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.

Joining the ride – Thabit Pulak

By Thabit Pulak

Howdy everyone! My name is Thabit Pulak, and I am currently a freshman, hailing from the grand nation of Texas! Although I haven’t declared my major yet, I am interested in Public Policy, and Medicine.

My first arsenic filters -- fresh from the factory!

My first batch of custom-made  water filters, fresh from the manufacturing plant in Bangladesh!

I’ve been interested in science ever since I was really young. As I got older, I became more aware of my surroundings. Ethnically, I am from Bangladesh, which is a poverty-stricken nation. Amongst the many problems the country faces, one that personally caught my eye was that of arsenic water poisoning, which affects nearly 70 million people in Bangladesh, and about 300 million people across the world. Continually drinking arsenic-tainted water results in arsenicosis, which is a chronic state of arsenic poisoning that gradually develops into various types of bodily cancers. So I thought, if exposure to arsenic was reduced, then the incidence of cancer would decrease as well.

Studying the issue closer, I noticed that solutions for filtering arsenic from water did exist, but they were very expensive (nearly $70) for the average villager, who makes around $1 a day. This was definitely a problem, as what good use was a solution, which was financially inaccessible to the target audience?

My meeting with the Minister of Bangladesh

I started to delve into this problem, trying to figure out what I could do. I read research articles on how other filters on the market worked. I noticed that the technologies used in other filters were plagued with various problems that brought cost up, such as being patented, or technologies not available natively in Bangladesh. Working in the kitchen of my home in Texas, I slowly developed an arsenic water filter that could also filter bacteria from water at an affordable price. I designed my filter in such a way that the whole filter could theoretically be built using materials in a typical village home.

Throughout the process of working on this project, I had the privilege of meeting many people who supported me along the way. I met with Bob Perciaspe, who at the time, was the head administrator of the EPA. I also met with Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who lent me his endorsement towards carrying on with my work, with the future focus of expanding into rural areas into Texas, which also include arsenic affected regions. And, to my huge surprise, I was invited to the White House and met with President Obama!

I am now working on implementing my design. I founded iKormi, a non-profit organization, with the goal of alleviating problems faced by the underprivileged, in which my primary focus was arsenic water poisoning. Using some grants and money I raised, I was able to start up a small water filter plant in Bangladesh which manufactures arsenic water filters according to my design, consisting completely of local materials, using local labor. The filters were being built at a tenth of the cost. In addition to the manufacturing process, I also was able to gain support of many influential people in Bangladesh, including the Minister (and former general secretary) of Bangladesh. While there is definitely a lot more work to do, I definitely look forward to expanding this operation to be able to serve a wide variety of people who need access to clean drinking water.

At Duke, I hope to continue with my work in Bangladesh through the wealth of opportunities available to students in terms of research and working abroad. I look forward to writing for the Duke Research Blog!

Thabit and Obama

Me and President Obama in one of the Bangladesh national newspapers!

Artistic Anatomy: An Exploration of the Spine

By Olivia Zhu

How many times have you acted out the shape of a vertebra with your body? How many times have you even imagined what each of your vertebrae looks like?

On Wednesday, October 1, Kate Trammell and Sharon Babcock held a workshop on the spine as part of the series, Namely Muscles. In the interactive session, they pushed their audience members to gain a greater awareness of their spines.

Participants assemble vertebrae and discs of the spine

Participants assemble vertebrae and discs of the spine

Trammell and Babcock aim to revolutionize the teaching of anatomy by combining art, mainly through dance, and science. They imagine that a more active, participatory learning style will allow students from all backgrounds to learn and retain anatomy information much better. Babcock, who received her Ph.D. in anatomy from Duke, emphasized how her collaboration with Trammell, a dancer and choreographer, allowed her to truly internalize her study of anatomy. The workshop participants, who included dancers and scientists alike, also reflected a fusion of art and science.

Trammell observes the living sculptures of thoracic vertebrae

Trammell observes the living sculptures of thoracic vertebrae

To begin the exploration of the spine, Trammell and Babcock had participants close their eyes and feel models of individual vertebrae to gain tactile perception. Trammell and Babcock then instructed participants to make the shape of the vertebrae they felt with their bodies, creating a living sculpture garden of various interpretations of vertebrae–they pointed out key aspects of vertebrae as they walked through the sculptures.

Finally, Trammell and Babcock taught movement: in small groups, people played the roles of muscles, vertebrae, and spinal discs. They worked on interacting with accurate movements (for example, muscles only pull; they cannot push) to illustrate different movements of the spine.

Interactive illustration of a muscle pulling vertebrae

Interactive illustration of a muscle pulling vertebrae

 

 

 

To complete the series, Trammell performed Namely, Muscles, choreographed by Claire Porter, on October 4th  at the Ark.

Duke Undergraduate Research Society. Hit them up.

By Lyndsey Garcia

I have a confession: I have never personally been interested in performing research. I love to read, listen, and talk about research and latest developments, but never saw myself micropipetting or crunching raw data in the lab. But after attending the Duke Undergraduate Research Society (DURS) Kickoff, they got me to sign up for their listserve!

DURS Executive Board: (from left to right) Joseph Kleinhenz, Syed Adil, Lillian Kang, Dr. Huntington Willard, Sammie Truong, John Bentley

DURS Executive Board: (from left to right) Joseph Kleinhenz, Syed Adil, Lillian Kang, Dr. Huntington Willard, Sammie Truong, John Bentley

The kickoff highlighted DURS’s leading man, Dr. Huntington Willard. He was a biology pre-med undergraduate at Harvard for 3 years until he was introduced to genome research, which quickly became his life’s passion.

In 2002, Willard launched the Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy at Duke, which grew to more than 100 faculty and 300 staff members. The institute unfortunately met its end this past June, but Willard continues his love and passion for genome research here at Duke, and with Duke undergraduate students.

Before creating IGSP, Willard had only interacted with medical and graduate students during his research. But at Duke he had his first opportunity to engage with  undergrads.

“The best thing at Duke is the undergrads and I wanted to take advantage of the best thing at Duke,” he says.

Willard explains his love for research by explaining the inherent differences between all Duke students and those Duke students who perform research. All Duke students love to learn and are interested in what they are learning, but Duke students who research are questioners. He says they want to know more than what is given in the textbook. They constantly go between B and C on the test because there could be valid reasons for both, but we just don’t know why yet. They aren’t afraid to delve into uncharted territories where there is no safety net of certainty.

Willard says many of these young researchers seem to follow his own motto: “This is so cool. I want to know how it works.”

Willard’s talk already had me inspired, but then I got to hear from the executive board of DURS. Each member explained the research they are involved with on campus and how they got there. They explained how they sent tons of emails to professors and received no responses and gave anecdotes about switching labs because it wasn’t what they wanted.

They also expanded on what DURS offers to undergraduates. The program connects professors and undergraduates for potential research positions, sets up workshops to help make networking contacts, pairs young undergrads with experienced undergrads to mentor and give advice, and helps one realize that no one came out of the womb with lab experience, so don’t be discouraged by not having any at first.

“This is exactly why I came to Duke. It’s a great university with amazing research opportunities and now I can’t wait to get started.” – Freshman Jaclyn Onufrey.

So my takeaway from Duke Undergraduate Research Society was:

1)      Are you interested in questioning the unknown?

2)      Do you want to be part of discovering something new?

3)      Don’t know where to start?

If any of those aspects apply to you, it’s definitely worth hitting up DURS!