Curiosity, Music and Mentors Led Nowicki to Science

By Duncan Dodson

“The only reason I got into the program I wanted to was because I was a pretty good low brass player—I’m actually sure of it!”

Stephen Nowicki, Dean and Vice Provost of Undergraduate Education, chuckles as he recounts his journey from early scientific beginnings to his most recent research. As part of Duke BioCoRE program, prominent Duke Scientists are asked to answer the question, “Why am I a scientist?”

Nowicki talk picture

Nowicki explains his most recent research with swamp sparrows and phonemes, the smallest derivative of vocal communication, at Love Auditorium January 23, 2015.

Nowicki started his answer to that question on January 23 with a picture of a dissected—well more like massacred—frog, commenting that he never thought he liked science because of his high school science courses that were not well-taught.

“All I remember from that course was dissecting a frog, and not knowing what I was supposed to get out of it.” This led him to pursue a music major at Tufts University. It was Tufts’ equivalent of Duke’s Trinity requirements in a natural science field that led to an ironic turn of events—quickly picking up a biology double major.

“I had some friends that said ‘Oh you should take this biology course,’ and I did and it changed my life, because it was really well taught,” he said. From there, his mentor at Tufts reached out to a colleague, the head of a competitive graduate neurobiology program at Cornell, Tom Eisner. Eisner mentioned to Nowicki that he was looking to start an amateur orchestra at Cornell;  Nowicki responded that he could play lower brass, sparking Eisner’s interest, and ultimately, according to Nowicki, his acceptance into the program.

Flash forward about 30 years. Nowicki has an impressive career in the field of neurobiology. His most recent publication challenges the neurological methods in which swamp sparrows process the subtle differences of phonemes, the smallest derivatives of vocal communication, in other birds’ songs.

Steve Nowicki

Nowicki’s tweet (@SteveNowickiDU) January 13, 2015. “Back where I belong at last!” Nowicki is a regular in the Cameron pep band who has always combined his passion for music with a curiosity for science.

Nowicki spent a majority of his talk relating entertaining anecdotes about his work with “Robobird,” a titanium swamp sparrow used to test these theories.

He repeatedly stressed the importance of curiosity, which led him to discover subjects he was passionate about. He discussed the process of instilling the same kind of curiosity in three undergraduate engineers through the two-and-a-half year research project. “[The first year engineers] didn’t have a clue, but they were not deterred. When they started to understand the problem they just kept digging in and digging in.”

When asked why he is a scientist, Nowicki responded, “I was lucky to run into mentors who revealed me to aspects of science that interested me, and I wasn’t afraid to fail.”

Behind the Scenes at Duke’s Student-Run Science Journal

By Nonie Arora

What do tuberculosis vaccines, water quality, and protein trafficking share in common? All may be featured in articles for the upcoming issue of Duke Science Review. I spoke with Matthew Draelos, co-editor-in-chief, and other publication team members.

Duke Science Review Publication. Credit: Nonie Arora

Duke Science Review Publication. Credit: Nonie Arora

Draelos explained that the Duke Science Review deals with broad topics with an emphasis on review articles and draws from the undergraduate, graduate, and professional school communities.

Draelos’s motivations for leading the Duke Science Review stem from his previous research experiences. Draelos worked in an undergraduate lab for four years at NC State University. There, he felt integrated into the publication process in the laboratory of Dr. Gavin Williams. At Duke, he is excited to have the opportunity to get involved in a student-run science journal and take on a leadership role.

His interest in science is focused on pharmaceutical development, particularly antibiotics. He has worked previously with enzymes called polyketide synthases, which are nature’s machinery for making antibiotics. He hopes to someday develop novel chemical solutions to unsolved medical problems.

Students learn about the publication process. Credit: Nonie Arora.

Students learn about the publication process. Credit: Nonie Arora.

“I think it’s important for students to publish their research primarily because in the current funding environment it’s publish or perish. This is increasingly true for young scientists. We must be able to write well, and the Duke Science Review establishes a risk-free forum for students to practice scientific writing,” Draelos commented.

A second reason he mentioned for enabling students to publish their work is that people spend considerable time and energy writing papers for courses, and a lot of that effort is wasted if only the professor is able to read their work. This journal is a way for people to spread their work to a larger audience and perhaps gain some additional recognition.

Lefko Charalambous, an editor for the journal, added that it is important to improve scientific communication and literacy in budding scientists. “It’s a way for us to appreciate what goes into producing a journal article and the reward from having it published at our age,” he said.

“We hope to enrich the scientific discourse, especially for freshmen and sophomores who are looking into scientific research and don’t know where to start,” Draelos said.

To submit an abstract for a potential report or article, check out their website.

Touring Duke’s Biggest Laboratory

Sari Palmroth

Sari Palmroth and the 130-foot research tower in the Blackwood Division of Duke Forest.

By Karl Leif Bates

You may think of Duke Forest as a nice place to run or walk your dog, but it’s actually the largest research laboratory on campus, and probably the oldest too.

Last week, Duke Forest director Sara Childs and operations manager Jenna Schreiber took about a dozen interested stakeholders on a whirlwind tour to see three active research installations tucked away in areas of Duke Forest the public often doesn’t see.

 

We had to hunt a little to find UNC Biology grad student Jes Coyle in the Korstian division off Whitfield Road, but at least she wasn’t 30 feet up in an oak tree like she usually is. Jes showed the group some of her cool climbing gear while explaining her work on figuring out which part of a lichen, the fungus or the algae, is more responsible for the lichen’s adaptation to microclimates.

She does this by climbing way the heck up into trees to affix little data loggers that track temperature and sunlight at various places on the trunk.

Coyle is looking at 67 lichen species in 54 sampling locations, which is a lot of climbing and a lot of little $50 loggers.

The whole time Jes was talking, we were eyeing her six-foot-tall slingshot and waiting for it to come into play.

Jes Coyle

UNC grad student Jes Coyle shows off her climbing gear.

Indeed it did, as she let three participants, including Sara Childs, have a go at shooting a ball on a fine string over a likely-looking branch to start a climbing rope. (None succeeded.)

 

Abundant data was the theme at our second stop too, where Sari Palmroth, an associate research professor in the Nicholas School of the Environment, explained how she measures how much water goes into and out of a tree.  Her installation is in the Blackwood Division off Eubanks Road, tucked behind the old FACE experiment.

Standing next to an imposing 130-foot scaffolding tower studded with active and abandoned instruments of all sorts, Palmroth said a square meter of Duke Forest exhales about 700 mm of rainfall a year, which is about half of what falls on it. “How do I know these numbers? Because it’s my job.”

In addition to being a lovely place to get away from the world and sway with the treetops, the tower measures CO2 levels at different heights throughout the canopy.

Sari Palmroth

Palmroth reveals where probes go into a tree trunk.

The tower also hosts a big white box stuffed with wires that capture data streaming in from sensors embedded in the tree trunks all around the tower.

Palmroth and her colleagues are seeing the trees breathe. During the day, when the tiny pores on the underside of their leaves – called stomata — are open and exhaling water and oxygen, roots in the top 40 centimeters of soil are pulling in more water. When the sun sets and the stomata close, then the tree’s deeper roots pull water up to the top level for tomorrow’s drinking.  Unless it doesn’t get cool at night and the stomata don’t completely close, which is the prediction for some climate change scenarios. What then?

 

Aaron Berdanier

Back in the vans and even deeper into the Blackwood division, we come upon an intrepid young man in a flannel shirt sitting in a sunny spot by the side of the two-track. He’s Aaron Berdanier, a doctoral candidate at Duke who is also looking at water use by taking  automated measurements of 75 trees every minute for four straight years.

His work is part of a larger research project established by Nicholas School professor Jim Clark 15 years ago. Every one of the 14,000 trees in this sloping 20-acre stand of the forest — from spindly saplings to giants —  is labeled and has its data regularly collected by a platoon of undergrads armed with computer tablets.

Other data flows automatically on webs of wiring leading to data loggers situated every few yards. Some of the trees wear a stainless steel collar with a spring that measures their circumference constantly and precisely. They change noticeably both seasonally and by the year, Berdanier says.

The forest is alive and its trees are breathing and pulsing. Berdanier likens his detailed measurement of water consumption to taking a human patient’s pulse. “We’re trying to determine winners and losers under future climate conditions.”

Duke Forest Q&A

Aaron handled a wide-ranging Q&A with the curious visitors as the sun set and the temperature fell.

RISK: The Adolescent Mind

By Anika Radiya-Dixit

Have you ever been labeled an out-of-control teenager? A risky driver? An impulsive troublemaker? Here’s the bad news: That’s partially correct. The good news? It’s not your fault: blame the brain.

On November 18, the department of Psychology and Neuroscience introduced students to “The Origins of Heightened Risk Behavior in Adolescence.” The presenter, Dustin Albert, is a PhD research scientist at the Center for Child and Family Policy here at Duke University, who is interested in cognitive neuroscience, problem behaviors, and peer influence.

Researchers have identified the stage of adolescence as the peak time of health and performance, but at the same time, they noticed a jump in morbidity and mortality as children approached teen years, as seen in the graphs below. Specifically, adolescents show increased rates of risky behavior, alcohol use, homicide, suicide, and sexually transmitted diseases. However, as Allen tells the audience, “These are only the consequences.” In other words, what teenagers are stereotypically ridiculed for is actually the result of something else. If that’s the case, then what are the causes?

Professor Albert

Professor Albert explaining the spike in risky behavior during teenage years.

Psychologically speaking, researchers believed that these behaviors are caused by a lack of rational decision, perhaps because adolescents “are unable to see their own vulnerability” to the outcomes, meaning that teens are apparently inept at identifying consequences to their actions. However, the studies they took demonstrated that adolescents are not only able to see their own vulnerability, but are also able to intelligently evaluate costs and effects to a certain decision. If teenagers are so smart, then what is actually causing this “risky behavior”?

One important reason Professor Albert discussed is brain activity and maturation before, during, and after adolescence. As a child ages from early to middle adolescence, fast maturation of incentive processing circuitry drives sensation seeking – in other words, the willingness to take risks in order to gain a reward increases as the child approaches teen years. In the brain, this occurs due to increased dopamine availability in reward paths as well as heightened sensitivity to monetary and social reward cues. In one interesting study, adolescents were instructed to press a button only when they saw an angry face. However, the researchers noticed that when the teens saw a happy face, they had a “particularly difficult time restraining themselves” to not press the button. Essentially, the happy-angry face study demonstrates that adolescents have more struggle in restraining themselves against impulsive actions, which often translates into responses during driving, alcohol use, and the other aforementioned risky behaviors.

Later in their life, there is a slower maturation of cognitive control circuitry that leaves a window of imbalance in the teen’s life. In the brain, this period is noted by thinning of gray matter and increasingly efficient cortical activation during inhibition tasks. In other words, older people “use smaller parts of [their] cortex to stop inappropriate responses.” Essentially, due to the way the physical and hormonal brain matures, adolescents are more prone to impulsive behavior. The take away: it’s not your fault.

Another influence on teens’ risky behavior is called the peer presence effect, commonly known as “peer pressure.” Based on arrest records, “adolescents, but not adults, [are] riskier in the presence of peers,” pointing out that the percentage of co-offenders arrested for the top eight crimes decreased with age after teenage years (Gardner & Steinberg, 2005). Perhaps the need to “establish their status,” Albert speculated, decreases with age as they gain more experience about living in the real world.

The test to evaluate the result of peer presence simulates the effect of teens taking a driving exam when in the car alone as compared to when with peers. In terms of peer influence, the study shows that adolescents ran more intersections when sitting with a peer than when sitting alone. In terms of risky behavior compared with adults, adolescents when watched by peers showed over 20% increase in risky behavior of running through intersections, as opposed to the 5-10% increase seen for adults in peer presence. Albert partially attributed this effect to the fact that “teens driving the first time could assess the probability of crashing less than adults do,” but he doesn’t have specific evidence for this claim.

While Albert claimed that the study was valid because the adolescents participating were made aware of the outcome of driving recklessly – damage to the car, injury, time it would take to get a new car, insurance problems – I believe that the study should have taken into account the fact that the teens may have subconsciously known the simulated driving test wasn’t real – viewing it as a mere video game – and so may have succumbed more into peer pressure as the true fear of dying in a crash would not have been present.

Albert ended his talk by giving one last piece of advice to people working with teens: It’s “not enough to [simply] increase their knowledge,” but rather to “understand and work towards developing impulse control and reward sensitivity.”

Below are some of the thought-provoking questions raised by audience members during the Q&A session:

Q: What would be the result of peer presence effect for same-sex peers as compared to peers of the opposite sex?

A: While Albert admitted that this particular situation has not been tested yet, he believes it may be based on personal perceptions of what the peer thinks, and what the opposite person likes.

Q: What would be the result of risky behavior for the simulated driving test if the participant’s parent(s) and peer(s) were both present in the car?

A: On one hand, the participant might drive more carefully due to the presence of an authoritative figure. However, if the participant opinionates the peer as a stronger influence, he / she would effectively neutralize the effect the parent has and drive more recklessly. Other audience members claimed that they would drive more cautiously irrespective of who was sitting with them in the car because they are aware there is another life at stake for every decision they made behind the wheel. “It would be interesting to see the [results of the study] based on this internal conflict,” the audience member who posed this question said. Overall, Albert said the results would be primarily influenced by the type of person participating – whether they would “take the small amount of money or be willing to wait for the big amount” in front of peers – that would determine whether the parent or peer becomes a stronger influence in risky behavior.

Q: How could someone going into education help keep high school students away from risky behaviors?

A: Albert noted that these behaviors are more the result of personal experience rather than something that can be quickly taught. In a school setting, teachers could introduce the practice of challenging situations to help the kids acting ‘in-the-moment’ recognize and understand “changes in their own thought patterns for decision making,” but simply giving them a “lesson in health class is not necessarily going to translate into the Friday night situation.”

If you are interested in these type of topics, Professor Albert is teaching PUBPOL 241: METHODS SOCIAL POLICY RESEARCH  this Spring (2015).

More details about the presenter can be read at: http://fds.duke.edu/db/Sanford/ccfp/william.albert

Duke Forest is Healthy But Vigilant

By Karl Leif Bates

Duke Forest director Sara Childs, left, got into the trees a ways with some of the annual gathering guests.

Duke Forest director Sara Childs, left, got into the trees a ways with some of the annual gathering guests.

The map that Kelly Oten showed at the Duke Forest annual gathering Thursday night could have been a metaphor for the 7,000-acre research and teaching forest itself .

Her map showed the entire state with Duke Forest in the  middle, and advancing legions of forest-killing pests approaching from all sides. In this case, Oten, a forest health monitoring coordinator for the North Carolina Forest Service, was talking about bugs that kill native trees in various horrible ways.

But it might just as well have been a map of encroaching development, rapacious deer, unleashed, freely pooping dogs or any of the dozens of other things that threaten to change the face of  this forested oasis on a daily basis.

In a two-hour meeting with snacks and wine, forest director Sara Childs, her staff and Oten brought a room full of forest-lovers up to date on the current health of Duke’s forested reserve and the status of all kinds of invasive species.  Things are going well, said Childs, who took over this year after the retirement of Judd Edeburn, but the challenges never go away.

Childs said the forest hosted 84 research projects from 23 institutions in the last year. More than 500 students attended class activities — probably a dramatic undercount — and 827 person-hours went into the ambitious overhaul of the heavily used trails and bridges in the Korstian Division.

The biggest blow of the year was the back-to-back ice storms in February and March that disturbed 187 acres in all, 22 of which simply had to be salvage-cut because they were beyond repair, Childs said.

Deer management seems to be helping, Childs said. Ideally, they’d like to see 15-20 of the giant herbivores per square mile, but the count was more like 80 per mile when they started fall culling operations five years ago. The cull is on right now, by the way, closing the Durham, Korstian and Blackwood Divisions Monday through Friday. That’s in effect until Dec. 19, so stay safely away.

Sara Childs presents Judd Edeburn with the plaque for a new division named in his honor. He doesn't get to keep it; it'll be bolted to a very big rock.

Sara Childs presents Judd Edeburn with the plaque for a new division named in his honor. He doesn’t get to keep it; it’ll be bolted to a very big rock.

At the end of the evening, Childs and the Duke Forest staff showed Edeburn a handsome new brass plaque that will be installed at the entrance to the former Eno division to rename that section of the forest in his honor.

And while we’re learning about and admiring the Duke Forest, check out these ten fun facts. https://dukeforest.spotlight.duke.edu/

Judd Edeburn Division plaque will be installed at an entrance to the former Eno Division.

Judd Edeburn Division plaque will be installed at an entrance to the former Eno Division.

Shedding Light on Careers Beyond Academia  

Grad school can seem like walking down a well-lit path in an otherwise dark forest. It’s easy to see the academic path, but who knows what might happen if you step off of it? (Illustration: Ted Stanek)

Grad school can seem like walking down a well-lit path in an otherwise dark forest. It’s easy to see the academic path, but who knows what might happen if you step off of it? (Illustration: Ted Stanek)

Guest post from Ted Stanek, PhD candidate in neurobiology

The Duke Institute for Brain Sciences’ Beyond Academia panel on Oct. 30 tried to illuminate the many career paths available to PhDs and spread hope rather than dread in the minds of Triangle area graduate students.

There has been a flood of articles recently about the increase in competition in the academic world for tenure-track faculty positions and federal funding. They all harped on the perils of staying in academia and the tragedy of being a PhD student or postdoc in such a climate.

Many of these stories focus on the terrifying choice that all PhDs and postdocs face at various points in their career: whether or not they want to stay on the academic track. The alternative feels like jumping off of a cliff, and many people complain that programs which accept more PhD students than there are academic jobs available are effectively pushing students towards that cliff.

Ted Stanek

Ted Stanek is a PhD student in neurobiology.

In the face of this negative outlook for PhDs, the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences recently provided welcome insight into the variety of non-academic careers that may lie in a PhD’s future. Beyond Academia was a day-long workshop consisting of five groups of 3-4 panelists discussing their own career trajectories, what their careers are like, and how they prepared to achieve such positions. Each panelist had a neuroscience or biomedical science PhD, and each had found a successful and fulfilling career outside of the academic niche.

“There are no ‘alternative careers’,” Katja Brose, Senior Editor of Neuron, emphasized in her keynote address.  “There are just careers.”

Workshop panelists revealed just how many careers were available to PhDs. A major point reinforced during the event was that you are never “stuck” on the academic track. You have the option of changing careers every step of the way – even after you’ve reached the level of tenured faculty.

Switching career paths, however, is a daunting task – a common reason why many PhD students go straight into a postdoc. It’s easy to see how the skills that you learn as a graduate student will transfer to skills you can use as a postdoc, and then as a young faculty.

Elizabeth Brannon, a professor of psychology & neuroscience who organized the seminar, pointed out in her welcoming speech that PhD students have limited access to professionals outside of academia, making it difficult to even identify non-academic careers that may interest them, let alone prepare for them.

While many of these careers beyond academia do require some type of preparation, this preparation may simply consist of pursuing your interests while completing your PhD. Writing or editing for your lab, starting up a journal club, and participating in university or professional organizations are all great ways to boost your resume and develop your interests.

Perhaps the hardest part of preparing for any career, academic or otherwise, is undergoing that initial period of self-reflection necessary to identify what skills you possess in your current position, what interests you about your job, and how your life values might impact your career.

“The point at which your skills, interests, and values overlap determines your career sweet spot,” Brose said.

Do you especially enjoy the administrative aspects of academia? Maybe grant management is the way to go. How about actually conducting experiments to discover new biological mechanisms? Perhaps working in a pre-clinical lab for a pharmaceutical company is the place for you. What if you love writing – either the spinning of a story (science writer/freelancer), or writing down the scientific facts with precise and accurate language (medical writer)? Are you interested in new biological technology (intellectual property and patent law)? Or helping to change laws about science (science policy)? Maybe you just love reading papers and debating where they should be published (journal editor).

All of these positions highly value PhDs in particular, no matter what the specifics of your thesis are. Every PhD in the brain and behavioral sciences, whether molecular, systems, or behavioral, develops what career advisors call transferable skills. These highly valued “super powers” as one panelist put it, include being able to communicate technical topics to a diverse audience, working with team members, learning a large amount of information quickly and effectively, being resilient in the face of unexpected adversity, and thinking critically to solve complex problems. The overwhelming message from Beyond Academia was that no matter where you end up, after you get your PhD you can find a career that will make you happy and fulfilled.

To me, it seems like pursuing a PhD is a lot like walking down a well-lit path in an otherwise dark forest. It’s easy to see the next step along the path to academia, but who knows what might happen if you step off of it?

Thanks to Beyond Academia, that forest is now a little brighter.

Beyond Academia was  presented by the Duke Institute of Brain Sciences, the Graduate Admitting Program in Cognitive Neuroscience, the Neurobiology Graduate Program, and the Duke Psychology & Neuroscience Graduate Program.  This event was organized by  Elizabeth Brannon and Richard Mooney, with help from Tanya Schrieber, and moderated by Duke graduate students Caroline Drucker, Rosa Li, Marissa Gamble, and Vanessa Puñal.