Duke Research Blog

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

Author: Meg Shieh (Page 1 of 2)

The Fashion Trend Sweeping East Campus

During the months of January and February, there was one essential accessory seen on many first-year Duke students’ wrists: the Jawbone. The students were participating in a study listed on DukeList by Ms. Madeleine George solely for first-year students regarding their lives at Duke. The procedures for the study were simple:

  1. Do a preliminary test involving a game of cyberball, a game psychologists have adapted for data collection.
  2. Wear the Jawbone for the duration of the study (10 days)
  3. Answer the questions sent to your phone every four hours. You will need to answer five a day. The questions are brief.
  4. Answer all the questions every day (you can miss one of the question times) and get $32.

About a hundred first-year Duke students participated.

Some of the questions on the surveys asked how long you slept, how stressed you felt, what time did you woke up, did you talk to your parents today, how many texts did you send, and so on. It truly did feel as though it were a study on the daily life of Duke students. However, there was a narrower focus on this study.

Ms. Madeleine George

Ms. George is a Ph.D. candidate in developmental psychology in her 5th year at Duke. She is interested in relationships and how daily technology usage and social support such as virtual communication can influence adolescent and young adult well-being.

Her dissertation is about how parents may be able to provide daily support to their children in their first year of college as face to face interactions are replaced by virtual communication through technology in modern society. This was done in three pieces.

The jawbone study is the third part. George is exploring why these effects occur, if they are uniquely a response to parents, or if people can simply feel better from other personal interactions. Taking the data from the surveys, George has been using models that allow for comparison between each person to themselves and basic ANOVA tests that allow her to examine the differences between groups. She’s still working on that analysis.

For her first test, she found that students who talked to their parents were feeling worse. But, on days students had a stressor, they were in a better mood after talking to their parents. In addition, based on the cyberball experiment where students texted a parent, stranger, or no one, George infers that texting anyone is better than no one because it can make people feel supported.

So far, George seems to have found that technology doesn’t necessarily take away relationship value and quality. Online relationships tend to reflect offline relationships. While talking with parents might not always make a student feel better, there can be circumstances where it can be beneficial.

Post by Meg Shieh.

I Know What You Did Last Summer…

From June to August 2016, four Duke students: Emma Heneine, Casey MacDermod, Maria Perez, and Noor Tasnim, packed their bags and traveled to Guatemala. They were participants in the Student Research Training (SRT) Program, studying “indoor air quality, cooking, and bathing habits in Indigenous Mayan households in six villages surrounding Lake Atitlan in Guatemala.”

The poster they presented on their project recently won first place in the Global Health Undergraduate Research Fair.

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Maria Perez (left) and Casey MacDermod (right)

The Duke Research Blog caught up with student researchers Maria Perez and Casey MacDermod after the conference. Maria Perez is a senior majoring in International Comparative Studies (ICS) and Global Health; she had research experience prior to traveling to Guatemala. Casey MacDermod is a junior majoring in Cultural Anthropology; she had no research experience in high school or at Duke prior to this experience. MacDermod knew what type of research she was interested in, so she looked through faculty members who did that type, found Dr. David Boyd, met with him, and learned about his SRT team.

Boyd told the students what the focus of the research should be, and the students, “as a team… came up with the questions and how [to] do the research…” Perez said. In order to monitor indoor air pollution, the team measured the small and large particulate matter with an instrument known as Dylos and the carbon monoxide levels with a carbon monoxide monitor.

From January until June, the team conducted background research on air pollution in Durham. At the beginning of June, they traveled to Guatemala and “had about a week of orientation,” said Perez. During this time, they met with on-site assistants who taught them on how to give questionnaires and conduct interviews.

Mostly, the team was self-directed; that was part of the challenge. MacDermod said that, although Boyd was with them “about the first three or four days…” and there were translators (Micaela and Carolina) that “gave us all the information we needed and were with us every step of the way throughout the research,” the student researchers needed to be flexible and able to think on their feet.

Every day, the team of four would split up into two groups with one translator each, then go to a village and do research. They would meet up for lunch and then either head back to their living site or go back into the villages to conduct more research. Based on her observations, MacDermod infers that using wood-burning stoves and temescales, or sweatlodges, caused the particulate matter to be “off the charts.”

The SRT program is part of the Duke Global Health Institute and the students were under the guidance and support of Dr. Boyd, Dr. Craig Sinkinson, Mayan Medical Aid, the primary schools in the municipalities and Bass Connections.

Although their winning poster included some graphs, Perez and MacDermod emphasized that these charts were produced automatically by the apparatus used to monitor air pollution. Further analysis of their data will occur next term.

meg_shieh_100hedPost and photo by Meg Shieh

Mapping the Brain With Stories

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Dr. Alex Huth. Image courtesy of The Gallant Lab.

On October 15, I attended a presentation on “Using Stories to Understand How The Brain Represents Words,” sponsored by the Franklin Humanities Institute and Neurohumanities Research Group and presented by Dr. Alex Huth. Dr. Huth is a neuroscience postdoc who works in the Gallant Lab at UC Berkeley and was here on behalf of Dr. Jack Gallant.

Dr. Huth started off the lecture by discussing how semantic tasks activate huge swaths of the cortex. The semantic system places importance on stories. The issue was in understanding “how the brain represents words.”

To investigate this, the Gallant Lab designed a natural language experiment. Subjects lay in an fMRI scanner and listened to 72 hours’ worth of ten naturally spoken narratives, or stories. They heard many different words and concepts. Using an imaging technique called GE-EPI fMRI, the researchers were able to record BOLD responses from the whole brain.

Dr. Huth explaining the process of obtaining the new colored models that revealed semantic "maps are consistent across subjects."

Dr. Huth explaining the process of obtaining the new colored models that revealed semantic “maps are consistent across subjects.”

Dr. Huth showed a scan and said, “So looking…at this volume of 3D space, which is what you get from an fMRI scan…is actually not that useful to understanding how things are related across the surface of the cortex.” This limitation led the researchers to improve upon their methods by reconstructing the cortical surface and manipulating it to create a 2D image that reveals what is going on throughout the brain.  This approach would allow them to see where in the brain the relationship between what the subject was hearing and what was happening was occurring.

A model was then created that would require voxel interpretation, which “is hard and lots of work,” said Dr. Huth, “There’s a lot of subjectivity that goes into this.” In order to simplify voxel interpretation, the researchers simplified the dimensional subspace to find the classes of voxels using principal components analysis. This meant that they took data, found the important factors that were similar across the subjects, and interpreted the meaning of the components. To visualize these components, researchers sorted words into twelve different categories.

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The Four Categories of Words Sorted in an X,Y-like Axis

These categories were then further simplified into four “areas” on what might resemble an x , y axis. On the top right was where violent words were located. The top left held social perceptual words. The lower left held words relating to “social.” The lower right held emotional words. Instead of x , y axis labels, there were PC labels. The words from the study were then colored based on where they appeared in the PC space.

By using this model, the Gallant could identify which patches of the brain were doing different things. Small patches of color showed which “things” the brain was “doing” or “relating.” The researchers found that the complex cortical maps showing semantic information among the subjects was consistent.

These responses were then used to create models that could predict BOLD responses from the semantic content in stories. The result of the study was that the parietal cortex, temporal cortex, and prefrontal cortex represent the semantics of narratives.

meg_shieh_100hedPost by Meg Shieh

Nature vs. Nurture: Predicting Our Futures

Sitting in The Connection at the Social Science Research Institute in Gross Hall was intimidating. I was surrounded by distinguished people: professors, visiting professors from distinguished universities, researchers, and postdocs, all of whom had gathered together to view a showing of the documentary, Predict My Future: The Science of Us.

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Dr. Terrie Moffitt, a Duke professor. Image courtesy of Moffitt and Caspi.

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Dr. Avshalom Caspi, a Duke professor. Image Courtesy of Moffitt and Caspi.

Predict My Future documents the work of Terrie Moffitt and Avshalom Caspi, two Duke professors who study people in Dunedin, New Zealand. They have followed the lives of all the children born within a year in Dunedin for the last 40 years to measure genetics, personal habits, environment, jobs, physical attributes, and etc.  The Dunedin Longitudinal Study is the largest study of its kind and offers deep insights into how children become adults.

The episode, “The Early Years,” first posed the questions, “Why do some people become successful and others become outcasts? Why are we the way that we are?” By tracking all of these personal factors and some  behaviors, including risky sexual activities, criminal activities, and drinking and smoking habits, the Dunedin Longitudinal Study can answer these questions. The researchers can tell which children are likely to become “problem children,” “geniuses,” and so on, based on the child’s personality type.

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Q&A Session After the Viewing of the Documentary. Image Courtesy of Duke SSRI and Taken By Shelbi Fanning.

The study first identified five different personality types in young children, and researchers discovered that the children’s’ personality types did not change in adulthood. The three personality types that are typically associated with doing well in life, having better health, having friends, and being more successful are: “well-adjusted,” “reserved,” and “confident.” The two personality types associated with having poorer quality of life in adulthood are “inhibited” and “undercontrolled.”

Then, the study identified other factors that lead to serious consequences later in life or simply predict futures. Children who experienced delays in walking and in talking were likely to have issues with brain development. Boys with these traits typically disliked school, did poorly in school, and were more likely to be involved in criminal activity.

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The full house watching the documentary. Image Courtesy of Duke SSRI and Taken by Shelbi Fanning.

The amount of sleep children received between the ages of five and eleven would determine obesity in adulthood. Adults who received the least amount of sleep as children tended to be obese by age 32.

Schizophrenia, researchers discovered, starts developing in young children, not just adults as had previously been thought. About half of the 11-year-olds in the study who said they had seen or heard things that weren’t there had developed schizophrenia two decades later.

Watching more TV was associated with a higher likelihood of smoking and having anxiety. Regardless of IQ or environment, children who watched more TV were more likely to leave school without qualifications.

The important lesson the documentary emphasized was that having a good childhood is important. Warm, sensitive, stimulating, family-feeling invoking environments are great protective factors to risk factors.

Overall, this was a brilliant, stimulating, easy-to-understand documentary.

meg_shieh_100hedPost by Meg Shieh

Girls Get An Eye-Opening Introduction to Photonics

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Demonstration of the Relationship between Solar Power and Hydrogen Fuel. Image courtesy of DukeEngineering.

Last week I attended the “Exploring Light Technologies” open house hosted by the Fitzpatrick Institute for Photonics, held to honor International “Introduce a Girl to Photonics” Week. It was amazing!

I was particularly enraptured by a MEDx Wireless Technology presentation and demonstration titled “Using Light to Monitor Health and View Health Information.” There were three “stations” with a presenter at each station.

At the first station, the presenter, Julie, discussed how wearable technologies are used in optical heart rate monitoring. For example, a finger pulse oximeter uses light to measure blood oxygen levels and heart rates, and fitness trackers typically contain LED lights in the band. These lights shine into the skin and the devices use algorithms to read the amount of light scattered by the flow of blood, thus measuring heart rate.

At the second station, the presenter, Jackie, spoke about head-mounted displays and their uses. The Google Glass helped inspire the creation of the Microsoft Hololens, a new holographic piece of technology resembling a hybrid of laboratory goggles and a helmet. According to Jackie, the Microsoft Hololens “uses light to generate 3D objects we can see in our environment.”

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Using the Microsoft Hololens. Image courtesy of DukeEngineering.

After viewing a video on how the holographic technology worked, I put on the Microsoft Hololens at the demonstration station. The team had set up 3D images of a cat, a dog and a chimpanzee. “Focus the white point of light on the object and make an L-shape with your fingers,” directed Eric, the overseer. “Snap to make the objects move.” With the heavy Hololens pressing down on my nose, I did as he directed. Moving my head moved the point of light. Using either hand to snap made the dog bark, the cat meow and lick its paws, and the chimpanzee eat. Even more interesting was the fact that I could move around the animals and see every angle, even when the objects were in motion. Throughout the day, I saw visitors of all ages with big smiles on their faces, patting and “snapping” at the air.

Applications of the Microsoft Hololens are promising. In the medical field, they can be used to display patient health information or electronic health records in one’s line of sight. In health education, students can view displays of interactive 3D anatomical animations. Architects can use the Hololens to explore buildings. “Imagine learning about Rome in the classroom. Suddenly, you can actually be in Rome, see the architecture, and explore the streets,” Jackie said. “[The Microsoft Hololens] deepens the educational experience.”

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Tour of the Facilities. Image courtesy of DukeEngineering.

Throughout the day, I oo-ed and aw-ed at the three floors-worth of research presentations lining the walls. Interesting questions were posed on easy-to-comprehend posters, even for a non-engineer such as myself. The event organizers truly did make sure that all visitors would find at least one presentation to pique their interest. There were photonic displays and demonstrations with topics ranging from art to medicine to photography to energy conservation…you get my point.

Truly an eye-opening experience!

Post by Meg Shiehmeg_shieh_100hed

Violence: Risk vs Protection Factors

On Oct. 3, in place of a typical Interdisciplinary Discussion Course (IDC) for the Focus program, we were brought together in the White Lecture Hall on East to hear Dr. Jeremy G. Richman give a lecture on “Violence, Compassion, and the Brain”.

Dr. Jeremy G. Richman

Dr. Jeremy G. Richman

Since his daughter Avielle was killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, Dr. Richman has been studying violence and the brain with the Avielle Foundation. Using his extensive research experience in neuroscience and neuropsychopharmacology, Dr. Richman has been working with a team on understanding the risk and protective factors for violence.

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Dr. Richman lecturing in the White Lecture Hall on East Campus

 

 

 

 

 

 

The brain is very complex, and its processes and connections are still very much veiled. As a result, The Avielle Foundation currently conducts research on understanding violence by “bridging biochemical and behavioral sciences” using functional MRI brain scans, biochemistry, and genetics and epigenetics.

Based on the research he has analyzed, Dr. Richman identified four types of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) that are risk factors for violence: psychological, physical, sexual, and household dysfunction/neglect.

Interestingly enough, research has shown that physically abused children are not necessarily more likely to be arrested for a violence-related crime. While it can happen, the situation is complicated because there is more than one factor involved. Adverse childhood experiences typically lead to violence towards oneself. When someone has at least four ACEs, their risk for alcoholism increases seven-fold. When males have more than five experiences within the ACE categories, their risk for drug use increases by 46 times. The more ACEs experienced, the greater exponentially the percentage of lifetime history of attempted suicides.

Studies have shown that firearm access in the home “is associated with an increased risk of firearm homicide and firearm suicide in the home.”

The debate of Nature vs. Nurture also comes into play. Humans have a monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) gene, also known as the Warrior Gene. MAOA is also associated with low dopamine levels. When males experience physical abuse and have low MAOA, the chance for them to have psychopathology increases. The interesting thing is that there is one main difference between a violent psychopath and a resilient leader: childhood experiences. A violent psychopath likely had an adverse childhood experience; the resilient leader had a nurturing childhood. Richman noted that studies involving neuroscience and psychology always have shortcomings because of the brain’s complexity. The brain’s processes and connections are still very much veiled.

Despite all these risk factors to violence, there are protective factors in place. One is less at risk when in a compassionate, kind, resilient, and connection-building environment with family and peers who embody these ideals. Healthy habits, good nutrition, and exercise help reduce stress, which in turn helps reduce the chances for violence.

Post by Meg Shiehmeg_shieh_100hed

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