Why Meteorites Are So Hard to Find in North Carolina

by Erin Weeks

Note: This is the first in a multi-part series following Nick Gessler’s course on meteorites and the history of the solar system. Astronomy enthusiasts should check out the North Carolina Museum of History’s Astronomy Days happening this weekend, Saturday, January 25.

Visitors to Nick Gessler's lab can touch the moon -- literally -- and a whole lot of meteorites (Photo: Eric Ferreri)

Visitors to Nick Gessler’s lab can touch the moon — literally — and a whole lot of meteorites (Photo: Eric Ferreri)

A meteorite hasn’t been discovered in North Carolina in over 80 years, but Professor Nick Gessler dreams that his students will be the first to break that streak.

On the first day of his class at Duke, Gessler hauled in three tables worth of meteorites, chunks of rock and metal that hurdled through outer space for millions, even billions of years before surviving the descent into Earth’s atmosphere. Among his collection are pieces broken off from the moon, Mars and the dramatic Chelyabinsk meteorite that lit up Russia and YouTube in February 2013.

“That’s what they look like,” Gessler said, gesturing toward one table. “They’re ugly rocks.”

That’s not entirely fair. Past their melted, black crusts, most of the meteorites glint with flecks of iron. Some thin slices, when finely polished and held up to a light source, resemble stained glass. But ugly or no, the rocks have captivated human interest since people first observed them falling from the sky. Now, they’ve attracted Duke students in wide-ranging fields, from English and history to mathematics and engineering, united by a common interest in the extraterrestrial.

Gessler has a couple of theories about why North Carolina has seen a dearth of meteorite discoveries. First, farming practices have changed — farmers found many meteorites while tilling their land and dislodging the stony debris. These days, farmers rely on heavy machinery unfazed by rocks.

Second, Gessler thinks it’s possible that, despite our astronomical advances, light pollution may have clouded our chances of seeing minor meteors falling to earth.

“Maybe people just don’t look up at the sky like they used to,” he said.

Throughout this course, it seems certain his students will be looking up. Each has been assigned a North Carolina meteorite to research — they’ll ferret out old newspaper clippings and find when and where it fell, whether the land is private and what the likelihood of finding remnants now might be. Gessler will instruct them on the art and science of meteorite hunting, and eventually the students may put their skills to work in the field.

And who knows — some of them might even find the meteorites beautiful.

New Blogger: Olivia Zhu

196034_10150927127403780_429300165_n-2Hi!  My name is Olivia Zhu, and I am a sophomore biophysics major hailing from Pleasanton, California. I’m thrilled to start writing for the Duke Research Blog.

When I started my Duke career, I had absolutely no idea what research was. I had a vague conception of it as a drawn-out, painstaking process in which one traded in his life’s freedom for a micropipette. However, midway through my freshman year, a conversation with Professor Henry Greenside prompted me to reconsider. Professor Greenside inverted my perspective on research: he showed me that research did not revolve around tedious procedures, but rather around the pursuit of answers to fascinating questions. Since then, all sorts of research topics, particularly those with some aspect of physics, have captivated me. I found that research fulfills the idealistic conception I have always held of education: research represents the ultimate pursuit of pure knowledge, often without the pressures of immediate practical application.

Currently, I work in the Mooney Lab of neurobiology, which studies the learning processes in songbirds. Via surgical viral infection, I am examining the role that dopamine plays in this circuit.

In other matters, I enjoy forsaking my science-based identity by taking English, art, and history classes. I play soccer, run around campus, read classic novels, and discuss philosophy with friends. At Duke, I am a part of the Round Table and pWILD communities. Sometimes I miss hiking in California or exploring the islands in Beaufort, North Carolina, but I know there’s no place I’d rather be than here in Durham.

I’m looking forward to sharing my exploration of research at Duke!

Passion, Determination Drive Liu’s Research Forward

Guest post by Madeleine Gonzalez, NC School of Science and Math

Long before she was a scientist, Irene Liu was an animal lover, cutting coupons for food for the cats and dogs that she wished she had, admiring birds, and even subscribing to the famous Ranger Rick magazine. Naturally her interest would stem from this passion, leading to her exciting career in evolutionary biology.

Irene Liu

Irene Liu gently handling a captured bird during some fieldwork in a mangrove swamp. (Photo courtesy of Irene Liu)

Today she uses birds to answer questions that are applicable across different systems and organisms.  At the University of Maryland, she began with questions like, “Do birds have dialects?” and today, as a graduate student at Duke University, she investigates the extra-pair mating habits of blackbirds.

“We know that birds are famous for infidelity,” she says. ” Within one breeding season you can see mom and dad and baby birds.  They look like they are one family, but actually mom and dad are off mating with other individuals and will then raise together these chicks in this nest,” she describes.  Irene Liu works to understand the benefits of infidelity in bird populations, exploring how patterns vary on frequency.

Between the fieldwork, the lab work, and the occasional, tedious computational work, Irene Liu has had some extraordinary experiences.

Working around the people with similar drive and interests, she has thrived as a young scientist.

She loves her field work. “Getting out to these isolated places that most people don’t get to see is a real privilege, and seeing nature just happening as if I am not even there.”  She plays a fun game of catching and outsmarting the birds as she collects samples and records her observations, which may not always be particularly easy.  In fact, certain obstacles have been particularly devastating.

One time while returning from the Bahamas, her summer collections were seized and incinerated at the airport after failing to comply with US regulations and not being informed of the necessary permits beforehand. However, she returned in the following year to collect an even better sample, thoroughly learning a lesson the hard way.

A redwing blackbird that fell into Irene's clutches sports his new ankle band.

A redwing blackbird that fell into Irene’s clutches sports his new ankle band.

“I have become the obsessive person that will call the government agencies and check,” she says.  It has made her the permit expert within the department and inspired a seminar.

For other young or aspiring scientists, Liu advises, “Pick something that makes you want to get out of bed every morning, but being happy does not mean denying that there are going to be challenges and obstacles in the way.”

Even though an event such as her experience in the Bahamas can be utterly discouraging and disappointing, it is the passion that will drive the progress and ambition.  It is important to remember that there is a time to worry about the future and there is a time to work, Liu said. The future is overwhelming sometimes with a given task at hand, but it’s important to not lose perspective.  Even for basic research, sometimes people demand tangible immediate benefits, but that is not guaranteed.

“Our solutions to the world’s greatest problems will surely come from the most unexpected places.  You don’t have linear consequences,” Liu said.

Mady Gonzales interviewed Irene Liu and wrote this post as part of a Science Communication seminar led by NCSSM Dean of Science Amy Sheck.


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.