exploring Nigerian Militarism in the Late 20th Century

Six years after Nigeria gained its independence from Great Britain in 1960, a bloody military coup transferred power to the nation’s armed forces.

The ensuing forty-year period was marked by eight different military regimes and a Civil War, which were often demarcated by similarly violent coups that overthrew the initial Republic. Brief interludes of constitutional republics occasionally emerged, but these periods were short-lived and quickly replaced by another military government.

The eight different Heads of State under different military governments (Top row from left to right: Aguiyi-Ironsi, Gowon, Mohammed, Obasanjo. Bottom row from left to right: Buhari, Babangida, Abacha, Abubakar).

The heads of these regimes were military strongmen, soldiers who had risen through the chain of command and sought to rule the nation with near-absolute power. Samuel Fury Childs Daly (PhD), a professor in Duke’s African and African American Studies department and author of the acclaimed book A History of the Republic of Biafra: Law, Crime, and the Nigerian Civil War, sought to dive deeper into the political philosophies of these authoritarian rulers.

Daly says the writings and opinions of these autocrats often receives insufficient attention in the modern accounts of Nigerian history. The title of his lecture through the Franklin Humanities Institute, “How Soldiers Think,” attempted to address this lack of analysis by asking several important questions: What did these soldiers believe? Why did they enact the laws that they did? How did they envision Nigeria’s future?

Dr. Samuel Fury Childs Daly (PhD)

The story of Nigerian militarism, according to Daly, has its roots in the decolonization process. The soldiers and lawmakers of the later 20th century found their inspiration in one of the most famous decolonial thinkers: Frantz Fanon. Fanon’s two seminal works – Black Skin, White Masks and The Wretched of The Earth – were rooted heavily in his experience as a trained psychiatrist and a soldier for the Front de Libération National, the Algerian nationalist movement that fought against French colonial rule during the French-Algerian War (1954-1962). His advocacy for violent decolonization inspired anticolonial fury within Nigerian intellectuals and soldiers alike, leading to the widely accepted notion that military violence could be both reparative and restorative.

Fanon, in many ways, gave these soldiers a language of revolution, but, as Daly points out, many of them found his socialist politics to be too radical for Nigerian society. To the military rulers, the ideal system of governance was ascetic, masculine, and heavily disciplined.

In many ways, these soldiers sought to craft Nigeria in their own image–an image of order and self-control, a society where civilians needed to be tamed.

To create this society, the soldiers relied heavily on criminal law and the law enforcement apparatus. To them, law served as a tool of social engineering, albeit one that didn’t always work in their favor. Despite setting up a plethora of friendly judges throughout the judicial system, occasional rulings would rub military officers the wrong way. Nonetheless, they were able to exercise their heavy influence over the legislative and judicial systems to set forth programs aimed to reduce the perceived disease of chaos that plagued the Nigerian population.

One of the major initiatives Daly highlighted was the infamous War Against Indiscipline (WAI). The WAI initiated a number of often draconian programs such as the mandate to queue in an orderly manner for buses. Those who refused to form a line would be promptly whipped or beaten by an officer. Other social reforms outside of WAI centered heavily around sacrifice and control, such as the requirements for women to dress modestly and for men to stay fit; in fact, exercise was routinely used as public punishment for unruly activity.

These behavioral and punitive measures were heavily inspired by the rigid and militaristic upbringing of these autocrats, which is precisely why they were so unpopular with civilians. Daly describes several misconceptions within these leaders’ political philosophy – their treatment of politics as binary, their desire for conformity, their misconstrued knowledge of what their people want – that ultimately led to the instability of their regimes.

Through a unique combination of warped decolonization rhetoric, militaristic attitudes, and malleable jurisprudence, Nigerian political practices of the late 20th century offer a glimpse at the shortcomings of discipline as a primary political ethos. The societies formed under the military heads of state were illiberal and, contrary to the title of this article, decidedly unfree.

*the images from this article were obtained from Dr. Daly’s 2021 presentation “How Soldiers Think” through the Franklin Humanities Institute.

Post by Vibhav Nandagiri, Class of 2025

Law Tech Demo Roundup, Using Technology to Address Gaps in Access to Justice

If innovative technology solutions are the key to addressing gaps in our justice system, Duke Law Tech Lab (DLTL) is a place where these solutions come to life.

Friday, October 22nd, three teams presented on their work, supported by DLTL, to change the way that legal services are delivered. And the presentation had more at stake than just educating the attendees. Real cash prizes were on the line – voted on by a panel of judges and even audience members – to provide even more funding for these startups.

Jeff Ward introduces the 2021 Law Tech Legal Demo Judges.

The three teams were accepted out of dozens of applications to work with the DLTL, according to host Jeff Ward (JD), Director of Duke’s Center on Law and Technology and Clinical Professor of Law. The Lab looks for early-stage companies striving to increase access to legal solutions to offer monetary support, but the missions of the DLTL initiative go far beyond that. DLTL is building a community for creative entrepreneurs in the legal tech space, connecting start-ups with valuable partners and mentors, and fostering a space of growth through tailored resources and support.

First up at the 2021 Law Tech Lab Demo Day was Creators’ Legal. “The traditional legal solutions simply don’t work for the modern content creator,” said Eric Farber, founder and CEO of Creators’ Legal. Farber’s company is seeking to help what is now the second-fastest sector of the world economy: Content creators. Content creators are people who generate revenue by sponsorships and advertising, often through social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook, or TikTok. This market is huge and expanding, but “completely underserved” with legal solutions, said Farber.

Creators’ Legal CEO and Founder, Eric Farber, explains how the company works to support modern content creators.

Because content creators can go from production to distribution within just a few hours or less, traditional entertainment legal that is filled with time-consuming, expensive, and unresponsive lawyers is not a viable option.

Farber says that “Industry Standard Agreements and deals are hidden behind the doors of [this] traditional legal.” By creating a platform that has easy-to-use contract templates, eSignatures, and a digital briefcase for storing files offered on a by-contract or subscription-basis, Creators Legal wants to be a company that serves the gaps left for content creators.

Next up was Justice Innovations, represented by its CEO, Sasha Davenport. Davenport and Justice Innovations want to rearrange the workflow associated with the process that happens from the time a crime takes place to the person who has been arrested for the case makes their initial appearance in court.

“This [at the initial appearance] is where things get really interesting for me,” said Davenport because about 40% of cases are dropped for no-actions. This leads to a huge number of wasted time, effort, budgets, and more. By creating and integrating a software system that they are dubbing Vet-IT, the company wants to increase data-sharing across agencies that should be on the same page with each other but often are not.

Sasha Davenport, CEO, explains how Vet-IT works through different steps from initial crime reporting to someone’s first appearance in court.

Through the data-sharing platform, information would be entered about a case from the first moments of crime investigation to help decide if this is a charge that would even end up being prosecuted or not. The benefits, according to Davenport, including filtering out bad cases, deflecting more people from entering the carceral system, decreasing jail populations, expediting redirection for individuals in need to mental health interventions, and, potentially, improved community-police trust. Justice Innovations were inspired to pursue this idea because of the great success that Harris County Texas has had in producing few no-action cases. Harris County achieved this by a process of phone-trees across agencies for the last 50 years.

Founder and Executive Director of SAEF Legal Aid, Eamonn Keenan, explains the company’s marketing strategy of community outreach.

Last, but not least, was SAEF Legal Aid. Eamonn Keenan, company Founder and Executive Director, laid out the team’s legal tech solution. There is a systematic problem of finding the legal support that one needs before it is too late, bringing with it immense challenges and large expenditures of time. Keenan became aware of this issue while working at a legal aid help desk. SAEF Legal Aid’s solution is to leverage practical tech to more accurately diagnose user’s legal problems and facilitate access to free or affordable legal solutions via reliable referrals and strategic partnerships.

In doing this work, the team hopes to help low-income families more immediately, starting with family law services and expanding out. A large part of their solution also includes building partnerships with “word-of-mouth marketing” to embed the service in high-need communities. “People without internet access might need legal help the most,” Keenan said. SAEF Legal Aid hopes to cut through the lack of staffing for legal aid advice desks and bypass the waiting game of larger legal aid providers who often have high turn-away rates and long waiting periods for attorney follow up to resolve the barrier that intake causes in gaining access to legal help.

At the end of the presentation, Justice Innovations walked away with the Audience Favorite prize and SAEF Legal Aid took the Grand Prize. Regardless of prizes, these three teams will inevitably continue to be part of the solution to gaps in justice as they carry their work forward.

Post by Cydney Livingston

Integrating Pediatric Care in NC: Behavioral Health Perspectives

In healthcare, developing a new treatment is often half of the battle. The other half lies in delivering these treatments to those communities who need them the most. Coordinating care delivery is the goal of NC Integrated Care for Kids (InCK), an integrated pediatric service delivery and payment platform looking to serve 100,000 kids within five counties — Alamance, Orange, Durham, Granville, and Vance — in central North Carolina. The project is a collaborative effort between Duke, UNC, and the NC Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) funded by a federal grant from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). The program’s executive director is Dr. Charlene Wong (MD, MSPH), a Duke researcher, physician, and professor who leads an interdisciplinary team of researchers and policy experts as they explore ways to reduce costs via integrating care for North Carolina youth enrolled in Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).

The five counties that are part of NC InCK

I recently had the opportunity to speak with two of InCK’s service partners: Dr. Gary Maslow (MD, MPH) and Chris Lea (Duke ’18). Both work within the Behavioral Health group of InCK, which seeks to use behavioral health expertise through collaborative care and training providers to help support pediatric care. Maslow, a professor at the Duke Medical School, has focused heavily on child and developmental psychiatry throughout his career. Having entered medical school with a desire to work in pediatric hematology, Maslow recalls how a conversation with a mentor steered him in the direction of behavioral health. At the time, Maslow was part of the Rural Health Scholars program at Dartmouth College; while discussing his aspirations, one of his professors asked him to consider conditions outside of cancer, leading Maslow to consider chronic illness and eventually child psychiatry. “Kids have other problems,” Maslow’s professor told him.

Dr. Gary Maslow (MD, MPH)
Chris Lea (Duke ’18)

When looking at healthcare networks, especially those in rural areas in North Carolina, Maslow noticed a disaggregated service and payment network where primary care providers were not getting the necessary education to support the behavioral health needs of children. His work with Lea, a third-year medical student at Duke, has centered around looking at Medicaid data to understand provider distribution, medication prescription, and access to therapy based one’s area of residence. Lea’s path to NC InCK began as an undergraduate at Duke, where he obtained a B.S. in psychology in 2018. As he explains, mental health has been a vested interest of his for years, a passion reinforced by coursework, research at the Durham VA Medical Center, and NC InCK. He discussed the important of appropriate crisis response, specifically how to prepare families and providers in the event of pediatric behavioral health crises such as aggression or suicidality, as critical in improving behavioral health integration. These safety plans are critical both before a potential crisis and after an actual crisis occurs.

Two main goals of Maslow and Lea’s work are to increase the implementation of safety plans for at-risk youth and expand follow-up frequency in primary care settings. The focus on primary care physicians is especially critical considering the severe shortage of mental health professionals around North Carolina.

The behavioral health group is but one subset of the larger NC InCK framework. The team is led by Chelsea Swanson (MPH). Other collaborators include Dr. Richard Chung (MD), Dan Kimberg, and Ashley Saunders. NC InCK is currently in a two-year planning period, with the program’s launch date slated for 2022.

Services provided by NC InCK

For Undergraduate Student Tiffany Yen, Sustainability is More Than Just a Buzzword

Tiffany Yen, a Duke junior majoring in chemistry, grew up in the sunny suburbs of Los Angeles, never too far from the coastline. She’s always loved being outside, especially in California where there is no shortage of trails to hike and beaches to go to. Friends know her as a Patagonia aficionado, going so far as to buy her a book profiling the company’s business model for her birthday. In fact, from Yen, I learned that every Patagonia store gives out city-specific stickers, so if you feel so inclined, you can collect them (as Yen obviously does). All this is to say: Tiffany Yen has always been interested in sustainability.

“I never understood why what we do has to come at the cost of the planet,” Yen said, in discussing how her years in school learning about climate change fueled her passion for sustainable science. “The environment is so important. Without it, we wouldn’t be here.”

Tiffany Yen

Unsure of what she wanted to study at Duke and where she wanted to go post-graduation, she decided to take her two interests – sustainability and chemistry, particularly polymer chemistry – and see what she could do to combine them. She knew coming into college that she wanted to do research, so that landed her at the Becker Lab for Functional Materials.

The Becker Lab is a multidisciplinary organic materials lab focused on biomedical applications – specifically, things like adhesives and drug delivery. Yen works on improvements to intercranial pressure sensors. Traditionally, after head trauma, doctors need to measure the intercranial space to see if the brain is damaged. The sensor that is used is wired and tends to be a very invasive procedure – the probe is connected to a machine outside, and there’s a high risk of infection.

Collaborators at Northwestern developed a biodegradable wireless device that, after implantation, doesn’t require a secondary procedure to take out. The problem is that it degrades a little too fast – and so measurements can’t be taken. Yen, with her mentor, is working on building a film encapsulation to make it possible for the device to take good measurements.

Right now, they’re trying out azelaic acid instead of succinic acid. Azelaic acid has favorable anti-inflammatory properties and is commonly used in acne medications. It could also potentially increase the bioresorbability of the polymer. Their hope is that the film not only helps the body metabolize more of the polymer, but actually helps in healing.

Snapshots from Yen’s life at the lab

So why medical research? Yen explains that while her work may not seem obviously linked to sustainability, the push for finding materials that can degrade is extremely relevant. And while she’s not all that interested in medicine specifically, she likes things that are practical and applicable.

“When I did research in the past,” Yen said, “there wasn’t always an application. It sometimes was about synthesizing something, just for the sake of science.” And while there’s certainly value in strengthening science fundamentals, she admits that research in that vein doesn’t really appeal to her. “I want to work on things that I directly see adding value to society.”

After college, Yen sees herself going to graduate school and working towards a PhD in “some physical science related to chemistry.”  Ultimately, her goal is to work at the interface of venture capital and scientific research, using her science background to find and fund promising innovations in sustainability. “There are so many incredible things being researched out there,” Yen says, “but the biggest problem in research is funding and commercializing.” She continues, “I think there are other people out there who can do better research than I can, so I want to go out there, find the stuff, and fund it.”

Yen has come to believe that just because she dedicated her time at Duke to science, it doesn’t mean she needs to stay in science forever. There’s value in scientific knowledge no matter where you go. And as businesses realize that public interest in sustainability is growing, she’s crossing her fingers that her skillset will poise her to be a valuable asset in seeking out new innovations. 

Snapshots from Yen’s life at the lab

She said that when she came into college, she felt a pressure to pursue a more traditional path, like being pre-med. “I value stability, and I’m very risk-averse,” she laughs.

But when she asked herself what she’d be happiest doing, she knew it would be trying to save the planet in some way. But she clarifies: “At this point, I can’t save the planet. I think that’s a very far-fetched thing for one person to do.” Instead, “I’d rather try and maybe fail than not try at all.”

Post by Meghna Datta, Class of 2023

Restoring the “Sacred Link”: Water Rights in Australia

(Jenny Evans/Getty Images)

For 223 years — ever since Britain established its first Australian colony in 1788 — indigenous Australians have exercised resistance to colonial plundering and exploitation. One thing colonizers have plundered and exploited is water — water that is “cultural, spiritual; water for our people, water for our country,” according to Tati Tati Elder Brendan Kennedy.

As part of the Fall 2021 Global Environmental Justice Speaker Series — part of a student-led Environmental Justice course here at Duke — on October 6th, Dr. Bruce Lindsay, the Senior Lawyer at Environmental Justice Australia (EJA), discussed indigenous water rights in Australia. 

Because the Australian constitution is “silent on key issues” of land and water use, throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, water use was regulated according to English riparian rights in conjunction with English common law. Under this colonial law, whoever owned the land on which water flowed had the right to that water. 

Dr. Lindsay argued that Australian law was designed according to the “gross fantasy of the empty continent.” Upon the premise that Aboriginals simply did not exist, colonizers proceeded accordingly — buying and selling land that was already occupied and under aboriginal custodianship. Because Aboriginals didn’t own land in a way recognized by the law, they were “marginalized and excluded” from decisions about water infrastructure and allocation “while degradation [went] on around them.”

Dr. Lindsay and the EJA work primarily with aboriginal communities and organizations in the Murray Darling Basin. The Murray Darling Basin is the largest river Basin in Australia, hosting 90% of the population, 70% of irrigated land, and providing 40% of agricultural production. A precious resource amidst Australia’s hot, semi-arid climate, the Basin has been the site of major conflicts over water since the early 19th century. 

The Murray Darling faces a problem called “over allocation,” which means that more entitlements for water use have been issued than can be sustained at their full value. By the 1990s and 2000s, over-extraction had led to drought and unprecedented water shortages, and the ecosystems supported by the Murray Darling Basin were “on the verge of ecological collapse.” The Australian government passed the Water Act of 2007 and the Basin Plan of 2012 to bring the Basin to a “healthier level” and “ensure that the Basin is managed in the national interest” as they saw fit. 

To highlight the tension between the Australian legal view and the Aboriginal view, Dr. Lindsay read the Aboriginal anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose’s definition of country. According to Australia’s indigenous people, country “gives and receives life… is lived in and lived with… is a proper noun… is a living entity with a yesterday, today and tomorrow with a consciousness, and a will toward life.” For Aboriginals, the flow of water should support this notion of cultural wellbeing and “genuine coexistence.” But according to Dr. Lindsay, Australian law (being a “pillar of the settler state”) does not currently provide for “life, ecosystem health, and spirit except for where it intersects with the utilitarian purpose.” Thus, Dr. Lindsay believes that the law needs a massive upheaval in order to be reconciled with the indigenous vision.

The EJA is currently working with Aboriginal communities on one such upheaval: the “cultural flows” concept of water management. Cultural flows necessitates reallocation and redistribution of water rights by the Australian government in order to increase Aboriginal control and authority over water. To restore life to country, reverse environmental catastrophe, and revitalize their economic health and culture, Aboriginals hold that there must be a change from the current model where water is understood as something to be continually exploited. Such a change is not without historical precedent: in New Zealand in 2017, the government granted the Whanganui River legal status as a living entity, so that New Zealand law now views harming the Whanganui tribe and harming the river as equivalent. 

Ultimately, the EJA hopes to implement the cultural flows framework across the Basin. They’re starting by working with the Tati Tati First Nations community to implement cultural flows in the Margooya Lagoon. Because this requires the Victorian government to deliver the rights to manage water there, the EJA must work with both Australian law and the Aboriginal view. Dr. Lindsay claimed that they don’t have to be mutually exclusive. The EJA seeks to find the intersection where water as a public good to be managed in the public interest can also be water managed for the good of country and the health of the community. Thus, the EJA aims to advocate for policy that enables that mutually beneficial outcome.

Dr. Lindsay ended by recalling his earlier point of reconciling Australian law with indigenous vision. He stated that a “broader set of changes” need to occur in order to really bring justice to Aboriginal communities. Although the Australian High Court’s passing of the Native Title Act of 1993 ostensibly ended riparian rights by recognizing “native title” (the aboriginal traditional ownership of land “according to their own laws and customs”), native title is a “limited device” as far as water rights. Indigenous Australians have native title rights over 30% of the Australian continent, but own only 0.01% of water entitlements. Because state governments have a large role in reallocation, cultural flows projects would have to proceed on a case-by-case basis.

What Dr. Lindsay really hopes to see is a legal mechanism other than native title that will grant legitimacy to aboriginal traditional ownership. He recalled the Uluru Statement from the Heart. It states:

“[Our] sovereignty… has never been ceded or extinguished. How could it be otherwise? That peoples possessed a land for sixty millennia and this sacred link disappears from world history in merely the last two hundred years?”

Uluru Statement from the heart


How could it be? Sadly, the fact that only 0.01% of water entitlements are owned by indigenous Australians indicates that the sacred link of traditional ownership has disappeared — at least in the legal sense. So this is the ultimate goal of Dr. Lindsay and the EJA’s work with indigenous communities: to restore this sacred link.

Post by Zella Hanson

The Life of a Biology Ph.D. Student, Clara Howell

Clara Howell and I meet to chat on a lovely October afternoon under the trees of the Bryan Center Plaza. In my final Fall at Duke as an undergraduate, I am happy to connect with Clara, a third-year PhD student in the biology department. We meet on the auspices that I want to learn more about her trek through academia and her current work in the Nowicki lab for this very profile piece. “I’ve never been written about before,” Clara says to me. I suspect that, though most grad students’ work is totally cool, most of them never have.

Clara Howell, Ph.D. student, conducting field work.

Clara talks with her hands as she lays out her current work for me. Right now, she is studying sexual selection and infection in different bird species. Duke biology professor Steve Nowicki, one of Clara’s advisors, has done a lot of work on honesty in communication systems between animals. Most species, Clara tells me, rely on honest signals for mate choice, because it benefits females to be able to discern between low- and high-quality mates, and it benefits high quality males to be able to advertise their quality. In general, animal signals should be reliable. Clara’s other advisor, biology professor and chair of evolutionary anthropology Susan Alberts, specializes in life history trade-offs of signaling: Animals only have so many resources and they must make choices about how to use them. A male bird, that is, for example, fighting an infection, cannot devote as many resources to sexual signaling as an uninfected male.

“But,” Clara says, with an increasingly bright smile on her face, “There is an interesting period of time right after an animal is exposed to a potential pathogen where it’s not immediately clear if the bird’s sexual signals will be honest. This is because it could be most advantageous for animals – especially males – to continue devoting every resource possible for sexual signaling, even if it means ignoring a pathogen that will eventually kill them.”

The punchline is, the male swamp sparrows and zebra finches that Clara studies might benefit from “lying” about being sick. By ignoring an arising infection and devoting one’s energy to maintaining strong sexual signaling, these male birds may be tricking females into thinking they are perfectly healthy mates with no sickness in sight. So far, Clara has been recording the songs of male birds following an injection of bacterial cell walls to stimulate their immune response. “The real kicker will be when I test females and see how and if they discern between the songs of sick and healthy males.”

“When we started to social distance at the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, before any of us knew how long this would last, I wondered whether other animals do the same thing,” Clara said. When COVID-19 put a pause to Clara’s original work, she found inspiration in the pandemic itself to think about cues of sickness in other animal species besides our own – an idea she saw other scientists starting to buzz about.

Before grad school, Clara studied neuroscience and English at Tulane University in New Orleans. She worked in an evolutionary biology lab with former Duke Ph.D. Elizabeth Derryberry beginning in sophomore year and did her honor’s thesis in Derryberry’s lab on connections between novel foraging tasks and mate preferences in zebra finches. And Clara loved her advisor so much that she decided to follow Derryberry to the University of Tennessee as a grad student in the same year she earned her bachelor’s degree.

“What about your English major?” I asked Clara. “I was a very nerdy, book-ish child,” she replied, “I wanted to read more in college.” Her background in English has turned out to be quite useful for her work in the sciences. “Having really great scientific ideas and not being able to tell people about them is pretty useless,” she said with a short laugh. These English skills have been useful for grant writing too. That’s right – I asked Clara to tell me about the less glamorous parts of being a grad student.

“The process of finding money is something I wish people talked about more,” Clara said as she wrapped her long ponytail through her hands. The through line: “If you want to do your own ideas, you have to find your own money,” she stated plainly. The process of finding money takes up a considerable amount of her time and most grants she has applied for she does not end up getting. But because she enjoys writing, she says it’s not so bad. Though Clara wishes departments were more open about research funding policies and that there were more internal grants, she’s never thought of grant writing as a waste of time. “A lot of the time when I write grants, I’m really clarifying ideas. It’s definitely helpful,” she tells me.

Grant writing takes up a considerable amount of time for most science Ph.D. students.

Clara’s advice to anyone interested in a science Ph.D. is to truly consider getting a master’s degree beforehand. “It might not be the right choice for everyone,” Clara said, “But I found the transition from undergrad to graduate school really difficult. I spent most of my master’s degree just learning how to be a grad student and figuring out how academia works, which meant that when I started my Ph.D. I could focus much more on what I wanted to research.” The time in her master’s program also helped her home in on her central interests in biology. And oh, she also recommends noise-canceling headphones, her “favorite possession.”

Although she says she is still working on figuring out her work-life balance, Clara likes being able to set her own schedule and how each week is so different from the next. Outside of lab, Clara claims she is the stereotype of ecology and evolutionary biology grad students: She enjoys rock-climbing, board games, and craft breweries. You might have to go to the Biological Sciences building to find Clara. “I haven’t broached the other areas of campus,” she said, “Undergrads are sort of scary. They use language I don’t understand, and they are all so stylish. They make me feel old.” Old at 26, the life of the biology Ph.D.

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