For Duke Researchers, Internal Seed Funding Yields a Robust Harvest

Collaboratory grants help faculty grow ideas and build a foundation for larger external grants

When noted autism scholar Geraldine Dawson first came to Duke, she sought to meet a wide range of potential collaborators across campus. At a faculty event one evening, she struck up a conversation with Guillermo Sapiro, the James B. Duke Distinguished Professor of Electrical & Computer Engineering. Dawson, the William Cleland Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, soon ended up working with Sapiro on a digital app that is designed to increase the accuracy of autism screening for young children.

Through a Duke Bass Connections team, the pair received a small amount of funding to engage students and other faculty in a year-long project. Dawson and Sapiro subsequently received more substantial financial support from the Office of Information Technology and the Rhodes Information Initiative at Duke. Their multi-year research project eventually resulted in several papers, a collaboration with Apple, a refined app and a $12.5 million grant. They also competed successfully for a $3.9 million grant from NIH to design an infant version of the app, with the goal of detecting autism by 6-9 months of age, before a diagnosis is typically made.

This fall the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development, which Dawson directs, was awarded an additional $12 million grant to develop AI tools for detecting autism during infancy and identifying biomarkers in the brain.


Many Duke faculty have leveraged internal seed funding from interdisciplinary units or the Provost’s Office to advance their research and create strong proposals for longer-term external grants. Through the Together Duke academic strategic plan, the university created additional opportunities for faculty to move forward on their big ideas. Established in 2018, the Collaboratories program support groups of faculty whose engaged research targets societal challenges. Here are three examples.

Political Polarization

How can we reimagine social media to reduce partisan conflict about race, religion and citizenship?

Founded by Christopher Bail, professor of sociology and public policy, The Polarization Lab brings together social scientists, computer scientists and statisticians to study how social media shapes political polarization.

Through one study, the lab’s researchers found that when people are exposed to opposing views on social media, political polarization can actually increase. Building on this research, which was covered by around 40 media organizations, they assessed how Russia’s campaign of social media influence shaped American’s political attitudes and behaviors. The researchers concluded that interacting with the Russian accounts did not have a substantial impact on people.

Red elephant icons represent Republicans, and blue donkey icons represent Democrats; bird icon represents Twitter. Text: Offered $11 to follow Liberal (or Conservative) Twitter bot. This study was supported by a Duke collaboratory grant.
Read an overview of this study and learn more from the full paper.

Through the collaboratory, the lab has expanded into an interdisciplinary community of 28 faculty, graduate students and undergraduates. Members have conducted additional studies and published numerous articles as well as a book (“Breaking the Social Media Prism: How to Make our Platforms Less Polarizing”).

Applying insights from their studies, researchers created tools for social media users to fight political tribalism. In the first month after the tools’ public launch, more than 10,000 people used them. The lab’s work has also influenced social media platforms themselves. Bail’s recommendation for companies to use algorithms that promote posts that gain traction from both Republicans and Democrats, for example, was integral to Twitter’s Community Notes program — a program designed to reduce the spread of misinformation via crowdsourcing.

The lab secured research funding from the National Science Foundation, the Templeton Foundation, the Russell Sage Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, Google, Twitter, and Facebook’s Foundational Integrity Research program.

Moral Artificial Intelligence

How can AI help humans make better judgments about who receives scarce resources?

This collaboratory builds on research through the Moral Attitudes and Decisions Lab and several Bass Connections project teams led by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, the Chauncey Stillman Professor of Practical Ethics, along with Jana Schaich Borg and Vincent Conitzer. They have been exploring the possibility that artificial intelligence (AI) could serve as a “moral GPS” to help humans make better judgments according to their own standards as well as moral traditions. Researchers draw on computer science, data science, philosophy, economics, game theory, psychology and neuroscience.

Photos of book covers that are recommended by the researchers who are working on this Duke collaboratory.
Recommended books on the Moral AI website

Members at Duke and Duke Kunshan universities are comparing American and Chinese moral judgments about uses of AI. The team created culturally appropriate scenarios in various areas — medicine, law, business, education, military and transportation. Researchers gathered and analyzed data about moral judgments of those scenarios from representative samples of Chinese and American survey participants. A follow-up study will test hypotheses about the reasons for the differences the team found.

The collaboratory has produced numerous publications, and a forthcoming book is titled, “Moral Questions About Artificial Intelligence.” Tools for use in experiments include scenarios in English and Chinese; an algorithm for predicting human moral judgments in kidney allocation conflicts; and an online platform for testing consistency with and without AI manipulation.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the team received grants from Oxford University and the World Health Organization to apply their studies to the fair distribution of ventilators and vaccines.

Recently, the group was awarded a $1 million grant from OpenAI to develop algorithms that can predict human moral judgments in scenarios involving conflicts among morally relevant features in medicine, law and business.

Infectious Disease Transmission Pathways

How can we deepen our understanding of what factors turn a local outbreak into a global pandemic?
Four people seated in chairs outdoors in the shade of a tree. These researchers are working on a Duke collaboratory project.
The survey team meets under a mango tree in Madagascar.

Led by Charles Nunn, the Gosnell Family Professor in Global Health and professor of evolutionary anthropology, this collaboratory seeks to understand the ecological context of disease transmission between animals and humans. Members conduct research in rural Madagascar, at Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore and at Duke University in Durham.

The collaboratory built on a multi-year Bass Connections project that involved students and local partners in Madagascar.

Three people working at a table outdoors with science equipment on the table, next to a building with rough-hewn wooden walls and two men in the background on bikes. These researchers are working on a Duke collaboratory project.
Researchers process samples in Madagascar.

Researchers are collecting and analyzing blood samples from humans and animals, and conducting surveys to gather social network and household data. They will link findings from the blood to the survey data in order to determine a correlation between the presence of zoonotic disease, caused by germs that spread between animals and people, and types of interactions. They hope to learn which factors drive some individuals to have more exposure to infectious diseases than others.

Their research is now supported by a $2.5 million NIH grant in the Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Disease program, including supplemental funds awarded this fall.

This summer, the National Science Foundation awarded a $1 million grant to the Triangle Center for Evolutionary Medicine, which Nunn directs. Researchers from the Duke collaboratory as well as UNC and NC State will investigate questions about the early stages of disease outbreaks.

The novel approaches developed for the Madagascar research motivated this latest external grant. The findings will be applicable to a broad range of settings worldwide, including for pandemic prevention.

Seed funding through the Collaboratories program supports Duke University’s strategic priorities of investing in our faculty and empowering the brightest and boldest thinkers to solve the world’s most pressing challenges.


Protecting the State’s Drinking Water: Research Team Maps North Carolina Infrastructure

A team of students from the Nicholas School of the Environment and Pratt School of Engineering has been working for more than a year to create a single digital map of the service boundaries of North Carolina’s drinking water systems. Developed as part of a interdisciplinary project known as Innovations in Infrastructure, the map will inform research into policies that can help the state better manage risks to local water supplies.

An interdisciplinary group from two universities is taking a data-driven approach to help protect North Carolina’s drinking water supply.

The Innovations in Infrastructure project is using the state’s drinking water systems as a lens to examine policies for better building and maintaining infrastructure necessary for delivery of basic public services. Funded by a multiyear Collaboratory grant from Duke University’s Office of the Provost, the project brings together Duke faculty and students with the Environmental Finance Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“There are a lot of platitudes about an infrastructure crisis in the United States and sweeping indictments that list 20 problems to explain why our infrastructure is failing,” said co-principal investigator Megan Mullin, associate professor of environmental politics at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment. “Our suspicion was that all of those 20 indictments hold, but they hold for different systems under different conditions. As long as we’re bundling everything together, we’re not going to be able to help improve infrastructure in particular places at particular points in time.”

The Collaboratory team has since narrowed its focus to policies affecting how drinking water is provided in North Carolina. As in much of the United States, it is “an expensive public service that’s supported locally and is extremely fragmented,” Mullin said. Some systems deliver water to just a few hundred paying customers. That is a small revenue base to support maintaining “capital-intensive infrastructure,” which can include building treatment plants, repairing or replacing aging pipes, or tapping new sources of water.

These water systems can face numerous challenges—increases or decreases in population, changing economic conditions, or impacts related to climate change, such as droughts or floods. How the local governments and utilities that operate these water systems see the risk from these challenges can differ from how the state or private sector sees them, said co-principal investigator Amy Pickle, director of the State Policy Program at Duke’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.

Co-principal investigator Megan Mullin (right) reviews the mapping project with Carolyn Rossman (foreground) and Jannette Morris (top).

“The overarching question for me is: How well does North Carolina assess the risks that impact the sustainability of local water supply and then prepare for those risks with either funding, education, or other policy solutions?” Pickle said.

They needed a critical piece of information, however, to get the right level of detail for the research.

“We have to understand the areas these water systems are serving, and no one knows that,” Mullin said.

Like most states, North Carolina does not have a single digital map showing where every local water system is located. So the project team would have to build one.

To get started, the researchers turned to the North Carolina Division of Water Resources, which has become an invaluable partner in the project. In 2009, the General Assembly passed a law to help prepare for droughts that requires communities to submit water supply plans to the Division’s Bureau of Public Water Supply. As part of that reporting, the Bureau received PDF maps of service boundaries for each of the more than 500 community water systems in the state.

The trove of system maps came with varying degrees of quality. While some were generated with pinpoint accuracy by mapping software, many others were drawn by hand.

Walker Grimshaw (left) and Shawn Li refine the service boundaries for one local drinking water system in North Carolina. Students worked in pairs during the mapping process to learn from each other and provide added accountability.

For more than a year, a team of eight student assistants from the Nicholas School of the Environment and the Pratt School of Engineering has been incorporating those system maps into a single digital statewide map. The challenging work gave the students an opportunity to learn new skills from each other, an important part of the educational component of the project.

“The team structure is amazing on an interdisciplinary level,” said Katy Hansen, a PhD student in the University Program in Environmental Policy who serves as the research lead for the project. “Lots of people are operating on the edge of their learning curves.”

The student team has been directed by Hansen and lead project manager Rachel Gonsenhauser, a master of environmental management (MEM) student in the Nicholas School. Bringing different backgrounds and levels of mapping expertise, they spent months refining a process for digitizing the water system maps. With a procedure in place, they have worked in pairs to incorporate the system boundaries into the larger map, checking each other’s work and sharing ideas as they go.

Kartik Pathak, a master of engineering management student in the Pratt School, is among the students who benefited from the pairs approach. Pathak came to the project with an interest in the topic but little GIS experience. His knowledge has grown from working with his “mapping buddy.”

Among the key members of the team has been Walker Grimshaw, who is working toward both an MEM degree from Duke and a master’s in environmental sciences and engineering from UNC. Grimshaw brought both GIS experience and an understanding of why the map was so vital based on his time with the Environmental Finance Center at UNC.

“I would keep meeting people who wanted what our end product will be—a tool showing where the water utilities are serving people,” Grimshaw said.

Example of water system map digitization process
Example of water system map digitization process

State agencies and researchers are excited to have that information, Mullin said. Once the students’ work on the map is complete, the Division of Water Resources will be able to go back to individual water systems to reduce any measurement errors in their boundaries. And this summer a new set of students will build an online tool to make that process easier for local governments and utilities, through Duke’s Data+ program.

Among the next steps for the project is an informal workshop in the spring with Division of Water Resources staff to go over the map and data related to risks that water systems are facing. The project team will also discuss policy innovations that can improve the flow of water supply information, both from local governments to the state and between different parts of the state bureaucracy.

By Jeremy Ashton; originally posted on Duke Today

Request for Proposals: Collaboratories for Research on Immigration or on Science, Technology & Ethics

Deadline: January 24, 2020

Through funds from Together Duke, the Provost established a program to support groups of faculty whose engaged research targets selected societal challenges in alignment with Duke’s strategic priorities. After the first two cycles, the Provost’s Office has selected two new themes for the 2020 grant competition: Immigration; and Science, Technology & Ethics.

Project funding ranges from $40,000 to $200,000 annually. Proposals may request funds for one, two, or three years; the project budget should match the horizon of the proposal.

Please see the RFP for eligibility, selection criteria, review process, proposal requirements, timeline and contact information.

Propose a Collaboratory for Research on Immigration or Science, Technology, and Ethics

New themes for Collaboratory grants.

Deadline: January 24, 2020


Through funds from Together Duke, the Provost has established a funding program to support groups of faculty whose engaged research targets selected societal challenges in alignment with Duke’s strategic priorities. After the first two cycles in which we supported research on the themes of Energy and Water Resources; Race, Religion, and Citizenship; and Population Health, the Provost’s Office has selected two new themes for the 2020 grant competition: Immigration; and Science, Technology, and Ethics.

Duke has the intellectual resources and organizational nimbleness to convene technical, legal, scientific, ethical, cultural, and historical explorations of these issues. By drawing on disciplinary depth, interdisciplinary strengths, and commitment to engagement, we have the capacity to make crucial research contributions in these vital areas and to serve as an important node for convening stakeholders.

Through an open RFP process, we support the development of collaboratories – groups of faculty and students from across the university who work together to address aspects of each challenge.

Collaboratories have three goals. First, they should harness Duke’s existing human capital and institutional capacities to advance understanding of, and provide tangible solutions to, targeted problems. Second, they should provide graduate students with a platform for learning how to engage with societal challenges and how to translate knowledge into action. Third, where appropriate, they should incorporate Together Duke’s focus on earlier, deeper, and more sustained two‐way engagement with external communities and organizations.


As the recent Provost Forum (October 16‐17, 2019) highlighted, processes of mass migration, whether forced or voluntary, are raising difficult issues both here in the United States and across the world.

Societies and governments are wrestling with questions about the status of refugees and asylum seekers, as well as the impact of large numbers of immigrants on local economies, social cohesion, and politics. Amid worsening geopolitical conflicts and an intensifying climate crisis, we can expect even more dramatic movement of human populations across borders in the decades ahead.

How can we best understand the evolving dynamics of immigration and the social and political responses to it? How should policy‐makers weigh humanitarian considerations against assessments of national interest and/or commitment to democratic decision‐making? What insights do immigrant communities offer about these ever more insistent dilemmas?

Science, Technology, and Ethics

We live in a world reshaped ever more rapidly by scientific and technological change. Artificial intelligence; synthetic biology; self‐driving cars; genetic engineering; nanomaterials; automation of manufacturing – fundamental new discoveries and innovations are remaking our day to day lives, often at a dizzying pace.

What ethical principles should constrain the pursuit of scientific knowledge? What moral traditions should guide our evaluation of scientific and technological breakthroughs? When should forecasts of potential harms lead societies and governments to slow down the pace of change? What frameworks of intellectual property strike the most sensible balance between fostering innovation, on the one hand, and constraining economic inequality or ensuring broad access to knowledge, on the other?


  • Principal Investigator (PI): The PI on the collaboratory must be a Duke faculty member, from any discipline, and be eligible per Duke Policy. A faculty member may serve as PI for one proposal.
  • Co‐Principal Investigator (Co‐PI): Faculty may serve as a Co‐PI on a maximum of two proposals. There should be no more than five Co‐PIs on any given proposal.
  • Proposals including faculty members from the School of Medicine and the School of Nursing should have a majority of participating faculty from other Duke schools.

Selection Criteria and Review Process

Proposals for new teams in the 2020 competition will be evaluated based on the following criteria:

  • Creativity and potential for the project to identify scalable transformative solutions
  • Commitment to engage faculty and students meaningfully in collaborations across Duke University and beyond (e.g., industry experts, community organizations, government agencies, think tanks, NGOs)
  • Capacity to educate, train, and mentor graduate students on engaging with societal challenges and translating knowledge into action

The review process of submitted proposals will be overseen by the Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies and the Executive Vice Provost, who will convene a Collaboratory Review Committee including individuals from across Duke University. Finalists will be asked to meet with members of the Review Committee to answer questions about proposals. We anticipate sharing feedback from peer reviewers to all applicants at the conclusion of the selection process.

Scope and Duration

Project funding ranges from $40,000 to $200,000 annually. Proposals may request funds for one, two, or three years; the project budget should match the horizon of the proposal.

For teams who propose multiyear funding and receive an initial grant, the process of evaluating renewal applications will be based on research progress‐to‐date, likelihood of continued success, efforts to secure external funding (where appropriate), and demonstrated collaboration and effective project management. Continued funding is also contingent on project team participation in collaboratory activities including progress reports, periodic workshops, and development events.

In the first two cycles of this grant opportunity, the average annual award was $96,550.

Proposal Requirements

The Provost‘s Office uses Formstack to submit applications. You will be asked to provide the following information:

  • a nontechnical abstract/summary (maximum 500 words) of the proposed project
  • a research proposal (maximum four pages) that describes the project in sufficient technical detail that it can be assessed by domain experts, including background and motivation, research objectives and methods, potential impact, and an envisaged pathway to implementation of the solution
  • a collaboration plan (maximum two pages) which describes the processes that will be implemented to facilitate sustained, meaningful collaboration among the team, as well as an assessment plan to refine processes as needed
  • a description of student involvement (maximum two pages), including how graduate students, and undergraduate students if desired, will be involved in the project, roles, mentoring, and key educational and professional outcomes students will gain as a result of their collaboration
  • a project participant list, including name, email address, affiliation, and project role; and, a clearly identified project manager to coordinate the project, tracking threshold dates and metrics, capturing progress relative to plan, and communicating feedback to the participant team
  • brief (two page) CVs for PI and Co‐PIs
  • a proposed budget (maximum one page) for up to three years and a budget justification (maximum one page) for how proposed funding will be used and how it will enable success of the project
  • information on other funding already obtained or requested (if applicants receive news about other funding proposals after the submission deadline, they should provide updated information)
  • key performance metrics evaluating the project (maximum one page), including expected targets at critical points in the project horizon (e.g., six months, one year, two years)
  • letter(s) of support (maximum one page each) from the PI’s unit (school, department, institute, initiative, center) that addresses the unit’s ability and willingness to provide administrative support for the collaboratory.

To apply, visit


RFP released11/6/19
RFP deadline for submission1/24/20
Grant recipients notified4/30/20
Funds made available7/1/20 (or sooner upon request)


For any questions related to your project proposal, please contact Ed Balleisen, Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies,; Jennifer Francis, Executive Vice Provost,; or Noah Pickus, Associate Provost and Senior Advisor,

For any questions regarding Formstack or the submission process, please contact: Amy Feistel,

Information Session

All faculty are invited to learn more at an information session on Thursday, January 9, from 3:00 to 4:00 in the Karl E. Zener Auditorium, 130 Sociology-Psychology.


Who can apply?

Any Duke faculty member eligible to serve as a Principal Investigator (PI) under the Duke University research policy may apply.

Our project idea is related to more than one collaboratory theme; what should we do?

Great news! Your idea is very likely eligible for consideration. Please contact Ed Balleisen, Jennifer Francis, or Noah Pickus if you need help determining the theme most relevant to your project.

Our project idea doesn’t seem to fit within either of the collaboratory themes; what should we do?

Sorry. The Duke Collaboratory Grants in 2020 will only consider new research projects that fit within one of the two identified collaboratory themes. Future collaboratories may well address other themes, so please consider this opportunity again when the Provost Office next offers it. Also, please consider whether your proposal would better align with other internal funding mechanisms such as seed grant programs run by university institutes, initiatives, or centers. If you would like to discuss the possible fit of your project within this scope, please contact Ed Balleisen, Jennifer Francis, or Noah Pickus.

Our project idea is not very interdisciplinary. Is this okay?

Yes, we are interested in projects of all types that have a strong likelihood of resulting in tangible solutions.

Is the Review Committee looking for proposals within a particular collaboratory theme?

No, each of the two themes will receive equal consideration.

Is this our only chance at submitting a project proposal?

Every year we reassess focal areas for collaboratory grants.

Is there an optimal number of collaborators for a project team?

While there is no optimal number of participants on the project team, we are expecting to see significant collaboration. We think a true collaboratory would have at least four core faculty associated with it.

What kinds of items and expenses is the Review Committee looking to fund? Are there items or expenses that are discouraged?

We are keen to support funding for direct research‐related items including, but not limited to, research assistance, research‐related travel, partial graduate student stipends, workshops and other convenings, and data and data management. The funding is not intended to support course buyouts, course development, or new Ph.D. slots.

What kinds of deliverables do you expect the project teams to produce?

Great question! Deliverables might take a range of forms from peer‐reviewed scholarship, white papers, and reports to digital and visual products and new databases. And of course, we expect the project team to prepare progress reports for review.

We aren’t sure about the appropriate university unit to approach about providing administrative support for our proposed collaboratory. What should we do?

Please contact Ed Balleisen, Jennifer Francis, or Noah Pickus to discuss possibilities.

How are collaboratories different from other calls for proposals we’ve seen, such as Bass Connections or Interdisciplinary Community Planning Grants (ICPG)?

Collaboratories provide an opportunity to support groups of faculty providing tangible solutions to targeted problems. Students are likely to be part of such groups, but are not required. Bass Connections project teams, on the other hand, require participation of students at multiple learner levels. ICPG is aimed at faculty groups in the initial stages of exploration of a topic, to begin or test a new collaboration around a shared intellectual interest.

What do you mean by two‐way engagement?

Two‐way engagement refers to a dynamic intersection in which both the academy and society learn from each other. Benefits include asking better and more relevant questions, and learning how best to communicate ideas and findings to the public.

Learn More


Four Groups of Duke Faculty Receive Collaboratory Grants for Research on Issues Affecting North Carolina and Global Communities

Yadkin River, NC; solar panels; summary ejectments per square mile in Durham; Bass Connections research in Madagascar.
Yadkin River, NC; solar panels; summary ejectments per square mile in Durham; Bass Connections research in Madagascar

Four groups led by Duke University faculty have been awarded Collaboratory grants for research into pressing local and global challenges.

“From investigations in our own backyard into evaluating water safety and lessening the impact of evictions on child development, to research aimed at increasing solar energy efficiency and minimizing the spread of infectious diseases on a global scale, these proposals speak to our dedication to improving the human condition,” said Provost Sally Kornbluth. “Supporting faculty research is an essential way to advance the fundamental learning and discovery at which we excel, and those investments provide ripple effects that benefit teaching and service.”

The grant period is one year with a possibility of renewal.

Drinking Water Contamination in North Carolina: Water Use, Human Health, and Going Beyond GenX

  • Principal Investigators: Heather M. Stapleton, Nicholas School of the Environment; Lee Ferguson, Pratt School of Engineering and Nicholas School of the Environment

Changes in water availability, increases in pollution, and policy regulations are resulting in substantial challenges for water protection, and consumers bear the social and economic burden when drinking water sources are contaminated. One of the most relevant threats to public drinking water in the U.S. is a class of chemicals called poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs). These chemicals made local headlines in 2017 when news stations reported contamination of drinking water wells with “GenX” in New Hanover and Brunswick counties.

In 2018, the state legislature appropriated several million dollars for testing all surface waters across the state. Despite the broad documentation of PFAS contamination, no funding was included to evaluate health impacts on affected communities or to identify sources.

This collaboratory will build a water model to help identify potential point source(s) of PFAS contamination, and underlying variables influencing the water levels, in the Piedmont region. In addition, the researchers will examine the relationship between water levels and biological PFAS levels, and conduct geospatial analyses to determine if poorer health outcomes at birth are associated with areas of higher PFAS contamination. The group will also investigate effects of PFAS on birth outcomes using an animal model, and integrate environmental and human health knowledge into management and policy recommendations regarding water use policies.

Minimizing the Influence of Air Pollution on Solar Energy Production

Particulate matter, including air pollution and dust, has dramatic impacts on both climate and human health. It also reduces solar energy production by about 15% on a global average and as much as 40% in some regions. This current loss in efficiency is estimated to account for the loss of power output valued in the tens of billions of dollars annually, dramatically affecting cost effectiveness and renewable energy access. The problem is not well understood and few studies are available that quantify the impacts, although it will become increasingly important with solar power production expected to increase globally by nearly four-fold over the next 20 years.

This collaboratory will assess the regional impacts of air pollution on solar energy production, determine cost-effective strategies to minimize the influence of particulate matter on solar energy production, and develop and test novel surfaces and coatings that hold great promise in minimizing the influence of deposited particulate matter on solar energy production.

Evaluating and Mitigating the Impact of Evictions and Other Housing Insecurity Issues over Health and Child Development in North Carolina

  • Additional Team Members: Jillian Hurst, School of Medicine; Sarah Dickerson, postdoctoral associate, Sanford School of Public Policy; graduate and professional students

In the U.S., 10-15% of households experience housing insecurity. For families with young children, this number is much higher. Lack of secure housing is associated with a host of health consequences including psychological distress and exacerbating chronic conditions. For children, housing instability is associated with increased problem behaviors, respiratory conditions, infectious diseases, and decreased access to healthcare. In Durham, 16% of children aged 0-8 live in a household where housing costs exceed 50% of the household income—leaving few resources for other needs such as food, clothing, and transportation.

This collaboratory brings together a multidisciplinary team to study how housing insecurity affects children’s health and education and what policy solutions may be implemented to mitigate the associated harms. To inform evidence-based policies and help communities promote population-level health, this study will assess patterns of population movement in Durham County and the relationship of these patterns with housing insecurity, examine the effects of housing insecurity and evictions on the education of children across North Carolina and in Durham County specifically, and investigate the effects of housing insecurity and evictions on children’s healthcare utilization and health status in Durham County.

Identifying Infectious Disease Transmission Pathways for Improved Population Health and Pandemic Preparedness

  • Principal Investigators: Charles L. Nunn, Evolutionary Anthropology, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences; Randall Kramer, Nicholas School of the Environment; James Moody, Sociology, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences; Linfa Wang, Duke-NUS Medical School
  • Additional Team Members: Alma Solis, Ph.D. student in Evolutionary Anthropology; other graduate students

The title of a recent high-profile Commentary in Nature proclaimed, “Pandemics: Spend on surveillance, not prediction.” If resources and time were unlimited, scientists would exhaustively sample wild animals, domesticated animals, and humans, and they would fully investigate the ecological contexts in which transmission occurs; all of these foci are crucial for predicting disease emergence. Given the reality of limited resources, new approaches are needed to deepen understanding of disease transmission pathways from animals to humans.

This collaboratory will use new surveillance tools and apply analytical frameworks from network epidemiology to disentangle the drivers of disease transmission at the human-animal ecological interface. The group’s research takes place in rural Madagascar. Members will collect and analyze blood samples and expand socioeconomic data collection; this research will provide crucial pilot data to increase the competitiveness of external grant submissions, while also providing opportunities for students involved in the research to publish early findings and present those findings at conferences. In addition to collecting data in the field and shipping samples to Singapore for analysis, funding will enable us to develop new analytical pipelines for network epidemiological analyses, including with graduate students on Duke’s campus.

About the Collaboratory Grants

Part of the Together Duke academic strategic plan, Collaboratory grants provide support for groups of faculty seeking to provide solutions to targeted problems in three areas:

  • Energy and water resources
  • Race, religion, and citizenship
  • Population health.

Over time, these thematic areas will likely evolve. Project funding ranges from $20,000 to $200,000 annually. The offices of the Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies and the Vice Provost for Academic Affairs oversee this seed grant program.

The first round of Collaboratory grants was announced in April 2018. The six groups and principal investigators were Decisions, Risks, and Governance of Geoengineering (Mark Borsuk, Jonathan Wiener, Billy Pizer, Drew Shindell); Innovations in Infrastructure (Megan Mullin, Amy Pickle); The Duke Polarization Lab (Christopher Bail); Understanding the Transforming U.S. South (Kerry L. Haynie, John Aldrich, Linda Burton, Adriane Lentz-Smith, Mark Anthony Neal, Donald Taylor); The Duke University Precision Health and Wellness Initiative (Geoff Ginsburg, Susanne Haga); and A Road Map for Affordable Healthcare in the 21st Century (Nimmi Ramanujam).

Jonathan Wiener on Interdisciplinary Collaboration

“These projects have been crucial to my engagement with colleagues and students across the university”

Bass Connections team members with Jonathan Wiener.
Photo by Beth Mann: Jonathan Wiener (right) and Christine Hendren (lower right) with Bass Connections students in front of their poster, The Saga of CFCs, Ozone Depletion, and Climate Change

“I came to Duke 25 years ago in order to be part of the multidisciplinary community here,” says Jonathan B. Wiener. “Duke was poised to launch a series of cross-cutting initiatives, and it was my good fortune to be part of creating some of them.”

Jonathan B. Wiener.Wiener is the William R. and Thomas L. Perkins Professor of Law at Duke Law School, Professor of Environmental Policy at the Nicholas School of the Environment, and Professor of Public Policy at the Sanford School of Public Policy. He has been involved in numerous research collaborations involving faculty and students from across the university, including Rethinking Regulation at the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the new Center on Risk at the Science & Society Initiative, a Collaboratory on Geoengineering, and six Bass Connections projects.

Recently he reflected on some of the impacts of his involvement in collaborative inquiry at Duke. The following are excerpts from our conversation.

Expanding Networks

These collaborative projects have been crucial to my engagement with colleagues and also with students across the university. [Bass Connections has] enabled me to work with teams to investigate complex topics like protecting the Earth’s stratospheric ozone layer and climate, how to assess and manage emerging technologies such as automated vehicles, and how to protect drinking water. [They] also enabled us to bring in speakers from outside Duke to enrich our conversations – for example, environmental diplomat Ambassador Jennifer Haverkamp, and former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx.

Bass Connections projects are also useful for connecting with students from different schools with different skills. For me, it was a good opportunity to connect with undergraduate students in particular, because most of my teaching is in the Law School, Sanford School, and Nicholas School. Duke’s undergraduates are so impressive, smart, and energetic. Bass Connections invites them to see how research projects are developed and to participate in a research team.

I’m currently working with several people on the governance of geoengineering, including Mark Borsuk, Christine Hendren, and Tyler Felgenhauer in the Pratt School of Engineering, Billy Pizer in the Sanford School, Drew Shindell in the Nicholas School, and Khara Grieger at RTI. Geoengineering is a strategy to prevent climate change, but it poses its own risks, so there is a key need for governance to avoid unwise or harmful deployment of geoengineering. We have written one paper that we’ve submitted to a journal, and we are going to apply for external funding for further research. For the Society for Risk Analysis annual conference, we organized and held a set of sessions on the governance of geoengineering [see part 1 and part 2] that featured speakers from Duke and other universities. We are also planning a Bass Connections project team on geoengineering for 2019-20.

Photo by Ben Shepard: Participants in the Center on Risk “head to head” discussion of AI: Risks and Responses: Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (Philosophy), Vincent Conitzer (Computer Science), and Jonathan Wiener (Law School and Center on Risk).
Photo by Ben Shepard: Center on Risk discussion on AI risks and responses: Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (Philosophy), Vincent Conitzer (Computer Science), Jonathan Wiener

We’re starting a new Duke Center on Risk, to be launched in the Science & Society Initiative, which grows out of a Provost’s Office planning grant. In 2018, we held a series of Risk Watering Holes, where more than 25 faculty gave short talks as a way for people to learn about different topics and methodologies. We also asked each speaker to touch on what types of colleagues he or she would like to collaborate with to better address risk. In Fall 2018, we started to hold more in-depth ‘head to head’ talks: so far we’ve held one on risks to Duke’s campus, and one on AI risks and responses. We have also sponsored external speakers and supported some students to go to the Society for Risk Analysis conference. Also, we have begun conversations with a group of undergraduates who want to create a student organization about emerging risks.

Publications from a Team of Researchers

Policy Shock book cover.Bass Connections projects can be very fruitful as funding for a team of researchers. I think it’s most fruitful when students help to design the research and produce a team project report.

Together with Ed Balleisen from the History Department, Lori Bennear from the Nicholas School and Energy Initiative, and Kim Krawiec from the Law School, we recently published a book, Policy Shock, that included a chapter coauthored by student contributors from the Regulatory Disaster Scene Investigation project of Bass Connections. An external grant enabled us to have a series of authors’ workshops with multiple chapter authors. We were able to bring in other colleagues at and outside Duke to broaden our set of case studies – on oil spills, nuclear power accidents, and financial crashes – so we could generate more comparative insights and lessons.

A graduate student in the Law School, Daniel Ribeiro, and I published a paper called “Environmental Regulation Going Retro” as an outgrowth of another Bass Connections project, Reviewing Retrospective Regulatory Review. This paper drew on Daniel’s dissertation research and my earlier work on the same topic.

One of last year’s Bass Connections projects was about adaptive regulation applied to the emerging technology of automated vehicles. Associated with that project, Lori Bennear of the Nicholas School and I are undertaking our own research and writing on the different options for adaptive regulation. We received a grant from the Provost’s Office, and we are writing a paper about how regulations can be designed to be adaptive as we learn more about changing technology, science, and society.

Photo by Braden Welborn: Jonathan Wiener (far left), Lori Bennear (fifth from right), and students on the Bass Connections team on adaptive regulation of emerging technologies host former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx (center).
Photo by Braden Welborn: Jonathan Wiener (far left), Lori Bennear (fifth from right), and students on the Bass Connections team on adaptive regulation of emerging technologies host former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx (center).

Approach to Teaching

I think one challenge has been in orienting everyone, students and faculty, to seeing the Bass Connections projects as collaborative team projects, rather than as conventional courses where faculty teach the students. There is a tendency by everyone to revert to the familiar default model of a professor conveying information to the students, whereas I think Bass Connections projects work best where everyone is a member of the team investigating something interesting, and at the beginning we don’t yet know exactly how we want to proceed.

Another aspect of Bass Connections is that these are team projects with multiple professors, and we faculty have to be able to share the time with each other and to collaborate on designing what the project will cover and what materials we’ll ask people to read. It’s very helpful to have a point person to coordinate that. This person can be a faculty member, a graduate student project manager, or both.

New Collaborative Efforts

Center on Risk logo.We are now launching a new Duke Center on Risk, based in the Science and Society Initiative. This is something I’ve wanted to do for many years, since I was president of the Society for Risk Analysis in 2008. Now is a great time to do this at Duke because it builds on the work that Mark Borsuk, Lori Bennear, I and others have been doing on rethinking regulation, on risk and resilience, and on specific applications and concepts like geoengineering, AI, extreme catastrophic risks, and risk-risk tradeoffs. We are grateful to the Provost for the planning grant and to Nita Farahany and the Science & Society Initiative for giving our center a supportive home.

In addition, we have started planning an event to be held at Duke in November 2020 on the EPA at 50. We have convened a collaborative group to brainstorm how we should organize this, including from the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, the Energy Initiative, Rethinking Regulation, our Center on Risk, and faculty from a number of different schools. We may try to do a Bass Connections and/or a Story+ project to engage students in helping to assess the history of the EPA. This EPA at 50 event will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the creation of the U.S. EPA in 1970, and it will build on similar events we have held at Duke on EPA at 20, 30, and 40. We’re seeing Duke’s schools, institutes, initiatives, and Bass Connections as all fitting into this collective effort.

See all current initiatives in the Together Duke academic strategic plan, and learn more about these seed funding opportunities:

  • Research Collaboratories (see RFP for projects in Energy and Water Resources; Race, Religion, and Citizenship; and Population Health, due February 15)

Mark Borsuk on Interdisciplinary Collaboration

“These opportunities have enriched my first two years at Duke tremendously”

Mark Borsuk with collaborators.

Mark Borsuk was quick to embrace opportunities to pursue collaborative research and teaching with his new colleagues after joining the faculty of the Pratt School of Engineering in 2016.

Borsuk.The Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering teamed up with faculty from the Law School, Sanford School of Public Policy, Nicholas School of the Environment, and Pratt to explore shared interests in risk analysis, decision-making, and climate change.

He received an Intellectual Community Planning Grant (ICPG) for the Duke Project on Risk and Resilience with Jonathan Wiener, Christine Hendren, Tyler Felgenhauer, Nita Farahany, Buz Waitzkin, and Lori Bennear, and a Research Collaboratory grant on the Decisions, Risks, and Governance of Geoengineering with Wiener, Felgenhauer, Billy Pizer, and Drew Shindell.

Borsuk is also involved in a Bass Connections project, Decisions on Complex Interdisciplinary Problems of Health and Environmental Risk (DECIPHER). Now in its second year and focusing on drinking water quality, the project is currently led by Hendren, Borsuk, Wiener, Ryan Calder, Richard Di Giulio, Priscilla Wald, and graduate student Kathleen Burns. DECIPHER will continue next year with a focus on the risks and benefits of climate geoengineering.

Recently he reflected on some of the impacts of his involvement with these groups. Below are excerpts from his remarks.

External Grant Proposals

The Duke Project on Risk and Resilience ICPG, along with Catalyst funding from the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, led to an NSF Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy, and Water Systems (INFEWS) proposal submitted in September 2018.

The Risk ICPG also contributed to an NSF Statistical and Applied Mathematical Sciences Institute (SAMSI) Year-Long Program Proposal on “Games and Decisions in Risk and Reliability,” which was selected for funding and will start in August 2019.

The Geoengineering Collaboratory is leading to an NSF Decision, Risk, and Management Sciences proposal, which will be submitted in January.

Extending Networks

The Geoengineering Collaboratory led directly to a day-long session at the Society for Risk Analysis Annual Meeting in December 2018. The Duke team proposed, organized, and participated in this session [see part 1 and part 2], which included a number of leading researchers in geoengineering, thus greatly extending the Duke team’s professional network.

Posters on the team’s preliminary geoengineering work were also presented at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Annual Meeting in December 2018, further extending the team’s reach.

The Risk ICPG supported a series of campus-wide events. These included several Risk Watering Holes and Head-to-Head Discussions on issues of risk analysis and policy from diverse perspectives. The events generated a lot of participation, including more than 30 faculty speakers and many more attending faculty, staff, and students.


The Geoengineering Collaboratory has already led to one submitted manuscript and two more in preparation. Two publications are in preparation as a result of the ICPG and Catalyst funding.

Engagement with Students

“The Bass Connections project has opened my eyes to the potential of fully inquiry-based, student-initiated teaching, learning, and research,” Borsuk states. “I have been impressed with students’ ability and ambition in structuring their own experience and drawing on the resources available to them, including faculty mentors, university resources, and community organizations. In addition to being an incredible experience itself, it has also informed the way I teach my more ‘conventional’ classes by identifying new ways to engage students in their own education.”

DECIPHER team poster.

Borsuk goes on to say, “The Risk ICPG has expanded the interdisciplinary scope of approaches and examples that I have incorporated into the classes I teach, including CEE 201: Uncertainty, Design, and Optimization; EGR 305: Engineering Systems Optimization and Economics; and CEE 690: Risk and Resilience in Engineering.”

To support student networks, the Risk ICPG provided funding support to two students to attend professional meetings and present their risk-related work. The group has also been coordinating with an undergraduate student group interested in organizing a “Risk Hack-a-Thon” in addition to other student activities.

Duke student and postdoc attendance at the Society for Risk Analysis and AGU annual meetings was paid in part from the Geoengineering Collaboratory.

Borsuk concludes, “I am extremely grateful for the opportunities that these seed programs have provided. They have enriched my first two years at Duke tremendously!”

See all current initiatives in the Together Duke academic strategic plan, and learn more about these seed funding opportunities:

  • Research Collaboratories (see RFP for projects in Energy and Water Resources; Race, Religion, and Citizenship; and Population Health, due February 15)

Photos at top: Borsuk (far left) with colleagues at the Society for Risk Analysis annual meeting; Hendren (bottom row at right) and Wiener (far right) with students at the Bass Connections Showcase

Christopher Bail on Interdisciplinary Collaboration

“My network has expanded dramatically, and I have been able to pursue new avenues of research”

Christopher Bail and a student.

At a moment when issues related to race, religion, and citizenship are sharply dividing Americans, Christopher A. Bail’s research on political polarization and social media feels especially timely.

Bail is the Douglas and Ellen Lowey Associate Professor of Sociology and Public Policy and the director of the Polarization Lab at Duke. The lab brings together scholars from the social sciences, statistics, and computer science to develop new technology to bridge partisan divides.

A key component of the Together Duke academic strategic plan is to provide faculty with new avenues of support for research and to extend collaborative efforts. In April 2018, Bail and five colleagues received a Research Collaboratory grant for the Polarization Lab.

Members of the Polarization Lab at Duke (Bail, Alexander Volfovsky, Katherine Heller, Sunshine Hillygus, James Moody, Guillermo Sapiro).“My network has expanded dramatically, and I have certainly been able to pursue new avenues of research as a result of the Provost’s [seed funding] initiatives,” he said. “In particular, my collaborations with Sunshine Hillygus, Alex Volfovsky, and Guillermo Sapiro have influenced my research trajectory considerably.”

Over the past year, Bail received grants from the National Science Foundation and the Russell Sage Foundation related to his work as director of the Polarization Lab. And in December, Bail and his colleagues learned that they will receive a grant from Facebook’s Foundational Research program to help support the lab.

“The Polarization Lab is a one-of-a-kind entity that has not only raised considerable extramural funding and conducted top-notch research, but it has also allowed me to dramatically expand my work toward the broader public,” he reflected. “Twenty-four major media outlets have covered our research thus far, and our article ranks #10 in public interest among all articles published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the same age.”

To expand the lab’s outreach, Bail arranged visits to Facebook and Twitter as well as a number of nonprofit organizations. He and his colleagues have also forged new ties to government. Bail serves on the Advisory Council to the National Science Foundation’s Social Behavioral and Economic Sciences Directorate.

On campus, Bail incorporated the research agenda of the Polarization Lab into numerous lectures in the Data Scraping and Text Analysis course he teaches in Duke’s Master in Interdisciplinary Data Science (MIDS) program. An open-source version of his MIDS class on social media data and text analysis is available. Bail is contemplating creating a course on political polarization and social media for undergraduates. Currently, four undergraduates are participating in Polarization Lab research.

Bail at the Summer Institute for Computational Social Science held at Duke in June 2018.Bail has taken advantage of other strategic funding opportunities. In 2017, he and several colleagues received an Intellectual Community Planning Grant for their project, Forum for Innovative Collaborations in the Empirical Study of the Social Sciences (FICESS). “The FICESS group is closely tied to my ongoing research helping to build the field of computational social science,” Bail said.

He noted that the FICESS group enriched his approach to hosting the second annual Summer Institute in Computational Social Science (SICSS) at Duke in June 2018. He cofounded this series of free training events, held concurrently at multiple universities, to introduce junior scholars to the field. Bail received related grants from the Sloan Foundation and the Russell Sage Foundation.

“We have open-sourced the entire curriculum for the Summer Institutes in Computational Social Science,” Bail said, “including video of all lectures, code, slides, and teaching materials.” In 2019, SICSS will run in 10 different locations, including Capetown, South Africa and Istanbul, Turkey.

Bail has also been involved in Duke’s Bass Connections program as a team member of SSNAP: Scientific Social Network Analysis Project and a recipient of course development funds for SOCIOL 347: Managing Networks.

See all current initiatives in the Together Duke academic strategic plan, and learn more about these seed funding opportunities:

  • Research Collaboratories (see RFP for projects in Energy and Water Resources; Race, Religion, and Citizenship; and Population Health, due February 15)

Images from top: Courtesy of Christopher Bail; members of the Polarization Lab at Duke (Bail, Alexander Volfovsky, Katherine Heller, Sunshine Hillygus, James Moody, Guillermo Sapiro); Bail at the Summer Institute for Computational Social Science held at Duke in June 2018

WearDuke Initiative Aims to Improve Students’ Sleep Habits

The Enabling Precision Health and Medicine Bass Connections sub team working on the WearDuke Initiative. First row, left to right: Nathan Parikh and Christine Wang; Back row: Grant Kim, Lauren Willis and Sarah Bond.

By Alissa Kocer

Sleepless nights come with the territory in college. Pulling all-nighters becomes a point of pride to some students as they brew coffee at 3 A.M., pull out their secret stash of chocolate and gummy bears, and dig into their work to show that no matter how late it is, they’re committed to getting it done. Or maybe, with less work to do, they stay out all night socializing with friends, eating cheeseburgers and fries at a 24-hour restaurant, and discussing the latest news and gossip around campus. Either scenario can leave students showing up to class the next morning bleary-eyed and nodding off.

College students’ sleep habits have been well documented; a recent study reported that 70 percent of college students are not getting enough sleep. Sleep deprivation has some real and serious consequences. While an occasional all-nighter probably won’t do irreparable harm, if college students start establishing poor sleep habits, they could set themselves up for adverse health consequences during college and down the road, including heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, and declining mental health.

To help students establish healthier sleeping habits, Geoff Ginsburg and Susanne Haga from the Center for Applied Genomics and Precision Medicine have partnered with the Office of the Provost, the School of Medicine, Duke Health System and private donors as part of a Together Duke research collaboratory to establish the Duke University Precision Health and Wellness Initiative, also known as “WearDuke.” The goal of this initiative is to use digital health wearable devices to promote health awareness and engagement among Duke undergraduates.

The wearable device market has exploded in recent years. Millions of people are tracking their steps, heart rate, sleep and more to make informed decisions about their health. WearDuke wants to use that technology and the excitement surrounding it to get incoming freshmen interested in learning about the importance of sleep on their physical and mental health and academic achievement.

Freshman participating in WearDuke will measure and track their activity and sleep patterns through wearables. They will be asked to complete short surveys each week and more detailed surveys at the beginning and end of each semester to gather information about factors known to impact sleep as well as their health and academic performance. Students will be able to establish sleep goals and access tips for getting an appropriate amount of sleep. They will also have the opportunity to learn about the risks associated with unhealthy behavior and discover ways to mitigate those risks.

The first year of this initiative is the planning phase. Currently, a team of five undergraduate students, supported by the Enabling Precision Health and Medicine Bass Connections project team is developing the infrastructure needed to launch WearDuke. They have also begun to gather student feedback about the initiative by speaking to members of the WearDuke Student Advisory Council and by holding focus groups with undergraduates.

“So far, students are excited about the possibility of freshmen receiving wearables,” team leader Sarah Bond said. “Several students have said they wish this initiative had been going on when they were freshmen.” The Bass Connections team is also working to develop a companion app, website, and recruitment and incentive strategies.

Once the planning phase is complete, WearDuke will conduct two pilot studies with small groups of freshmen before launching the initiative to the entire freshman class in the fall of 2021.

While the current project only focuses on sleep, this initiative has the capability of expanding to other health-related behaviors that can be easily monitored through wearables, like diet and activity, which the team hopes to incorporate in coming years.

Even though all-nighters will probably still happen during mid-terms and finals weeks, with greater awareness of their sleep habits over time, hopefully students can achieve a routine of good sleep quality and quantity and understand the benefits of doing so now and in the future.

Originally posted on the Center for Applied Genomics and Precision Medicine website. Photo by Alissa Kocer: The Enabling Precision Health and Medicine Bass Connections subteam working on the WearDuke initiative. First row, left to right: Nathan Parikh and Christine Wang; Back row: Grant Kim, Lauren Willis, and Sarah Bond