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

Tag: development

Truman Scholar Maya Durvasula, T’18, on her Research Journey Through Duke and Beyond

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Maya Durvasula, T’18, and a current Ph.D. student at Stanford University, grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “And it’s hard to grow up there without a very keen sense of what it looks like when policy doesn’t work for people,” she remarks.

Maya Durvasula, T’18

After graduating high school with an interest in politics, she decided to take a gap year and bounced around organizations in New Mexico, working for the state legislature, political campaigns, and even a think tank. In hindsight, she says, “Having a block of time where you have time is super helpful.” One thing she learned was that she didn’t really want to do politics. “People were making policy, but debates were heavy on feelings and politics and light on facts.”

A high school mentor suggested that maybe she would get along better with economists than politicians, so once she got to Duke, she took that to heart.

As a first-year, she says, she knew she wanted to be exposed to a lot of things, and she knew she wanted to do research, but she wasn’t really sure what “research” meant for a first-year. In the beginning, she cold-emailed a lot of people and received multiple rejections.

After rejection, though, eventually something clicks, and for Durvasula, what clicked were three main research projects she undertook in her time at Duke.

The instinct is always to start with where you want to end up and then work backward, but you don’t know where you’re going to end up”

Maya Durvasula, T’18

Her first experience in a research group was a joint venture between an academic team in China and at UNC-Chapel Hill. Their group studied behavioral interventions to increase the uptake of health technologies, with a particular focus on sexual health. Usually, as a country industrializes, the rates of sexually transmitted infections will drop, but in China, rates of HIV and syphilis continued to rise as the economy grew. Durvasula and the team looked at different interventions that might make testing for HIV more attractive to patients, such as alternative testing locations, different advertisement design, and compensation.

She also did a project with Duke professor Bob Korstad in the history department and the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity, looking at the history of housing in Durham. Finally, she worked with her primary advisor, Duke economics professor Duncan Thomas, in his joint lab with UNC’s Elizabeth Frankenberg, on projects related to household decision-making in Indonesia.

Duke Economics Thesis Symposium in 2018

A notable part of her undergraduate time at Duke was winning the Truman Scholarship. What was most valuable to her about the Truman was the people she met. “Most people I’ve met are defined by picking something they care about and doing a lot with it,” she says. And it’s inspiring to be surrounded by people who love what they do and immerse themselves so wholly in it.

Duke Economics Graduation, 2018

Durvasula graduated Duke with numerous experiences and accolades under her belt. But from there, how did she find her way to doing a Ph.D. at the intersection of law, technology, and economics? As she describes it, the interplay between economics and law is inextricable. Both economic incentive and legal institutions affect the rate and direction of innovation, which affects how quickly technology is developed, and ultimately what products ends up in our hands. A question at the heart of her research is wondering how to make sure the value of this technology is distributed equally across society.

So five to ten years from now, where will we see Durvasula? She sees herself remaining in academia, although at some point she wants to work in public service. “I love learning new things, and I want to take advantage of being in a space where people are always willing to teach you things.”

And in that vein, her advice to a curious Duke student is to explore everything. “The instinct is always to start with where you want to end up and then work backward, but you don’t know where you’re going to end up,” she said.

Pursue the questions that you find exciting, and let that point you in the right direction – clearly, Durvasula is proof that this process will take you places.

Post by Meghna Datta, Class of 2023

How to Encourage Preschoolers to Be More Fair, According to Science

Exposing young kids to different opinions or asking them to explain their thinking can have surprising benefits, Duke University researchers find.

DURHAM, N.C. — “But that’s not fair!” If you’re a parent or a teacher, you’ve probably heard this countless times.

To most young children, “fair” simply means treating everyone equally. Kids are quick to say they shouldn’t have to go to bed earlier than a sibling, or put up with more chores or homework than a classmate.

But as children get older, they begin to grasp that sometimes, things can be unequal and still be fair — especially when people have different needs, circumstances, or abilities. Up until 8 to 10 years of age, most children aren’t yet capable of such moral subtlety, but a new study shows they can get closer, with help from a surprising source: disagreement.

For preschoolers, a 20-minute conversation with someone who disagrees with them or who asks them to justify their ideas can foster more nuanced moral calculations about what it means to be “fair.”

That’s the key finding from a new Duke University study that examines how children develop their sense of morality.

Many theorists have proposed that a child’s interactions with other people can shape their growing sense of right and wrong. But experiments to pinpoint exactly what kinds of interactions are most helpful have been lacking, said first author Leon Li, who did the research with developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello as part of his PhD in psychology and neuroscience at Duke.

In a study that appeared this summer in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, the researchers asked 129 children aged 4 to 5 years to discuss simple moral dilemmas with a puppet and try to make the most fair decision.

In one experiment for example, they asked the children to imagine two boys, one of whom missed breakfast, and decide how to split cookies between them at snack time. In another, the question was whether two girls should get in the same amount of trouble for throwing away someone’s lunch, when one of them mistook it for trash.

No matter what the child decided, afterward the puppet responded by either agreeing or disagreeing, and by either asking the child to explain their reasoning or not. Then the researchers observed how the puppet’s responses affected the child’s thinking in future trials.

They found that children who had previously encountered different points of view, or had to justify their decisions, were more likely to favor the more deserving recipient, rather than fall into “fair must mean equal” thinking.

Li cautions that disagreeing with a child or asking them to justify themselves won’t necessarily make them more honest, or hardworking, or generous.

“Those are other domains of morality, but we only found this in fairness,” Li said. “It’s possible it wouldn’t have an effect with, say, social exclusion” or some other aspect of moral behavior that the team didn’t examine.

But when people ask him, ‘is this how I teach my child to be more virtuous?’ — at least when it comes to fairness — “the answer is yes,” Li said.

CITATION: “Disagreement, Justification, and Equitable Moral Judgments: A Brief Training Study,” Leon Li and Michael Tomasello. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, July 14, 2022. DOI: 10.1016/j.jecp.2022.105494

Robin Smith
by Robin Smith

Behold: the Cell’s Skeleton in Motion

To many of us, cells are the building blocks of life, akin to bricks or Legos. But to biologist Regan Moore, a former Ph.D. student in Dan Kiehart’s lab at Duke, cells are so much more: they’re busy construction sites, machinery and materials moving about to build and shape the body. And now, new live imaging techniques make it possible to watch some of the nano-scale construction in action.

In time-lapse videos published this month, Moore, Kiehart and colleagues were able to peer inside cells as they filled a hole in the back of a developing fruit fly, a crucial step in the fly’s development into a larva. The process is coordinated with help from a thin mesh of protein fibers just under the cell surface, each one 10,000 times finer than a human hair. The fibers help the cells hold their shape, “kind of like rebar in concrete,” Moore said.

But unlike rebar, she added, “they’re constantly moving and changing.” Normally, features like these are too small and quick to see with conventional microscopes, which can only take a few images a second or are too out-of-focus. So Kiehart’s team used a technique called super-resolution fluorescence microscopy to track individual fibers with nanoscale resolution.

By watching the “rebar of the cell” at work during this hole-closing process in fruit flies, the researchers hope to better understand wound healing in humans, and what goes awry for children with birth defects such as cleft lip and spina bifida.

LEARN MORE: “Super-resolution microscopy reveals actomyosin dynamics in medioapical arrays,” Regan P. Moore, Stephanie M. Fogerson, U. Serdar Tulu, Jason W. Yu, Amanda H. Cox, Melissa A. Sican, Dong Li, Wesley R. Legant, Aubrey V. Weigel, Janice M. Crawford, Eric Betzig, and Daniel P. Kiehart. Molecular Biology of the Cell, July 15, 2022. DOI: 10.1091/mbc.E21-11-0537

Two Ways to Weird: How Whale Noses Moved to the Top of Their Head

A blue whale skeleton suspended in London’s Natural History Museum

Odd skulls are nothing new to V. Louise Roth, a professor in the Department of Biology. Much of her research centers on how animals’ shapes and sizes evolve and develop, so weirdly shaped bones are at the core of her work. But when Ph.D. student Rachel Roston drew her attention to the peculiarities of whale skulls, even Roth was astounded.

“There are some pretty weird mammal skulls out there,” Roth said. “I have studied morphological development in elephants, which are also kind of a crazy choice, but in terms of which bone goes where I think cetaceans are the weirdest ones.”

Cetaceans are the group that includes baleen whales – such as humpback whales – and toothed whales – such as dolphins and killer whales. Unlike almost all other vertebrate animals, cetaceans don’t breathe out of their mouths or from a nose placed in front of their face, but from a blowhole located on top of their head.

How did it get up there?

Rachel Roston, a graduate student in the Duke Biology department, recently published a paper with Professor Louise Roth, about some of the ways dolphin, whale and porpoise skulls break the rules of anatomy.

A new study published in the Journal of Anatomy by Roth and Roston, now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Washington, reveals how whale and dolphin skulls undergo a complete transformation through their embryonic and fetal development, resulting in a re-orientation of their nasal passages.

What’s more, there’s not just one way to do it: baleen whales and toothed whales move their nostrils to the tops of their heads in two very different ways.

“It’s not just that they are developing the same thing in different ways,” said Roston, who led this work as part of her Ph.D. in Biology at Duke. “Looking from the outside of the body all you see is that both of them have their nose on the top of their head, but when you look inside their skulls, they are actually totally different blowholes.”

A toothed whale clears its blowhole. Photo by Friedrich Frühling

To figure out which bone went where and in which way, Roston looked at CT scans of baleen and toothed whales’ embryos in different stages of development and drew a dotted timeline of anatomical changes through the animals’ development.

Early-stage embryos look very much alike in most vertebrate animals: small, with a disproportionally large head, big eyes and oral and nasal cavities in the front of their face. As the embryos develop, they take different paths and become more and more similar to their own species.

Most of them keep their noses and their mouths in front of their face, but dolphins and whales transform their whole heads to change the direction of their nasal passage while keeping the snout facing forward.

“We think of the nostrils as something you find at the tip of the snout,” Roth said. “But whales go through some key changes in bone orientation that decouple one from the other.”

“It’s like looking at a cubist Picasso painting,” Roston said. “The eyes, nose and mouth are all there, but their relationships to each other are completely distorted.”

Whale embryos at different developmental stages. The white arrow shows how the nasal cavity shifts position through embryonic development.

This internal shuffling requires that the parts forming the roof of the embryo’s mouth move away from those that form its nasal passage. Initially parallel in small young embryos, they end up at an angle of about 45 degrees in baleen whales. In toothed whales this final angle is even wider, closer to 90 degrees.

In baleen whales, a key rotation happens at the back of the skull, where it meets the spine. Rather than being perpendicular to the ground, as in the head of a dog, the back of the skull is tilted forward towards the snout.

In toothed whales, the point of inflexion for this rotation is in the middle of the head. A bone in the center of the skull changes shape, curving upwards as the nasal passage ends facing up.

Roston and Roth both say that museum collections and non-destructive scanning techniques, such as CT scans, were key for this project because whale embryo specimens are difficult to come by. When a gravid female dies, small embryos often go unnoticed in their mother’s massive carcass. But older fetuses are larger than your typical sedan, making them difficult to preserve intact and store in museums. The few specimens found in museums must therefore be studied with the proverbial velvet gloves, or, in this case, CT scans.

“In science you always question ‘how come no one’s done this before?’” Roston said. “Here, it was because specimens are precious, so you don’t want to cut them up and destroy them.”

“Sometimes we’re looking at museum specimens that are 100 years old. This was an opportunity to describe them in a way that I hope will still be useful 100 years from now.”

Read more about weird whale skulls.

The research was funded by Duke University. Roston has also been supported by the National Institutes of Health.

CITATION: “Different Transformations Underlie Blowhole and Nasal Passage Development in a Toothed Whale (Odontoceti: Stenella attenuata) and a Baleen Whale (Mysticeti: Balaenoptera physalus),” Rachel A. RostonV. Louise Roth, Journal of Anatomy. DOI: 10.1111/joa.13492

Post by Marie Claire Chelini PhD, Duke Biology

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