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

Tag: Duke students

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

Insights on Health Policy Research from Undergraduate Cynthia Dong

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“After COVID-19,” senior Cynthia Dong (T’23) remarks, “so much of what was wrong with the medical system became visible.”

Duke undergraduate Cynthia Dong, Class of 2023

This realization sparked an interest in how health policy could be used to shape health outcomes. Dong, who is pursuing a self-designed Program II major in Health Disparities: Causes and Policy Solutions, is a Margolis Scholar in Health Policy and Management. Her main research focus is telehealth and inequitable access to healthcare. Her team looks at patient experiences with telehealth, and where user experience can be improved. In fact, she’s now doing her thesis as an offshoot of this work, researching how telehealth can be used to increase access to healthcare for postpartum depression.

Presenting research on telehealth

In addition to her health policy work, however, Dong also works as a research assistant in the neurobiology lab of Dr. Anne West, and her particular focus is on the transcription mechanism of the protein BDNF, or brain-derived neurotrophic factor.

While lab research can be clearly visualized by most people (think pipettes, rows of benches littered with bottles and plastic tubes, blue rubber gloves everywhere), health policy research is perhaps a little more abstract. When asked what the process of research through Margolis is like, Dong says that “it’s not team-based or individual – it’s a lot of both.” This looks like individual research on specific topics, talking to different stakeholder groups and people with certain expertise, and then convening for weekly team meetings.

With other Margolis Scholars

For Dong, research has been invaluable in teaching her to apply knowledge to something tangible. Doing that, you’re often “forced to understand that not everything is in my control.” But on the flip side, research can also be frustrating for her because so much of it is uncertain. “Will your paper get published? Is what you’re doing relevant to the research community? Will people invest in you?”

In that vein, research has humbled her a lot. “What it means to try to solve a societal problem is that it’s not always easy, you have to break it down into chunks, and even those chunks can be hard to solve.”

After graduation, Dong plans on taking a couple of gap years to be with family and scribe before ultimately pursuing an MD-MPH. Because research can be such a long, arduous process, she says that “It took me a long time to realize that the work we do matters.” In the future, though, she anticipates that her research through Margolis will directly inform her MPH studies, and that “with the skills I’ve learned, I can help create good policy that can address the issues at hand.”

Who Makes Duke? Visualizing 50 Years of Enrollment Data

Millions of data points. Ten weeks. Three Duke undergraduates. Two faculty facilitators. One project manager and one pretty cool data visualization website.

Meet 2020 Data+ team “On Being a Blue Devil: Visualizing the Makeup of Duke Students.”

Undergraduates Katherine Cottrell (’21), Michaela Kotarba (’22) and Alexander Burgin (’23) spent the last two and a half months looking at changes in Duke’s student body enrollment over the last 50 years. The cohort, working with project manager Anna Holleman, professor Don Taylor and university archivist Valerie Gillispie, used data from each of Duke’s colleges spanning back to 1970. Within the project, the students converted 30 years of on-paper data to machine-readable data which was a hefty task. “On Being a Blue Devil” presented their final product during a Zoom-style showcase Friday, July 31: An interactive data-visualization website. The site is live now but is still being edited as errors are found and clarifications are added.

The cover page of the launched interactive application.

The team highlighted a few findings. Over the last 20 years, there has been a massive surge in Duke enrollment of students from North Carolina. Looking more closely, it is possible that grad enrollment drives this spike due to the tendency for grad students to record North Carolina as their home-state following the first year of their program. Within the Pratt School of Engineering, the number of female students is on an upward trend. There is still a prevalent but closing gap in the distribution between male and female undergraduate engineering enrollment. A significant drop in grad school and international student enrollment in 2008 corresponds to the financial crisis of that year. The team believes there may be similar, interesting effects for 2020 enrollment due to COVID-19.

However, the majority of the presentation focused on the website and all of its handy features. The overall goal for the project was to create engaging visualizations that enable users to dive into and explore the historic data for themselves. Presentation attendees got a behind-the-scenes look at each of the site’s pages.

Breakdown of enrollment by region within different countries outside of the United States.

The “Domestic Map” allows website visitors to select the school, year, sex, semester, and state they wish to view. The “International Map” displays the same categories, with regional data replacing state distributions for international countries. Each query returns summary statistics on the number of students enrolled per state or region for the criteria selected.

A “Changes Over Time” tab clarifies data by keeping track of country and territory name changes, as well as changes in programs over the five decades of data. For example, Duke’s nursing program data is a bit complicated: One of its programs ended, then restarted a few years later, there are both undergraduate and graduate nursing schools, and over a decade’s worth of male nursing students are not accounted for in the data sets.

The “Enrollment by Sex” tab displays breakdown of enrollment using the Duke-established binary of male and female categories. This data is visualized in pie charts but can also be viewed as line graphs to look at trends over time and compare trends between schools.

“History of Duke” offers an interactive timeline that contextualizes the origins of each of Duke’s schools and includes a short blurb on their histories. There are also timelines for the history of race and ethnicity at Duke, as well as Duke’s LGBTQ history. Currently, no data on gender identity instead of legal sex was made available for the team. This is why they sought to contextualize the data that they do have. If the project continues, Cottrell, Kotarba, and Burgin strongly suggest that gender identity data be made accessible and included on the site. Racial data is also a top priority for the group, but they simply did not have access to this resource for during the duration of their summer project.  

Timeline of Duke’s various schools since it was founded in the 1830’s.

Of course, like most good websites, there is an “About” section. Here users can meet the incredible team who put this all together, look over frequently asked questions, and even dive deeper into the data with the chance to look at original documents used in the research.

Each of the three undergrads of the “On Being a Blue Devil” team gained valuable transferable skills – as is a goal of Duke’s Data+ program. But the tool they created is likely to go far beyond their quarantined summer. Their website is a unique product that makes data fun to play with and will drive a push for more data to be collected and included. Future researchers could add many more metrics, years, and data points to the tool, causing it to grow exponentially.

Many Duke faculty members are already vying for a chance to talk with the team about their work.  

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