Meet Duke’s newest faculty members in 2019

Meet Duke's newest faculty members

All of Duke's new faculty members in 2019.

This year, Duke University welcomes more than 100 new scholars, many hired to build on strengths in fields critical to addressing complex social, health and economic challenges. 

“We enhance our university community each year with a new cadre of outstanding faculty in a range of fields,” says Duke Provost Sally Kornbluth. “All of these faculty add to our ambitions to transform teaching and discovery, and to contribute to solving the world’s most pressing challenges.” 

On this page, we introduce you to nine of the bright new stars of the faculty, from schools across the university. Throughout the year, we’ll continue to track the progress of these and other new faculty members in Duke Today.
Scroll down to learn more about each new faculty member.
Kate Evans
Clinical Professor of Law
Director, Immigrant Rights Clinic
Duke Law School

Duke Law clinics are renowned for making headlines with stories of true justice all while giving students first-hand opportunities to learn law and put that knowledge into practice. Kate Evans joins the Duke Law faculty as the inaugural director of the Duke Immigrant Rights Clinic, the school’s newest clinical venture. 

Evans, who came from the University of Idaho College of Law, said she will partner closely with the local immigration community and advocacy groups.  

“Advocating for immigrant rights, to me, is about protecting families, protecting the civil rights of everyone living in this country, and fighting for our values as a country.  To be able to help immigrant clients secure what is often the most important issue of their lives— the safety and stability of their families—is incredibly rewarding. In the face of difficult policies and dramatic headlines, I get to work with students to fight for something better. 

Ultimately, I find working alongside immigrant clients and communities to be fundamentally hopeful. There are amazing organizations in Durham and throughout North Carolina working to promote the rights of immigrants. I’m excited to get to know these groups, figure out how we can best join these efforts, and expand their reach. 

Through the Immigrant Rights Clinic, I get to connect incredibly talented students with legal service providers, community groups, and immigrant clients in urgent need of assistance. At the same time, my research into the use of automation to drive immigration detention and on the historical barriers to local immigration policing can benefit from the insights of colleagues deeply engaged in justice reform.”

Neil Gong
Assistant Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Pratt School of Engineering

An expert in digital security technologies, Neil Gong is one of a handful of researchers at the forefront of exploring privacy and security issues and techniques related to machine learning and artificial intelligence. An assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering in the Pratt School, Gong joins Duke’s faculty from Iowa State University. 

“Machine learning is transforming many aspects of our society, like self-driving cars, precision healthcare and cybersecurity. The history of cybersecurity tells us that adversaries always follow and abuse new technologies. We envision that adversaries will target and abuse machine learning systems in the future when they are widely deployed. 

My goal is to make machine learning systems secure and privacy-preserving before they are widely deployed. Cybersecurity is essentially a game between adversaries and defenders. I’m excited about cybersecurity in machine learning because we can rigorously formalize and analyze such games in this field via various techniques such as robust optimization, statistics, applied cryptography, and differential privacy.

Now that machine learning applications are being widely used, the intersection between privacy and security is an emerging area of research. I decided to come to Duke and stay in academia because of the flexibility it provides in answering more fundamental research questions that might take years to pay off commercially.”

Brent Strawn
Professor of Old Testament
Duke Divinity School

The books of the Bible have provided a religious and cultural foundation for people across the world for more than two millennia. Even so, Brent Strawn thinks this ancient text is in trouble. Why? In part, the Divinity School professor says, because religious adherents have failed to seriously confront the wisdom offered in the Bible on many critical contemporary issues. 

Strawn says he is enjoying getting settled in, taking care of a new puppy and eating his way through Durham with his wife, Holly. “I also enjoy exercising — well, only to enable eating so much good food!” 

“I’m a scholar of the Old Testament in its ancient Near Eastern and modern contexts, specializing in legal texts, poetry and ancient material culture. The Bible has played a formative and foundational role in major world religions and among millions of people for thousands of years and it continues to do so — for better and for worse — even in the contemporary political scene. 

Knowing something about this precious religious and cultural artifact: What it is, how to navigate it and how it has been and is still interpreted — and best interpreted — is thus crucial, especially when the stakes are high. And they often are! In my judgment, the biblical texts contain countless resources to assist us with some of the most intractable problems of our time like poverty, racism and human and planetary suffering. 

In addition to having a number of friends on the faculty, I was drawn to the Divinity School’s continued and reinvigorated attention to theology that matters for the church and the world. And the various schools and centers of excellence here, including Duke Law, the Kenan Institute, and the Religion and English departments, provide excellent conversation partners for my interests in the ancient contexts, the ethical implications and the modern receptions of the Bible.”

Zhao Zhang
Assistant Professor of Pharmacology and Cancer Biology

The arrival of Zhao Zhang, an assistant professor of pharmacology and cancer biology, caused quite a buzz at Duke this summer, and not just because everyone calls him ZZ. When Zhang applied for a postdoc at the Carnegie Institution for Science five years ago, they offered him a faculty job instead. He’s a fast-rising star in the study of transposons, the “jumping genes,” that make up half of the human genome.  

The ZZ lab in the Levine Science Research Center is still being remodeled, but the fruit flies have arrived – box after carefully labeled box of flies from Baltimore, subsisting in tubes filled with their gloppy food. “Flies are small, simple, cheap and most importantly, fast!” Zhang explains during a tour of the unfinished space.

“The transposon is like a virus, an endogenous virus.” They jump around in the genome making changes and enabling innovation and evolution — but also cancer.

At Duke, he’ll be working with a molecule called Piwi-interacting RNA, or just piRNA, that has a special ability to jam transposons. He wants to use it as a tool in the guts of these fruit flies in part because the flies seem to be good at suppressing jumping genes in their upper gut, Zhang says. “They may be ideal to study colon cancer.”

“If transposons are active, are they beneficial? And if they aren’t active, how are they being controlled?“ he asks. “We don’t have a good answer yet, but we do have the right tools to address these questions now.

”His new neighbor, associate professor Don Fox, is also working on the colon cells of fruit flies. “That’s one part of why I came to Duke,” Zhang says. The other is environment.

“Duke is unique at two things. One, the most important, is this collaborative environment. It’s relaxed and productive, but not super-competitive. The other is that this area provides a really nice quality of life for my family. With two little ones, I’d like to have a yard.”

Lisa Wu Wills
Clare Boothe Luce Assistant Professor of Computer
Science and Electrical and Computer Engineering 

After spending several years in the private sector, Lisa Wu Wills decided to return to academia so she could focus on projects affecting human health. An expert in tailoring computer architectures to efficiently process large volumes of research data, Wills has a dual appointment in computer science and electrical and computer engineering.

“My research is focused on hardware acceleration. I want to make processing large volumes of data more efficient. One of the things I want to focus on at Duke is the intersection between health care and computer architecture; I think it’s an area that the technology we implement in computer hardware can really help. We can design custom hardware to help researchers do analyses two to three orders of magnitude faster.

Designing custom hardware is difficult. It takes a long time. It’s also cumbersome to program and use. Licensing fees and fabrication are expensive. There are a lot of roadblocks to hardware innovation. So I want to provide a way for both the hardware architect and the users to develop them faster. One of the things I’m doing is developing a hardware development framework that’s going to do a lot of the cumbersome work — the repeated steps that everybody has to do and then open source the framework — so other researchers can focus on what’s interesting to them.

Duke has an excellent medical school. There is a lot of vibrant health care research here. So that draws me. Also there are excellent faculty in computer architecture. I was looking for mentorship. I know I can succeed anywhere, but it just depends on how difficult it will be to climb the mountain without help.

I’m obsessed with French bulldogs. I haven’t had the lifestyle or the space to have one, so for now I just look at them and pet other peoples. I fell in love with Paris in college. I have really good friends there. I still go visit once a year.”  

Nathan Boucher
Assistant Research Professor, Sanford School of Public Policy

With health care policy remaining an urgent national issue for years to come, Nathan Boucher brings a valuable collection of skills to the Sanford School. A new assistant research professor, Boucher has decades of experience both in clinical settings with patients, including at the Durham VA Hospital, and in researching health policy. 

Away from Duke, Boucher makes the most of the local area with his family. “My perfect days off involve canoeing, attempting mandolin playing, petting my slobbery Great Dane and hanging with my energetic family — not necessarily in that order.”  

“After spending many years in health care delivery for the critically ill, often partly responsible for raising health care costs for patients who would see little benefit from heroic and costly efforts, I realized that I should learn more about how care can make more sense in the context of advanced stage illness. How can it align more with patients’ wishes, how can it be delivered in a way that is more sustainable for an often hobbled and cobbled together health care delivery landscape, and how can families be supported during this complex process?  

My main research efforts center around lifting the patient and caregiver voice regarding serious illness care. In my teaching, I focus on the challenges faced by patients and families as they encounter serious illness and face complex, disjointed systems of care. 

My experience since my arrival in the Duke University and VA Health System research environment in 2015 has been one filled to the brim with multidisciplinary collaboration, intense caring about how health care is delivered and health care organizations operate, and great value placed on the experience of learners. I have now achieved the 80/20 balance I was seeking for some time – 80 percent research, 20 percent teaching.  

Researchers in this community are driven to achieve, yet there is a reasonable expectation that one strives to balance work with family commitments. While I am not always successful in doing this myself, it is important to me.”

Cecilia Marquez
Assistant Professor of History

Cecilia Marquez’ study of Latino/a history in the U.S. South is rooted in her own personal story. Growing up Latino in Arlington, Va., she became interested in the South’s changing demographics and in the ways a person’s experience of race can vary from one part of the United States to another.

When she isn’t delving into history, Marquez can be found power lifting or indulging in pop culture, including “embarrassing reality TV,” which she views both as an escape and as a “text for our times.”

“The South is really fertile ground to study Latino history. People interested in the topic have often looked to the coasts or to big famous sites of migration such as New York, California and Texas. What’s exciting about looking at these newer sites of migration is that there is a lot of untold history still.

For instance, one of my chapters is about South of the Border, the rest stop on I-95. It has been here since 1949 and has a weird and wild history, including a brief ‘Confederate Land’ that was there in 1961. The mascot Pedro was in Confederate uniform advertising his Confederate fried chicken and ‘Pedro’s plantation.’ So, it was a really interesting mix of fantasies about Mexicans and Mexican Americans and ‘lost cause South’ imagery.

The Duke history department is obviously a dynamic and exciting place, which has historically been a giant in the field of the history of race and ethnicity. UNC, N.C. State and N.C. Central are also strong in this field. The Triangle is a dynamic research environment that really bats outside its league in terms of the size of the city for the number of amazing intellectuals we have here.

Deonte Harris
Assistant Professor of the Practice
International Comparative Studies Program

Music has weaved a linear path through Deonte Harris’ life. He was surrounded by soul, gospel, R&B and hip-hop music as a kid growing up in Chicago. Harris took up the trumpet when he was 8, and played for 20 years. He eventually became a trained composer, moving from performing other people’s music to writing his own.  

“I’m currently working on a book manuscript exploring international Caribbean migration in the 20th century in addition to the rise of Caribbean-style carnivals that take place overseas. One I’m particularly interested in is an annual carnival in the UK — the Notting Hill Carnival — that has become a mainstream British event, and even a multicultural affair. But its practice and production are still very much rooted in the traditions of the Caribbean and the postwar black British struggle against marginalization.  

When we talk about black music, I want to understand what the ‘black’ is in black music. That word means something. Blackness is one of these things that is elusive. It’s not only a racial category but a cultural and political identity. There’s a multiplicity in how we understand blackness instead of thinking of it as a monolithic idea. Blackness does look different in the US than in the Caribbean or in Africa. So how do these disparate communities link together? I think music can help us understand those connections.

My work sits at the intersection of black studies, ethnomusicology, diaspora studies and the anthropological study of value. I’m interested in people, what people do, and how their actions are meaningful. We look at performance and music, and it’s about how meaning is made and disseminated through it.

Duke has an exceptional department for the study of Africa and the African diaspora, as well as a great center for Latin and Caribbean studies. There’s a space here to reach a larger audience beyond the institution. There are several leading scholars here that do amazing work on black music studies.

Matthew Becker
Professor of Chemistry and Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science

Chemistry professor Matt Becker has been designing 3-D printed polymers (plastics that is) that are compatible with the inner environment of a living human, can send signals to surrounding tissues to encourage the growth of bone or cartilage, and then harmlessly get out of the way when the healing is finished. That turns out to be much easier said than done, but Becker’s hope is that eventually you might receive a bespoke polymer scaffold that’s tailored for your genes and your immune system. 

Becker talked to nearly a dozen other schools looking for a place that would bring his science to the next level. “We wanted what was best for my family, my science and my team,” he said. “And I still wanted to teach undergraduates.”

Duke and North Carolina won out. “Duke is small, but nimble, with a very powerful medical school,” said Becker, a Nebraska native. An autographed football helmet in his office commemorates his undergraduate career as a tight end and kick returner at Northwest Missouri State.

“I really need in-house, daily interaction with people who are going to help this move forward.” That would be his Duke colleagues in chemistry, orthopedic surgery and mechanical engineering and materials science, all of whom have added him to their faculty.

“This is the right ecosystem for my team over the next 25 years,” Becker said during a tour of a huge lab being remodeled for him in the lower level of the Levine Science Research Center. “So far, I’m thrilled that there’s no ceiling on what we might be able to do here.”

Written, photographed and produced by University Communications
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