Category Archives: Week 5

Lola’s Morning Glories

Although I missed one day of chalk talks, the ones I did see were super interesting and impressive. I particularly enjoyed Lola’s chalk talk about morning glories. It’s a field that’s incredibly different from my own and I think that’s why it caught my attention so much. 

Lola talked about a few points from her project and I learned a lot of new information during an 8 minute period. First of all, I had no idea what introgression was, so it was highly appreciated when she gave a quick definition. What I picked up is that in the wild introgression is rare, but it is a process that can occur in morning glories. Lola talked specifically about when there are pink and white flowers that are growing at the same place and time there are more white flowers. It was suggested that pink flowers aren’t good dads because their genes aren’t favorable to be fathers. Keeping all this in mind, she posed the question of if these offspring are recombinant, and that’s what she and her lab are testing right now. 

I thought it was cool to listen to Lola’s talk about her morning glories and it will be nice to hear what the answer to her research question is.

Carnivorous Plants in Research

On the final day for ChalkTalks, most of the presenters- including myself- focused on ecology in our research. Personally, out of all of the amazing presentations that occurred over the three days, the one that stuck out to me the most was Ali’s talk about her pitcher plants.

She drew three different species of the carnivorous plants on the white board, one was small and wide without a lid to cover the top opening, another was taller and narrower with a lid to cover the opening, and a mix between the two with a medium size and a lid that partially covered the top opening of the pitcher plant. What her lab noticed was that there is a larger and more diverse bacterial population in the short pitcher plant without the lid, and the rainwater that is collected allows the diverse bacteria to thrive. The bacteria living within the plant also breaks down any insect that falls in the pitcher, thus maintaining a commensalistic relationship. In the taller species with the lid, less rainwater enters the pitcher, so less bacteria can thrive in the environment. However, because of this, more of the energy from the insects that become victim to the tall pitcher plant can be obtained instead of it having to share with the bacteria colonies. It is thought that the hybrid species that shares traits with the tall and the short plants houses an environment somewhere in between.

I am eager to hear more about Ali’s findings with her project and to learn more about these intriguing carnivorous plants.

DNA Bypass Surgery

The past week’s Chalk Talks carried lots of interesting information about the amazing research being conducted here at Duke. One of the presentations that caught my eye was by Nico Rey, who talked about his experiences at the Asokan Lab where they are designing a novel gene therapy for Muscular Dystrophy using viral vectors. The basis of Nico’s research is the Central Dogma, DNA makes RNA makes proteins. In many diseases, there is some error or mutation which occurs in one of these steps which causes the product to become unusable. For Muscular Dystrophy, this occurs in the first step, aka, there is a mutation within the DNA that causes the entire process to result in a failed protein.
Nico’s viral vectors will insert RNA into the cell which will complementary bind to regions of introns preceding a mutated exon which causes an alternative path for polymerase enzymes to take when producing mRNA. These inserts will contain the complement to the correct mRNA exon sequence that we wish to translate into protein. However, Nico noted that the current method of inserting the RNA and leaving it up to chance was relatively inefficient and up to chance. Therefore, his lab is focusing on leveraging novel molecular machinery to increase the odds of forcing enzymes to choose the insert rather than the original mutated DNA.
I remember after hearing Nico’s Chalk Talk that this type of procedure sounded rather familiar, and it seems to resemble a bypass surgery, where a vascular graft is taken to bypass a clotted region to provide blood to tissue. In a similar sense, here Nico’s lab is bypassing the mutated and ‘diseased’ DNA to allow for the cell to exhibit the healthy phenotype. I think that this technology is a really good way to tackle disease as it leverages viral vectors which are known to work, inserts a small amount of specific RNA which we know will only bind to the regions we want, and has the potential to greatly alleviate symptoms of debilitating diseases.

Habitual and Goal-Directed Behavior

I really enjoyed listening through everyone’s chalk talks last week. As more people kept presenting, I felt like I was able to tap into so many different subfields and essential questions in biological research. Biology extends from observing the neural behavior in our brains, to the engineering of medical technology, to even the measuring of insect populations in streams. I could go on, but we were all there those three days.

Tonight I want to focus on Min Ju Lee’s research on habitual and goal-directed behavior observed through the change of brain circuits. She works with mice to measure these behaviors by having them in a cage and providing a stimuli to respond to. She explained that the stimulus, in this case, was a lever that would give the mice food when used. Overtime, the mice developed goal and habitual driven behavior. Goal driven behavior would look like the mice using the lever in order to get the food. There’s a purpose behind the action. Habitual driven behavior would be the mice using the lever just for the sake of it. There wouldn’t be a purpose behind the action.

Min Ju looks at the brain to identify these behaviors in the mice- the stratum, in particular. This is because the stratum can initiate or inhibit movement. The DMS tends to activate when the mice’s behavior is goal driven and the DLS activated when the mice’s behavior is habitual driven. Zach asked a really good question in the end that I felt like allowed Min Ju to elaborate more on the mice behavior. He asked how it is for certain than there won’t be any novel behavior? To this she answered that there’s a timeline for behavior and they work on the mice when they’ve passed that point of novel behavior. I thought that was really interesting because I didn’t think their minds would work as a step 1, step 2 kind of deal, but I guess they are just mice. Much of Min Ju’s work would help there be better understanding of where OCD and more comes from.

Skylar’s Stem Cells

This past week, I was completely in awe of all the amazing research being conducted through the BSURF program this summer. Everyone did an incredible job explaining their projects and practicing the communication part of science that is so important. While all the talks left me with some fascinating pieces of science to think about, one of the presentations that really stuck with me was Skylar’s chalk talk about iPSCs and HESCs.

My personal research interests intersect a lot with the ethical concerns in the scientific community, in the way scientific research is conducted, presented, and applied in practical settings. Hearing her talk about this different way of using induced pluripotent stem cells to avoid the ethical concerns of utilizing human embryonic stem cells I thought addressed a very interesting question that arises a lot in scientific, especially biology, research that I don’t think gets talked about enough.

The second part of her project was just as intriguing to think about: comparing neural progenitor cells in chimps and humans to see how regulation in the genes of interest in these cells differ. The whole time I was listening, I kept thinking about what a neat application of science to focus on. The hybrid model, to me, was especially interesting in the way that it helped to control for and eliminate potential confounding factors, like their (chimp and human) environment. I can’t wait to see what new things were discovered at Skylar’s poster presentation, and I am definitely looking forward to hearing more about her amazing stem cell research.

The Impacts of Our Research

Now that we have passed the halfway point of BSURF, I realize more and more that science is an art of communication. While the experiments we conduct and the data we collect have their own intrinsic value, as Dr. Grunwald constantly stresses, it means nothing if we are unable to communicate it to others. After our week of chalk talks, I am truly amazed and inspired by my fellow BSURFers at their ability to communicate their research to the public – everyone really did a fantastic job at summarizing their projects!

With that said, one chalk talk that particularly stood out to me was Xitlali’s with her research into the impact of urban development on aquatic insects. What initially drew me into her project was how involved it was. In her talk she described her methods – how she goes off into Ellerbe or New Hope Creek and sets up sticky traps to collect insects. I’ve always wanted to do some sort of field research, so I must say I am a little jealous!

But the aspect of her project that truly sparked my interest was how related it was to the local community. Oftentimes in our research, we can become far removed from the fruits of our labor. Don’t get me wrong – researching the structure of specific enzymes and exploring the molecular pathway of important proteins is fascinating. However, it can be sometimes difficult to actually observe how that research is applied to larger society – to see how it contributes to concrete change in the community. 

That is something I loved about Xitlali’s talk and project. It was evident how her analysis of insect populations in the area could be used to inform policy changes in Durham and the surrounding area. If I were in her shoes, I would find satisfaction – almost pride – in knowing that my research contributed to concrete and beneficial change in my own community. Finally, her project affirms that science is interdisciplinary – that it can involve the intersection and collaboration between fields such as ecology, public policy, government, and health.

ELP Drug Delivery

As the world is returning to normal after the pandemic new methods to potentially improve injection of drugs into the body have increased in value. When a drug, like a vaccine, is injected into a body it is put in a muscle, so it is able to slowly go into the blood stream. The allows for the slower delivery of drugs and can also lower level of potential risk of being toxic to the patient. This allows for a safer vaccine and reduces potential side effects.

Camila is working on a group of molecules called elastin-like polypeptides. These molecules are naturally occurring and can be found in beans. These are a large amount of elastin repeated. This structure allows for some interesting properties. It is able to be a liquid at room temperature but once it is injected into the body it is able to form a solid block in the tissue. This allows for the drugs that in the ELP to diffuse into the blood stream even slower reducing any potential allergic reaction.  One potential issue with ELP drug delivery is that ELP themselves could be a potential allergen. The because of the ELP structure it has to potential for itself to become an allergen, but this has yet to be tested and animal trials would likely need to be done. Camila’s research was interesting to me because of the potential real world implication that this research can provide. I believe being able to see the direct application of research is incredible important.

Bird Brains and Tech X

This past week we were tasked with going on stage in front of our peers and presenting an eight minute summary of our projects with nothing but a dry erase marker and a whiteboard. While I thought this experience was stressful to prepare for, I am thankful for being able to give an “old-fashioned” pitch of our work. It was interesting to see how much more challenging giving a talk is when your slides aren’t behind you. Personal reflection aside, one talk that captured my interest was George’s presentation on his work in the Mooney lab.

George is doing work with Zebra Finches and a mysterious (for proprietary reasons) biomarking drug called Technology X. Without declassifying anything important about it, Technology X is a drug that was developed with the intent of giving labels to different types of cells in the brain. If it works, it will allow researchers to better study the different parts of the brain on the cellular level. The Mooney lab isn’t responsible for developing this technology, however. They are focused on actually testing it out on live subjects. George’s job this summer is to perform careful neurosurgery on Zebra Finches and deliver Technology X to different parts of the brain.

This project is interesting to me for two reasons. First and foremost, one of my peers is performing neurosurgery on live subjects! Coming from a person who could barely dissect a pig fetus in high school biology, it blows my mind that George is able to work with that degree of precision, and keep his subjects alive after! Secondly, as someone who leans more towards the functionality of things in science, I was really interested in how Technology X works. Sadly I don’t have enough clearance to further probe its mechanisms, but it was still neat to hear about. Overall, this week was enlightening as I was able to see a wide array of the different projects going on in the B-SURF program. I find myself always being boxed into the same functional-type projects, so hearing more about applications and raw research was a welcome change of pace. I’m excited to see what my peers have to present at the poster presentation!

Baboon Behavior

I particularly enjoyed Colby’s talk about his work in the Alberts lab, which deals with variations in baboon social behavior. I have always found animal behavior to be a very interesting topic, so I was excited to learn about one of the ways in which this type of research is conducted. 

I was somewhat surprised to find out that his work deals mostly with models, which I have very little experience with. Because of my lack of familiarity in this type of work, I was interested to hear about the years of compiled data and the many models that are involved in studying animal behavior.

I was also interested in learning about some of the challenges that come with conducting this type of animal research. For example, I was particularly fascinated by the fact that there are many years worth of data regarding the roles that genetics play in establishing baboon social structures, but there is relatively little data regarding the roles that environmental/non-genetic factors play in determining these social structures simply because it is difficult to control for their natural environment. All types of research have different limitations and I think it is interesting to hear about how different researchers work around these challenges.

The Biodiversity of Plants

As I am working with plants too, Ali’s chalk talk on pitcher plants stood out to me.  Ali’s project involves looking at different species of pitcher plants that grows in different regions. Her lab is analyzing going in these different regions affected the composition of their digestive fluid. They are looking at three different species in particular, one that has a little lid and one that has no lid Lastly, they are looking at a species of pitcher’s that are formed from by these two species of pitchers hybridizing with a little lid off to the side. These different structures change what can get into the liquid.

I think the science behind Ali’s project connects a lot with mine even though they are looking at different things than my lab. Plants are amazing model organisms to look at evolution, adaptation, and speciation. There is so much diversity within the plant world. Just the fact that you can see the diversity of pitchers plants traveling from the north to the south is amazing. I liked the fact that her project shows  that diversity is not just found in brightly colored flowers in the greenhouse, but something as nuanced as the percentage of microorganisms in digestive fluid.


This week’s “chalk talks” were very entertaining and it was exciting to see how my peers took ownership and pride in each of their respective projects. Last week, over the course of three days, each of the individuals in the BSURF program had to do an 8-minute presentation on the work they are currently doing in their labs and on their projects. At the whim of random pulling of names from a bucket, aided only by a whiteboard and an expo marker, we each took turns presenting in front of the whole program. 

One of the chalk talks that caught my attention was the one done on the topic of nanoparticles by Joe Laforet. He and his mentor are currently working on using self-aggregating nanoparticles to use as a more efficient drug delivery system than the ones currently used. The contemporary design of nanoparticles is based on enveloping a drug of interest in a metallic shell at the molecular level. There are some major issues with this design though. It’s difficult to design and has a very low drug-carrying capacity (only ~5%). Additionally, the metallic envelope is toxic in high doses and affects solubility. A low solubility is bad because it is difficult for the body to dissolve and absorb the drug of interest. 

Joe and his mentor are coming up with new designs for nanoparticles and have been using the tendency for some molecules to form nano-scale aggregates to their advantage. The drug of interest is paired with a molecule that serves as a natural vector that can target an organ or tissue of interest. It may sound simple but these nano-clusters of drug and excipient pairs have a drug loading capacity of 95% (remember the 5% of contemporary nanoparticles). 

Joe works with machine learning algorithms to help generate simulations that he then analyzes to predict whether a drug and its excipient pair will form a nanoparticle. His mentor can then go ahead and test this nanoparticle in the lab. The simulations he’s created look great and are very satisfying to watch unfold. Additionally, this work has great potential in the medical field and seems very exciting. Nice job and best of luck Joe!

Neica’s talk on Recovering from Ischemic Stroke

As someone who had no prior exposure to biomedical engineering, this week’s chalk talks were especially enlightening. Out of the engineering related talks, Neica’s talk on developing drugs for ischemic strokes stood out to me because the methods used to test the drugs seemed to be similar to the methods used in the neurobiology labs that I knew of.

Ischemic strokes are strokes caused by blood clots forming in the capillaries of the brain, and leads to significant brain damage due to excitotoxic glutamate release. The brain’s natural defenses causes further damage; microglia leads to increased inflammation, meanwhile astrocytes causes scarring. An ideal treatment needs to stops these mechanisms in the affected area, and bring the neural progenitor cells close to the damaged site of the brain for regeneration. The Segura lab utilizes hydrogels to treat ischemic strokes, and thereby increasing the treatment efficacy from the current 5%. The concoction of hydrogels contain MAP gel and the CLUVENA. The Map gel recruits the neural progenitor cells. while the CLUVENA suspends the microglia and astrocytes in the damaged site. The design of the experiment, which aims to test the efficacy of the hydrogels, reminds me of the CRE-loxP system in neurobiology labs, where reactivating a gene in the knockout animal rescues the animal brain perturbation. Both methods need to damage the brain function in order to testify whether the treatment works or if the gene has a role in behavior, but they both ultimately links back to future clinical applications so that it could help people with abnormal neurological function.

Biodiversity in Watersheds

Throughout my experience in B-SURF prior to this week, I have been immersed in engineering approaches to various biological issues. However, this week, I was exposed to multiple different topics through the Chalk Talks, and I was amazed by how wide the scope of the study of biology really is. I was especially interested by Lali’s presentation, as her research is so different from mine and serves such an important purpose.

Lali’s research looks into the impact of urban development on the biodiversity of aquatic insects. Her lab focuses on the the watersheds of two creeks in the Durham area: Ellerbe Creek, which has a lot of urban development, and New Hope Creek, which has much less development. She is taking samples from two points on Ellerbe Creek with 90% urban development and 75% development, as well as one point on New Hope Creek  with 9% urban development. She is using sticky traps to gather bugs and count the amount and type of bugs at each point and then comparing them. Her hypothesis is that Ellerbe Creek will have less biodiversity and more resilient insects than New Hope Creek, as when it rains, the water in Ellerbe Creek rises much more and causes sand to form , resulting in there being no rocks for the insects to hold on in turn making it more likely for them to die. New Hope Creek rises much less following rain due to less development, resulting in there being more rocks for the insects to hold on to.

I loved Lali’s talk because even without being an expert in biodiversity, I feel like I very clearly understand the methods and purpose of this research. I also enjoyed how she talked about the way in which this research could be used to apply to humans and our everyday lives. I found it cool how this research could be used to look into socioeconomic inequities in resources used to improve the environment and how its results could have effects on the Raleigh population, as this population drinks water that comes from Ellerbe Creek.

I’m happy that I was able to learn a lot from all of the Chalk Talks, and I feel that I learned a lot from Lali’s in particular.

Cells on the Move

I thoroughly enjoyed hearing about the different projects everyone was working on this summer, and was pleasantly surprised to see a large variety in the topics. One such presentation that interested me was Ben’s talk about cell migration. He explained how cells can use force on actin filaments to communicate to each other, effectively causing the cells to move together. Specifically, he is looking into how vinculin can play a part in cell migration, and if it can be used to control cell movement in the future. This topic specifically fascinates me due to its similarity with my project, in which both of us look at unique characteristics in certain materials and try to optimize them for medical purposes.

Ben explained that cell migration could potentially be used for wound healing and tissue regeneration, which is actually similar to applications of ELP’s. ELP’s can also be used in damaged joints or tissue and become a solidified deposit to protect certain areas. It was exciting to learn of other possibilities in tissue engineering that share a lot of similarities with my work! Ben’s engaging and detailed talk makes me look forward to the future work his lab and others will do in the field of tissue engineering and biomaterials, as well as other possible solutions that will arise as research continues.

The Importance of Water

I found Lali’s talk on her summer project very interesting, not only for the content, but also for the practical applications of her work. Water is an essential aspect of life, for both humans and other animals, and the quality of it has huge implications for everyone. I haven’t studied ecology much at all, but Lali broke her project down into something that was easy to understand by clearly outlining each component of it. While every project presented and discussed was important and had fairly clear benefits, I felt like Lali’s was one of the few that were centered on the Durham-Raleigh area, which made it really interesting to learn about. Her work incorporated ecology, environmental conservation, and social issues into a cohesive whole as it explored the water quality of two streams, one of which leads directly into a drinking water reservoir.

I also really liked that Lali’s project included fieldwork, and I enjoyed its innovative method of using semi-aquatic insects to indirectly measure the impact of urbanization and development on water and soil quality. Overall, I’m very interested in the long-term results of this project, and how its findings will be utilized in further work, whether that work is environmental research or reform. It certainly addresses a very important question and potential local issue.

Watershed Issues of Watersheds

I really enjoyed Xitlali Ramirez’s talk, which focused on her research regarding the effects of urban development on local watersheds and their capabilities to act as insect habitats.

What drew me to her research was how much it stood out from a lot of what other people were working on. I’d heard about several genes in different species and lots of microtechnology from my colleagues’ other talks over the week, and hers was very different.

While listening to her describe the issues of rainfall runoff in developed watersheds because of concrete cover and the intricacies of the sedimentary effects of drainage pipes on creek beds and the possible contaminants causing ecological issues in the creeks themselves and their watersheds (she covered a lot!), I was reminded a lot of my APES class in high school. While in my class we mostly talked about theoretical issues and the possible effects of different forms of industrial activity or policy on the environment, Xitlali’s talk made these less-concrete (hahah) ideas seem more relevant to all of us; we live here, next to Ellerbe Creek and New Hope Creek!

It also reminded me of an issue Dr. Susan Alberts, the PI in my lab, was talking about in our last lab session. At he ABRP Camp in Kenya, which is quite remote, the well broke. While going without water for a time is something some of us might have experienced in our lives (whether through hurricane or a strong storm breaking a line), it’s a much more serious issue an an area that doesn’t have access to easy water replacements like bottled water. It’s easy for us, I think, to forget about all of the critical infrastructure that supports our research (and our modern lives!) until it breaks. I love that Xitlali was working on helping to repair some water systems that, if they did “break” would probably become huge problems for North Carolinians.

Diversity in Future Directions

This week, I really enjoyed seeing what everyone was working on in their labs.  There was an impressive amount of variety, and everybody’s topics were incredibly interesting.  8 minutes is not a lot of time to capture one’s project, and while there are many people I would love to follow up with and learn more from, I found myself particularly drawn to the chalk talks that were most closely aligned with my own project.  In particular, listening to Bryan talk about the development of HaloTag.

Through my own project, I was aware that HaloTag technology was recently developed at Duke.  However, my focus has centered around the applications juxtaposed to the creation and engineering of the ligands.  Hearing Bryan talk about the development of multiple types of HaloTag, each with its own cell-specific applications, opened my eyes to how powerful this technology could be.  The notion that they could design a ligand to specifically bind to thereby manipulate any type of receptor is insane and has seemingly endless pharmacological applications!  The work he is doing in determining the optimal ligand-receptor pairs was incredibly interesting.  It made me realize the diversity in future directions of research which is exciting and one of the facets I love about it!

Cam’s Drug Delivery

This past week in BSURF, we had chalk talks all week. What this meant was that every single BSURFer stood up in front of the rest of us and explained what they are researching this summer while drawing helpful diagrams on a board. As nerve-wracking as it was for everyone, I really enjoyed learning about what everyone was doing this summer.

One chalk talk in particular that stood out to me was Cam’s. Cam’s talk was titled “ELP in Drug Delivery.” I’ve always been very interested in how drugs work in the body, and would love to take classes about these mechanisms in the future. Cam explained how an issue that exists with many drugs in today’s medicinal world is that they require a large dosage because they do not stay in the body for very long. Her research involves trying to create a system that will address this issue to make drug therapy more effective.

She’s doing this through the use of ELP’s or elastin-like polypeptides. ELPs are large and can change solubility, which means they can last longer in the body. She explained how at higher temperatures, ELPs are insoluble, and at lower temperatures they are soluble. This characteristic makes them an interesting target for research because scientists have the potential to modify conditions in a way that will allow ELPs to change solubility in such a way that the drug will last in the body. So, her research involves obtaining, purifying, and using these ELPs to attach proteins to them to hopefully increase the amount of time that these proteins can thus last in the body.

Overall, I think this is such an interesting topic of study and I really enjoyed Cam’s chalk talk! I can’t wait to hear more about how her research is progressing by the end of the summer!