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.

Graduate Student Network Imagines a World with Sustainable Energy for All

A few of the entries to ImaginEnergy

The Global Energy Access Network (GLEAN) is an interdisciplinary group of more than 50 Duke graduate and professional students who aim to advance sustainable solutions to address the world’s energy access challenges.

Yating Li, Muye Ru, Faraz Usmani, and Heidi VreelandHoused at the Duke University Energy Initiative, GLEAN received a Duke Support for Interdisciplinary Graduate Networks (D-SIGN) grant in 2016-17 and a follow-on D-SIGN grant in 2017-18. Doctoral students Yating Li and Faraz Usmani (Environmental Policy), Muye Ru (Earth & Ocean Sciences), and Heidi Vreeland (Civil & Environmental Engineering) served as coordinators. Their faculty sponsors were Subhrendu Pattanayak and Brian Murray.

Here are excerpts from their year-end report.


Speaker Series

A meeting of GLEAN students with Jim Rogers;GLEAN’s Energy Access Speaker Series brings world-renowned energy-access researchers and practitioners to Duke. Critically, the selection of speakers is driven entirely by the students who are part of the GLEAN community, ensuring overlap in mutual interests between visiting speakers and students.

GLEAN sponsored and organized the visits of three speakers: Professor Shu Tao (Peking University), who spoke on the rural energy transition in China; Dr. Akanksha Chaurey (ITP India), who shared her experiences developing a renewable energy strategy for Afghanistan; and Professor Jill Baumgartner (McGill University), who highlighted the importance of clean-energy programs in the context of air pollution in China.

The Speaker Series creates tangible opportunities for graduate, professional, and undergraduate students to engage with leaders in the field.

–Faraz Usmani

GLEAN’s visiting speakers recognize the breadth of talent and experiences that the students in the network have.

–Muye Ru

Case Studies

cover of volume 1 of GLEAN case studiesCurrently in its final stages of production, GLEAN’s second volume of energy-access case studies will present important research takeaways from up to five GLEAN members, providing distinct experiences on energy access across key regions of the developing world.

Focusing on a diverse range of topics—from the implications of improving energy finance for India’s solar industry to measurement of the impacts of cleaner cooking technologies in rural Madagascar—the volume aims to inform researchers, practitioners, students, and others working on energy access and energy transitions.

GLEAN’s second volume of case studies is expected to be released by the end of Summer 2018. The first volume was published in June 2017.

GLEAN members have contributed to a wide range of energy-relevant research applications across the world. The case studies collection will compile these experiences for policymakers, practitioners and researchers, who frequently find themselves ‘reinventing the wheel’ when engaging with unfamiliar contexts or communities.

–Heidi Vreeland

ImaginEnergy Photo Contest

Hannah Girardeau’s entry to ImaginEnergyRecognizing that visual media can highlight the reality of energy poverty in remote, rural settings in new and distinct ways, GLEAN organized the ImaginEnergy Photo Contest—open to students from across the world. The contest received over 40 submissions.

Winners—selected via a social media campaign led by the Energy Initiative—had the opportunity to display their photos as part of a DUU VisArts curated exhibition at Duke’s Brown Art Gallery, which runs through the end of Summer 2018.

Their photographs were also on display during the annual meeting of the Sustainable Energy Transitions Initiative (SETI), which was hosted by Duke for the third consecutive year in May 2018.

Lack of access to energy is a multidimensional challenge, and sometimes a picture is indeed worth a thousand words when it comes to demonstrating the scale of the challenge.

–Yating Li

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: A few of the entries to ImaginEnergy; Yating Li, Muye Ru, Faraz Usmani, and Heidi Vreeland; a meeting of GLEAN students with Jim Rogers; cover of volume 1 of GLEAN case studies; Hannah Girardeau’s entry to ImaginEnergy

Duke Students Share Skills with a Rural Mexican Community to Strengthen Ecotourism

Duke Desarrollo Mexico team

Ruxandra Popovici, a Ph.D. student in Environment, teamed up with Emilio Blanco Gonzalez and Adam Cullen, master’s students in Mechanical Engineering, on a proposal to help a rural Mexican community develop a renewable energy strategy and a business plan for sustainable ecotourism.

They received a Duke Support for Interdisciplinary Graduate Networks (D-SIGN) grant from the Office of the Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies for use in 2017-2018, with faculty sponsor Elizabeth Shapiro-Garza.

Last summer, the three graduate students traveled with undergraduate Matheus Dias to Playa Grande. They assessed the community’s ecotourism business and energy needs, and generated two reports with recommendations.

Here are excerpts from their year-end report.

Playa Grande is a Mexican ejido, where land is jointly owned by a group of 70 community members. Residents of Playa Grande, like many rural communities in Mexico, participate in government-funded conservation programs where community members receive monetary compensation in exchange for their involvement in the sustainable management and stewardship of communal natural resources. Their conservation activities include fire prevention, protection against illegal logging and hunting, and maintaining corridors for jaguar protection.

Ejido Playa Grande

Ejido Playa Grande is part of a small group of communities that decided to invest their conservation program earnings into an ecotourism business, which is jointly owned by community members. Their company has been growing but community members are looking to improve their business strategy in order to attract more customers, as well as to transition to a renewable energy strategy to power their tourist center.

Selva Ecoturistica Playa Grande

A common problem encountered by rural communities in Mexico is that it is difficult to access experts that can provide specialized assistance in fields such as business, marketing, and engineering. To remedy this situation, students at Duke created Economic Sustainability, an initiative that connects rural community members to “student experts” that assist residents with their business and engineering needs.

Solar panels, Playa GrandeAdam and Emilio evaluated three renewable energy options – hydro, wind, and solar – and recommended that the community invest in additional solar panels, which they have found to be the most cost-effective option. Community leaders in Playa Grande have already bought additional solar panels based on this recommendation.

Matheus, an economics major, created a report documenting the community’s existing business structure and activities. This report is extremely useful for community members, as it provides concrete documentation about their business, which they can use to apply for loans and government grants. In addition, Matheus conducted research on the region’s ecotourism market and provided suggestions for improving the ecotourism business and developing future services.

Ruxandra interviewed micro-entrepreneurs. She facilitated a partnership with NC State’s P1tLab, whose students, faculty, and staff provide guidance on the community’s marketing and business strategy. Due to the very competitive and vertically integrated nature of the tourism industry in the region, this community is struggling to “capture” visitors from the international enclave destination of Puerto Vallarta. Through this partnership with Duke and NC State’s P1tLab, members of Ejido Playa Grande will attempt to penetrate local retail monopolies to advertise their services directly to potential visitors.

Duke students, Playa Grande

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.

With D-SIGN Grants, Graduate Students Build Networks and Advance Research Interests

D-SIGN Duke grantees

Five groups led by Duke graduate students received Duke Support for Interdisciplinary Graduate Networks (D-SIGN) grants for the 2016-17 academic year, becoming the first cohort of students to make use of this new program from the Office of the Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies. D-SIGN’s purpose 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.

The D-SIGN grantees included students from the School of Nursing, Sanford School of Public Policy, Arts & Sciences and the Nicholas School of the Environment who advanced a range of research projects and educational experiences that reach beyond disciplinary lines. Here are brief summaries of the groups’ activities.

Global Alliance on Disability and Health Innovation (GANDHI) – Children and Adolescents Health Group

Brittney Sullivan (Ph.D. in Nursing ’17, School of Nursing) and Anna Martin (Master of Public Policy student, Sanford School of Public Policy), established a graduate network affiliated with the Bass Connections project Global Alliance on Disability and Health Innovation (GANDHI) but focused on young people rather than adults. Their faculty sponsor was Janet Prvu Bettger (Nursing).

They aimed to establish the evidence for improving systems of care for children and adolescents living with disability after an acute hospitalization. Using a socioecological approach to identify the key needs for children newly living with disability, network members set out to examine and compare the social supports, health and community services and policies in three countries.

The group held weekly meetings with guest speakers throughout the year, supplemented by four group dinners. Three members traveled to Uganda in April to conduct interviews and observe some of the organizations that the group identified.

Anna Martin and Nelia Ekeji ’19 presented “GIS Study of Posthospital Services Supporting Children with Surgical Need in Uganda” at a Duke event, Strategies to Strengthen Health Systems Globally.

The group has a manuscript in preparation, “Spatial Distribution of Rehabilitation Services for Children Following Surgery in Uganda: Using the Data to Plan Interventions.” Members are transcribing and coding interviews, and Sarah Barton (Th.D. student, Divinity School) will lead the group in 2017-18.

Global Energy Access Network (GLEAN)

Three graduate students teamed up with faculty sponsors Subhrendu Pattanayak (Sanford School of Public Policy) and Brian Murray (Nicholas School of the Environment) to bring together students across Duke who are working on global energy transitions, energy access and energy poverty.

Rob Fetter and Faraz Usmani (University Ph.D. Program in Environmental Policy students, Nicholas School and Sanford School) and Hannah Girardeau (Master of Environmental Management student, Nicholas School) established GLEAN to ignite a research and policy dialogue around an understudied global issue.

GLEAN has grown into a network of 50 graduate and undergraduate students, representing at least seven schools and departments across Duke. Members met once or twice each month to update the broader community about relevant activities taking place at their respective schools and departments.

Through the Energy Access Speaker Series, GLEAN organized seven talks by experts on energy, environment and development. Five of these events were co-organized with other Duke programs, which helped the members to forge new partnerships.

In June, the group published an edited volume of energy access case studies, Energy & Development. The six chapters are coauthored by graduate or undergraduate students and focus on five countries (India, Indonesia, Madagascar, Nicaragua, Peru). With support from the Duke University Energy Initiative—GLEAN’s institutional home—the group will promote the publication widely this fall.

Several members worked with three paid research associates to compile a detailed annotated bibliography of energy, environment and development data sources available publicly that will be useful in creating an Energy Access Index. The group received a follow-on D-SIGN grant to conduct an energy access and air quality survey, engage two keynote speakers, produce case studies on energy and development and coordinate an “Imagine Energy” photo contest and exhibition.

Rethinking Regulation – Graduate Student Working Group

Based in the Rethinking Regulation Program at the Kenan Institute for Ethics, this group provides a forum for student-led interdisciplinary discussion, research and analysis of issues related to regulatory governance. Mercy DeMenno (Ph.D. in Public Policy student, Sanford School) sought a D-SIGN grant to support research workshops, writing group meetings, analyses of contemporary regulatory policy issues and other collaborative activities.

The group has grown to involve 25 students from 13 disciplines/programs and nine schools/departments as well as an active alumni group. Faculty sponsors are Lori Bennear (Nicholas School) and Jonathan Wiener (Law).

The group convened 12 research workshops in which members received feedback on their conference papers, articles, dissertation proposals, chapters and research plans. Presentations covered a range of topics, including regulatory impact assessment, regulatory disclosure regimes for fracking, regulating household energy technology, private accreditation in education, water and sanitation service provision in the Middle East and tort reform.

In addition, the group convened two writing groups that met twice per month. One group focused on dissertation prospectus and grant proposal development while the other focused on dissertation articles, chapters and extensions.

A key initiative was the development of a student-led regulatory governance blog. The Rethinking Regulation Blog publishes short articles connecting scholarly work to contemporary regulatory policy issues, with an emphasis on interdisciplinary, collaborative and applied academic inquiry.

A STEM Researcher-Educator Network to Improve K-12 Science Literacy

Three doctoral students teamed up with faculty sponsors Kate Allman (Program in Education) and Brad Murray (Nicholas School) to create a network of STEM graduate students and Master of Arts in Teaching students who work together on lesson plans for local K-12 educators. Rebecca Lauzon (Ph.D. in Earth and Ocean Sciences student, Nicholas School), Eleanor Caves and Patrick Green (Ph.D. in Biology students, Arts & Sciences) utilized the structure of the Scientific Research and Education Network (SciREN), which develops relationships between researchers and educators to incorporate current research into K-12 classrooms.

They recruited two MAT students and 17 STEM researchers to develop K-12 lesson plans. The network produced 16 lesson plans, which were shared with 150 educators at SciREN’s annual networking event and added to SciREN’s portal.

“Polymers Matter” and “Modeling Cell Organelles” were selected for inclusion in SciREN’s lesson plan kit program. Educators were able to order these lessons and have all the necessary supplies mailed. These two lessons reached six schools and 400 students. “Exploring Marshes and Barrier Islands with a Scientific Model” and “Make It Rain: The Water Utility Management Game” were shared with an additional 50 educators at SciREN Coast, an educator-researcher networking event organized by the Duke and UNC marine labs.

The group organized two workshops for STEM researchers. Sixty people attended Demystifying STEM Outreach. Getting Down to Basics: Strategies for Communicating Complex Science was an interactive workshop for 25 students. From these events, the group produced a database of outreach/science communication opportunities.

Pre- and post-surveys revealed that after participating in the network, STEM graduate students felt more qualified to do outreach with K-12 students and educators and to create lesson plans. The MAT students felt they built a network of scientists and gained experience-planning lessons on complicated subjects.

Duke Conservation Society

With faculty sponsor Stuart Pimm (Nicholas School), Priya Ranganathan (Master of Environmental Management student, Nicholas School) sought a D-SIGN grant to expand the Duke Conservation Society beyond the Nicholas School to engage interdisciplinary approaches to conservation.

The group’s mission is to enhance students’ understanding of the various scientific, political, economic and managerial tools available to address conservation issues; facilitate collaborations among undergraduate, master’s and Ph.D. students on conservation projects and analyses; and provide opportunities for professional development such as networking with conservation professionals, seminars and guest speakers.

The Duke Conservation Society organized multiple symposia and events geared toward sharing international perspectives on conservation. Members worked with Conservation X Labs, a company that produces technology for wildlife conservation, and Duke Conservation Tech, a student organization affiliated with the Pratt School of Engineering, to produce Blueprint: People + Wildlife. This was a competition for teams of undergraduate and graduate students in the Triangle area to create blueprints for novel conservation technologies to assist in fighting the illegal wildlife trade. Approximately 50 students participated in teams.

The group also used the D-SIGN grant to for a dinner seminar to discuss a project on urban gardening that the Divinity School and the Nicholas School will undertake together. The dinner featured Saskia Cornes of the Duke Campus Farm and Norman Wirzba of the Divinity School. The speakers discussed the intersection of conservation, urban agriculture and Christianity, and students from both schools collaborated on designs for the proposed courtyard garden at the Divinity School.

Learn More

Read about the six groups that received D-SIGN grants for 2017-18 and what they plan to do. The next call for proposals will be released in early 2018. Any current Duke graduate student (including master’s, professional and Ph.D. students) may submit a proposal for interdisciplinary projects, trainings or experiences during the 2018-19 academic year.

Stretching beyond Their Disciplines, Graduate Students Gain New Perspectives

GSTEG

Last year 19 Duke graduate students received 2016-2017 Graduate Student Training Enhancement Grants (GSTEG) from the Office of the Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies. The disciplinary homes of these students ranged from engineering, environment and biology to history, theology and medicine.

A key feature of Together Duke, the university’s new academic strategic plan, GSTEG allows graduate students to deepen preparation for academic positions and other career trajectories. Stretching beyond their core disciplinary training, these doctoral and master’s students acquired skills, knowledge and field experiences that widened their intellectual networks and enhanced their original research.

Explore the links to below to learn more about the recipients’ experiences with hands-on training, internships, workshops, courses and community engagement.

Hands-on Training

Nanotechnology at Los Alamos

Zhiqin Huang (Ph.D. in Electrical and Computer Engineering, Pratt School of Engineering) spent half a year at the Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. Exposure to the lab’s cutting-edge facilities and other resources amplified her dissertation research on novel nanostructures that can generate extremely low-energy and ultrafast plasmonic switches.

The main purpose of the visit was to learn optics-related experiment techniques. Based on the rich resources, I even built a new pump-probe system independently and did a group of experiments using newly fabricated samples and obtained primary results. Furthermore, I attended several forums related to nanooptics as well as invaluable seminars. Through discussions with some talented experts in the field of my research, I gained a much better understanding on both theory and experiments.

Coastal Wetlands

Fateme Yousefi Lalimi (Ph.D. in Environmental Science, Nicholas School of the Environment) visited Dr. Andrea D’Alpaos’s lab at the University of Padova and conducted fieldwork in the Venice Lagoon, in order to strengthen her dissertation on coastal wetlands.

I was able to extend a hydrodynamic model of coastal wetlands to larger scales with the use of robust numerical modeling techniques. Visiting and working in Venice marshes expanded my observational perspective beyond the study sites I was familiar with in North Carolina and Virginia. Besides the academic training and research aspect of this experience, I could extend my professional network and scientific collaborations with leading scientists in my field. I am currently working on a scientific paper that is the result of my trip.

A Closer Look at Stormwater

Mark River (Ph.D. in Environment, Nicholas School of the Environment) works in the Duke University Wetland Center. For his dissertation research on how phosphorus is transported by particles in stormwater, he tapped into the resources at Virginia Tech’s National Center for Earth and Environmental Nanotechnology Infrastructure (NanoEarth).

I traveled to Virginia Tech and learned hands-on transmission electron microscopy on two different instruments, which I had no exposure to previously. Using the data I obtained in the two full days at Virginia Tech, I am working towards a nice publication that I would not otherwise have the data for.

A Social Science Angle on Coral Restoration

What do managers of coral reefs need to know about coral restoration methods before they start new restoration projects? Elizabeth Shaver (Ph.D. in Marine Science and Conservation, Nicholas School of the Environment) set out to answer this question in partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and The Nature Conservancy.

In the process of creating and implementing the survey, I learned valuable skills in the social sciences that I otherwise would not have obtained in my graduate work, including training on the wording of surveys, the Institutional Review Board process and pre-testing, to name a few. And the NOAA workshop I attended was a small and selective group of practitioners and scientists that I was only able to attend because of my role in this project. This workshop provided countless networking opportunities that I have since used to develop a postdoctoral proposal on coral restoration.

Sticky Business of Underwater Adhesive

Zoie Diana (Master of Environmental Management, Nicholas School of the Environment) went to the Okeanos Research Laboratory at Clemson University to probe for chitin in the decorator worm (Diopatra cuprea) tube and underwater adhesive. This training furthered her understanding of conserved molecular mechanisms in invertebrate bioadhesive and structure and informed her thesis, “Learning to Glue Underwater: Inspiration from the Decorator Worm.”

Internships

Brazilian Governance

Travis Knoll (Ph.D. in History, Arts & Sciences) served as an intern at the U.S. Embassy in Brasilia. He focused on issues ranging from Brazil’s internal political scene to the key role the country’s foreign policy plays in the region and beyond.

My time in Brasilia helped me connect historical debates with public policy. Both writing policy reports on affirmative action and meeting important public figures has opened up the possibility for focusing less exclusively on the push for affirmative action in Rio de Janeiro state.

Sufi Spirituality and Social Justice

To strengthen his dissertation research on the Sufi spiritual movement and commitment to social justice, Daanish Faruqi (Ph.D. in History, Arts & Sciences) traveled to Jordan and Turkey to help Syrian refugee communities through relief foundations operated by Sufi networks.

I did considerable work with the Syrian refugee community under the auspices of SKT Welfare, a charitable organization founded and run by the Sufi spiritual movement that is the subject of my academic research. It made painstakingly clear the intimate connection between this group’s spirituality and commitment to worldly service. This experience will be crucial in helping better piece together the social and humanitarian dimensions of Islamic spirituality more broadly, and in understanding this movement that forms the basis of my dissertation in particular.

British Art and Poetry

Christopher Catanese (Ph.D. in English, Arts & Sciences) interned at the North Carolina Museum of Art to contribute to the exhibition “History and Mystery: British Old Masters, 1550-1850,” which provided experience within two departments of a major public arts organization and informed his research on 18th– and early 19th-century British poetry.

Workshops

Capitalism, Slavery and Freedom

Alisha Hines (Ph.D. in History and African & African American Studies, Arts & Sciences) attended the History of Capitalism Workshop at Cornell University. She learned about technical content areas such as statistics, accounting and economic theory in order to apply quantitative methods and techniques to her study of slavery and freedom in the middle Mississippi River Valley.

The workshop was quite useful to me because I use steamboat company records in my research and I now feel more confident reading ledgers and account books, and can ask new questions about the hiring practices, for example, of steamboat captains and how they might have assessed the risk of employing enslaved men and women in river work. In addition, I was able to learn more about mapping techniques I can use to chart patterns of mobility of black women in the Mississippi River Valley.

Modeling and Data Analysis for Biology

Eight months before defending her dissertation on the effects of genetic variation on signaling dynamics, Selcan Aydin (Ph.D. in Biology, Arts & Sciences) spent two weeks in the Computational Synthetic Biology Track of the Quantitative Biology (Qbio) Summer School at the University of California, San Diego. She built skills needed for the modeling and data analysis challenges of her research.

The group project was very helpful in gaining hands-on mathematical modeling experience where I had the chance to interact with computational biologists. This allowed me to improve my collaboration and scientific communication skills in addition to the scientific knowledge I have gained in computational and mathematical modeling.

Big Data and a Bird Migration Route

Danica Schaffer-Smith (Ph.D. in Environment, Nicholas School of the Environment) participated in a week-long workshop on environmental data analytics in Boulder, Colorado, offered by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON). The technical knowledge she gained will inform her dissertation on spatiotemporal variability of inland waterbodies along the Pacific flyway. More than a billion birds use this flyway every year as a north-south migration route.

Participating in the workshop assisted me in developing new modeling and computing skills, including an emphasis on big data and integrating diverse datasets in a unified analysis framework. The tutorials on Bayesian data analysis and spatiotemporal data analysis have proven to be directly applicable for my own work and I am currently using these methods in two chapters of my dissertation.

Environmental Genomics

Tess Leuthner (Ph.D. in Environment, Nicholas School of the Environment, Integrated Toxicology and Environmental Health Program), attended the Environmental Genomics training program at the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory.

I gained the knowledge to create, manage and analyze genomics datasets, but I also met new colleagues and collaborators. I continue to communicate and collaborate with scientists and peers that I met during this course.

Evolutionary Quantitative Genetics

Brenna R. Forester (Ph.D. in Environment, Nicholas School of the Environment) participated in two workshops hosted by the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS) in Knoxville and a workshop on conservation genomics in Montana, to inform her dissertation research in the emerging field of landscape genomics.

I learned skills that have allowed me to be a more effective collaborator, and have better prepared me for the postdoctoral position I have just started at Colorado State University.

Courses

Printmaking and Suffering

Stephanie Gehring Ladd (Ph.D. in Religion, Arts & Sciences) took a printmaking course at UNC Chapel Hill to gain insight into the process of intaglio printmaking. This experience enhanced her observational powers in writing about prints and informed her dissertation on attention to suffering in the work of Simone Weil and Käthe Kollwitz.

Professor Brian Garner was fantastic to work with. He let me custom-tailor a course within his Introduction to Intaglio, so that I was able to focus on the intaglio printmaking techniques most used by the artist I am studying, Käthe Kollwitz. I learned an enormous amount about how her work was done.

Singapore’s Urbanization

Nathan Bullock (Ph.D. in Art, Art History and Visual Studies, Arts & Sciences) spent a semester taking courses at the Yale School of Architecture to inform the application of architectural theory to his dissertation on contemporary Singapore.

Seeing how students learn about architecture in a professional program was eye-opening in comparison to the approach taken by humanists in an art history department. I was most struck by how deep the divide really was between theory and practice. This experience will certainly change how I interact with and write about the architects I study in my dissertation research.

Marketing and Philosophy

Adela Deanova (Ph.D. in Philosophy, Arts & Sciences) completed a series of online courses in digital marketing in order to contribute to Project Vox, a digital initiative that recovers the lost voices of female philosophers in the early modern era.

The experience proved to be very valuable for me, not only because I learned about leading-edge business marketing practices in theory, but also because it allowed me to apply the theoretical insights to three practical projects: the Capstone Project for the Digital Marketing certification; the user experience strategy for Project Vox; and the Story+ project for RTI International.

Christian Engagement with Architecture

Joelle A. Hathaway (Th.D., Divinity School) took a photography course at Durham Tech and conducted fieldwork in England. Her aim was to compile a portfolio of high-resolution images of religious art and architecture and conduct interviews about contemporary art in Anglican cathedrals, which will inform her dissertation about Christian practices of engagement with architecture and built environments.

I presented a paper at the Southeastern Commission for the Study of Religion based on the interviews and research I did at Salisbury Cathedral. I have two other paper proposals submitted for other academic conferences, also on cathedrals from my trip. I could spend the next decade researching and unraveling the different threads I uncovered through this experience!

Community Engagement

Empowering Young People to Become Healthy Adults

Banafsheh Sharif-Askary (M.D., School of Medicine) established the Health, Advocacy and Readiness for Teens (HART) program with partners Bull City Fit and Healthy Lifestyles. The program equips young people with tools and resources to help them lead healthier lives and learn behaviors that will continue into adulthood.

The Graduate Student Training Enhancement Grant was a crucial component of starting HART and ensuring that we had the necessary resources to serve our teens. Personally, HART has challenged us to be more flexible, thoughtful and accountable and we believe that these qualities will better equip us to be high-quality patient-oriented clinicians.

Art and Community Self-help

Jung E. Choi (Ph.D. in Art, Art History and Visual Studies, Arts & Sciences) traveled to Singapore to nurture community self-help in deprived urban neighborhoods and to inform her dissertation on the intersection of art, technology and space. Since then, Choi received her Ph.D. and completed the Graduate Certificate in Information Science + Studies.

I organized 12 different meet-ups among artists, community members and visitors and had opportunities to discuss various ways to enhance the understanding of the neighborhood and find better ways to engage with the environment involving art. Through this project, as a curator/scholar, I was able to understand the practical issues of curation that involve ongoing conversations among community members as well as the integrated approach to art and life.

Learn More

See which students received Graduate Student Training Enhancement Grants for 2017-2018 and what they plan to do.

In late 2017 or early 2018 an RFP will invite all current Duke graduate students (including master’s, professional and Ph.D. students) to propose graduate training enhancement activities lasting up to one semester, for use during the 2018-2019 academic year.

Workshops Lead to Unexpected Opportunities for Doctoral Student

Brenna Forester

Last fall Brenna Forester (Ph.D. in Environment, Nicholas School of the Environment) participated in two workshops hosted by the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS) in Knoxville to inform her dissertation research in the emerging field of landscape genomics.

She was among 19 Duke students who received Graduate Student Training Enhancement Grants (GSTEG) in 2016-17 for training beyond their core disciplines. Her faculty mentor was Dean Urban. She shared some reflections on her experience:

With funding from GSTEG I first attended a workshop on quantitative genetics at NIMBioS, where I learned skills that have allowed me to be a more effective collaborator, and have better prepared me for the postdoctoral position I have just started at Colorado State University.

I then attended a second NIMBioS workshop on Next Generation Genetic Monitoring. This was an excellent opportunity for me to work closely with many of the leaders in the fields of conservation genetics and molecular ecology. The group I worked with is about to submit a manuscript to a special issue of the peer-reviewed journal Evolutionary Applications. The manuscript provides practical advice and a guide to help conservation managers work effectively with genomics experts on genomic assessment and monitoring programs for species of conservation concern. I am a co-first author on that paper.

Finally, I traveled to a third workshop, ConsGen-2 [on conservation genomics], in Montana. This was a pivotal workshop for me. I received one-on-one assistance from experts in my field on my dissertation data, feedback that was instrumental in improving my dissertation. I met a recent Ph.D. graduate, whose Ph.D. advisor is now my current postdoctoral advisor (Chris Funk). It is unlikely I would have known about the position in his lab without having met his former student at ConsGen-2. Finally, I have just been asked to return this fall to be an instructor at the 2017 ConsGen!

Overall, the funds from GSTEG were put to very good use in terms of expanding the scope of my graduate training while helping me build a network of research collaborators.

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 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.

See who received these grants for 2017-18, and read about other 2016-17 recipients’ experiences:

NanoEarth Training Gets Doctoral Student Deeper into Water Research

Mark River

Mark River is a Ph.D. candidate at the Nicholas School of the Environment working in the Duke University Wetland Center. For his dissertation research on how phosphorus is transported by particles in stormwater, he wanted to tap into the resources at Virginia Tech’s National Center for Earth and Environmental Nanotechnology Infrastructure (NanoEarth).

River was among 19 Duke students who received Graduate Student Training Enhancement Grants (GSTEG) in 2016-17 for training beyond their core disciplines. His faculty mentor was Curtis J. Richardson. He shared a quick update on his experience:

I traveled to Virginia Tech and learned hands-on transmission electron microscopy (TEM) on two different instruments: elemental analysis using Energy Dispersive Spectroscopy (EDS); and High Angle Annular Dark Field (HAADF) and Electron Energy Loss Spectrometry (EELS). I learned a lot about these high-tech tools, which I had no exposure to previously. Using the data I obtained in the two full days at Virginia Tech, I am working towards a nice publication that I would not otherwise have the data for.

Last month River and Duke alumnus Scott Winton published a study in Water Research on the transport of phosphorus and nitrogen into surface waters from seagulls at landfills.

Graduate Student Training Enhancement Grants are intended to deepen preparation for academic positions and other career trajectories. 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 skills, knowledge or co-curricular experiences that will give them new perspectives on their research agendas.

See who received these grants for 2017-18, and read about other 2016-17 recipients’ experiences:

Image: Mark River and examples of data stemming from his Virginia Tech training