Hidden No More: Women in STEM reflect on their Journeys

Back when she was a newly-minted Ph.D., Ayana Arce struggled to picture her future life as an experimental physicist. An African American woman in a field where the number of black women U.S. doctorates is still staggeringly small, Arce could not identify many role models who looked like her.

“I didn’t know what my life would look like as a black postdoc or faculty member,” Arce said.

But in the end, Arce – an associate professor of physics at Duke who went on to join the international team of physicists who discovered the Higgs Boson in 2012 — drew inspiration from her family.

“I looked to the women such as my mother who had had academic careers, and tried to think about how I could shape my life to look something like that, and I realized that it could be something I could make work,” Arce said.

Adrienne Stiff-Roberts, Fay Cobb Payton, Kyla McMullen, Robin Coger and Valerie Ashby on stage at the Hidden Figures No More panel discussion.

Adrienne Stiff-Roberts, Fay Cobb Payton, Kyla McMullen, Robin Coger and Valerie Ashby on stage at the Hidden Figures No More panel discussion. Credit: Chris Hildreth, Duke Photography.

Arce joined five other African American women faculty on the stage of Duke’s Griffith Film Theater March 23 for a warm and candid discussion on the joys and continuing challenges of their careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

The panel, titled “Hidden Figures No More: Highlighting Phenomenal Women in STEM,” was inspired by Hidden Figures, a film which celebrates three pioneering African American women mathematicians who overcame racial segregation and prejudice to play pivotal roles in NASA’s first manned space flight.

The panel discussion was spearheaded by Johnna Frierson, Director of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at the Pratt School of Engineering, and co-sponsored by the Duke Women’s Center. It was followed by a free screening of the film.

Though our society has made great strides since the days depicted in the film, women and minorities still remain under-represented in most STEM fields. Those who do pursue careers in STEM must overcome numerous hurdles, including unconscious bias and a lack of colleagues and role models who share their gender and race.

“In my field, at some of the smaller meetings, I am often the only black woman present at the conference, many times I’m the only black person at all,” said Adrienne Stiff-Roberts, an Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Duke. “In that atmosphere often it can be very challenging to engage with others in the way that you are supposed to, and you can feel like an outsider.”

Valerie Ashby and Ayana Arce onstage at the Hidden Figures No More panel discussion

Valerie Ashby and Ayana Arce shared their experiences. Credit: Chris Hildreth, Duke Photography

Stiff-Roberts and the other panelists have all excelled in the face of these challenges, making their marks in fields that include physics, chemistry, computer science, mechanical engineering and electrical engineering. On Thursday they shared their thoughts and experiences with a diverse audience of students, faculty, community members and more than a few kids.

Many of the panelists credited teams of mentors and sponsors for bolstering them when times got tough, and encouraged young scientists to form their own support squads.

Valerie Ashby, Dean at Duke’s Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, advised students to look for supporters who have a vision for what they can become, and are eager to help them get there. “Don’t assume that your help might come from people who you might expect your help to come from,” Ashby said.

The importance of cheerleading from friends, and particularly parents, can never be overestimated, the panelists said.

“Having someone who will celebrate every single positive with you is a beautiful thing,” said Ashby, in response to a mother seeking advice for how to support a daughter majoring in biomedical engineering. “If your daughter is like many of us, we’ll do 99 great things but if we do one wrong thing we will focus on the one wrong thing and think we can’t do anything.”

Women in STEM can also be important and powerful allies to each other, noted Kyla McMullen, an Assistant Professor of Computer and Information Science at the University of Florida.

“I have seen situations where a woman suggests something and then the male next her says the same thing and gets the credit,” McMullen said. “That still happens, but one thing that I see help is when women make an effort to reiterate the points made by other women so people can see who credit should be attributed to.”

With all the advice out there for young people who are striving to succeed in STEM – particularly women and underrepresented minorities – the panelists advocated that everyone to stay true to themselves, above all.

“I want to encourage everyone in the room – whether you are a budding scientist or woman scholar – you can be yourself,” Ashby said. “You should make up in your mind that you are going to be yourself, no matter what.”

Kara J. Manke, PhD

Post by Kara Manke

Venturing Out of the Lab to Defend Science

It’s 6 p.m. on a Wednesday and the grad students aren’t at their lab benches. IM softball doesn’t start till next week, what gives?

We’ve snuck out of our labs a bit early to take in a dose of U.S. policy for the evening.

Politics fall far outside our normal areas of expertise. I’m a biology Ph.D. student studying plants — even with my liberal arts education, politics isn’t my bread and butter.

Buz Waitzkin of Science & Society (blue shirt) gave grad students a highly accelerated intro to matters of science policy.

But the current political climate in the U.S. has many scientists taking a more careful look into politics. Being scholars who have a sense of the world around us has become more important than ever.

“Agency regulation, funding, it’s all decided by our branches of government,” says Ceri Weber, a 3rd year Ph.D. candidate in Cell Biology.

Weber, a budding “sci-pol” enthusiast and the general programming chair for the student group INSPIRE, feels passionately about getting scientists informed about policy.

So she organized this event for graduate scientists to talk with the deputy director of Duke Science & Society, Buz Waitzkin, who previously served as special counsel to President Bill Clinton, and now teaches science policy classes cross-listed between Duke’s Biomedical Science programs and the Law School.

Seated with food and drinks—the way to any grad student’s heart—we found ourselves settling in for an open discussion about the current administration and the impact its policies could have on science.

We covered a lot of ground in our 2-hour discussion, though there was plenty more we would love to continue learning.

We discussed: lobbying, executive orders, the balances of power, historical context, tradition, and civil actions, to name a few.

There were a lot of questions, and a lot of things we didn’t know.

Even things as simple as “what exactly is a regulation?” needed to be cleared up. We’ve got our own definition in a biological context, but regulation takes on a whole new meaning in a political one. It was neat having the chance to approach this topic from the place of a beginner.

We were floored by some of the things we learned, and puzzled by others. Importantly, we found some interesting places of kinship between science and policy.

When we discussed the Congressional Review Act, which impacts regulations—the main way science policy is implemented—we learned there is ambiguity in law just like there is in science.

One area on all of our minds was how we fit into the picture. Where can our efforts and knowledge as scientists and students can make a difference?

I was shocked to learn of the lack of scientists in government: only five ever in Congress, and three in the Cabinet.

But luckily, there is space for us as science advisors in different affiliations with the government. There are even Duke graduate students working on a grant to develop science policy fellowships in the NC state legislature.

At the end of the night, we were all eager to learn more and encouraged to participate in politics in the ways that we can. We want to be well-versed in policy and take on an active role to bring about change in our communities and beyond.

Hopefully, as the years go on, we’ll have more opportunities to deepen our knowledge outside of science in the world around us. Hopefully, we’ll have more scientists who dare to step out of the lab.

Guest Post by Graduate Student Ariana Eily

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

Does Digital Healthcare Work?

Wearable technologies like Fitbit have been shown to provide a short-term increase in physical activity, but long-term benefits are still unclear, even if recent studies on corporate wellness programs highlight the potential healthcare savings.

Headshot of Luca Foschini

Luca Foschini, PhD is a co-founder and head of data science at Evidation Health, and a visiting research scientist at UCSB. Source: Network Science IGERT at UCSB.

To figure out the effects of these technologies on our health, we need ways to efficiently mine through the vast amounts of data and feedback that wearable devices constantly record.

As someone who has recently jumped on the Fitbit “band” wagon, I have often wondered about what happens with all the data collected from my wrist day after day, week after week.

Luca Foschini, a co-founder and head of data science at Evidation Health, recently spoke at Duke’s Genomic and Precision Medicine Forum where he explained how his company uses these massive datasets to analyze and predict how digital health interventions — Fitbits and beyond — can result in better health outcomes.

California-based Evidation health uses real-life data collected upon authorization from 500,000-plus users of mobile health applications and devices. This mobile health or “mHealth” data is quickly becoming a focus of intense research interest because of its ability to provide such a wealth of information about an individual’s behavior.

Foschini and Evidation Health have taken the initiative to design and run clinical studies to show the healthcare field that digital technologies can be used for assessing patient health, behavioral habits, and medication adherence, just to name a few.

Foschini said that the benefits of mobile technologies could go far beyond answering questions about daily behavior and lifestyle to formulate predictions about health outcomes. This opens the door for “wearables and apps” to be used in the realm of behavior change intervention and preventative care.

Foschini speaks at Duke’s Genomic and Precision Medicine Forum

Foschini explains how data collected from thousands of individuals wearing digital health trackers was used to find a associations between activity tracking patterns and weight loss.

Evidation Health is not only exploring data based on wearable technologies, but data within all aspects of digital health. For example, an interesting concept to consider is whether devices create an opportunity for faster clinical trials. So-called “virtual recruiting” of participants for clinical studies might use social media, email campaigns and online advertising, rather than traditional ads and fliers. Foschini said a study by his firm found this type of recruitment is up to twelve times faster than normal recruitment methods for clinical trials (Kumar et al 2016). 

While Foschini and others in his field are excited about the possibilities that mHealth provides for the betterment of healthcare, he acknowledges the hurdles standing in the way of this new approach. There is no standardization in how this type of data is gathered, and greater scrutiny is needed to ensure the reliability and accuracy of some of the apps and devices that supply the data.

amanda_cox_100 Post by Amanda Cox

Economics and Health: The Biases Behind Our Decisions

Eric Finkelstein of the the Duke Graduate Medical School in Singapore studies how economic principles might be used to improve individual healthcare.

At a talk last Friday, Finkelstein, who was selected by Thomson Reuters as one of the world’s most influential scientific minds of 2015, argued that the same biases that affect our economic decisions could also influence our healthcare choices, and that understanding these biases could help motivate individuals to live healthy active lives.

In theory, people should be able to make healthy choices, Finkelstein said. Under the utility maximization model, individuals have the ability to rationalize and recognize the benefits of taking particular actions for themselves. But often we are not rational beings, he said, and there are several “deviations” that steer us away from maximizing our utility.

One of these deviations is the “present bias” preference, which leads us to make decisions in the present that our future self will regret. He discussed a particular experiment in which people are asked to choose what they will eat in one week’s time: a candy bar or an apple. Most choose the apple, but after a week, when they were given the opportunity to reevaluate their choice and change it, most switch to the candy bar.

This experiment shows not only the dynamic, unpredictable nature of our decisions, but also highlights our tendency to overestimate the will power of our “future selves.”

Another interesting bias that prevents us from being rational is our probabilistic assessment bias, which describes our tendency to overestimate the probability of very unlikely events, while underestimating the probability of those that are likely. This bias directly relates to health and our tendency to ignore the possibility of suffering a detrimental health problem like a heart attack, when in reality it’s quite commonplace.

Eric Finkelstein’s research, which focuses on the intersection between economics and global health, has gained him renowned success nationally and abroad. Source: Duke NUS Medical School.

To understand how these biases might influence individuals suddenly diagnosed with a terminal illness, Finkelstein and his medical team in Singapore conducted their own study on healthcare choices. In the experiment, both healthy and sick individuals were asked to identify what treatments they would prioritize if diagnosed with terminal cancer: level of pain, hours of care required, potential to extend life, cost of treatment and location of death.

Most healthy individuals said they would want whatever treatment was cheapest, but showed very little interest in investing in extending their life or selecting where they died. When sick patients were asked the same questions, on the other hand, they valued place of death (home was preferred) and survival time above everything else. Such information indicates just how difficult it is for us to predict where to invest in healthcare for cancer patients.

From this study and several others, Finkelstein concludes that we are not rational beings, but are instead irrational ones that feed off of biases and change our opinions constantly. But, he suggests that through the use of incentives, we can mediate these irrational biases and ultimately improve health outcomes.

 

Post by Lola Sanchez-Carrion

lola_sanchez_carrion_100hed

Lemur Poop Could Pinpoint Poaching Hotspots

DNA detective work aims to map the illegal pet lemur trade in Madagascar

Local business owners in Madagascar sometimes use ring-tailed lemurs to sell photo ops to tourists. Tourists visiting the country can easily support the illegal pet lemur trade unknowingly by paying to touch or have their picture taken with a lemur. Photo courtesy of the Pet Lemur Survey project (www.petlemur.com)

Businesses in Madagascar sometimes use ring-tailed lemurs to sell photo ops to tourists. Tourists visiting the country can easily support the illegal pet lemur trade unknowingly by paying to touch or have their picture taken with a lemur. Photo courtesy of the Pet Lemur Survey project (www.petlemur.com)

When Tara Clarke went to Madagascar this summer, she packed what you might expect for a trip to the tropics: sunscreen, bug spray. But when she returned seven weeks later, her carry-on luggage contained an unusual item: ten pounds of lemur droppings.

“That’s a lot of poop,” Clarke said.

A visiting assistant professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke, Clarke and colleagues are analyzing DNA from lemur feces to pinpoint poaching hotspots in Madagascar’s pet lemur trade.

Pet lemurs are illegal in Madagascar, the only place on Earth where lemurs — the world’s most endangered primates — live in the wild.

More than 28,000 lemurs were taken from the wild and kept as pets on the island between 2010 and 2013 alone, surveys suggest.

Many pet lemurs are captured as babies, separated from their mothers and sold for less than two dollars apiece to hotels and restaurants to lure tourists, who pay to touch the animals and have their photo taken with them.

Anyone caught removing lemurs from the forest, selling them, or keeping them without a government permit can be fined and sentenced to up to two years in jail. But the laws are difficult to enforce, especially in remote villages, where rural poverty is common and law enforcement personnel may be few.

Clarke (left) and LaFleur (right) co-direct a nonprofit called Lemur Love that aims to protect ring-tailed lemurs and their habitat in southern Madagascar. Follow them at https://www.facebook.com/lemurloveinc/.

Primatologists Tara Clarke (left) and Marni LaFleur (right) co-direct a nonprofit called Lemur Love that aims to protect ring-tailed lemurs and their habitat in southern Madagascar. Follow them at https://www.facebook.com/lemurloveinc/.

In 2011, Malagasy officials began confiscating pet ring-tailed lemurs, the most popular species in the pet lemur trade, and handing them over to a non-governmental organization in southwestern Madagascar called Renalia, home of the Lemur Rescue Center.

About two dozen ring-tailed lemurs are currently being rehabilitated there in the hopes that many of them will one day be reintroduced to the wild.

But rounding up all the lemurs held illegally in private hands and taking them in would be nearly impossible, Clarke said. “There just isn’t a facility big enough, or the funding or the manpower.”

If we can figure out where the animals are being taken from the forest, Clarke said, we might be able to target those poaching hotspots and try to prevent them from becoming pets in the first place through education and outreach initiatives.

Ring-tailed lemurs live in southern Madagascar, an island nation off the coast of Africa. Map by Alex Dunkel.

Ring-tailed lemurs live in southern Madagascar, an island nation off the coast of Africa. Map by Alex Dunkel.

This summer, Clarke and biological anthropologist Marni LaFleur of the University of California, San Diego began collecting baseline samples of ring-tailed lemur poop from national parks and protected areas around southern and southwestern Madagascar, where ring-tailed lemurs live in the wild. They also collected samples from 19 ex-pets at the Lemur Rescue Center.

The samples are being shipped to the Primate Molecular Ecology Laboratory at Hunter College in New York for analysis.

There, with help from lab director Andrea Baden, the team will use DNA extracted from the wild samples to build a map of variation in ring-tailed lemur genes across their range.

By analyzing the DNA of the ex-pets housed at the Lemur Rescue Center and comparing it with their map, the researchers hope to pinpoint or rule out where the animals were first taken from the wild.

In addition to collecting feces, Clarke and LaFleur also worked with local guides to count ring-tailed lemurs in their natural habitat and estimate how many are left.

The pet trade isn’t the only threat to lemur survival. Over the past 40 years, logging, slash-and-burn agriculture, and charcoal production have reduced forest cover in southwestern Madagascar by nearly half.

“Their habitat is disappearing,” said Clarke, who has conducted field research in Madagascar since 2004.

Their 2016 census suggests that fewer than 2000 ring-tailed lemurs remain in the wild — a significant decline compared with the last census in 2000, when ring-tailed lemurs were estimated based on satellite images to number more than 750,000.

In every town the researchers visited they also passed out hundreds of posters about the illegal pet lemur trade as part of a nationwide education campaign called “Madagascar’s Treasure: Keeping Lemurs Wild,” which aims to raise interest in protecting the few wild populations that remain.

Lemur protection programs such as theirs can also benefit other threatened wildlife that share the lemurs’ forest habitat, such as the giant-striped mongoose and the radiated tortoise.

Keeping lemurs as pets isn’t unique to Madagascar. “There are thousands of lemurs in private hands in the U.S. too,” said Andrea Katz, curator at the Duke Lemur Center. Every year, the Duke Lemur Center gets phone calls from people in the U.S. looking for answers to questions about their pet lemurs’ health or behavioral problems.

“In some states it’s legal to have a pet lemur,” Clarke said. “You can find them online. You can find them in pet stores. A lot of times what happens is they reach sexual maturity and they get aggressive, and that’s when people call a zoo or a sanctuary.”

“Because you can see ring-tailed lemurs in zoos and movies people don’t think that they need our help. They don’t believe that they’re endangered. We’re trying to change that view,” Clarke said.

This research was supported by grants from the Margot Marsh Biodiversity Foundation and Conservation International’s Primate Action Fund.

These crowned lemurs are among more than 30 of the roughly 100 known lemur species in Madagascar that are affected by the pet lemur trade. Explore interactive data visualizations of pet lemur sightings in Madagascar by species, date and location at http://www.petlemur.com/data-visualization.html. Photo courtesy of the Pet Lemur Survey project (www.petlemur.com)

These crowned lemurs are among more than 30 of the roughly 100 known lemur species in Madagascar that are affected by the pet lemur trade. Explore interactive data visualizations of pet lemur sightings in Madagascar by species, date and location at http://www.petlemur.com/data-visualization.html. Photo courtesy of the Pet Lemur Survey project (www.petlemur.com)

Robin Smith

 

Post by Robin A. Smith