Duke Research Blog

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

Author: Maya Iskandarani

From Sunfish-Seeker to Planet-Saver: Dr. Tierney Thys

Marine biologist Tierney Thys believes that science make us superheroes. In her words, the tools of science are the superpowers that “allow us to explore worlds that are invisible to the naked eye.”

As a National Geographic Explorer, Research Associate at the California Academy of Sciences, and, in my humble opinion, one of the most effective, passionate science communicators out there, she may as well be a superhero already.

Dr. Tierney Thys snorkels with some aquatic research subjects. Photo credit: Tierney Thys.

Thys, an alumna of Duke’s Biology Department, presented at the Marine Science and Conservation Leaders’ (MSCL) inaugural Marine Science Symposium on Saturday, March 25. She was one of four featured speakers — all women in STEM— whose research interests range from marine biology to physical oceanography.

Though she discussed her own research and life story in depth, the main point Thys drove home was the importance of (and science behind) powerful science communication.

Like most marine biologists, Thys’ love for the ocean began when she was a child. She received her Ph.D. from Duke in 1998, an endeavor which, she said, “looked interminable while [she] was in the midst of grad school but, in retrospect, was just a blink of an eye.”

Among the many fun tidbits she has gleaned studying ocean science are the following:

  • As adults, humans retain a lot of characteristics from our fish-like time in the womb; e.g. “we can thank fish for washboard abs.”
  • Humans, for all our obsession with large brains, have nothing on the African elephantfish, which has a “higher brain weight to body weight ratio than any other vertebrate.”
  • Fish had the gender continuum “totally nailed” before it became trendy among humans, with fish of many species having the ability to change sex at will.

Thys, right, and her dissertation advisor, Dr. Stephen Wainwright, left. Photo credit: Tierney Thys.

Her most impactful lesson out of Duke, however, came from her dissertation advisor Stephen Wainwright, James B. Duke Professor emeritus of zoology. Wainwright is the founder of Duke’s Bio-Design Studio, an art studio within a scientific research laboratory employing a full-time sculptor “to create three-dimensional working models of biological systems for research,” as reported by Duke Magazine. Exposure to this unique melding of disciplines in the final stages of Thys’ education set her on what she said was “an eclectic career path” that would also seek to fuse the artistic and the scientific.

Thys’ research specialty out of graduate school is the Mola mola, more commonly known as the Ocean sunfish—the heaviest bony fish on the planet. According to Thys, sunfish can grow to “60 million times their starting weight,” the equivalent of a human child growing to the weight of six Titanic ships. The heaviest Mola ever caught weighed over 5000 lbs., though, surprisingly, jellies (what most folks would call jellyfish) comprise most of the adult sunfish’s diet.

Thys hailed pop-off satellite tags as the “superpower” of science that allows her to track sunfish through the world ocean, generating data that can improve environmental protection of the species.

A fun graphic Thys used in her presentation to explain the technology of pop-off tags for tracking Mola mola, pictured right. Photo credit: Mike Johnson.

“Studying the sunfish has eclipsed studying any other fish for me. [They’re ] a massive part of the bycatch in driftnet fisheries all over the world—[but] we need to keep our jelly-eaters intact. With data, we can figure out the [sunfish] hotspots, and work to protect those areas,” Thys said.

Thys has tackled this problem herself by adapting the discipline-blending approach of her advisor, Wainwright. She has primarily used filmmaking to bridge the gap between the arts and sciences, playing key roles in high-profile documentary projects meant to improve public understanding of marine science, technology, and conservation. These include the Strange Days on Planet Earth series with National Geographic, The Shape of Life series with PBS, and several short documentary films. She has also collaborated with dance companies to create conservation-oriented dance productions, K-6 schools for educational art projects, and prisons to improve inmates’ scientific literacy with nature imagery—all to widen the scope of her science-education efforts. Thys supports her creative ideas with science itself:

“One very large filter exists between our conscious mind and subconscious mind, she said. “Our conscious mind can only process a tiny amount of the information gathered by our subconscious mind.”

“A good story can cut through these filters and light up our brains in new ways,” Thys said “By using different forms of art to tell stories infused with scientific information, we can message in profound ways. We can reach people who might not otherwise be interested or receptive to science. The arts are not a luxury, but rather a powerful vehicle for helping message, teach and share our vital scientific findings,” Thys said.

A mural Thys made with students out of bottle caps at a California elementary school, one of Thys’ many efforts to spread public awareness of scientific issues. Photo credit: Tierney Thys.

As though she hadn’t already empowered everyone in the audience to save the world, Thys concluded with a compelling piece of advice: “Be a part of something much bigger than yourself.”

Post by Maya Iskandarani

The Road to a Tastier Tomato

This week, I discovered that I’ve lived life deprived of a good tomato.

As a tomato-lover, I was surprised to learn from Professor Harry Klee of the University of Florida that the supermarket tomatoes I’ve enjoyed throughout my 18-year existence are all flavorless compared to the tomatoes of the past. He spoke at Duke as a guest of the University Program in Genetics and Genomics on Feb. 28.

It turns out that commercial tomato growers, by breeding more profitable (i.e. higher-yield, redder-color, larger-fruit) tomato varieties over the past 50 years, inadvertently excluded what Klee believes is the most important tomato trait of all:

Commercial tomato growers have bred larger, redder tomatoes that are less flavorful than heirloom and older varieties. Image courtesy of Harry Klee.

Flavor.

Apparently, I was one of very few people unaware of this issue. The public outcry in response to the increasing flavorlessness of commercial tomatoes began over a decade ago, when Klee first began to study tomato genetics.

From his research, Klee has drawn several important, unexpected conclusions, chief among them:

1: Flavor has more to do with smell than taste;

2: Lesser-known biochemical compounds called “volatiles” influence the flavor of tomatoes more than sugars, acids, and other well-known, larger compounds;

3: These “volatiles” are less present in modern tomato varieties than in tastier, older, and heirloom varieties;

But fear not—

4: Tomatoes can be back-bred to regain the genes that code for volatile compounds.

In other words, Klee has mapped the way back to the flavorful tomatoes of the past. His work culminated in a cover story of the Jan. 27 issue of Science. The corresponding paper describing the analysis of over 300 tomato strains to identify the chemicals associated with “good” and “bad” tomatoes.

Dr. Harry Klee and collaborators in his lab at the University of Florida. Image courtesy of Harry Klee.

To prove that modern tomatoes have less of the compounds that make them tasty, Klee and his team recruited a panel of 100 taste-testers to rank 160 representative tomato varieties. According to Klee, the team “developed statistical models to explain the chemistry of ‘liking’ [tomatoes],” then narrowed down the list of compounds that correlated with “liking” from 400 to 26. After tracing these 26 compounds to genetic loci, they used whole-genome sequencing to show that these loci are less expressed in modern tomatoes than in “cerasiforme” (i.e. old) and heirloom tomato varieties.

Further studies showed that tomato weight is inversely correlated with sugar content—in other words, “a gigantic fruit doesn’t taste as good,” Klee said.

If Klee can convince tomato growers that consumers value flavor over size, color, and quantity, then he might just single-handedly put flavorful tomatoes back on the shelves. Nevertheless—and despite the publicity surrounding his work—Klee understands it make take a while before commercial tomato growers see the light.

Klee and his team of scientists have genetically mapped the way back to the tasty tomatoes of the past. Image courtesy of Harry Klee.

“Growers get no more money if the tomato tastes good or bad; they’re paid for how many pounds of red objects they put in a box…[but] we can’t just blame the modern breeders. We’ve been selecting bigger and bigger fruit for millennia, and that has come at the cost of reducing flavor,” Klee said.

Post by Maya Iskandarani

The Man Who Knew Infinity, and his biggest fan

Ken Ono, a distinguished professor of mathematics at Emory University, was visibly thrilled to be at Duke last Thursday, January 26. Grinning from ear to ear, he announced that he was here to talk about three of his favorite things: math, movies, and “one of the most inspirational figures in my life”: Srinivasa Ramanujan.

Professor Ken Ono of Emory University poses with a bust of Newton and one of Ramanujan’s legendary notebook pages. Source: IFC Films.

Ramanujan, I learned, is one of the giants of mathematics; an incontestable genius, his scrawls in letters and notebooks have spawned whole fields of study, even up to 100 years after his death. His life story continues to inspire mathematicians around the globe—as well as, most recently, a movie which Ono helped produce: The Man Who Knew Infinity, featuring Hollywood stars Dev Patel and Jeremy Irons.

I didn’t realize until much too late that this lecture was essentially one massive spoiler for the movie. Nevertheless, I got to appreciate the brains and the heart behind the operation in hearing Ono express his passion for the man who, at age 16, inspired him to see learning in a new light. Ramanujan’s story follows.

Ramanujan was born in Kambakunam, India in 1887, the son of a cloth merchant and a singer at a local temple. He was visibly gifted from a young age, not only an outstanding student, but also a budding intellectual: by age 13, he had discovered most of modern trigonometry by himself.

Ramanujan’s brilliance earned him scholarships to attend college, only for him to flunk out not once, but twice: he was so engrossed in mathematics that he paid little heed to his actual schoolwork and let his grades suffer. His family and friends, aware of his genius, supported him anyway.

Thus, he spent the daytime in a low-level accounting job that earned him barely enough income to live, and spent the night scribbling groundbreaking mathematics in his notebooks.

A photo portrait of Srinivasa Ramanujan, a brilliant Indian mathematician born in the late 19th century. Source: IFC Films.

Unable to share his discoveries and explain their importance to those around him, Ramanujan finally grew so frustrated that, in desperation, he wrote to dozens of prominent English mathematics professors asking for help. The first of these to respond was G. H. Hardy (for any Biology nerds, this is the Hardy of the Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium), who examined the mathematics Ramanujan included in his letters and was so astounded by what he found that, at first, he thought it was a hoax perpetrated by his friend.

Needless to say, it wasn’t a hoax.

Ramanujan left India to join Hardy in England and publish his discoveries. The meat of the movie, according to Ono, is “the transformation of the relationship between these two characters:” one, a devout Hindu with no formal experience in higher education; the other, a haughty English professor who happened to be an atheist.

The two push past their differences and manage to jointly publish 30 papers based on Ramanujan’s work. Overcoming impossible odds—poverty, World War I, and racism in particular—Ramanujan’s discoveries finally found the light of day.

Sadly, Ramanujan’s story was cut short: a lifelong vegetarian, he fell ill of malnutrition while working in England, returning to India for the last year of his life in the hopes that the warmer climate would improve his health. He died in 1920, at 32 years old.

He continued writing to Hardy from his deathbed, his last letter including revolutionary ideas, which, like much of his work, were so far ahead of his time that mathematicians only began to wrap their minds around them decades after his death.

“Ramanujan was a great anticipator of mathematics, writing formulas that seemed foreign or random at the time but later inspired deep and revolutionary discoveries in math,” Ono said.

Ono’s infatuation with Ramanujan began when he was 16 years old, himself the son of a mathematics professor at Johns Hopkins University. Upon receiving a letter from Ramanujan’s widow, Ono’s father—by Ono’s account, a very stoic, stern man—was brought to tears. Shocked, Ono began to research the origin of the letter, discovering Ramanujan’s story and reaching a turning point in his own life when he realized that there were aspects to learning that were far more important than grades.

That seems to have worked out quite well for Ono, considering his success and expertise in his own area of study—not to mention that he now has “Hollywood producer” under his belt.

Professor Ken Ono chats with actor Dev Patel on the set of The Man Who Knew Infinity. Photo credit: Sam Pressman.

 

Post by Maya Iskandarani

Diabetes — and Privacy — Meet ‘Big Data’

“Click here to consent forever.”

If consent to participate in medical research were that simple, Joanna Radin of Yale University would have to find a new focus for her research, and I would never have found the Trent Center for Bioethics, Humanities & History of Medicine.

Luckily for us both, this is not the case. Medical consent is a very complex issue that can, as Radin’s research attests, traverse generations.

joanna-radin-headshot

Joanna Radin’s reserach focuses on the intersection of medical history, anthropology and ethics at Yale University. Source: Yale School of Medicine

Radin is an Associate Professor of Medical History at Yale, the perfect fit for the Humanities in Medicine Lecture Series taking place this month at the Trent Center. Her research nails the narrow intersection of medical history, anthropology, bioethics and data analytics. In fact, Radin’s appeal is so broad that her visit to Duke was sponsored by no less than six Duke departments, including the Departments of Computer Science, History, Electrical and Computer Engineering, Cultural Anthropology and Statistical Science.

Radin’s lecture honed in on a well-known case in the realm of bioethics and medical history: the Pima Native American tribe in Arizona, which is known for unusually high rates of diabetes and obesity. The Pima were the first Native American tribe to be granted a reservation in Arizona—30,000 acres—at the beginning of the California Gold Rush. In 1963, following nearly half a century of mass famine among the Pima, the National Institute of Health (NIH) conducted a survey for rheumatoid arthritis in the Pima tribe, instead discovering a frighteningly high frequency of diabetes.

In 1965, the NIH initiated a long-term observational study of the Pima that continued for about 40 years, though it was meant to last no more than 10. The goal of the study was to learn about diabetes in the “natural laboratory” of sorts that the Pima reservation unwittingly provided. The data collected in this study came to be known as the Pima Indian Diabetes Data set (PIDD).

Machine learning enters the story around 1987, when David Aha and colleagues at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) created the UCI Machine Learning Repository, an archive containing thousands of data sets, databases and data generators. The repository is still active today, virtually a gold mine for researchers in machine learning to test their algorithms. The PIDD is one of the oldest data sets on file in the UCI archive, “a standard for testing data mining algorithms for accuracy in predicting diabetes,” according to Radin.

pima_indian_man_miguel_a_farmer_pima_arizona_ca-1900_chs-3625

A Pima farmer in Pima, Arizona, circa 1900. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Generations’ worth of data on the Pima tribe have been publicly accessible in the UCI archive for over two decades, creating ethical controversy around the accessibility of information as personal as blood pressure, body mass index (BMI) and number of pregnancies of Pima Native Americans. Though the PIDD can help refine machine learning algorithms that could accurately predict—and prevent—diabetes, the privacy issues provoked by the publicness of the data are impossible to ignore.

This is where “eternal” medical consent enters the equation: no researcher can realistically inform a study participant of what their medical data will be used for 40 years in the future.

These are the interdisciplinary questions that Radin brought forth in her lecture, weaving together seemingly opposite fields of study in an engaging, thought-provoking presentation. No one who left that room will look at the Apple Terms & Conditions the same way again.

 

Post by Maya Iskandarani iskandarani_maya_100hed

Meet the Newbie: Maya Iskandarani

Hello!

My name is Maya Iskandarani, and I’m a freshman at Duke from Miami, Florida—meaning I’ll probably be in trouble once the temperature in Durham drops below 50°.

Messing around with an electric circuit at the Center for Sustainable Development (CSD) at the Island School. Source: Island School Communications Team

Messing around with an electric circuit in the Center for Sustainable Development (CSD) at The Island School. Source: The Island School Communications Team.

Though I might be poorly prepared for “real” seasons, I’m no less excited to start my adventure at Duke. For now, my academic interests lie in Biology (particularly Genetics and Marine Science), Earth and Ocean Sciences, Neuroscience, Spanish, Arabic, and French. I’m also in the Genetics and Genomics cluster of the Duke Focus Program. As you can see, I have some intense self-reflection to do before I declare a major.

I’m a walk-on to the Duke Women’s Rowing team, and feel very lucky to start fresh in an awesome sport with fantastic coaches and teammates. I also participated in Project WILD this summer, camping for two weeks in Pisgah National Forest without much prior camping, hiking, or backpacking experience. Otherwise, I’ve fought my instinct to jump into a million cool extracurricular clubs and programs, so I can get a handle on this “college” thing before I bite off more than I can chew.

In high school, I was an editor for the school newsmagazine (s/o highlights), president of the International Baccalaureate Honor Society (IBHS), vice president of the environmental club, Gables Earth, and a scooper at Whip ‘n Dip, an ice cream shop down the street from my house. I trained with the club swim team Miami Swimming for six years, and competed for my high school swim team for four.

My first taste of research was volunteering with Dr. Claire Paris of the University of Miami in my junior year of high school. I spent a few weeks helping then-PhD-candidate Dr. Erica Staaterman (a Duke alumna!) complete her dissertation on the relationship between marine soundscapes and biodiversity. My role was small, but fascinating: I used a computer program to manually filter hydrophone recordings from coral reefs in the Florida Keys for boat noise.

Preparing for a boat dive off of Cape Eleuthera, with underwater slate in hand to take notes while observing the coral reef.

Preparing for a boat dive off of Cape Eleuthera, with underwater slate in hand to take notes on coral reef life. Source: The Island School Communications Team.

My experience in Dr. Paris’s lab spurred me to further explore marine science, so I applied to attend The Island School over the summer entering my senior year. I spent a month in the blazing heat of the Bahamas, freediving through the same crystal-clear waters in the mornings that I returned to study on SCUBA in the afternoons. Although I’m not quite set on Marine Science as a course of study at Duke, I absolutely intend to spend a semester or two at the Duke Marine Lab to figure it out.

My curiosity in nearly all academic subjects pulls me in a hundred different directions, a few of which I hope to follow through with as part of the Duke Research Blog team. I can’t wait to meet researchers who are passionate about their work, and, perhaps, discover a research passion of my own.

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