Schmitt Blends Locomotion and Arthritis

Guest post by Joseph Kirollos, NC School of Science and Math

Walking up to the Trent Semans Center at Duke University to interview Dr. Daniel O. Schmitt, professor of Evolutionary Anthropology and teacher of anatomy at Duke University, I couldn’t help but wonder why he would pursue seemingly unrelated interests. On one hand, he studies the locomotion and evolution of primates while at the same time, he but he also has a strong clinical interest in both human functional anatomy and osteoarthritis.

Dan Schmitt with his wife, Christine Wall, who is also an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke. (Duke Chronicle photo)

Dan Schmitt with his wife, Christine Wall, who is also an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke. (Duke Chronicle photo)

How did these interests come about? Which came first? These were the questions that ran through my head as I read through his papers and prepared for the interview. Though as Dr. Schmitt sat down and began to tell his story, it didn’t take long for all of my doubts and confusions to quickly fade away. Everything began to blend, and it all made sense.

As it turns out, Dr. Schmitt was actually a latecomer to clinical research and it was through natural variance and human evolution that science first captivated his interest. Although he was somewhat of a “terrible college student,” he quickly developed a genuine curiosity in the vast physical differences between species. It was later during his graduate studies at SUNY Stony Brook, where he worked with live animals, that he became a post-doc drill associate in anatomy and began to wonder how factors such as leg design, pelvis width, or even high metabolism affected how humans and animals move. By asking these questions, he expanded his interests to the next level and created a stepping stone that would lead him into both his evolutionary and clinical research.

At the locomotion lab at Duke University, where he continues to research today, he was able to delve headfirst into Evolutionary Anthropology as he studied the selecting factors that govern limb design, gait mechanisms, and energy efficiency of locomotion in primates and humans. One of his main interests even today is the origin of human’s unique design and bipedal locomotion.

Daniel Schmitt

Schmitt, who teaches anatomy to medical students, went to the Duke-NUS graduate medical school in Singapore in 2012 to talk about medical education with colleagues. (Duke-NUS)

In fact, the first of his papers that caught my attention dealt with this very topic. It was a paper refuting the commonly accepted theory that humans evolved from terrestrial knuckle-walking primates such as gorillas and chimpanzees rather than tree-climbing ancestors (see the paper here). As I discussed the paper with Dr. Schmitt, he revealed that he normally preferred to avoid controversy, yet, in this case, he felt that he couldn’t “buy into” the fact that humans would evolve from terrestrial knuckle-walking ancestors. He said, “I couldn’t think of one good reason for them to stand up.” Interestingly, the paper analyzes features from the human wrist that previously supported knuckle-walking ancestors and turns it around and says that in fact these features actually may support that we had tree-climbing ancestors. However, in person, Dr. Schmitt referred to this argument as being rather “nihilistic” as it challenges an idea but doesn’t really propose an alternative.

Of course, it was only a matter of time before these interests in both human anatomy and the evolution of biomechanics in primates naturally brought him to wonder how human joints have so uniquely and efficiently adapted. Working with Dr. Ershela Sims, he has studied osteoarthritis in humans, a debilitating and widespread disease of the joints, and today he still explores the factors that cause it.

I found this quite interesting as my family has a long history with severe osteoarthritis. Interestingly Dr. Schmitt said that it was not intervention and treatment that he cared about, but rather he was interested in the basic science, the deeper causes that lead to osteoarthritis. Is there more than just obesity and wear and tear that leads to osteoarthritis and how does it affect human movement? These were the questions that he would ask. Naturally this blended quite well with his gait studies with primates as osteoarthritis affects the gait mechanisms and energy efficiency of humans. So by the time our discussion had finished, I felt a little dumb that I previously felt as though Dr. Schmitt had an unusual range of interests. I realize now that they blend in perfect harmony, each inspiring the other, leading to amazing discoveries.

Joseph Kirollos interviewed Dan Schmitt and wrote this post as part of a Science Communication seminar led by NCSSM Dean of Science Amy Sheck.

Battling Doubt and Danger in the Amazon

Patricia Wright's interest in owl monkeys was the launchpad for her renowned career in primatology.

Patricia Wright’s interest in owl monkeys was the launchpad for her renowned career in primatology (Photo: Steven Walling)

By Erin Weeks

One night, during her routine survey of nocturnal monkeys in the Peruvian rainforest, Patricia Wright came nose to nose with a large, male jaguar. She edged slowly off the trail, but she knew the big cat was the one who would decide if she would live to see daylight. He could either jump toward or away from her, Wright says. This time, he jumped away.

Wright’s encounter with the elusive jaguar is just one of many adventures recounted in High Moon Over the Amazon, a memoir covering her early life and research on South American monkeys.

Though best known these days for her pioneering work on Madagascar’s lemurs, Wright’s path to science wasn’t always so clear. In the late 1960s, when her contemporaries were getting PhDs, Wright worked in social services before quitting to raise her daughter. The chance purchase of an owl monkey–and Wright’s insatiable curiosity about the mysterious species’ habits–set her off on a remarkable journey from hippie housewife to groundbreaking researcher.

Wright told that story last night at an event sponsored by the Duke Lemur Center, which was the first place she worked after eventually obtaining her own PhD in her 40s. She read passages about the time army ants ate through her camp’s storehouse and about the difficulties of balancing single motherhood and doctoral work. Wright’s tenacity in the face of doubt and danger kept surfacing in her talk and is something she’s said she hopes to inspire in young women interested in scientific careers.

“Not giving up is the key, and I think young women of today should know that it might not be easy, but they should not get discouraged, because in the long run the struggle is worth it,” she said in an interview with NPR.

Patricia Wright

Dr. Patricia Wright (Photo: Noel Rowe)


Teaching Young Scientists the Elements of Design

by Erin Weeks

Ten visiting undergraduate researchers spent the summer sharpening their science communication skills at Duke. They came from around the country to chemistry and engineering labs to participate in a National Science Foundation program called Chemistry and Applications of Smart Molecules and Materials and to learn the principles of ‘molecule-to-material’ research.

While the students spent most of their days in the lab, they were also tasked with creating a visual representation to explain some aspect of their summer research—once at the beginning of the summer, and once again at the end, after feedback and instruction on the basics of good visual design. The process was designed to help the students understand their research, their roles as scientists, and the importance of science communication.

“You want to catch peoples’ eye, but you want to be fairly simple and easy to interpret,” said chemistry professor and department chair Stephen Craig. Craig and project co-leader, associate chemistry professor Kathy Franz, discussed their project at a visualization seminar series last week (Nov 1).

As for the visual don’ts, Craig advised the students to skip abstract art and avoid anything flashy or over the top. In addition to the images, the students practiced explaining their research in strictly timed three-minute talks.

“We wanted them to give that elevator pitch, that three-minute pitch,” said Franz, so that the students would be able to “communicate to their peers what their project for the summer was going to be.”

Duke professor Jane Richardson first visualized protein as ribbon-like (Courtesy Wikimedia)

Duke professor Jane Richardson first visualized protein as ribbon-like (Courtesy Wikimedia)

When Franz was a student, she was never trained how to make her research graphics clear and intelligible. But as a chemist, she knew the significance of effective visuals. Take, for example, the structure of proteins, which were first visualized as ribbon-like in 1980 by Duke biochemist Jane Richardson. These days, Franz said, she and generations of biology students only picture protein as a ribbon.

“The way people represent scientific results changes the way we imagine it,” Franz said.

Duke’s First Annual Brain Games

by Sonal Gagrani

Question: How many miles of myelin-covered nerve fibers exist in the brain of the average 20 year old?

In an effort to bring together students and faculty to celebrate and spread the awareness of neuroscience, the Neuroscience Majors Union, Synapse, and the neuroscience education team put together its first annual Brain Games. Students who had signed up beforehand to compete formed four teams with one faculty mentor per team to collaborate on various neuroscience related games.

Faculty mentors included Dr. Jenni Groh, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, Dr. Nina Sherwood, Assistant Research Professor in Biology, Dr. Leonard White, Associate Professor in the Duke Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development, and Dr. Tobias Egner, Assistant Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience.

The games consisted of 6 different sections of play. The first was the Left Brain game in which a neuroscience related word or phrase was shown to one member of a team and he or she had to use describe that word with other words so that the team could guess it.

In the second game, called Timing is Everything, teams had to chronologically arrange a given series of events such as discoveries about neurotransmitters and drugs or the order of founding of certain neuroscience/psychology programs at Duke.


photo by Sonal Gagrani

The third game was called the Match game in which students, without their faculty mentors, had to match facts to the correct faculty to whom they belonged. Facts ranged from baby pictures of faculty to which pets they had to which instruments they played. Dr. Groh plays the banjo, Dr. Marty Woldorff juggles flaming torches and Dr. Craig Roberts has written a paper on the management of lower extremity lawn mower injuries in children. So many things you never knew about professors at Duke!

After this came the Right Brain game, similar to the Left Brain game but instead of using words, teams drew pictures of the given neuroscience phrases. The fifth game was the Numerical Cognition Game, which was essentially Price is Right: Neuroscience Version. Given a prompt, the teams had to guess the value of what was shown without going over the true value, like the myelin question. Answer: 100,000 miles!

The end of the Brain Games was a bonus round that allowed teams to bet any amount of points that they wanted. They viewed two images quickly switching back and forth that had a very slight difference between them and had to identify what that change was. This presents a phenomenon known as change blindness where it is very difficult to detect quick or subtle changes between two photos or environments. Surprisingly, all the teams were able to identify the change and all finished with comparable scores.

Shaina Gong, a sophomore neuroscience major and visual arts minor from the winning team said about the experience, “I signed up for this without knowing what I was really going to do. I was really nervous actually, like, what if I didn’t know enough neuro for this? But it was fine and really fun! Anyone interested in neuroscience should definitely try it out!”

Social Networks for Sharing Science and Health

Guest post by David Jarmul

Facebook, Twitter and other new social networks are making it easier than ever for people to share useful information about medicine and science, whether it’s about choosing a good physician or reducing one’s carbon footprint.

Adjunct professor Brian Southwell cautions in a new book, however, that the emergence of these forums doesn’t mean people will benefit from them equally. There are some significant disparities in how people use the forums – and not all can access them.

Cover of Southwell book“This book reflects a sense of urgency that I developed over several years as it became apparent that our networked future won’t guarantee the equity that some suggest it will,” writes Southwell, a senior research scientist at RTI International in the Research Triangle Park and an adjunct professor with Duke University’s Energy Initiative. “Despite enthusiasm about 21st century possibilities for social contagion as a mechanism for public education, we have distinct reasons to expect not only inequality but also inequity.”

Southwell says disparities in information access present a host of ethical and policy challenges. “People involved in educating large masses of people about the latest research on topics like healthy behavior or the natural environment do not typically have access to bullhorns that can reach everyone at once,” he writes. “By acknowledging and addressing the reality of existing disparities between people and between communities in information sharing, we can work toward a future in which more people can participate in (and benefit from) ongoing dialogues, which in turn may help to craft healthier communities and even a healthier planet.”

At Duke, Southwell is exploring ways to engage low-income populations in a project he is pursuing with Dan Vermeer of the Fuqua School of Business and Laura Richman of the psychology department. Working with partners at Clean Energy Durham and the Bass Connections initiative, they will assess how innovative communication strategies might enhance household energy conservation efforts.

Social Networks and Popular Understanding of Science and Health: Sharing Disparities is published by RTI Press and Johns Hopkins University Press.

New App May Help Protect Wild Dolphins

By Ashley Yeager

A screenshot from a new app, the Nai'a Guide, which provide info about eco-friendly dolphin-watching tours in Hawai'i. Credit: Demi Fox, Lenfest.

A screenshot from a new app, the Nai’a Guide, which provide info about eco-friendly dolphin-watching tours in Hawai’i. Credit: Demi Fox, Lenfest.

Traveling to Hawai’i sometime soon?

If so, you’re probably excited to experience spinner dolphins in the wild. If not, you can still dream about it. And now, there’s an app for that.

Scientists at Duke’s Marine Lab in Beaufort, N.C. have released the Nai’a Guide — a new iPad app that teaches users about wild Hawai’i spinner dolphins and how to see the animals without harming them. Tourists can use the app to plan an eco-friendly tour to experience the dolphins.

“If we can harness the power presented by mobile technology for conservation and responsible tourism, we have the chance to reach a wide audience and really make a difference for these animals,” says Demi Fox, a postgraduate researcher at the Lenfest Ocean Program who developed the app, along with Duke marine biologist Dave Johnston.

Nai’a is the Hawaiian word for dolphin. The Nai’a Guide explores the biology and ecology of spinner dolphins with photos, videos and sound clips. It also describes sustainable dolphin-based tourism practices outlined NOAA’s Dolphin SMART program.

With the Nai'a Guide, users can learn about spinner dolphins and their habits. Credit: Demi Fox, Lenfest.

With the Nai’a Guide, users can learn about spinner dolphins and their habits. Credit: Demi Fox, Lenfest.

Designed by Fox and developed by an online company called Kleverbeast, the Nai’a Guide also connects tourists with sustainable tour operators so everyone can make more responsible decisions when going to see spinners.

“The principles advocated within the Naia Guide could also be useful for dolphin-based tourism in other places, and with other species. Many of these best practices are generalizable,” Johnston says.

He and other scientists are concerned about human interaction with wild dolphins and other species worldwide. In Hawai’i, the main concern is that spinner dolphins rest during the day in the same shallow bays that people use for snorkeling, kayaking and swimming. Many tourists misinterpret the dolphins’ close proximity and curiosity for playfulness and try to swim with and even ride the animals while they are sleeping.

Intense and consistent human interactions could affect the dolphins’ health over time, Johnston says. The negative effects may also threaten the animals, a resource the state uses to draw tourists to the islands. As a result, he and colleagues at Murdoch University’s Cetacean Research Unit have been tracking spinner populations and monitoring their interaction with people in the Hawai’i island bays.

Researchers study dolphins in boats and high on the cliffs of Hawai'i Island, which is covered in the new app. Credit: Demi Fox, Lenfest.

Researchers study dolphins in boats and high on the cliffs of Hawai’i Island, which is covered in the new app. Credit: Demi Fox, Lenfest.

Scientists “can do all the science in the world, but until we share our findings broadly and in an accessible way, we will not effect serious change,” Fox says. She included the team’s research in the app so users can better understand researchers’ concerns about human-dolphin interactions and can make more informed decisions when choosing a dolphin tour.

“My hope is that the app will serve as an ecological conscience,” she says.

The app, available in Apple’s iTunes Store, can also be found on Twitter @NaiaGuide and on its website,