Science a waste of money? “Wastebook” misses big picture

Duke biologist Sheila Patek explains the big picture behind a recent study on sparring mantis shrimp. Photograph by Roy Caldwell.

Duke biologist Sheila Patek explains the big picture behind a recent study on sparring mantis shrimp. Photograph by Roy Caldwell.

Sheep in microgravity. An experiment involving a monkey in a hamster ball on treadmill. These are among more than 100 descriptions of what Senator Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, deems wasteful federal spending in “Wastebook: The Farce Awakens,” released on Tuesday, Dec. 8. The latest in a series originally launched by retired Senator Tom Coburn, each “Wastebook” targets a range of federally-funded projects, many of them science-related, which the authors declare a waste of taxpayers’ money.

But what do the researchers behind these projects have to say? We asked Duke biologist Sheila Patek, whose work on fighting mantis shrimp was singled out in Flake’s latest report, to tell us her side of the story:

“What do we stand to learn from basic research on mantis shrimp? It turns out, a lot,” Patek said.

“First, mantis shrimp strike with weapons operating at the same acceleration as a bullet in the muzzle of a gun, yet they achieve high performance without explosive materials. They use a system based on muscles, springs and latches and neutralize their opponents with impact-resistant armor. This research helps us understand how animals survive when they have lethal weapons at their disposal but do not actually kill the opponent — something that could change the way we look at future defense systems,” Patek said.

“Second, these crustaceans have properties of extreme acceleration that are of great interest to military and manufacturing engineers. Mantis shrimp use a toothpick-sized hammer that can break snail shells in water that humans can only break with a larger hammer in air. Their small, lightweight hammer resists fracture over thousands of uses. Our research has already led to the development of novel engineered materials that resist impact fracture, based directly on mantis shrimp hammers,” Patek said.

“Third, mantis shrimp do something else that humans cannot: strike in water at the speed of cars on a major highway without causing cavitation, a phenomenon that occurs in systems with rapid motion (like propellers) where implosive bubbles emit heat, light and sound with energy sufficient to wear away steel. Naval engineers have been trying to solve this problem since the invention of the submarine. When we understand how mantis shrimp avoid cavitation during the rotation phase of their strikes while effectively using cavitation during their impact phase, the knowledge will undoubtedly improve the capabilities of ships, submarines, torpedoes and other machines,” Patek said.

“Research that helps us understand and apply the mechanics and evolutionary diversity of natural systems to create a better and safer society for all of us is a wise investment for this country.”

RobinSmith_hed100Post by Robin A. Smith, Senior Science Writer

From Neutrinos to Nuclear Deals: Congressman Bill Foster

Hon. Bill Foster of the 11th District of Illinois is the only member of Congress to hold a Ph.D. in science. On November 5th, Congressman Foster visited Duke’s Initiative for Science and Society to discuss his unconventional path to politics and his consequent unique perspective. He lightheartedly delivered what he called a “recruiting speech” to a room full of scientists, hoping to persuade students with scientific background to become involved in public policy.

Representative Bill Foster, Ph.D., doing what politicians must.

Bill Foster started his first business with his brother at the age of 19 out of his family basement. His earnest, innovative efforts to use computers to control lighting manifested in the company Electronic Theatre Controls, which powered Disneyland and Disneyworld’s Parade of Lights in the 1980s, the 2012 London Olympic Stadium, Chicago’s Millenium Park, and a large portion of shows on Broadway.

Foster then transitioned into his career in physics. He undertook the IMB Proton Decay Experiment for his Ph.D. thesis under Larry Sulak; Foster did not observe proton decay, but he did observe neutrinos from a supernova. Foster continued his physics career at the Fermi National Accelerator Lab in suburban Chicago, where he smashed protons and anti-protons together at high speeds and later worked on the particle accelerators themselves.

In the midst of discovering Big Bang particles, Foster also fell into politics by maintaining an active civil engagement. He volunteered for Patrick Murphy’s campaign in 2006, where he says he “learned business on the factory floor,” a philosophy he has maintained since his days at Electronic Theatre Controls. He began the 110th Congress as an intern for Rep. Patrick Murphy, and ended it sitting as a Congressman.

Hon. Foster graphs the relative numbers of scientists and engineers, lawyers, and career politicians in Congress. The U.S. Congress consists mostly of career politicians, explains Foster, while China, for example, consists mostly of engineers.

Rep. Foster plots the relative numbers of scientists and engineers, lawyers, and career politicians in international governing bodies. The U.S. Congress consists mostly of career politicians, explains Foster, while China, for example, consists mostly of engineers.

Since winning his seat in 2012, Foster has introduced a scientific perspective to Congress, even if he’s careful not to conflate that with his political stance. He makes a point to clarify technical details of issues like the Iran nuclear deals, human genetic engineering, and public key cryptography on cell phones, to ensure that Congress makes the most informed decisions possible on highly complicated ethical issues. On genetic engineering, he noted, “Our ethical paradigm is not set up for it,” as the notion of “All men are created equal” fundamentally cannot handle humans whose genetic traits are pre-picked. Clearly, scientific expertise will be invaluable in such consequential issues.

Life in Washington, Foster stated, is unromantic. Foster lives in efficiency apartments and grounds himself by holding “Congress on your Corner” events, where he answers any constituent questions, like why grout isn’t working on a driveway.

Political customs, such as the dilemma of which tie to wear to promote his campaign, still bewilder his scientific mind. Most of the votes he makes, like renaming a post office, or voting on an issue the President will inevitably veto, don’t really matter, he said.

But what makes politics worth it for him, Foster explained as he passed around his voting card, is the power to make a positive difference in issues that impact millions of people. Such ambitions transcend the boundaries between science and policy.

By Olivia Zhu Olivia_Zhu_100

What I wish first-year-me knew about Duke Research

When I arrived at Duke, I thought research was all serious business. It was publications with titles so complicated you couldn’t understand, content meant to make geniuses scratch their heads, and test tubes performing operations nobody quite had time to explain to me.

I thought it was near impossible for an undergrad to get into social science research, and contemplated applying for a lab just to “get research experience.” I signed up for a research mentor, who graciously met me at the steps of Marketplace, but whose spectacular background and accolades intimidated me.

First-year me was confused about Duke Research and directions to the Duke Gardens. Here pictured with my good friend Matthew Lide, Duke 2016.

First-year me was puzzled about Duke Research and directions to the Sarah P. Duke Gardens. Here pictured with my good friend Matthew Lide, Duke 2016.

Back then, research was a grand, intangible, and formidable concept to me. It was one of those things you were supposed get involved with, and have some sort of not-quite-defined penchant for, but I didn’t know how to go about getting plugged in.

Research was Professor Lefkowitz getting recognized in front of thousands for his Nobel Prize. It was the overwhelming catalog of faculty research interests on each departmental web site. Research was cleaning test tubes, transferring liquids with pipettes, looking through a microscope — none of which I was fundamentally interested in.

Second-year me perfected the art of awkward hand gestures while conversing with Joel Kaplan, Vice President for Public Policy at Facebook.

Second-year me perfected the art of awkward hand gestures while conversing with Joel Kaplan, Vice President for Public Policy at Facebook, after a Duke American Grand Strategy Program luncheon. Photo Credit: Duke Photography

But I’m here to tell you that I was wrong. You see, over these three years, while I’ve enjoyed engaging in research in formal settings, research has also manifested itself in very personal, very approachable ways, and I’d like to share what Duke Research has come to mean to me.

Research is the enthusiastic dash from one white board to another in the midst of a discussion on model selection so passionate you want to spring off the edge of your seat. It’s the long conversation with your roommate about the state of things that goes into the wee hours of the night.

Research is feeling comfortable to share fresh, under-developed ideas with your mentors. It’s texting your professor that wacky analogy you just made up about a theory you learned. Research is the diversity and breadth of guest lectures, seminars, and symposiums open to all.

Third-year me enjoyed free doughnut breaks as part of research. From left: Kyle Casey, who studies modular forms, TJ Ciesla, who experiments with synthetic biology, and Paul Hoard, who's always down to finance.

Third-year me enjoyed free donut breaks as part of research. Here pictured with Kyle Casey, who studies modular forms, TJ Ciesla, who experiments with synthetic biology, and Paul Hoard, who’s always down to finance.

Research is forwarding your friends an email, an article or event about a concept you think would pique their interest. It’s connecting friends who turn out to be intellectual soul-mates.

Research is pondering over a question someone threw at you during thesis seminar that you don’t quite have the answer for yet. Research is a good game of “Explain (blank*) to a five-year-old,” one of my favorite activities with my best friend. (*So far, we’ve done Excel, the Maximum Likelihood Estimator, and Prime numbers.)

Duke’s research is big, but it can be manifested in so many small, beautiful ways. It advances every time we ask a speaker a question or linger in the Gross Chemistry Hall to give that research poster a second glance. Even though these small steps aren’t formalized, they inadvertently make our research community richer, make us richer.

Fourth-year research is sitting next to your chewbacca-esque friend, trying to sit still while sharing thoughts on his parking optimization thesis. Grant Kelly, Duke 2016.

Fourth-year research is sitting next to your chewbacca-esque friend, trying to sit still while sharing thoughts on his parking optimization thesis. Grant Kelly, Duke 2016.

To quote my boss, it’s not just about the glossy publications or the number of citations; it’s also about the people, the process, the ever-renewing excitement.

TL;DR You don’t have to be published in a top journal to contribute to the richness of the Duke research community–just strike up a conversation with a similarly curious soul!



By YunChu Huang, Duke 2016

Star Wars and Space Travel: The Study of Science through Popular Movies

Who says class has to be all about lectures and labs? Andrés Aragoneses, a quantum optics researcher at Duke, has created a class called “Science & Science Fiction” in conjunction with the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Duke (OLLI). The course explores hot science fiction topics through the study of famous movies – from Star Wars, to Independence Day, to The Martian.

Professor Aragoneses teaching the class about the Big Bang Expansion

Professor Aragoneses teaching the class about the Big Bang Expansion

The unconventional idea to use movies as the primary medium for the class was born during Professor Aragoneses’s time teaching in Spain. Physics professors at his university had found that in order to get students to follow their classes, they had to do more than just explain Newton’s law and demonstrate practice problems. So, they began to relate these complex topics to media that the students were familiar with — news, cinema, and comics.

Each week, the OLLI group watches small scenes of movies that use scientific concepts in their production, and then learns the true theories behind these concepts. Most movies are quite fantastic when it comes to their scientific aspects, and this leads to incorrect representations of cosmological, physical, and astronomical phenomena on the screen. Focusing on a single concept each class, Aragoneses debunks Hollywood myths about natural disasters, comets, solar flares, neutrinos, and magnetic fields (to name a few).

Astronauts traveling with fuel packing in "Mission to Mars"

Astronauts traveling with jet packs in “Mission to Mars”

One week, the class focused on the dynamics of travel in space, calling on “Mission to Mars” to provide them with their screen reference. In one particular scene, astronauts are walking on Mars, propelled by air coming out of their backs and pushing them forward. The class learned that due to the lack of frictional force in space, the astronauts would, in reality, never run out of fuel since they would not need to push as hard as the movie suggested, using up much less fuel. The popular movie reference allowed Aragoneses to easily segue into the topics of friction, Newton’s laws, and the reality of space travel for the remainder of the class, while still holding the students’ attention. The group also analyzed the scientifically impossible behavior of deadly neutrinos in scenes from “2012” to learn about their true movement, and watched parts of “Independence Day” to better understand meteors and atmospheric interferences.

Astrophysicist searching for new planets by analyzing star movements.

Astrophysicist searching for new planets by analyzing star movements.

Occasionally, Aragoneses uses scientifically sound movies to study different concepts. One scene in Star Wars features Obi-Wan searching for a planet he is not able to find in existing maps. Yoda explains to him that the movement of the other stars in the sky is suspicious, and reasons that something must exist in between, although Obi-Wan cannot see it. The scene demonstrates the true manner in which astrophysicists search for new planets; since they are so tiny, they analyze movements of surrounding stars to detect their presence rather than searching for the planets themselves. Clearly the Grand Jedi Master knew a thing or two about the real universe!

Aragoneses’s idea to teach the class in such a unique fashion has evidently captivated his students; they often return after the week with new questions, suggestions for future movie references, and an excitement to continue their exploration of elaborate scientific concepts. The class has been a learning experience for Aragoneses as well, as he has had the chance to watch movies he hadn’t previously seen, and develop a deeper understanding of the concepts he teaches. He has so thoroughly enjoyed his work on the class in fact, that he is considering continuing to teach for OLLI in the future.

For those who are interested in enrolling in one of Aragoneses’s future classes, or another class hosted by OLLI, please visit their website. The Institute teaches about 100 different courses that range in topic from history, to science, to politics, to religion. The courses are taught both by Duke professors, and by other individuals from the Durham area.

Anika Ayyar_100Post by Anika Ayyar

Duke co-hosts THInC: Triangle Health Innovation Challenge

Blue Devils and Tar Heels may be rivals on the court, but there is little doubt they can be partners in research and innovation.


Participants broke into teams, and spent the weekend working on their solutions.

Last weekend, the Duke School of Medicine Innovation and Entrepreneurship Activity Group and the Carolina Health Entrepreneurship Initiative jointly organized the first ever Triangle Health Innovation Challenge (THInC), a 48-hour ‘hackathon’  that brought together students, clinicians, engineers, and business people from around the Triangle to collaborate on solving problems in healthcare and medicine.

The organizers wanted to tap into the collective knowledge of the Triangle to tackle healthcare problems in novel ways, and to engage individuals who did not necessarily see themselves as healthcare innovators.

“We realized that the Triangle has an immense pool of academic, clinical, and technical talent, but these groups of people rarely interact,” said co-organizer Tanmay Gokhale, an M.D./Ph.D. student in Biomedical engineering at Duke. “We wanted to bring them all into the same room and empower them to make a difference in healthcare.”


Teams had the chance to meet with mentors, who advised them on their ideas and business strategies.

On Friday, the first evening of the event, 127 participants pitched 44 different healthcare problems, proposed 25 solutions, and broke into 15 teams that were, for the most part, interdisciplinary and involved members from across the Triangle.

Many Pratt School of Engineering students, both undergraduate and graduate, participated in the event, and several were members of  winning teams.

Each team worked through the weekend, designing and creating a product that delivered on a proposed solution. The projects ranged from evaluating treatment and clinic options for patients through a mobile app, to informing future patients by crowdsourcing opinions and advice from people who had experienced similar medical situations.


Teams, judges, and audience members gathered in the Trent Semans Center for Health Education on Sunday afternoon for the final presentations.

The ingenuity and quality of the solutions that were presented on Sunday afternoon was stunning; each team had drawn from their own firsthand experiences with the shortcomings and challenges of the healthcare system to deliver targeted, nuanced products that tackled meaningful issues.

In a time-cap of three minutes, each team presented the fruits of their weekend of hacking, and were judged not only on their creativity and technical complexity, but also on clinical and business feasibility. Four winners were awarded $13,000 in cash and credits to work with the API (programming interface) of Validic, a Durham company that collects de-identified patient data from medical devices, wearables and apps.

Team Tiba, the winner of the grand prize, created a wearable physical therapy activity tracker to ensure that patients performed their physical therapy exercises regularly and correctly.

Team Breeze, winner of the runner-up prize, presented a smart lung function trainer and app to encourage pursed-lip breathing exercises in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Team Leia, the winners of the Mosaic Health Solutions prize, developed a digital to-do list for physicians, which integrated intimately with stores of data in order to send live push notifications about patient updates and prioritize different actions for different studies. The team hoped to improve

Team Tiba, winners of the Grand Prize and the Validic mHealth Prize, pose after the awards ceremony.

Team Tiba, winners of the Grand Prize and the Validic mHealth Prize, pose after the awards ceremony.

patient and physician satisfaction as well as patient safety, by assuring that doctors were up to date on conditions and constantly in sync with changes and improvements. Their prototype piggybacked off of current medical APIs, and queried existing data, making it easy for the roughly 150,000 clinicians who already store their data online to easily transition to the app.

Given the immense success of THInC, the organizers said they’re already planning to do it again next year. They’d like to recruit more students as well as more professional developers and programmers so that more teams could come away with a functioning prototype of their solution.

For any questions regarding the event, or planning, promoting, or executing next year’s event, please contact Interested individuals can also join the Health 2.0 NC Triangle group to participate in other similar events and meet similarly minded people in the area – all are welcome!

Anika Ayyar_100Post By Anika Ayyar

Mighty Research Grows from DIBS Seeds

Groundbreaking neuroscience studies, referred to as the “final frontier” of research by Duke Institute for Brain Sciences director Allen Song, were the focus of the grand opening celebration at DIBS last week.

The Institute celebrated its new home underground at the Levine Science Research Center with a symposium and then a party on Sept. 10.

Faculty and students across multiple schools and disciplines worked together for the chance to earn dibs on DIBS seed money in a competition known as the Incubator Awards. Each project sought seed grants of up to $150,000 for their research in the hopes that they could show enough promise to earn outside funding and continue their work.


Dr. Greg Crawford presenting his project, “Epigenetics of Neuronal Differentiation”

The awards program began in 2007, and it’s working. DIBS seed funding of $3.4 million has been given to 34 projects which then garnered $40 million in federal and foundation grants to Duke.

These research projects have resulted in 36 research publications, three invention disclosures and patents, and more than 30 undergraduate and graduate students becoming involved with pioneering investigations into the human’s most complex organ.

Here are a few of the award-winning projects:

With their project, “Disentangling Autism,” scientists Kafui Dzirasa (Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences); Yong-hui Jiang (Pediatrics & Medical Genetics); and William Wetsel (Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences) sought to improve understanding of the pathology of autism by comparing mice with a gene for autism called SHANK3-KO with those who were born without it.

The team began using brain scans of the mice, after noting the many limitations of comparing behavioral abnormalities of affected mice to humans with the disorder. The brain scans revealed that the mice with the gene had atypical brain connectivity. The researchers intend to work with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to use these results in order to develop drugs that provide better treatment for autism.

“Retinal Imaging Biomarkers for Alzheimer’s Disease,” hoped to improve on the limited and invasive options for diagnosing the disease. A team that included James Burke (Neurology); Scott Cousins (Ophthalmology); Sina Farsiu (Biomedical Engineering and Ophthalmology); Eleonora Lad (Ophthalmology); Guy Potter (Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences); and Heather Whitson (Medicine, Geriatrics) worked in the Duke Imaging Processing Lab  to identify Alzheimer’s patients by examining their eyes.

Blue stain shows where the HARE5 gene was active in this unusually big-brained mouse embryo. (Debra Silver)

Blue stain shows where the HARE5 gene was active in this unusually big-brained mouse embryo. (Debra Silver)

The same neuro-inflammatory injuries found in the brain may also be seen in the retina, which is much more visible to doctors looking for a diagnosis. While there have been previous studies on the subject, they have been limited by factors such as small sample size and outdated imaging techniques. Using DIBS’s resources allowed the team to circumvent these issues and gather valuable data. The team’s next steps include studying the retina damage’s association with age-related macular degeneration, as well as completing one-year follow-up examinations of the patients’ progression.

“Brain Evolution” was a project launched by Blanche Capel (Cell Biology); Debra Silver (Molecular Genetics & Microbiology); and Greg Wray (Biology) with the goal of learning about the role of enhancers that regulate genes in brain development. The scientists studied how HARE5, an enhancer that is very pronounced in humans, was involved in the development of the cerebral cortex.

Mice raised with human HARE5 were shown to have a 12% larger brain on average than their typical counterparts. This was the first functional demonstration that species-specific enhancers impact development of the cerebral cortex. Future goals of the team include studying how HARE5 affects adult mice, as well as investigating the roles of HARE2 and HARE3.

(Watch video of DIBS education staff Len White and Minna Ng sharing real human brains with visitors to the “Think Inside the Box” kickoff celebration.)

Devin_Nieusma_100Post by Devin Nieusma