Friday, April 17, 2009

Lemur Center on TV!

Duke Primate technician Samantha Trull (pictured here with a juvenile Aye-Aye) is among the Duke Lemur Center staff featured in a Nature documentary this Sunday on PBS. The show is called "The Loneliest Animals" and it asks: what if you were the last of your species on Earth?

A poignant question which certainly applies to our prosimian lodgers at the DLC.

Look for the show at 8 p.m., Sunday April 19 on your local PBS station. (Local schedules may vary)

Monday, April 13, 2009

Carbon Offsets Explained

Duke is doing what it can to be greener, with LEED building standards, materials recycling and incentives to carpool.

But the bar has been set still higher.

President Brodhead has signed the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, pledging to eliminate or offset Duke’s carbon emissions at some point in the future, maybe 2024, Duke's 100th birthday.

A number of efforts are already underway to reduce Duke’s carbon footprint, such as the re-opening of a natural gas power plant to replace the campus’ coal plant. However, the university probably cannot achieve neutrality with reductions and energy efficiency alone.

Carbon offsets will likely be needed to fill the gap, according to Tavey Capps, Duke’s director of sustainability.

The trouble is, nobody is sure yet how the offset market will work.

A weekend conference at Duke, hosted by the Environmental Markets Student Group, called the Carbon Offsets Conference, explored those issues. The Nicholas School of the Environment, the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, and Sustainable Duke sponsored the event, which was held in French Family Science Center.

Four panels addressed the different types of carbon offsets currently available: renewable energy certificates (RECs), forestry, energy efficiency certificates (EEC), and methane capture.

If the target date becomes 2024, offsets for that year are estimated to cost $2.4 million. It might cost $38 million to continue those offsets until 2050.

Tim Profeta, director of the Nicholas Institute, noted that the voluntary carbon market in the U.S. is “thriving.” Despite a lack of federal leadership, different states and regions are taking strides to create their own cap-and-trade programs.

“We’re going to have great expansion in carbon markets ... the big players [U.S. and China] aren’t in the game yet,” he said.

For its small part, Duke intends to lead, Capps said. “Duke is a university in a forest,” Capps said. “[Sustainability] is not something that’s new to our campus-- it’s in our guiding documents.”

“We recognize that we have a big environmental impact," Capps said. “We’re thinking about offsets as the last piece of the equation,” Capps said. “It involves much more than just writing a check.”

Should Duke be an early adopter, or act later and save money? The university has an opportunity to play a very large role, Capps said. While there is a lot of supply and a lot of demand for offsets, there’s “something missing in the middle,” namely a trusted aggregator. “Duke could fill this role, and take advantage of this opportunity.”

In all aspects, “we’re trying to balance competing priorities and find the best mix for our campus,” Capps said. But more than that, "we have the privilege and responsibility of educating future leaders,” she added.

Modeling a B Cell Flash Mob

Thomas Kepler, Director of Duke's Laboratory of Computational Immunology, sure doesn't sound like a physicist, but he is, or rather was. At Friday's Visualization Friday Forum, Kepler shared his group's latest work on modeling immune system behavior in a session called "Vaccines (the Movie)."

It's a collaboration within the Human Vaccine Institute that pulls together statistics and math, computer science, and visualization technology with colleagues from Duke, UC Irvine, Emory and the National Institutes for Allergy and Infectious Disease, a part of the NIH.

The immune system might be thought of as an organ, with several types of specialized cells working together -- but it moves. "That's the coolest thing!" Kepler says. Immune cells flow through the body, and aggregate at the scene of trouble as needed, forming "a semi-solid organ."

After walking the group through some immune system 101 (the macrophage's connected to the dendrite; the dendrite's connected to the T cell; the T cell's connected to the B cell…), Kepler narrowed his focus to the flash mob of B cells that gather in the lymph node to educate each other about an invader. The goal is to understand how B cells and T cells get organized into these tight aggregations inside the lymph, called germinal centers, and figure out ways vaccines might optimize their performance.

(SEE MOVIE: from NIAID, showing B Cells (red) moving throughout a lattice of collagen fibers within the lymph tissue.)

Kepler's group is combining the latest cellular imagery with mathematical models of lymph tissue to better understand how these cells become organized to then go out to the site of infection and wage a carefully calibrated battle against the invaders.

The ultimate goal is to develop swift and effective vaccines with minimal side effects.

Science that breaks the pieces down and figures them out individually has brought this far, Kepler says, but now it's time for the modelers and biostatisticians to try to put the pieces back together and figure how they work in a dynamic system. "So far, we still have a long way to go."