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

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

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.

 

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

Creating Technology That Understands Human Emotions

“If you – as a human – want to know how somebody feels, for what might you look?” Professor Shaundra Daily asked the audience during an ECE seminar last week.

“Facial expressions.”
“Body Language.”
“Tone of voice.”
“They could tell you!”

Over 50 students and faculty gathered over cookies and fruits for Dr. Daily’s talk on designing applications to support personal growth. Dr. Daily is an Associate Professor in the Department of Computer and Information Science and Engineering at the University of Florida interested in affective computing and STEM education.

Dr. Daily explaining the various types of devices used to analyze people’s feelings and emotions. For example, pressure sensors on a computer mouse helped measure the frustration of participants as they filled out an online form.

Affective Computing

The visual and auditory cues proposed above give a human clues about the emotions of another human. Can we use technology to better understand our mental state? Is it possible to develop software applications that can play a role in supporting emotional self-awareness and empathy development?

Until recently, technologists have largely ignored emotion in understanding human learning and communication processes, partly because it has been misunderstood and hard to measure. Asking the questions above, affective computing researchers use pattern analysis, signal processing, and machine learning to extract affective information from signals that human beings express. This is integral to restore a proper balance between emotion and cognition in designing technologies to address human needs.

Dr. Daily and her group of researchers used skin conductance as a measure of engagement and memory stimulation. Changes in skin conductance, or the measure of sweat secretion from sweat gland, are triggered by arousal. For example, a nervous person produces more sweat than a sleeping or calm individual, resulting in an increase in skin conductance.

Galvactivators, devices that sense and communicate skin conductivity, are often placed on the palms, which have a high density of the eccrine sweat glands.

Applying this knowledge to the field of education, can we give a teacher physiologically-based information on student engagement during class lectures? Dr. Daily initiated Project EngageMe by placing galvactivators like the one in the picture above on the palms of students in a college classroom. Professors were able to use the results chart to reflect on different parts and types of lectures based on the responses from the class as a whole, as well as analyze specific students to better understand the effects of their teaching methods.

Project EngageMe: Screenshot of digital prototype of the reading from the galvactivator of an individual student.

The project ended up causing quite a bit of controversy, however, due to privacy issues as well our understanding of skin conductance. Skin conductance can increase due to a variety of reasons – a student watching a funny video on Facebook might display similar levels of conductance as an attentive student. Thus, the results on the graph are not necessarily correlated with events in the classroom.

Educational Research

Daily’s research blends computational learning with social and emotional learning. Her projects encourage students to develop computational thinking through reflecting on the community with digital storytelling in MIT’s Scratch, learning to use 3D printers and laser cutters, and expressing ideas using robotics and sensors attached to their body.

VENVI, Dr. Daily’s latest research, uses dance to teach basic computational concepts. By allowing users to program a 3D virtual character that follows dance movements, VENVI reinforces important programming concepts such as step sequences, ‘for’ and ‘while’ loops of repeated moves, and functions with conditions for which the character can do the steps created!

 

 

Dr. Daily and her research group observed increased interest from students in pursuing STEM fields as well as a shift in their opinion of computer science. Drawings from Dr. Daily’s Women in STEM camp completed on the first day consisted of computer scientist representations as primarily frazzled males coding in a small office, while those drawn after learning with VENVI included more females and engagement in collaborative activities.

VENVI is a programming software that allows users to program a virtual character to perform a sequence of steps in a 3D virtual environment!

In human-to-human interactions, we are able draw on our experiences to connect and empathize with each other. As robots and virtual machines grow to take increasing roles in our daily lives, it’s time to start designing emotionally intelligent devices that can learn to empathize with us as well.

Post by Anika Radiya-Dixit

Science Meets Policy, and Maybe They Even Understand Each Other!

As we’ve seen many times, when complex scientific problems like stem cells, alternative energy or mental illness meet the policy world, things can get a little messy. Scientists generally don’t know much about law and policy, and very few policymakers are conversant with the specialized dialects of the sciences.

A screenshot of SciPol’s handy news page.

Add the recent rapid emergence of autonomous vehicles, artificial intelligence and gene editing, and you can see things aren’t going to get any easier!

To try to help, Duke’s Science and Society initiative has launched an ambitious policy analysis group called SciPol that hopes to offer great insights into the intersection of scientific knowledge and policymaking. Their goal is to be a key source of non-biased, high-quality information for policymakers, academics, commercial interests, nonprofits and journalists.

“We’re really hoping to bridge the gap and make science and policy accessible,” said Andrew Pericak, a contributor and editor of the service who has a 2016 masters in environmental management from the Nicholas School.

The program also will serve as a practical training ground for students who aspire to live and work in that rarefied space between two realms, and will provide them with published work to help them land internships and jobs, said SciPol director Aubrey Incorvaia, a 2009 masters graduate of the Sanford School of Public Policy.

Aubrey Incorvaia chatted with law professor Jeff Ward (center) and Science and Society fellow Thomas Williams at the kickoff event.

SciPol launched quietly in the fall with a collection of policy development briefs focused on neuroscience, genetics and genomics. Robotics and artificial intelligence coverage began at the start of January. Nanotechnology will launch later this semester and preparations are being made for energy to come online later in the year. Nearly all topics are led by a PhD in that field.

“This might be a different type of writing than you’re used to!” Pericak told a meeting of prospective undergraduate and graduate student authors at an orientation session last week.

Some courses will be making SciPol brief writing a part of their requirements, including law professor Jeff Ward’s section on the frontier of robotics law and ethics. “We’re doing a big technology push in the law school, and this is a part of it,” Ward said.

Because the research and writing is a learning exercise, briefs are published only after a rigorous process of review and editing.

A quick glance at the latest offerings shows in-depth policy analyses of aerial drones, automated vehicles, genetically modified salmon, sports concussions and dietary supplements that claim to boost brain power.

To keep up with the latest developments, the SciPol staff maintains searches on WestLaw, the Federal Register and other sources to see where science policy is happening. “But we are probably missing some things, just because the government does so much,” Pericak said.

Post by Karl Leif Bates