Examples from Bass Connections’ Five Themes

Brain & Society

Investigating Nutrition’s Effects on the Brain

Jessica Bolton (Ph.D. in Psychology and Neuroscience ’15) got her first taste of neuroscience research in college. She fell in love with it and received a grant to work in Staci Bilbo’s lab at Duke one summer.

“I loved my experience at Duke so much that I came back for graduate school,” Jessica says. “I am interested in how the early-life environment shapes brain development, and specifically how aberrations of this environment can result in increased risk of developing disorders such as depression or anxiety, or even autism and schizophrenia.”

She joined the Bass Connections project team Maternal Nutrition and the Developing Brain. “Our team was based on translational research—studying the phenomenon in both a human population and in our animal model. My participation was an integral part of my dissertation work.”

Jessica won the Dean’s Award for Excellence in Mentoring, for which she credits the experience she gained in mentoring the undergraduate members of the Bass Connections team. She has two first-author publications in the works, based on her involvement.

After receiving her Ph.D., Jessica began a postdoctoral fellowship in translational research at the University of California-Irvine, focusing on the effects of early-life stress on the developing brain.

Information, Society & Culture

Bringing Autism Research to Families

Duke professors Guillermo Sapiro and Helen Egger led a team of undergraduate and graduate students in a Bass Connections project to learn more about autism in young children.

The students contributed to an important collaboration among researchers at Duke University and Duke Medical Center that was launched in October 2015 as an Apple ResearchKit app called Autism & Beyond.

The free app invites parents and young children to take part in a study. First, the child watches four short videos while the iPhone camera records the child’s reactions. Next, the parent is asked to complete short surveys. Finally, the parent can upload the whole recording or just the face features. The app is intended not to diagnose but to test the reliability of smartphone questionnaires and video analysis of facial expressions as a possible screening tool for autism and other developmental disorders.

“We’re hoping this app will increase access to mental health and autism screening in different cultures around the world,” says Egger. The team has been working with colleagues in China to roll out a Mandarin version.

Global Health

Increasing Access to a Drug for Saving Babies’ Lives

A drop of chlorhexidine on a baby’s newly-cut umbilical cord is a WHO-recommended practice to prevent life-threatening infections. Some countries that don’t yet have this practice in place, such as Bangladesh, would like to get started. But although chlorhexidine is affordable and effective, there are significant gaps in manufacturing and distribution that are barriers to its widespread use.

A Bass Connections project led by Jeffrey Moe and Nimmi Ramanujam conducted a global value chain analysis of chlorhexidine for umbilical cord care in Bangladesh. “The way we approached the problem is looking for medium- to long-term solutions to develop a sustainable supply at the lowest cost with the highest quality over many years,” says Moe. “We looked at everything from sourcing active pharmaceutical ingredients to health disparities which create barriers for mothers.”

Undergraduate and graduate students brought perspectives from a variety of disciplines, including nursing, business, biomedical engineering and women’s studies. “The most rewarding aspect was the collaborative working environment we developed and the interactions we had with in-country stakeholders,” says student team member Courtney Caiola. “I learned an immeasurable amount from both my Duke and Bangladeshi colleagues and was offered a much broader lens through which to view both the problem and potential solutions.”

The team is contributing to two papers and looks forward to sharing their lessons learned to help similar efforts to introduce chlorhexidine in Asia and Africa.

Education & Human Development

Helping Children to Thrive

Ray Li (Political Science, Public Policy and Education ’15) has been interested in education for as long as he can remember. “My parents immigrated to the United States and raised me with the thought that education was the most important thing in one’s life. I quickly found out that the educational system in the United States was so complex it could only be understood if studied through many different lenses.”

Ray’s Bass Connections team, Project Bright IDEA: Finding Talent and Giftedness in Children of Diverse Backgrounds, investigated curriculum options that would better serve students from disadvantaged backgrounds in North Carolina. Thirty schools piloted the team’s chosen curriculum. Ray interviewed teachers, principals and superintendents to hone in on best practices, and observed classes to help him evaluate and improve the model.

“I gained valuable experience in IRB approval, qualitative interviewing and research project design, while making great friendships with students and professors,” he says. “My Bass Connections experience inspired me to continue studying education policy from all angles. I pursued a DukeImmerse research project that used the same interdisciplinary methods to examine education policy and social justice in South Africa and the American South. I spent my summer in the US Senate doing education policy work for the HELP Committee, incorporating some of the knowledge I’ve learned.”

Ray is now pursuing a joint law and master’s degree in education policy at Stanford University.

Energy

Taking a Hands-on Approach to Energy Innovations

Bacteria that eat methane and turn themselves into cattle feed. A solar-powered pressure cooker that sterilizes medical equipment in rural clinics. A fleet of FedEx trucks powered by natural gas that would have been burned off through flare stacks and wasted.

Duke students working with Emily Klein and Josiah Knight are coming up with innovative approaches to pressing energy challenges, and gaining the skills and experience to play leadership roles in a rapidly evolving energy future.

Klein and Knight lead a Bass Connections project to identify, design and prototype new energy technologies, systems or approaches. “It’s thrilling to watch the students go through the period of brainstorming—thinking broadly about things they want to work on, areas that need attention—and come up with new ideas that can address these problems,” says Klein.

Small groups address the trade-offs among design choices, environmental impact and economic viability. The goal is to produce a useful prototype and an evaluation of its benefits and viability.

“They come up with awesome things,” Klein says. “Working in teams is such a rich way to learn from each other. I find that I want more and more of that small group experience and exploration in my research and teaching.”