Duke Institute for Brain Sciences Announces Seed Grants for Five Interdisciplinary Teams

2020 Research Incubator or Germinator Awards.

Five interdisciplinary teams have received 2020 Research Incubator or Germinator Awards from the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences (DIBS). The awards are designed to promote high-risk/high-return neuroscience research that is collaborative, crosses disciplinary boundaries, and is likely to draw external funding.

The research teams will address health issues affecting millions, including spinal-cord injuries, the relationship between tobacco use and chronic pain, how changes in the gut are communicated to the brain, the use of novel technologies to understand the neural mechanisms of Parkinson’s disease, and the effects of toxins on the developing brain. They represent multiple departments and schools, including the Duke School of Medicine, the Pratt School of Engineering, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, and the Nicholas School of the Environment.

Three of the Incubator Award teams will receive $75,000; a fourth will be funded at $100,000 through the generosity of the DIBS External Advisory Board. Previous awards have brought in significant external grants after the initial seed funding, resulting in a seven-to-one return on investment over the past six years. The follow-on grants typically come from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and private foundations. The fifth is a Germinator Award of $25,000 that will support a study led by a graduate student with support of faculty mentors.

“We are pleased to be able to make these awards and highlight the value of interdisciplinary research,” said DIBS Director Geraldine Dawson, PhD, in announcing the award recipients. Even during these financially challenging times, Dawson noted, “we remain strongly committed to supporting collaboration and innovation in the neurosciences at Duke. We were especially pleased to see the breadth of departments and schools that received funding.”

Dawson also expressed gratitude for the generosity of the External Advisory Board. “Our board members are very enthusiastic and generous supporters of the Incubator program, and we thank them for making a fourth Incubator Award possible for 2020-2021.”

Following is information about all award recipients and their research projects:

DIBS External Advisory Board Incubator Recipient, $100,000

Timothy Dunn, PhD

Neurosurgery, School of Medicine

Michael Tadross, PhD, Biomedical Engineering, Pratt School of Engineering


 Parkinson’s Advance with DART and DANNCE

Parkinson’s disease is caused by a degeneration of brain areas controlling movement. However, while we know which area of the brain degenerates, we have not yet understood exactly how this degeneration leads to movement defects such as tremors and slowing/stiffening of body motions. If we understand this mechanism in animal models, we will be one step closer to next-generation therapies that mitigate the disease without debilitating side effects and without a loss in effectiveness over time. Two fundamental obstacles to this goal have been (1) that relevant brain areas contain intermingled neuron types that have been hard to individually manipulate with clinical drugs, and (2) movement impairments are complex and diverse, so we have not yet been able to measure these defects quantitatively. Our collaboration unites two different technologies, creating a novel framework for understanding Parkinson’s. The first, Drugs Acutely Restricted by Tethering (DART), enables delivery of any clinical drug to a specific brain-cell type in an animal. DART has already shown a novel causal link between the neurotransmitter glutamate signaling onto one neuron type and Parkinson’s disease. The second technology, 3-Dimensional Aligned Neural Network for Computational Ethology (DANNCE), uses deep learning to track the fine details of body movement in 3D. This technology allows us to more precisely identify the movement defects in Parkinson’s. With DIBS Incubator funding, we will pair DART with DANNCE to discover new relationships between neurons and movement defects and identify potential therapies.

Incubator Recipients, $75,000 each

Timothy Faw, PhD

Orthopaedic Surgery, School of Medicine

Daniel T. Laskowitz, MD, MHS, Neurology;

Muhammad Abd-El-Barr, MD, PhD, Neurosurgery;

Haichen Wang, MD, Neurology, School of Medicine

 A Novel Apolipoprotein E (apoE)-mimetic Pentapeptide to Improve Recovery in Acute Spinal Cord Injury

 Novel therapies that improve mobility after spinal cord injury (SCI) could lead to better quality of life and save billions of dollars in lifetime costs. Targeting the early inflammatory response to SCI is appealing, as it is the main cause of tissue damage after the initial injury. Apolipoprotein E (apoE) plays a critical role in mediating this neuroinflammation after nervous system damage. However, systemic delivery of the intact protein is ineffective as a therapeutic because it fails to cross the blood-brain barrier. As such, we have developed small, apoE-based peptides that mimic the function of the intact protein, cross the blood-brain barrier, and have few side effects. Here, we will test the hypothesis that early treatment with an apoE-mimetic peptide, CN-105, reduces inflammation, tissue damage, and improves recovery in a clinically relevant animal model of SCI. This peptide, developed at Duke, has received Investigational New Drug and Orphan Drug designations from the Food and Drug Administration, which will facilitate translation to early clinical trials.

Maggie Sweitzer, PhD

Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, School of Medicine

Katherine Martucci, PhD, Anesthesiology; F. Joseph McClernon, PhD, and Alison Adcock, MD, PhD, Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, School of Medicine

Neural Mechanisms Underlying Tobacco Withdrawal-Induced Hyperalgesia

Chronic pain and cigarette smoking influence one another, in that smokers are more likely to have pain, and individuals with pain are more likely to smoke. People with chronic pain have more difficulty quitting smoking, in part, because temporarily going without smoking (early withdrawal) leads to increased pain sensitivity. The goal of this study is to examine the brain’s response to heat pain stimuli among smokers in early withdrawal, to better understand the reasons for increased pain sensitivity. Daily smokers will complete two fMRI sessions, one after smoking as usual, and one after not smoking for 24 hours. During the scans, participants will experience heat pain delivered through an electrode and will provide ratings of their pain response. It is expected that participants’ ratings of pain in response to heat stimuli will be greater during the withdrawal session, and that this increased pain will be associated with greater activation throughout a network of brain regions involved in perceiving pain. This approach will allow us to determine which brain regions are most involved in pain sensitivity during withdrawal, which will help to identify targets for treatment. In addition, these processes might differ among smokers who also have chronic pain, compared to those who do not. As such, half of the participants will be those diagnosed with chronic pain, while the other half will be pain-free. We anticipate that the effects of smoking withdrawal on pain-related brain function will be more pronounced among those with chronic pain.

Eva Naumann, PhD

Neurobiology, School of Medicine

John F. Rawls, PhD, Molecular Genetics and Microbiology, School of Medicine

Gut-to-Brain Sensory Conduction in Zebrafish

Debilitating neuropsychiatric conditions such as autism, obesity, depression, and epilepsy can all be improved by changing diet and microbiome in the gut. Yet, it is largely unknown how these changes originating in the gut are communicated to the brain. Recent studies have revealed that gut-to-brain communication begins with a special cell type in the lining of the gut called enteroendocrine cells (EECs). For decades we have known there are different types of EECs that sense and respond to chemicals from diet and microbes by releasing hormones and neurotransmitters to influence the brain and other organs. Recent studies at Duke have revealed that some EECs also directly contact the vagal nerve, which serves as a key entry point to the rest of the brain. What we don’t know is whether EECs are able to communicate with deeper regions of the brain in general, and whether distinct chemical stimuli and distinct EEC types in the gut evoke distinct patterns of brain activity. Here, we propose to address these gaps in knowledge by combining the skills of a gut specialist, Dr. Rawls, and an expert in brain imaging and anatomy, Dr. Naumann, to establish a powerful vertebrate system to examine this gut-to-brain communication.

Germinator Recipient

Carina Fowler, Graduate Student, Psychology & Neuroscience, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences

Michael Gaffrey, PhD, and Aaron Reuben, PhD, Psychology & Neuroscience

Heather Stapleton, PhD, Environmental Ethics and Sustainable Environmental Management, Nicholas School of the Environment

Neural Correlates of Multi-toxicant Exposure in Preschool-age Children

Animal studies show that certain chemicals, called toxicants, may change our brains. Exposure to flame retardants, pesticides, air pollutants, and second-hand smoke appears to harm parts of the brain involved in learning, memory, coordination, emotion regulation, and long-term planning. Children are particularly vulnerable to these types of changes because they have greater exposure and fewer biological defenses than adults. This is particularly problematic because early childhood is a period of major neurobiological growth, and changes that occur during this critical developmental period can become permanent. However, many of the toxicants that could harm children’s brain development have yet to be studied in children directly, and no research to date has tested whether exposure to multiple toxicants produces greater harm—even though children are routinely exposed to multiple toxicants at once. Our study will help us understand the association between children’s brain structure and (1) exposure to individual toxicants and (2) combined exposure to multiple different toxicants at once. We believe that this work can help parents, pediatricians, and policymakers protect the developing brain.


By Kathy Neal; originally posted on the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences website

Join the Energy Humanities Working Group at Duke

Energy Humanities Working Group.

Scientists, engineers, policymakers, and activists are grappling with anthropogenic climate change and generating solutions to halt its progress. But humans’ relationships with energy and the environment are also important. Energy and its uses are deeply embedded in our lived experiences, relationships, identities, understandings, and narratives. Proposed changes in energy systems and practices must take these factors into account.

The Duke University Energy Initiative and the Franklin Humanities Institute invite faculty and graduate students from all disciplines to join an interdisciplinary community of scholars interested in exploring energy through the lens of the humanities. This working group will explore the emerging field of Energy Humanities through monthly discussions of shared readings and conversations with authors.

Questions to be examined may include (but are not limited to):

  • How do the forms of energy a society harnesses (and the means by which it does so) shape the environment, social relations, cultural practices, and humans’ relationships to their bodies, to space, and to time?
  • In the words of Imre Sizeman and Dominic Boyer, how have the fossil fuels that undergirded modernity for the past two centuries “pumped and seeped into the groundwaters of politics, culture, institutions, and knowledge in unexpected ways?”
  • How can scholars in the humanities apply their skills and expertise to help guide efforts to manage the challenges presented by anthropogenic climate change and to transition the global energy system away from fossil fuels?
  • What are the methodological boundaries of the Energy Humanities? How do they differ from other relatively new subfields such as Environmental/Ecological Humanities?

Scholars from all disciplines are welcome. Previous scholarship on energy-related topics is not required—participants need only possess an interest in exploring questions such as those above.

Are you a faculty member or graduate student who is interested in the working group? Complete this survey to receive more information about upcoming activities, including the Zoom link for an initial meeting on Mon., Nov. 19, 3-4:30 p.m. EST. Regular meetings will begin in January 2021.

Questions? Email Dr. Jon Free (jon.free@duke.edu), assistant director for research development at the Energy Initiative.

Duke Graduate Academy Winter Session Offers Free Short-Courses

Duke Graduate Academy.

The Duke Graduate Academy Winter Session will be offered December 7-18, 2020, and January 4-15, 2021.

The Duke Graduate Academy consists of skills-based short-courses that are open to all graduate and professional students as well as postdocs. There are no prerequisites or fees. This winter’s courses include:

  • Innovation Co-Lab
  • Best Practices in Mentoring
  • Communicating Research to Non-Experts
  • Community-Engaged and Community-Partnered Research
  • Interdisciplinary Project Management
  • Online Teaching
  • Planning and Publishing Digital Projects
  • Leading Teams
  • Introduction to Qualitative Research Methods

Registration is open on DukeHub for all students. Course descriptions, postdoc registration, and other Duke Graduate Academy information is available here: strategicplan.duke.edu/graduate-academy

Franklin Humanities Institute Invites Proposals for Faculty Book Manuscript Workshops in Spring 2021

Book Manuscript Workshop.

Deadline: November 10, 2020

The Franklin Humanities Institute’s Faculty Book Manuscript Workshop Program provides support for the development and completion of scholarly monographs. It provides a structure for generating constructive, informed criticism on near-final book manuscripts, at a moment in the writing process when authors can most effectively utilize feedback. The aim of the program is to transform already excellent scholarly projects into superior published works.

The FHI introduced the Faculty Book Manuscript Workshop Program in 2008 and developed it with generous funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation from 2011 to 2015. In recognition of the support that the program provides for faculty research, it is now funded by the Provost as part of the university’s academic strategic plan, Together Duke.

The Book Manuscript Workshop award includes funding as well as logistical support. (Note that it does not include fellowship or course-release funding.)


All regular rank faculty in the humanities, arts, and interpretive social sciences, regardless of seniority, are eligible to apply, but Assistant Professors will receive priority consideration. We are also interested in translations, collaborative projects, and innovative major publications in a variety of formats and platforms.

See the full RFP on the Franklin Humanities Institute’s website.

Ph.D. Students Can Power Up Their Summer

Energy Data Analytics Ph.D. Student Fellows.

Deadline: December 11, 2020

Supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Energy Data Analytics Ph.D. Student Fellows program at Duke University readies emerging scholars to apply cutting-edge data science techniques to energy challenges.

The program has recently expanded and is currently accepting applications for its 2021 cohort from doctoral students at Duke University, North Carolina A&T State University, North Carolina State University, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Learn more on the Energy Initiative website.

What’s Harming Our Wetlands?

Dead trees are an indicator of wetland degradation

Wetlands play an important role in keeping water clean, absorbing pollutants, and reducing floods. Keqi He, a Ph.D. student in Earth and Ocean Sciences, set out to learn what factors are contributing to their degradation in the southeast United States.

As a remote intern for the Eastern Forest Environmental Threat Assessment Center, part of the USDA Forest Service, He studied remote sensing data on North Carolina’s Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.

Keqi He was among nine Duke University doctoral students that received Summer 2020 Graduate Student Training Enhancement Grants (GSTEG) from the Office of the Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies. Wenhong Li served as faculty mentor.

Read on to learn more about He’s experience.

Keqi He.
Keqi He

Under the guidance of Ge Sun and Steve McNulty at USDA and my advisor Wenhong Li at Duke, I analyzed the Landsat NDVI data during the period of January 1995 to December 2014. I identified the locations and times of the wetland degradation over the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, North Carolina.

To further validate my findings, I requested the Forest Inventory and Analysis spatial data, [which is] “ground truth” data only available at the USFS in summer. My research further investigated possible causes of the wetland degradation.

We found that most wetland degradation occurred along the coastline around 2015-2016, and saltwater intrusion likely plays an important role in the wetland degradation that happened in the Alligator River.

Currently, I am working on summarizing all the results we got and writing a paper for publication, which will hopefully be able to provide useful information for climate mitigation research on wetlands over the Southeast US, a key goal of the USFS.

Besides the research guidance from Drs. Sun and McNulty, I also got the chance to attend seminars held by USFS and virtually meet with brilliant scientists in a similar field. This not only broadened my horizons, it enabled me to interact with people and no longer feel lonely and bored when I spent the whole day at home alone.

Overall, this grant greatly expands my research abilities on processing satellite data and facilitated my dissertation work. It served as an invaluable experience in my graduate study and research career.

Learn more about Graduate Student Training Enhancement Grants (GSTEG) and see other Summer 2020 recipients.

An Engineering Student’s Summer of Misinformation

Khari Johnson
Khari Johnson in Barcelona in 2019

Khari Johnson came to Duke to translate his love of science into engineering that can change the way medicine serves people. As a Ph.D. student in Biomedical Engineering preparing to write his dissertation proposal, he anticipated spending the summer of 2020 continuing his work on materials to be used in medical contexts. When the pandemic intervened, Johnson tapped into Duke’s pledge to provide summer employment opportunities for all Ph.D. students who needed them.

He secured a virtual internship with RTI International to assess how misinformation affects people’s receptivity to health initiatives. Guided by Brian Southwell, director of RTI’s Science in the Public Sphere program (and an adjunct faculty member at Duke), and Sarah Ray, communication scientist, Johnson worked with researchers who were interested in finding relationships between news coverage, social media patterns, online searches, and behavior related to medicine and well-being.

With collaborators in RTI’s Women’s Global Health Imperative, Johnson helped develop a survey of clinical researchers in various African countries regarding their perceptions of how medical misinformation is spread.

Thanks to a relationship between RTI’s Science in the Public Sphere program and the public television show NOVA, Johnson also contributed to a project to increase minority representation in STEM. “I got the privilege to work with NOVA Science Studio and assist with their efforts in hopefully starting a webinar/workshop series,” he said. He explained that the goal is “to get high schoolers from diverse backgrounds interested in science and STEM, building science literacy early on so we can improve their representation.”

Khari Johnson and Brian Southwell.
Khari Johnson and Brian Southwell during the 12th Annual RTI Internship Showcase

During the 12th Annual RTI Internship Showcase on August 7, attended by more than 150 people, Johnson said he hopes this work will help improve access to health improvements. “We can be doing a better job as far as expanding and diversifying the voices that are being presented [to reach a range of communities],” he said.

Looking back on the summer, Johnson highlighted the value of collaborative research. “For me, the biggest takeaway was that you can always find [people with] similar passions in the place you least expected it, and building on those collaborations can be very fruitful.”

Read his essay for NOVA, Finding My Voice.

Symposium on Misinformation and Mistrust

On October 2, 2020, Brian Southwell will chair a session of the Duke University symposium Misinformation and Mistrust: COVID-19 Conversations on Race and Gender Equity. Learn more and register for the online event.

Duke Summer Interns at RTI International

In addition to Khari Johnson, RTI hosted eight other Duke Ph.D. students. According to the internship showcase program:

  • Cole Campton (Computer Science) worked to understand project methodology, perform data management and analysis, and draft a written report for the International Education Division.
  • Tom Cinq-Mars (History) documented the use of off-grid energy products in Sub-Saharan Africa; worked with researchers to identify the impacts of off-grid energy on education, health, and agriculture outcomes; and served as head author of a journal article.
  • Travis Knoll (History) interned with the University Collaboration Office, where he was responsible for mapping stakeholders and writing narrative-driven summaries and case studies of collaborative projects.
  • Shawn Li (Environment) analyzed data, reviewed literature, and accomplished other activities for the Applied Public Health Research division.
  • Gabriel Madson (Political Science) was responsible for analyzing AddHealth data, determining patterns associated with non-consent to the use of wearable data, and writing a journal article based on the team’s findings.
  • Francisco Meneses (Public Policy) worked on conducting literature reviews about using technology to assess soft skills, performing research about how low-income countries provide educational continuity during COVID-19, and contributing to the research and development of policy briefs.
  • Mavzuna Turaeva (Economics and Public Policy) was responsible for conducting data analysis, coding, and researching for the International Education Division.
  • Tara Weese (Philosophy and Law) described trends in readability data for terms of service agreements, analyzed the content of these agreements, and drafted an article for publication with RTI Press about the findings.

Research Collaboration Strengthens Ph.D. Student’s Work on New Structural Design Technique

Clay Sanders.
Clay Sanders at the Louvre

Remember the pre-pandemic days when travel was possible? As he pursued dissertation research for a Ph.D. in Civil & Environmental Engineering, Clay Sanders went to Paris last year to study a new method of solving “topology optimization” problems in structural designs.

Working with the POEMS (Wave Propagation Mathematical Analysis, and Simulation) team at ENSTA Paris Tech, Sanders researched design optimizations that would determine the best structural design option prior to construction.

This opportunity provided Sanders with a significant component of his dissertation work and allowed him to explore other interests in art, architecture, and structural design. He was among 11 Duke students who received 2019-2020 Graduate Student Training Enhancement Grants (GSTEG) from the Office of the Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies. His faculty mentor was Wilkins Aquino.

A summary of his GSTEG experience is excerpted below.

On campus at ENSTA-Paris

I utilized my GSTEG for a research trip in June 2019 to ENSTA Paris Tech to investigate a new computational optimization technique to design structures. I worked with Professor Marc Bonnet, a researcher at ENSTA-Paris Tech, a small engineering university in Palaiseau, France, outside Paris. Professor Bonnet is a leader of the POEMS research group, which specializes in numerical methods to simulate wave propagation and solve physics-based optimization problems.

Topology optimization describes a class of structural design problems that seek to determine the optimal shape or form a structure so that they exhibit superior performance with respect to a performance metric. A common example would seek the optimal shape of a bridge, under a maximum weight constraint, to have maximum stiffness.

Our new approach, known as the “adaptive eigenspace basis method”, borrowed from computational techniques used to solve medium imaging problems for ultrasound or geological imaging applications. We showed that our new method could equivalently represent designs usually parameterized by thousands or millions of design variables with only a few dozen variables, enabling significant computational efficiency improvements.

Following the GSTEG trip, we refined the method and recently submitted a manuscript on the work to the International Journal of Numerical Methods in Engineering.

Beyond the research work conducted, I was able to explore Paris’s sites, and tastes, throughout my trip. ENSTA-Paris was only a short train ride outside of Paris, so I was able travel into the city each evening to explore the city. Other highlights of my trip included viewing Monet’s Water Lilies at the Musée de l’Orangerie, roaming the sculpture gardens at the Musée Rodin, sketching in the Luxembourg Palace gardens, visits to the Musée d’Orsay and the Louvre, and stops in as many Parisian pâtisseries as I could find.

Sketching in the Luxembourg Palace Gardens

Learn more about Graduate Student Training Enhancement Grants (GSTEG), see other 2019-2020 grantees and learn who received grants for Summer 2020.