Brain Camp Makes ‘Aha Moments’

Final presentations for the Neuroscience and Neuroethics Camp were held in the new headquarters of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences.

Final presentations for the Neuroscience and Neuroethics Camp were held in the new headquarters of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences. (photo by  Jon Lepofsky)

Given just two weeks to formulate a hypothesis about brains, Duke’s Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroethics Camp students spoke with impressive confidence as they presented at the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences (DIBS) on July 16.

The high school students had designed experiments using the concepts and methods of cognitive neuroscience to demonstrate what is unique about human brains.

“It was good to see the curiosity, energy, and critical thinking that was present throughout the students’ projects,” said Jon Lepofsky, Academic Director for the Cognitive Neuroscience & Neuroethics camp, the Duke Youth Programs summer program of hands-on, applied problem-solving activities and labs was developed in partnership with DIBS.

Campers dissected sheep brains

The campers dissected real sheep brains

Lepofsky said he was pleased to start the first year of the camp with an engaged, diverse, and thoughtful group of 22 students.

Andie Meddaugh, Xi Yu Liu, Emily Lu and Anand Wong were working on a project involving the logic and the emotion of the human brain. Their hypothesis was that the ability to combine logic and emotion to create a subjective logic shows the difference between human brains and other intelligence processing systems, like artificial intelligence.

Meddaugh said she liked thinking about the brain and logic.

“I enjoy thinking about the problem of what makes us special,” said Meddaugh.

Another group of students presented a project involving the social construct and morality of the brain.

Nicolas Douglass, Abigail Efird, Grace Garret and Danielle Dy are using a hypothesis that suggests if organisms are presented with an issue of resource availability how they respond is a matter of survival.  They proposed using birds, humans, and monkeys to test the reactions of each organism as it is placed outside of its comfort zone.

Abigail Efird said teamwork and “aha moments” were the best way to conduct this project.

“It took human ingenuity and scientific development in order for us to come up with different strategies,” said Efird. “It was surprising to see that humans are not as special and are very much similar to other organisms. “

The group's final "class picture" before heading home to High School.

The group’s final “class picture” before heading home to High School.

Lepofsky said at the end of the program, students will leave with a new set of critical thinking tools and a better understanding of decision- making.

“I know the students will walk away with a deeper understanding of how to evaluate news stories celebrating neuroscience,” Lepofsky said. “They will know how to think like scientists and how to ask quality questions.”

Along with developing a hypothesis on the human brain, the students participated in interactive workshops on perception and other forms of non-conscious processing with Duke researchers. They’ve engaged in debates about topics in neuroethics and neurolaw. In addition to that they went on lab tours and visits to the DiVE.

For more information on Duke’s Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroethics Camp visit http://www.learnmore.duke.edu/youth/neurosciences/ or call (919) 684-6259.

Warren_Shakira_hed100 Guest post by Shakira Warren, NCCU Summer Intern

Undergrads Share Results, and Lack Thereof

ashby and grundwald

Arts & Sciences Dean Valerie Ashby and Associate Dean for Undergraduate Research Ron Grunwald got the big picture of the poster session from an LSRC landing.

Dozens of Duke undergrads spent the summer working in labs, in part to learn why science is called “research” not “finding.”

“About a third of these students ended up without any data,” said Ron Grunwald, associate dean for undergraduate research, during a Friday poster session in the atrium of the LSRC building for three of the summer research programs.

Biology junior Eric Song gets it now. He spent the summer trying to culture one specific kind of bacteria taken from the abdomens of an ant called Camponotus chromaiodes, which he collected in the Duke Forest. All he got was

Eric Song

Eric Song’s poster featured a photo of the ant and the mysterious white stuff.

“this white stuff showing up and we don’t even know what that is.” His faculty mentor in the Genomics Summer Fellows Program, Jennifer Wernegreen, was hoping to do some genetic sequences on the bacteria, but the 10-week project never made it that far. “We’re only interested in the genome basically,” Song said good-naturedly.

Christine Zhou did get what she set out for, mastering the art of arranging E.coli bacteria in orderly rows of tight little dots, using a specially adapted ink jet printer. Working with graduate student Hannah Meredith and faculty mentor Linchong You, she was able to lay the bugs down at a rate of 500 dots per minute, which might lead to some massive studies. “In the future, we’re hoping to use the different colored cartridges to print multiple kinds of bacteria at the same time,” she said.

Sean Sweat

Sean Sweat (left) discusses her mouse study.

Neuroscience senior Sean Sweat also got good results, finding in her research with faculty mentor Staci Bilbo, that opiate addiction can be lessened in mice by handling them more, and identifying some of the patterns of gene expression that may lie behind that effect.

Neuroscience senior Obia Muoneke wanted to know if adolescents are more likely than children or adults to engage in risky behaviors. Muoneke, who worked with mentor Scott Huettel, said her results showed the influence of peers. “Adolescents are driven to seek rewards while with a peer,” said Muoneke. “Adults are more motivated to avoid losing rewards when they are by themselves.”

The new dean of Trinity College, chemist Valerie Ashby, worked the room asking questions before addressing everyone from a landing overlooking the atrium. “How many of you wake up thinking ‘I want nothing to happen today that I am uncertain about?’” she asked. Well, Ashby continued, scientists need to become comfortable with the unexpected and the unexplainable – such as not having any data after weeks of work.

“We need you to be scientists,” Ashby said, and a liberal arts education is a good start. “If all you took was science classes, you would not be well-educated,” she said.

_ post by Shakira Warren and Karl Leif Bates

Warren_Shakira_hed100

Karl Leif Bates

Middle Schoolers Get a BOOST in Chemistry

Seventy middle school students oohed and aahed as soap bubbles full of propane burst into flame.

“First row, don’t get burned!” shouted Douglass Coleman, director of the BOOST program, a summer science camp program for students in grades 5 through 12.

Duke Chemistry Outreach

Duke Chemistry Outreach student Danielle Holdner makes fire do tricks.

Duke chemistry instructor Ken Lyle and student Danielle Holdner brought their travelling chemistry demos to the MDB Trent Semans Center Monday for the BOOST kids.

They created chemical smoothies and rainbows that taught the students about acids and bases. They sparked up fireworks to teach the students about gases such as butane and propane.

BOOST (Building Opportunities and Overtures in Science and Technology) is designed to teach kids from all cultures and racial backgrounds about science and inspire them to pursue careers in science, technology engineering, medicine and related fields.

“My favorite experiment was the bubbles filled with propane,” said Karen Gonzazlez a student in the program. “I enjoyed seeing them blow up with fire.”

BOOST director Coleman, who is known for his playful antics at the presentations, said the program opens doors for students and provides them with opportunities.

“These kids would not be able to meet with professors or work in labs if it was not for this program,” said Coleman. “It is important that they are around students just like them who are striving and building for success.”

BOOST is divided into three groups depending on grade level and interest of science. Rising 5th and 6th graders are in Boost, rising 7th graders who are interested in food science/chemistry or technology are in Boost XL. Rising 8th graders interested in biological science or engineering are in Boost XXL.

Teachers and junior coaches at the program said it keeps students eager to learn science.

“This program keeps students engaged and motivated in hands- on activities, “said Stefanie Joyner, a teacher for Boost XXL.

Sierra Foster, junior coach for Boost XXL, said BOOST can open students’ eyes to new science.

“This program can build their knowledge and help them understand more than what they might already know,“ said Foster.

BOOST is funded through a grant from the Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) from the National Institute of Health (NH).

For more information on BOOST, visit http://sites.duke.edu/boost/ or call (919) 681-1045.

Warren_Shakira_hed100Guest Post by Shakira Warren, NC Central University summer intern

Duke’s MOOCs Used to Supplement Education

Startup Stock PhotosA new Duke study of Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, has found that they are democratizing learning by supplementing traditional forms of higher education.

A study of 13 free, open-access digital courses offered by Duke using the Coursera platform illustrates that MOOCs are popular among youngsters, retirees and other non-traditional student populations.

The study is in the current issue of Educational Media International.

Duke researchers analyzed data from pre-course surveys administered to everyone who registered for a Duke MOOC in the Fall 2014 semester. They looked specifically at three groups: people under 18, adults over 65, and people who reported that they did not have access to higher education opportunities. Based on comments from over 9,000 learners who fell into these groups, the researchers found qualitative evidence that MOOCs met their needs for content they would not otherwise have access to.

student_laptop_link“The idea was trying to get a better handle on individuals who were underserved, because so much of the popular press has focused on highly-educated, white (for the most part), upper middle class folks taking Coursera courses,” said Lorrie Schmid, the lead researcher on the study. “We wanted to get a sense of these other groups and how they might be approaching, in similar or different ways, these types of classes. “

The study, based on surveys of MOOC enrollees, found that many people under 18 took MOOCs to learn about topics not taught at their school and to explore different disciplines, often to help them choose their future academic or career path. Adults over 65 often took MOOCs to pursue lifelong learning and keep their minds active, regardless of age, and because they wanted to mentor younger students in their professional field.  In addition, the online courses were the only option for some older adults with limited mobility and finances, the study found.

A few examples: A 10-year-old with autism who is home-schooled reported taking a MOOC to learn more about chemistry. A grandmother took a MOOC course in order to help her granddaughter prepare for nursing school. And a graduate student took a Duke statistics MOOC to hone research and analysis skills.

Schmid said that across all three groups, “the theme that was most pronounced was that Coursera classes were supplementing or enhancing their education that they were getting from other either K-12 or higher education formal courses.”

LockemerGuest Post by Courtney Lockemer, Center for Instructional Technology

Researcher Goes to the Dogs, Lands on TV

Fresh off a visiting teaching gig at Duke-Kunshan University and a sabbatical in Australia, canine and primate cognition researcher Brian Hare is about to land in your living room.

Hare, an associate professor of Evolutionary Anthropology and founder of Duke’s canine cognition lab and the Triangle startup Dognition.com, is now a television host too.

He’ll be hosting a three-part series on Nat Geo WILD at 10 p.m. ET this Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights called “Is Your Dog a Genius?”

Hare will introduce viewers to some of the latest knowledge about what our dogs think and understand, as well as sharing some at-home games you can use to reveal your dog’s personality. He’ll also visit with some ordinary and extraordinary dogs to see their problem-solving in action.

Friday’s episode is titled ” Doggy See Doggy Do.” Saturday is “Who’s Your Doggy.” And Sunday is “Talk Doggy to Me.”

Imagining Alternate Realities: Is Brian Williams in the Clear?

By Duncan Dodson

When I go home and reminisce with family about road trips we took or embarrassing moments they facilitated, eventually we’ll disagree on “what actually happened.” We’re all so certain—our memories unfold vividly yet contrarily. It’s clear the past can be subjective, but why is this so?

As part of Duke University’s Brain Awareness Week, I went to a talk at Fullsteam Brewery on imagining alternate realities by Dr. Felipe De Brigard, Assistant Professor of Philosophy and member of Center for Cognitive Neuroscience. De Brigard began by discussing studies of patients with hippocampal atrophy (as in amnesia, PTSD, and severe depression) struggling to place themselves in both the future and the past. Their impoverished answers contrast with those of healthy controls, suggesting a link between areas of the brain accessed for recalling the past and picturing the future.

Dr. Felipe De Brigard presents his recent studies on the relationship between the neural default network and autobiographical thoughts at Fullsteam Brewery 3/19.

Dr. Felipe De Brigard presents his recent studies on the relationship between the neural default network and autobiographical thoughts at Fullsteam Brewery 3/19.

De Brigard buttressed this by displaying fMRI neural images of parts of the brain used when imagining future events and evoking memories. These parts encompass the default network: a system of functions and firings executed when the brain is not engaged in a specific task. Evidence shows the default network allows engagement in “mental time travel” or the projection of oneself into the future or onto the singular, objective past. This assumption leads to temporal asymmetry: only one past exists with which the imagination can corroborate yet it can visualize limitless possibilities.

De Brigard challenged this view: what if the default network works in both directions? He argues that the parts of the brain used for imagining possible futures also allow us to conceive potential outcomes in our past that did not occur, the process of counterfactual thinking. He has found that when contemplating an alternative reality considered likely to have occurred, the brain behaves as if it were remembering. Memory is not haphazard reproduction but probabilistic reconstruction — our memory is constantly rebuilding the past with both fact and what are likely facts, and frequently the distinction is blurred.

A fascinated and packed Fullsteam, many audience members were at their second or third event for Brain Awareness week at Duke.

A fascinated and packed Fullsteam; many audience members were at their second or third event for Brain Awareness week at Duke.

“Perhaps we should cut Brian Williams a little slack?” De Brigard chuckled. Ample evidence shows that engagement in especially rich and detailed counterfactual thinking can increase the probability of constructing — and believing the authenticity of — false memories.

More intriguing than pardoning Williams are potential contributions to treatment of anxiety, depression, and PTSD. A common debilitating trigger among these disorders is repetitive counterfactual thinking, “I shouldn’t have said that, I shouldn’t have said that.” Perhaps with further study on the default network and its relationship to autobiographical contemplations, neuroscientists might develop tools to alter the pathways or functionality of the default network.

As for my family, they have some major counterfactual thinking patterns to alter; my memory is immaculate.