The Mystery Behind the Camel Statue

Knut Schmidt-Nielsen

A file photo of the real Knut Schmidt-Nielsen, not the bronze one, standing with the enigmatic camel statue dedicated to him and his work.

By Olivia Zhu           

The camel statue between the Biology Building and Gross Hall is a staple of Duke’s campus, but the significance behind this landmark is generally unknown.

On Monday, September 22, faculty from the Biology Department gathered for a dedication to remember the man behind the camel statue (or rather, in front of it), Dr. Knut Schmidt-Nielsen, who died in 2007.

Knut Schmidt-Nielsen, who would have turned 99 this Wednesday, was “the father of comparative physiology and integrative biology” and a James B. Duke professor at Duke’s Biology Department starting in 1952.

Schmidt-Nielsen studied the physiology of the camel’s nose, received the International Prize for Biology, and wrote the authoritative text on animal physiology.

Dr. Stephen Wainwright, who was present at the dedication, commissioned the camel to British sculptor Jonathan Kingdon, who finished the bronze camel statue in 1993. The inscription for the statue, “Tell me about yourself, Camel, that I may know myself,” encapsulates Schmidt-Nielsen’s outlook on physiology.

According to Dr. Steven Vogel, who was recruited to Duke’s faculty by Schmidt-Nielsen 49 years ago, Schmidt-Nielsen was actually shy and rather uncomfortable with the statue of himself. Vogel reported that Schmidt-Nielsen greatly advanced the zoology department with his high standards and “great charm and urbanity.”

“You could never say no to Knut,” Vogel said. Schmidt-Nielsen was also reportedly  “a very serious wine drinker”—accordingly, the dedication ceremony ended with wine and champagne.

To learn more about Knut Schmidt-Nielsen, read Vogel’s memoirs or a recommended autobiography, The Camel’s Nose.

Knut Schmidt-Nielsen

The statue as it appears now, with Knut in bronze. (File photo)

Futurity Research News Site Turns Five

Guest Post by David Jarmul

Futurity.Org, a website that has shared Duke’s research news with millions of readers around the world, is celebrating its fifth anniversary this week.

(Credit: Paul Albertella/Flickr)

(Credit: Paul Albertella/Flickr)

Launched in 2009, Futurity has since recorded 12 million visits and 16 million page views. Among the approximately 10,000 stories it has published are recent Duke offerings on baboon behavior, the treatment of hepatitis C, species extinction and smoking rates among immigrants.

Michael Schoenfeld, Duke’s vice president for public affairs and government relations, helped launch the site, which presents research from 62 leading universities in the United States and other countries in a colorful, non-technical format designed to reach wider audiences.

“When we started Futurity five years ago we hoped to create a new channel to those interested in thoughtful stories about university research,” Schoenfeld said. “That has tfuturity.org logourned into a very successful venture in digital media, and helped create a model collaboration among the top universities in the world.”

Karl Bates, director of research communications for the Office of News and Communications (and editor of this blog), serves as the university’s “bureau chief” for Futurity, working with researchers and communicators across the campus to identify newsworthy stories. He then works with the Futurity editorial team, based at the University of Rochester, to present the stories on Futurity’s website and social media channels on Facebook, Twitter and Google+.

Schoenfeld, who continues to chair Futurity’s governing board, said the site hopes to build on its success and is considering expanding into new arenas to keep pace with the rapidly changing media landscape.

Joining the Team: Lyndsey Garcia

Hi! My name is Lyndsey Garcia and I’m proud to call myself a Duke student!

I’m a sophomore in the Pratt School of Engineering and I’m still attempting the infamous biomedical engineering, pre-med route. I was born on the naval base in Whidbey Island, Washington but have spent the last ten years in hot, hot Dallas, TX.

Lyndsey Garcia

Lyndsey Garcia

I love to water ski, snowboard, workout, play sports, sleep, eat carbohydrates, and binge watch Netflix shows. I was a big volleyball player in high school and play for the club volleyball team on campus. I used to play positions that were designated for taller girls, but my teammates quickly outgrew me and was sent to the back row. Yet, I found a way to embrace my short stature and love playing defense. Along with volleyball, I work as a lifeguard at the Duke Aquatic pools and peer tutor in organic chemistry.

Some families like to play board games. Some families like to go on exotic vacations. My family likes to listen to podcasts. I listen to Morning Edition when I ride on the bus and to Planet Money when I lift weights. My love for podcasts has helped expand my love for learning. I have learned about current events in Israel, along with different points of view on health care, and new advancements in cancer research. Having already a passion for math and science and an excitement for learning about the newest developments, it was a natural progression that I would seek to combine these interests to join a research blog. The opportunity to report on all the fascinating developments occurring at leading research institution is one of the greatest things I can imagine!

I love Duke and all it has to offer. While getting a first class education, you can cheer for a top ten basketball team. After doing research in the lab, you can toss of Frisbee with your friends in the gardens. Now I can attend interesting lectures and interview my peers on their intriguing research and develop my love of reporting it to all our readers!

Duke’s ALS Challenge is Conventional Wisdom

By Kelly Rae Chi

What all those folks dumping ice water over their heads to raise money for the ALS Association may not realize is that a small number of patients with the degenerative neurological disease might sometimes get better.

In a new patient-funded program called ALS Reversals, Duke researchers are trying to find out why.

“Any time you have a patient with ALS who’s getting better, no matter what it is that they’re doing, I think you should try to put a lot of effort into understanding that patient,” said Richard Bedlack, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of neurology at Duke University School of Medicine and director of the Duke ALS Clinic.

Richard Bedlack, M.D. Ph.D.

Richard Bedlack heads Duke’s ALS Clinic.

Not everyone believes that the reversal of ALS is real. And if it is, then some skeptics say that the number of examples might be too few to learn anything of value from, Bedlack said.  “I would say the only way you’ll know the answer to that is to try,” he added.

Bedlack said there may be three possible explanations for why some people with ALS stop progressing or get better. First, the person may never have had ALS in the first place; he or she may instead have an unusual form of myasthenia gravis, for example.

Second, something unique about that person’s body might be helping them fight the disease. “The [first and second] possibilities can be teased apart. We can get these folks to send their records and come to Duke, and we can study them,” Bedlack said. The researchers would like to compare these patients’ gene sequences, gene expression data or antibody profiles to those of more typical ALS patients.

The third, and perhaps most controversial, explanation for ALS reversal is that the patient tried a treatment that worked.

The idea for the ALSReversals came to Bedlack as he was reviewing alternative and off-label therapies for ALS. In an effort to quash misinformation floating around the web about such therapies, Bedlack had started ALSUntangled, a group of scientists and clinicians who systematically study any available evidence behind a given therapy — elected by the public via social media — and publish an open review about it.

To Bedlack’s surprise, the ALSUntangled team found that some alternative ALS therapies might show some promise, and probably need more study. One of those was lunasin, a peptide derived from soybeans that is sold as a nutritional supplement. The group is still finishing their review of lunasin and Bedlack plans to carry out a pilot study of it through the ALS Reversals program.

In the past decade, new research has already helped ALS patients by improving their quality of life and functioning. This has made the work of the Duke ALS Clinic more about helping people live with the disease rather than just diagnosing them.

And just for good measure, the clinic team also participated in the Ice Bucket Challenge.

Bedlack is excited by the new attention to ALS. “I’ve never seen ALS being talked about by so many people,” he said, adding that he looks forward to seeing what comes of the boost in funds.

The viral  Ice Bucket Challenge has so far raised more than $94 million in donations to the ALS Association as of Aug. 27.

An estimated 30,000 Americans are living with ALS. One in 500 people will develop ALS in his or her lifetime. It’s incurable, and terrible. But maybe you have already learned that through the Ice Bucket Challenge.

Teachers Look to ‘Alice’ for Help

Guest Post by Leah Montgomery, NC Central University

With technology and computer science among the fastest growing fields of study today, it’s a wonder there are so few computer science classes in public middle and high schools.

Florida teacher Chari Distler’s message to a Duke classroom full of her middle and high school teaching colleagues was a promising one: They can get a new generation of kids interested in computer science.

School teachers from all over the country learned programming at Duke this summer.

School teachers from all over the country learned programming at Duke this summer.

All they have to do is follow Alice.

Alice is a 3D virtual worlds programming environment that offers an easy way to create animations for games and storytelling. Since 2008, Duke Professor Susan Rodger has led a two-week summer program training teachers to use Alice to help promote computer literacy among young students.

“What we’re trying to do is teach middle school and high school teachers, in all disciplines, how to program and then help them to integrate it into their discipline,” said Rodger. “The teachers will then expose students to what computer science is. The idea is that if they know what it is then they might choose it as a career when they go to college.”

Distler attended her first Adventures in Alice Programming session at Duke two years ago and returned this week to advise this year’s class on how she implemented the program in her classes.

She said one of her students from North Broward Preparatory School won second place in the annual Alice contest for his animated 45-second video titled “From Rags to Riches.”

Audrey Toney, an instructional coach for teachers in the North Carolina New Schools network, said she learned about Alice through a teacher who wanted to add programming to her curriculum.

“It gives students computational thinking and critical thinking and offers another way to present other than PowerPoint and Prezi,” said Toney.

Toney wants to challenge her professional development students to use Alice to replicate a design of a robotic arm that will lift and unload boxes. The program will allow students to budget money, price the cost of parts and code the robot’s movements.

During the first week of the workshop, teachers get familiar with the Alice software through interactive activities. Teachers created worlds with flying dragons, flipping princesses and annoyed Garfields.

The teachers worked together on learning Alice programming. (Les Todd, Duke Photography)

The teachers worked together on learning Alice programming. (Les Todd, Duke Photography)

In week two, teachers learned about the use of 3-D imaging in the classroom at the Duke Immersive Virtual Environment (DiVE). The teachers also started creating their own Alice-based lesson plans this week. New Jersey high school teacher Kenneth McCarthy said he found his inspiration in the Sunday paper.

“I was thumbing through the Sunday paper and saw Garfield,” said McCarthy, who teaches algebra two and a beginner programming class . “It just looked like something that could be easily used with Alice.”

McCarthy is familiar with Alice, having used the program last year when his students participated in the Hour of Code, an initiative that challenges students and teachers to learn programming in one hour.

“I think the traditional thought was that you have to know algebra two (and other higher mathematics) to learn this, but Alice can be used in elementary schools,” said McCarthy.

Rising Duke senior Samantha Huerta was a workshop assistant for Susan Rodger for nine weeks this summer, helping develop workshop materials and finding ways to integrate computer science into math and other subjects.

“I wasn’t exposed to any type of computer science growing up,” said Huerta. “This is a field that isn’t going to go away, and we need to have more diversity. As a female Latina, I am a double minority and it is my hope to continue researching and bringing diversity to this field.”

Duke Undergrads Sink Their Teeth into Evolution Research

Undergraduates Ben Schwartz (left) and Amalia Cong (center) have spent the past year studying enamel evolution in the labs of Christine Wall (right) and Greg Wray (not pictured).

Undergraduates Ben Schwartz (left) and Amalia Cong (center) have spent the past year studying enamel evolution in the labs of Christine Wall (right) and Greg Wray (not pictured).

By Erin Weeks

The evolution of thick tooth enamel helped turn our species into hard food-chomping omnivores, and two undergraduates are taking a bite out of research to unravel how that happened. Amalia Cong and Ben Schwartz are building on the work of a recent paper that identified precisely where in the human genome natural selection worked to give our species thick tooth enamel. The original study looked only at the potential role of four genes with a known role in tooth development — so now the team is broadening their scope.

“They’re really excited to expand out and push the envelope on new genes,” said Christine Wall, associate research professor of evolutionary anthropology and one of the authors of the paper, along with professor of biology Greg Wray.

Cong and Schwartz arrived in the Wall and Wray labs last summer through a special research session at Duke, the Howard Hughes Vertical Integration Partners (VIP) Program. For ten weeks, they received a crash course in primate evolutionary genomics.

“They had very little time, and the progress they made was astounding,” Wall said. “The success that they had is really a testament to how hard they worked. This has developed into their own research.”

“We’ve begun to expand our tooth enamel gene analysis to include proteins in conjunction with the RNA in order to gain a more holistic understanding of the evolutionary differences that exist between chimpanzees and humans,” Schwartz said. He will continue to work in the lab through this summer, turning the work into a senior thesis.

“One of our goals was to look at the relative expression of these few genes,” Schwartz said, which they’ve done by comparing tooth development in primates of different ages. “Our results correlated very heavily with known functions of these genes in other animals, such as rats.”

The experience has given both students a taste for research, which they hope to continue doing after graduating from Duke. Cong, who hails from a small city outside of Toronto, will be attending dental school in the fall, while Baltimore native Schwartz is interested in pursuing a joint MD/PhD.