What’s in the Soil? Student Heads to IsoCamp to Learn New Skills for Analyzing Forests

Anna Wade

Anna Wade, a Ph.D. student at the Nicholas School of the Environment, was among 18 Duke University students who received Graduate Student Training Enhancement Grants (GSTEG) in 2017-18 from the Office of the Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies for training beyond their core disciplines. Her faculty mentor is Daniel Richter. She shared an update:

With support from GSTEG, I’ll attend a two-week intensive training workshop on stable isotopes this June at the University of Utah. The program, called IsoCamp, trains Ph.D. students and postdocs how to use stable isotopes to model environmental and ecological processes. Jim Ehleringer at the University of Utah is a leading researcher in applications of stable isotopes, and has run the program for over 20 years.

I’ll be trained on how to use a ThermoElectron isotope ratio mass spectrometer (pictured below), how to collect and prepare environmental samples, and how to use isotope-mixing models to interpret the results. This workshop draws in various experts in the field, and will give me a network of professionals to support me in my work on stable isotopes.

ThermoElectron isotope ratio mass spectrometer

The workshop will further my dissertation research on lead (Pb) in southeastern forest soils. Because of this training experience, I’ll have a much better grasp of how to use stable isotopes of Pb to delineate between natural and contaminant sources of lead. The tools and connections I make at IsoCamp will provide solid groundwork for my isotopic research at Duke.

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.

  • Proposals for 2018-19 were due on February 16; those grantees will be announced shortly.

Learning New Skills to Study Girls’ Mental and Reproductive Health in Tanzania

Emily Cherenack, GSTEG grant, Femme International

To enhance her dissertation on mental and reproductive health among adolescent girls, Emily Cherenack volunteered with a nonprofit in Tanzania and received specialized training at the University of Miami.

Cherenack, a Ph.D. student in Clinical Psychology, was among 18 Duke University students who received Graduate Student Training Enhancement Grants (GSTEG) in 2017-18 from the Office of the Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies for training beyond their core disciplines. Her faculty mentor is Kathleen Sikkema. She shared an update:

Emily CherenackI spent the summer learning interdisciplinary methods to conduct research on reproductive health among adolescent girls globally and in the United States. For half the summer, I worked with Dr. Adam Carrico at the University of Miami to learn how to use biological markers in research with HIV-positive women. The time I spent in his lab was instrumental in learning more about psychoneuroimmunology and the collection and analysis of biological data from participants and medical charts.

For the other half of the summer, I lived in Moshi, Tanzania and worked with the NGO Femme International, which provides menstrual education and sustainable menstrual solutions to girls in Tanzania and Kenya. With Femme International, I learned how to conduct research on menstruation with adolescent girls in schools and saw how to implement education interventions with girls.

From these experiences, I refined my dissertation, which focuses on mental health and reproductive health among adolescent girls in Tanzania. Funding from the GSTEG grant was essential for me to gain these experiences and work with experts at the University of Miami and in the field in Tanzania to develop an interdisciplinary dissertation that merges the fields of clinical psychology and reproductive health.

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.

An Interdisciplinary Exploration of Patterns of Connection in the Practice of Faith

Dustin Benac

Dustin Benac, a Doctor of Theology candidate at the Divinity School, wanted to enhance his training in theology and organizational theory by integrating qualitative data collection and interpretation into his research. A summer course at UNC’s Odum Institute for Research in Social Science proved timely, and he went on to apply this new knowledge to a study examining patterns of connection among five church-related educational institutions in the Pacific Northwest.

Benac was among 18 Duke University students who received Graduate Student Training Enhancement Grants (GSTEG) in 2017-18 from the Office of the Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies for training beyond their core disciplines. His faculty mentor is Craig Dykstra. He shared an update:

Dustin BenacThe GSTEG award provided funding to undertake supplemental training in qualitative research methods through a partnership between ICPSR and The Odum Institute at the University of North Carolina. The opportunity to take a short-course during the summer following my coursework offered a timely complement to my training in theology and organizational theory by providing an orientation to qualitative research methods and using qualitative data analysis software.

The impact of the GSTEG funding extends well beyond this single course. During the fall 2017 semester, I secured funding to complete the first phase of fieldwork at five religious educational institutions in the Pacific Northwest, which explored the patterns of connection across educational institutions and the practice of religious leadership. As a 2017-18 Lab Fellow in Duke’s Ph.D. Lab in Digital Knowledge, I have since worked with colleagues from across the university to consider approaches to visually depict the preliminary findings from my qualitative research. I will present a paper based on research in May at the Pacific Northwest American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting and also have a book review of Theology as Interdisciplinary Inquiry coming out in the Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies.

The opportunity to receive supplemental training has deepened my knowledge, vastly expanded my network, and equipped me to engage and support a wider range of research from across the university. While the specific methods training and research experiences will certainly inform the scope and content of my dissertation, I anticipate the range of relationships and experiences that have followed will have the most significant impact on my development as a scholar.

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.

Photo: Dustin Benac giving a presentation based on his research

From Hawaii to the Antarctic, Ph.D. Student Works to Protect Endangered Species

Seth Sykora-Bodie

How can marine protected areas be used to reduce habitat degradation and biodiversity loss? Seth Sykora-Bodie, a third-year Ph.D. student in Marine Science and Conservation, took part in the Hawaiian Islands Cetacean and Ecosystem Assessment Survey to inform his dissertation on Antarctic resource management and conservation.

Advised by Lisa Campbell and Andrew Read, Sykora-Bodie was among 18 Duke University students who received Graduate Student Training Enhancement Grants (GSTEG) in 2017-18 from the Office of the Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies for training beyond their core disciplines. He shared an update:

Seth Sykora-BodieOver the last several decades, researchers have accumulated a wealth of knowledge indicating that species are disappearing at unprecedented rates. One of the tools we have at our disposal for reversing this trend is setting aside large land- and seascapes for conservation. This is what my research is broadly focused on—understanding how marine protected areas can be used to reduce habitat degradation and biodiversity loss.

Traditionally, these efforts have primarily relied on ecological data such as species richness and abundance for prioritizing conservation sites. As a result, I applied for GSTEG to participate in a large-scale marine mammal survey being conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fishery Service to gain experience in collecting the data that underlies federal conservation and management decisions. The main focus of the survey was the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, where Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, one of the ten largest marine protected areas on the planet and encompasses hundreds of thousands of square miles of territory, is located.

The goal of the research expedition was to collect data on the distribution and abundance of threatened and endangered marine mammals throughout the Hawaiian archipelago to inform regulatory and management decisions. In support of their ongoing management efforts, surveys such as this are important for understanding the current status and trends of highly endangered species such as Hawaiian monk seals and false killer whales.

During my time with the research team, I learned more about survey design and methods, marine mammals acoustics, and even seabird identification. It was one of the most memorable experiences of my life and significantly improved my understanding of the data, and how it is collected, that underpins much of the work of my dissertation.

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.

What’s in the Water? Ph.D. Student Studies the Organisms in Large Ships’ Ballast Tanks

Bill Gerhard

Ships fill and empty their ballast tanks as needed for stability. Whenever ballast water is taken on or discharged, aquatic plants and animals go along for the ride, which increases the risk of introducing invasive species.

William Gerhard is a Ph.D. student in Civil & Environmental Engineering. Recently he spent a month at the Danish Hydraulic Institute learning how to incorporate antibiotic resistance genes and pathogens into a global ballast water movement model. This experience will enhance his dissertation research on microbes in the ballast water of large ships, and Gerhard hopes this research will potentially inform policy and regulatory decisions under debate by the United Nations.

Gerhard was among 18 Duke University students who received Graduate Student Training Enhancement Grants (GSTEG) in 2017-18 from the Office of the Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies for training beyond their core disciplines. His faculty mentor is Claudia Gunsch. He shared an update:

With funding from the Graduate Student Training Enhancement Grant, I travelled to Singapore for an internship with the Danish Hydraulic Institute (DHI). This company specializes in creating modelling software for hydrologic systems. In addition, DHI operates the only tropical ballast water testing facility in the world. My dissertation focuses on the microbial community of ballast water in large ships, so their expertise in ballast water and modelling proved especially informative to my ongoing work.

During my time at DHI, I was exposed to science and laboratory work in a corporate environment. I assisted their researchers in drafting and testing a protocol that could be used to assess whether their test microbes were representative of the microbes found in Singapore’s natural waters. This protocol is now being examined by other ballast water testing facilities worldwide with the possibility of future adoption to the standard protocol.

Outside of the lab, I was exposed to DHI modelling software, and I learned the best practices for its use from those who wrote the program. This experience was especially valuable as I had minimal experience using the model prior to my time in Singapore. I left with a strong grasp of the program after four weeks, and several contacts to whom I could reach out in the event of future troubles.

The unique opportunity afforded by GSTEG allowed me to explore a potential future career path while also expanding comfort zones within my dissertation research.

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.

With New Skills in Genetic Analysis, Ph.D. Student Enhances Study of Forest Elephants

Amelia Meier

As a Ph.D. student at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, Amelia Meier is focusing her research on forest elephants in Gabon. Recently she set out to learn how to conduct genetic analysis to help identify individual elephants, which will inform her dissertation.

Mentored by John Poulsen, Meier was among 18 Duke University students who received Graduate Student Training Enhancement Grants (GSTEG) in 2017-18 from the Office of the Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies for training beyond their core disciplines. She shared an update:

Photo courtesy of Amelia MeierThrough the kind support of the Graduate Student Training Enhancement Grant I was able to receive one-on-one training in genetic analysis at the Institute for Research in Tropical Ecology (IRET) in Gabon. Over fourteen days of training I worked directly with the scientist who developed the Single Nucleotide Polymorphism (SNP) panel necessary to identify individual elephants from their dung. After learning the theory behind SNP genotyping, I was trained on how to use and interpret results from DNA sequencing equipment such as a Real-time Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) machine. These skills are critical to my dissertation.

This training has proved SNP analysis a viable method for answering my research questions, which I will now use throughout the rest of my dissertation. Because of the competency I achieved during this training I will be able to conduct all the genetic analyses in country, supporting local capacity, and negating the risk of losing my samples during exportation.

During the training I presented my research to the other scientists at IRET. I was exposed to a wide variety of research being conducted in Gabon by local and international scientists. Hopefully these newly made contacts will evolve into future collaborations.

Poulsen and Meier are among the coauthors on a new paper, “Ecological Consequences of Forest Elephant Declines for Afrotropical Forests,” in Conservation Biology.

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.

Assessing Antibiotic Resistance to Understand How Wild and Captive Lemurs Stay Healthy

Sally Bornbusch

Sally Bornbusch, a Ph.D. student in Evolutionary Anthropology, spent last summer learning how to assess antibiotic resistance in bacterial microbiomes of non-human primates such as lemurs. This experience will inform her dissertation on the relationship between primate gut microbiomes and host health.

Mentored by Christine Drea, Bornbusch was among 18 Duke University students who received Graduate Student Training Enhancement Grants (GSTEG) in 2017-18 from the Office of the Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies for training beyond their core disciplines. She shared an update:

Sally Bornbusch and a lemurDuring the summer of 2017 I worked with the Genomics & Microbiology Research Lab at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences to assess antibiotic resistance in non-human primate microbiomes. Specifically, I learned laboratory skills (e.g. qPCR) necessary to assess the presence of 86 known antibiotic resistance genes in the gut and armpit microbiomes of multiple lemur species.

I was also able to spend a portion of the summer collecting lemur microbiome samples both from lemurs at the Duke Lemur Center and, with the help of collaborators, from wild lemurs in Madagascar. With the aid of researchers traveling to remote areas of Madagascar, the GSTEG enabled me to send along supplies to collect unique samples from wild lemurs. And, with my newly acquired analysis skills, I will be able to characterize antibiotic resistance in these invaluable samples, a novel research project that greatly enhances my dissertation research.

By learning the skills to assess antibiotic resistance in the lemurs’ commensal microbial assemblages, I will be able to comprehensively evaluate the impact of antibiotic exposure on the health and ecology of captive and wild lemurs. Because lemurs are considered one of the most endangered groups of animals on the planet, understanding how antibiotics and the growing ‘resistance crisis’ influence lemur health is critical to creating successful conservation and captive care programs. Overall, this experience broadened my skillset in microbial analyses, advanced multiple parts of my research, and furthered our understanding of the factors that influence lemur health.

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.

Ecology Doctoral Student Analyzes Whales’ Baleen to Reconstruct the Story of a Species

William Cioffi GSTEG

What can a fin whale’s feeding apparatus tell us about that animal? William Cioffi, a Ph.D. student in Ecology, took a summer course at the University of Utah on stable isotope ecology to support his dissertation on using baleen from fin whales to reconstruct individual life histories and assess changes in foraging ecology, reproduction, and stress.

He was among 18 Duke University students who received Graduate Student Training Enhancement Grants (GSTEG) in 2017-18 from the Office of the Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies for training beyond their core disciplines. His faculty mentor is Andrew Read. He shared an update:

William CioffiThe GSTEG award provided me with support to attend a 10-day workshop on stable isotope ecology at the University of Utah this past summer. In addition to morning and evening lectures by top experts in the field, we spent afternoons collecting samples from around Salt Lake City and then processing and analyzing them in the laboratory.

We learned a great deal about the history and theory behind stable isotope ecology as well as many laboratory and analysis techniques that have already been useful to me in my work. Most exciting about this course was the opportunity to discuss ideas and challenges with other students and instructors who had all spent a great deal of time thinking about these issues. The participants included those studying vertebrates, geology, botany, and even forensic science. This course has been running for over 20 years and everyone benefited from the great experience of the instructors and former students, some of whom have even returned as instructors themselves.

In my own work, I use stable isotopes to investigate the historical ecology of baleen whales. Baleen whales are named for the keratin plates that comprise their feeding apparatus. These plates grow continuously throughout an animal’s life, slowly wearing away at the distal end. By repeatedly sampling for stable isotope analysis along the growth axis of an individual plate, a time series can be generated that provides information about foraging and migratory behavior that might have been occurring when that part of the plate was growing. These data provide a window into the past for populations that may no longer exist, but for which baleen plates have been archived in museums or other collections.

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.

Images: 2017 IsoCamp class; William Cioffi photographing baleen in preparation for sampling at the New York State Museum