Duke Research Blog

Following the people and events that make up the research community at Duke.

Author: Karl Bates (Page 1 of 28)

A Summer Well-Spent In and Around Toxic Waste Sites

Edison, NJ is just 40 miles from Manhattan and 70 miles from Philadelphia. It’s also home to the US EPA’s Emergency Response Team (ERT), where I spent the summer as an intern.

Stella Wang and an EPA contractor used lifts to test oil being pumped out of these huge tanks. It was found to be contaminated with mercury, benzene and lead.

At the start of my internship, I had little idea of how ERT functioned. Unlike the 10 regional offices of the Environmental Protection Agency, ERT is a “headquarters” or Washington, DC-based group, which means it responds to incidents all over the country such as oil spills, train derailments, and natural disasters.

For example, my mentor, an air specialist who generally works from his cubicle in Edison, aided in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina by employing equipment to analyze air for hazardous pollutants. Other ERT team members have conducted sediment sampling to expedite the hazardous waste removal process, given consultation advice to other EPA members for long-term remedial site work, and led the innovation of new technology.

I was able to shadow and help my mentor and fellow ERT members with their Superfund site removal work. I created accurate maps showing injection well locations, learned how to use air monitoring instruments, and helped perform chemical lab experiments that will be employed for future site analysis.

Perhaps my favorite part of the internship was traveling to a myriad of active sites. At these sites, I not only got to see how ERT members worked with EPA’s on-scene coordinators, but also observed the physical removal and remediation processes. I was fortunate to visit a particular site multiple times — I witnessed the removal of contaminated oil from an abandoned lot as the summer progressed.

Stella Wang (left) and an EPA air specialist calibrating a air monitoring instrument before a public event.

At another site, I saw the beginning of an injection process intended to prevent the contamination of underground drinking water by hexavalent chromium. By pumping sodium lactate into underground wells, the hexavalent is converted into the insoluble and benign chromium-3 ion. If the injection process works, the community will no longer be threatened by this particular hazardous material.

ERT also acts in anticipation of possible contamination to protect the public. At largely attended events like the Democratic National Convention, a few ERT members will arrive with monitoring equipment. They pride themselves in their real-time data collection for a reason: throughout the event, they can detect whether a contaminant has been released and immediately instigate an emergency response to protect attendees.

Thanks to various ERT members, I felt accepted and welcome. They were open and patient with my never-ending questions about their career paths and other things. They’ve graciously taken me out to lunch so that they could get to know me better, ensuring my inclusion in their small community.

Of course, the experiences I had this summer, while brief, have taught me a tremendous amount and I have a clearer sense of how this division of the US federal government functions. But, it would be inaccurate and unjust to omit the impact that its people made on me.

Stella Wang, Duke 2019Guest post by Stella Wang, Class of 2019

Energy Program on Chopping Block, But New Data Suggest It Works

Duke research yields new data about energy efficiency program slated for elimination

Do energy efficiency “audits” really benefit companies over time? An interdisciplinary team of Duke researchers (economist Gale Boyd, statistician Jerome “Jerry” Reiter, and doctoral student Nicole Dalzell) have been tackling this question as it applies to a long-running Department of Energy (DOE) effort that is slated for elimination under President Trump’s proposed budget.

Evaluating a long-running energy efficiency effort

Since 1976, the DOE’s Industrial Assessments Centers (IAC) program has aimed to help small- and medium-sized manufacturers to become more energy-efficient by providing free energy “audits” from universities across the country. (Currently, 28 universities take part, including North Carolina State University.)

Gale Boyd

Gale Boyd is a Duke Economist

The Duke researchers’ project, supported by an Energy Research Seed Fund grant, has yielded a statistically sound new technique for matching publicly available IAC data with confidential plant information collected in the U.S. Census of Manufacturing (CMF).

The team has created a groundbreaking linked database that will be available in the Federal Statistical Research Data Center network for use by other researchers. Currently the database links IAC data from 2007 and confidential plant data from the 2012 CMF, but it can be expanded to include additional years.

The team’s analysis of this linked data indicate that companies participating in the DOE’s IAC program do become more efficient and improve in efficiency ranking over time when compared to peer companies in the same industry. Additional analysis could reveal the characteristics of companies that benefit most and the interventions that are most effective.

Applications for government, industry, utilities, researchers

This data could be used to inform the DOE’s IAC program, if the program is not eliminated.

But the data have other potential applications, too, says Boyd.

Individual companies who took part in the DOE program could discover the relative yields of their own energy efficiency measures: savings over time as well as how their efficiency ranking among peers has shifted.

Researchers, states, and utilities could use the data to identify manufacturing sectors and types of businesses that benefit most from information about energy efficiency measures, the specific measures connected with savings, and non-energy benefits of energy efficiency, e.g. on productivity.

Meanwhile, the probabilistic matching techniques developed as part of the project could help researchers in a range of fields—from public health to education—to build a better understanding of populations by linking data sets in statistically sound ways.

An interdisciplinary team leveraging Duke talent and resources

Boyd—a Duke economist who previously spent two decades doing applied policy evaluation at Argonne National Laboratory—has been using Census data to study energy efficiency and productivity for more than fifteen years. Boyd has co-appointments in Duke’s Social Science Research Institute and Department of Economics. He now directs the Triangle Research Data Center (TRDC), a partnership between the U.S. Census Bureau and Duke University in cooperation with the University of North Carolina and Research Triangle Institute.

The TRDC (located in Gross Hall for Interdisciplinary Innovation) is one of more than 30 locations in the country where researchers can access the confidential micro-data collected by the Federal Statistical System.

Jerry Reiter is a Duke statistician.

Jerry Reiter is a professor in Duke’s Department of Statistical Science, associate director of the Information Initiative at Duke (iiD), and a Duke alumnus (B.S’92). Reiter was dissertation supervisor for Nicole Dalzell, who completed her Ph.D. at Duke this spring and will be an assistant teaching professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at Wake Forest University in the fall.

Boyd reports, “The opportunity to work in an interdisciplinary team with Jerry (one of the nation’s leading researchers on imputation and synthetic data) and Nicole (one of Duke’s bright new minds in this field) has opened my eyes a bit about how cavalier some researchers are with respect to uncertainty when we link datasets. Statisticians’ expertise in these areas can help the rest of us do better research, making it as sound and defensible as possible.”

What’s next for the project

The collaboration was made by possible by the Duke University Energy Initiative’s Energy Research Seed Fund, which supports new interdisciplinary research teams to secure preliminary results that can help secure external funding. The grant was co-funded by the Pratt School of Engineering and Information Initiative at Duke (iiD).

Given the potential uses of the team’s results by the private sector (particularly by electric utilities), other funding possibilities are likely to emerge.

Boyd, Reiter, and Dalzell have submitted an article to the journal Energy Policy and are discussing future research application of this data with colleagues in the field of energy efficiency and policy. Their working paper is available as part of the Environmental and Energy Economics Working Paper Series organized by the Energy Initiative and the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.

Energy Efficiency Graphic

For more information, contact Gale Boyd: gale.boyd@duke.edu.

Guest Post from Braden Welborn, Duke University Energy Initiative

Duke Scientists Visit Raleigh to Share Their Work

This post by graduate student Dan Keeley originally appeared on Regeneration NEXT. It is a followup to one of our earlier posts.

As a scientist, it is easy to get caught up in the day-to-day workflow of research and lose sight of the bigger picture. We are often so focused on generating and reporting solid, exciting data that we neglect another major aspect of our job; sharing our work and its impacts with the broader community. On Tuesday May 23rd, a group of graduate students from Duke went to the North Carolina legislative building to do just that.

L-R: Andrew George, Representative Marcia Morey (Durham County), Senator Terry Van Duyn (Buncombe County), Sharlini Sankaran, Dan Keeley, and Will Barclay at the NC legislative building.

Dr. Sharlini Sankaran, Executive Director of Duke’s Regeneration Next Initiative, organized a group of graduate students to attend the North Carolina Hospital Associations (NCHA) “Partnering for a Healthier Tomorrow!” advocacy day at the state legislature in Raleigh. The event gave representatives from various hospital systems an opportunity to interact with state legislators about the work they do and issues affecting healthcare in the state. Andrew George, a graduate student in the McClay Lab, Will Barclay, a graduate student in the Shinohara Lab, and I joined Dr. Sankaran to share some of the great tissue regeneration-related research going on at Duke.

Our morning was busy as elected officials, legislative staff, executive branch agency officials, and staff from other hospital systems stopped by our booth to hear what Regeneration Next is all about. We talked about the focus on harnessing Duke’s strengths in fundamental research on molecular mechanisms underlying regeneration and development, then pairing that with the expertise of our engineers and clinicians. We discussed topics including spine and heart regeneration mechanisms from the Poss Lab, advances in engineering skeletal muscle from the Bursac Lab, and clinical trials of bioengineered blood vessels for patients undergoing dialysis from Duke faculty Dr. Jeffrey Lawson.

It was remarkable to hear how engaged everyone was, we got great questions like ‘what is a zebrafish and why do you use them?’ and ‘why would a bioengineered ligament be better than one from an animal model or cadaver?’.  Every person who stopped by was supportive and many had a personal story to share about a health issue experienced by friends, family, or even themselves. As a graduate student who does basic research, it really underscored how important these personal connections are to our work, even though it may be far removed from the clinic.

Communicating our research to legislators and others at NCHA advocacy day was a great and encouraging experience. Health issues affect all of us. Our visit to the legislature on Tuesday was a reminder that there is support for the work that we do in hopes it will help lead to a healthier tomorrow.

Guest post by Dan Keeley, graduate student in BiologyDan Keeley

If the Cancer Doesn’t Kill You, the Drug Prices Might

The medical community is growing alarmed about a creeping malady that can diminish the quality of life for patients in treatment and even shorten their lives.

It’s found everywhere in the United States, but not to the same degree in other developed countries. They’re calling it “Financial Toxicity.”

Yousuf Zafar is an oncologist and health policy researcher.

A cancer diagnosis more than doubles an American’s chance of declaring bankruptcy, Duke medical oncologist  Yousuf Zafar, MD, MHS,  told an audience of nursing faculty and students at a May 10 luncheon lecture sponsored by the Duke Center for Community and Population Health Improvement. And that bankruptcy, in turn, has been shown to decrease survival rates.

In addition to treating cancer patients, Zafar studies access to care and the cost of care at the Duke Cancer Institute, the Sanford School of Public Policy, and the Margolis Center for Health Policy.

Zafar told personal stories of two patients who waved off treatments because of the financial hardship they feared.

Gleevec (Imatinib) is an oral chemotherapy made by Novartis.

One of them had a job with health insurance, but no prescription drug coverage, which put him on the hook for $4,000 in medications to treat his rectal cancer for just a few weeks. Had either the patient or Dr. Zafar brought the topic up, the costs might have been avoided, but they never talked about money, he said.

The other patient passed up another round of treatment for his pancreatic cancer, for fear of the bills his family would be saddled with when he died.

Chemotherapy for cancer would typically cost $100/month in the 1970s, Zafar said. But today that figure can be “ten, or tens, of thousands per month.” (Inflation would make that 1970 dollar about $6, not $600.)

“Pricing in the European Union and the rest of the world is a completely different picture,” he said.  In the US, pricing “simply reflects what the market will bear.”

Another source of the steep climb is the advent of biologic drugs, which are expensive to develop, use and store, but offer more targeted therapy for individual patients. One of the most successful of these is Gleevec (Imatinib) an oral chemotherapy that became 158 percent more expensive from 2007 to 2014, Zafar said.

If you do a Google search for Gleevec, the first thing you find is a Novartis page with the headline “Understand Your Out-Of-Pocket Costs For Gleevec” that includes a link to financial assistance resources.

In the face of outrageous costs and questionable benefits, a treatment team in many cases can help patients find other means of support or alternative treatments to achieve the same end with less financial damage. But they have to have the conversation, Zafar said. He’d like to see Duke’s Cancer Center become the first in the country to be totally transparent about costs, but he acknowledged that it may be a difficult quest.

To help enable those conversations, Zafar developed a mobile app called Pathlight to help patients make more informed decisions and plan better for the financial burden of treatment. For some of the technology used in the project, Zafar has partnered with a software company called Vivor, which has found innovative ways to help patients navigate to financial assistance programs. That part of the project is supported by the NIH’s National Cancer Institute.

Even for people not in treatment, drugs have become more costly. Healthcare premiums rose 182 percent from 1999 to 2013, with workers paying an increasing share of the cost of their own employee health plans.

Is this any way to run a health system?

“I don’t have all the answers – I don’t think anybody does,” Zafar said. “But I think we need to move toward a single-payer system.”

Post by Karl Leif Bates

 

Durham Students Give Themselves a Hand Up

Picture this: a group of young middle schoolers are gathered trying to get a “hand” they’ve built out of drinking straws, thread and clay to grasp a small container. What could such a scene possibly have to do with encouraging kids to stay in school and pursue science? It turns out, quite a lot!

brothers keeper

Angelo Moreno (right), a graduate student in molecular genetics and microbiology, helps students with their soda straw hand.

This scene was part of an event designed just for boys from Durham schools that took place one March evening at the Durham Marriot and Convention Center. It was hosted by Made in Durham, a local non-profit focused on helping Durham’s young people graduate from high school, go to college, and ultimately be prepared for their careers, and My Brother’s Keeper Durham, the local branch of former President Obama’s mentoring initiative for young men of color.

The first evening of a convention centered on building equity in education and was geared toward career exploration. Each of the boys got to choose from a series of workshops that highlighted careers in science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics — also known as STEAM. The workshops ranged from architectural design to building body parts, which was where they learned to build the artificial hands.

Sharlini Sankaran, the executive director of Duke’s Regeneration Next Initiative, who heard about my outreach activities from earlier this year, contacted me, and together we drummed up a group of scientists for the event.

With the help of Victor Ruthig in Cell Biology, Angelo Moreno in Molecular Genetics and Microbiology, Ashley Williams in Biomedical Engineering, and Devon Lewis, an undergraduate in the Biology program, we dove into the world of prosthetics and tissue engineering with the young men who came to our workshop.

Biology undergrad Devon Lewis (top) worked with several of the students.

After some discussion on what it takes to build an artificial body part, we let the boys try their hand at building their own. We asked them what the different parts of the hand were that allowed us to bend them and move them in certain ways, and from there, they developed ideas for how to turn our household materials into fully functioning hands. We used string as tendons and straws as finger bones, cutting notches where we wanted to create joints.

There was a lot of laughter in the room, but also a lot of collaboration between the different groups of kids. When one team figured out how to make a multi-jointed finger, they would share that knowledge with other groups. Similar knowledge sharing happened when one group figured out how to use the clay to assemble all their fingers into a hand. Seeing these young men work together, problem solve, and be creative was amazing to watch and be a part of!

According to feedback from event organizers, “ours was the most popular session!” Sharlini said. When we reached the end of our session, the kids didn’t want to leave, and instead wanted to keep tinkering with their hands to see what they could accomplish.

The boys had a lot of fun, asked a lot of good questions, and got to pick our brains for advice on staying in school and using it to propel them towards career success. I have distilled some of the best pieces of advice from that night, since they’re good for everyone to hear:

  • Don’t be afraid to ask a lot of questions.
  • Don’t be discouraged when someone tells you no. Go for it anyways.
  • Don’t be afraid of failure.
  • And don’t think you have to fit a particular mold to succeed at something.

“I left feeling really inspired about our future generation of scientists and engineers,” Sharlini said. ”It’s good to know there are so many Duke students with the genuine and selfless desire to help others.”

It was a joy to participate in this event. We all had fun, and left having learned a lot — even the parents who came with their sons!

Outreach like this is incredibly important. Being mentors for young people with a budding interest in science can make the difference between them pursuing it further or dropping it altogether. Engaging with them to show them the passion we have for our work and that we were kids just like they are allows them to see that they can do it too.

Guest Post by Ariana Eily

Venturing Out of the Lab to Defend Science

It’s 6 p.m. on a Wednesday and the grad students aren’t at their lab benches. IM softball doesn’t start till next week, what gives?

We’ve snuck out of our labs a bit early to take in a dose of U.S. policy for the evening.

Politics fall far outside our normal areas of expertise. I’m a biology Ph.D. student studying plants — even with my liberal arts education, politics isn’t my bread and butter.

Buz Waitzkin of Science & Society (blue shirt) gave grad students a highly accelerated intro to matters of science policy.

But the current political climate in the U.S. has many scientists taking a more careful look into politics. Being scholars who have a sense of the world around us has become more important than ever.

“Agency regulation, funding, it’s all decided by our branches of government,” says Ceri Weber, a 3rd year Ph.D. candidate in Cell Biology.

Weber, a budding “sci-pol” enthusiast and the general programming chair for the student group INSPIRE, feels passionately about getting scientists informed about policy.

So she organized this event for graduate scientists to talk with the deputy director of Duke Science & Society, Buz Waitzkin, who previously served as special counsel to President Bill Clinton, and now teaches science policy classes cross-listed between Duke’s Biomedical Science programs and the Law School.

Seated with food and drinks—the way to any grad student’s heart—we found ourselves settling in for an open discussion about the current administration and the impact its policies could have on science.

We covered a lot of ground in our 2-hour discussion, though there was plenty more we would love to continue learning.

We discussed: lobbying, executive orders, the balances of power, historical context, tradition, and civil actions, to name a few.

There were a lot of questions, and a lot of things we didn’t know.

Even things as simple as “what exactly is a regulation?” needed to be cleared up. We’ve got our own definition in a biological context, but regulation takes on a whole new meaning in a political one. It was neat having the chance to approach this topic from the place of a beginner.

We were floored by some of the things we learned, and puzzled by others. Importantly, we found some interesting places of kinship between science and policy.

When we discussed the Congressional Review Act, which impacts regulations—the main way science policy is implemented—we learned there is ambiguity in law just like there is in science.

One area on all of our minds was how we fit into the picture. Where can our efforts and knowledge as scientists and students can make a difference?

I was shocked to learn of the lack of scientists in government: only five ever in Congress, and three in the Cabinet.

But luckily, there is space for us as science advisors in different affiliations with the government. There are even Duke graduate students working on a grant to develop science policy fellowships in the NC state legislature.

At the end of the night, we were all eager to learn more and encouraged to participate in politics in the ways that we can. We want to be well-versed in policy and take on an active role to bring about change in our communities and beyond.

Hopefully, as the years go on, we’ll have more opportunities to deepen our knowledge outside of science in the world around us. Hopefully, we’ll have more scientists who dare to step out of the lab.

Guest Post by Graduate Student Ariana Eily

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