Send in the Nerds

By Karl Leif Bates

Yeah, we're a bit excitable.

Yeah, we’re a bit excitable.

Hoping to triumph where our men’s and women’s basketball teams fell short, the Duke faculty are in the Final Four of an alternative NCAA bracket based on academic publications that’s being run by Thomson Reuters.

Sure, it’s a gimmick to get people looking at Thomson Reuters’ powerful but somewhat pricey InCites citation database  — but we’re winning!

By the reckoning of the “Metrics Mania” bracket, Duke is squaring off in the final with Stanford in a contest of “normalized citation impact” of our scholarly work. (It’s a weighted average of citations per paper that controls for year published and subject area.)

Joining us in the Final Four are Harvard and Wisconsin — kudos to the Badgers for making it both ways! We’ve apparently already beat Wisconsin on the normalized citation business, so now it’s on to the Cardinal.

Previous rounds had us clobbering Mercer (cough) and Iowa on absolute number of citations and then squeaking past Michigan and NC State on percentage of documents cited.

The national champion will be announced Tuesday, after the basketball game, Thomson Reuters’ savvy PR operation says.

*** UPDATE – Tuesday, April 8 ***

Stanford was declared the winner.  We’re done talking about this. :-(

Metrics Mania – Research Analytics – Thomson Reuters

Jane Austen and Game Theory


Attendees played Regency Era card games involving game theory before the talk

By Olivia Zhu

“It is a great deal better to choose than to be chosen.” –Jane Austen, in Emma.

Jane Austen — novelist, romantic, and social critic — can now add another title to her repertoire: game theorist.

This role has been bestowed upon her by Michael Chwe, a game theorist in the Department of Political Science at UCLA and author of the book Jane Austen, Game Theorist. Chwe claims that Austen acts as a social scientist by setting up a theoretical framework for game theory in her novels. In his talk to a lively crowd well-versed in Austen’s works on March 25th, Chwe explained Austen’s uncanny emphasis on choice, preference, and strategic thinking.


Chwe’s illustration of Jane’s choices and commensurability analysis in Pride and Prejudice

According to Chwe, Austen does not attribute actions to random variables, but rather to careful consideration of all alternatives. For example, Fanny Price in Mansfield Park chooses to refuse Henry Crawford’s offer of marriage after weighing her options; she does so entirely out of personal preference. Similarly, a major tenet in game theory is that the individual chooses what she wants to do without much consideration past her own wishes. Chwe said that Austen places a criticism on game theory here, when Fanny’s uncle, Sir Thomas, chastises Fanny being selfish instead of marrying Henry for the family’s financial security.

Chwe also introduced the game theory concept commensurability, in which negative factors are literally subtracted from positive factors in a decision to produce a single number of utility. He stated that Austen’s language, including phrases such as “finely checkered” happiness, “two

Chwe's playful histogram of Elizabeth Bennet's quantification of emotion.

Chwe’s playful histogram of Elizabeth Bennet’s quantification of emotion.

pleasures, however unlike in kind,” and “on the whole, no cause to repine,” clearly illustrate Austen’s intent to quantify emotions for commensurability.

Finally, Chwe pointed out the bounty of strategic thinking, another element of game theory, present in Austen’s novels. Austen does not portray calculation as unnatural or cold, he says. She mentions the word “scheme” 126 times, “contrive” 54 times, “foresight” 49 times, and “calculate” 41 times. Her strong, female characters often pride themselves on their ability to anticipate others’ actions.

Chwe concluded that though there is no direct evidence that Austen infused game theory into her novels, she clearly explores the concept of choice in her work.

Managing a Lab: The Parts You Won’t Learn in Class


Panelists (L-R) Sally Kornbluth, Jessica Monserrate, Mohamed Noor and Susan Smith (Photo: David Steinbrenner)

By Erin Weeks

For many researchers in training, making it as a scientist involves the dream of one day running their own lab. But becoming the head of a laboratory takes far more than research chops — you’ve got to have serious people skills, too.

A March 13 panel called “Managing a Lab: Insights from Academia and Industry” advised an auditorium of Duke postdocs and PhD students on how to meet the management challenges they may face one day as principal investigators (PI). “Effective lab management can be as crucial to career success as the research itself,” the description for the session read.

Sally Kornbluth, Vice Dean for Basic Sciences at Duke Medicine and Duke’s provost-elect, drew from her own experience as a PI as she walked the audience through the nitty-gritty of building a lab from the ground up.

“The lab takes on the style of the PI,” she said. The job of the lab head is to set its scientific direction, obtain grant money and hire the right people.

PIs have to make decisions about what kind of leader they want to be — how accessible do they want to be? How will they motivate their lab members? How will they deal with difficult personnel situations? Some of these questions will be determined by the lead scientist’s personality, Kornbluth said, but others may require trial and error to figure out.

The panel, put on by the Office of Postdoctoral Services, included three other lab managers representing both academia and industry: Mohamed Noor, professor and chair of the biology department; Jessica Monserrate, a scientist at Bayer CropScience and former Duke postdoc; and Susan Smith, a scientific investigator at Stiefel and also former Duke and Duke Med postdoc.

The speakers fielded questions reflecting anxieties about the work climate many students and postdocs will soon enter, in which grant budgets are shrinking and PI positions are highly competitive. But the audience also asked evergreen questions about careers in science, like how to keep up lab morale and balance research with family life.

“Choose your spouse very wisely,” Kornbluth said, drawing laughs.

Sally Kornbluth, Duke's soon-to-be Provost, talks about managing a lab. The talk will be available online soon.

Sally Kornbluth, Duke’s soon-to-be provost, talks about managing a lab (Photo: David Steinbrenner). The talk will be available online soon.

Aphasia: Acceptance, Hope, Purpose

By Sonal Gagrani

Imagine having a head full of things to say, but not being able to articulate them. This is the life of Carl McIntyre.


courtesy of

There is a three-hour window of opportunity after the initiation of a stroke in which it can be effectively treated. However, when a stroke hit Carl McIntyre, those three hours passed before he could be safely withdrawn from danger. His ability to speak and understand became heavily impaired, a condition known as aphasia. In order to raise awareness of this condition that affects not only him, but almost 40% of the people who suffer a stroke, he starred as himself in a film called Aphasia. Carl McIntyre came himself to speak at Duke for Brain Awareness Week following a screening of his film.

BAW logoAphasia is a group of communication disorders that affect the language centers of the brain causing impairments in speech, speech comprehension, reading and writing. It tends to arise with damage of some part of the brain, often due to a stroke, brain tumors, or neurodegenerative diseases.

McIntyre expressed powerfully that, “what happens to one, happens to two.” The aphasia affects not only him but his entire family. Life felt as if it was over, loving was difficult; he felt “trapped inside of his head.” Having a reservoir full of thoughts that he was unable to empty due to this inability to communicate could be eternally frustrating. Aphasia patients often are cognitively intact, but have trouble expressing what they want to say. McIntyre occasionally used a whiteboard to write down words he was struggling to say or stumbled on the first sounds of words.

Carl McIntyreBut rather than letting the aphasia control the way that he lived, McIntyre worked hard to restore his language capabilities and spread awareness of the challenges that inflicted individuals must face. Most importantly, McIntyre expressed the importance of keeping hope.

He explained that the first step to having a positive outlook on his condition was to accept the “old Carl was dead.” The next was to keep hope that his life could continue as normal as possible – that the condition would not impair his lifestyle. Last, he expressed the importance of having a sense a purpose by picking up hobbies and not losing all meaning in life. Carl strives to have a strong sense of self despite the adversities he and his family has had to face and inspires others to understand and do just this.


Sign Up For Datafest 2014 to Work on Mystery Big Data


Heads up Duke undergrads and graduate students — here’s an opportunity to hang out in the beautifully renovated Gross Hall, get creative with your friends using big data and compete for cash prizes and statistics fame.

Datafest, a data analysis competition that started at UCLA, is in its third year in the Triangle. Every year, a mystery client provides a dataset that teams can analyze, tinker with and visualize however they’d like over the course of a weekend. Think hackathon, but for data junkies.

“The datasets are bigger and more complex than what you’ll see in a classroom, but they’re of general interest,” said organizer Mine Çetinkaya-Rundel, an assistant professor of the practice in the Duke statistics department. “We want to encourage students from all levels.”

Last year’s mystery client was online dating website eHarmony (you can read about it here), and teams investigated everything from heightism to Myers-Briggs personality matches in online dating. In 2012, the dataset came from Kiva, the  microlending site.

This year’s dataset provider will be revealed on the first day of Datafest. Sign up ends this Friday, March 7, Monday, March 10, so assemble your team and register here!


My Brain and Your Brain Speak Different Languages

By Clara Colombatto

The fact that “different people speak language differently” is one of the major challenges in uncovering the neural basis of language. Brain structure and function differ highly among individuals, and this is the core of the new discipline of cognitive neurolinguistics. Duke professor Edna Andrews explained the fascinating complexity of language research at the Regulator Bookshop on Tuesday, March 4.

Edna Andrews gives an overview of the new field of cognitive neurolinguistics at the Regulator Bookshop for Brain Awareness Week Credit: Clara Colombatto

Edna Andrews gives an overview of the new field of cognitive neurolinguistics at the Regulator Bookshop for Brain Awareness Week (Photo: Clara Colombatto)

A linguist by training, Edna Andrews is the Nancy & Jeffrey Marcus Distinguished Professor of Slavic & Eurasian Studies, Chair of the Linguistics Program and holds appointments in Cultural Anthropology and the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences. Over time, Andrews’s research interests led her to neuroscience — so she went back to the classroom, studied as a beginning student with neurobiologist Gillian Einstein and shadowed a team of neurosurgeons at Duke Hospital.

This range of disciplines is fundamental for Andrews’ pioneering work in the field of cognitive neurolinguistics. Observations of brain-damaged patients led to a 19th century model that held that language centers are mainly in the left hemisphere of the brain. In particular, language was thought to be dependent on grey matter, the part of the brain that contains mostly cell bodies and is responsible for information processing, as opposed to white matter, which contains mainly long-range connection tracts (axons) and is responsible for information communication. Researchers realized this understanding was an oversimplification when surgeons started to notice that cutting white matter tracts alone significantly impaired linguistic abilities. New methods, such as electrical stimulation of the brain during surgeries in awake patients, led to the realization that the whole brain is involved in language.

White matter fiber tracts of a human brain visualized with a Tensor Imaging technique. The U-shaped fibers connect the two hemispheres. The finding that these tracts are essential for language revolutionized the field of neurolinguistics because language was previously thought to be localized to gray matter in the left hemisphere. Credit: Thomas Schultz via Wikimedia Commons

White matter fiber tracts visualized with a tensor imaging technique. Findings that the fibers  connecting the two hemispheres are essential for language revolutionized the field of neurolinguistics.
(Photo: Thomas Schultz via Wikimedia Commons)

When theoretical linguists such as Andrews joined the conversation, they merged empirical data with theory to answer questions such as, is language learned or innate? Are there specific structures and localized circuits in the brain responsible for language? And are there critical periods where our brain is particularly sensitive to changes?

The picture is complicated by the fact that “most of the world population is bi or multilingual,” and “one could argue that in fact there are no monolinguals.” In our daily lives, we use different languages at school, at work and at home (Learn more about this hypothesis here). Andrews’ current work addresses these complexities by looking at changes in neural activity as individual speakers acquire Russian as a second or third language. Her latest book “Neuroscience and Multilingualism,” coming out at the end of the year from Cambridge University Press, is an exploration of the neuroscientific modeling of multilingualism.

The lecture was part of Brain Awareness Week, a global campaign to encourage public interest in the progress and benefits of brain research. Not to miss: Michele Diaz on “Language and the Aging Brain” on Thursday, 3/5 at 7:30pm, and Richard Mooney on “Music and the Brain” on Friday, 3/6 at 6 pm at Motorco Music Hall.