Friday, February 27, 2009

FEMMES have fun with science

Why is your heart in the left side of your body? How does ultrasound technology work? Most importantly, what are the chemical properties of goo?

Certainly, these are thought-provoking questions. Last Saturday, over 200 girls in grades 4-6 got the chance to discover the answers. Duke hosted the girls for the FEMMES (Females Excelling More in Math, Engineering and Science) capstone event, an opportunity for them to experience science firsthand. All girls who participated in the free program attend Durham-area elementary schools.

The goal of FEMMES, according to the program’s website, is “to give girls hands-on experience in fields where women are often greatly under-represented.” FEMMES was founded by former undergraduate Vicki Weston, who recognized the need for female-focused science education opportunities.

At last Saturday’s event, participants broke up into groups of 10-15, following a speech by Dr. Nancy Andrews, dean of Duke’s School of Medicine. Women volunteers, all Duke graduates and undergraduates, led the girls to and from activities and provided help during various tasks. The activities, each lasting 45 minutes, were directed by female Duke faculty members, and ranged in focus from genetics to fluid dynamics to pharmacology -- all tailored for an elementary-school audience, of course. [ Click for a full list of this year’s activities ]

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Let's Play! Dog Facility Introduced

Brian Hare is launching a "Duke Canine Cognition Center" to investigate the unique cognitive abilities in domestic dogs.
He needs help from the public -- and their dogs.

The DCCC will be enrolling pet dogs to participate in fun problem-solving experiments that the dogs will enjoy. Experiments will be starting in March/April.

UPDATE (Nov. 2009) -- Here is the website for the Canine Cognition Lab:

To learn more about this program, come to the kickoff Thursday night or email

Thursday, 26 February 2009, 6 – 7 pm
Room 111, Biological Sciences Bldg
Duke University, West Campus
Reception with light refreshments to follow
in Biological Sciences 001

Monday, February 23, 2009

Clean air, safe food, and pure water

Clean air, safe food, and pure water were the focus of Friday’s symposium, entitled Managing Toxic Risks for Global Health. Presented by the Global Health Institute, the Superfund Basic Research Center and the Integrated Toxicology and Environmental Health program, the event drew attendees from across the region.

Following an introduction by Dr. Edward Levin and Dr. Michael Merson, scientists and researchers from a variety of areas addressed issues pertaining to the three major themes. Dr. Miriam Diamond began the symposium with a discussion of the interactions between science, policy, and politics in managing toxic material.

Clean air: The issues associated with air quality and human health were addressed by Dr. Daniel Costa of the US-EPA and Dr. Peter Thorne of the University of Iowa. Costa commented on the emergence of human-caused particulate matter in the air, while Thorne explained how bioaerosol exposure can lead to asthma.

Safe food: Jason Carver from the USDA-Foreign Agricultural Service discussed the global agricultural trade, and its implications for food safety. Dr. Jeff Herndon of the US-EPA spoke about how different countries can share information about the application of various pesticides, saving time and money.

Pure water: Duke’s own Dr. Subhrendu K. Pattanayak emphasized the relationship between adequate sanitation and drinking water quality. Improvements in sanitation can significantly reduce the incidence of waterborne disease, he said. In addition, he noted that “it’s absolutely imperative to pay attention to behavior change.” Simple measures such as boiling water and washing hands can go a long way in lowering a person’s risk of disease.

Developing countries carry most of the disease burden. Worldwide, 1.1 billion lack access to improved water supplies. Furthermore, 2.6 billion lack access to improved sanitation. There is certainly much room for improvement.

Why mobilize for sanitation? Pattanayak’s answer: Because children’s health will improve. Because women will achieve greater equality. Because if some people change their behavior, their peers might as well. Because a disease that exists in one country can always spread to another.

Also dealing with clean water, Dr. Joseph H. Graziano shared his research about exposure to naturally-occurring arsenic in well water, and how it can be remediated. The areas that are primarily affected are deltas that frequently flood. Graziano spent time in Bangladesh to research arsenic exposure there.

“140 million are chronically exposed [to arsenic] across many countries,” Graziano said. High levels of arsenic in the body are associated with painful skin lesions, diabetes, edemas, cancers, and cardiovascular problems.

People are affected to varying degrees, based on their ability to methylate arsenic into less-toxic dimethyl. According to Graziano, some people are just “better methylators,” and don’t get as sick. As for the rest? Graziano’s team found that people given 400 micrograms of folate every day became better methylators, and were able to flush much of the most toxic form of arsenic out of their systems.

Graziano’s team tested thousands of wells within a certain region of Bangladesh, and they found that deeper wells were much less likely to contain arsenic. The team labeled wells containing high levels of arsenic with signs to discourage their use, and made an effort to inform people about using alternate sources, such as deep wells and surface water.

“We know that we’ve helped these people,” Graziano said.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Green Roofs for the Urban Environment

"Green roofs are built in America just because they are green roofs, without knowing why they are being built," says Charlie Miller, President and Founder, Roofscapes Inc.

On February 9th, Miller was invited to Duke to talk about the current research and industry trends in sustainable green roofs as part of the Smart Talk Series.

Roofscapes Inc. is widely recognized in North America as a technical expert in the green roofs field. The sustainable green roofs in the Smart Home at Duke University were installed by the firm.

According to Miller, Roofscapes Inc. focuses on green roofs as their main business, even though bigger landscaping firms may just consider it a minor part of their project. Green roofs require an enormous amount of consideration for significant factors like natural habitats, vegetation, water drainage and soil permittivity, etc.

"Product marketing of green roofs is primarily based on story-telling as opposed to extensive research", Miller said. "This results in poorer green roofs with lower water retention capacity and less sustainability."

For an optimal green roof design, it is essential to select the best methods and materials to promote plant health, engineering performance and maintenance efficiency, he says.

Roofscapes' research focuses on these components, as well as taking into account other important factors like runoff management, asset production, habitat creation, and water and energy conservation through minimum wastage and maximum utilization. Miller highlights that, contrary to popular belief, transmissivity of the drainage layer is not something that can be ignored , but instead is the single most important factor that needs to be taken into account for green roof construction.