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 These data provide a window into the past for populations that may no longer exist, but for which baleen plates have been archived in museums or other collections.


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

Energy Access Project Offers Summer Funding for Student Internships and Research

Deadline: March 8, 2018

The Energy Access Project at Duke University (EAP) is a new research and policy effort that aims to address the challenges around increasing access to modern energy solutions to underserved populations around the world. We take an interdisciplinary approach to developing sustainable, modern energy for all. Established in 2017, the project supports foundational research and fosters constructive dialogue among the world’s policy makers, entrepreneurs, and scholars to identify ways of applying that research.

Key collaborators include the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, the Duke University Energy Initiative, the Sanford School of Public PolicyBass Connections, and the Nicholas School of the Environment.

The EAP invites proposals for student internships or research projects in Summer 2018 related to energy access in less‐developed countries, with a focus on either modern technologies and fuels for cooking, or access to reliable, affordable, safe, and sustainable electricity. The EAP is particularly interested in internships or projects that (i) promote innovative approaches to accelerate sustainable energy transitions in less‐developed countries; (ii) offer insights that are applicable or generalizable to wider audiences; (iii) help to close the know‐do gap between academic researchers and public and private practitioners; and/or (iv) are related to ongoing research or research interests of Duke faculty.

Undergraduate and graduate students at Duke University who are currently enrolled, and will be enrolled full‐time at Duke in Fall 2018, are eligible to apply for up to $5,000. While funding is available for a variety of experiences including internships or research projects, we will prioritize proposals that identify a sponsoring organization that the student has established contact with and secured logistical and institutional support from. We will prioritize proposals for internships or research projects in the field (i.e., in less developed countries with communities that directly experience energy access challenges); however, we will also accept proposals for internships or projects based at Duke, or in other parts of the developed world. While the EAP recognizes that energy poverty exists worldwide, including in developed countries, at present we focus exclusively on less‐developed countries. If you are uncertain if your setting is included, we encourage you to contact us before applying.

We will prioritize funding for travel and living expenses, and we will also consider (with lower priority) requests for payments to sponsoring organizations, funding to purchase equipment or data, or translation services. This call for proposals is not intended to provide funding for tuition for language schools, nor student stipends or salaries.

Proposals must be submitted electronically (MS Word preferred) to by 5:00 pm (EST) Thursday, March 8, 2018. Proposals submitted after this time will not be considered.


Proposals should be two to three pages long and must include the following:

  • Your contact information: Name, degree program and expected graduation year, department, faculty advisor, and email address.
  • Description of the project or internship. This section should be reasonably well detailed, and should include specific responsibilities to the extent you know them. If the experience includes field work, please also indicate how long you intend to stay in the country, and where specifically you will be (in one city, traveling to communities, etc.).
  • Description of the sponsoring organization (if applicable), including location, and the nature of your conversations with the organization to date. Please note whether the organization has agreed to provide logistical and institutional support, and describe the nature of this support (e.g., an office space, teammates, logistical or language support for travel, etc.).
  • How your proposed project or internship contributes to the priorities of the EAP, as noted in this call for proposals and on the EAP website. If you believe your project or internship relates to ongoing research or research interests of Duke faculty, please identify the relevant faculty member(s) and describe how it relates to their research program(s).
  • How your proposal fits within your academic program, and within your broader learning goals and/or professional goals.
  • What other funding sources you have applied or intend to apply for, including amounts you have already secured. (For undergraduates, please indicate if you have also applied to Duke Engage; if not, please explain why not).
  • A budget for the proposed internship or (Budget information can be provided on a separate page.)


Questions or clarifications may be addressed to Rob Fetter, Senior Policy Associate at the Nicholas Institute:

Duke Introduces Interdisciplinary Energy Access Project at D.C. Event

Tim Profeta and panelists at Energy Access launch event

Leaders from business, government, civil society and academia came together in Washington, D.C., on February 23 to explore one of the world’s most pressing challenges at Accelerating Global Energy Access, the formal introduction to Duke University’s Energy Access Project.

Nearly a third of humanity lacks reliable electricity and three billion people are without clean fuels and technologies for cooking. At the event, Energy Access Project staff and sector leaders examined ways to tackle the energy access challenge in conversation on the use of renewables, so-called last mile electrification, and financing to support viable pathways to sustainable and modern energy solutions for all.

Jim Rogers at Energy Access launch event

Highlighting the event agenda was a keynote address by Jim Rogers former CEO and chairman of the board for the electric utility Duke Energy and an advocate for universal electricity access. With his wife M.A. Rogers, he gave $1.5 million that was matched with $750,000 from the Bass Connections Challenge to support the project’s goal of accelerating deployment of sustainable energy and empowering the world through expanded energy access.

Key Duke collaborators in Duke’s Energy Access Project include the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, the Duke University Energy Initiative, the Sanford School of Public PolicyBass Connections, and the Nicholas School of the Environment.

Harshvardhan Sanghi at the Energy Access launch event

Originally posted on the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions website

Learn More

Photos by Laurence Genon. Tim Profeta, director of the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, with panelists; Jim Rogers; Harshvardhan Sanghi, Duke sophomore and member of the Bass Connections project team Energy Data Analytics Lab: Electricity Access in Developing Countries from Aerial Imagery

Duke University Launches Project to Address Energy Needs of World’s Poor

Jim and M.A. Rogers

Duke University is launching a project focused on developing new and collaborative ways to meet the energy needs of some of the world’s most disadvantaged communities, President Vincent E. Price announced Wednesday.

The Energy Access Project was established by a $1.5 million gift from Jim Rogers, former CEO and chairman of the board for the electric utility company Duke Energy, and his wife, M.A. Rogers. The Bass Connections Challenge at Duke University will add $750,000 in matching funds for a total of $2.25 million to support the project’s goal of accelerating deployment of sustainable energy and empowering the world through expanded energy access.

(Duke Energy and Duke University are separate organizations, though both were founded nearly a century ago by noted businessman and philanthropist James B. Duke.)

“Duke University excels at bringing together knowledge across disciplines and a compelling vision to tackle complex global problems such as sustainable energy,” Price said. “We are thankful for this generous gift from M.A. and Jim Rogers, which will support our faculty and staff in discovering ways to make energy access a reality for all.”

Worldwide, an estimated 1.2 billion people live without electricity. Another 1 billion have limited access because of unreliable grids and far more lack access to clean fuels and technologies for cooking. These populations are concentrated mostly in India and sub-Saharan Africa. The lack of modern energy sources has far-reaching implications for global health, climate change and economic opportunity.

Subhrendu Pattanayak, a professor in Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy, serves as faculty director on the project and will lead educational initiatives and build the research network. Jonathan Phillips, formerly the senior advisor to the president and CEO of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) from 2016 to 2017, will lead the project’s applied work and engagement from Duke’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.

“Innovative business models, financing arrangements and policy reforms are coming together in a way that has the potential to eliminate global energy poverty in the next decade,” said Phillips, who led OPIC’s $2.1 billion engagement with Power Africa, a project that leverages partnerships to increase investment and expand access to power in sub-Saharan Africa.

“Duke has much to contribute to this fight. I’m thrilled to be joining this engaged community to help find ways to leverage the vast expertise and diverse resources across campus to catalyze change on one of the world’s most pressing development challenges,” he said.

Faculty and staff across disciplines will seek to apply the university’s collective knowledge to develop actionable solutions to overcome on-the-ground challenges. They will, in particular, research how to increase electricity access around the globe and directly engage governments, local communities, utilities, financiers and non-governmental organizations to put those ideas into action. Key collaborators in the effort include the Nicholas Institute, the Duke University Energy Initiative, the Sanford School, the Nicholas School of the Environment and Bass Connections.

The project will also bring students together with faculty and industry experts to develop hands-on solutions as a way to educate future energy leaders. It will build on established programs like Bass Connections, in which Duke faculty, graduate students and undergraduates form research teams to tackle global challenges, and DukeEngage, which provides students with immersive civic engagement opportunities in the United States and abroad.

Another key goal of the project is to create courses to deepen understanding and spur analysis of critical energy-access problems; support fellowships and convene stakeholders; and build collaborations with companies, organizations and governments working to expand the availability of clean energy.

“Based on my experiences at Duke, I am confident that our investment in the faculty and students of the university will generate scalable solutions bringing power to people around the world,” said Rogers, who has been a CEO in the power sector for almost 25 years. Both he and his wife have been advocates for energy-efficiency investment, modernization of electric infrastructure and a low-carbon future.

From 2014 to 2016, Rogers was a Rubenstein Fellow at Duke, twice co-teaching a graduate level course with Tim Profeta, director of the Nicholas Institute. Students in the class designed business models for deploying power technologies in different regions of the world.

Rogers and Profeta also served as co-leaders of a Bass Connections project in which team members explored renewable off-grid electricity solutions for rural populations. Several students continued their work through DukeEngage by traveling to Peru and Indonesia to test solar and wind technologies with community partners.

“The Energy Access Project, funded by the Rogers’ gift, will spark important new collaborations across campus and provide more opportunities for students of all levels to engage in the vital work of creating sustainable energy solutions,” said Edward Balleisen, vice provost for interdisciplinary studies. “The complexity and urgency of this problem demands expertise from many different fields as well as the creative synergy emerging from teams with multiple perspectives and regular engagement with decision-makers in government, industry and NGOs.”

Duke Graduate Students Receive Grants to Expand Training beyond Core Disciplines


Eighteen Duke University students—16 from The Graduate School, one from the School of Nursing and one from the Divinity School—received Graduate Student Training Enhancement Grants (GSTEG) for 2017-2018 from the Office of the Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies.

Stretching beyond their core disciplinary training, these doctoral and master’s students will spend up to one semester acquiring skills, knowledge or experiences that will enhance the approach to their original research.

Hands-on Training

Sarah (Sally) Bornbusch, Ph.D. in Evolutionary Anthropology, Arts & Sciences

Sally BornbuschFaculty mentor: Christine Drea

Work at North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences’ Genomics & Microbiology Research Lab to learn how to assess antibiotic resistance in bacterial microbiomes of nonhuman primates, to inform dissertation on relationship between primate gut microbiomes and host health (see update)

Amelia Meier, Ph.D. in Environment, Nicholas School of the Environment

Amelia MeierFaculty mentor:  John Poulsen

Train at Institute for Research in Tropical Ecology in Gabon to learn genetic analysis methods necessary to identify individual forest elephants, which will inform dissertation on elephant tracking in Gabon (see update)

Seth Sykora-Bodie, Ph.D. in Marine Science and Conservation, Nicholas School of the Environment

Seth Sykora BodieFaculty mentors: Lisa Campbell and Andrew Read

Participate in Hawaiian Islands Cetacean and Ecosystem Assessment Survey to inform dissertation on comprehensive approaches to Antarctic resource management and conservation (see update)

Kate Thomas, Ph.D. in Biology, Arts & Sciences

Katie ThomasFaculty mentor: Sönke Johnsen

Conduct coding-intensive research at Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, drawing on its database of millions of deep-sea animal sightings, to inform research on vision and bioluminescence in deep-sea cephalopods (see update)

Anna Wade, Ph.D. in Environment, Nicholas School of the Environment

Anna WadeFaculty mentor: Daniel Richter

Train at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in use of silicon-32, a radioisotope serving as a novel dating tool for environmental processes, which will support dissertation research on legacy sediment (see update)

Jillian Wisse, Ph.D. in Ecology, Arts & Sciences

Jillian Wisse

Faculty mentor: Douglas Nowacek

Learn a novel analysis technique (liquid chromatography/tandem mass spectrometry) at National Institute of Standards and Technology, to support a preliminary analysis using remote blubber biopsy samples from pilot whales (see update)


Emily Cherenack, Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology, Arts & Sciences

Emily CherenackFaculty mentor: Kathleen Sikkema

Volunteer with Femme International to implement reproductive health intervention for adolescent girls in Tanzania, and receive training from Dr. Adam Carrico at University of Miami on how to use biological measures in research with women, which will further ability to conduct research on reproductive and sexual health among adolescent girls in Tanzania (see update)

Mercy DeMenno, Ph.D. in Public Policy, Sanford School of Public Policy

Mercy DeMennoFaculty mentor: Frederick Mayer

Gain hands-on experience working with policymakers and civil society organizations on research related to the theory and practice of effective regulatory governance in the financial sector (see update)

William Gerhard, Ph.D. in Civil and Environmental Engineering, Pratt School of Engineering

Billy GerhardFaculty mentor: Claudia Gunsch

Intern with Danish Hydraulic Institute in Singapore to incorporate antibiotic resistance genes and pathogens into a global ballast water movement model, which will support dissertation research and potentially inform policy and regulatory decisions under debate by the United Nations (see update)


Dustin Benac, Doctor of Theology, Divinity School

Dustin BenacFaculty mentor: Craig Dykstra

Attend Qualitative Research Methods Intensive Seminar at University of North Carolina’s Odum Institute for training in qualitative data collection and interpretation, to be applied to a pilot study examining patterns of connection among five church-related educational institutions in Pacific Northwest (see update)

Lok Chan, Ph.D. in Philosophy, Arts & Sciences

Lok ChanFaculty mentor: Kevin Hoover

Take part in Udacity Machine Learning Program to develop skills needed to produce a web-based application for logic education and, through practice, a deeper understanding of philosophical differences between Bayesian and Frequentist statistical methods, which will inform dissertation on learning and testing through lenses of philosophy and statistics (see update)

William Cioffi, Ph.D. in Ecology, Arts & Sciences

William CioffiFaculty mentor: Andrew Read

Attend course at University of Utah on stable isotope biogeochemistry and ecology, which will support dissertation proposal to use baleen from fin whales to reconstruct individual life histories and assess changes in foraging ecology, reproduction and stress (see update)

Sophie Galson, M.S. in Global Health, Duke Global Health Institute

Sophie Galson Faculty mentor: Catherine Staton

Take part in residential immersive Swahili course at The Training Centre for Development Cooperation in Eastern and Southern Africa in Tanzania, to support research project on hypertension in emergency department of Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center (see update)

Allison Lewinski, Ph.D. in Nursing, School of Nursing

Allison LewinskiFaculty mentor: Allison Vorderstrasse

Attend course at University College London on applying principles of behavior change in behavioral research interventions, which will help in characterizing social interaction and support among individuals with type-2 diabetes who are interacting in a computer-mediated environment (see update)

Stephanie Manning, M.A. in Digital Art History, Arts & Sciences

Faculty mentor: Sheila Dillon

Attend course at Sotheby’s Art Institute on finance and art market to deepen understanding of art market industry, including financial aspects behind valuing and appraising art, to prepare for career as specialized art consultant or investment analyst (see update)

Bria Moore, Ph.D. in Medical Physics, School of Medicine

Bria MooreFaculty mentor: Terry Yoshizumi

Attend course on radiation emergency medicine at Oak Ridge Associated Universities to learn practical aspects of handling contaminated patients in a hospital setting, which will improve ability to communicate effectively with medical professionals in emergency situations (see update)

Ryan Peabody, Ph.D. in Earth and Ocean Sciences, Nicholas School of the Environment

Ryan PeabodyFaculty mentor: Susan Lozier

Take course at Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences on modern observational oceanography with a focus on carbon and nutrient sampling, to support research employing oceanographic data, satellite remote sensing data and models to examine linkage of large-scale ocean circulation and ocean productivity (see update)

Research Materials

Kirsten Overdahl, Ph.D. in Integrated Toxicology and Environmental Health, Nicholas School of the Environment

Kirsten OverdahlFaculty mentor: P. Lee Ferguson

Purchase software licenses for cheminformatic programs Schrodinger and Py Mol, which are required for a UNC course on research in pharmaceutical sciences, which will inform dissertation on chemical pollutant structure/occurrence and biological effects (see update)


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

A January 2017 RFP invited all current Duke graduate students (including master’s, professional and Ph.D. students) to propose graduate training enhancement activities lasting up to one semester. Proposals were reviewed by an ad hoc committee convened by the Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies with representation from faculty, institute directors and graduate students, representing all divisions of knowledge.

The first cohort of GSTEG recipients (2016-2017) included Selcan Aydin (Biology), Nathan Bullock (Art, Art History and Visual Studies), Christopher Catanese (English), Jung E. Choi (Art, Art History and Visual Studies), Adela Deanova (Philosophy), Zoie Diana (Environmental Management), Daanish Faruqi (History), Brenna R. Forester (Environment), Joelle Hathaway (Theology), Alisha Hines (History, African and African American Studies), Zhiqin Huang (Electrical and Computer Engineering), Travis Knoll (History), Stephanie Gehring Ladd (Religion), Fateme Yousefi Lalimi (Environmental Science), Tess Leuthner (Environment), Mark River (Environment), Danica Schaffer-Smith (Environment), Elizabeth (Schrack) Shaver (Marine Science and Conservation) and Banafsheh Sharif-Askary (Medicine). Learn about some of their experiences:

Interdisciplinary Teams Take a Hands-on Approach to Energy Innovations

klein-solar638Bacteria that eat methane and turn themselves into cattle feed. A solar-powered pressure cooker that sterilizes medical equipment in rural clinics. A fleet of FedEx trucks powered by natural gas that would have been burned off through flare stacks and wasted.

Duke students working with Emily M. Klein and Josiah Knight are coming up with innovative approaches to pressing energy challenges, and gaining the skills and experience to play leadership roles in a rapidly evolving energy future.

Klein is professor of earth and ocean sciences at the Nicholas School of the Environment. She is also deeply engaged in work on campus that furthers diversity and inclusion, including as the founding faculty director of the Baldwin Scholars program for female undergraduates. Klein and Knight, who is associate professor of mechanical engineering and materials science, serve on the Duke Energy Initiative’s faculty advisory committee and are codirectors of the Certificate in Energy and the Environment, designed to help students understand the energy system as a whole and the interconnections among policy, markets, technology and the environment.

“The certificate program was a joint Nicholas School-Pratt School effort that was supported in part by a wonderful, visionary donor, Jeff Gendell,” says Klein. “A certificate is like a minor, but it crosses departments—and in this case, it crosses schools.”

The certificate is only for undergraduates, though. “So when Bass Connections came along with the Energy theme, it was wonderful,” Klein says. Bass Connections project teams are designed to include graduate and undergraduate students as well as faculty and outside experts. Since Fall 2014, she and Knight have led a Bass Connections project to identify, design and prototype new energy technologies, systems or approaches.


“We put together teams of Pratt and Trinity undergraduates, as well as graduate students, to come up with their own ideas of what they’re interested in working on in the realm of energy and the environment,” she explains. “Last year one project was driven by a student who did DukeEngage in Nicaragua and was working with an NGO. They have clinics in rural areas, and they’re off-grid. These people needed an inexpensive, solar-powered autoclave that would sterilize small instruments.”

A group of mechanical and civil engineering students, an environmental science student and a public policy student researched many approaches. “They determined that a pressure cooker gets up to the temperature needed to sterilize medical equipment. So they built this reflector, a solar concentrator, and did all the calculations on heating time, weather conditions in Nicaragua…it almost got there by the end of the year. The first-year student worked on it further over the summer and figured out where the heat was being lost.”

Among this year’s projects are stationary bikes that can run a filtration system to clean water from the Baltimore Harbor through artificial wetlands, an energy-efficient small vehicle and use of novel materials like grapheme for energy-saving applications.

“Being involved in this experience has made me want to delve more into energy in my own research,” says Klein. “It’s made me want to make a connection to resource availability and impacts on people, communities and the environment. That led to my beginning to work on another Bass Connections project, The Effects of Unconventional Shale Gas Development on Rural Communities. It’s giving me a forum to begin to work with students and my colleagues on this incredibly important area of fracking and its human impact.”