Duke Incubation Fund Awards Support Seven Promising Innovations

Congratulations to the 2019-20 Duke Incubation Fund Awardees.

The winners of the Fall 2019 Duke Incubation Fund awards have been announced, representing promising innovation happening across the University. Seven projects will receive funds totaling $129,000.

The Incubation Fund, run by Duke’s Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative (I&E), supports early-stage ideas from Duke’s innovation ecosystem with the potential to go to market. Whereas many resources exist at Duke to support research and commercialization, the Incubation Fund is among the only opportunities for innovations still in the ideation stage. The Fund is made possible by a gift from I&E advisory board member Jeffrey Citron and his wife, Suzanne.

One goal of the Fund is to foster innovation in all corners of Duke. While previous awards have supported faculty, staff, and students representing schools and departments ranging from the Nicholas School, to the School of Nursing, all the way to the Dance Program, this year’s awardees represent the Department of Pathology, the Duke Human Vaccine Institute, the Department of Radiology, the Department of Chemistry, and the Department of Biomedical Engineering.

Incubation Fund Awardees for 2019-2020

Soman Abraham | Pathology Faculty

Mast cells are responsible for a wide range of inflammatory disorders, from mild skin rash to life-threatening anaphylactic shock. This team is exploring a novel mast cell inhibitor molecule to treat non-clonal mast cell activation syndrome (nc-MCAS), for which there are currently no FDA-approved treatments. In addition to potentially preventing nc-MCAS-related anaphylaxis and symptoms, this molecule could lead to the development of therapeutics to treat other mast cell-mediated diseases.

Mattia Bonsignori | Duke Human Vaccine Institute Faculty

Using an antibody type from a Zika-infected pregnant woman who bore a healthy infant—an antibody type that doesn’t cross the placenta or cross-react with the Dengue virus like other antibodies capable of neutralizing the Zika virus—this team seeks to generate critical data needed for preclinical studies that would pave the way for clinical vaccine trials.

Charles Kim | Interventional Radiology Faculty and Division Chief

Ultrasound probes were designed for diagnostic use and are thus limited when it comes to their use in needle guidance; this project seeks to develop a dedicated interventional ultrasound probe that utilizes a novel approach to image acquisition and processing, thereby optimizing needle guidance.

Maciej Mazurowski | Radiology Faculty

Using software based on an algorithm developed and tested by Duke scientists and clinicians, this team will work to create a clinical-use software prototype to evaluate knee radiographs in order to grade the severity of knee osteoarthritis. 

Samira Musah | Biomedical Engineering Faculty

Through the design and engineering of a novel microfluidic device that mimics the tissue structure and filtration system of a human kidney, Fixoria Biomimetics seeks to develop a vascularized 3D in vitro kidney model that can be used to discover novel therapeutics for human kidney disease.

Jesus del Carmen Valdiviezo Mora | Chemistry Graduate Student

Evolutionary Microfluidics looks to use AI algorithms to design, manufacture, and patent microfluidic devices that act as efficient analyzers and microreactors of biological samples, eventually commercializing these devices within the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries to reduce the time needed for research and development.

Zohair Zia | Biomedical Engineering Undergraduate Student

Neptune Access makes modifications to an IV port so it can be used to obtain blood samples, reducing the need for numerous blood draws through repeated venipuncture, especially for those patients who may require multiple attempts for each successful blood sample.

Tapping into Resources and Guidance

Many of these projects have already benefited from the support of innovation- and entrepreneurship-related resources across Duke. Zohair Zia’s work on an adapted IV port won the Duke Institute for Health Innovation’s annual Innovation Jam supporting pragmatic health innovations with the potential for immediate application or possible commercialization. Soman Abraham’s new venture focused on mast cell inhibitor therapy is receiving coaching and business strategy support from a mentor-in-residence and an MBA student through the New Ventures Program run by the Office of Licensing & Ventures.

These resources, as well as the early-stage support provided by the Incubation Fund, can prove decisive in whether progress continues on a project. Charles Kim, who received an award for an interventional ultrasound probe, said, “This will provide funding for the materials and expertise needed for the crucial step of formal prototype development, without which further progress would not be possible.”

Tracking Success

Now that the Fund, which was established in 2017, is entering its fourth funding cycle, “We’re starting to be able to track the success of previous awardees, which is exciting,” says Dr. Sharlini Sankaran, Director of Translational Programs at Duke I&E.

Duke spin-out inSomaBio has gone on to receive funding from the Duke Angel Network, whereas others are in various stages of obtaining follow-on funding from investor groups or local and federal entrepreneurial funding programs.

Michael Kliën, an Associate Professor of the Practice of Dance, received an Incubation Fund award last year for his work on the Hydrean, a unique physical meditation device that encourages embodiment and teaches a systematic practice of mindfulness. The Hydrean was featured at this year’s Invented at Duke celebration—and undergraduate students in the I&E Certificate, intrigued by Kliën’s product, decided to do a business development project for their capstone class focused on getting the Hydrean adopted into mainstream media.

“The Incubation Fund fills a critical funding need for early-stage projects that need a lift to get off the ground, whether that be prototype building, early-stage market research, or obtaining critical equipment and supplies,” said Sankaran. “In keeping with Duke I&E’s mission of being a catalyst and an enabler for innovation at Duke, we’re happy to provide support to these promising projects so they can ultimately benefit society at large.”

Originally posted on the Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship website

Nicholas Institute Welcomes Inaugural Cohort of Duke Environmental Impacts Fellows

Group of fellows.

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions announced the selection of 19 doctoral students from Arts & Sciences, Nicholas School of the Environment, Pratt School of Engineering, and Sanford School of Public Policy as the inaugural Duke Environmental Impacts Fellows. These students have diverse backgrounds and come from a wide range of doctoral programs, but they share a common passion for protecting, managing and improving our environment.

The Duke Environmental Impacts Fellow Program (EIF) is a new, professional development opportunity for Duke Ph.D. students keen on making a high impact in their careers. This pilot program aims to fill a gap in traditional Ph.D. training by providing an opportunity for students to consider the full variety of potential career paths they might follow, including nonacademic or nontraditional academic positions. The program offers trainings focused on leadership, teaching, communication, and engagement to enhance students’ critical thinking and leadership skills. At the completion of the program, participants will have a broadened view of their career options, and be prepared to be thought-leaders inside and outside the academy.

The program has been funded by and developed in cooperation with faculty from Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, Sanford School of Public Policy, Pratt School of Engineering, Divinity School, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, and Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. The Office of the Provost contributed funding.

2020 Fellows

Hussain Alshammasi, Nicholas School of the Environment

Axel Berky, Nicholas School of the Environment

Alice Carter, University Program in Ecology

Travis Dauwalter, Public Policy & Economics

Kimberley Drouin, Earth & Ocean Sciences

Jacqueline Gerson, University Program in Ecology

Kathleen Horvath, Electrical Engineering

Brandon Hunter, Civil & Environmental Engineering

Faye Koenigsmark, Environmental Engineering

Anna Lewis, Civil & Environmental Engineering

Reshma Nargund, Nicholas School of the Environment

Anna Nordseth, University Program in Ecology

Ekta Patel, Environmental Policy

Erika Smull, Nicholas School of the Environment

Margaret Swift, Nicholas School of the Environment

Emily Ury, University Program in Ecology

Michael Valerino, Environmental Engineering

Paige Varner, Civil & Environmental Engineering

Dana Wright, Marine Science & Conservation

Four Groups of Duke Faculty Receive Collaboratory Grants for Research on Issues Affecting North Carolina and Global Communities

Yadkin River, NC; solar panels; summary ejectments per square mile in Durham; Bass Connections research in Madagascar.
Yadkin River, NC; solar panels; summary ejectments per square mile in Durham; Bass Connections research in Madagascar

Four groups led by Duke University faculty have been awarded Collaboratory grants for research into pressing local and global challenges.

“From investigations in our own backyard into evaluating water safety and lessening the impact of evictions on child development, to research aimed at increasing solar energy efficiency and minimizing the spread of infectious diseases on a global scale, these proposals speak to our dedication to improving the human condition,” said Provost Sally Kornbluth. “Supporting faculty research is an essential way to advance the fundamental learning and discovery at which we excel, and those investments provide ripple effects that benefit teaching and service.”

The grant period is one year with a possibility of renewal.

Drinking Water Contamination in North Carolina: Water Use, Human Health, and Going Beyond GenX

  • Principal Investigators: Heather M. Stapleton, Nicholas School of the Environment; Lee Ferguson, Pratt School of Engineering and Nicholas School of the Environment

Changes in water availability, increases in pollution, and policy regulations are resulting in substantial challenges for water protection, and consumers bear the social and economic burden when drinking water sources are contaminated. One of the most relevant threats to public drinking water in the U.S. is a class of chemicals called poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs). These chemicals made local headlines in 2017 when news stations reported contamination of drinking water wells with “GenX” in New Hanover and Brunswick counties.

In 2018, the state legislature appropriated several million dollars for testing all surface waters across the state. Despite the broad documentation of PFAS contamination, no funding was included to evaluate health impacts on affected communities or to identify sources.

This collaboratory will build a water model to help identify potential point source(s) of PFAS contamination, and underlying variables influencing the water levels, in the Piedmont region. In addition, the researchers will examine the relationship between water levels and biological PFAS levels, and conduct geospatial analyses to determine if poorer health outcomes at birth are associated with areas of higher PFAS contamination. The group will also investigate effects of PFAS on birth outcomes using an animal model, and integrate environmental and human health knowledge into management and policy recommendations regarding water use policies.

Minimizing the Influence of Air Pollution on Solar Energy Production

Particulate matter, including air pollution and dust, has dramatic impacts on both climate and human health. It also reduces solar energy production by about 15% on a global average and as much as 40% in some regions. This current loss in efficiency is estimated to account for the loss of power output valued in the tens of billions of dollars annually, dramatically affecting cost effectiveness and renewable energy access. The problem is not well understood and few studies are available that quantify the impacts, although it will become increasingly important with solar power production expected to increase globally by nearly four-fold over the next 20 years.

This collaboratory will assess the regional impacts of air pollution on solar energy production, determine cost-effective strategies to minimize the influence of particulate matter on solar energy production, and develop and test novel surfaces and coatings that hold great promise in minimizing the influence of deposited particulate matter on solar energy production.

Evaluating and Mitigating the Impact of Evictions and Other Housing Insecurity Issues over Health and Child Development in North Carolina

  • Additional Team Members: Jillian Hurst, School of Medicine; Sarah Dickerson, postdoctoral associate, Sanford School of Public Policy; graduate and professional students

In the U.S., 10-15% of households experience housing insecurity. For families with young children, this number is much higher. Lack of secure housing is associated with a host of health consequences including psychological distress and exacerbating chronic conditions. For children, housing instability is associated with increased problem behaviors, respiratory conditions, infectious diseases, and decreased access to healthcare. In Durham, 16% of children aged 0-8 live in a household where housing costs exceed 50% of the household income—leaving few resources for other needs such as food, clothing, and transportation.

This collaboratory brings together a multidisciplinary team to study how housing insecurity affects children’s health and education and what policy solutions may be implemented to mitigate the associated harms. To inform evidence-based policies and help communities promote population-level health, this study will assess patterns of population movement in Durham County and the relationship of these patterns with housing insecurity, examine the effects of housing insecurity and evictions on the education of children across North Carolina and in Durham County specifically, and investigate the effects of housing insecurity and evictions on children’s healthcare utilization and health status in Durham County.

Identifying Infectious Disease Transmission Pathways for Improved Population Health and Pandemic Preparedness

  • Principal Investigators: Charles L. Nunn, Evolutionary Anthropology, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences; Randall Kramer, Nicholas School of the Environment; James Moody, Sociology, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences; Linfa Wang, Duke-NUS Medical School
  • Additional Team Members: Alma Solis, Ph.D. student in Evolutionary Anthropology; other graduate students

The title of a recent high-profile Commentary in Nature proclaimed, “Pandemics: Spend on surveillance, not prediction.” If resources and time were unlimited, scientists would exhaustively sample wild animals, domesticated animals, and humans, and they would fully investigate the ecological contexts in which transmission occurs; all of these foci are crucial for predicting disease emergence. Given the reality of limited resources, new approaches are needed to deepen understanding of disease transmission pathways from animals to humans.

This collaboratory will use new surveillance tools and apply analytical frameworks from network epidemiology to disentangle the drivers of disease transmission at the human-animal ecological interface. The group’s research takes place in rural Madagascar. Members will collect and analyze blood samples and expand socioeconomic data collection; this research will provide crucial pilot data to increase the competitiveness of external grant submissions, while also providing opportunities for students involved in the research to publish early findings and present those findings at conferences. In addition to collecting data in the field and shipping samples to Singapore for analysis, funding will enable us to develop new analytical pipelines for network epidemiological analyses, including with graduate students on Duke’s campus.

About the Collaboratory Grants

Part of the Together Duke academic strategic plan, Collaboratory grants provide support for groups of faculty seeking to provide solutions to targeted problems in three areas:

  • Energy and water resources
  • Race, religion, and citizenship
  • Population health.

Over time, these thematic areas will likely evolve. Project funding ranges from $20,000 to $200,000 annually. The offices of the Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies and the Vice Provost for Academic Affairs oversee this seed grant program.

The first round of Collaboratory grants was announced in April 2018. The six groups and principal investigators were Decisions, Risks, and Governance of Geoengineering (Mark Borsuk, Jonathan Wiener, Billy Pizer, Drew Shindell); Innovations in Infrastructure (Megan Mullin, Amy Pickle); The Duke Polarization Lab (Christopher Bail); Understanding the Transforming U.S. South (Kerry L. Haynie, John Aldrich, Linda Burton, Adriane Lentz-Smith, Mark Anthony Neal, Donald Taylor); The Duke University Precision Health and Wellness Initiative (Geoff Ginsburg, Susanne Haga); and A Road Map for Affordable Healthcare in the 21st Century (Nimmi Ramanujam).

Christine Ogilvie Hendren on Interdisciplinary Collaboration

“One of the main things that makes our project work well is the sustained, diverse faculty engagement”

Christine Hendren.

Christine Ogilvie Hendren is Assistant Research Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering as well as Executive Director and Research Scientist at the Center for the Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology (CEINT). Since 2017, she has led a Bass Connections project team, DECIPHER, whose members work to understand and evaluate complex public health and environmental risk scenarios. Moving from the story of fluorinated chemicals to case studies in drinking water quality, the team has assessed decision-making from the perspectives of scientists and engineers, healthcare providers, legal and regulatory agencies and members of the public, as well as economic and cultural stakeholders across fields and interests. Next year will bring a focus on the risks and benefits of geoengineering the climate.

Hendren is involved in other interdisciplinary collaborations across campus. She received two Intellectual Community Planning Grants in 2018—one to lead the Duke Extracellular Vesicle Network, (DEVNet) and another to take part in the Duke Project on Risk and Resilience. She is also providing assistance to the first cohort of Collaboratory grantees on best practices in collaborative research.

Below are excerpts from Hendren’s remarks at a Bass Connections orientation for new team leaders.

Creating a Team

Our idea for DECIPHER (which stands for Decisions on Complex Interdisciplinary Problems of Health and Environmental Risk) was to explore a topic – risk – that is typically only learned about from one perspective. Even if you think you’re being interdisciplinary about risk, you’re often only considering engineering and policy, and you might not be looking at the problem through other lenses that really should inform risk-based decision making, including key insights from the humanities.

Bass Connections DECIPHER team.In the first year (2017-2018), our case study was the story of refrigerants (CFCs), ozone depletion and climate change. When creating the team, we decided that we needed perspectives from technology, we needed policy makers and stakeholders, we needed to question what it even means to say something with certainty, and we needed to have people holistically look at a problem and dissect it without the benefit of hindsight. We needed people to be able to grasp the larger issues to describe the “why” behind problems, with the idea that an understanding of how previous decisions proliferated risks we would have liked to avoid can provide insight for better current and future decisions.

At first, we thought we were going to create kind of an analog to Harvard Business case studies and our approach would be holistic environmental decision case studies. We thought we could break these case studies down and then teach others how to teach them. Instead, our final product ended up being a very detailed infographic and more of a meta understanding of how to bring people to the point where they could have an appreciation for these other lenses. For us, success meant all the students knowing the nuts and bolts of how a decision happened, understanding there were a lot of human factors and learning what had to go into the decision-making process.

Promoting Diverse Faculty Engagement and Academic Humility

One of the main things that makes our particular project work well is the sustained, diverse faculty engagement. In our case, it’s a recurring project with mostly the same faculty, but it’s all new students each time.

For us, the repeated engagement of different faculty members has been really important to success, and it’s what our students reflect on the most. I see the appreciation in the students for the fact that an undergraduate elsewhere may not ever have a relationship with a professor, outside of receiving information in class.

What multiple people have told me is that they found it interesting that we have people from different fields like law and engineering and decision science, and all around, the students can hear professors saying things like, “Oh, I don’t know!” or calling each other out and saying, “That’s actually incorrect, you need the backstory.”

For all of us in academia, it’s very common and comfortable to do that, but it was a real learning moment about academic humility and how to work together to create an environment for the students where they could point this out. This trading of relevant expertise and vulnerable questioning between trusted colleagues is such an important part of knowledge co-creation, but it struck me that it appeared novel to some of our students and made me really think about why that is. My advice is that anything you can do to disrupt those normal power dynamics of the classroom will be helpful, whether that be going to dinner together, going to a house of a person on the team or just being openly humble about what you know and what you don’t know and how you’re creating.

For the second year (2018-2019), we structured the project’s outputs to maximize those types of experiences a little bit more. We let the students break up into subgroups and each got to create its own narrative of a drinking water case. We ran the first part of the year as a boot camp where we had different experts from all different kinds of fields come in and teach the students different skills and lessons, such as how to use statistical analysis, how to understand and track the history of water treatment technologies and how to conduct a documentary-style interview.

Encouraging Student Reflections and Comfort with Uncertainty

We learned over time that these types of engagement experiences work best if you require the students to write a reflection, even if it’s just a paragraph saying “What did I get out of this? How do I think it’ll go towards the eventual output?”

I wish I had known beforehand how important it would be to continually remind the students, particularly if you have an undergraduate heavy team, that this is not a course; it’s a research project. Students might ask us, “Is this what you wanted?” In this case though, that shouldn’t be the question. The question we have to ask [the student] is, “What do you want to do?” The feeling of not being sure you’re doing it right is the feeling of research. That feeling of uncertainty should be a teacher to the students that encourages them to ask for help or use their resources. We had said at the beginning that this is not a class, but a joint research project. Then we said it again later, but I wish we would have explicitly said it every single week and explained the implications.

The Importance of a Good Project Manager

Kathleen Burns.The other piece of advice I have is to find a project manager. We couldn’t have done any of this without our excellent project manager [Kathleen Burns, Ph.D. student in English], who has actually been with us both years and makes all of this possible. And, working on this team has really helped her formulate her dissertation topic, so it has advanced her academically, too. We elevated her to be a co-instructor now, because she really is doing the work at that level, contributing to the knowledge development, the pedagogy and serving as a touchstone for the student projects with a much higher degree of availability than the individual faculty leaders might be able to provide. I highly recommend investing a lot of your budget in a good project manager; it has made a fantastic difference.

Join this Bass Connections project team on April 16 for Coal Ash, Lead, and Aging Infrastructure: Stories of North Carolina Drinking Water at Motorco Music Hall in downtown Durham.

See all current initiatives in the Together Duke academic strategic plan, and learn more about Bass Connections and Intellectual Community Planning Grants.

Faculty to Pursue Collaborations through 2019 Intellectual Community Planning Grants

ICPG 2019.

A key goal of Together Duke is to invest in faculty as scholars and leaders of the university’s intellectual communities. To foster collaboration around new and emerging areas of interest, Intellectual Community Planning Grants (ICPG) are available to groups of faculty.

These grants cover the cost of food, meeting venues, external speakers or other meeting costs, and exploratory research into potential collaborators at Duke and elsewhere. The offices of the Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies and the Executive Vice Provost oversee this seed grant program.

For the 2019 calendar year, eight groups received Intellectual Community Planning Grants ranging from $1,000 to $5,000.

Big Data and Social Interactions

Big Data and Social Interactions faculty members.

This group will facilitate interactions among faculty who want to learn how technological advancements and big data can improve our understanding of the ways in which social norms and interactions affect individuals’ and firms’ behavior. The primary goal is to produce sustained interactions and research papers capable of being published in leading scholarly journals. A kick-off event will include a visiting speaker. Subsequent meetings will invite faculty to provide overviews of recent research and discuss new ideas; review colleagues’ early-stage research ideas; and share early work with a guest speaker who is a pioneer in the field.

  • Lead: Jillian Grennan, Fuqua School of Business
  • Chris Bail, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, Sanford School of Public Policy
  • Ines Black, Fuqua School of Business, Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative
  • Ofer Eldar, Law School, Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative
  • Sarah Gaither, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences
  • Sharique Hasan, Fuqua School of Business, Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative
  • Rachel Kranton, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences
  • David Robinson, Fuqua School of Business, Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative

Building Duke’s Community of Theoretical Chemists via a Summer Undergraduate Research Program

Building Duke’s Community of Theoretical Chemists via a Summer Undergraduate Research Program faculty members.

An emerging community of theoretical chemists at Duke is spread across schools and departments. This group has begun to organize a Summer Undergraduate Research Program in Theoretical Chemistry, which will help strengthen the pool of graduate student applicants from North America. The Intellectual Community Planning Grant will enable the participation of more faculty (those who could not fully fund a student on their own) and support team-building excursions. All faculty will present multiple seminars and mentor the summer undergraduate researchers.

  • Lead: David Beratan, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, School of Medicine, Duke University Energy Initiative
  • Hashim Al-Hashimi, School of Medicine
  • Volker Blum, Pratt School of Engineering, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, Duke University Energy Initiative
  • Patrick Charbonneau, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences
  • Stephen Craig, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, Duke University Energy Initiative
  • Bruce Randall Donald, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, School of Medicine, Pratt School of Engineering, Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, Duke Center for Genomic and Computational Biology
  • Jianfeng Lu, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences
  • Michael Rubinstein, Pratt School of Engineering, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences
  • Warren S. Warren, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, School of Medicine
  • Weitao Yang, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, Duke University Energy Initiative

Exploring STEAM (Science, Arts, and Humanities) at Duke

Exploring STEAM at Duke members.

A working group of Duke faculty, staff, administrators, and students will explore overlapping and complementary interests in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, arts, and humanities (broadly referred to as STEAM), and promote more robust interdisciplinary research, coursework, and public engagement in this space, both within and beyond Duke. The group will organize a half-day forum to catalog and describe innovative STEAM activities occurring at Duke and spark new collaborations among faculty, students, staff, and administrators.

  • Lead: Misha Angrist, Social Science Research Institute, Duke Initiative for Science & Society, Sanford School of Public Policy
  • Co-lead: Jory Weintraub, Duke Initiative for Science & Society
  • Project manager: Ariana Eily, Duke Initiative for Science & Society
  • Nicolette Cagle, Nicholas School of the Environment
  • Aria Chernik, Social Science Research Institute, Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative
  • Claudia Gunsch, Pratt School of Engineering, Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University Energy Initiative
  • Jules Odendahl-James, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences
  • Nimmi Ramanujam, Pratt School of Engineering, School of Medicine, Duke Global Health Institute, Duke Initiative for Science & Society, Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative
  • Nina Sherwood, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, School of Medicine, Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, Duke Initiative for Science & Society
  • Kearsley Stewart, Duke Global Health Institute, Duke Initiative for Science & Society
  • Victoria Szabo, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative

Health as an Ecosystem: Expanding Our Imaginations of Health

Health as an Ecosystem faculty members.

In ecology, an ecosystem is a community of living organisms and their interactions with the abiotic environment. Dynamic and complex, they may flourish in settings of balance, diversity, and responsive resilience, or they may flounder in contexts of deficit and disruption. This group will apply the ecosystem concept to health and explore new perspectives on health systems, population health, well-being, and disease. During monthly meetings, members will consider a range of questions and engage in activities whose focus will encompass capstone projects, seminars, and future grant proposals.

  • Lead: John Moses, School of Medicine, Duke Initiative for Science & Society
  • Co-lead: Jennifer Lawson, School of Medicine, Duke Initiative for Science & Society
  • Charles Nunn, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences
  • Richard Di Giulio, Nicholas School of the Environment, Pratt School of Engineering
  • Alice Ammerman, University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill
  • Eliana Perrin, School of Medicine
  • Eric Richardson, Pratt School of Engineering
  • Jan Holton, Divinity School
  • Brett McCarty, Divinity School
  • Bill Walker, Pratt School of Engineering, Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative
  • Peter English, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences
  • Gopal Sreenivasan, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, School of Medicine, Duke Initiative for Science & Society
  • Norman Wirzba, Divinity School, Nicholas School of the Environment
  • Jon Fjeld, Fuqua School of Business, Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative
  • Ray Barfield, School of Medicine, Divinity School, School of Nursing, Duke Initiative for Science & Society
  • Warren Kinghorn, School of Medicine, Divinity School, Duke Initiative for Science & Society

Launching a Triangle-Wide Seminar in the Economics of Education

Launching a Triangle-Wide Seminar in the Economics of Education faculty members.

Currently, there is no regular forum for economists from the Triangle to discuss new empirical work on the economics of education. This group will change that by organizing a one-day workshop. Hosted by the Center for Child and Family Policy, the event will include invited presenters, discussants, and a keynote speaker. It will also serve as a means to explore the possibility of launching a year-long seminar series in 2019-2020 on the economics of education.

Marine Medicine: Multidisciplinary Research at the Nexus of the Environment and Human Health

Marine Medicine faculty members.

Marine medicine is focused on research that cuts across disciplines, including cross-species comparative analyses of cancer protective mechanisms, understanding the risk of disease from exposure to environmental toxins, and discovery of new drugs from marine compounds. This working group will convene monthly and invite guest speakers to provide critical feedback on papers and proposals. Members will also host an annual symposium with a keynote speaker and a networking event to establish collaborations between faculty across the School of Medicine and the Nicholas School of the Environment, and create a long-term strategy for sustained interactions.

Parasite-Host Evolution Network Optimization (PHENO) Working Group

Parasite-Host Evolution Network Optimization (PHENO) Working Group faculty members.

Better methods are needed to identify new pathogens or known animal pathogens with the potential to infect humans and cause disease. Given that pathogens transmit through chains of contact, network-based approaches that represent these epidemiological pathways offer great promise. Through regular meetings, this group of faculty and postdocs will investigate the application of network approaches to a wide range of disease systems and aim to develop new and fundable research projects.

  • Lead: James Moody, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, Social Science Research Institute
  • Charles Nunn, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences
  • Craig Rawlings, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences
  • Gregory Gray, School of Medicine, Duke Global Health Institute
  • Chris Woods, School of Medicine, Duke Global Health Institute
  • Meira Epplein, School of Medicine
  • James Herrera, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences
  • Dana Pasquale, Duke Network Analysis Center

Social Studies of Science Working Group

Social Studies of Science Working Group faculty members.

The social study of science, often referred to as science and technology studies, is an interdisciplinary field whose scholars explore topics ranging from the ethical implications of data hacking and the politics of nuclear power to questions of personhood emerging from neuroscience. This group will bring together faculty who are interested in the rapid scale-up of research in the biomedical sciences, data and computational sciences, and environmental sciences as well as the increasing overlap of science and technology studies, medical humanities, and environmental humanities. Members aim to build a network of Duke and Triangle faculty and foster linked research endeavors.

  • Lead: Harris Solomon, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, Duke Global Health Institute, Duke Initiative for Science & Society
  • Nicole Barnes, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, Duke Global Health Institute
  • Nima Bassiri, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences
  • Paul Bendich, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, Rhodes Information Initiative at Duke
  • Mark Olson, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, Duke Initiative for Science & Society, Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative
  • Cate Reilly, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences
  • Gabriel Rosenberg, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences
  • Priscilla Wald, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, Duke Initiative for Science & Society
  • Ara Wilson, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, Duke Initiative for Science & Society

Mark Borsuk on Interdisciplinary Collaboration

“These opportunities have enriched my first two years at Duke tremendously”

Mark Borsuk with collaborators.

Mark Borsuk was quick to embrace opportunities to pursue collaborative research and teaching with his new colleagues after joining the faculty of the Pratt School of Engineering in 2016.

Borsuk.The Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering teamed up with faculty from the Law School, Sanford School of Public Policy, Nicholas School of the Environment, and Pratt to explore shared interests in risk analysis, decision-making, and climate change.

He received an Intellectual Community Planning Grant (ICPG) for the Duke Project on Risk and Resilience with Jonathan Wiener, Christine Hendren, Tyler Felgenhauer, Nita Farahany, Buz Waitzkin, and Lori Bennear, and a Research Collaboratory grant on the Decisions, Risks, and Governance of Geoengineering with Wiener, Felgenhauer, Billy Pizer, and Drew Shindell.

Borsuk is also involved in a Bass Connections project, Decisions on Complex Interdisciplinary Problems of Health and Environmental Risk (DECIPHER). Now in its second year and focusing on drinking water quality, the project is currently led by Hendren, Borsuk, Wiener, Ryan Calder, Richard Di Giulio, Priscilla Wald, and graduate student Kathleen Burns. DECIPHER will continue next year with a focus on the risks and benefits of climate geoengineering.

Recently he reflected on some of the impacts of his involvement with these groups. Below are excerpts from his remarks.

External Grant Proposals

The Duke Project on Risk and Resilience ICPG, along with Catalyst funding from the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, led to an NSF Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy, and Water Systems (INFEWS) proposal submitted in September 2018.

The Risk ICPG also contributed to an NSF Statistical and Applied Mathematical Sciences Institute (SAMSI) Year-Long Program Proposal on “Games and Decisions in Risk and Reliability,” which was selected for funding and will start in August 2019.

The Geoengineering Collaboratory is leading to an NSF Decision, Risk, and Management Sciences proposal, which will be submitted in January.

Extending Networks

The Geoengineering Collaboratory led directly to a day-long session at the Society for Risk Analysis Annual Meeting in December 2018. The Duke team proposed, organized, and participated in this session [see part 1 and part 2], which included a number of leading researchers in geoengineering, thus greatly extending the Duke team’s professional network.

Posters on the team’s preliminary geoengineering work were also presented at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Annual Meeting in December 2018, further extending the team’s reach.

The Risk ICPG supported a series of campus-wide events. These included several Risk Watering Holes and Head-to-Head Discussions on issues of risk analysis and policy from diverse perspectives. The events generated a lot of participation, including more than 30 faculty speakers and many more attending faculty, staff, and students.


The Geoengineering Collaboratory has already led to one submitted manuscript and two more in preparation. Two publications are in preparation as a result of the ICPG and Catalyst funding.

Engagement with Students

“The Bass Connections project has opened my eyes to the potential of fully inquiry-based, student-initiated teaching, learning, and research,” Borsuk states. “I have been impressed with students’ ability and ambition in structuring their own experience and drawing on the resources available to them, including faculty mentors, university resources, and community organizations. In addition to being an incredible experience itself, it has also informed the way I teach my more ‘conventional’ classes by identifying new ways to engage students in their own education.”

DECIPHER team poster.

Borsuk goes on to say, “The Risk ICPG has expanded the interdisciplinary scope of approaches and examples that I have incorporated into the classes I teach, including CEE 201: Uncertainty, Design, and Optimization; EGR 305: Engineering Systems Optimization and Economics; and CEE 690: Risk and Resilience in Engineering.”

To support student networks, the Risk ICPG provided funding support to two students to attend professional meetings and present their risk-related work. The group has also been coordinating with an undergraduate student group interested in organizing a “Risk Hack-a-Thon” in addition to other student activities.

Duke student and postdoc attendance at the Society for Risk Analysis and AGU annual meetings was paid in part from the Geoengineering Collaboratory.

Borsuk concludes, “I am extremely grateful for the opportunities that these seed programs have provided. They have enriched my first two years at Duke tremendously!”

See all current initiatives in the Together Duke academic strategic plan, and learn more about these seed funding opportunities:

  • Research Collaboratories (see RFP for projects in Energy and Water Resources; Race, Religion, and Citizenship; and Population Health, due February 15)

Photos at top: Borsuk (far left) with colleagues at the Society for Risk Analysis annual meeting; Hendren (bottom row at right) and Wiener (far right) with students at the Bass Connections Showcase

Seven Projects Receive 2018 Germinator Research Awards

Photo: SeedlingbyNik@Unsplash

Interdisciplinary projects involve new approaches to neuroscience topics

Seven projects involving nearly two dozen Duke clinical and basic-science faculty, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate students have received the inaugural Germinator Research Awards from the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences (DIBS), the Institute’s Faculty Governance Committee Chair, Geraldine Dawson, announced today.

The awards grew out of DIBS Town Hall discussions, part of the strategic-planning process completed in February 2018. “We heard from the DIBS community the need to augment our larger grant program, the Incubator Research Awards, with support for small, targeted funding requests open to graduate students and postdoctoral fellows as well as faculty.” Dawson said. The Germinator Research Awards program was the result.

“These funded projects offer exciting new ways to encourage interdisciplinary approaches to important questions,” she added. Germinator projects receive up to a maximum of $25,000 and may go to single investigators. They must catalyze new research or collaboration and/or enhance chances of obtaining external funding.

2018 Germinator Award Recipients

Toward a Computational Psychiatry of Transdiagnostic Deficits in Cognitive Control
  • Christina Bejjani and Tobias Egner, Psychology & Neuroscience (P&N), Center for Cognitive Neuroscience (CCN); John Pearson, Biostatistics & Bioinformatics and CCN; Terrie E. Moffitt, P&N, Psychiatry & Behavioral  Sciences, Center for Genomic & Computational Biology (CGCB); Social Behaviour & Development, King’s College, London; Avshalom Caspi, P&N, Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, CGCB; Social Behaviour & Development, King’s College, London; and R. Alison Adcock, P&N, CCN, Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences

This research project brings together the fields of psychiatry, developmental psychology, machine learning, biostatistics, cognitive psychology, and neuroscience with a goal of improving diagnosis and treatment of psychiatric disorders. The team will use computational psychiatry, a relatively new field described by the National Institute of Mental Health as “analytical approaches for the prediction of risk and treatment response and the understanding of the pathophysiology underlying mental disorders.” This could provide alternative methods of diagnosis, currently based primarily on external observed behaviors and self-reporting.

Effect of Connectivity-based rTMS and State-Dependency on Amygdala Activation
  • Lysianne Beynel, Nathan Kimbrel, Greg Appelbaum, Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences; Simon Davis, Neurology

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is can be highly debilitating, with low response rates to pharmacological treatment. Repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS), which uses magnetic fields to affect the brain, has demonstrated only modest efficacy. The shallow penetration of rTMS is insufficient to directly affect deep brain structures such as the amygdala, the brain area affected in PTSD. This team seeks to improve the therapeutic efficacy of rTMS for PTSD by reaching the amygdala indirectly, through its connections to other brain regions. Successful completion of this project could lead to significant long-term contributions to both clinical applications and mechanistic understanding of brain/behavior relationships. The project will involve Duke School of Medicine and the Durham VA Health Care System.

Eulemur as a Primate Model for Oxytocin System Evolution and Function
  • Nicholas Grebe and Christine Drea, Evolutionary Anthropology

Among closely related group-living primates of the genus Eulemur (lemurs, native to Madagascar), some male and female lemurs form monogamous pair bonds; others mate with multiple partners. This unique behavior may be related to the mammalian neuropeptide oxytocin, which facilitates formation and maintenance of social bonding. Being able to assess the comparative neuroendocrinology of pair-bonding in Eulemur will offer significant insights on how this neuropeptide works. This non-invasive research is a collaboration involving Evolutionary Anthropology and Biology and the Research Division of the Duke Lemur Center. It represents a new program of lemur brain science with potential implications for human behavior.

Testing a Neurocognitive Model of Emotional Distancing Using Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation
  • Kevin LaBar, P&N, CCN; Simon Davis, Neurology; Andrada Neacsiu, Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences; John Powers, P&N

Emotion regulation is a core component of therapeutic approaches to alleviate distress associated with psychiatric disorders. Distancing is an emotion regulation strategy that relies on self-projection, or the ability to shift perspective from the here and now to a simulated time, place, or person. The team has developed a new model of the neurocognitive processes that contribute to distancing as a successful emotion regulation strategy. We aim to test this model using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) in healthy adults.

A Flexible Neural Framework for Decision-Making Across Human Development:  Testing the Influence of Information and Arousal
  • Rosa Li, Duke Center for Interdisciplinary Decision Science, DIBS

Prevailing neural models of decision-making across human development propose that risk-taking peaks in adolescence due to a unique adolescent imbalance between cognitive control via the prefrontal cortex and reward-processing via limbic regions. Though such dual-systems models seem to fit neural data, they have not generated behavioral predictions borne out in the laboratory. One theory is that they fail to account for differences between laboratory and daily decisions related to relative levels of information available and arousal, or attentiveness. Dr. Li, a postdoctoral fellow, hypothesizes a more flexible neural model would yield better information to help understand adolescent neural circuitry and decision-making.

Virally Mediated Transduction of Light-Sensitive Ion Channels in Brainstem Motoneurons of Macaques
  • Marc A. Sommer and Martin O. Bohlen, Biomedical Engineering

This project will apply optogenetics, a biological technique to control neurons by using light, to non-human primates, with a goal of understanding more completely how nerve cells drive muscle activity. That could lead scientists to the ability to manipulate neuromuscular circuitry in non-human primates, an outcome that holds potential benefit to humans with neuromuscular diseases such as multiple sclerosis. The project also has a substantial education component for graduate students and medical students studying “Brain and Behavior” at Duke.

Restore Tactile Sensation and Proprioception in Lower Limb Amputees Using Epidural Spinal Cord Stimulation
  • Amol Yadav, postdoctoral associate, Muhammad Abd-El-Barr, and Nandan Lad, Neurosurgery; Tim Sell, Orthopedic Surgery; Paul Howell, Durham VA Health Care System, Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Services

Amputation of a lower limb hinders movement significantly. Modern prosthetic leg technology helps, but cannot duplicate the ability of the human leg to relay vital sensory information to the brain about the body’s surroundings, nor can it address the often-intense “phantom pain,” which is pain felt in missing limbs, likely generated by the brain and spinal cord. A team of neurosurgeons, physical therapists, and rehabilitation medicine experts will work with amputees using spinal-cord stimulation to generate missing sensory information. The goals are to improve rehabilitation and control phantom pain. The project will involve the Duke School of Medicine and the Durham VA Health Care System.

Duke Schools and Programs Represented by 2018 Germinator Award Recipients

Pratt School of Engineering
  • Biomedical Engineering
School of Medicine
  • Biostatistics & Bioinformatics
  • Neurology
  • Neurosurgery
  • Orthopedic Surgery
  • Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences
Trinity College of Arts & Sciences
  • Biology (Center for Genomic & Computational Biology; Duke Lemur Center)
  • Evolutionary Anthropology
  • Psychology & Neuroscience
Duke Institute for Brain Sciences
  • Center for Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Duke Center for Interdisciplinary Decision Science
Durham VA Health Care System
  • Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Services

Learn more about DIBS research awards.

First-Year Students Find a Gateway to Interdisciplinary Research and Education

Kenan Ethics FOCUS cluster in front of the Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC (photo courtesy of Christian Ferney)

During three decades of success as one of the signature undergraduate initiatives at Duke, the FOCUS program of first-year seminars has continued to struggle with one big challenge: How to enroll more students from the Pratt School of Engineering, which had been part of FOCUS at its beginning but had taken a five-year hiatus.

Pratt’s return to FOCUS this year harkens back to the program’s original vision: go interdisciplinary.

This year FOCUS is presenting three clusters developed in conjunction with the university’s interdisciplinary institutes and initiatives. Two are from the Initiative for Science & Society and the Kenan Institute for Ethics. A third cluster called Global Energy, offered for the first time this year, was the brainchild of Pratt Dean Ravi Bellamkonda and has been organized with support from the interdisciplinary Duke University Energy Initiative. About half of the 30 students enrolled in the energy cluster are Pratt first-year students, the largest enrollment of Pratt students in FOCUS in recent years.

students in the interdisciplinary discussion FOCUS course listen to a speaker during their weekly dinner session (photo by Susie Post-Rust)

Each FOCUS cluster offers a combination of three to four classes linked by a theme. The students meet in seminars but also hold weekly dinners with faculty members. All students in a cluster live in the same residential hall.

An interdisciplinary approach for a FOCUS cluster is not new; in fact, since the beginning, most clusters involve faculty members from different disciplines. Instructors from both the Brain Sciences and Global Health institutes have been involved in past clusters. In past years, Brain Sciences faculty have led clusters on Cognitive Neuroscience and Exploring the Mind.

“The FOCUS program has always been interdisciplinary,” said FOCUS director Edna Andrews, Nancy and Jeffrey Marcus Professor.  “It’s just that we are becoming even more interdisciplinary.”

University officials say the involvement of interdisciplinary units helps the program fulfill its mission of starting new students off within “a vibrant and engaging intellectual ecosystem,” said Arlie Petters, dean of academic affairs for Trinity College. It also provides one model for how interdisciplinary units can collaborate with the traditional schools and departments on classroom initiatives.

“Students’ first exposure to a discipline impacts their desire to explore the field further,” Petters said. “Through FOCUS, our undergraduate students are able to experience an academic field through a living-learning-community model that fosters a sense of family and belonging. This is a fundamental early step in creating ties between students and the disciplinary and interdisciplinary opportunities offered by academic units.”

Faculty in both the Pratt School and the Energy Initiative are excited to be part of a program that this year received more than 500 applications for the 15 clusters.  Many admitted students say FOCUS is one of the factors they consider in choosing Duke.

“The problem has been simple and pragmatic, one that everyone acknowledged: It’s been hard for Pratt students to fit FOCUS classes into their first semester,” said Nico Hotz, director of the energy cluster and a Pratt School faculty member affiliated with the Energy Initiative.

Cognitive Neuroscience and the Law students talk with Dean Milton Blackmon during a welcome lunch in Fall 2017. The cluster is an example of how FOCUS clusters traditionally incorporate interdisciplinary study (photo by Susie Post-Rust).

“The dean’s office looked into this and came up with idea of energy,” Hotz said. “As soon as the dean asked me to look into this, I thought of my many contacts with the Energy Initiative. I thought this would be something that would interest students and faculty would want to teach.”

“Everyone at the Energy Initiative recognized that this was a great fit,” said Brian Murray, the initiative’s director and a Nicholas School faculty member. “It can be challenging to engage students before they reach their junior and senior years when they have more electives. The opportunity to begin connecting with students as soon as they arrive on campus is extremely attractive. We hope this experience will extend beyond freshman year, as interested students take advantage of a robust slate of curricular and cocurricular energy opportunities throughout their time at Duke.”

The hope is some of the students will continue on and graduate with certificates in the program. The Kenan Institute has attracted students through its FOCUS cluster successfully for several years; like the energy cluster, Science & Society is offering a cluster on Science and the Public for the first time.

The interdisciplinary units’ academic approach also fits the FOCUS mission to have first-year students doing original research in a seminar setting, said Misha Angrist, the director of the Science and the Public cluster for Science & Society.

We ask first years to think at a high level about important societal problems and not just memorize stuff or absorb facts in an arbitrary way. It’s very much rooted in what’s going on in the world. —Misha Angrist

“The coolest thing about FOCUS is that we’re throwing big questions at students right off,” Angrist said. “I like to quote Princeton biologist David Botstein who has compared the traditional science curriculum to hazing: for three years students stand in cold water while they take foundational courses before they finally get to apply it to interesting questions. FOCUS pushes against that. We ask first years to think at a high level about important societal problems and not just memorize stuff or absorb facts in an arbitrary way. It’s very much rooted in what’s going on in the world.”

That “inverted” approach – which has long been a mark of the FOCUS program – is making its way into more traditional classes as well. Hotz said one reason why creation of the energy cluster was so seamless for the initiative and for the Pratt School is that it fits Pratt Dean Bellamkonda’s effort to remake the first-year educational experience.  The wider changes include creation of the Engineering 101 course that gets students working on large-real world design and engineering questions.

“In the first semester, they get to take very specific and deep dive into a topic they are interested in,” Hotz said. “They don’t have to wait for their junior year.”

With the university’s academic strategic plan pledging stronger support both for FOCUS and for interdisciplinary academic offerings, the future may hold an even stronger connection between the two.

“When I came to Duke 15 years ago, the word ‘interdisciplinary’ was new to my ear,” Angrist said. “But now I feel like it’s at the core of so much of what happens on campus.”

By Geoffrey Mock; originally posted on Duke Today

Images: Kenan Ethics FOCUS cluster in front of the Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC (photo courtesy of Christian Ferney); students in the interdisciplinary discussion FOCUS course listen to a speaker during their weekly dinner session (photo by Susie Post-Rust); Cognitive Neuroscience and the Law students talk with Dean Milton Blackmon during a welcome lunch in Fall 2017. The cluster is an example of how FOCUS clusters traditionally incorporate interdisciplinary study (photo by Susie Post-Rust).