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


Duke Engineers Build Bridges in Rwanda

Summer means something different for everyone; for some, the months after school let out mean total relaxation, and for others, it’s time to get cranking on jobs and internships that help build on new skills. For a group of ten Duke students in the Pratt School of Engineering, this past summer consisted of an incredible trip to Rwanda through Duke Engineers for International Development, (DEID) a student-led club on campus.


Members of the Duke team of DEID standing on the bridge they built.

My roommate, Catherine Wood (Pratt ’18) was one of the fearless students on this trip. Her specific group of DEID members partnered with Bridges to Prosperity, a non-profit that specializes in building bridges in underdeveloped countries, especially within Africa and Latin America.


Members of the team carrying rocks on their heads.

Her team began working on their project at Duke last spring, when they virtually designed their bridge using a software program called AutoCAD. They worked through multiple rounds of prototypes to get their design approved by Bridges to Prosperity, and organized construction schedules and determined what quantities of each material they would need for their project.


Inauguration ceremony for the bridge.

In mid-May, the team journeyed to Rwanda and began the digging process. Much of their work consisted of carrying rocks from where they were dumped (about 150 meters away) to the bridge site, and while some people used wheelbarrows to transport the rocks, others (like Catherine on the left) mastered the skill of carrying them on their heads!

The students spent six weeks building the tiers and anchors of the bridge, and laying the cable, and after their power tools arrived, they spent the final week laying wooden slats across the bridge to establish the surface. Throughout the process, the team worked closely with a university in Kigali, Rwanada called IPRC, where they fabricated metal material for both their bridge, and another bridge being built nearby.


Martha, a member of the Duke team, playing jumprope with some of the local children.

Physically building the bridge and working through the experience of designing and constructing an architecture project was certainly one of the main highlights of the trip, but getting to know the other students on the trip as well as the local community was Catherine’s favorite part. The Duke team lived behind the local school, so they played basketball and soccer daily with the children, and helped them practice their English. They also grew very close with the workers after spending nine or ten hours a day working alongside them. Though conversation was initially difficult, the team moved past the language barrier after the first couple weeks, and forged genuine, meaningful relationships.

As for the Duke team, Catherine remarks that she could not have asked for a better group of people to work with day in and day out. Each member of the team put so much effort into building relationships with community members, and into building the bridge itself, and no member of the team took any aspect of their experience for granted.

Anika Ayyar_100By Anika Ayyar

New Blogger: Meet Devin Nieusma

2015-09-03 17.36.37

Hi! I’m Devin, one of the newest members of the Duke Research Blog team, as well as the Duke community as a whole. I’m thrilled to be given the opportunity to write about some of the research going on at this incredible school. It amazes me to think that some of the people I’ve jostled with for a spot on the C-1 bus may be involved in cutting-edge investigations into biomedical engineering, education, animal behavior, economics, and much more.

I hail from a variety of places, including Michigan, Tennessee, and Belgium, but most recently Reston, Virginia. Now, Pegram is the place I call home.

Two adult guinea pigs, from Wikimedia Commons

Two adult guinea pigs, from Wikimedia Commons

Back at home, I was involved in a project working on developing a sustainable agriculture system for my high school. I also volunteered as a foster parent for a guinea pig rescue for several years.  While I miss working for that noble cause, I’ve swapped out guinea pigs for lemurs by becoming a member of the Roots & Shoots club here on campus. Other activities I’m involved in are the Outing Club, the Environmental Alliance, and most recently, the eco-representative organization for my residence hall.

I’m pretty much all over the map at Duke, both in terms of my academic interests and the amount of times I’ve gotten hopelessly lost. However, I am strongly considering a double major in environmental science and French.

I can’t wait to help share the research projects that my fellow Blue Devils are working on!

Aspiring data scientist & cow mascot joins Duke Research Blog

I’m YunChu. In my former (read: pre-Duke) life, I was a dashing cow mascot/enthusiast, sousaphone player, and preschool teacher.

Charming a bride who desperately needed a Chick-fil-A milkshake after her wedding party

Charming a bride who desperately needed a Chick-fil-A milkshake after her wedding party

Since then, I’ve played the bassoon with my professor at a local Durham bar, drank my fair share of subpar Turkish beers in the beautiful city of Istanbul, and spent a disproportionate amount of my college career standing in front of the extensive chocolate bar selection in our beloved campus café, Bella Union. Now a senior at Duke, I’m scrambling to figure out the meaning of life along with my thesis topic and slowly coming to terms with my (appalling) recent discovery of the fact that you cannot spell YunChu without the “unc”.

Sometimes I get to do cool things like write briefs for congressmen or explore data management options for the White House Switchboard. This time, as you might have inferred from the title of this post, I’ve acquired the newest and coolest job on campus where I’ll be going around bugging friends, professors, and strangers alike about blogging their research—I’ve finally found a good excuse!

Join me as I document my last year of exploring this rich community that is Duke Research, brought to you in cocktail conversation-esque snapshots. We’ll be marveling over elegant solutions, chuckling over quirky explanations, and having a grand ole’ time appreciating just how diverse and incredible our friends and colleagues really are.

headshot_yunchuBy YunChu Huang, Duke 2016


New Blogger: Madeline Halpert


Madeline Halpert, Duke 2019

Hi! My name is Madeline Halpert and I am a freshman at Duke this year. I grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, so I’m very excited about the Durham weather, and to be a writer for the Duke research blog!

Although I do not have an extensive background in science, besides the typical high school science courses, I look forward to the many opportunities to learn about the scientific field here at Duke. I have some experience in journalism, as I was an editor-in-chief of my high school newsmagazine. I have also written an op-ed in The New York Times as well as a piece for Scholastic’s Choices Magazine about teenagers who have struggled with depression. In the past I have enjoyed writing in-depth feature stories about topics such as the pressures of the high school educational system, mental health and incarceration. This year, I am excited to broaden my areas of expertise and try a different style of writing. I think the Duke research blog will be the perfect place to do that.

Over the next four years I plan to take a variety of science courses, and try out some of the wonderful research opportunities Duke has to offer.

Although I am not certain of my major, I am leaning towards studying English and perhaps obtaining a certificate in journalism. In my free time, I enjoy long distance running and playing guitar, and am happy to be a part of The Chronicle and the running club this year.

I’m very much looking forward to learning about different types of research and researchers, and sharing my experiences via blogging!

Student Ideas Have a Place to Call Home

Student project teams have become an important part of engineering education at Duke and elsewhere in recent years, but our campus wasn’t always the easiest place for them to work.


DukeMakers showed off a 3D-printed replica of Duke Chapel in the same blue as its construction tarping.

When the robotic submarine team needed to test for leaks in their craft, “we used to roll a bin down the hallway at CIEMAS and fill it up at the water fountain,” said Will Stewart, a junior on the club.

Stewart was showing off his team’s shiny new workroom in The Foundry, a purpose-built 7,600-square-foot space on two levels in the basement of Gross Hall. It has a huge industrial sink.


The Foundry’s airy main workspace was once the home to grimy, ugly machinery that sustained Gross Hall.

Throughout the Foundry, lockers for gear double as whiteboards and sturdy butcher block tables stand ready to take any pounding, grinding and soldering the students can dream up.

In addition to the dedicated spaces for the larger project teams. there is plenty of meeting space and shop space for optics and electronics and some light machining.

Originally the home to big, ugly utilities for the one-time chemistry building, the Foundry space was converted for student use with input from students and faculty representing the Pratt School of Engineering, the Innovation Co-Lab, Duke Innovation and Entrepreneurship, the Nicholas School of the Environment, the Physics Department, and Gross Hall neighbors the Energy Initiative and the Information Initiative.

“It’s amazing that what was actually an ugly space in the basement could turn into a beautiful space for students,” Interim Engineering Dean George Truskey said in brief remarks.


Owen Chung demonstrated IEEE’s robo drink mixer that can combine six different fluids on command from an iPhone app.

The Electric Vehicle Club is looking forward to having one good space, rather than six cramped rooms spread around Hudson Hall to build their super-efficient carbon fiber prototypes. “So far, what we have fits, but we’re actually looking for more space,” said club president Charlie Kritzmacher. “We’re a pretty big club.”

Karl Leif Bates

By Karl Leif Bates, Director of Research Communications