Design a Collaborative Project for a Duke Undergraduate Course

Collaborative Project Expeditions.

Deadline: April 16, 2021 (priority)

The Bass Connections program offers Collaborative Project Expeditions, which provides support for doctoral students to work with a faculty sponsor to create or redesign an undergraduate course at Duke that integrates collaborative, project-based work as a central element of the course design. Participating students will receive a stipend of $1,500 and will be expected to spend approximately 75 hours over the course of the summer or a semester developing the collaborative project in consultation with their faculty sponsor. We expect to fund two to four doctoral students.

While we will consider applications on a rolling basis, the priority deadline for applicants proposing a Summer 2021 expedition is Friday, April 16 at 5:00 p.m.

What Are Collaborative Projects?

Collaborative projects are learning experiences that require students to work in teams on a research question using the academic knowledge and skills concurrently being developed in the course. Collaborative projects strengthen students’ ability to apply classroom learning to interdisciplinary or disciplinary challenges and work effectively on teams, and should culminate in the creation of new knowledge, tangible works and/or creative or artistic products.

Collaborative projects can take a variety of shapes and may be adjusted to fit different courses, disciplines, levels and goals. Examples of collaborative projects deployed in other courses include having teams of students:

  • Examine a collection of archival materials to develop an interactive library exhibit and research guides to “open” the archive to new scholarship
  • Develop, test and iterate an open-source application to address an identified problem
  • Work with nonprofit clients to design program evaluation plans that meet each client’s needs
  • Partner with an NGO to develop a white paper on a current or emerging policy issue

For an example of how faculty and doctoral students might leverage the Collaborative Project Expeditions program, read reflections from Professor of Sociology Jen’nan Read and Ph.D. student Colin Birkhead, who redesigned SOC 250: Immigration and Health to integrate client-based collaborative projects.

How Does the Expedition Work?

Participating doctoral students will be expected to work 75 hours over the course of the term to develop their collaborative project. Depending on the objectives of the faculty sponsor and participating student, this time may include:

  • Consultations between the student and faculty sponsor
  • Development or modification of a course syllabus and project modules
  • Design of course materials and resources for student teams
  • Development of assessment rubrics
  • Outreach to project partners and relationship cultivation

Specific tasks that doctoral students might think through as part of the expedition (with the caveat that no one student could do all of these tasks) would include how to:

  • Plan and scope collaborative projects
  • Structure class time
  • Design project plans, milestones and deliverables
  • Identify and cultivate relationships with internal and external project partners (if applicable)
  • Create and manage student teams
  • Manage collaborative student projects in remote learning environments
  • Design and/or connect students to relevant project resources
  • Assess student work (including teamwork)

In cases where a doctoral student is helping a faculty member redesign a course that already includes a collaborative project component, a narrower focus on a particular planning area may be more appropriate. For example, a student could focus her work on identification and outreach to external partners and relationship building, or resource creation for project scaffolding, or another element of project design entirely. Expectations for how a student spends his/her time will be dependent on what is most needed.

Students will participate in a brief virtual boot camp at the beginning of the program (depending on the number of students selected) and will have the option to “meet” as a cohort to brainstorm ideas and share experiences and lessons learned. Students will also be expected to write a short reflection on their experience for publication or for use in a professional portfolio or relevant job market materials related to pedagogy, teaching, teamwork/collaboration and/or project management.

Benefits for Doctoral Students

Through this opportunity, doctoral students will have the chance to practice course design, collaboration, project scoping and management, team building and leadership.

Ideally, this experience will enable doctoral students to:

  • Work collaboratively with faculty (and possibly staff and external partners) on course design, project management and team building
  • Think critically about course pedagogy and when to integrate collaborative projects into courses
  • Develop concrete learning objectives and clear course syllabi
  • Plan and scope applied research projects, especially with short timelines
  • Facilitate teamwork (e.g., build effective teams, develop and scaffold key resources, troubleshoot interpersonal/team issues)
  • Broaden their intellectual networks and build strategic external partnerships
  • Teach and mentor undergrads

Application and Selection

To apply, please email Meghan O’Neil ( a proposal including a:

  1. Description of the course that you will be helping to design/update, including an overarching vision for the collaborative project, how the project will be integrated into the course and how this project will enhance student learning in the course
  2. Plan detailing when you plan to complete this program (e.g., Summer 2021, Fall 2021, Spring 2022) and the specific tasks that you will undertake to develop this idea over 75 hours
  3. Statement of support from the faculty sponsor that includes a clear articulation of the faculty member’s commitment to the course design plan and the objectives of the proposed expedition
  4. Brief description of your other sources of funding during the period in which you plan to complete this program. Please include opportunities that are confirmed or in process, as well as those for which you plan to apply. (Please confirm that any awarded fellowships during the same period allow supplemental work and compensation.)

Applications will be reviewed by Bass Connections. The strongest applications will be those which include: a strong commitment from the faculty sponsor, clear rationale for how a collaborative project is integral to the course’s learning objectives, well-articulated expectations for what the student will achieve in their 75 hours of work, and evidence of a strong working plan between the student and her faculty sponsor.

Eligibility and Funding Restrictions

Participating students are responsible for adhering to financial policies and restrictions (including restrictions on hours of work per week) set by grantors of any other fellowships or positions held during the funding period. Please note that some fellowships do not allow supplemental funding. Please see the Graduate School Supplementation Policy for more information. We also advise that students consult with their advisor and Director of Graduate Studies about how this opportunity would fit in their academic and funding plans for the proposed period of work.


Meghan O’Neil, Bass Connections (

Propose a Project for the Bass Connections Student Research Award

Student Research Award.

Deadline: March 5, 2021


Bass Connections creates opportunities for graduate and undergraduate students to work alongside faculty to explore societal challenges through interdisciplinary research teams. The Bass Connections Student Research Award provides funds of up to $3,000 (for one to two students) or $5,000 (for groups of more than two students) to support student-directed research projects that meet one of the following parameters:

  1. Undergraduate and graduate students who have completed (or are completing) a Bass Connections year-long project team or summer program may propose to continue some aspect of the team’s work through a faculty-mentored research experience. Such research experiences may be either individual or collaborative although collaborative projects are preferred.
  1. Students who have participated in Bass Connections may also propose a research project that is not related to their Bass Connections experience so long as the proposed project is collaborative (i.e., involving at least two students) and interdisciplinary in nature.
  1. Undergraduate and graduate students who have not yet participated in Bass Connections may also apply so long as the proposed project is collaborative (i.e., involving at least two students) and interdisciplinary in nature.

Special restrictions due to COVID-19: While we aspire to support applied, student-driven research projects, the health and safety of students and the community are our top priority. For Summer 2021, we anticipated that students will be able to conduct on-campus research and live in on-campus housing. Duke-sponsored domestic and international travel will not be allowed in Summer 2021. Local fieldwork will continue to be subject to approval. Students may propose projects involving domestic or international travel in Fall 2021 or Spring 2022, but students should understand that any travel is subject to change in accordance with university policy.

When submitting a proposal, you should carefully consider whether the proposed research will be feasible under the current circumstances, and address in the proposal how you might adapt your research plan if aspects of the project are not feasible due to COVID-19 restrictions. If the proposed research involves in-person contact or fieldwork, the proposal should address how the team will adhere to COVID-19 protocols.

Other Eligibility Criteria

  • All projects must have a faculty mentor.
  • Projects must involve research.
  • Projects must occur within the next year (from May 2020 to May 2021).
  • Students must be active students during the time of the proposed research (i.e., graduating students are not eligible).
  • Students who have previously received a Bass Connections research award may not apply again.

For examples, view previous awardees from 2020 and 2019.

Proposal Criteria

Proposals should be no longer than five pages and should be submitted as a single document using this online form. Proposals are due Friday, March 5, 2021 at 5:00 p.m. ET and should include:

  • Abstract: Provide a brief summary of the project and the issue it will address (1-2 paragraphs, no more than 200 words).
  • Research plan: A brief narrative that articulates: 1) the goals of the research; and 2) a plan of how the research will be conducted, including a timeline for key activities.
  • Connection to Bass Connections: If this research follows directly from a Bass Connections team experience, please articulate this connection. For projects that are not connected to a Bass Connections team experience, please explain how the proposed project aligns with the Bass Connections model (team-based, interdisciplinary research around societal challenges), and the origins of the proposed work (e.g., inspired by an experience in a particular course, DukeEngage, Study Away, Duke Immerse, a humanities lab, an extra-curricular experience).
  • Team composition: List all students who will be involved in the research and any external partners.
  • Student development: For each student involved, explain how this project fits within their overall academic and professional plan.
  • COVID-19 contingencies: Please address any risks to your project plan based on evolving COVID-19 restrictions and how you might adapt the project as needed. If you are proposing research involving contact outside of the Duke community, please address how you will ensure that university COVID-19 protocols are followed.
  • Budget: Submit a budget plan (up to $3,000 total for projects involving one to two students or up to $5,000 total for projects involving more than two students) and timeline for the use of funds. Please list all other sources and amounts of support for the research project, both confirmed and anticipated/applied for (if applicable).

The following expenses are not allowable:

  • Students may not pay themselves for time spent conducting this research. This award is intended to cover material costs to enable you to accomplish your research goals.
  • Funds may not be used to purchase specific equipment costing more than $1,000 (e.g., computers, cameras).
  • Funds may not be used to cover personal living expenses at a permanent resident. Funds may only be used to cover temporary living expenses to conduct field research (which can include Durham during the summer only).

Allowable expenses might include: transcription services, local ground transportation, attendance at a conference to present your research (although note that this should not be the entirety of your proposal), travel expenses for field research (when COVID-19 travel restrictions are lifted), minor equipment such as recording devices for interviews, lab tests and materials, minor software not already offered by Duke, minor payments to research participants, subscriptions to surveying/data management tools, printing/publication expenses and books/training to support your research.

Please note that neither of these lists are all-inclusive, but rather are intended to help you consider common, allowable expenses.

  • Faculty endorsement: Submit a letter or e-mail of support from the faculty mentor (can be submitted as a separate attachment, if needed). This letter should articulate the faculty mentor’s willingness to supervise the project; why they feel the research is worthwhile; and any other relevant information about their connection to the proposer(s).

Review and Selection

We anticipate awarding funds to at least seven projects, with a preference for collaborative projects. Proposals will be reviewed by the Bass Connections Faculty Advisory Council and Bass Connections leadership. Decisions will be announced by March 31, 2021, and funds will be awarded as appropriate to the timing of the project.

As a condition of funding, awardees will be required to provide a 400-600 word reflection on their research experience, with photos, by no later than April 30, 2022. The Bass Connections program team may also check in with awardees during the year to request a short update.


Laura Howes, Director, Bass Connections; (919) 684-9021

Bass Connections Announces 2021-2022 Project Teams

2021-22 project teams.

Deadline: February 12, 2021

Duke students from all levels and schools are invited to check out the new Bass Connections project teams for 2021-2022.

The deadline for applications is February 12 at 5:00 p.m. EST.

A university-wide program, Bass Connections engages students in collaborative research on complex societal challenges, working alongside faculty from across Duke. Most project teams collaborate with partners outside Duke, including companies, nonprofits, universities, school systems, hospitals and government agencies. Many team members take their research further through grants, theses and other opportunities at Duke and beyond.

Project teams last for two semesters, and some include a summer component. Academic credit and summer funding are available.

Browse the 2021-2022 Project Teams by Theme

Each project team page contains a detailed project description, anticipated outputs, student opportunities, timelines and a list of team leaders.

Talk to Team Leaders at the Bass Connections Virtual Fair on January 29

Students of all levels are encouraged to register for the Bass Connections Virtual Fair on Friday, January 29. Teams participating in the fair will each be available for live Q&A and discussion during a one-hour block of time between 9:00 and 11:00 a.m. EST and 2:00 and 4:00 p.m. EST. Please review the times and Zoom links for each team and register for the fair to receive the passcode to access each Zoom room.

Students can drop into a Zoom session at any time to talk with project team leaders, Bass Connections staff, representatives from the Story+ Summer Program and Directors of Academic Engagement.

Students are also encouraged to view the short video overviews posted to the Virtual Fair page. Videos will be posted as they become available, but we expect the majority of videos to be posted by January 23.

Create Your Own Path

Need some help planning your Bass Connections pathway? Undergraduates can seek guidance from Duke’s Directors of Academic Engagement, who offer individualized, hour-long advising appointments to guide students through the process of integrating Bass Connections into their academic plans.

Graduate students can access a number of resources to guide their pathways, and the professional schools offer tailored advising services to their students. Ph.D. students in the humanities can consult with Duke’s Director of Graduate Student Advising and Engagement in the Humanities.

Before You Apply

Take some time to learn how project teams work, review FAQs, explore the benefits of participation and browse stories from students about their Bass Connections experiences. Please note that students can apply for up to three project teams.

Learn More

Duke Ph.D. Students Find Unexpected Benefits in an Unusual Summer

Six students share insights from their 2020 Provost’s Summer Fellowships
Amanda Rossillo.
“This experience looks great on a resume and it’s very fulfilling to apply your narrow research topic to something outside of academia,” said Amanda Rossillo, pictured in her lab.

When COVID hit last spring, many graduate students had to give up their summer plans for teaching, field research and internships. The Provost’s Office quickly pledged support, and Vice Provost Ed Balleisen spearheaded the effort to identify virtual opportunities.

Experiential fellowships with eight host organizations and research assistantships with more than 20 Duke units provided summer funding and career development for all 59 Ph.D. students in need. Every student who responded to Duke’s end-of-summer evaluation would recommend this kind of internship experience to other Ph.D. students.

Kim Bourne.
Kim Bourne chose a part-time fellowship, which she said was “a great way to gain experience in an area outside of my dissertation without hindering my progress.”

Kim Bourne (Civil & Environmental Engineering) got off to a strong start with Duke’s Bass Connections program. “It was incredibly helpful that my host gave me a list of goals at the beginning,” said Bourne, who developed resources for remote and in-person learning. “This experience helped me explore an area I am interested in professionally and is a great addition to my resume as I apply for jobs.”

Zach Levine (Cultural Anthropology) worked on syllabus design and modules for Durham Tech instructor Tom Magrinat’s psychology courses. “It’s very divergent from my dissertation,” said Levine, “but over time I’ve seen how helpful it is to think about other means of storytelling. It’s refreshed the importance for me of moving between different types of genre and tone.”

Four ingredients for natural selection.
A slide from a presentation Amanda Rossillo created for a lesson plan on evolution

Amanda Rossillo (Evolutionary Anthropology) benefited from constructive feedback as she worked with the Triangle Center for Evolutionary Medicine to create a lesson plan on evolution for teachers in North Carolina. “Working with Dr. Meredith Beaulieu as my mentor was an amazing experience,” Rossillo said. “Not only did she help me shape the content of my lesson plan, but more importantly, through this experience I became aware of one of my shortcomings, and my mentor helped me realize that and guided me in the right direction to work on improving.”

Khari Johnson.
Khari Johnson

Khari Johnson (Biomedical Engineering) spent his summer with RTI International to assess how misinformation affects people’s receptivity to health initiatives. Looking back, 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.”

Also at RTI, Mavzuna Turaeva (Public Policy and Economics) conducted data analysis, coding and researching for the International Education division. “I think the most useful element [of the fellowship] was exposure to nonacademic literature,” Turaeva reflected. “It turns out there is a huge body of research conducted by economists with Ph.D.s who work in nonacademic institutions, and I don’t think we get enough exposure to that literature during our program.”

Brooks Frederickson.
Brooks Frederickson is currently working on a project for Duke Symphony Orchestra using some of the skills he honed over the summer.

Brooks Frederickson (Music Composition) helped Sō Percussion host its first virtual summer institute for college-aged percussionists and composers. Having developed and delivered an online curriculum, Frederickson said the experience “helped me to gain knowledge of tools and procedures that I immediately put into practice as a Tech TA for the Music Department this semester.” Frederickson thanked Duke “for stepping up in a major way to ensure that the graduate students had opportunities this summer. This internship was a huge lifeline for me.”

Deepening a Partnership with Durham Tech

Eight external organizations (American Historical Association, Durham Tech, Modern Language Association, Museum of Durham History, National Humanities Alliance, National Humanities Center, RTI International, Society for Biblical Literature) served as summer fellowship hosts. Three students worked with Durham Tech faculty, extending a partnership between Duke and the community college.

Through a Humanities Unbounded pilot program begun in 2019, Durham Tech faculty and Duke Ph.D. students team up over the summer to develop new pedagogical modules for courses at the community college. In the fall, the Ph.D. students help implement the projects.

In the first cohort, Lisa Blair of Durham Tech worked with Patricia Bass (Art, Art History & Visual Studies) to incorporate more Francophone African literature and culture. Marina DelVecchio partnered with Maggie McDowell (English) to redesign courses on American women’s studies and literature.

The 2020 Durham Tech/Duke pairings were Janel Thompson and Pratistha Bhattarai (Literature), Jason Moldoff and Caoimhe Harlock (English), and Tom Magrinat and Zach Levine (Cultural Anthropology).

By Sarah Dwyer, Duke Interdisciplinary Studies

Bass Connections Invites Proposals for Interdisciplinary Project Teams in 2021-2022

Bass Connections teams.

Deadline: December 4, 2020

Bass Connections is now accepting proposals for 2021-2022 projects that engage faculty, undergraduates and graduate/professional students in the interdisciplinary exploration of complex societal challenges. Please see the project proposal guidelines.

The deadline to propose a project is December 4 at 5:00 p.m.

Projects may be proposed in relation to one or more of the five, broad interdisciplinary themes of Bass Connections, or to Bass Connections Open – a channel that invites proposals that align with the model of Bass Connections but otherwise fall outside the parameters of the existing themes. This year, we particularly welcome and encourage projects – proposed to any theme – focused on racial injustice and inequality, systemic racism and social justice. Themes include:

Bring Your Questions to Drop-in Office Hours

Interested faculty, particularly those who have never led a Bass Connections team, are encouraged to contact a Bass Connections theme leader or Laura Howes, Director of Bass Connections. This year, faculty can also discuss potential ideas or ask questions during our Zoom office hours on:

Special Opportunities for 2021-2022

When completing a proposal, faculty may choose to take advantage of the following opportunities. Please note that applying for these opportunities will not increase your project budget, but rather may increase the likelihood that your project will be selected by allowing us to leverage funds designated for a specific purpose. For more information on each opportunity, please see the full project proposal guidelines.

  • Joint proposal for a Bass Connections project and Summer 2021 Data+ project (You may propose a Data+ project linked to a year-long Bass Connections project through the Bass Connections RFP – you do not need to complete a separate application for Data+. However, to align with the Data+ timeline, you must submit your proposal by November 2. We also encourage faculty to link year-long Bass Connections projects to Story+. Faculty wishing to apply to Story+ must also complete the Story+ RFP, also due December 4.)
  • Biodiversity Conservation
  • Ethics
  • Arts
  • Humanities

Learn More

Open Design+ Course Asks Students, How Might We Use the Pandemic to Transform Learning?

Aria Chernik.

Aria Chernik (Associate Professor of the Practice, Social Science Research Institute) will co-lead Open Design+ in Summer Session II. Open Design+ is a new summer program offered through the Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative and is part of Bass Connections.

This summer, students will work through the open design thinking process to create a prototype in the problem space: In light of COVID-19, how might we transform learning at Duke?

Why is this course a good fit for summer during the pandemic?

Open Design+ teaches students how to ideate, create, test, and iterate impactful solutions to real-world, complex problems. The pandemic, of course, is an example of just this kind of problem. We need to be able to think big and act creatively—and above all with empathy—to find solutions that can propel communities forward. That’s what students will be doing this summer.

Why did you want to teach this course?

This course combines some of my most strongly-held professional and personal interests and passions. It combines student-driven education innovation with the ethics of open source values and design thinking methodologies.

Can you give us an overview of what you’ll be teaching?

Students will use design thinking to develop innovative solutions to complex, real-world problems. This summer, the challenge space is how might we use the experience of COVID-19 to transform learning at Duke?

Working in small, interdisciplinary teams of undergraduate and graduate students, participants in Open Design+ will gain an understanding of open design, a variation of design thinking that emphasizes the ethical implications of how and what we design.

Students will learn qualitative research skills and conduct extensive interviews with stakeholders in the challenge area, including Duke students, faculty, and administrators to ideate solutions for sustained learning innovation at Duke; they will also learn critical skills and mindsets such as: brainstorming ideas and creating prototypes, testing and iterating solutions, communicating across audiences and media, thinking divergently and convergently, and collaborating and problem-solving in uncertain situations.

How important is collaboration?

Collaboration is absolutely essential. The open design process requires deep and thoughtful collaboration across myriad learning contexts, such as interviewing stakeholders, brainstorming sessions, testing and evaluating prototypes, defining problems, and communicating results. Very little work is done alone. The challenge for us is to create a virtual environment in which the team can collaborate authentically, meaningfully, and frequently, but we are optimistic that we can do this!

What do you hope the students gain from taking this course?

Competencies and mindsets that are critical and applicable across all learning disciplines, careers, and even civic life: listening and creating with empathy, robust collaboration, convergent and divergent thinking, compelling communication across media and audiences, resilience in the face of uncertainty and frustration, creative problem-solving, failing forward, and iterative creation.

Why is social science research so important?

Social science research asks us to reach across disciplines and engage skills ranging from qualitative ethnographic research to quantitative data-driven research. In our increasingly complex world, interdisciplinarity is critical if we are to understand and solve problems that have direct positive social impact.

Originally posted on the Social Science Research Institute website

Sure Signs of Addiction: More Than Just a Feeling

Nicole Schramm-Sapyta.

Whether it’s finishing this season’s fifth box of Girl Scout cookies or binge-watching a Netflix show, it can be easy for the average, healthy person to think they’re developing a problem.

“I can’t believe I just finished another sleeve of Thin Mints, I’m so addicted,” or “Wow, I’m so addicted to Dexter—just finished the seventh season this weekend!” are common phrases overheard in coffee shops and grocery store lines.

However, when addiction researcher Nicole Schramm-Sapyta, PhD, an associate professor of the practice in the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, hears these phrases, she knows that these people, more often than not, are not truly addicted. Addiction has a clinical definition: when a person continues to do something despite experiencing major negative consequences. And, she says, this behavior is linked to changes to the brain.

Nicole standing outside.

Schramm-Sapyta’s early laboratory research focused on addiction’s effects on a part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens, a bundle of nerve cells also known as the brain’s pleasure center. Satisfying experiences—whether in the form of an addictive drug, monetary reward, sexual encounter, or satisfying meal—trigger the release of a type of “feel good” neurotransmitter called dopamine in this pleasure center. But addictive drugs—substances like alcohol, nicotine and opiates—pack an extra-powerful punch, and the brain is flooded and then overwhelmed by large amounts of dopamine. Over time, the brain will counteract this flooding by down-regulating, or removing, the dopamine receptors.

“When someone repeatedly takes an addictive drug, they lose dopamine receptors, and eventually become anhedonic, or unable to feel pleasure,” said Schramm-Sapyta. “The person is no longer able to feel joy from normal life. So, getting a good grade, seeing an old friend, or having a delicious meal doesn’t feel good. And the only way to feel ‘normal’ again is to get high on the drug. When someone progresses to this stage of addiction, they’re not even enjoying the drug anymore. They’re just taking it to feel normal again.”

Other brain regions add to the process. The brain’s “prioritizer,” the prefrontal cortex, decides that getting more of the drug is a top priority, and the amygdala ramps up negative emotions when it doesn’t get it. Along with the nucleus accumbens, these regions work together to change a person’s response to a drug from simply “liking” it to “wanting” it to “needing” it.

The process of moving from enjoyment to needing the drug can take anywhere from a few months to a few years depending on the person’s susceptibility to addiction, according to Schramm-Sapyta. People who already have underlying mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, or ADHD, are most vulnerable. Women’s brains also tend to become addicted more quickly than men, though more research is needed to better understand this difference.

“We think of addiction as being a biopsychosocial condition,” she said. “When clinicians treat the biological aspect of the condition—usually with medication—they must also remember to look at the psychosocial aspects of a person’s life that led to the addiction in order to truly guide that person towards recovery.”

Addiction in the Lab

Growing up in North Carolina, Schramm-Sapyta began studying chemical engineering as an undergraduate at NC State University but switched her major to biochemistry, following the advice of a family friend, a pharmacologist at Wake Forest University. She did not regret it.

She went on to earn a PhD in pharmacology at Vanderbilt University, and then accepted a postdoctoral associate position in the lab of Danny Winder, PhD, the Director of the Vanderbilt Center for Addiction Research.

There, she conducted experiments to determine which region of the brain was activated when mice learned how to push a lever and self-administer cocaine. She also began to study addiction and adolescence.

“In the Winder lab, we noticed that it was much easier to observe electrophysiological changes in the nucleus accumbens of adolescent mouse brains than adult mouse brains, which led us to think that might be a mechanism by which adolescents are more vulnerable to addiction than adults,” Schramm-Sapyta said.

After looking deeper, the team came to realize that not all adolescents are more vulnerable to addiction. By studying behavior in mice and rats, the researchers realized that on average, adolescents find drugs of abuse more rewarding and less aversive than adults, but that only some adolescents are more likely to self-administer, or voluntarily take drugs of abuse. The more vulnerable adolescents were more novelty-seeking, less susceptible to the aversive effects of the drugs, and had differences in anxiety levels. For cocaine, less-anxious animals tended to take more, but for alcohol, evidence suggests that more anxious individuals take more.

“Nicole was the first postdoc that I hired in my lab, and I could not have been more fortunate to recruit her,” Winder said. “In those early days of a new lab, having great people around you is key, and Nicole’s enthusiasm, professionalism and intellect all contributed to the foundation of a positive working environment going forward. She did a lot of exciting research in the lab during that time that still influences us today.”

In 2002, Schramm-Sapyta was recruited to Duke University for a postdoctoral research fellowship in the lab of Cynthia Kuhn, PhD, professor of pharmacology and cancer biology, where she continued to study addiction in adolescence.

Another view of Nicole standing outside.

She introduced a concept to the lab known as a “conditioned taste aversion” in which she showed that rats, who normally favor sugar water over regular water, grew to not choose the sugar water over time when it was paired with an injection of an addictive drug.

“They learned to associate the icky feeling brought on by the injection of the drug with the sweet taste,” said Schramm-Sapyta. What’s more, younger rats were less sensitive to the aversive effects of the drug than the older rats. This model has been repeated in a number of animal and human models since then, with all showing that adolescents are less sensitive to the bad feelings of drug or alcohol abuse than adults.

After Schramm-Sapyta left Kuhn’s lab in 2008 to sign on as a faculty member in the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences (DIBS) and in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Kuhn continued to use the conditioned test aversion experiment and applied it to current projects studying conditioned nausea.

“She was a terrific addition to the lab,” Kuhn said. “I have been so proud to see her develop these talents, and, in the process, contribute so much to DIBS and to Duke.”

Addiction in Durham

For Schramm-Sapyta, the early lab work fueled a passion to help people in her community suffering from addiction. After moving into a teaching faculty position, she began to look for ways to partner with the Durham community and involve her students in local research projects.

In 2016, she started working with a Duke Bass Connections Brain & Society team to learn more about the opiate epidemic in Durham. In Bass Connections, students and faculty tackle real-world problems as a team through research, creativity, and collaboration with external partners.

To learn more about the local law-enforcement perspective on drug use, Schramm-Sapyta’s Bass Connections team met with members of the Durham Police Department’s Crisis Intervention Team (CIT). CIT members are police officers and other first responders who have received extensive special training to respond to citizens in crisis, often due to underlying behavioral health issues such as addiction or mental illness. More than 950 first responders in Durham have been CIT-trained since 2007.

When Schramm-Sapyta and her students first met with the CIT officers, a one-hour meeting stretched to more than two hours of open, honest discussion. The students asked hard questions and the officers responded with experience, policy information and honesty. The Bass Connections students were very impressed, and sought to spread the word through their project, “Stemming the Opiate Epidemic Through Education and Outreach.” They organized two CIT presentations on campus and three Mental Health First Aid training sessions, the latter completed by more than 100 members of the Duke community.

Schramm-Sapyta and students were encouraged to return and brainstorm with CIT members about ways Duke could support the program. They learned the CIT had lots of data on 9-1-1 calls but no one to analyze it and make it useful to CIT. Schramm-Sapyta connected with Paul Bendich, associate professor of math and Data+ leader at Duke, and that launched the first Data+/CIT project, “Mental Health Interventions by Durham Police.”

Data+, run by the Rhodes Information Initiative at Duke, is a 10-week summer research experience for undergraduates interested in exploring new data-driven approaches to complex challenges.

The Data+ team’s first project was to analyze 9-1-1 calls between 2011 and 2016 to determine if there were any patterns related to CIT-tagged calls—and they found them. Behavioral health-related calls typically peak on Wednesdays between 8 a.m. and noon, (“Hump Day is real,” said Schramm-Sapyta), but are sparse on Sunday mornings between 4 and 8 a.m.—information CIT could then use to deploy resources.

Students also looked at the number of CIT calls in different areas of the city. Schramm-Sapyta said, “We found that the poorest areas of our city are the greatest users of CIT services.” That’s good news in that it suggests citizens are familiar with CIT and its services, and the services are going where they are most needed, she pointed out. “It also suggests the need for greater mental health services in these areas, so that crises can be averted.”

In 2017, a second Data+ project looked at whether CIT was helping reduce recidivism, i.e., how often convicted criminals are returning to jail after they have been released. Those identified as having a behavioral health issue are much more likely to return to jail, Schramm-Sapyta noted. This time, data were provided by the Durham County Sheriff’s Office and the Durham County Detention Facility.

“Before CIT existed, recidivism was on the rise in Durham,” Schramm-Sapyta said. “As CIT was first established, and the program began to grow, recidivism leveled off.” In the most recent five years, as CIT and Durham have grown rapidly, and other mental health services at the jail and in the community have increased, recidivism has dropped sharply, she noted.

“This is a fantastic example of the potential for really deep, enduring partnerships between Duke and local institutions and law enforcement in the city and county of Durham,” said Ed Balleisen, PhD, Duke’s Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies, who oversees both DIBS and Bass Connections. “These projects ask significant research questions that can inform decision-making and deploy the creativity of Duke’s faculty and students in partnership with local institutions to carry out that research,” he said. “They present their findings with an eye toward allowing decision-makers to see their world more clearly and have a better sense of what’s working and what isn’t.”

Laylon Williams, the Durham CIT Coordinator for First Responders, said working with Schramm-Sapyta and her students has been a boon for his team.

“Our CIT Leadership Team met her and we all absolutely fell in love with her and the kind of person she is,” said Williams. “Nicole has been actively attending our CIT Leadership Meetings every month and she has helped the CIT Team to analyze our data through the Data+ project and other City and County analysis. She was awarded with our Volunteer of the Year Award in 2018 because she helped us to see the effectiveness of our program through the data analysis. We are so thankful for her and all that she does for our Durham CIT Team and our Durham Community.”

CIT honorees.In 2020, Schramm-Sapyta expanded the project by adding another data set: health records of more than 17,000 people who have migrated through the Durham County Jail and were also seen at Duke Health between 2014-2018. The jail shared names with Duke Health’s Analytic Center of Excellence, which then matched the names to health records but removed identifying information such as names and addresses to keep the data set confidential.

This summer, a new cohort of students in the Data+ program will help Schramm-Sapyta crunch the data to determine connections between mental health diagnoses and returns to jail.

“We want to know if there is anything that Duke, the county, or the jail can do differently to help these people,” she said. “The idea is to see what’s working, what can be improved.”

By Lindsay Key; originally posted on the Duke School of Medicine’s Magnify Magazine. Kathy Neal, DIBS, and Sarah Dwyer, Bass Connections, contributed to this story.

All photography by Joshua Chorman. Chorman is a Video Producer/Director at the Duke School of Medicine, and manages the @dukemdprogram Instagram/Facebook page. 

Lindsay Key is the science writer for the Duke University School of Medicine, and editor of the online storytelling magazine Magnify.

New Summer Program Invites Teams to Apply Design Thinking to Real-world Challenges

Open Design+

Deadline: February 14, 2020

Open De​​​​​​​sign+ is a summer research experience offered during Summer Term II. Working in teams, students will go through the design thinking process, in which they will use qualitative research methods to solve a real-world problem for an assigned client.

This summer marks the first year of this new program. While the program has been modeled after other successful programs at Duke, this is a pilot and the hope is that participating students will help improve the program, viewing this as its own design challenge.

Open Design+ is offered through the Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative and is part of Bass Connections.

What Is Open Design?

Inspired by open source software and development communities, open design is a variation of design thinking that emphasizes the ethical implications of how and what we design.

Through this program, students will learn skills such as:

  • Empathizing with stakeholders and defining problem areas
  • Brainstorming ideas and creating prototypes
  • Testing solutions and iterating
  • Communicating across audiences and media
  • Thinking divergently and convergently
  • Collaborating and problem-solving in uncertain situations.

How Will the Program Work?

We will select two teams of students to be paired with clients this summer. We will likely have one Duke-based client and one Durham-based client. Each team will include 3-4 undergraduate students and a graduate student. Teams will work collaboratively for 40-hours a week during Summer Term II (June 29-August 7). Members of Duke’s Innovation & Entrepreneurship instructional team will introduce students to the design process through a bootcamp and ongoing learning sessions.

Compensation and Application Information

Undergraduate students will receive a $3,000 stipend for this full-time research experience, out of which they must arrange their own housing. Participants may not accept employment or take classes during the program. Students must be active students at the time of participation.

The priority deadline for all student applications is February 14, 2020. Applications will be evaluated on a rolling basis.

To apply, please use this online application.


For questions, please contact Aria Chernik ( or Kevin Hoch (