Sunday, December 21, 2008

3D Cancer Detection

Biomedical engineers and cancer specialists at Duke have long been collaborating to discover ways to detect and treat cancer at all its stages. One of the recent major breakthroughs is the ability to observe and examine a live body tissue in three dimensions using a technique called Multi-photon microscopy.

According to researchers, more than 50% of all detected cancers arise in squamous epithelium, and if detected in a pre-invasive or pre-cancerous state, it can be treated relatively well.

The team led by Dr. Nirmala Ramanujam, Associate Professor of BME at Duke, has been studying optical spectroscopy, optical sectioning microscopy and photon migration techniques, and attempting to use them for characterizing and detecting biochemical and structural properties of various human tissues. According to Dr.Ramanujam, the multi-photon fluorescence microscopy—a technique enables doctors to "peer into the individual cells in a very non-invasive way to see how things change as early cancer progresses."

A multiphoton fluorescence microscope uses pulsed long wavelength laser light to excite fluorophores within a specimen. The fluorophore absorbs the energy from two long-wavelength photons that must arrive simultaneously in order to excite an electron into a higher energy state, from which it can decay, emitting a signal.

Another technique being explored by Ramanujam's group is called Ultraviolet-visible optical spectroscopy (UV-VIS). It is similar to fluorescence spectroscopy, in a way that fluorescence involves transitions from the excited state to the ground state, while absorption deals with electron transitions from the ground state to the excited state.

Dr. Ramanujam's current focus is on further researching and developing broad and effective techniques for clinical detection of cancer.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

How Low Can We Go?

Go ahead and ask anybody who has lost a third to a half of their retirement nest egg or college fund in the last six months and they'll tell you things are bad. But what do the professional money guys think?

The CFO Survey, a 12-year-old collaborative effort of the Fuqua School of Business and CFO Magazine, has been doing just that. And the bottom line from the latest quarterly data is not encouraging at all. The pros are as pessimistic as everyone else!

The survey asks chief financial officers to crystal-ball their employment, spending, earnings, tech investment and a host of other bellwether measurements. On average, they expect capital spending to fall by 10 percent in the coming year; tech spending to drop 4 percent; and marketing and advertising spending to drop by 7 percent. In short, we apparently haven't hit bottom yet.

CFO Optimism Index: Key Measures

(Click on the Swivel button to see more data and do your own data mashups!)

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Stories Behind the Numbers

When social science researchers look at a public policy issue, they usually find a number so telling or shocking that you have to stop and think about the stories behind it.

For sociologist Linda Burton, one such number stood out in a three-city study she directed that looked at how illness and disparities in access to health care and health insurance affect the poor’s ability to get and hold jobs and maintain wealth.

Burton and two other Duke faculty members presented research Tuesday in the kickoff event in the fourth-annual Provost Lecture Series. As Burton asked, “How healthy are the poor?” her evidence answered “not very.” Statistic after statistic indicated poor parents and their children both face numerous and interrelated physical and mental health issues that are major obstacles to their economic hopes.

One number, however, stood out. “When we looked at mental health issues for children, we found a growing number of ADHD and autism cases,” Burton said. “One of the saddest findings was of suicide among the youngest children. In our survey [of 2,300 families] we found five children under the age of 8 had either attempted suicide or expressed suicidal tendencies. That’s just not a number you would expect to see” among that age group.

For Burton, statistics of suicidal elementary school children among the poor is evidence of the difficult task ahead for President Barack Obama in trying to address health and income disparities in the United States. If the caregivers and the children in these families aren’t healthy, their pocketbook will suffer.

“If a mother has to make a choice between caring for a sick child and going to work, they’re going to care for the kid,” Burton said. That takes money out of their wallet and hinders them from holding a job.

Burton wasn’t the only one at the lecture Tuesday presenting statistics that surprised.

For the Nicholas School’s Richard Newell, who discussed environmental and energy policy, the number that stood out was that fact that 98 percent of the world’s transportation is based on petroleum fuels. Newell said that number says a lot about how far the world has to go toward changing its economies to more environmentally friendly energy sources.

“This is going to be a long-term effort,” he said. “You don’t turn economies around on a dime.”

In addition, political scientist Peter Feaver discussed American global strategy and challenges facing the Obama administration in maintaining American power and influence.

The Provost Lecture Series, “Policy Visions for a New Presidency,” will continue in the spring semester with five leading scholars picking up the discussion on all three of Tuesday’s topics. Population studies scholar Paul Ehrlich will deliver the first address Feb. 2.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

RIP Titus, last of his kind

We have some very sad news from the Duke Lemur Center this morning: Titus, a 25-year-old Golden-crowned sifaka -- the last of his kind in captivity and one of the very last in the world -- died yesterday after surgery for a tumor.

The entire staff had turned out to say goodbye to him, as he had been at DLC for 15 years. His species is highly endangered because their entire habitat is smaller than Durham County and highly threatened. Only one surviving band of golden-crowns is known to exist in Madagascar.

See the DLC blog for photos and details:

Monday, December 1, 2008

Sick and Tired

Monday was the 20th World AIDS Day, but "celebration is such an odd word for it," assistant dean Michael Relf told a small brown bag session at the School of Nursing.

Today, an estimated 33 million people carry HIV, of which two-thirds are in sub-Saharan Africa, where Relf does much of his research. As the virus spreads most viciously among the poor, the uneducated, the young and the female, "we're seeing the epidemic start over," he said. Completely depressing.

His colleague, associate professor Julie Barroso, is studying the psychic toll HIV infection takes on American patients, many of whom have been living with it for ten years or more. She presented preliminary data from an ambitious NIH-funded study that is measuring a dizzying array of physiologic and psychosocial factors in a cohort of 128 patients over time. What they're looking for is some predictors of the debilitating fatigue that many HIV-positive people experience. So far, the physiology -- liver function, thyroid, testosterone, viral lode, CD4 cell counts, etc. -- doesn't correlate at all with fatigue. But the psychic factors -- experiences of trauma, PTSD, depression, anxiety, lack of social support, etc. -- are ALL correlated with fatigue.

But there it gets tricky: Do HIV patients experience fatigue because they've got this infection (and all that it symbolizes) lurking over them, or does their stressful, traumatic, unsupported past make them feel more poorly?
Relf pointed out that trauma in childhood and adulthood are themselves predictive of HIV-positive status.

Clearly, another case where an ounce of prevention would save untold lives and resources. The other bottom line: Society, here and in Africa, needs to treat more than the HIV patient's symptoms. "Each of us can do something," Relf said. "Even if it's just listening to someone."

Monday, November 24, 2008

Collider Conundrum

A Duke physicist is helping sort out a scientific mystery in the debris of some high energy subatomic particle smashups at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. An unexpectedly large number of muons are appearing in ways that can't be explained by known physics.

The excess muons, which are heavier versions of electrons, could be evidence for some form of mysterious dark matter, acknowledges associate physics professor Mark Kruse.

They could even be decay products connected to the Higgs boson, the so-called "God particle" which is being sought at Fermilab, the world's most powerful particle collider, and its even more powerful successor in Europe, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN.

Kruse, who co-leads of Higgs investigations at Fermilab's CDF detector group and will also work at CERN, suspects the anomaly will probably turn out to be nothing special. But "I think it's exciting either way," he says. "It's sort of a warning that we should be prepared for new physics to show up in ways that we're not necessarily expecting."

Fermilab and the LHC are both designed to smash subatomic protons together at energies high enough to create particles that no longer exist or have not been identified in today's universe. The Higgs, for instance, is supposed to instill mass in matter but only shows up today as an undetectable force field.

Another goal is to confirm or overrule the tenants of the Standard Model of elementary particles and forces, which was devised by the world's physics community and so far remains unchallenged.

Under the Standard Model, muons can be among the decay products of b quarks and antiquarks produced when protons and antiprotons collide at Fermilab. But twice the expected numbers have been found to originate outside the collision region in the CDF detector.

"Fifty percent can be explained by known processes, but there's still a huge number than can't," Kruse says. "We're talking about tens of thousands of events." And some of those muons are also being produced as multiple groups. "There's nothing in the Standard Model that can explain that," he adds.

A list of scientists almost four pages long signed onto the 68 page scientific report describing the "multi-muon events" at Fermilab. But another third of the CDF collaboration declined to add their names. "They thought more crosschecks had to be done," Kruse says.

He says he helped "shepherd" the completion of that study , and was involved in another shorter one speculating on the possible implications.

EPA facility measures air pollution with scale models

Becca Writes:

Last week I visited the NOAA / EPA Fluid Modeling Facility with my Focus Program group. The purpose of this facility is to better understand atmospheric dispersion of pollutants. For that reason, the scientists at the FMF build huge scale models of buildings, towns, and cities to evaluate atmospheric dispersion under very specific conditions. They place a model in a large wind tunnel machine, a device that simulates air currents in the atmosphere. Theatrical smoke is emitted at a certain point, and its dispersion through the wind tunnel is measured and analyzed.

We observed an experiment designed to test how air pollutants disperse from highways, specifically, a highway outside Las Vegas that cuts underneath a railroad track. To better demonstrate the flow of air, the lights were turned off and a laser was pointed at the point of release. This allowed us to see the many swirls and eddies of the dispersing pollution.

Interestingly, by adding a high-rise building to the immediate left of the highway, the air flow dynamic changed and pollutants were stirred up much more. One can obviously see the benefits of this type of modeling in determining the dispersion of pollutants.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

A Very Open Universe

Stuart Kauffman, a philosophy major who became a physician, biochemist and a well known biology and complexity theorist, told a Duke Physics Building audience on Nov. 18 that the universe's own inherent uncertainties make it an unpredictable, "lawless" place.

In a talk sponsored by Duke's Center for Theoretical and Mathematical Sciences, the director of the University of Calgary's Institute for Biocomplexity and Informatics said comforting notions about the predictability of Nature as outlined by luminaries like Isaac Newton and Pierre-Simon Laplace were first derailed by the mathematical uncertainties of quantum mechanics.

Since then, he said in a free-ranging tour of his thought processes, it has only become more apparent that seemingly robust scientific dogma may only apply part of the time. For example, while the beautiful double helix symmetry of DNA is generally considered the fundamental agent of reproduction, scientists are finding that life can also spring from other kinds of autocatalytic molecular interactions.

Moreover, since scientists estimate there are more kinds of conceivable proteins than there are particles of matter in the cosmos, what's possible to create may be vastly underestimated, he added. "The universe will never make all possible molecules, organisms or species," he said. "So most complex things will never exist."

While Newton's equations can grossly describe the movements of a billiard ball, some elements of its path are also indescribably chaotic, he said. Similarly, the tenants of Evolution cannot predict that the lungs of a primitive lungfish would evolve into swim bladders of other fish species, or that hummingbird beaks would co-evolve with flowers to facilitate pollination.

In the engineering world, Kauffman also described how the most promising technologies may also be borrowed or superseded in unpredictable ways. Examples include how fiberoptic cables have been partially replaced by wireless signal trafficking, or how technicians deduced that engine blocks themselves should be used as chassis in tractors.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Going Beyond a Multinational

"Connecting those who need it most" is the goal of a new innovative firm called Inveneo. Inveneo is a pioneer in a new breed of organizations which utilize their technical superiority to widen the reaches of computer technology and take it to rural areas around the world. On November 11, Jeff Wishnie, the Chief Technology Officer of Inveneo, delivered a stimulating lecture highlighting the pathbreaking achievements of Inveneo within just a few years of formation.

"The mission is to get the tools of ICT-Information and Communication Technology to the people and organizations who need them the most, those in remote and rural communities in the developing world," Jeff said. The non-profit organization believes that ICTs are the premier solutions in offering rural healthcare and relief, better finance and market opportunities and more well rounded education. Inveneo has been successful in employing ICTs in the predominantly rural areas of the world, including Rwanda, Uganda, Sierra Leone and Nigeria.

Over the years, Duke students have been actively connected with Inveneo. Duke Smart Home and Engineers Without Borders (EWB) students installed Inveneo systems and computers at the RASD (Rural Agency for Sustainable Development) resource center in Nkokonjeru, Uganda. "It was so gratifying to see people – many of whom had never been on the internet before - at the computers," said Will Patrick of EWB. "We trained RASD volunteers how to maintain it, and in its first month, the cafĂ© brought in more than 200,000 shillings. It's not much, but it was twice as much as the bills to the phone company."

Jeff said that the task of installing computers and the Internet, which appears to be really simple in a country like the USA, involves a complex procedure in the underdeveloped areas. This is due to the extreme social, infrastructural and technological challenges posed in these places. "Even government healthcare hospitals do not have generators. If they do have them, most don't work or don't have fuel", Jeff said, recounting his first-hand experiences working in such harsh conditions. "Thus,"he adds, "there needs to be a major focus on building a sustainable design, which should be usable, affordable, supportable, resistant, resilient and low power consuming." The engineers and software designers at Inveneo have incorporated all these design considerations into their systems, which has enabled them to live up to their mission of "Connecting those who need it the most."

Music to your ears... and your brain

Every day on the bus I see kids plugged into their iPods, heads bobbing to unheard music. This synchronization with the beat, according to author and neurologist Oliver Sacks, is “a uniquely human experience.”

With the exception of the penguins from “Happy Feet,” other animals just don’t seem to appreciate music the way we humans do. We dance and sing to it, sometimes to the chagrin of those around us.

“There are quite a number of people who are severely tone deaf-- but just don’t know it,” Sacks said, to chuckles from the overflow crowd in Duke's Page Auditorium Wednesday night.

Sacks, who provided the kickoff to a day-long Thursday symposium on Music and the Brain, then explained the peculiar case of a woman who thought music was completely unintelligible. She had been to concerts, but found them excruciating. Her idea of music was dropping pots and pans on the kitchen floor. Finally, doctors were able to diagnose her with congenital immusia-- the inability to perceive music in a normal way.

Sacks shared a story about another immusiac who was suddenly inspired by music -- after he was struck by lightning. The man, while talking on a cellphone outside during a storm, was hit by lighting and sent into cardiac arrest. When he recovered, he was shocked to discover a love of music, and now is a fairly well-known composer. What are the odds of that?

Next Sacks shared a story about a man who seemed to be an immusiac by all appearances. After being ridiculed as a child for his inability to sing, the man avoided music for 30 years. Finally, he decided to conduct an experiment on himself. He took singing lessons for a year, and had an MRI done before and after. Not only did he love the lessons, but the before and after MRIs revealed that his rediscovery of music had actually changed his brain.

“There is something special about the ability to play music,” Sacks said.

According to Sacks, musical memory can endure when sometimes nothing else does. After a stroke, a formerly musical man had only a 7-second memory. From minute to minute, he could not remember where he was or what he was doing. And yet, when guided to the stage, he could conduct an orchestra with all of his professional ability.

Sacks also discussed his experiences at Beth Abraham Hospital, which he chronicled in his book, “Awakenings.” There he encountered several patients who were frozen, transfixed by a sleeping sickness called encephalitis lethargica. Music made a difference, he discovered, but “it had to have rhythm, had to have a beat.” When they heard music, the formerly frozen patients were able to move.

“Music will act as a sort of vehicle, will carry memory and emotion with it, as it does for all of us,” Sacks said.

Sacks went on to describe his experiences with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s patients, and with those suffering from schizophrenia and depression. He spoke about an event that happened to novelist William Styron, Duke alumnus and author of a memoir about depression, “Darkness Visible.” According to Sacks, Styron suffered from depression for many years. One night, he stayed up late to watch a movie by himself. At one point during the film, a character sang a single, clear contralto note, and it “pierced his heart like a dagger.” All at once came an outpouring of happy memories, of his wife, his children, and his work.

“This opening-up power of music can’t be predicted, but when it works, it can be astounding,” Sacks said.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Shortcomings of Medical Donations

Studies show that 80 percent of the medical equipment reaching developing nations' hospitals is donated but 70 percent of those donations don't work. Such shortcomings could explain why the world's medical communities' failed in their goals to deliver health care everywhere by the 21st century, said Robert Malkin, a Duke professor for the practice of biomedical engineering who also directs a voluntary program called Engineering World Health.

Malkin analyzed why nearly 3,000 pieces of such technology failed to work correctly during a Nov. 7 talk at a Duke conference on Bioengineering Applications to Address Global Health. Some widely-touted reasons, such as a lack of spare parts or an inability to train local staff to use the equipment, appear to actually be off the mark, he said.

One of the biggest real problems is hospitals' inability to replace disposable items connected the technology in places where the per-patient outlays for such "consumables" cannot exceed 34 cents, he said. Spare parts may be less of an issue than access to the right tools, he added. And staffs that might appear confused in training may really need access to manuals in the right language.

Malkin's own Engineering World Health (EWH) project sends volunteer engineers to work alongside hospital administrators to evaluate equipment needs. Those needs are then met with donated equipment.

After that, engineering and science students from Duke and other universities visit those hospitals after undergoing language and technical training in Costa Rica or Tanzania. Once on location, the students work on equipment repair and installation. And the voluntary engineers also make followup visits to make sure everything is working properly.

Between 2003 and 2007 EWH has put 1,623 pieces of equipment --- $3 milllion worth -- into service, Malkin said.

Giving Women Control Against HIV

HIV, the AIDS virus, "targets women with Darwinian ferocity," says Patrick Kiser, an assistant biomedical engineering professor at the University of Utah who got his Ph.D. at Duke. In Africa, the HIV infection rate among young women can be three times higher than men.

That's in part because females are at the "receiving end" of HIV-infected semen and partly because of their vulnerable societal status, Kiser said Nov. 6 at a Duke conference on Bioengineering Applications to Address Global Health. So while male use of condoms can prevent transmission, that requires far-from-certain negotiating between sexual partners.

Kiser's lab is working on techniques that would shift control to women by introducing agents called "microbiocides" to stop the virus cold in the vagina. But early experiments by others have not been promising, he said.

While one candidate gel preparation seemed to block the virus in laboratory culture, for example, the salt content of semen interfered with the agent's effectiveness. Also, women did not always follow instructions that called for applications before each sex act.

His group's tactic is to combine advanced microbiocides more attuned to bodily chemistries with better drug delivery techniques. As one example, it is developing flexible plastic intravaginal rings that can be made for pennies and deliver a constant amount of microbiocide for 30 days.

One gel method of action he described would trigger the release of anti-HIV drug when normally acidic vaginal fluids undergo a pH change upon intercourse (sperm is basic rather than acidic). At the same time, the normally free-flowing gel would chemically crosslink into a semi-solid to stop viral particles from reaching vulnerable white blood cells of the immune system.

Kiser is also collaborating with a Duke group headed by biomedical engineering professor David Katz.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Get LINKed in

The newly-designed LINK, located on the lower level of the Perkins Library, has 6 classrooms, 4 seminar rooms, and 11 group study rooms, all equipped with projectors, flat-screen televisions, and wall-to-wall whiteboards. It has a slick, colorfully modern design with orange, white, purple, and metallic elements, complemented by extensive windows. I really like the style of the place-- it’s certainly a change from the typical classroom environment.

One of my classes is held in a seminar room of the LINK. There’s one big conference table in the center, ringed by chairs. There’s also two full walls of whiteboard space; the rest is windows. My teacher can use a touch screen to lower the projector screen, turn on the projector, and dim the lights. She says she’d love to teach in the LINK again next year, because it has been so helpful for teaching the class.

The various classroom spaces are centered around the Office of Information and Technology (OIT) help desk. The desk is staffed by technological genii and trained students, who are equipped to help people with technology-related problems. Also at the desk, students and faculty can borrow cameras, iPods, and other technology for a two-week period as easily as they would a library book. This service, made possible by the Duke Digital Initiative (DDI), is incredibly useful. A few weeks ago I was able to check out a sleek little FlipCam from DDI for a documentary assignment. It’s nice to have access to this kind of technology on an as-needed basis, and without having to pay.

The LINK also has Windows and Mac computer clusters for student use. These computers are loaded with useful programs, including statistical and geographic information system (GIS) software that is only available in a few other places on campus. I’ve used a GIS program on the Macs. The Windows and Mac computers in the LINK all have gloriously huge monitors, which makes them pretty fun and efficient to use.

However, what students seem to appreciate most about the LINK is the ample study space. The comfortable chairs and booths are all very popular, either for study, snacking, or sleep. I can certainly vouch for the funky purple chairs; they’re one of my favorite places to study.

The group study rooms provide a great space for collaborating on projects or studying for tests. Students can use the expansive whiteboard space for a variety of purposes, from diagramming molecules to declining French verbs. I’ve even seen a whiteboard used for an epic cartoon battle of Godzilla versus Pikachu. All told, the LINK is an innovative academic environment that promises to enhance students’ learning experiences.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

DNA Waffles. Do not Eat.

For researchers at Duke University, a waffle does not just refer to an absolutely amazing thing to eat for breakfast, but in fact represents an innovative structure of DNA strands.

A DNA waffle or a nano waffle is basically a system of DNA strands that are locked together into tiles. When these individual square and cross-shaped tiles are inter-locked together, they resemble a waffle grid.

The great thing about manipulating DNA strands into such a grid is that these sets of tiles can self-assemble into lattices, for example, a template for a precise silver nanowire. A nanowire can be used to connect microscopic objects, to create nanoscale structures. DNA acts an effective template as it other elements can form chemical connections with different positions on a DNA strand. Thus they provide a perfect base for positioning the molecules at exact positions, reducing the level of uncertainty. Hence these kind of DNA structures can be used to hold together a set of molecules, which can self-assemble into pre-programmed configurations.

"The way we've designed these is by changing the sequence of DNA molecules so that they basically tie themselves into knots, and the designs of the knots fit into this sort of pattern." says Chris Dwyer, assistant professor in the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering.

Apart from interconnecting microscopic objects, self-assembled DNA structures like DNA waffles can be useful in making various types of new materials with all the desired properties even at the molecular level. Such structures may play a significant part in the development of DNA computers in the coming years.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Optimal Molecular Differences

Scientists require small molecules -- composed of a few dozen atoms at most -- to serve as foundations for potential drugs or to serve as tools for biomedical research.

The problem is that there are a potential 1023 possibilities -- an astronomical number.

So the National Institutes of Health has funded two Duke theoretical chemistry teams headed by professors David Beratan and Weitao Yang to suggest new schemes to drastically reduce the field of candidates.

The two Duke theory groups plan to collaboratively develop methods to identify subsets of molecules that are the most chemically different from each other. That way, "when experimentalists make hundreds or thousands of candidate molecules in the course of this project they will choose the most diverse set they could possibly make, and thus have the best statistical chance of finding a hit," Beratan says.

The Duke chemists were tapped to participate in one of five NIH Centers of Excellence in Chemical Methodologies and Library Development because of their earlier work under a Defense Advance Research Project Agency (DARPA) "grand challenge" initiative seeking radical techniques to speed searches for promising chemical compounds.

Duke postdoctoral researcher Shahar Keinan was first author of a July report in the journal Organic & Biomolecular Chemistry that incorporated a method developed in Duke's earlier DARPA-funded investigation to search for the optimal quinone molecule for a certain use.

The journal's cover highlighted the selected quinone -- blown up and in primary colors -- superimposed over smaller and drabber background competitors that were weeded out. "Each one of those little molecules in the background is distinct from every other one," Beratan says. "It begins to give you a sense of how vast the molecular possibilities are."

Friday, October 24, 2008

To open a shop is easy, to keep it open is an art

An Irish economist Richard Cantillon first coined the word entrepreneur, and described it as someone who is able to begin, sustain, and when necessary, effectively and efficiently dissolve a business entity. He answered the question "What is an entrepreneur?", but did not answer "How do you become an entrepreneur?" And that is exactly what Duke Entrepreneurship Education Series aims to do.

In September this year, the Duke Entrepreneurship Education Series (DEES) was started in collaboration with various Duke societies , including Fuqua's Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (CEI) and Duke's Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization (CERC).It is targeted towards harnessing the entrepreneurship capabilities and expectations of Duke students, and equipping them with the basic knowledge to set up a successful venture. DEES is a series of 12 events, and every week distinguished Duke entrepreneurs are invited to connect and share the mantra of building a successful company.

Over the past few weeks, young and eminent Duke alum such as Aaron Patzer (CEO of and Rich West (CEO of Advanced Liquid Logic) have delivered lectures on the key concepts of entrepreneurship, including planning , financing and venture capitalism. Business is not an orthodox set of rules anymore. "Failure is okay ," as Aaron Patzer points out in the inaugural Entrepreneurship 101 lecture. And there is reason enough to believe him, because before setting up the popular finance application, Aaron had got his hands wet in 3 ventures but could not make it work. The fourth one indeed did, and he recently won the TechCrunch 40 in 2007.

Dave Samuel, founder of the companies Spinner (purchased by AOL in 1999), Grouper (purchased by Sony in 2006), Brondell and Freestyle Capital, highlighted the importance of "Focus[ing] on doing one thing really well" in the Planning Your Startup 101 lecture. In the most recent lecture called Business Plan 101, Matt Kane, CEO of Precision Biosciences presented the curious students with effective ways to write and market a strategic business plan to investors and financing agencies. And in the session, called Venture Capital 101, Rob Hallford of Pappas Ventures and Amy Laverdiere of Hatteras Venture Partners demystified the factors that drive a venture capitalist to invest in a startup, and provided a thorough insight into the venture capitalism industry.

DEES is an exciting opportunity to help students come up with innovative developments in diverse fields, and enable them to market their product effectively. This series is scheduled to go on till 29th January 2009.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Climate Does Count

“When consumers come together, companies absolutely listen,” says Wood Turner, a Duke graduate and Project Director for Climate Counts, a non-profit organization that scores the nation’s largest corporations every year on their efforts to reduce climate change.

By providing information about the green or not-so-green activities of companies through pocket-sized pamphlets and its website, Climate Counts hopes to “activate the choices and voices of a climate conscious consumer,” Turner told a Duke audience this week. An informed consumer can “vote with their dollars” by supporting companies that are taking action to combat climate change and avoiding companies that are not.

The organization scores companies based on 22 criteria in 4 categories. Based on their scores in these four categories, corporations are rated as being environmentally “stuck,” “starting,” or “sprinting.” All of the organization’s scores are verified by a third party. Climate Counts targets the country’s largest corporations because they are the biggest emitters, releasing untold tons of greenhouse gases every year.

“If the 100 largest companies reduced their greenhouse gas emissions by 5%, it would be equivalent to taking 25 million cars off the road,” Turner said. “It’s the same as meeting the goals of the Kyoto protocol.”

Turner asserted that while Climate Counts takes a hard line on companies’ actions to prevent climate change, the organization is essentially pro-business. “We’re trying to motivate companies, not hammer on companies.... We’ve set out to be a positive collaborator with business.”

Turner raised the point that companies can actually save money by reducing their carbon footprint, because inefficiently used energy is just money spent. The fast food industry, in particular, could benefit from increased efficiency; 80% of its energy is wasted through inefficient buildings and food storage. In its ratings, Climate Counts gave McDonald’s 27 points out of a hundred. Burger King and Wendy’s International, on the other hand, received goose eggs. Not very promising.

However, 84% of the companies Climate Counts rated last year have improved their scores. This improvement cannot be attributed to the efforts of Climate Counts alone, but Climate Counts certainly has a great potential to “call out” companies for their lack of attention to environmental issues. Climate Count’s website,, allows visitors to send email directly to the corporations that are rated. Some companies, overwhelmed by hundreds of emails, are shamed into taking action to reduce their impact.

“Environmental issues have been relegated to the bowels of these companies for a long long time,” Turner said. “Our process has moved these issues from the bowels to the boardroom.”

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

What's in a Theory?

Dictionary definitions of "theory" are rife with words like "abstract," "hypothetical" and "speculation." But the theoretical realm is on a growth curve in the no-nonsense world of science, so much so that Duke's Provost's office is funding a program to expand its interdisciplinary boundaries.

The real impetus is a marriage of high end computers and powerful equations, says Berndt Mueller, the J. B. Duke Professor of Physics who coordinated efforts to begin the university's new Center for Theoretical and Mathematical Sciences (CTMS). All that horsepower can help scientists fathom what to look for in experimental data.

While theoretical methods have flourished in physics for hundreds of years (think of Newton and Einstein), they spread to chemistry over the last 40 and are now entering the realm of biology. "Theoretical mathematical tools are invading new areas simply because computation has become so powerful that you can address problems and systems that were totally out of reach until recently," Mueller says. "Another reason is that the quality and quantity of data in many fields is growing rapidly."

"What the center wants to do is provide a central marketplace, an environment in which working scientists can gather together and share theoretical tools without having to change their professional fields."

The CTMS has already signed on more than 50 faculty members from all over science and engineering. It has started a series of public lectures called "Adventures in Theory." And it is now beginning a graduate fellowship program.

Mueller's own group uses advanced math and powerful computer clusters to theorize conditions millionths of a second after the Big Bang. The expected outcome was a gas of two abnormally separated fundamental particles -- quarks and gluons. But Brookhaven National Laboratory experimentalists summonsed-up not a gas but the most free-flowing imaginable liquid when they re-created that environment by colliding gold atoms at extremely high energies.

Mueller's graduate student Bryon Neufeld recently used sophisticated mathematics to compute the outcome if particles moving near light speed passed through such a "perfect" fluid. He found such interactions should form shock waves akin to breaking the sound barrier.

Big Bang indeed! Who says theory can't be fun?

Monday, October 20, 2008

Genome Boy in NYT

Duke assistant professor Misha Angrist, aka the blogger Genome Boy, does a star turn in the New York Times today. (That's him surrendering a chunk of flesh for science, at left)

It's a story about the personal genome project, in which Angrist has been a willing participant. His genome and lots of other salient details about him will be published today for everyone to read.

What will his genome say about him ... and about us?

Angrist and nine other pioneering participants in the project are surrendering some of their privacy to get the ball rolling on what PGP leaders hope will be the complete analysis of more than 100,000 individuals. (You can sign up too.)

Only then, when we've seen the commonalities and the differences and subjected them to statistical analysis, will we truly begin to approach predictive, personalized medicine. Or maybe not. We won't know until we've tried it. Thanks for stepping up, Misha.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Las Vegas Blooms in the Desert

Las Vegas is the most arid city in the United States, with less than 4 inches of precipitation per year. Yet it has has bloomed, swelling from a population of just 1,205 people in 1905 to 1.4 million by 2000. There are 5,000 new residents and 1,200 new homes a month. Groundwater alone could not supply the ever-increasing population.

In 1974, Las Vegas began pumping water from the Colorado River for the first time to supply its growing need. By 1985, a return flow credit system had been established, whereby for every liter of purified wastewater Las Vegas returned to the Colorado River, it could withdraw another liter of potable water. Las Vegas lies north of Hoover Dam and Lake Mead, and also several major cities. This makes the quality of Las Vegas’ treated water particularly important. Fortunately, the Southern Nevada Water Authority has gone to great lengths to ensure the water’s quality, and Las Vegas’ water treatment is in the 99th percentile nationwide.

Shane Snyder, who came to speak at Duke, is Research & Development Project Manager for the Southern Nevada Water Authority in Las Vegas. He has spent most of his career investigating pharmaceuticals and endocrine disruptors in water, even testifying before a Senate subcommittee about the risk of pharmaceuticals in water. Water contamination with these compounds is a major issue because many water purification systems are incapable of removing them. This is a major obstacle for water recycling efforts, because hormones and pharmaceuticals can have very adverse effects on humans and wildlife that ingest them.

However, Snyder has led the effort to remove hormones and pharmaceuticals from water, pioneering technologies for effectively removing these contaminants. During the lecture, Snyder discussed the effectiveness of treating water with UV radiation, chlorine, and ozone, among others. He noted that many pharmaceuticals and endocrine disruptors don't disappear with treatment, but transform into other products.

Snyder also recognized that water treatment can require a vast amount of energy. In fact, according to Snyder, 19% of California's energy grid is used to treat water.

“I believe that the future lies in making water treatment efficient and making sure that the public is confident that the water will not be harmful to them or their offspring,” Snyder said.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Putting Digital Meat on the Bones

Ever see one of those cop shows or National Geographic specials where a sculptor turns a tattered old skull into a realistic face?

Today's Visualization Friday Forum was a fascinating tour through the history and future of this exacting art with Andrea Stevenson Won, a medical illustrator and modeler from Raleigh who has done work on prosthetics and museum displays. (she hasn't solved any crimes yet, sorry)

Using intimate knowledge of facial anatomy and some average tissue thicknesses at various landmarks across the face, artists like Won can make an educated guess about a skull's former face. Eyebrows, hair, smirks, etc. get into art, and that's where it can quickly get misleading, she said.

Clay's out -- today it's all done digitally, allowing modelers to do three versions of the same skull, as seen here in this reconstruction of a woman who died in Illinois in the 1840s. Andrea also works with Duke's anaplastology clinic, helping make customized prosthetics for patients who are still very much alive.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Wells would have been proud

In 1897, H.G.Wells wrote a book called 'The Invisible Man'- the first time anyone tried to think rationally about invisibility. But that was just another sort of sci-fi fantasy. Around a century later, we are almost there.

Over the last few years, researchers at Duke and elsewhere have achieved remarkable developments in the effort to make things 'invisible'.

In 2006, researchers in the ECE department at Pratt School of Engineering, in collaboration with Imperial College of London, created a brilliant 'cloak' that deflects passing microwaves and behaves as if it were invisible. This was achieved using metamaterials, which in simple terms, can bend light the unexpected way. They can be modified to produce a negative refractive index. The metamaterials were specifically designed and arranged in circles to interact with electromagnetic waves in a way that natural elements cannot. This is the first breakthrough that highlights the uses of metamaterial technology over electromagnetic properties to create the effect of invisibility.

The following is a video of the working model of the first ever invisibility cloak at Duke, which hides a spherical metal cylinder from microwaves:

Even after this achievement, the researchers were not convinced. There were theories which said that the same theory of invisibility would work for 2-D acoustic cloaks, but not for 3-D, as electromagnetic and sound waves fail to be equivalent in 3 dimensions.

As Steven Cummer, Jeffrey N. Vinik Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Duke's Pratt School of Engineering, said 2 years later , "It was hard for me to imagine that something you could do with electromagnetic waves would be completely undoable for sound waves". So, in 2008, the same team devised a mechanism for another invisibility cloak, this time a 3 D acoustic cloak. Working on the same mathematical model they used 2 years earlier, the team proved that an object can be prevented from reflecting sound waves too.

Building upon all this work, scientists at University of California - Berkeley have conducted studies on metamaterials that can bend light the wrong way in 3 dimensions.

Even though we are far from a War of the Worlds or a Time Machine, in the case of an Invisible Man, there is not much longer we need to wait.

Friday, October 3, 2008


Of all the secondary school students in Africa, only 16% are girls.

To raise this number, Dr. Sherryl Broverman of Duke University and Dr. Rose Odhiambo of Egerton University in Kenya collaborated to found the Women’s Institute for Secondary Education and Research (WISER) in Muhuru Bay, Kenya, an area with some of the highest HIV infection rates in the country. The school is an effort to empower women and help them avoid the cycle of early marriage, early childbirth, HIV, and poverty.

Women, their health and their education, are the heart of all of these issues, says Stephen Lewis, former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations and the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa from 2001 to 2006. He spoke at Duke last week as a guest of Duke’s Global Health Institute as a part of WISER week.

“I believe with every fiber of my being that the single most important battle we face on this planet is the struggle for gender equality,” Lewis said.

In Africa, 61% of people infected with the HIV virus are women. Among 15- to 24-year-olds, almost 80% of those infected are women and girls.

Lewis believes that gender inequality is what puts women at risk for HIV. Because African women lack sexual autonomy, they are not in a position to demand safe sex or use of a condom. As a result, they are very vulnerable to the virus, and also to various kinds of abuse. Hundreds of thousands of women are subject to sexual violence. “The turbulence in the society unleashes male behavior of the worst kind ... There is a tremendous sense of entitlement,” Lewis said. And where there is rape and violence, inevitably, there is HIV.

Even more devastating for many HIV positive women is the inaccessibility of drugs to prevent transmission of the disease to their children. Although certain drugs can reduce the chance of transmission by 50-70%, fewer than a third of pregnant women have access to them. “It’s soul-destroying for these women,” Lewis said.

Of the half-million HIV positive babies born in Africa each year, 50% die before age 2, and 80% die before age 5. “It doesn’t happen in the U.S. or Canada or Europe because we provide a full course of retrovirals [to pregnant women],” Lewis said.

Lewis expressed frustration with the lack of international attention to the issues of AIDS and women’s health in Africa. He cited the United States’ government’s ability to spend $3 billion a week for the war in Iraq, yet barely even $10 billion a year for the war against AIDS.

“I don’t understand the way the world works ... I live my life ricocheting between rage on the one hand and despair on the other.”

However, Lewis is hopeful for the future. He repeatedly praised the efforts of WISER and international NGOs and the progress they’ve been able to achieve around the world. His own NGO, Aids-Free World, promotes urgent and effective international responses to the AIDS crisis by focusing on the achievement of gender equality.

How Do They Do That?

Metamorphosis -- from ugly duckling to swan, toddler to teen, or globby, slightly disgusting caterpillar to breathtaking butterfly -- is just about the coolest thing in Biology.

Duke Biologist Fred Nijhout, who studies it in detail on the butterfly end of the spectrum, stars in the latest installment of "Science in the Triangle" from our dear friends and close neighbors the Museum of Life and Science. Don't miss the split-screen microscope action!

Check it out:

Friday, September 26, 2008

Is this the real life, or is this just fantasy?

Last week, as part of the Triangle Computer Science Distinguished Lecture Series, William Swartout of Institute of Creative Technologies(ICT), USC was invited to Duke to deliver a talk on 'Toward the Holodeck: Integrating Graphics, Artificial Intelligence, Entertainment and Learning'. Inspired by the virtual worlds presented in Star Trek, William Swartout and the ICT are conducting research and developing virtual scenarios that contain a close knit connection between graphics, sounds and circumstances, so that man can react to them as if they are in the real world.

In simple words, the ultimate goal is to achieve the Holodeck.

The whole project is an extension of the concept of virtual reality, that has already achieved advanced stages. An example where such a technology can be tremendously useful is in the training of army personnel. A virtual world mimicing a real world scenario can be recreated, and the personnel can play out the whole situation in this simulated environment. This is refered to as the Mission Rehearsal Exercise (MRE), and helps in facilitation of new techniques of survival, defense or attack in the virtual environment, so that one is fully prepared incase of a similar circumstance in reality. The method to make MRE a success is called as a hybrid approach, which involves already scripted and simulated characters, an artifical intelligence with emotional model, as well as a Text-To-Speech (TTS) system. The simulated characters are programmed to be triggered by certain commands and behaviors. The AI helps the simulation to respond in real-time to the actions of the user, and the emotion part adds a tinge of humane touch to it. And the TTS system is used to act as the direct medium of communication.

Apart from the sophisticated visual, audio and character model, this simulated model also takes a content based story approach. Hence the user feels like he is living in the present, and has been allocated certain specified tasks that will enable him to proceed further in the story. This is an excellent advanced platform that will help elevate the methods of physical training, and expanded to include all sorts of social and emotional environments. For example, here is a small video of Duke University graduate student Gil Bohrer interacting with a virtual forest he created:

Another breakthrough in the field of vitual reality was the development of the omni-directional treadmill (ODT), which allows a person to move in all directions. Their creation and further development was essential as they are utilized to ensure an uninterrupted and close to real locomotive motion in virtual reality environments.

What these experiments prove is this is the age of not just innovation in a particular field or subject. It is the age of strategically integrating research conducted in varied fields and model them to meet the needs and aspiration of today's society. This kind of interdisciplinary approach will provide the answer to life,universe and everything, and the answer is definitely not as easy as 42.

Looking for the Green Piece

Trends in global climate change are painstakingly emerging from a complex puzzle being assembled by diligent scientists all over the world. There are literally countless pieces, and there's no picture on the cover of the box to help them along.

One of the puzzle-makers is Nicholas School forest ecologist Jennifer Swenson who's looking very hard at several square pieces, each 250 meters on a side, that each amount to one pixel on a satellite image of North Carolina. Specifically, Swenson wants to know precisely when and how each pixel switches from brown to green as spring arrives in April or May.

To MODIS, the NASA satellite program that provides these awesome pictures of spring as seen from space, it's just a single point of light, but Swenson knows there's actually a ton of data in that one pixel. The exact arrival of spring, as measured by a full canopy of leaves, is an important variable in the global change equation.

Swenson explained to the Visualization Friday Forum how she's taking ground-truth measurements of soil moisture, temperature, leaf development and other variables to calibrate what MODIS sees with what is really going on.

Eventually, this will add to MODIS's ability to determine whether in fact spring is arriving earlier and earlier, as already evidenced by anecdotal records such as cherry blossom dates in Washington DC and the first arrival of migrating birds, as recorded by amateur record-keepers.

Together, this is known as Phenology, the study of the timing of natural events, and that's our new word for the day.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Just when you thought the Earth was round...

Pulitzer Prize winner Thomas Friedman believes that the world is "Hot, Flat, and Crowded," as the title of his book suggests. He uses these three words to refer to global warming/climate change, the rise of resource consumption and standards of living around the world, and population explosion. As these three concerns intensify, people must increasingly consider what Friedman believes to be the world’s 5 major problems: resource supply and demand, petro-dictatorship, biodiversity loss, climate change, and energy poverty.

Friedman appeared at Duke on Monday to give a lecture and a panel discussion. The panel included Blair Sheppard (Dean of Duke's Fuqua School of Business), Jay Hamilton (Charles S. Sydnor Professor of Public Policy at Duke), Thomas Katsouleas (Dean of Duke's Pratt School of Engineering), and Richard Newell (Gendell Associate Professor of Energy and Environmental Economics at the Nicholas School).

I attended both the panel and the lecture, and I found Friedman to be incredibly engaging. Using numerous metaphors and examples, he effectively communicated what lies at stake for people of America and the world: increasing environmental degradation, if change cannot be achieved.

On the subject of biodiversity, he said that one new species goes extinct every 20 minutes. 
“We are the first generation of humans that will have to think like Noah. We have to think about how we are going to save the last two of each species,” Friedman said.

The good news is that Friedman's proposed solution to the world's 5 major problems is clean, renewable energy such as wind and solar power.

“Energy technology is going to be the next great global industry. It has to be."

For Friedman, energy technology represents an opportunity for America to get back on top of the global food chain. He asserts that America must "outgreen" its competition by investing heavily in the production and implementation of clean energy technologies. If it does, then it will create thousands of jobs and revitalize American industry. If it cannot, then young people today will not experience the same prosperity that their parents enjoyed.

“Green is obviously the new red, white, and blue. There is no state more appropriate to lead this revolution than the United States of America," Friedman said.

If the market for green energy technologies can be encouraged through effective legislation and incentives, he said, then capital will be invested and innovation will come.

“Necessity is the mother of innovation. If you have market necessity, you’ll have innovation. If you don’t, you get more Hummers,” Friedman said.

My friend Jori attended the lecture with me. Here she reacts to Friedman's argument that the world's 5 major problems can be solved through massive implementation of clean, renewable energy technology.

Mouse Lemur Glamour Shot

Not to be missed! Duke grad student Meredith Barrett continues to blog from Madagascar, where connectivity is sparse at best. If you haven't visited with Meredith, please do. The rewards are abundant. She'll be wrapping things up this week, and heading back to Durham with a lot of specimens (blood, poo and hair, that is -- not lemurs) and other data.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Global 'Active' Nitrogen Has Doubled

The Haber-Bosh industrial process, which allows the "mining" of inert nitrogen from Earth's atmosphere to make chemically active ammonia, won Nobel Prizes for its inventors and gave the world seemingly inexhaustible supplies of artificial plant fertilizers. But, on Friday, Sept. 19 , former Nicholas School Dean Bill Schlesinger tallied the down-side of this industrial age miracle in a seminar presentation at the Nicholas School of the Environment.

Displaying stark "before" and "after" slides drawn in part from his own research, the biogeochemist showed his Old Chemistry Hall audience that industrial fertilizer production has essentially doubled amounts of chemically active nitrogen in our planet's air, water and soils compared to volumes nature itself provides via phenomenon like plant nitrogen fixation and lightning strikes.

Some those extra teragrams (trillions of grams) are now fomenting marine life destroying algae blooms and "dead zones" along coastlines. Others are polluting underground water supplies beneath agricultural lands, leading in extreme cases to medical problems such as the "blue baby syndrome." And a byproduct of denitification, the process whereby bacteria can convert some of that chemically active nitrogen back to the inert form, can even contribute to global warming, he said.

Schlesinger is now president of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, N.Y.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

A small step for man, a quantum leap for mankind

From bit to qubit, from classical to quantum physics- this is the new focus in the world of computing. Quantum computing is the newest idea in the field of computation, in which the information is stored using quantum bits. The first step to make this path breaking technology to work is to compress the size of the microprocessor chips to the size of the atom. And this is exactly what researchers at Duke have attempted to do over the past few years. It was a team led by the Physics professor Albert Chang, which was successful in forming links between quantum dots- the building blocks of quantum computers.

Presently, researchers from Duke, MIT, and Georgia Tech are collaborating to design a working quantum data processor. The future implications of quantum computing are unimaginable.

Jungsang Kim, Nortel Networks assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering, predicts that "future quantum computers could easily crack cryptosystems widely used for secure communication today – whether to bank accounts or military installations – in the blink of an eye."

Since the basis for quantum computers will be to manage and harness the extraordinarily fast events that take place on the atomic scale, they have the potential to perform calculations that can otherwise take infinite amount of classical computing power. The advent of quantum computing would be one more step towards proving the fact that the physical world is governed by much more than what Newton forumulated.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Cue the Action News Music!

We're under new management.

Today, we're announcing three new faces on the Duke Research blog who will add more content and more voices. We hope to do a better job of capturing the personalities and events in Duke's constantly-humming research community that wouldn't otherwise rise to the level of a press release or Duke Research story.

Monte Basgall, is Duke's senior science writer in the news office. A former newspaper reporter, he gravitates toward the physical sciences, math, statistics and the like. He's been at Duke more than 15 years and knows the research and the researchers like the back of his hand.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have two newcomers: Becca Bayham is a freshman from St. Louis who is leaning toward an environmental sciences major, and like most Duke freshmen had a very healthy diet of all sciences in high school. Vansh Muttreja is also a freshman, from New Delhi, India, who's thinking about math and economics and pressure cookers and alarm clocks...

I'm Karl Bates, the research editor in the news office, who's been struggling to make this blog worth reading. We think this blog is going to be a great new channel for sharing the Duke experience with you and hope you'll add us to your favorite reader or feed and stay in touch!