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

Tag: english

Duke Alum Dr. Quinn Wang on Medicine, a Healthcare Startup, and the Senior Thesis That Started it All

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As a senior at Duke University in 2010, Dr. Quinn Wang was simply Quinn, an undergraduate English major on the pre-med track, wondering how to combine her love for medicine with her love for English. This is how her senior thesis was conceived – Through the Lens of Medicine: Landscapes of Violence in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985), All the Pretty Horses (1992), and No Country for Old Men (2005) – which ended up winning the English department’s award for “Most Original Honors Thesis.”

Dr. Quinn Wang

Fast forward 12 years, and Wang can now call herself a double Dukie, having completed medical school here. She went on to complete ophthalmology residency at UCSF and this past Saturday, November 5, came back to her alma mater as part of the Duke Medical Ethics Journal’s Medicine, Humanities, and Business celebration to talk to an eager audience at Schiciano Auditorium about her path from Duke until now.  

She began her story during the infamous year of 2020, when she was forced to stop seeing patients at her private practice in California’s Bay Area due to COVID-19. Restless and anxious about how her patients were doing, she tried to keep up with them as best she could, but of course there were limitations. And then, a few months in, one of her patients went blind.

This tragic moment sparked a frustrating realization by Wang that in the tech capital of the world – San Francisco – there was still no good way to test people’s eyesight from home to prevent what should have been preventable. She decided to put together something herself, guided by the one question she thought was most important to answer until COVID-19 abated and people could come into clinics again – “how do we make sure people don’t go blind?”

Wang took common visual eye-testing tools used in clinics, and with some simple Photoshop editing and a little bit of code, turned them into a series of easy multiple-choice questions that could be answered from home. This simple but powerful transformation turned into Quadrant Eye, a start-up she co-founded with software engineer Kristine Hara.

A common visual tool used to test eyesight is the Snellen chart

The Quadrant Eye journey has taken her from running a private practice as an ophthalmologist to taking the plunge into business by applying to and getting selected for Y Combinator, which calls itself a “graduate school for startups”. YC invests $500,000 into a selection of early-stage startups twice a year. Then, for three intense months, they provide support to get startups off the ground and in good shape to present to investors for funding. At YC, Hara worked on turning Quadrant Eye into an app, and Wang renewed hundreds of prescriptions.

Quadrant Eye

Ultimately, though, the most significant place Quadrant Eye has led Wang to is a journey of self-mastery that applies to any human endeavor, from building a startup to doing research to just getting up every morning.  As she describes, startup life entails always learning new things and always messing up – which, for someone who professes that “I don’t like to do things I’m not good at” – can be challenging. She candidly admitted that she, like everyone, has bad days, when sometimes all she can do is throw in the towel and end work early. “I have more doubts than I care to admit,” Wang says, but at the end of the day, “we’re all climbing our own mountains”. Pushing through requires “superhuman effort” but it’s worth it.

And as for that English thesis? Wang describes how Quadrant Eye’s very first investor – “let’s call him Charlie” – asked her all the requisite questions investors ask early-stage startups (think Shark Tank). But he also asked her for something non-traditional – all fifty or so pages of her undergraduate honors thesis she had written ten years back. Apparently, he had seen a mention of it on LinkedIn and was intrigued. A few weeks later, Wang received a phone call that he was interested in investing – and he admitted that her thesis had played a part. To him, the uniqueness and quality of her thesis showed that Wang could problem-solve, communicate well, and think creatively, and Wang herself agrees. “My English thesis showed me that I can do hard things,” she said, and if Quadrant Eye is any indication, clearly, she can.

Post by Meghna Datta, Class of 2023

A Puzzling Saga – Meet Duke Math’s Breakout Star!

When I think of crosswords, I think of young and old alike gathered around a couch, scribbling away on a freshly arrived newspaper on a clear Sunday morning. When I think of math, I think of passionate professors covered in chalk dust from a hard day’s work of etching out complicated Greek symbols and numbers on a huge blackboard. These two visions had always been comfortably separate from each other (disjoint sets, if you will) – until I met Dr. Adam Levine.

Meet Duke’s Adam Simon Levine – who shares his name with a pop star, and is a math and crossword rockstar in his own right.

Levine is an Associate Professor in the Department of Mathematics at Duke who studies low-dimensional topology, surfaces, knots and manifolds, using something called Heegaard Floer homology. But apart, from his incredible passion for his field, numerous grants and tongue-twister-esque research interests, Levine has one accomplishment that sets him apart.

He published a crossword puzzle in the New York Times on Sept. 25!

In our Zoom conversation, Levine was bright, chirpy and incredibly excited to talk about his unique love for crosswords and how he’s kept his hobby alive even under the pressures of academic life. As a teenager he loved working on puzzles like Scrabble, playing around with words and etymology, and of course, crosswords. As he grew older, he continued to be fascinated by words.

As an undergrad taking a History of Life class at Harvard, Levine learned about the the impact site of the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs, the Chicxulub crater. His first thought was, “That’s a fantastic word– that would make the perfect crossword entry!” His fascination with the word would stay alive for years, until it became the seed entry (the word that anchors the puzzle) for his first crossword to be published in the Times. His love for wordplay through the years is clear, from a self-composed song on Heegaard Floer homology, to a sonnet summary of his PhD thesis.

Watch Levine’s self-composed song here.

Levine continued to solve puzzles as he earned his multiple graduate degrees in mathematics, and began publishing his own puzzles a few years on his aptly named blog – Knotty Grids. Crosswords have been a fun and necessary hobby for him – a way to de-stress or take his mind off his academic work. He thinks it is an important example to set for undergraduate students hoping to pursue a career in math – to show them that it is possible to be “full human beings” and have diverse and unique hobbies, interests and a life outside of your research.

Levine often intertwines his puzzles with his primary interest. Some of his puzzles are “themed” – with “Tying Up Loose Ends” built around topological concepts, and the math-y “Indivisible” which was published in The Mathematical Intelligencer. His personal favorites, however, delve into the meta-puzzle genre with “The Queen’s Gambit” and “A Series of Unfortunate Events.”

Levine’s crossword grids are very literally inspired by his daily work with knots.

When I talked to him shortly after the NYT puzzle appeared, Levine was still visibly excited. He compared the puzzle-publishing journey to that of submitting his mathematical research to academic journals – tedious, long and not very fast-moving. Having submitted the crossword to the newspaper more than a year ago, he heard back from them early this year, at which point they began editing and working on the final publication.

As Levine spoke about the editing process, he brought up an issue that has been important to him – diversity in the puzzle world. Because most crosswords have been written by white men, clues and answers are often tilted towards what that demographic considers common knowledge, and minority and female creators have remained a very small voice. Erasure of their identities is common, and  Levine related a firsthand experience. His clue for “ROBIN” was “the first Black woman to host Jeopardy.” But it was initially edited to be a reference to the bird.

Levine says he pushed back on the parts of the puzzle that were important to him, and was glad with the final published result.

He says he was amazed by the outpouring of support and congratulations he received after the crossword came out. His parents were “really pumped,” family excited, and colleagues incredibly surprised to see his name in print (on a non-academic paper). Unfortunately, the weekend that the crossword was published, his undergraduate students were cramming for a midterm scheduled that Monday, which Levine figures might be the reason some of his crossword-fanatic students seem to have missed his big moment of glory.

In the following week, I spoke to one of Levine’s academic advisees and other Duke students passionate about puzzles, who shared an initial shock and an immediate subsequent joy in the Blue Devil puzzle representation that this publication debuted.

 While Levine has no imminent plans of writing another NYT puzzle, he continues to write for his personal blog. Hopefully, his unique journey inspires students and faculty from different fields and of varied backgrounds to contribute, create and participate, helping make his dream of a diverse puzzle world a reality.

Post by Nidhi Srivaths, Class of 2024


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