Duke English Ph.D. Students Share Summer Internship Experiences

During the summer of 2021, several English Ph.D. students are gaining work experience through internships. Five of these students shared insight into their experiences:

Shirley Li.Shirley Li, ’23, is interning at RTI International (RTI). She began her internship working on the East Africa Energy Program Impact project in early June. Li is designing and conducting a “most significant change” (MSC) study of the influence the East Africa Energy Program had on the enabling environment around the grid-based energy sector in Kenya. She expects the study to blend government consulting, international development and social science research. Li learned about this internship opportunity through Duke’s Provost Experiential Fellowships program, which offers summer research internships to continuing Ph.D. students.

Duke University Press.Two students are interning for Duke University Press this summer. Carolin Benack, ’23, is interning as a journal platform creator. In her role, Benack assists the business systems and IT teams in creating the Scholarly Publishing Collective, a set of services ranging from journal subscription management to web hosting for university presses beyond Duke University Press. Benack builds and reviews journal sites and provides data analysis and management for them. She learned about this Provost Internship through Duke’s Office of Interdisciplinary Studies’ website.

“Working at the Press is reminding me of my professional identity outside of academia. I realize that the skills I gained during my Ph.D. training are much more useful in the nonprofit/business world than I thought. I’m learning the appropriate language to make these skills legible to nonacademic employers.” – Carolin Benack

Jessica Covil-Manset, ’23, is also interning with Duke University Press in the books marketing sector. She started working with Duke University Press during the fall of 2020 and has continued into the summer of 2021 with additional hours. When asked about her responsibilities, Covil-Manset noted that they are diverse. She orders books for reviewers, processes book reviews to share with authors, researches awards, writes nomination cover letters, writes descriptions of books for catalogs, schedules tweets to advertise books and events, formulates questions for Q&As with authors, and creates posts for the Duke University Press blog.

Covil-Manset shared that she is learning a lot about the behind-the-scenes elements of the publishing industry and how various staff positions collaborate to assure a book’s success. She now knows how acquisitions editors acquire and develop content that the publisher can utilize to market a book.

Covil-Manset added, “I’ve benefited greatly from the mentorship program that Duke University Press recently started. I was paired with Elizabeth Ault, an editor at DUP whom I’ve enjoyed video conferencing with and whose perspective/advice I truly value.”

Story+.Ellie Vilakazi, ’25, is interning locally as a graduate student project manager for Story+.

The Franklin Humanities Institute and Bass Connections offer Story+ as a 6-week paid summer research experience for Duke undergraduate and graduate students interested in exploring interdisciplinary humanities research topics and methodologies. Vilakazi began her internship in May overseeing international undergraduate students conducting research. Her team interviews international students who resided in Durham during the summer of 2020.

Vilakazi is responsible for guiding her team through the interview process and the development of a creative, visually compelling website. The website features stories organized around the themes, challenges, shows of resilience, and records of institutional solutions that emerge from the project’s interviews. She is leading an interview training session to prepare her students to write these stories, and she meets with them four times a week for an hour to discuss their progress.

“I am an English student. IRB (Institutional Review Board) and human research is not something I have to deal with in my studies, but it has been eye-opening to see the whole application process and how to deal with human beings as data. This internship has taught me more about the nuances of scholarly interviews as opposed to journalistic interviews. I have tremendous respect for the work that social scientists do now that I have had a small view into the process of researching human beings.” – Ellie Vilakazi

Catherine Lee.Catherine Lee, ’23, is completing an internship at Durham Technical Community College. Her internship is one of the Provost’s internships for Ph.D. students without summer funding. Lee is working with Durham Tech’s Creative and Liberal Arts faculty to diversify the curriculum for general education courses (British Literature I and II) so that they are more inclusive of groups historically left out of the Western canon. During her internship, she will be researching work from underrepresented communities in British literature and developing course content for future instructors.

“I can’t say I have learned much about the industry or professionalization yet, but the research that I have been doing has been fun and informative.” – Catherine Lee

The students featured in this article found their internships through Duke University resources that provide information about internship opportunities sponsored by the university or partners. Each student took advantage of the internship to gain insight into an industry they may pursue upon completing their studies. Opportunities like these provide real-life experience and allow our doctoral students to learn about alternative potential careers and professions.

By Quantá Holden, Digital Communication Specialist; originally posted on the Duke English Department website

Making the Most of Duke on the Road to the Ph.D.

Three students share opportunities that strengthened their doctoral education
Doctoral students.
Hannah Ontiveros (far left) poses with Bass Connections colleagues Imani Mosley and Charles Thompson; Edgar Virgüez cheers on the football team with his daughter and wife; Jessica West celebrates her successful dissertation defense

Jessica West, Ph.D. in Sociology

Joining a Team of Global Experts on Hearing Loss

Jessica West Jessica West.studies the health and well-being of individuals with disabilities. She is particularly interested in the experiences of people with hearing loss, as she herself has worn hearing aids since the age of 17.

West’s dissertation, “Stress Proliferation and Disability over the Life Course,” is organized into two chapters that address questions regarding stress proliferation and disability using data from the Health and Retirement Study, a longitudinal, nationally representative sample of U.S. adults over the age of 50 and their spouses.

How she got involved with a working group on hearing loss stigma

“During the second year of my Ph.D. program, I reached out to Dr. Debara Tucci, an otolaryngologist at Duke. I was interested in meeting her because in addition to her fantastic basic science research, some of her clinical research focused on addressing barriers to hearing health care.

“In 2019, The Lancet Commission on Hearing Loss (LCHL) was formed to identify ways to reduce the global burden of hearing loss. Dr. Tucci invited me to participate in the inaugural meeting. Once the Commission realized they needed a stronger focus on stigma, Dr. Tucci asked me to become part of the stigma working group, which is co-led by Dr. Laura Nyblade (RTI) and Dr. Howard Francis (Chair of the Department of Head and Neck Surgery and Communication Sciences at Duke).

Researchers pose for a group photo.
Jessica West (fourth from right) at the inaugural meeting of the LCHL in October 2019

“The RTI team is part of this working group and has several tasks. First, we are conducting an extensive literature review of past evidence on the stigma related to hearing loss and hearing-related assistive devices. Second, we have been tasked with creating a framework for thinking about hearing loss stigma. Finally, we are creating a survey that will be fielded in two countries to generate a more current understanding of hearing loss stigma.

“Through the LCHL, I have had the opportunity to meet and work with world experts in hearing loss whose work I have read and cited throughout my doctoral training. Joining the RTI team has introduced me to Dr. Nyblade, who has extensive expertise in stigma and discrimination, especially surrounding HIV and AIDS. In some of her past work, Dr. Nyblade has developed, tested, and standardized a tool for measuring stigma. Working with Dr. Nyblade has shown me ways in which academic research can be translated into public health interventions.”

Edgar Virgüez, Ph.D. in Environmental Sciences & Policy

Making the University a Better Place

Edgar.Edgar Virgüez is an energy systems engineer promoting a rapid and cost-efficient energy transition toward a decarbonized electric power system. His research integrates methods from operations research, geospatial analysis and environmental economics. At Duke, he has received several of the most prestigious awards for graduate students, including the Graduate School Dean’s Award for Excellence in Teaching and the Forever Duke Student Leadership Award.

Virgüez has served on numerous boards and committees across the university. He took part in The Graduate School’s Emerging Leaders Institute, where graduate students and postdocs work in teams to improve Duke’s campus environment, a Bass Connections project (read his reflection) and many other interdisciplinary endeavors. Expecting to graduate later this year, he has accepted a postdoctoral position at Stanford University.

What he gained from engaging in governance

“For the last few years I have served on the resources committee of the Board of Trustees. Through that experience, President Price invited me to be part of the search committee for the new executive vice president. I learned about the most pressing challenges for higher education, and how to engage in the decision-making process to prepare the university to confront these challenges.

“I have worked with eight of the eleven vice presidents that we have. Through our interactions I have learned so much from them. They have answered my questions and shared their wisdom and expertise. My dream is to become a university president, and they gave me so much insight, information and passion for continuing this path.

Edgar presenting at a meeting.
Edgar Virgüez speaks on a panel of Cross Scholars at the Association of American Colleges & Universities 2020 Annual Meeting.

“I’ve also made the most of my Duke experience by actively participating in the Graduate and Professional Student Government, where I have served since 2017. For example, last fall, I introduced a resolution to remove the GRE as a mandatory requirement. Engaging students, admissions officers and members of The Graduate School taught me how to tailor a proposal that reflects multiple perspectives. The final product received approval from the student government. I believe it provides a platform for student advocacy efforts to remove some of the barriers that prevent Duke from being a more inclusive and diverse place.

Edgar, Vincent Price, Temis
Edgar and his wife Temis with President Vincent E. Price

“I hope to return to Duke one day. This place has become a home for us. My wife [Temis Coral Castellanos, MEM ’19] finished her master’s degree here. We had our first baby at Duke Hospital. This place provided so many resources for us that it changed our lives forever.

“While our experience at Duke has been defining, this does not mean that everybody else’s experience has been as positive. There are things to improve. Rather than sitting down and being passive, we have been actively trying to change the university. We want Duke to be a place where everybody can thrive regardless of where they were born or how they self-identify. Even if you don’t have the resources to apply for the standardized exams, or you face multiple barriers to entry, you should have a chance to be part of the Duke family.”

Hannah Ontiveros, Ph.D. in History

Looking at Humanitarian Work from a New Angle

Hannah.Hannah Ontiveros studies the history of women in the 20th century. Last summer, while working on her dissertation about American humanitarian responses to the Korean War, she took on two research projects for CWS Durham. This branch of Church World Service supports immigrant and refugee new arrivals in the Triangle area.

Through a Graduate Student Training Enhancement Grant she designed herself, Ontiveros explored strategies for fundraising and community outreach, and conducted interviews with congregational partners and CWS staff. From her research, she crafted reports on her findings and recommended strategies for shaping future programs.

Ontiveros also served as a Story+ graduate mentor and a Bass Connections project coordinator (read her reflection).

Why she chose this internship

“I specifically wanted to work for a progressive faith-based organization, because those are the kinds of institutions I write about in my dissertation. I knew that understanding how these organizations operate on a practical, local, contemporary basis would strengthen my historical analysis of how they operated in the 1950s. Conversely, I wanted to bring my historical research on these organizations to bear on present-day operations.

CWS logo.“CWS was a great fit. The organization’s emergency relief efforts crop up a lot in my dissertation; CWS Durham operates locally and works in grievously under-served communities; and the organization’s focus on refugee resettlement and advocacy addresses a timely problem with roots in the historical period that I study.

“My work with CWS showed me how such organizations continue to operate 70 years later. As part of my research for CWS, I interrogated how donors and volunteers articulate their duty to serving refugee populations. I address the same kinds of questions about duty and motivation in my research. In both cases I found similar answers, demonstrating narratives of deservingness, civic duty and care that run across 70 years. It demonstrated to me the ongoing necessity of studying how and why humanitarianism operates, and how it functions in American society.

“My research for CWS required me to use methods outside and beyond the historical and archival ones I’m accustomed to. I had the opportunity to conduct interviews, to engage philanthropic studies literature, and to utilize some qualitative and quantitative research methods on congregations’ mission statements. Through my research I pushed myself to think in a more interdisciplinary way.”

Advice for Doctoral Students

“Make connections with people outside of your home discipline because they can often provide perspectives or other connections that you might not otherwise be able to access. The benefit of these connections may not be immediate – it may take a few months or years, but they are still worth fostering.” – Jessica West

“Push yourself to find an internship that’s as far outside of your direct area of inquiry as you can. This will help you develop an understanding of broad implications of your research and of your skillset. It will also expand your employment prospects, both in adding a diverse c.v. line and in pushing your research and writing skills into new environments. Also, don’t be afraid to send that introductory email to a potential internship host.” – Hannah Ontiveros

“Use the interdisciplinary initiatives that we have at Duke. There is a tool from The Graduate School called Duke OPTIONS to quickly identify all of the resources that we have here. Anything that you could dream of, there is a possibility that we have a resource related to that.” – Edgar Virgüez

Congratulations to all of the 2021 Ph.D. recipients! Current students, learn more about making the most of Duke this summer and beyond.

By Sarah Dwyer, Duke Interdisciplinary Studies

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

Changing Their Summer Plans, Duke Ph.D. Students Find New Options for Virtual Employment

Provost’s Office coordinates a wide range of summer funding opportunities, including fellowships with RTI International

View of campus.
Aerial of Duke University showing Abele Quad

Travis Knoll expected to be in Brazil this summer. A Ph.D. student in History, he planned to visit film and Catholic Church archives to further his work on the relationship between Catholic thought, modern Black movements and education policy. But COVID-19 intervened.

Recognizing that many students’ plans for teaching, research trips and in-person internships were overturned, Provost Sally Kornbluth and Executive Vice Provost Jennifer Francis pledged that Duke would provide employment opportunities for Ph.D. students who needed them this summer.

Behind the scenes, many of their colleagues scrambled to identify virtual opportunities for students to receive funding while advancing their career development. Their outreach resulted in full coverage for all Ph.D. students in need.

A Robust Slate of Opportunities

Ed Balleisen, Duke’s Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies, spearheaded this effort. He contacted units across campus to identify remote projects that would further Duke’s academic strategic plan, Together Duke, while providing significant professional development for doctoral students. Along with Maria Wisdom, Director of Interdisciplinary Advising and Engagement, he also sounded out several external organizations about developing similar projects.

In just three weeks, Balleisen and Wisdom came up with more than 100 funding opportunities. These summer positions – experiential fellowships with eight external organizations and research assistantships with more than 20 Duke units – supplemented teaching opportunities across Duke and research fellowships from The Graduate School.

“We were thrilled to see the creativity that Duke units and our external partners brought to this undertaking,” said Balleisen.

Other Ph.D. funding from the Provost’s Office came from Reimagining Doctoral Education (RiDE) Implementation and Graduate Student Training Enhancement Grants (GSTEG).

In addition to funding support, free online short courses through the Duke Graduate Summer Academy provided professional development opportunities. Topics ranged from software development and entrepreneurial strategy to science policy and teaching with archives. Student demand was so high that all courses filled up within 15 minutes, prompting Duke to launch a second session that was also heavily subscribed.

Partnership Spotlight: RTI International

Jacqueline Olich When Duke needed to identify hosts for remote internships at short notice, Balleisen reached out to Jacqueline Olich, Vice President for University Collaborations at RTI International. Based in Research Triangle Park, RTI is one of the world’s largest independent research organizations.

Jackie Olich.
Jacqueline Olich

Olich, who has a Ph.D. in history, leads the University Collaboration Office and oversees the RTI University Scholars Program and the RTI Internship Program.

Balleisen explained that Duke would provide the funding if RTI scholars would commit their time as supervisors.

Olich quickly identified researchers who were willing to come up with project descriptions in a hurry. “I targeted colleagues who already had a tie to Duke,” she said, “such as alumni, or through Duke-RTI Scholars, or individuals who had previously received our mentor award for working with interns, as well as colleagues who had experience in academic settings.”

Her own office is working with a Duke intern this summer. “If we’re going to do this, we should model it,” she said. “That’s what RTI is about.” She hired Travis Knoll, whose research trip to Brazil had been canceled.

“COVID-19 forced me to put [the trip] on hold,” Knoll said. “Another door opened when RTI invited me to interview dozens of its researchers, staff and executives for a project mapping RTI’s vast organizational structure, which spans global development, education, health research and applied sciences. With this information, I am synthesizing a history of RTI’s past and future collaborations and most important to my own research, learning how RTI is working to improve racial equity internally and through its partnerships.”

Duke students at RTI this summer.
First row: Travis Knoll, Cole Campton, Tom Cinq-Mars, Khari Johnson, Shawn Li; second row: Gabriel Madson, Francisco Meneses, Mavzuna Turaeva, Tara Weese

Other Duke Ph.D. interns at RTI this summer are Cole Campton (Computer Science), Tom Cinq-Mars (History), Khari Johnson (Biomedical Engineering), Shawn Li (Environment), Gabriel Madson (Political Science), Francisco Meneses (Public Policy), Mavzuna Turaeva (Economics), and Tara Weese (Philosophy and Law).

On June 8, more than 90 people took part in RTI’s summer internships kickoff meeting, including the entire executive leadership team. Amy Vargas-Tonsi, Project Operations Manager for University Collaborations, said the interns will participate in panel discussions at an end-of-summer virtual event. The 12th Annual RTI Internship Showcase is on August 7 from 9:30 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.

Olich said her colleagues’ positive engagement with doctoral students “is a testament to RTI’s commitment to training the next generation of researchers [who are] improving the human condition and advancing science. I’m honored that Duke recognizes our importance as a partner in giving students this experience.”

By Sarah Dwyer; originally posted on Duke Today

To Save Elephants, We Need Different Approaches for Separate Species

Amelia Meier; elephant
At the Wonga Wongue Presidential Reserve, where I am collecting a fecal sample used for genetic analysis while following one of the GPS-collared elephants; a GPS-collared elephant in the forest (photo by Liam Sjolander, a field assistant on the project

By Amelia Meier, Ph.D. Student at the Nicholas School of the Environment

How does one manage an animal that some people believe is a god or must be protected at all costs because of its intrinsic value, while others are terrified of it because they compete with it for food and water or wish to sell ivory to feed their family?

Elephants are one of the most iconic animals in the world. However, when it comes to how they should be preserved, there is a schism between conservationists.

CITES booklet cover.After dramatic population declines in the 1970s and 80s, elephants were banned from international trade in 1990 by the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES). This international political decision is touted as the reason some elephant populations have rebounded today. Indeed, in some countries elephant populations have grown so much they are reported to be dangerous pests, devastating the protected areas where they are located and threatening the livelihoods of people in nearby villages.

But one species of elephant is in big trouble. In contrast to the better-known savanna elephants in eastern and southern Africa, forest elephants in western and central Africa are rapidly declining.

Fast-forwarding nearly 30 years, elephant conservation is still one of the most heated debates at the CITES Convention of the People (CoP); however, the topic has become more divisive.

The international policies decided at the CITES CoP have strong top-down control on the global ivory trade and major impacts on forest elephant conservation. This year contradictory proposals to completely protect or reduce trade restrictions on elephants were proposed by different elephant range states.

Amelia Meier and Dr. Webb.
At CoP 18 with Dr. Grahame Webb, head of the Crocodile Specialist Group who allowed me to participate as part of his organization Wildlife Management International

Through the generosity of the Office of the Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies, I had the opportunity to attend the 18th CITES CoP in Geneva, Switzerland. I spent ten days learning from a variety of people—from private interest groups, to nonprofits, to voting party members. My experience highlighted the influence lobbyists possess and the essential role “Species Specialist Groups” have providing clear, honest communication to decision makers about the status of different species.

In the end, the parties were unable to agree and rejected all but one proposal concerning elephants, whereby elephants are no longer allowed to be shipped outside of their range states.

Gaining Insights on Forest Elephants

There is an urgent need for countries harboring elephants to effectively manage their populations. Behaviorally, morphologically and genetically African forest elephants and African savanna elephants are separate species. Officially designating them as such would enable the regions that proposed these contradicting proposals to govern their elephants as they view necessary.

As a PhD student at Duke, I have spent the last five years studying forest elephant behavior with the intent to help inform anti-poaching strategy in Gabon. By combining genetic and satellite technologies we are able to gain insight into where and when forest elephants are likely to form larger aggregations.

As I near graduation I intend to increase my involvement in forest elephant research and policy by providing clear, applicable research relating to forest elephant ecology and conservation needs. Participation in organizations such as Duke’s Forest Elephant Working Group that further our understanding of forest elephants can help inform the designation of African forest elephants as a separate species.

Originally posted on Medium

For Three Students, Research Trip in the Amazon Takes Unexpected Twists and Turns

Bass Connections team's collection site in Peruvian Amazon

By Melissa Marchese ’21, Kelsey Lansdale ’19, and Jacqueline Gerson (Ph.D. Program in Ecology)

“Uh oh” is not what you want to hear, ever, but this phrase is especially nerve-wracking when you’re conducting fieldwork on the impacts of gold mining in the Amazon using expensive equipment and sensitive mercury collectors amongst a crowd (miners) that does not want the authorities in their business.

This particular “uh oh” came from the least likely person – our boat guide Ramiro, who is incredibly nonchalant, always telling us not to worry and that bullet ants only hurt un poco. So, as we sat in the boat and saw Ramiro’s reaction as he walked up the riverbank and into one of our sites, we knew something crazy must have occurred, but we couldn’t even begin to imagine what we saw next.

An area once so dense it required a machete to enter, now was flattened; there were no trees, bushes, or even small plants – just heaping piles of branches that had been stacked while the surrounding forest was burned.

As we entered one of our sites – which was once a pristine, seemingly untouched area of the rainforest near the Chilive River – we were shocked to find that about a hectare of land around our collection site had been completely cleared and burned. An area once so dense it required a machete to enter, now was flattened; there were no trees, bushes, or even small plants – just heaping piles of branches that had been stacked while the surrounding forest was burned.

On top of the lack of forest, there was now a house being built about twenty feet from our collection site, complete with a firepit and clothes drying on a line – likely the new home of a logger wanting to live closer to the forest he cuts down.

Upon seeing the destruction, we ran to our open precipitation collection site (a group of five, meter-tall PVC tubes containing funnels and bottles to collect rainwater). We wanted to see if anything had been tampered with and expected our collection setups to be damaged, along with the rest of the forest. Amazingly, it seemed our “DO NOT TOUCH/ NO TOCAR” sign had deterred the people from touching our sensitive tubes or burning within a small radius around them. They had also left untouched our active air sampler, which has a valuable battery and solar panel attached. This further proves our belief that the people here are some of the most polite in the world.

The objective of our deposition, air, and soil collection – placed at five locations along the Madre de Dios River – is to track the movement of mercury from gold mining through the ecosystem and to distinguish between mercury sourced in the soil versus the atmosphere.

Although there is obviously an issue with the random decimation of fully forested areas in an extremely biodiverse and delicate ecosystem, our minds also went quickly to how it would affect our data. Burning organic material, like the soil, leaves, and wood, releases mercury. The objective of our deposition, air, and soil collection – placed at five locations along the Madre de Dios River – is to track the movement of mercury from gold mining through the ecosystem and to distinguish between mercury sourced in the soil versus the atmosphere.

Some have speculated that the soil in this region of the world has a naturally high mercury content but, as with many aspects of this complicated ecosystem, it has not been thoroughly studied. We seek to shed light on that in our research, but because of the burning, our results will be used differently than how we had originally planned.

This unexpected burning at our site will most likely change the amount of mercury measured in the air, precipitation, and soil; our results will thus show mercury released not just from the gold mining downstream, but also from the deforestation occurring at the site.

One of the main things that we have learned from conducting fieldwork abroad is that you have to go with the flow and improvise when things do not go according to plan, which they often don’t. This unexpected burning at our site will most likely change the amount of mercury measured in the air, precipitation, and soil; our results will thus show mercury released not just from the gold mining downstream, but also from the deforestation occurring at the site.

Now, we can analyze the air and precipitation samples from the Chilive site during and after the fires to understand how much mercury is released in burning and how it affects an ecosystem since, sadly, the practice of deforestation and setting fires is an everyday occurrence here. Whether it is by clearing areas to make a campsite, logging, burning fields to “cleanse” them before the next crop, or incinerating garbage, seeing smoke billowing from the towns and stumbling upon fully deforested areas is common.

The practice of deforestation and setting fires is an everyday occurrence here.

This experience at our Chilive River site of peeking behind the riparian zone – the area containing the trees lining the river – was eye-opening. We were shocked to find our previously forested collection site devoid of plants, littered with plastic, and under construction. Sadly, this experience was not unique.

Boating down the river, all we see for hours on end are trees, with the exception of mining in the river and a few villages dotting the shore. Yet, despite so much dense forest alongside the river, we often found ourselves wondering why we did not see canopy trees extending into the distance beyond the riparian zone. Our previously forested collection site (as well as several afternoon hikes in which we have suddenly found ourselves in fields of massive deforestation) sheds light on why this might be – massive deforestation occurring along the river, which is seemingly invisible to those who do not venture past the shore.

When we ran into a group of high school students passing through this area of the Peruvian Amazon, we asked one of the leaders his favorite part about traveling through the region. He described his awe of the “untouched natural beauty.” Admittedly slightly jaded at this point, we nodded politely and thought to ourselves how much remains unseen here, even to those who come to experience the Amazon. Keeping illegal activity hidden from the eyes of tourists and the National Guard is common practice for loggers, miners, farmers, and anyone else whose land use involves cutting down forest. What would a boatful of visitors think as they drove by endless piles of wood where there should be soaring trees? Peru would quickly lose a driver of its economy – ecotourism.

Keeping illegal activity hidden from the eyes of tourists and the National Guard is common practice for loggers, miners, farmers, and anyone else whose land use involves cutting down forest.

The riparian zone is like a curtain drawn along the river, hiding the massive amounts of deforestation stored just behind it. When you think of the Amazon rainforest, hear about it in biology class, or see it in nature documentaries, it brings about expectations that are almost otherworldly compared to our usual surroundings. It’s easy to imagine a forest with trees the size of buildings, plant and fungal growth on every surface, and animals everywhere. However, the reality, while often strikingly beautiful, has evoked unexpected feelings. We still have a lot to learn about the pristine natural world here, and who better to teach us than its people?

Melissa Marchese with a child in PeruDuring our time in Madre de Dios, we wanted to give back to the communities that have warmly welcomed us into their homes and towns, so we brought art supplies to be shared at the local schools. When we arrived in Boca Manu, we learned that schools had been let out on winter break for a few weeks and the teachers and students had returned to their hometowns. So, as usual, we improvised, quickly set up a meeting with the mayor, and created a plan to gather all the children living in the small town of Boca Manu.

Our plan was to do a quick and fun activity teaching them about conservation and the importance of the river while providing a creative visual art outlet using supplies that are not readily available to them. We brought markers, crayons, colored pencils, and paper and led a discussion with the kids about the role the river plays in their lives and then asked them to focus their art on the river. Since school was out, the age range we were working with was from one to fifteen years old, and everyone present seemed to enjoy the activity and ability to draw freely with their new materials. Even in a group of ten-year-old boys, we could see intense concentration. The effort that they put into the activity and the effect it seemed to have on them was awesome…until they snapped out of it, realized drawing was probably uncool, and proceeded to rip up their delicately sketched work to compensate.

Kelsey Lansdale with a child in PeruWe were very impressed with the projects we saw. Some pictures included indistinguishable squiggles, tigers, ambulances, and Legos on the river; however, most of the pictures show a beautiful river with large trees floating down it, boats moving through it, and animals gathering nearby.

We were shocked by how realistic the pictures were and how perceptive the children are. While we planned originally only to work in Boca Manu, which is upstream of mining and in a protected area (so no mining occurs around it), we started to wonder how the pictures might change as we moved downstream toward mining. As these kids drew pictures of the river they saw, would the children in Boca Colorado, a large mining town, draw a river strewn with sediment piles and mining contraptions? Would their view of the river be as ours was before coming, or show the drastic manmade developments (mining and deforestation) that have since shaped our view?

We’re still upstream, waiting for our collectors to fill with rainwater, so we don’t yet know the answer to how kids in mining communities will interpret their river systems. What we do know is that the river plays an important role in the lives of these upstream communities – providing them with transportation, food, and a means of income. If deforestation and mining continue to spread, moving closer and closer to these towns, the culture and values of these communities will change. It might remain largely unseen to travelers – residing just out of view to those remaining in a boat on the river – but the effects will be felt by all within the vicinity.

Learn More

  • Review the team’s first and second posts about this fieldwork.


Photos courtesy of Jackie Gerson

Machine Learning Techniques Help Philosopher Build an App for Logic Education

Lok Chan

Philosophy doctoral student Lok Chan is writing a dissertation on learning and testing through the lenses of philosophy and statistics. To develop the skills he needed to produce a web-based application for logic education, he sought training in machine learning.

Mentored by Kevin Hoover, Chan was among 18 Duke University students who received Graduate Student Training Enhancement Grants (GSTEG) in 2017-2018 from the Office of the Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies for training beyond their core disciplines. He provided an update on his GSTEG experience.

I received the Graduate Training Enhancement Grant to enroll in Udacity’s Machine Learning Nanodegree Program over the summer of 2017.  What I learned has had a tremendous impact on both my interest as a researcher and as an educator.

This program provides practice-oriented training in various machine learning techniques, such as supervised learning, reinforcement learning, and convolutional neural networks. This practical experience allows me to learn about scientific reasoning in ways not possible through my traditional philosophical training.

Using these techniques, I have made substantial improvement to the logic education application I have previously developed. Initially, my application could only generate logic problems in a purely random manner. With machine learning techniques, however, I have devised a model in which a student’s response could be used as a basis for generating a problem that addresses her particular strengths and weaknesses.

Chan's logic app


This internal funding mechanism from the Office of the Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies encourages doctoral and master’s students to step away from their core research and training to acquire skills, knowledge, or co-curricular experiences that will give them new perspectives on their research agendas. Graduate Student Training Enhancement Grants are intended to deepen preparation for academic positions and other career trajectories.

  • Read other GSTEG updates from the 2017-18 grantees.
  • See who received GSTEG grants for 2018-19.

A Deep Dive into Blubber Samples Yields a Novel Method to Study Whales

Jillian Wisse

Ecology doctoral student Jillian Wisse studies a species of pilot whale that dives especially deep. To learn more about how they relate to their environment, she sought specialized training at the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Hollings Marine Laboratory in Charleston, South Carolina.

Wisse was among 18 Duke University students who received Graduate Student Training Enhancement Grants (GSTEG) in 2017-2018 from the Office of the Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies for training beyond their core disciplines. Her faculty mentor was Douglas Nowacek.

She provided an update on her GSTEG experience.

My dissertation work explores the physiology of a deep-diving whale species. To understand how these animals relate to their environment, I am collecting small tissue samples to analyze for a suite of hormones, which can tell us about the reproductive state, sexual maturity, and stress of animals. With the Graduate Student Training Enhancement Grant, I developed a novel method for the analysis of these target molecules.

Jillian Wisse's focal species

To complete this work, I traveled to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), where I worked with a leading endocrine researcher to learn hormone extraction and tandem mass spectrometry. With her guidance, I developed a novel analysis method, which will allow scientists to conduct more efficient and comprehensive hormone analyses of these tissue samples, aiding efforts to understand the behavior and physiology of these difficult-to-access animals.

Through this opportunity, I gained experience with a technique at the forefront of my field, began a collaboration with an influential mentor, and developed the backbone of my dissertation work.

Hollings Marine Lab


This internal funding mechanism from the Office of the Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies encourages doctoral and master’s students to step away from their core research and training to acquire skills, knowledge, or co-curricular experiences that will give them new perspectives on their research agendas. Graduate Student Training Enhancement Grants are intended to deepen preparation for academic positions and other career trajectories.

  • Read other GSTEG updates from the 2017-18 grantees.
  • See who received GSTEG grants for 2018-19.


Photos courtesy of Jillian Wisse: In the field; focal species; Hollings Marine Lab, where NIST is housed