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

About GSTEG

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

About GSTEG

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

Duke Students Investigate Barriers to Sanitation Access in Lowndes County, Alabama

The D-SIGN team with faculty and community partners in Alabama

Duke University graduate students Emily Meza (M.E.M.), Katy Hansen (Ph.D., Environmental Policy), and Ryan Juskus (Ph.D., Religion) sought to contribute to a Emily Meza, Katy Hansen, and Ryan Juskuscommunity-based research partnership between the Duke Human Rights Center and the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise to improve wastewater treatment in Lowndes County, Alabama.

Guided by their faculty sponsors Erika Weinthal and Elizabeth Albright, they received a Duke Support for Interdisciplinary Graduate Networks (D-SIGN) grant for 2017-2018. Here are excerpts from their year-end report.


The latest American Community Survey found that 630,000 U.S. households do not have a toilet or running water. Addressing the complex challenges undergirding lack of access—from limited technology to lack of funding and institutional shortcomings—require interdisciplinary efforts.

In close collaboration with the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise (ACRE), our D-SIGN team, comprised of doctoral and professional students from the Duke Divinity School, Law School, Nicholas School of the Environment, and Sanford School of Public Policy, focused on improving access to wastewater treatment in Lowndes County, Alabama, where up to 90% of households have either no or inadequate access to sanitation.

The project started with a site visit in July 2017. We hosted community meetings in Lowndes County to discuss the initial research and diagnosis the problem, and visited several homes without adequate access to sanitation. We decided to focus on the interlaced physical and financial barriers to sanitation access

Household Sanitation Conditions

Team looking at the lagoon near Hayneville

Emily Meza spent the year assessing likely predictors of seeing raw sewage on the ground, as well as broadly defining the scale and scope of the struggles with wastewater treatment faced by Lowndes County. Her analysis relies on an EPA-funded community survey conducted by ACRE and community volunteers in 2011-2012.

Approximately 2,450 households (~56% of households county-wide) were interviewed in person about sanitation conditions in their home and on their property. Four main types of wastewater disposal methods were identified—full sewer connection, settling tank connected to sewer, septic systems, and straight pipes (lack of any treatment). While 92% of the county reported being served by a municipal drinking water utility, only 21.8% were served by a sewer system. As expected, residents that used straight pipes to dispose of their wastewater were ~36 times more likely than residents connected to a full sewer to report raw sewage on the ground. Additionally, those whose septic or settling tanks were not operating properly were ~35 times more likely to see raw sewage. Improving sanitation and reducing exposure to raw sewage in Lowndes County requires addressing both private household needs as well as the municipal utilities with failing infrastructure.

Emily presented her results with the ACRE team to congressional staffers and industry representatives in Washington, D.C. in March 2018.

Kelsey Rowland, Carly Osborne, and Emily Meza at the stakeholder meeting in Washington

It was very encouraging to be in a room with thirty-plus people all working on similar issues. We heard from scholars at Baylor, Columbia, and Michigan State, as well as the nonprofit and private sector stakeholders. While my research focused on Lowndes County, hearing from so many viewpoints impressed how widespread sanitation issues are in both the US and worldwide. Multiple congressional staffers also attended the full day workshop, and a month later Senator Cory Booker introduced a bipartisan bill to the Senate to address these issues. While Catherine had been working with Senator Booker for a while, our stakeholder meeting helped get a critical mass of interest around the problems. Having played an active role in that was significant and encouraging experience, even if there remains much work ahead.

—Emily Meza, second-year Master of Environmental Management student

Funding for Wastewater Treatment Infrastructure

Katy Hansen and Danielle Purifoy at the AAG

Katy Hansen worked closely with Bryce Cracknell (Trinity ’18) and five other undergraduates to track the sources and distribution of federal and state funding for wastewater treatment infrastructure. This team collected information on funding from agencies’ websites, compiled and cleaned the data, and are in the process of writing an article and policy brief about the distribution of federal funding for wastewater infrastructure in Alabama.

This work will help determine whether the percentage of nonwhite or low-income residents influences the likelihood of applying for and receiving financial assistance. Eligibility criteria, application and recipient requirements, and insufficient funding act as barriers to low-resource communities seeking funding. Katy presented this work with Danielle Purifoy at the American Associations of Geographers meeting in New Orleans in April 2018.

Individuals’ Relationship to Nature

Ryan Juskus researches how people conceptualize and act on their relation to nature in contexts where social marginalization, religion, and fossil fuels are key factors. Participating in the project helped Ryan with his dissertation research on north Birmingham by improving his understanding of how race and history intersect with environmental concerns in Alabama.

His trips to Lowndes County helped him make connections between the Lowndes work and Equal Justice Initiative’s (EJI) effort to re-narrate the racial history of the region from slavery to mass incarceration. ACRE’s work dovetails well with and fleshes out EJI’s work by adding the environmental side of the story. Ryan has tried to highlight the humanities aspects of the Duke-ACRE partnership by pointing to the ways that the wastewater issue is more than technical and political in nature. It is also a deeply human story. Ryan hopes to add ethics and religion analyses to interdisciplinary research projects in environmental justice.

As a humanities scholar on a project driven by social sciences and focused primarily on technical and political solutions to the wastewater challenges in Lowndes County, I joined the team without a clear sense of what I would be able to contribute. During a visit to Lowndes County with the D-SIGN team last summer, however, I learned that the water problem is also a soil problem; the septic technology approved by the health department doesn’t work largely because of the soil structure of the “Black Belt” region of Alabama. Even more, it was the black, fertile soil of the Black Belt that proved so attractive to the cotton planters who drove demand for the domestic slave trade from the Upper South to the Black Belt.

I also learned that the famous Selma to Montgomery marchers crossed through and slept in Lowndes County, and that Stokely Carmichael first articulated the turn to black power on Lowndes soil. I then visited the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery and learned about their project to collect soil from historic lynching sites as part of their community memory initiative to renarrate the history of racial hierarchy in the U.S. from slavery to mass incarceration. EJI invokes hundreds of jars of soil as a witness to the era of racial terrorism and to our current responsibility to understand and combat this legacy of violence-enforced hierarchy.

As a student of Christian political theology, I immediately thought of Yahweh’s words to Cain after he killed his brother Abel, “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.” When words fail, the soil can speak. But who is listening?

In short, I discovered that my role on the team was to tell these more than technical and political aspects of the project. This is a story of soil, souls, and society. Since last summer, I deepened these initial connections between the wastewater issue, EJI, and theology. I also mentored a graduate student in theology and environmental management on these themes. Together, we are proposing a panel on Lowndes County at Baylor University’s Symposium on Faith & Culture this fall.

—Ryan Juskus, third-year Ph.D. student in Religion

Peace and Justice Summit

Lastly, the team attended the opening of EJI’s lynching memorial and the Peace and Justice Summit in Montgomery, Alabama in April 2018. Both the memorial and summit were profoundly moving experiences, sober, informative, and motivating all at once.

National Memorial for Peace and Justice

Our work would not have been possible without the generous support of The Graduate School and the four-year partnership between the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute (FHI) and the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise. We thank Ms. Catherine Coleman Flowers (ACRE), Dr. Erika Weinthal (NSOE & FHI), Dr. Elizabeth Albright (NSOE), Dr. Megan Mullin (NSOE), and Emily Stewart (FHI) for their commitment, effort, and expertise.

About D-SIGN

This internal funding mechanism from the Office of the Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies encourages graduate students to explore beyond disciplinary lines, both in research and coursework. The goal is to enable graduate students to build or extend their networks and to integrate collaborative, cross-school experiences into their programs, thereby increasing the number of individuals whose graduate training reflects Duke’s commitment to interdisciplinarity and knowledge in the service of society.

  • See who else received D-SIGN grants in 2017-2018.

 

Photos: The D-SIGN team with faculty and community partners in Alabama; Emily Meza, Katy Hansen, and Ryan Juskus; the team looking at the lagoon near Hayneville; Kelsey Rowland, Carly Osborne, and Emily Meza at the stakeholder meeting in Washington, D.C.; Katy Hansen and Danielle Purifoy at the AAG; National Memorial for Peace and Justice

Molecular Modeling Techniques Aid Exploration of Environmental Contamination

Kirsten Overdahl

As a Ph.D. student in Integrated Toxicology and Environmental Health, Kirsten Overdahl is exploring the occurrences and biological effects of emerging environmental contaminants in indoor environments. To further her dissertation research, she sought to purchase software to implement machine learning-based molecular modeling to predict chemical behaviors.

Overdahl 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 for the grant was P. Lee Ferguson; she is currently co-mentored by Dr. Ferguson and by Heather M. Stapleton.

She provided an update on her GSTEG experience, excerpted below.

I spent Fall 2017 in the Molecular Modeling Lab in the Eshelman School of Pharmacy at UNC-Chapel Hill three times per week, training on the modeling techniques that we have since begun to implement in our laboratory. This training was not only empirically valuable, but also financially valuable as well: we became aware of many freely available, public-domain modeling programs, and as a result, we were able to narrow our choice of a license that did require purchasing.

We spent Spring 2018 exploring how we could successfully implement public-domain programs; while we can do many things with these programs, we elected to purchase Schrodinger’s Materials Science Suite. This program will allow us to generate all possible 3-dimensional conformers of the 2-dimensional molecular structures we are able to identify in our search for emerging environmental contaminants. By generating 3-dimensional conformers, we aim to make great strides in our abilities to predict how emerging environmental contaminants may interact with receptors in the body.

We are currently preparing to purchase our Materials Science license. We expect to complete our purchase by the end of this summer, and we look forward to exploring new environmental contamination research moving from chemical identification to behavioral predictions.

About GSTEG

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.

Students Explore Discourses and Practices of Militarization in the Global South

Working group meeting

Are there trends in the types of sociopolitical violence that have characterized social movements after the Arab Spring? How has this violence been represented in the media and in popular culture? What are the legal and political consequences of such representations?

Renee Michelle Ragin and Giulia RiccòThese questions fascinated Duke University doctoral students Renée Michelle Ragin (Literature) and Giulia Riccò (Romance Studies). Inviting other graduate students to join them in an interdisciplinary exploration, they created a working group called The Global South after 2010: Epistemologies of Militarization. Guided by their faculty sponsors Deborah Jenson and miriam cooke, Ragin and Riccò received a Duke Support for Interdisciplinary Graduate Networks (D-SIGN) grant for use in 2017-2018. Here are excerpts from their year-end report.


We began the activities of our working group with an outreach meeting in September 2017. During this session, we selected the themes for the group’s workshops. We also began coordinating with the codirectors of the Global South Lab at the Institute of the Humanities and Global Cultures at the University of Virginia (UVA). Our introduction came as a result of our participation in the Academy of Global Humanities’ summer school program, hosted by the University of Bologna and cosponsored by Duke and UVA.

The Extravagance of Drones

drones workshop flyerThanks to our outreach, we secured UVA Professor Camilla Fojas as the presenter and facilitator of our October 2017 workshop on the use of drone surveillance on the US-Mexico border. We realized that having a subject-matter expert assign the reading and moderate the workshop yielded more productive conversations than when we simply structured the workshop around readings we selected. After this event, we took Professor Fojas to dinner, at which time she extended an invitation to come to UVA and organize a workshop on epistemologies of militarization.

In November, we began circulating the call for papers for our colloquium and reaching out to possible keynote speakers. We contacted a Duke alumnus, Professor Paul Amar at UC Santa Barbara, who is the director of graduate studies in the Department of Global Studies. He accepted enthusiastically; his areas of study, which encompass both Brazil and the Middle East, speak to our combined interests, and his current research on new forms of militarism and paramilitarism in Brazil aligned with the working group’s mission.

Militarization, Statelessness, and Refugees in the Global South

The third meeting of the working group took place during the first week of December. We invited two Duke professors, Ranjana Khanna (English, Literature, and Women’s Studies) and Robin Kirk (Human Rights Center and Cultural Anthropology), to speak about refugees and the space of the refugee camp.

Their different disciplinary backgrounds allowed us to work toward an interdisciplinary understanding of issues surrounding militarization in the contemporary world. Indeed, as the working group progressed, we realized how important it was to focus on ensuring that our understanding and interpretation of militarization encompassed its myriad forms in the contemporary moment. Through these workshops we were able to identify what militarization looks like today, and where we encounter it.

Translation and Publishing in the Global South

January workshop In January 2018, we collaborated with Sylvia Miller, director of the Publishing Humanities Initiative at the Franklin Humanities Institute, to organize a day-long symposium dedicated to publishing and translating in the Global South. This symposium shifted the focus of our working group on to questions of who produces knowledge in and about the Global South. It also offered Duke graduate students working on the Global South the opportunity to find out more about career options available to them as a result of a panel that included representatives of the three major academic presses in the area (UNC Press, Duke University Press, and Oxford University Press).

Giulia Riccò and Renee Michelle Ragin at UVAThe keynote speaker, Professor Juan Obarrio from John Hopkins University, introduced the new Duke University Press journal series he launched with Professor Achille Mbembe, which is dedicated to highlighting critical thinkers from the Global South. Professor Obarrio is now a contributing author to a special issue of a journal, which we are editing and will be released in summer 2019.

Our February 2018 trip to UVA pushed us to reflect on our findings, while giving us a receptive forum in which to test our ideas. We used our talk at UVA as an opportunity to pilot ideas for a cowritten research article, and the positive response we received encourage us to expand our ambitions and find a journal willing to allow us to serve as coeditors for a special issue on contemporary militarization.

Also in February, we supported Duke Professor Shai Ginsburg’s conference Emergency Legal Cultures: British Imperial Cultures. The working group was officially listed as a sponsor and we served as the respondents for the two panels.

Re-Membering Torture

The last workshop took place in March 2018 and featured Professor Shahla Talebi from Arizona State University and her graduate student, Diana Coleman. We discussed the role of the torturers in black sites such as Guantanamo, and read excerpts from Darius Rejali’s Torture and Democracy.

Epistemologies of Militarization in the Global South After 2010

colloquium flyerOn April 12 and 13 we hosted our colloquium. We chose a seminar-style format with precirculated papers in order to give us ample time to discuss participants’ research throughout the day. It was an intellectually stimulating experience and left us with provocative questions that we are addressing in our cowriting.

One of the colloquium respondents, Duke Professor Michaeline Crichlow, offered us the opportunity to curate a special issue of Cultural Dynamics: Insurgent Scholarship on Culture, Politics, and Power. The title of the issue is “Epistemologies of Militarization in the Global South,” and is forthcoming in June 2019.

It includes two papers from the colloquium, and contributions from several working group collaborators, including Camilla Fojas (UVA), Juan Obarrio (John Hopkins), and Diana Coleman (Arizona State). The article that we are cowriting is going to be the introduction for the issue.


About D-SIGN

This internal funding mechanism from the Office of the Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies encourages graduate students to explore beyond disciplinary lines, both in research and coursework. The goal is to enable graduate students to build or extend their networks and to integrate collaborative, cross-school experiences into their programs, thereby increasing the number of individuals whose graduate training reflects Duke’s commitment to interdisciplinarity and knowledge in the service of society.

  • See who else received D-SIGN grants in 2017-2018.

 

Photos: Working group meeting; Renée Michelle Ragin and Giulia Riccò; drones workshop flyer; Translation and Publishing in the Global South event; Riccò and Ragin at UVA; colloquium flyer