Can a Small Green Idea Provide Energy Access in Rural Nepal?

Graphic of mountains in Nepal.

As Subhrendu Pattanayak and a group of researchers from Duke University navigate narrow catwalks high into the Annapurna mountain range in the Himalayas, they begin to understand first-hand the difficulties of establishing any set infrastructure in such difficult terrain.

Gone are the paved roads of Pokhara, the Nepali city where they had begun their day, or even the narrow dirt roads that had carried them deep into the mountainside.

Ahead, the whir of engines in symphony with the rushing water of a nearby stream mark an end to their journey: a tiny structure containing within it a single turbine, waist high and six feet wide. Here lay the source of electricity for an entire community.

Eighty percent of the geography of Nepal is composed of mountain ranges like Annapurna, making the big power grids that we take for granted in the developed world an impossibility in much of Nepal. For most mountain communities, living off-grid is the only option.

But rather than fight against their geography, many of these communities have discovered a way to use the mountains to their advantage, harnessing the power of the fast-flowing mountain streams for power using a system called a micro-hydro minigrid.

For many communities, these systems not only provide power for basic necessities like lighting and cooking, but also are drivers of local economies.

In other villages however, these systems are far less effective. Many don’t produce enough electricity for the community, or sometimes none at all.

It is for this reason that the team of Duke researchers find themselves in the Himalayas: to find out why some work and some don’t, and to see if this small but beautiful alternative energy source may be a viable solution for providing electricity to off-grid communities not only in Nepal but around the world.

Robyn Meeks and Subhrendu Pattanayaak’s work is funded by the Duke University Energy Initiative’s Energy Research Seed Fund. Both researchers are also affiliated with the Duke Energy Access Project, an exciting initiative that takes an interdisciplinary approach to developing sustainable, modern energy solutions around the world.

For their work in Nepal, Robin and Subhrendu are collaborating with the Alternative Energy Promotion Centre, which is a part of the Government of Nepal in its Ministry of Energy, Water Resources, and Irrigation.

Originally posted on the Ways & Means website. Ways & Means is a podcast produced by Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy.

Pursue a New Collaboration on Environmental Policy

Catalyst funding.

Deadline: March 15, 2019

The Nicholas Institute’s mission is to help decision makers create timely, effective, and economically practical solutions to the world’s critical environmental challenges. The Nicholas Institute engages local, state and federal governments, international agencies, NGO’s, companies, and communities through convening, providing legal, economic, and policy analysis, and supporting the process of taking policy concepts and turning them into practice.

The vision for the Catalyst Program is to build on this mission by increasing engagement with Duke University faculty to incubate and advance new partnerships, enhance policy-relevant knowledge, and create innovative policy solutions based on new creative synergies. The program will invest in policy-relevant proposals that catalyze Nicholas Institute and faculty collaborations in new or emergent areas of shared interest. The program’s intent is to create collaborations that will continue past the grant and become central components of the Institute’s work in the years ahead.

Eligible Participants

Each proposal must be co-chaired by at least one person from the Nicholas Institute’s senior staff (see list) and a Duke faculty member from any discipline. Priority will be given to proposals submitted by faculty representing schools that have had limited participation in the program in past grant cycles.

Funding and Project Types

Awards will be given out for use during the 2020 fiscal year, which runs from July 1, 2019 through June 30, 2020, in two categories:

  • Pre-catalyst planning grants of up to $5,000. These proposals should be used to investigate the possibility of a collaboration that could result in a catalyst proposal in the next fiscal year.
  • Catalyst grants of up to $20,000. Award funding can be used for basic and applied research, workshops, and events, including the cost of food, meeting venues, travel, external speakers, and post-doctoral and research assistant support. Note: On the basis of project performance and interest, these projects may be considered for renewal for additional funding in FY21.

Project Requirements

Projects must connect Nicholas Institute senior staff with Duke faculty, building on the core competencies of the co-chairs, and develop new or emergent ideas related to environmental policy challenges at the federal, state, and local level. Projects can be new initiatives or expansions of existing partnerships. They can include broad, multipart projects, of which this funding is a piece, as well as smaller, intensive scoping or pilot projects. Additional considerations for project eligibility include (1) the project’s alignment with the Nicholas Institute’s mission, (2) the project team’s ability to leverage additional resources and secure future funding (with a particular interest in aligning with funding priorities of the Together Duke strategic plan), and (3) potential for long-term impact.

Application Instructions

Review and Selection

Proposals are due no later than 5 p.m., March 15, 2019. A PDF of your proposal should be submitted to

Proposals will be reviewed by the Nicholas Institute Strategic Advisory Committee and final award decisions will be made no later than May 3, 2019.

Proposal Template

Please limit your proposal to four pages inclusive of the following information:

  • Project Title and One-Sentence Summary
  • Project Co-Chairs and Senior Personnel
  • Proposed Budget: Provide an overall budget for your project, including a description of requested support and its anticipated uses. Identify other sources of funding, including funding already obtained or requested. List any funding opportunities that you intend to pursue.
  • Proposal Narrative (maximum 2 pages): Provide an overview of your project that articulates (1) the question or problem that the project proposes to explore; (2) the project goals; (3) proposed activities or work plan, including timeframes; and (4) anticipated outcome or impact.
  • Evaluation Plan: Describe the metrics that will be used to effectively demonstrate and quantify the project’s outcomes or impact. If the proposal requests a continuation from a prior grant, please also provide an evaluation of how the prior year’s grant met its proposed metrics.
  • Sustainability Plan: If you can anticipate how this project will continue after the Catalyst Program support concludes, provide a future funding plan.
  • Engagement Plan: If you anticipate your project will include public outreach or engagement with decision makers, describe the relevant plans and timelines.

Previous Awardees

Five proposals were funded in Fiscal Year 2019:

  • Duke Infrastructure Course
  • Assessing Rural Attitudes on the Environment
  • Energy Transition Portal
  • Practice Imperfect?
  • Sustainable Seafood Program

Additional details on FY2019 projects

Six projects were funded in Fiscal Year 2018, the first year of the program.

  • One Belt, One Road, How Much Biodiversity?
  • Does Rural Energy Access Promote Economic Development through Improved Food and Water Access?
  • Developing Improved Small-Scale Fisheries Policies, and Building a Core Sustainable Seafood Policy Competency at the Duke World Food Policy Center
  • Building a Conservation Agenda That Works with and for Rural America
  • Financial Regionalization for Assisting Low-Resource Water and Wastewater Systems
  • New Collaborations in Environmental Health

See additional information on these projects.

See Catalyst Program 2019-20 RFP (PDF).

Six Teams Receive 2018-19 Research Incubator Awards from Duke Institute for Brain Sciences

Hiroaki Matsunami, Mike Tadross, Jörg Grandl, Jessica R. Lunsford-Avery, John Pearson, Elika Bergelson

Six interdisciplinary Duke faculty teams have received 2018-2019 Research Incubator Awards from the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences (DIBS). The awards provide seed funding to support collaborative brain science research for projects of exceptional innovation and broad significance to the field.

The projects must engage at least two faculty representing multiple fields or levels of analysis and bring together investigators from across Duke whose individual programs of research are not already connected.

“These outstanding teams will investigate a wide range of topics in innovative and collaborative ways,” said Geraldine Dawson, Ph.D., Chair of the DIBS Faculty Governance Committee and Director of the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development. “We are excited to see the results of this research and the new collaborations that will emerge from it.”

The teams represent 11 departments in three schools: Biostatistics & Bioinformatics, Molecular Genetics & Microbiology, Neurobiology, Ophthalmology, Pediatrics, Pharmacology & Cancer Biology, and Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, from the School of Medicine; Biomedical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science, and Electrical & Computer Engineering, from the Pratt School of Engineering; and Psychology & Neuroscience from Trinity College of Arts & Sciences.

This year’s research topics include the sense of smell and copper metabolism, sleep rhythms and their relationship to health, neuron specialization, brain states as assessed by real-time analysis of neural activity, and early language development in the visually impaired. Each team will receive $100,000.

External Advisory Board Honors Memory of Julie Rhodes with Sixth Award

For the second year, the DIBS External Advisory Board members voted to fund an award in addition to the five supported by DIBS funding. This year’s sixth award honors the memory of Julie Rhodes, the first DIBS Director of Communications. A talented graphic designer and communicator, Rhodes was instrumental in the planning and opening of the new DIBS “Cube” and underground space. She died on August 17, 2018.

The project led by investigators Mike Tadross, Biomedical Engineering and Neurobiology, and Kafui Dzirasa, Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, was selected by the board. This project will examine the mechanism by which ketamine alleviates depression, in an effort to identify new therapeutic approaches. “We are very grateful to the Board members for their contributions to this valuable program, and for honoring Julie Rhodes, who was an extraordinary contributor to the success of the Institute,” said Nicole Schramm-Sapyta, Ph.D., DIBS Chief Operating Officer, who worked closely with Rhodes.

Earlier this year, DIBS announced recipients of its inaugural Research Germinator Awards, designed to support smaller, targeted requests for training, pilot data, salary, and/or equipment that would facilitate new research and lead to new external funding. Projects are awarded up to a maximum of $25,000 (nonrenewable). These awards are open to Duke graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and faculty, and may be applied for by a single person or a team. See the Germinator teams and projects.

“One of our strategic priorities is catalyzing collaborative research,” Dawson said. “These awards programs help support the kind of high-risk, high-reward projects that make Duke and DIBS leaders in neuroscience.”

Following is more information on the six 2018-2019 Research Incubator Awards teams and projects.

2018-2019 DIBS Research Incubator Award Recipients and Projects

Smelling Sulfur in Wilson’s Disease: How Does Copper Metabolism Affect Olfaction?

Wilson’s disease is a genetic disease caused by mutations in the copper transporter gene ATP7A, resulting in toxic accumulation of copper in various organs. This progressive accumulation eventually leads to liver and kidney damage and various neurological problems, among other complications. One curious attribute of patients with Wilson’s disease: they seem to be indifferent to sulfur-containing odors such as skunk spray, flatulence, and natural gas additive, which have a strong, disagreeable odor to most people. This suggests an unexpected link between copper metabolism and olfaction. We assembled a strong interdisciplinary team with complementary expertise in odor-receptor interactions (Matsunami) and odor-mediated behavior and odor coding in the brain (Franks), and copper transporters and copper metabolism (Thiele) to study this copper-dependent olfactory defect. We will test the hypothesis that copper-olfactory receptor-odorant interactions in the nasal mucosa are essential for sensitive detection and signaling of sulfur-containing odors, and copper maldistribution caused by Wilson’s disease compromises olfactory sensory neuron responses and specific odorant detection. Our project will validate a novel mechanism underlying the fundamental biology of smell and, importantly, could lead to an innovative olfactory-based method to screen non-invasively Wilson’s disease patients, enabling early interventions to reduce irreversible brain damage.

Principal Investigator (PI): Hiroaki Matsunami, Professor, Molecular Genetics & Microbiology; Dennis Thiele, George Barth Geller Professor, Pharmacology & Cancer Biology; Kevin Franks, Assistant Professor, Neurobiology. All are affiliated with the School of Medicine.

Deconstructing the Glutamatergic Basis of Depression

Major depressive disorder is the leading cause of disability in the world. Pharmacological treatments available fail to adequately treat the disorder in up to 50 percent of patients. Recent evidence indicates that ketamine, a drug with anesthetic and pain-killing properties, can effectively treat symptoms in this population. However, ketamine has many side effects that limit its broad clinical utility. In this study, we will use two groundbreaking technologies to uncover the mechanisms underlying ketamine’s antidepressant effects. The first technology, Drugs Acutely Restricted by Tethering (DART), offers the unprecedented opportunity to deliver drugs to genetically defined cell types in the brain. The second technology, Whole-Brain Electome Mapping (WBEM), allows characterization of whole-brain dynamics in animal models of depression, offering the opportunity to observe mood-related brain states with a sensitivity and specificity surpassing all known behavioral correlates of disease. Successful completion of this work will yield a multi-scale understanding of depression, providing insight into how a precise pharmacological intervention, targeted to specific cells in the brain, propagates to affect whole-brain dynamics and behavior. The work has the potential to yield a new class of precision therapeutics to rapidly reverse depressive symptoms in a broad patient population. (Note: This project was selected by the DIBS External Advisory Board to honor the memory of Julie Rhodes, the first DIBS Communications Director, who died in August 2018.)

PI: Mike Tadross, Assistant Professor, Biomedical Engineering, Pratt School of Engineering; Kafui Dzirasa, Associate Professor, Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, School of Medicine

Quantitative Investigation of the Specialization of Mechanotransduction Neurons

The sense of touch is crucial for our survival, and its malfunction is associated with inflammatory pain and chronic pain, for which medical treatments are still disappointingly inadequate. For this project, we will investigate how specific nerve cells are specialized to sense mechanical touch. Ample experimental evidence already suggests such a specialization. For example, some nerve cells only detect light mechanical indentation, whereas others respond exclusively to deeper indentation. We suspect that many additional types of specialization exist. However, a fundamental investigation and classification of nerve cells has never been performed, in part because this has not been technically possible. We will overcome this limitation by engineering a unique instrument that can measure precisely the electrical activity of nerve cells in response to a clearly defined mechanical stimulus. Next, we plan to use this instrument to measure and characterize hundreds of nerve cells, which will enable us for the first time to reveal exactly how they are specialized to sense mechanical touch. This knowledge would enable us to study the genes and molecules that determine the specialization of nerve cells for sensing mechanical touch and understand how the electrical response of neurons is changed in disease conditions, such as inflammatory pain.

PI: Jörg Grandl, Assistant Professor, Neurobiology, School of Medicine; Stefan Zauscher, Sternberg Family Professor, Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science, Pratt School of Engineering

Harnessing Sleep/Circadian Rhythm Data as a Biomarker to Mitigate Health Risks

Sleep is essential to sustaining health. Many individuals and their doctors know sleep is important, but they often do not identify sleep problems during routine doctors’ visits, and as a result, the problems are not sufficiently addressed. One obstacle to the convenient measurement of sleep is its complexity. A good night’s sleep depends on an individual’s daily rest and activity rhythms, the length and quality of their sleep, time spent in sleep stages (e.g., deep sleep versus rapid eye movement sleep), and their behaviors, such as maintaining a consistent bedtime. We do not know the specific patterns of sleep that place people at risk for – or protect them from – health problems. In addition, traditional ways of identifying sleep problems, such as spending the night in a sleep clinic, are often expensive or unavailable to many. This study will use wearable sleep monitors (i.e., similar to Fitbits) to identify the patterns of sleep that increase risk for health problems. As a first step, our team – including psychiatry, engineering, neurology, and sleep medicine specialists – will identify patterns that increase risk for mental health problems among adolescents, who are especially vulnerable to both sleep and psychiatric problems. We will also examine patients’ perceptions of the ease and acceptability of using wearable monitors to measure sleep in their health care setting. In the future, we hope to apply the patterns of sleep problems identified in this study to the detection of risk for a range of health problems for individuals of all ages.

PI: Jessica R. Lunsford-Avery, Assistant Professor, Psychiatry &  Behavioral Sciences, School of Medicine; Matthew Engelhard, Senior Research Associate, Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, School of Medicine, and Electrical & Computer Engineering, Pratt School of Engineering; Scott Kollins, Professor, Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, School of Medicine; Ricardo Henao, Assistant Professor, Biostatistics & Bioinformatics, School of Medicine, and Electrical & Computer Engineering, Pratt School of Engineering; Sujay Kansagra, Assistant Professor, Pediatrics, School of Medicine

Interrogation and Manipulation of Brain States through Real-time Analysis of Neural Activity

One of the great challenges in neuroscience is to understand how local groups of cells work together in circuits to generate complex behaviors. Historically, scientists have been limited to studying only a few of these cells at a time, yet new developments in microscope and imaging technology have recently made it possible to study much larger groups of cells. For some small animals such as the zebrafish, transparent in its larval state, it is possible to record the activity of nearly all brain cells at once. But there’s a downside: These new experiments can generate up to a terabyte of data an hour, enough to fill several hard drives per experiment! And often, the data from one day must be analyzed overnight on a computer cluster before the next experiment can start. The goal of our project is to remove much of this data analysis burden by using newly developed data processing methods and computer hardware to analyze the incoming brain signals in real time. Our goal is to perform so-called closed-loop, all-optical experiments, in which the incoming data change the experiment as it’s being run—a feedback loop. For example, we will be able to see how some neurons respond to visual information as the data are being collected and to stimulate these same neurons based on their response patterns. Methods like these promise to dramatically expand our understanding of how networks of brain cells function together, not only in healthy brains, but in those affected by neuropsychiatric diseases.

PI: John Pearson, Assistant Professor, Biostatistics & Bioinformatics; Eva Aimable Naumann, Assistant Professor, Neurobiology. Both are affiliated with the School of Medicine.

Early Language Development in the Visually Impaired

Children with high levels of hearing loss who receive late intervention usually have poor language outcomes, but children with high levels of vision loss generally attain language abilities akin to typically developing peers. Blind adults and older children have largely indistinguishable language abilities from sighted individuals, although research reports some brain differences in responses to auditory and linguistic stimuli; however, early language abilities in young blind children have been very little studied. This is significant, given that vision loss effects >75,000 children under age 4 in the U.S. One major roadblock to understanding early language abilities under visual impairment is the lack of methods that can be used across blind and sighted infants. Reports from parents can be informative, but they may be subject to parental opinion. Direct assessments provide a more accurate measure of children’s receptive vocabulary; however, standard eye-tracking approaches (which measure the time infants spend looking at named objects) are not possible in blind infants. We propose to extend to blind infants the auditory-based electro-encephalography (EEG) paradigms that have been well-established with infants and toddlers developing typically. Uncovering how blind children learn and represent words will reveal how sensory impairment fundamentally shapes the developing brain, which will in turn inform our understanding of cognition and language more generally. These results also will inform potential training regimens that can mitigate language delays and deficits in both children and adults.

PI: Elika Bergelson, Assistant Professor, Psychology & Neuroscience, Arts & Sciences (A&S); Marty Woldorff, Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, School of Medicine, and Psychology & Neuroscience, A&S; Sharon Freedman, Professor, Ophthalmology and Pediatrics, School of Medicine

Originally posted on the DIBS website

Image: Top row, Hiroaki Matsunami, Mike Tadross, Jörg Grandl; bottom row, Jessica R. Lunsford-Avery, John Pearson, Elika Bergelson

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.

Nicholas Institute Selects Five Duke Projects for Catalyst Program Seed Funding

Birds-eye view of agriculture

Five projects received funding in the second year of the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions’ Catalyst Program.

The program aims to build on the Nicholas Institute’s mission by increasing engagement with Duke University faculty to incubate and advance new partnerships, enhance policy-relevant knowledge, and create innovative policy solutions based on new creative synergies. Funded in the program’s second year:

Duke Infrastructure Course

Globally it is estimated that $3.3 trillion per year is needed in infrastructure investment, and that emerging economies account for roughly 60 percent of that investment need. This project lays the groundwork for developing an online curriculum at Duke University to consider the country-level social, environmental, and economic implications of infrastructure development and how to conduct social, environment, and economic project-level assessments. This course will target government officials and civil society organizations in developing countries receiving foreign and multilateral infrastructure investments through China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).


Lydia Olander and Elizabeth Losos, Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions; Erika Weinthal, Nicholas School of the Environment; Indermit Gill, Duke Center for International Development; Jackson Ewing, Nicholas Institute and the Sanford School of Public Policy; Matthew Rascoff, Duke Digital Education and Innovation

Assessing Rural Attitudes on the Environment

Rural Americans matter to the fate of U.S. environmental policy. Not only do farmers, ranchers, and forest owners manage huge portions of American lands and watersheds, but rural voters also have an outsized impact on policy, and in particular the United States Senate, which explicitly empowers rural states. This project aims to better understand rural Americans’ views on the environment, environmental policy, and environmentalism by understanding the attitudes of rural North Carolinians.


Robert Bonnie, Duke University’s Rubenstein Fellow Program; Tim Profeta, Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions; Frederick Mayer, Sanford School of Public Policy; and Emily Pechar, Nicholas School of the Environment

Sustainable Seafood Program

This project aims to fully establish the Sustainable Seafood Program at the newly launched World Food Policy Center. With a second year of funding through the Catalyst Program, collaborators will finalize and submit a journal commentary paper on the need to incorporate discussion of “fish as food” into the global food policy dialogue. They will also develop a joint strategy with external partners and other international groups on how to shift the global policy discourse on this topic that will include crafting funding proposals to support research projects under the Sustainable Seaford Program.


John Virdin, Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions; Kelly Brownell, World Food Policy Center and Sanford School of Public Policy; Xavier Basurto and Martin Smith, Nicholas School of the Environment; Sara Zoubek, World Food Policy Center; Michelle Benedict Nowlin, Environmental Law and Policy Clinic; Stephen Roady, Duke School of Law and the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions; Lisa Campbell and Grant Murray, Duke Marine Lab; Alice Ammerman and Elizabeth Havice, University of North Carolina; Barbara Best, U.S. Agency for International Development; Christopher Golden, Harvard University; Kristin Kleisner, Environmental Defense Fund; Pawan Patil, World Bank

Energy Transition Portal

Public utility commissions are shaping the landscape of the U.S. power system. They approve retail electricity rates, set “avoided cost” rates for utility purchases of small renewable generation projects, and, in traditionally regulated states, approve utility planning for retirements, new construction, and line upgrades. These actions have enormous consequences on the generation technologies utilities build and purchase, and their interest in investments to improve energy and facilitate the integration of distributed generation. This project will launch an interactive web portal describing America’s 55 public utilities commissions and tracking “grid of the future” proceedings, and leverage this portal for academic workshops and regulator training.


Dalia Patino-Echeverri, Nicholas School of the Environment; Etan Gumerman and Kate Konschnik, Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

Practice Imperfect?

There is a widespread belief among expert practitioners that improved access to energy improves human development outcomes. However, social science literature is mixed and incomplete, with many causal pathways poorly elucidated. This project aims to compare expert and data-supported perspectives on the effect of energy access on social and economic development. It will develop a formal evidence library documenting the strength of evidence behind connections uncovered in the first year of the Catalyst Program-sponsored systematic review; formalize expert and practitioner understanding on these and other linkages, for comparison with claims and evidence in the literature; and support new data collection targeted at obtaining ground-based intuition on the relative importance of energy access and reliability in influencing the location and growth decisions of micro, small, and medium sized enterprises.


Marc Jeuland, Duke Global Health and the Sanford School of Public Policy; Mark Borsuk, Jordan Malof, and Ryan Calder, Pratt School of Engineering; Kyle Bradbury, Duke Energy Initiative; Lydia Olander, Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions; Rob Fetter and Jonathan Phillips, Nicholas Institute and the Duke University Energy Access Project

Originally posted on the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions’ website

Energy Research Seed Fund Awards Eight Grants to Duke Faculty for 2018-2019

Energy Research Seed Fund

Research projects that explore advances in energy materials, novel perspectives on resilience and sustainability, and energy storage solutions will receive funding in 2018 from the Duke University Energy Initiative’s Energy Research Seed Fund.

The program will award eight grants to projects involving 21 faculty members from four Duke schools, investing a total of $336,956 in promising new energy research.

The Energy Initiative—Duke’s interdisciplinary hub for energy education, research, and engagement—expanded its program this year in response to faculty feedback, offering three distinct grant categories of research funding:

  • Seed grants of up to $45,000, intended to provide a financial head start for new multi-disciplinary, collaborative research teams, enabling them to produce preliminary results that may help them obtain future external funding
  • Stage-two grants of up to $35,000 to carry projects currently supported by Energy Initiative seed funding into their next research phase
  • Proposal development grants of up to $25,000 for past seed fund recipients to develop proposals for external funding

In this—the fifth annual round of funding—the Energy Initiative awarded six seed fund grants and one grant in each of the two new categories. The Initiative also increased the maximum requested amount for seed fund grants by $5,000.

The first three rounds of funding from the Energy Research Seed Fund totaled $667,000. As of fall 2017, those rounds had generated more than five times their value in follow-on awards for Duke research.

“Five years in, this program continues to deliver a remarkable return on investment for Duke University,” notes Energy Initiative director Brian Murray. “And faculty tell us that it’s sparking them to tap into colleagues’ expertise across disciplines. This year we wanted to continue to catalyze these collaborations organically, but we also wanted to invest in next-stage efforts more specifically focused on enhancing external funding potential. This new approach seemed to strike a chord, as the number of proposals were roughly double last year’s number. Narrowing that pool was truly a challenge for our reviewers, but this is a good challenge to have.”

The 2018 round of awards is co-funded by the Energy Initiative, the Office of the Provost, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, Pratt School of Engineering, and the Information Initiative at Duke (iiD).

Funded Projects in 2018-2019

Seed Grants

So the Dam Doesn’t Break: Understanding Mini-Grid Infrastructure Sustainability in Nepal. Building on previous research on mini-grids, energy transitions, and public infrastructure, this project by Robyn Meeks (Sanford School of Public Policy), Dalia Patiño-Echeverri (Nicholas School of the Environment), Subhrendu Pattanayak (Sanford School of Public Policy), and Erik Wibbels (Political Science, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences) will examine how propositions from engineering, new institutional economics, and public finance could help explain variations in mini-grid success in Nepal. In the process, the team will produce new insights into solving the “infrastructure quality trap” in mini-grids, which experts see as essential to providing universal energy access by 2030.

Investigating the Stability of Promising Earth Abundant-Based Photoelectrochemical Energy Materials. Labs led by Jeffrey Glass (Electrical & Computer Engineering, Pratt School of Engineering), David Mitzi (Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science, Pratt School of Engineering), and Edgard Ngaboyamahina (Electrical & Computer Engineering, Pratt School of Engineering) will explore how a new earth-abundant material developed at Duke can improve the efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and stability of cathodes used to turn water into hydrogen gas that can be stored and used as fuel.

Enabling Better Energy Decisions through Better Interpretable Causal Inference Methods for Personalized Treatment Effects. Causal inference methodology has become an essential tool for determining energy policy and understanding energy usage dependencies. This project by Cynthia Rudin (Computer Science, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences), Sudeepa Roy (Computer Science, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences), and Alexander Volfovsky (Statistical Science, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences) will improve our ability to make policy decisions and understand energy use by making casual inference methods inspired by machine learning more flexible, scalable, and accurate.

Determining the Second-Life Potential of Used Data-Center Batteries. Backup batteries used in U.S. data centers may be a massive untapped resource for energy storage. They are lightly used, well-maintained, and are generally recycled long before their service life has ended. This wide-ranging collaboration from Lincoln Pratson (Nicholas School of the Environment), Josiah Knight (Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science, Pratt School of Engineering), Jim Gaston (Pratt School of Engineering), David Schaad (Civil & Environmental Engineering, Pratt School of Engineering), John Robinson (Nicholas School of the Environment), Dalia Patiño-Echeverri (Nicholas School of the Environment), Martin Brooke (Electrical & Computer Engineering, Pratt School of Engineering), and Casey Collins (Facilities), will test the storage capabilities of these used batteries to determine whether they may be suitable for applications such as storing intermittent renewable energy.

Increasing the Efficiency and Power Density of Redox Flow Batteries with Metal Nanowire Flow-Through Electrodes. Labs led by Benjamin Wiley (Chemistry, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences) and Jeffrey Glass (Electrical & Computer Engineering, Pratt School of Engineering) will improve the power density and reduce the cost of redox flow batteries through a new flow-through electrode from copper nanowires. The electrode will have the same permeability as graphite felt, but will be 2,000 times more conductive and less expensive.

High-Temperature Photocatalytic Reactions on Plasmonic Materials. Teams led by Jie Liu (Chemistry, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences) and Nico Hotz (Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science, Pratt School of Engineering) will develop and study a simultaneously plasmonic and catalytic material that can be used for high-temperature photocatalysis, a critical process in chemical conversion, fuel and electrical energy production, and pollution mitigation.

Stage-Two Grants

Compositional Engineering for High-Performance Perovskite Photovoltaics with Simplified Device Structure. David Mitzi (Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science, Pratt School of Engineering) and Jie Liu (Chemistry, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences) will build on prior research on perovskite solar cells.

Proposal Development Grants

Proposal to develop a 2018 Energy Frontier Research Center at Duke University. Michael Therien (Chemistry, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences) and David Beratan (Chemistry, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences) received funding to support the writing of three Energy Frontier Research Center (Department of Energy) grant proposals.

Have questions about the Energy Research Seed Fund? Contact Jonathon Free at the Energy Initiative.

Want to give in support of innovative energy research at Duke? Give online or contact Sarah Weissberg at Duke Development (, (919) 684-3838).

Originally posted on the Duke University Energy Initiative website

Duke Institute for Brain Sciences Selects Six Teams for Research Incubator Awards

Research Incubator Awards

Six interdisciplinary Duke faculty research teams have received 2017-2018 Research Incubator Awards from the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences (DIBS). The teams are addressing complex neuroscience issues such as temporal-lobe epilepsy, improved vision for people with prosthetic retinas, and better hearing for those with cochlear implants.

Three new and three existing projects were funded, for six awards—one more than was awarded in 2016-2017. The sixth award was made possible through the generosity of members of the DIBS External Advisory Board. Each team, new or continuing, will receive between $25,000 and $100,000, depending on the size, complexity, and costs for each project.

DIBS Research Incubator Awards provide seed funding to support interdisciplinary and collaborative brain science research within Duke for projects of exceptional innovation and broad significance to the field. The projects must engage at least two faculty representing multiple fields or levels of analysis and bring together investigators from across the university whose individual programs of research are not already connected.

This year’s teams represent more than a dozen disciplines from the campus and the School of Medicine, including anesthesiology, biochemistry, biomedical engineering, cell biology, chemistry, electrical and computer engineering, medicine, neurobiology, ophthalmology, pediatrics, pediatric neurology, psychology and neuroscience, and psychiatry and behavioral sciences. Both junior and senior faculty are participating, as are postdoctoral fellows.

Plans are underway for the 2018-2019 grant process. Updated information and application forms will be provided in early 2018. Please check the Research Incubator Awards page for details.

Following are the new and renewal teams and projects:

2017-2018 New Awards


Drs. James McNamara (Neurobiology), Pei Zhou (Biochemistry), and Robert Anthony Mook (Medicine)

Title: Biochemical and Structural Characterization of Inhibitors of TrkB Signaling

Temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE) is a potentially devastating form of human epilepsy for which there is no prevention or cure. A single seizure can disrupt the TrkB signaling pathway, which initiates a chain reaction causing full-on epilepsy. If we can inhibit this chain reaction, we can prevent a single seizure from becoming a devastating illness. This project will explore molecules that inhibit this chain reaction in hopes of finding a prevention method.


Drs. Sina Farsiu and Marc Sommer (Biomedical Engineering) and Lejla Vajzovic (Ophthalmology)

Title: Psychophysics-guided Signal Processing for Retinal Prosthetics

A visual prosthesis, or “bionic eye,” has provided some visual function to patients who were completely blind prior to implantation. A small camera worn externally takes pictures, converts them to electronic signals, and transmits them to an implantable retinal prosthesis. The resulting image has limited resolution due to hardware-design issues, and improving it would require costly development and approval of new devices. This project seeks to improve image resolution through advanced software design, a noninvasive, cost-efficient method that could be adapted to improve the vision of patients with retinal prostheses.


Drs. Tobias Overath (Psychology & Neuroscience), Josh Stohl and Leslie Collins (Electrical & Computer Engineering), and Michael Murias (DIBS)

Title: Optimizing Cochlear Implant Sound Processor Configurations via Neural Response Properties to Improve Speech Comprehension

Nearly one million Americans are functionally deaf and an additional 400,000 are deaf in one ear. The cochlear implant (CI) is the most successful sensory prosthetic implant to help them regain hearing; about 500,000 people in the U.S. have the implants. For many, CIs achieve near-perfect speech comprehension in ideal listening situations. For others, CIs work less well, and adjustments require lengthy appointments. This project aims to optimize CI configuration by recording neural impulses while the patient is listening to speech. Once neural responses are collected, they may be used to reprogram the CI and enhance the implant’s performance, reducing the need for repeated adjustments.

2017-2018 Renewal Awards


Drs. Niccolò Terrando and Miles Berger (Anesthesiology), Warren Grill (Biomedical Engineering), Christina Williams (Psychology & Neuroscience), Chay Kuo (Cell Biology), and William Wetsel (Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences)

Title: Bioelectronic Medicine and Cholinergic Regulation of Postoperative Cognitive Dysfunction

Memory dysfunction is a common postsurgical complication and may last for several months, even years. We do not yet know why this decline in memory function occurs, and there is no effective medical treatment to prevent it. The research team has developed a clinically relevant model to study surgery-induced memory dysfunction in mice after a common type of orthopedic surgery. This project will identify cellular processes that may cause postsurgery memory deficits, focusing on interactions between the nervous and immune systems. This work could have a major impact on global health by reducing postoperative cognitive dysfunction.


Drs. Mohamad Mikati (Pediatrics, Neurobiology), Dwight Koeberl (Pediatrics), Scott Moore (Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences), and William Wetsel (Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences)

Title: Mechanisms of Increased Hippocampal Excitability in the D801N Knock-in Mouse Model of Na/K ATPase Dysfunction and Rescue with AAV-mediated Gene Therapy

Fifty percent of the energy consumed by brain cells is expended by a cellular pump called the sodium-potassium (chemical symbols: Na/K) ATPase pump. This pump, critical for maintaining the integrity and function of brain cells, is vulnerable to malfunction under stress associated with conditions such as epilepsy and stroke, and others, including alternating hemiplegia of childhood (AHC). AHC is a severe disorder causing paralysis, spasms, and epileptic seizures. It is caused by a genetic mutation that codes for a protein in the pump. Using a mouse model with the most common AHC mutation and the disorder, the team will investigate the cell circuitry regulating the pump mechanism. The team will next attempt to use gene therapy to correct the malfunction in the mouse model, which may lead to new therapies for humans with AHC, epilepsy, and related conditions.


Drs. Yiyang Gong (Biomedical Engineering), Jinghao Lu, Fan Wang, and Diming Zhang (Neurobiology)

Title: Building a Fiber-integrated Microscope System for Two-color Optogenetic Probing of Ensemble Activity in Freely Behaving Animals

Every thought or movement made by our brains requires many neurons. To understand even basic brain function, we must be able to record the activity of many neurons at once. This project will use the techniques of optogenetics and optical engineering to allow researchers to see neurons while they are active. Thus far, this team has developed a mini-microscope that can visualize one type of neurons at a time in awake and moving mice. The next step requires examining multiple types of neurons interacting together.

The Energy Initiative Invites Proposals for 2018 Seed Fund Grants

Energy Research Seed Fund

Deadline: February 2, 2018

Since 2014, the Duke University Energy Initiative’s Energy Research Seed Fund has supported new interdisciplinary, collaborative research. This funding has helped Duke researchers obtain important preliminary results they have used to push the boundaries of knowledge, test concepts, and secure external funding.

Thanks to generous support from Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, the Pratt School of Engineering, and the Information Initiative at Duke (iiD), we are pleased to announce the expansion of this popular and successful program, and to invite proposals to any of the following three grant categories:

  • Seed Grants, which will provide up to $45,000 for new research conducted by teams led by Duke faculty members, at least two of which represent different disciplines, schools, or departments. The performance period for Seed Grants is 12 months.
  • Stage-Two Grants, which will provide up to $35,000 to carry projects currently supported by Energy Initiative seed funding into their next research phase. Applications for Stage-Two grants should indicate successful completion of work conducted under the current grant and outline how additional funding will help make the team’s research more compelling to external funders.
  • Proposal Development Grants, which will provide up to $25,000 for past seed fund recipients to develop proposals for external funding. Applicants for these grants should provide a one-page proposal indicating how the funds will be used (acceptable uses include travel to meet with potential sponsors, support for Ph.D. student assistants, etc.), and how those uses will improve the likelihood of external funding.

This year’s Seed Fund places special emphasis on research topics such as energy data analytics, including the integration of big data applications, machine learning techniques, or the broader intersection of energy and advanced computation; energy materials, energy access and inequality, grid reliability and modernization, energy decision-making and behavior, energy efficiency, advanced alternative fuels and renewables, and the nexus of food, energy, and water. Research oriented toward solutions, rather than solely problem identification, is especially encouraged. Proposals will be reviewed based on the quality of proposed research and potential to leverage seed grants to secure external funding.

Proposals are due Friday, February 2, 2018, 11:59 p.m. 

Eligible Applicants

The principal investigator must be a regular rank faculty member at Duke University.


The budget for an Energy Research Seed Fund research team (working group) can include supplies, salary support for research assistants, graduate students, technicians, and other justifiable research expenses. Faculty salary, tuition remission, and indirect costs are not allowable expenses. Travel expenses are allowable only if essential to conducting the proposed research activities and cannot include travel to scientific conferences. All proposal budgets must be submitted using this template or they will not be considered.

Application Content (Seed Grants and Stage-Two Grants)

Cover Page

Must include the following information:

  • Proposal title
  • Name, title, departmental affiliation, address, e-mail address, and telephone number of all proposed investigators
  • Designation of a Principal Investigator or Co-Principal Investigators

250 words maximum

Research plan

Maximum of three pages. Should be single spaced in 12-point font with 1” margins on all sides. Must include the following information:

  • Statement of research objectives and their significance
  • Work already completed related to the proposal, and any relevant preliminary results
  • Description of the research team (working group) and research setting
  • Proposed methods and plans for data analysis
  • Potential for future grant support and specific plans to achieve external funding goals
Appendix materials

Maximum of one page each. Should be single-spaced in 12-point font, with 1” margins on all sides. Must include the following information:

  • Research schedule and milestones
  • Collaborative nature of the project
  • Relevance to mission of the Duke University Energy Initiative
  • Budget and justification (1 page maximum) (Use this template for budget.)
  • Curriculum vitae OR NSF/NIH biosketch including current grant support limited to 4 pages for each investigator

Application Content (Proposal Development Grants)

A one-page proposal describing the project and indicating how the funds will be used and how those uses will increase the likelihood of external funding

Submission Format and Deadline

Please combine all required elements into a single PDF document and submit via email by 11:59 p.m. on Friday, February 2, 2018 to: Xiaochen Sun, Duke University Energy Initiative via email at:

Selection Process

Proposals will be reviewed by an ad hoc review committee consisting of faculty with a broad range of expertise in energy-related fields. The reviewing committee’s goal is to identify the proposals that best meet the objectives of the Energy Initiative’s Energy Research Seed Fund: interdisciplinary collaborative research projects that will make long‐term, significant, and original contributions to addressing the major energy challenges identified above. The review process will consider: 1) the significance and potential impact of the research program; 2) the degree of innovation; 3) the scope of the interdisciplinary collaboration and relevance for the goals of the proposed research; 4) feasibility of the research project; and 5) likelihood of development into a project that would attract external support. Final selections will be made by the Energy Initiative Director in consultation with the faculty review committee and other stakeholders.

Awards will be announced in March 2018.

Reporting Requirements

Recipients will be expected to report on the project’s status and any related outputs (journal articles, conference presentations, external grants, etc.) at the end of the performance period.


Please direct questions to Xiaochen Sun (Research Analyst, Duke University Energy Initiative) via email:

Download this information as a PDF.

Learn more about the Seed Fund and its impact.