Creating Meaning: Undergraduate Pursues an Intellectual Question across Boundaries

Kelsey Graywill

Duke senior Kelsey Graywill knew she wanted to take a nontraditional approach to her education. “When I was applying for colleges, I specifically looked at schools that I saw had established resources for doing interdisciplinary majors or programs,” she told interviewer Brian Southwell on the Measure of Everyday Life radio show. “I had this fantasy, where maybe one day instead of students picking a major, students will pick a question; then you design your whole program around answering that intellectual question and working at that intersection.”

Bass Connections team in UgandaGraywill designed her own major, which she titled Creating Meaning: Empirical & Evolutionary Neuroaesthetics.

For the past two years she has taken part in an interdisciplinary research project through Bass Connections, collaborating with Duke Global Neurosurgery and Neuroscience and Uganda’s Mulago National Referral Hospital to improve neurosurgical patient outcomes.

Graywill and her teammates received the Duke Global Health Institute’s award for best poster among Bass Connections projects for Improving Hand Hygiene through Accessibility in an LMIC Neurosurgical Ward.

“I think that the way that a lot of traditional jobs are being phased out of the workforce,” said Graywill, “we’re going to need more and more students to be looking at intersections and collaboration across disciplines.”

Graywill also teaches a Trinity College House Course on graphic medicine and is part of Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs, a year-long fellowship program through Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship in which undergraduates create their own startups. Graywill’s company, The Art Clinic, seeks to bridge the gap between art and science to improve health literacy, awareness, quality of care and empathy. Her current product, Brainability, uses art to monitor health status.

The Measure of Everyday Life’s program on Reinventing Higher Education featured a discussion with Cathy Davidson, a former English professor and vice provost for interdisciplinary studies at Duke who now leads the Futures Institute at the City University of New York. She is the author of The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux. Davidson also took part in a public event at Duke with Ed Balleisen, vice provost for interdisciplinary studies.

Explore the 2017-2018 Bass Connections Projects

Bass Connections projects

Duke students from all levels and schools are invited to preview the new Bass Connections projects for 2017-2018. Applications will open on January 24 and run through February 17 at 5:00 p.m.

Bass Connections bridges the classroom and the real world, giving students a chance to roll up their sleeves and tackle complex societal challenges alongside faculty from across Duke. Working in interdisciplinary research teams, students at all levels collaborate with faculty, postdocs and outside experts on cutting-edge research that spans subjects and borders.

Most Bass Connections project teams engage with community partners outside Duke, including private companies, nonprofits, universities, school systems, hospitals and government agencies at the federal, state and local levels.

Forty-three projects across five themes will be offered in the 2017-2018 academic year. Most of these interdisciplinary teams last for two semesters; some have a summer component. Course credit and summer funding are available.

See the 2017-2018 projects by theme:

Through this intensive research experience, students and faculty work as a team to make a real-world impact. Each project team page contains a full project descriptions, anticipated outcomes, student opportunities, timelines and faculty team leaders.

Join Us at the Bass Connections Fair on January 24

Stop by the annual Bass Connections Fair on Tuesday, January 24 from 2:30 to 5:30 in the Energy Hub (first floor of Gross Hall).

Students of all levels can learn more about the Bass Connections project teams for 2017-2018 by talking with faculty team leaders and theme representatives. Tasty food and drinks will be available. Cohosted by the Energy Initiative.

Bass Connections Fair

Meet with an Advisor

For each student, discovering and developing a pathway through Bass Connections will be an individualized experience. Undergraduates can benefit from the guidance of 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 careers. Graduate students can access a number of resources to guide their pathways, and the professional schools offer tailored services to professional students.

Members of the Bass Connections Student Advisory Council are another resource for interested students.

Learn More

  • Check out examples of alumni who are pursuing further studies or working in a field related to their Bass Connections projects.

Students Share Their Brain Research, from Lab to Museum


Bass Connections in Brain & Society teams explore the neuroscience of cognition, emotions, expression and decision-making to tackle complex societal challenges and increase our understanding of what makes us human.

Last year, interdisciplinary teams of faculty, graduate students and undergraduates took on topics as diverse as music and dementia, face perception and art, eye tracking and concussions, smoking and brain development, and lemurs and decision-making, to name a few. Team members developed surveys and interventions, curated an exhibition, conducted studies, presented their work at conferences, created websites and videos, gave public talks and completed honors theses.

Students translated their teams’ research for the public during the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences’ Brain Awareness Week.

Anuhita Basavaraju

Art, Vision and the Brain focuses on the premise that art and neuroscience, and science and the humanities in general, are working together to answer similar questions. For humans, faces are very important things. So our team worked on grappling with and understanding face perception through art and using it as a means to further our understanding of neuroscience. —Anuhita Basavaraju ’18, Art, Vision and the Brain

  • Related outcome: Making Faces at the Intersection of Art and Neuroscience (exhibition catalogue by Monica Huerta, Elizabeth Johnson, Eleonora Lad, Jeff MacInnes, Guillermo Sapiro, Marianne Wardle, Kaitlin Henderson, Anuhita Basavaraju, Peter Cangialosi, Sophie Katz, Eduardo Salgado, Christopher Yoo. 2016. Durham, NC: Nasher Museum of Art.)

Megan Snyder

We’re working with people with dementia who are living in the Durham community. We go out and meet with them, do some baseline measurements and assess their cognition and their neuropsychiatric behaviors associated with dementia. We also talk with their caregivers. Then we ask them what kind of music they like, and we come back with their favorite music personalized on an iPod. We ask them to listen to their personalized music every day, and we try to see if there were any changes with their neuropsychiatric symptoms—and also with the caregiver burden associated with caring for someone with dementia. — Megan Snyder ’17, Music and Memory in the Aging Brain

Shane Bierly

One of the ways that Alzheimer’s has been diagnosed is through what’s called amyloid plaques, and this is done postmortem and has been thought to be one of the causal problems of Alzheimer’s. More recent research has shown that this most likely isn’t true, and it’s more of a symptom. So what I’m looking at is the precursor to this plaque and how it’s getting clogged in the mitochondria. I feel like I’ve probably learned more biochemistry through two or three semesters just working in this lab versus taking a class. —Shane Bierly ’16, Brain-immune Interactions in Neurodegenerative Disease

  • Related outcome: A Novel Method for Examining APP Arrest in the TOM Complex (Shane Bierly, honors thesis for graduation with distinction in Neuroscience)

Elizabeth Ginalis

Our project is focused on using eye-tracking tests as an objective assessment for mild traumatic brain injury, also known as concussions. We’re hoping that these tests will provide us with more information about concussive events that may occur during a contact sport such as football. —Elizabeth Ginalis ’16, Oculomotor Response as an Objective Measurement for Mild Traumatic Brain Injury in the Pediatric Population

Other Brain & Society teams last year included:

The Franklin Humanities Institute provided additional support for Art, Vision and the Brain and Movement, Grace and Embodied Cognition. The Silver Family Kenan Institute for Ethics Fund in Support of Bass Connections provided additional support for Generosity and Gratitude: Mechanisms, Motivations and Models of Living Kidney Donation.

Six Students Receive Grants to Extend Their Bass Connections Research


With grant funding from Bass Connections, three undergraduates and three graduate students will pursue faculty-mentored research projects this summer and next year.

These projects, which build on work begun in 2015-2016 through Bass Connections teams, explore a range of topics including Alzheimer’s disease, U.S. government regulations, intellectual property, migrant health, Arctic drilling and the care needs of senior citizens in China.

Kirsten Bonawitz ’17, a neuroscience major, will work on elucidating the role of genetics in the development of late-onset Alzheimer’s disease. As a member of the Bass Connections project team Brain-immune Interactions in Neurodegenerative Disease, she collected neurons from normal and mild-cognitive impairment human brain samples, extracted RNA for the purpose of gene expression analysis and initiated the collection of neurons from mild and severe Alzheimer’s samples. “This project plays and will continue to play an important role in my academic and professional career,” Bonawitz said. “I plan to develop it into a senior thesis.” Her mentor is Ornit Chiba-Falek.

Mercy DeMenno is a Ph.D. student at the Sanford School of Public Policy. Her Bass Connections project team, Reviewing Retrospective Regulatory Review, examined the emergence and consequences of ex post assessment of regulations at the local, national and international levels. Taking this work further with the mentorship of Lori Bennear, DeMenno will analyze the role of public participation in U.S. agencies’ retrospective review processes. This research will serve as a pilot study for her dissertation on how bureaucratic institutional design can foster effective stakeholder participation, and in turn, better regulatory policy.

Kushal Kadakia ’19 will focus on developing novel incentive structures for pharmaceutical innovation. In his Bass Connections project team Innovation & Technology Policy Lab, he worked with the Global Health Innovation Alliances group to map the drug development partnerships formed in response to the Ebola and Zika outbreaks. Building on this research, Kadakia plans to create case studies and share findings about ways to develop incentives that can increase the rate of pharmaceutical innovation while decreasing the cost of medicine. His mentor is Julia Barnes-Weise.

Kristen Larson ’17 is a biology and global health major. Her research will focus on migration and illness narratives of mainland Hondurans who have moved to squatter communities (colonias) on the island of Roatán, fleeing mainland gang violence and seeking jobs in the tourism industry. “There has been no research conducted to formally describe the migration and illness experiences of the population living in las colonias,” said Larson, who is mentored by Dennis Clements. Her research, which she plans to use toward an honors thesis, will be conducted in coordination with her Bass Connections project team, Interculturally Competent Analysis of the Uptake of Routine Vaccination.

Megan Nasgovitz, who is pursuing a Master of Environmental Management in the Nicholas School of the Environment, will assess the economic, environmental and political implications of Shell’s decision to suspend drilling in Alaska. “This year in Bass Connections I have been fortunate enough to work with exceptional students and faculty across the Duke community as we dig into the topic of the History and Future of Ocean Energy,” she said. She plans to travel to Alaska to conduct interviews and administer a survey in small indigenous towns, and present findings at the Polar Law Symposium in October. She is mentored by Douglas Nowacek and Lori Bennear.

Yuting Song is a Ph.D. student in the School of Nursing. Mentored by Kirsten Corazzini, Bei Wu and Ellie McConnell, she will extend the target population of her Bass Connections project team, Community Care of Frail Elders in Cross-cultural Settings, to include frail elders in residential care facilities in China. Her research aims are to describe the care needs of Chinese older adults who live in residential care facilities and experience cognitive and/or physical decline, and to explore the feasibility of using the Chinese version of the Social Convoy Questionnaire to measure the residents’ social networks within the care facilities.

These grants are part of ongoing efforts to provide support to students who build on their Bass Connections experiences through capstone research projects. Learn how to get involved with Bass Connections.

Clockwise from upper left: Mercy DeMenno, Kushal Kadakia, Kristen Larson, Yuting Song, Megan Nasgovitz, Kirsten Bonawitz.

Science, Fun of Brain Study Unfolds at Duke


On Sunday, hundreds of people stepped underground to ponder the body’s most curious organ: the brain.

The Duke Institute for Brain Science invited the public into its new state-of-the art facility to hear about all the ways that knowing more about the brain will help solve the world’s most vexing problems.

The event ended a week of seminars and talks to celebrate Brain Awareness Week.

“Generally, people are surprised to hear we know as much as we do about the brain,” said Minna Ng, the institute’s education strategies and community partnerships. “On the flip side, we still don’t know a whole lot.”

Teams of students and faculty converged in classrooms and alcoves Sunday to tell visitors everything they had been learning, and how those lessons revolved around the brain. Each team brought together faculty and students from diverse majors to study complicated questions.

Among them: How can we figure out exactly when and how the brain is injured while playing sports? How have artists come to know and portray faces over time, and what does our brain register when studying art? What is actually happening when a mother smokes while pregnant?

“To answer the largest questions, we need to convene a whole academic force,” said Zab Johnson, co-director of the institute.

That’s the mission of the Institute, which started in 2007. Duke University recognized that it wasn’t just neuroscientists who needed to or were capable of studying the brain. And understanding the brain would unlock the answers to so many questions.

Read the full article by Mandy Locke on The News & Observer website.

Studying a Virtuoso Violinist’s Brain with MRI


Until just a few years ago, violinist Jennifer Koh had no particular interest in the inner workings of the brain.

But then she suffered a concussion resulting in speech and memory loss. She couldn’t practice her violin for months; when she picked up the instrument again, she could play for no more than 20 minutes at a time.

Suddenly, Koh wanted all the knowledge she can muster about the brain. She read. She pestered friends who work in medical fields. And this week at Duke, she underwent a functional magnetic resonance imaging scan – known as an functional MRI – in the hope it can help explain how the brain of a professional musician works.

“I have a general curiosity about the relationship between human beings and music,” said Koh, a touring professional who has played the violin since she was 3 years old. “No matter what the culture, no matter what the country … music is a fundamental part of human beings.”

Koh’s fMRI this week was an unexpected offshoot of a visit to campus in January as an artist-in-residence sponsored by Duke Performances, during which time she gave a recital at Baldwin Auditorium and participated in some classes. One was “Music and the Brain,” which explores the intersection of music and neuroscience and is taught jointly by professors Scott Lindroth of the music department and Tobias Overath from the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences.

Read the full article on Duke Today.