Young Scientists, Making the Rounds

“Can you make a photosynthetic human?!” an 8th grader enthusiastically asks me while staring at a tiny fern in a jar.

He’s not the only one who asked me that either — another student asked if Superman was a plant, since he gets his power from the sun.

These aren’t the normal questions I get about my research as a Biology PhD candidate studying how plants get nutrients, but they were perfect for the day’s activity –A science round robin with Durham eighth-graders.

Biology grad student Leslie Slota showing Durham 8th graders some fun science.

After seeing a post under #scicomm on Twitter describing a public engagement activity for scientists, I put together a group of Duke graduate scientists to visit local middle schools and share our science with kids. We had students from biomedical engineering, physics, developmental biology, statistics, and many others — a pretty diverse range of sciences.

With help from David Stein at the Duke-Durham Neighborhood Partnership, we made connections with science teachers at the Durham School of the Arts and Lakewood Montessori school, and the event was in motion!

The outreach activity we developed works like speed dating, where people pair up, talk for 3-5 mins, and then rotate. We started out calling it “Science Speed Dating,” but for a middle school audience, we thought “Science Round-Robin” was more appropriate. Typically, a round-robin is a tournament where every team plays each of the other teams. So, every middle schooler got to meet each of us graduate students and talk to us about what we do.

The topics ranged from growing back limbs and mapping the brain, to using math to choose medicines and manipulating the different states of matter.

The kids were really excited for our visit, and kept asking their teachers for the inside scoop on what we did.

After much anticipation, and a little training and practice with Jory Weintraub from the Science & Society Initiative, two groups of 7-12 graduate students armed themselves with photos, animals, plants, and activities related to our work and went to visit these science classes full of eager students.

First-year MGM grad student Tulika Singh (top right) brought cardboard props to show students how antibodies match up with cell receptors.

“The kids really enjoyed it!” said Alex LeMay, middle- and high-school science teacher at the Durham School of the Arts. “They also mentioned that the grad students were really good at explaining ideas in a simple way, while still not talking down to them.”

That’s the ultimate trick with science communication: simplifying what we do, but not talking to people like they’re stupid.

I’m sure you’ve heard the old saying, “dumb it down.” But it really doesn’t work that way. These kids were bright, and often we found them asking questions we’re actively researching in our work. We don’t need to talk down to them, we just need to talk to them without all of the exclusive trappings of science. That was one thing the grad students picked up on too.

“It’s really useful to take a step back from the minutia of our projects and look at the big picture,” said Shannon McNulty, a PhD candidate in Molecular Genetics and Microbiology.

The kids also loved the enthusiasm we showed for our work! That made a big difference in whether they were interested in learning more and asking questions. Take note, fellow scientists: share your enthusiasm for what you do, it’s contagious!

Another thing that worked really well was connecting with the students in a personal way. According to Ms. LeMay, “if the person seemed to like them, they wanted to learn more.” Several of the grad students would ask each student their names and what they were passionate about, or even talk about their own passions outside of their research, and these simple questions allowed the students to connect as people.

There was one girl who shared with me that she didn’t know what she wanted to do when she grew up, and I told her that’s exactly where I was when I was in 8th grade too. We then bonded over our mutual love of baking, and through that interaction she saw herself reflected in me a little bit; making a career in science seem like a possibility, which is especially important for a young girl with a growing interest in science.

Making the rounds in these science classrooms, we learned just as much from the students we spoke to as they did from us. Our lesson being: science outreach is a really rewarding way to spend our time, and who knows, maybe we’ll even spark someone who loves Superman to figure out how to make the first photosynthesizing super-person!

Guest post by Ariana Eily , PhD Candidate in Biology, shown sharing her floating ferns at left.

 

Brain Makes Order From Disorder

A team of scientists from Duke, the National Institutes of Health and Johns Hopkins biomedical engineering has found that the formation and retrieval of new memories relies on disorganized brain waves, not organized ones, which is somewhat contrary to what neuroscientists have previously believed. Brain waves, or oscillations, are the brain’s way of organizing activity and are known to be important to learning, memory, and thinking.

Alex Vaz is a Duke MD/PhD student and biomedical engineering alumnus.

Although brain waves have been measured and studied for decades, neuroscientists still aren’t sure what they mean and whether or not they help cognition, said Alex Vaz, an M.D.-Ph.D. student at Duke who is the first author on the paper.

In a study appearing Jan. 6 in NeuroImage, the neuroscientists showed that brain activity became less synchronized during the formation and retrieval of new memories. This was particularly true in a brain region known as the medial temporal lobe, a structure thought to play a critical role in the formation of both short-term and long-term memories

Excessive synchronization of brain oscillations has been implicated in Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, and even psychiatric disorders. Decreasing brain wave synchronization by electrical stimulation deep in the brain has been found to decrease the tremors of Parkinson’s. But the understanding of brain waves in movement disorders is ahead of the understanding of human memory.

The researchers had neurosurgeons at the National Institutes of Health implant recording electrodes onto the brain surface of 33 epileptic patients during seizure evaluation and then asked them to form and retrieve memories of unrelated pairs of words, such as ‘dog’ and ‘lime.’

They found that  during memory formation, brain activity became more disorganized in the frontal lobe, an area involved in

A graphical abstract from Alex’s paper.

executive control and attention, and in the temporal lobe, an area more implicated in memory and language.

“We think this study, and others like it, provide a good starting point for understanding possible treatments for memory disorders,” Vaz said. “The aging American population will be facing major neurocognitive disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia and will be demanding more medical attention.”

CITATION: “Dual origins of measured phase-amplitude coupling reveal distinct neural mechanisms underlying episodic memory in the human cortex,” Alex P. Vaz, Robert B. Yaffe, John H. Wittig, Sara K. Inati, Kareem A. Zaghloul. NeuroImage, Online Jan. 6, 2017. DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2017.01.001

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1053811917300010

Post by Karl Leif Bates

Karl Leif Bates

José Jerónimo – Innovations in Cervical Cancer Screening

José Jerónimo and his team are transforming the face of cervical cancer screening. Jerónimo is a physician and senior advisor for the women’s cancers branch of PATH, an international nonprofit organization that uses innovative technologies to improve health outcomes in developing countries. Jerónimo, who’s work at PATH has facilitated the prevention and treatment of cervical cancer for thousands in the developing world, spoke at the Duke Institute for Global Health on Dec. 2.

Cervical cancer testing has been a point of conflict in the medical community for quite some time now, for the pap smear — for many years, the only test available to detect cervical cancer — is not very sensitive to abnormal tissue. Since skepticism with the pap smear arose a few decades ago, doctors like Jerónimo have been working tirelessly to find more effective screening strategies.

José Gerónimo, Peruvian physician and public health advocate, received his specialty training in gynecologic oncology at the National Cancer Institute in Peru.

José Jerónimo, Peruvian physician and public health advocate, received his specialty training in gynecologic oncology at the National Cancer Institute in Peru.

Cervical cancer can be acquired through the presence of HPV (human papilloma virus). Chronic infections of HPV have been proven to increase the likelihood of contracting cervical cancer, so developing primary prevention initiatives to avoid developing HPV to begin with are essential to decrease the prevalence of cervical cancer. HPV testing, unlike the pap smear, can be self-collected and does not require the complex, expensive machinery that the pap smear does. Initial self-sampling studies in India, Uganda, and Nicaragua indicated a willingness by the female community to self-test, so long as sanitary and private conditions were provided.

Studies in the Jujuy province of Argentina indicated that community health workers played a key role in facilitating the self-sampling process. When the health workers differed locals to clinics or sent them to facilities for testing, only 20 percent actually went. But, when they brought the self-sampling tests to locals’ homes directly, testing was above 80 percent. The easy accessibility of self-sampling, along with encouragement by local health volunteers, clearly showed that self-sampling was much more effective.

A group of female community health workers in Lima, Peru, educating the community about HPV testing.

Jerónimo’s current work focuses on strengthening government screening systems for HPV that are already in place. By helping ministries introduce and scale up the testing, he and others at PATH hope to decrease HPV and cervical cancer rates.

But, it goes beyond testing. Jerónimo emphasizes the need for evaluation and follow-up mechanisms after testing positive. Although testing efforts have improved significantly, the treatment provided after for those who have tested positive is still lagging. Jerónimo claims that much of this is due to minimal efforts by the local governments to really follow through beyond the testing phase.

PATH is looking for innovative ways to treat HPV that are inexpensive and effective. They recently developed their own version of the thermal coagulator, a probe that treats infected tissue using heat. Their design runs on a battery, rather than needing constant electricity, and uses a progressive heating mechanism that is only activated upon touching the cervix. There is still progress to be made, in both testing and treatment of HPV and cervical cancer, but through efforts by both local and international communities, Jerónimo shows us that is possible.

lola_sanchez_carrion_100hedPost by Lola Sanchez-Carrion

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

Fostering a Collaborative Research Environment in Peru

We are told time and time again that Duke is a global university, one that transcends borders and takes interdisciplinary education to the next level.

On Monday, I was able to experience this international mindset firsthand at the Peru Health Symposium, a conference that celebrated a decade of culminating research efforts by Duke in Peru.

The symposium was organized by Dr. William Pan, a professor of Global Environmental Health at Duke who has worked on many research projects in Peru ranging from reproductive health to tuberculosis. In his opening remarks, Pan said the trademark interdisciplinary nature of Duke has allowed it to succeed as a research institution in Peru, along with its affiliation to pioneers in Peruvian health/environmental research, like John Terborgh.

“We are standing on the shoulders of giants,” said Pan. During the first panel, several research projects were presented.

Field Work in Peru

Helena Frischtak conducting research with Peruvian children in the field.

Helena Frischtak, a 4th year medical student at UVA and former Doris Duke Fellow spent a year studying the neurological effects of mercury exposure on children. She performed basic neurological exams, along with cognitive tests amongst 5-11 year-old children, and preliminary data suggests potential impacts of mercury exposure on cognitive development.

Marlee Krieger of the Center for Global Women’s Health Technologies presented a cervical cancer treatment that brings colposcopy into the primary care setting. When one is screened for cervical cancer, a pap smear is first conducted and if abnormalities are detected, a colposcopy is performed and tissue is biopsied from the cervix. This multiple-step process is tedious, and the number of patients that return for the colposcopy often declines. By combining the steps into one visit and performing it with a simpler and cheaper device, testing efficiency has increased.

Maria Lazo Porras of Cayetano Heredia University (Lima’s prominent medical university) presented findings on the effects of migration from rural to urban regions on chronic disease. Her findings suggest a correlation between urbanization and obesity, but provided surprising results that indicate higher rates of hypertension and diabetes in rural communities.

Peru amazon

Illegal mining scars the Amazon’s lush forests and flushes mercury runoff into streams.

Students doing research in the Amazon presented posters of their findings to faculty members of the Nicolas School and DGHI.

The main theme resonating throughout the conference was the need for collaboration not only to address public/environmental health concerns, but to organize symposiums like this one. The culmination of efforts by the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies (CLACS), DGHI, and the Nicholas School have fueled the Peru project’s palpable success.

Below is the link to the documentary shown at the symposium:

http://www.daughterofthelake.pe/ – “Hija de la Laguna” (Daughter of the Lake), 2015. The documentary tells the story of how a Peruvian woman used her powers to stop illegal mining from destroying the lake in her community; a lake that to her, represents her mother’s spirit.

lola_sanchez_carrion_100hedPost by Lola Sanchez-Carrion

Walla Scores Grand Prize at 17th Annual Start-Up Challenge

The finalists of Duke’s 17th Annual Start-Up Challenge have found time between classes, homework, and West Union runs to research and develop pitches aiming to solve real-world problems with entrepreneurship. The event, hosted last week at the Fuqua School of Business, featured a Trinity alum as the keynote speaker. Beating out the other seven start-up pitches for the $50,000 Grand Prize was Walla, an app founded by Judy Zhu, a Pratt senior.

Judy Zhu and the Walla team pose with their $50,000 check, which is giant in more ways than one.

Judy Zhu and the Walla team pose with their $50,000 check, which is giant in more ways than one.

Walla aims to create a social health platform for college students by addressing widespread loneliness and creating a more inclusive campus community. The app’s users post open invitations to activities, from study groups to pick-up sports, allowing students to connect over shared interests.

Walla is closely tied with Duke Medicine by providing data from user activity to medical researchers. User engagement is analyzed to supply valuable information on mental health in young adults to professionals. The app currently features 700 monthly active users, with 3000 anticipated within the next month, and many more as the app opens to other North Carolina colleges.

Tatiana Birgisson returned to Duke to talk about her own experiences creating a business while an undergrad that won the Start-Up Challenge in 2013. Birgisson’s venture, MATI energy drink, was born out of her Central Campus dorm room and, through the support of Duke I&E resources, became the major energy drink contender it is today, as a healthy alternative to Monster or Red Bull.

The $2,500 Audience Choice award went to Ebb, an app designed to empower women on their periods by keeping them informed of physical and emotional symptoms throughout the course of their cycles, and creating a community through which menstruating women can receive support from those they choose to share information with.

Tatiana Birgisson won the 2013 startup challenge with an energy drink brewed in her dorm room, now sold as MATI.

Tatiana Birgisson won the 2013 startup challenge with an energy drink brewed in her dorm room, now sold as MATI.

Other finalists included BioMetrix, a wearable platform for injury prevention; GoGlam, an application to connect working women with beauticians in Latin America; Grow With Nigeria, which provides engaging STEM experiences for students in Nigeria; MedServe; Tiba Health; Teraphic.

This year’s Start-Up Challenge was a major success, with innovative entrepreneurs coming together to share their projects on changing the world. Be sure to come out next year; I’ll post an invite on Walla!

devin_nieusma_100Post by Devin Nieusma