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

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Student Researchers Share What They Know About AI and Health

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The healthcare industry and academic medicine are excited about the potential for artificial intelligence — really clever computers — to make our care better and more efficient.

The students from Duke’s Health Data Science (HDS) and AI Health Data Science Fellowship who presented their work at the 2022 Duke AI Health Poster Showcase on Dec. 6 did an excellent job explaining their research findings to someone like me, who knows very little about artificial intelligence and how it works. Here’s what I learned:

Artificial intelligence is a way of training computer systems to complete complex tasks that ordinarily require human thinking, like visual categorization, language translation, and decision-making. Several different forms of artificial intelligence were presented that do healthcare-related things like sorting images of kidney cells, measuring the angles of a joint, or classifying brain injury in CT scans.

Talking to the researchers made it clear that this technology is mainly intended to be supplemental to experts by saving them time or providing clinical decision support.

Meet Researcher Akhil Ambekar

Akhil standing next to his poster “Glomerular Segmentation and Classification Pipeline Using NEPTUNE Whole Slide Images”

Akhil Ambekar and team developed a pipeline to automate the classification of glomerulosclerosis, or scarring of the filtering part of the kidneys, using microscopic biopsy images. Conventionally, this kind of classification is done by a pathologist. It is time-consuming and limited in terms of accuracy and reproducibility of observations. This AI model was trained by providing it with many questions and corresponding answers so that it could learn how to correctly answer questions. A real pathologist oversaw this work, ensuring that the computer’s training was accurate.

Akil’s findings suggest that this is a feasible approach for machine classification of glomerulosclerosis. I asked him how this research might be used in medicine and learned that a program like this could save expert pathologists a lot of time.

What was Akhil’s favorite part of this project? Engaging in research, experimenting with Python and running different models, trying to find what works best.

Meet Researcher Irene Tanner

Irene Tanner and her poster, “Developing a Deep Learning Pipeline to Measure the Hip-Knee-Ankle Angle in Full Leg Radiographs”

The research Irene Tanner and her team have done aims to develop a deep learning-based pipeline to calculate hip-knee-ankle angles from full leg x-rays. This work is currently in progress, but preliminary results suggest the model can precisely identify points needed to calculate the angles of hip to knee to ankle. In the future, this algorithm could be applied to predict outcomes like pain and physical function after a patient has a joint replacement surgery.

What was Irene’s favorite part of this project? Developing a relationship with mentor, Dr. Maggie Horn, who she said provided endless support whenever help was needed.

Meet Researcher Brian Lerner

Brian Lerner and his poster, “Using Deep Learning to Classify Traumatic Brain Injury in CT Scans”

Brian Lerner and his team investigated the application of deep learning to standardize and sharpen diagnoses of traumatic brain injury (TBI) from Computerized Tomography (CT) scans of the brain. Preliminary findings suggest that the model used (simple slice) is likely not sufficient to capture the patterns in the data. However, future directions for this work might examine how the model could be improved. Through this project, Brian had the opportunity to shadow a neurologist in the ER and speculated upon many possibilities for the use of this research in the field.

What was Brian’s favorite part of this project? Shadowing neurosurgeon Dr. Syed Adil at Duke Hospital and learning what the real-world needs for this science are.

Many congratulations to all who presented at this year’s AI Health Poster Showcase, including the many not featured in this article. A big thanks for helping me to learn about how AI Health research might be transformative in answering difficult problems in medicine and population health.

By Victoria Wilson, Class of 2023

COVID and Our Education

With mask mandates being overturned and numerous places going back to “normal,” COVID is becoming more of a subconscious thought. Now, this is not a true statement for the entire population, since there are people who are looking at the effects of the pandemic and the virus itself.

I attended a poster presentation for the “The Pandemic Divide” event hosted here at Duke by the Samuel Dubois Cook Center on Social Equity. To me, all the poster boards conveyed the theme of how COVID-19 had affected our lives in more ways than just our health. One connection that particularly caught my eye would be the one between American Education and COVID.

The poster for the conference

As a student who lived through COVID while attending high school, I can safely say that the pandemic has affected education. However, based on the posters I saw, it is important to know that education, too, has a strong and impactful impact on COVID-19.

Dr. Donald J. Alcendor after a great presentation

The first evidence I saw was from Donald J. Alcendor, an associate professor of microbiology and immunology at Meharry Medical College in Nashville. His poster was about the hesitancy surrounding COVID-19 vaccines. One way he and his team figured out to lessen the hesitance from the public was to improve the public’s trust. To achieve this, Alcendor and his team sent trusted messengers into the community. One of the types of messengers they provided was scientists who studied COVID-19. These scientists were able to bring factual information about the disease, how it spreads, and the best course of action to act against it. Alcendor and his research team also brought in “vaccine ambassadors” to the community and a mobile unit to help give the community vaccines. He noted that this was accomplished with support from the Bloomberg Foundation’s Greenwood Initiative, which addresses Black health issues.

With this mobile unit, Alcendor and his team were able to reach people and help those who were otherwise unable to receive help for themselves because of their lack of transportation. They provided people from all backgrounds with help and valuable information.

Alcindor said he and his team planned pop-up events based on where the community they were trying to reach congregates. With the African American community, he planned pop-up events at churches and schools. Then for the Latino community, he planned pop-events where families tend to gather, and he held events in Latin0 neighborhoods. In addition, he made sure that the information was available in Spanish at all levels, from the flyers and the surveys, to the vaccinators themselves.

All of these amenities that he and his group provided were able to educate the community about COVID-19 and improve their trust in the scientists working on the disease. Alcendor and his team were able to impact COVID-19 through education, and by going to the event, it was evident to me that he was not the only one who accomplished this.

Dr. Colin Cannonier and his poster

Colin Cannonier, an associate professor of economics at Belmont University in Nashville, asked and answered the question, “does education have an impact on COVID? Specifically, does it change health and wellbeing?” To answer this question, he researched how education about COVID can affect a person. He discovered that when a person is more educated about COVID, how it is spread, and its symptoms, they are more likely to keep the pandemic in check through their behavior. He came to this conclusion because he realized that when higher educated people know more about COVID, they exhibit behaviors to remain healthy, meaning that they would follow the health protocols given by the health officials.

While this may seem like common sense that the more educated a person is, the more they make smart choices pertaining to COVID, this shows how important education is and how deadly ignorance is. Cannonier’s research gave tangible evidence to show that education is a weapon against diseases. Unfortunately, it is evident that some officials did not believe in educating the public about the virus or the virus itself, and that proved to be extremely deadly.

To fully capture the relationship between COVID and education, one must also talk about how COVID-19 affected education.

Ms. Stacey Akines and her wonderful poster

Stacey Akines, a history graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University, studied how education was changed by the pandemic.

First, she realized that COVID schooling crossed over with homeschooling. Then she uncovered that more Black people started to research and teach their children about Black history. This desire to teach youth more about their history caused an increase in the number of Black homeschoolers. In fact, the number of Black homeschoolers doubled during the fall of 2020. While to some, this change to homeschooling may have a negative impact on one’s life, it actually gives the student more opportunities to learn things.

It is no secret that there are many books being banned here in the U.S., and there are many state curriculums that are changing to erase much of Black history. Homeschooling a child gives the parent an opportunity to ensure that the education they receive is true to and tells their history

Unlike me, where during high school, education felt lackluster and limited because of COVID, some parents saw an opportunity to better their child’s education.

A hall of Posters

I hope that it is clear that the relationship between COVID and education is a complex one. Both can greatly impact each other, whether it’s for the better or for the worse. COVID thrives when we are uneducated, and it very nearly destroyed education too, but for the efforts of some dedicated educators.

Post by Jakaiyah Franklin, Class of 2025

A Peek Inside the Climate Situation (V)room

As part of this year’s Energy Week at Duke, graduate and undergraduates were able to participate in a competitive “situation room” style event in which participants were split into five teams and given seventy-five minutes to create a plan for expanding EV (electric vehicle) access in Durham. 

For just over an hour in a Fuqua School of Business classroom, my fellow participants and I mulled over the complexities of an issue facing municipalities across the country and produced a variety of solutions, representative of the range of specialties within each group. One more CS-minded group proposed an app to both help residents locate charging stations and help the city collect data on the use of new EV infrastructure, while another group explored the technological and price saving perks of utility pole-mounted charging stations.

The resulting ideas were reviewed by a panel of judges who covered multiple areas of EV expertise: Jennifer Weiss, Senior Advisor for Climate Change Policy at the North Carolina Department of Transportation; Matt Abele, Director of Marketing and Communications at North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association; Sean Ackley, E-Mobility Segment Lead at Hitachi Americas, Ltd.; and Evian Patterson, Assistant Transportation Director in the Durham Department of Transportation.

The goal of Duke’s EnergyWeek is to “promote collaboration, knowledge-sharing, and professional networking” for students interested in the energy sector.  The situation room event was not strictly research oriented – our team rooms had windows and we were given free supper and lemonade – but it promoted the fundamentals of research: idea generation, collaboration, and outside-of-the-box thinking. 

The victors of the 2023 EnergyWeek Situation Room (photo: Michael Wood III)

The teams were tasked with crafting a strategy that combined technical, business, marketing, and policy considerations to increase EV penetration in Durham.  The teams operated under a hypothetical $10 million budget and strategies were to align with the Justice40 initiative, the federal plan to ensure that forty percent of the benefits of new clean transit jobs flow to “disadvantaged communities that are marginalized, underserved, and overburdened by pollution.”

Participants were encouraged to consider “potential barriers to EV adoption, the existing distribution of EV charging stations, and opportunities for community and business involvement” and to be creative.

My team was comprised of students from a range of scholarly backgrounds, from a freshman beginning a mechanical engineering track to a grad student at the Nicholas School with prior work and research in school bus electrification policy.  For our plan, we spent little time discussing electric cars and instead focused on expanding access to electric micro-mobility and electrified public transportation.  

Our team consulted this map from the Durham Bike+Walk Implementation plan in determining that electric cars are not a silver bullet
(map: durhamnc.gov)

We had many reasons for doing so.  Many Durham residents don’t own cars, so the likelihood of increasing the adoption of electric cars in a timely and affordable manner seems low.  Countries around the world are instead focusing on expanding e-bike access, citing, in addition to climate and affordability concerns, the desire to move away from the safety issues and traffic burden of car-centric urban design. 

We saw Durham, which is expected to double in population in just twenty-five years, as a city perfectly positioned to develop around micro-mobility and robust public transportation before it’s too late and set an example for growing urban centers across the country.  We used our $10 million to add bike lanes, fund electric buses, and subsidize electric bikes across income levels.

Our team placed second (no big deal!) and walked away with a full stomach and a rekindled spark to break the Duke bubble and get involved in the exciting development of the Bull City.

My winnings!
By Addie Geitner, Class of 2025

An Interview With Undergraduate Researchers and Labmates Deney Li and Amber Fu (T’23)

What brings seniors Deney Li and Amber Fu together? Aside from a penchant for photoshoots (keep scrolling) and neurobiology, both of them are student research assistants at the lab of Dr. Andrew West, which is researching the mechanisms underlying Parkinson’s in order to develop therapeutics to block disease progression. Ahead lie insights on their lab work, their lab camaraderie, and even some wisdom on life.

(Interview edited for clarity. Author notes in italics.)

What are you guys studying here at Duke? What brought you to the West lab?

DL:  I am a biology and psychology double major, with a pharmacology concentration. I started working at a lab spring semester of freshman year that focused on microbial and environmental science, but that made me realize that microbiology wasn’t really for me. I’ve always known I wanted to try something in pharmaceutics and translational medicine, so I transitioned to a new lab in the middle of COVID, which was the West lab. The focus of the West lab is neurobiology and neuropharmacology, and looking back it feels like fate that my interests lined up so well!

Deney Li

AF: I am majoring in neuroscience with minors in philosophy and chemistry, on the pre-med track. I knew I wanted to get into research at Duke because I had done research in high school and liked it. I started at the same time as Deney – we individually cold-emailed at the same time too, in the fall! I was always interested in neuroscience but wasn’t pre-med at the time. A friend in club basketball said her lab was looking for people, and the lab was focused on neurobiology – which ended up being the West lab!  

Amber Fu

What projects are you working on in lab?

DL: My work mainly involves immunoassays that test for Parkinson’s biomarkers. My postdoc is Yuan Yuan, and we’re looking at four drugs that are kinase inhibitors (kinases are enzymes that phosphorylate other proteins in the body, which turns them either on or off). We administer these drugs to mice and rats, and look at LRRK2, Rab10 and phosphorylated Rab10 protein levels in serum at different time points after administration. These protein levels are important and indicative because more progressive forms of Parkinson’s are related to higher levels of these proteins.

AF: For the past couple of years, I’ve been working under Zhiyong Liu (a postdoc in the lab). There are multiple factors affecting Parkinson’s, and different labs ones study different factors. The West lab largely studies genetic factors, but what we’re doing is unique for the lab. There’s been a lot of research on how nanoplastics can go past the blood-brain barrier, so we are studying how this relates to mechanisms involved in Parkinson’s disease. Nanoplastics can catalyze alpha-synuclein aggregation, which is a hallmark of the disease. Specifically, my project is trying to make our own polystyrene nanoplastics that are realistic to inject into animal models.

What I’m doing is totally different from Deney – I’m studying the mechanisms surrounding Parkinson’s, Deney is more about drug and treatments – but that’s what’s cool about this lab – there are so many different people, all studying different things but coming together to elucidate Parkinson’s.

Another important project

How much time do you spend in lab?

DL: I’m in lab Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 9 to 6. All my classes are on Tuesdays and Thursdays!

AF: I’m usually in lab Tuesdays and Thursdays from 12 to 4, Fridays from 9 to 11:45, and then whenever else I need to be.

Describe lab life in three words:

DL: Unexpected growth (can I just do two)?

AF: Rewarding, stimulating, eye-opening.

Lab life also entails goats and pumpkins

What’s one thing you like about lab work and one thing you hate?

DL: What I like about lab work is being able to trouble-shoot because it’s so satisfying. If I’m working on a big project, and a problem comes up, that forces me to be flexible and think on my toes. I have to utilize all the soft skills and thinking capabilities I’ve acquired in my 21 years of life and then apply them to what’s happening to the project. The adrenaline rush is fun! Something I don’t like is that there’s lots of uncertainty when it comes to lab work. It’s frustrating to not be able to solve all problems.

AF: I like how I’ve been able to learn so many technical skills, like cryosectioning. At first you think they’re repetitive, but they’re essential to doing experiments. A process may look easy, but there are technical things like how you hold your hand when you pipette that can make a difference in your results. Something I don’t like is how science can sometimes become people-centric and not focused on the quality of research. A lab is like a business – you have to be making money, getting your grants in – and while that’s life it’s also frustrating.

What do you want to do in the future post-Duke? How has research informed that?

DL: I want to do a Ph.D. in neuropharmacology. I’m really interested in research on neurodegeneration but also have been reading a lot about addiction. So I’ll either apply to graduate school this year or next year. My ultimate goal would be to get into the biotech startup sphere, but that’s more of a 30-years-down-the-road goal! Being in this lab has taught me a lot about the pros and cons of research, which I’m thankful for. Lab contradicts with my personality in some ways– I’m very spontaneous and flexible, but lab requires a schedule and regularity, and I like the fact that I’ve grown because of that.

AF: The future is so uncertain! I am currently pre-med, but want to take gap years, and I’m not quite sure what I want to do with them. Best case scenario is I go to London and study bioethics and the philosophy of medicine, which are two things I’m really interested in. They both influence how I think about science, medicine, and research in general. After medical school, though, I have been thinking a lot about doing palliative care. So if London doesn’t work out, I want to maybe work in hospice, and definitely wouldn’t be opposed to doing more research – but eventually, medical school.

What’s one thing about yourself right now that your younger, first-year self would be surprised to know?

DL: How well I take care of myself. I usually sleep eight hours a day, wake up to meditate in the mornings most days, listen to my podcasts… freshman-year-Deney survived on two hours of sleep and Redbull.

AF: Freshman year I had tons of expectations for myself and met them, and now I’m meeting my expectations less and less. Maybe that’s because I’m pushing myself in my expectations, or maybe because I’ve learned not to push myself that much in achieving them. I don’t necessarily sleep eight hours and meditate, but I am a little nicer to myself than I used to be, although I’m still working on it. Also, I didn’t face big failures before freshman year, but I’ve faced more now, and life is still okay. I’ve learned to believe that things work out.

A hard day’s work

Cancer Stigma, Contraceptives, Covid-19: 2022 Global Health Research Showcase

Last Monday, Oct. 17, Duke University students who had conducted global health research had the opportunity to present their work. From North Carolina to Sub-Saharan Africa, the 2022 Global Health Research Showcase featured works that tackle some of the world’s most pressing health issues. Over 40 undergraduate, Masters, and PhD student projects examined a broad range of issues, determinants, and phenomena in countries from almost every continent. Here’s a few project highlights, in case you missed it:

Maeve Salm, pursuing her Master of Science in Global Health, went to Tanzania to study contraceptive use. Tanzania’s youth are highly impacted by teen pregnancy, and Salm wanted to understand desires for contraceptive use among adolescents affected by HIV. She learned that, much like in the U.S., stigma influences access to sexual healthcare for adolescents. This qualitative study aimed to support young people in achieving their desired health outcomes and reducing HIV transmission by examining barriers and facilitators to family planning. Findings indicate that youth agency in reproductive health is of utmost importance.

Maeve Salm presenting her poster at the 2022 Global Health Research Symposium.

Wondering about the Covid-19 response in other countries? Master of Science in Global Health Candidate Stephanie Stan explored the barriers and enablers to the pandemic response in Peru. Per capita, Peru experienced the highest mortality rate form the disease compared to any other country. Due to several challenging factors, they were slow to receive COVID-19 vaccines. However, they implemented highly successful vaccination campaigns once vaccines were obtained. What can be learned from Peru’s pandemic response? Prolonged and proactive collaborations between sectors (healthcare, academics, and government) enable swift public health responses in a crisis. It’s important to have elected officials who are empowered to make decisions promoting science.

“Definitely meeting all the incredible people that I interviewed and learning about their work and involvement in Peru’s pandemic response. Learning about what happens moving forward from their point of view.”

Stephanie Stan, when asked about her global health research experience

Winning the first-place Graduate Student Research Award, Judith Mwobobia’s project examined the stigma of cancer in sub-Saharan Africa. Stigma is a huge barrier to receiving treatment, which is a problem considering that 70% of global cancer deaths originate from Africa. Perceptions of financial stress, misconceptions about cancer, and fear of death were common attitudes driving cancer stigma. Proposed interventions included education and policy recommendations for low-resourced communities. Mwobobia is pursuing her Master of Science in Global Health. Clearly a supportive group, her classmates erupted in cheers when the award was announced.

By Victoria Wilson, Class of 2023

Jason Dinh Once Collected Cicadas, Now He Researches Snapping Shrimp

Jason Dinh’s research career began unintentionally with a semester at Duke’s Marine Lab. A current fourth-year PhD candidate in Duke’s Biology Department, Dinh ventured to the Marine Lab for a mental reset in the spring of his sophomore year as a Duke undergraduate. “While I was there, I realized that people can just get paid to ask questions about how the world works,” Dinh told me, “And I really didn’t know that was a thing that you could do.” Maybe this is what I want to do, he thought.

Jason Dinh, fourth-year PhD candidate in Duke Biology Department

Dinh spent his remaining undergraduate summers investigating the impacts of soundscapes on oyster and fish larvae development. Now, he studies snapping shrimp – a small oceanic species that is “one of the biggest sound producers in the ocean,” bested only by toothed whales.

Dinh first became aware of snapping shrimp during his undergraduate research. He told me that you can find snapping shrimp “basically anywhere, from the equator up to Virginia or maybe North Carolina.” While conducting research on ocean sounds and oyster and fish larvae, Dinh noticed the frequent snapping sounds of the snapping shrimp when he placed underwater microphones. “We didn’t really know what they were doing,” Dinh said.

An image of a species of snapping shrimp like Dinh works with.

The male snapping shrimp is asymmetrical with one very large claw and one that is regular-sized. The large claw has a tiny hook on the end and when the shrimp clamps down or “snaps” the claw, the top half latches into the bottom, shooting out an air bubble at sixty miles per hour that “essentially boils the water behind it,” producing the loud snapping noise in its wake. When many shrimp are snapping at once, it sounds almost like the frying grease when cooking bacon, Dinh tells me. (Click here to watch a video of the snapping shrimp in action.)

At first, researchers suspected the bubble from the snap was a means of stunning prey, but “It turns out that snapping shrimp also fight each other,” Dinh said. And when fighting, male snapping shrimp shoot the air bubbles at one another. The bigger the shrimp’s body size, the larger the snapping claw and the louder the snapping sound.

An image of two snapping shrimp facing off.

Going into his PhD, Dinh wanted to continue his undergraduate work in acoustics and figure out novel ways animals were producing sounds. His investigation of the snapping shrimp took him in new directions, however. Through his projects, Dinh has conducted work on the costs and benefits that keep the claw size as an honest indicator of shrimp size in competitions and approached a plethora of questions from the physiological and physical mechanisms of sending and assessing snaps, up to the evolutionary implications of the sexual selection for claw size.

“I don’t think I really knew I wanted to do research until right before I applied for grad school,” Dinh said at the beginning of our conversation. He remembers being a child curious about nature and bringing in “hundreds of cicadas” and “random critters into the house.” A few decades later and his research is centered on living creatures, which is both a rewarding and tricky process.

“Live animals are going to do what live animals want to do,” Dinh stated simply. “One thing my advisor always tells us is that you don’t get to tell the animal what to do, it tells you what you are going to do.” This has certainly held true for Dinh. While he has had many detailed and well-planned experimental ideas, he says he’s ultimately ended up doing what the “animals told him they were willing and happy to do in the lab.” However, along the way Dinh basks in the “joys in tiny discoveries in the process of research.”

I asked Dinh how he ended up at Duke in the first place and why he chose to stick around for his PhD. “So I ended up at Duke for undergrad because I really liked basketball, which is a really bad reason to choose a school.” But ultimately, this choice “paid off really well because my first year was the last year we won the National Championship,” Dinh said. He traveled to Indianapolis for the event which he says was the “best basketball game of [his] life.”

Dinh decided to do his PhD at Duke because of how deeply he admires his advisor, Sheila Patek (PhD), as a scientist. “I think she’s just a wonderful, passionate, passionate defender of basic science and just doing science because more knowledge is good for society,” Dinh elaborated, “Sheila’s also a staunch and fearless advocate for her students.” Though Dinh considers himself an “outlier” in the lab – primarily a behavioral ecologist in a lab of researchers investigating biomechanics – the way that Patek approaches science is the way that he wants to approach science as well.

Like Alice falling down the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland, Dinh compares the diving explorations of science as being a “professional rabbit holer.” Science consists of picking questions further and further apart and leaning into research findings to tunnel into topics.

“I feel like science is being a professional rabbit holer,” Dinh stated. While Dinh is on the pursuit of the weapon size and fighting strategies of snapping shrimp, he doesn’t know exactly where he wants to head next, following the completion of his PhD. Like the snapping shrimp that collect information about their opponents to make an informed decision about engaging in fights, Dinh says he is conducting a sort of Bayesian method of his own. He’s assessing his experiences as he goes and sorting out the right next step for him.

A fan of the meditative art of writing, long morning walks with his dog, and reality TV, Dinh appreciates being “on the frontier of what we know” and is sure to let his deep-rooted curiosity about the natural world continue to guide him.

By Cydney Livingston

The Mind Behind Muser

Biology professor Sheila Patek remembers when she was an undergraduate, petrified as she waded through the world of academia in search of a research position. Knocking on door after door, Patek promised herself that if she was able to enter that world of research, she was going to change it; she was going to help students find opportunities and shift the rigid, exclusionary culture of academia.

Years later, Professor Patek was able to keep her promise. She created Muser, a website to connect students to research opportunities in an effort “to achieve accessible, transparent, equitable, and multidisciplinary research experiences for students and mentors.”

Patek first began this effort as a faculty member at the University of Massachusetts, where she found few efficient pathways for undergraduates to find research opportunities. Patek had grown accustomed to being at UC Berkeley, where they utilized a fully integrated system known as the Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program. The University of Massachusetts was more reminiscent of Patek’s own undergrad experience, and it was there that she and her colleagues began working on the first version of Muser’s software. This is the version that she brought with her when she came to Duke.

Here, we’re lucky to have a slew of resources — DukeList, the Undergraduate Research Support Office, Bass Connections — that are intended to help students pursue research. However, Patek says that Muser distinguishes itself by being specifically designed to address the many barriers that still prevent students from pursuing research — from a lack of support and resources to racial and gender biases. 

Team Muser: (from left) Sheila Patek, Founder; Sonali Sanjay, Co-Student Leader; Katherine Wang, Co-Student Leader; Theo Cai, Duke Undergrad Muser Director and Nowicki Fellow (Credit: Ben Schelling)

One way Muser does this is by making all initial applications anonymous. Patek mentions studies that have found that things like the race and gender connotation of names have significant influence on who gets a position; for example, when given CVs that are identical except for the gender of the names, faculty are more likely to rate the male CVs higher. From the mentor side of Muser, research leads see students’ personal statements first, then must formally review the applications if they wish to view all the information the student has provided — including their names. Patek notes that it has surprised and perhaps frustrated many mentors, but it’s a feature for the benefit of students; it allows them to first be heard without the preconceptions attached to something like their name.

On the flip side, Muser tries to keep things as transparent as possible for students (although anonymous mentors are in the works). There are set timelines — called “rounds” — in which mentors post positions and students apply then hear back. With most other forums for research like DukeList, students are expected to check in and apply constantly — not even knowing if they will get a response. Muser solves this through these rounds, as well as a unique “star” system: mentors that actually review every application get a gold star, visible to students applying. 

So far, over three thousand (3000) undergraduates have used the software, and Patek estimates that in 2021, 20% of Duke undergraduates had, at some point, held a research position thanks to Muser. She also boasts the diversity of research leads that have become involved with Muser; it features professors, graduate students, and lab managers alike as mentors, who represent a better gender and diversity balance than academia as a whole. But as much progress has been made, Patek’s ultimate dream would be for every project in every department to be posted on Muser, available for undergraduates who don’t have to worry about being denied because of bigotry or ignored altogether. 

“The culture of academia is fundamentally opaque to everyone not in it,” Patek notes, but she and the Muser team are doing everything they can to change that. The newest version of Muser’s software open source on GitHub and available for free — has recently been adopted by Harvey Mudd College and the University of Massachusetts, and Patek expresses her hope for the idea to spread nationwide. 

Universities that have adopted Muser

The website used to be called MUSER — an acronym meaning Matching Undergraduates to Science and Engineering Research — but nowadays, it’s known simply as “Muser.” I’ve been told that the rebranding is a play on words, referencing the Muses of Greek and Roman mythology who oversaw the full range of arts and sciences, to represent all thinkers. 

The next round of Muser for Summer 2022 research positions opens on February 19. Mentors can post opportunities NOW, until February 18. For more information, visit the website and check out this fantastic article introducing Muser.

LowCostomy: the Low-Cost Colostomy Bag for Africa

It’s common for a Pratt engineering student like me to be surrounded by incredible individuals who work hard on their revolutionary projects. I am always in awe when I speak to my peers about their designs and processes.

So, I couldn’t help but talk to sophomore Joanna Peng about her project: LowCostomy.

Rising from the EGR101 class during her freshman year, the project is about building  a low-cost colostomy bag — a device that collects excrement outside the patient after they’ve had their colon removed in surgery. Her device is intended for use in under-resourced Sub-Saharan Africa.

“The rates in colorectal cancer are rising in Africa, making this a global health issue,” Peng says. “This is a project to promote health care equality.”

The solution? Multiple plastic bags with recycled cloth and water bottles attached, and a beeswax buffer.

“We had to meet two criteria: it had to be low cost; our max being five cents. And the second criteria was that it had to be environmentally friendly. We decided to make this bag out of recycled materials,” Peng says. 

Prototype of the LowCostomy bag

For now, the team’s device has succeeded in all of their testing phases. From using their professor’s dog feces for odor testing, to running around Duke with the device wrapped around them for stability testing, the team now look forward to improving their device and testing procedures.

“We are now looking into clinical testing with the beeswax buffer to see whether or not it truly is comfortable and doesn’t cause other health problems,” Peng explains.

Poster with details of the team’s testing and procedures

Peng’s group have worked long hours on their design, which didn’t go unnoticed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Out of the five prizes they give to university students to continue their research, the NIH awarded Peng and her peers a $15,000 prize for cancer device building. She is planning to use the money on clinical testing to take a step closer to their goal of bringing their device to Africa.

Peng shows an example of the beeswax port buffer (above). The design team of Amy Guan, Alanna Manfredini, Joanna Peng, and Darienne Rogers (L-R).

“All of us are still fiercely passionate about this project, so I’m excited,” Peng says. “There have been very few teams that have gotten this far, so we are in this no-man’s land where we are on our own.”

She and her team continue with their research in their EGR102 class, working diligently so that their ideas can become a reality and help those in need.

Post by Camila Cordero, Class of 2025

Undergraduate Researchers William He and Annie Wang Dig Deeper into Hypergraphs

Like most things during the height of the pandemic, research that could be conducted virtually was conducted virtually. And that’s why, although juniors William He and Annie Wang have been working together on a research project since last September, they’ve never actually met in person.

He, a Math major from Houston, and Wang, a Computer Science and Math double-major from Raleigh, both work in the lab of Professor Debmalya Panigrahi, where the focus is on research in theoretical computer science, particularly graph algorithms. Wang and He did work on hypergraphs, and, after I asked them to explain what hypergraphs were in the most elementary terms (I am not a Math major), they went back and forth on how exactly to relay hypergraphs to a lay audience.

Annie Wang

Here is what they landed on: hypergraphs are essentially generalizations of normal graphs. In a normal graph, there are edges –each edge connects two points. There are also vertices – each point is a vertex. But in a hypergraph, each edge connects multiple points.

He and Wang were looking at a generalization of graph reliability – if all edges disconnect at a certain probability, what is the probability that the graph itself will break down because crucial edges are disconnecting?

William He

Their research adds to existing research on maximum flow problems, which Wikipedia tells us “entail finding a feasible flow through a flow network to obtain the maximum possible flow rate.” In a landmark paper written by T.E. Harris and F.S. Ross in 1955, the two researchers formulated the maximum flow problem using an example of the Soviet railroad and considering what cuts in the railroad would disconnect the nation entirely – and what cuts could be made with little impact to railway traffic flow. 

Maximum flow problems are a core tenet of optimization theory, used widely in disciplines from math to computer science to engineering. You may not know what mathematical optimization is, but you’ve seen it in action before: in electronic circuitry, in economics, or unsurprisingly, used by civil engineers in traffic management.

It’s expected to be incredibly difficult to exactly calculate the target value of He and Wang’s question. They landed on an approximation that they know is far from the exact calculation, but still brings them closer to understanding hypergraph connectivity more fully.

The process

So what draws them to research? For He, it’s like an itch. He describes that “sometimes I’ll be watching a movie, and then thirty minutes in I’m thinking about a possible solution to a math problem and then I can’t focus on the movie anymore.” You can’t get on with things until you scratch the itch, but the best part to him is when things finally start to make sense. For Wang, research is just plain fun. She enjoys learning about algorithms and theorems, and she loves the opportunity to work with professors who are at the forefront of their field.

After Duke, He wants to pursue a PhD, likely in theoretical computer science, while Wang is still weighing her options – whether she wants to go into academia or industry. While He came into Duke as a prospective Economics major, in quarantine especially he realized just how much he enjoyed math for the sake of itself.

Wang, similarly, thought she would want to pursue software engineering, but she’s slowly realizing that she likes “solving the problems within the field – problems that I need a PhD to solve.” The magic of research, for her, is that “you’re solving problems that no one has answers to yet.” And wherever the future takes both of them, she says that in doing research, even at the undergraduate level, “you feel like you’re pushing the boundary a tiny bit, and that’s a cool feeling.”

Post by Meghna Datta, Class of 2023

The Duke Blockchain Lab: Disrupting and Redefining Finance

The first decentralized cryptocurrency, Bitcoin, was created in 2009 by a developer named Satoshi Nakamoto which is assumed to be a pseudonym. Over the last decade, cryptocurrency has taken the world by storm, influencing the way people think about the intersection of society and economics. Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin or Ethereum, another popular token, operate on blockchains.

Manmit Singh, a senior studying electrical and computer engineering, was introduced to blockchain his freshman year at Duke after meeting Joey Santoro ‘19, a senior studying computer science at the time.

Singh quickly found that he was not only interested in the promise of blockchain but skilled at building blockchain applications as well. As a result, he joined the Duke blockchain lab, a club on campus that, at the time, had no more than fifteen students. Singh, who is now president of the Duke Blockchain Lab, explained that there are now over 100 members in the club working on different projects related to blockchain. 

“Blockchain is a computer network with a built-in immutable ledge.”

Manmit SIngh

Essentially, computers process information, the internet allows us to communicate information and blockchain is the next step in the evolution of the digital era. It not only allows computers to communicate value but to transfer it as well in a completely transparent way because every transaction is tracked and, a record of that transaction is added to every participant’s ledger which is visible to others.

The concept and application of blockchain is not intuitive to everybody. Not only do people have difficulty understanding it, but they do not even know where to begin asking questions. 

For Singh, a key element to the club’s success was recruiting new members. The crypto space experienced a crash in 2017 resulting in a lot of skepticism around an already novel idea, decentralized currency. As a result, it was crucial to educate others on the potential of decentralized finance (DeFi), cryptocurrency, and, of course, blockchain. When recruiting, Singh wanted to bring in both tech and business-focused students so that they could not only work on building blockchain applications but conduct research on business models and how to generate value within decentralized finance as well.

Members of the Duke Blockchain Lab at a
weekly meeting learning about Stablecoins,
one type of token in cryptocurrency

Currently, members are working on a variety of projects including looking at consensus algorithms or how the blockchain makes decisions given that it is decentralized so inherently no one is in control. However, their most ambitious venture is the development of their Crypto Fund where people can invest money.

They are also looking to develop a Duke-inspired marketplace with talented Duke artists to sell non-fungible-tokens or NFTs. If unfamiliar, Abby Shlesinger, a senior studying Art History, created a blog to educate people on what NFTs are. 

One of the first projects Singh led involved developing a “smart contract” for cryptocurrency-based energy trading on the Ethereum Virtual Machine, a computation engine that acts like a decentralized computer that can hold millions of executable projects. Smart contracts are programs stored on a blockchain that run when predetermined conditions are met.

Additionally, Singh and other members of the Duke Blockchain Lab are working on tokenomic research with Dr. Harvey, a Duke professor who recently published a book alongside Santoro titled “DeFi and the Future of Finance” which you can find here. 

“Every blockchain is a complete economy that exists on a different plane.” 

Within these blockchain economies are various different types of tokens that vary in function and value. Tokenomics explores how these economies work and can be used to generate value. When asked to compare tokenomic concepts to ones in traditional finance, Singh explained that payment tokens are like dollars, asset tokens are like bonds and security tokens are like stocks. Currently, several companies are working on creating competitive blockchains that will be both cheaper and faster allowing creating an avenue for blockchain to continue accelerating into the mainstream. 

Meanwhile, Santoro, who introduced Singh to blockchain, graduated from Duke in 2019 and went on to form The Fei Protocol, a stable coin that unlike bitcoin does not change in value. His protocol raised one billion dollars within several weeks and while it had some initial challenges, it is now set to launch V2, a second version, soon. 

Singh plans to continue working on blockchain applications after graduating this spring and hopes to combine it with his passion for entrepreneurship.

“I am enthused by the applications of artificial intelligence, blockchain, and the internet of things in disrupting the world as we know it.”

Manmit Singh
By: Anna Gotskind

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