Academics, Features

When Curiosity Becomes Research

When Curiosity Becomes Research

Five undergraduates find themselves in honors projects capping their Duke experience

Undergraduate research is one of the signature elements of the student experience at Duke. More than half of the students graduate with either capstone independent study or honors projects of distinction. These provide students with opportunities to develop their research skills, take deep dives into intellectual questions and work closely with faculty outside of the classroom. Below are five examples of honors students and the projects that caught their curiosity.

Kaitlyn Lewars

Distinction in Biology
“The Impact of Age on Ozone Time Course Responses in Rodents”

Biology student Kaitlyn Lewars, pictured in Duke Gardens, is studying the factors that makes people susceptible to ozone and air pollution.
My grandmother died in Jamaica mainly due to medical carelessness. She was misdiagnosed and neglected by the hospital healthcare professionals because she was poor. This is a reality in many poor underrepresented societies. My grandmother’s death set in motion my desire to find solutions for age-related illnesses and other urgent health issues. This has motivated me to pursue a double major in biology and global health at Duke. Through science, I hope to identify and find solutions for healthcare challenges in underrepresented communities.

“Through science, I hope to identify and find solutions for healthcare challenges in underrepresented communities.”

This desire has manifested in my work as an undergraduate researcher in Robert Tighe’s research group where we study the impact of air pollution on individuals. Air pollution is a well-established contributor to global mortality and disease burden, with particularly deleterious effects seen in more susceptible people. A critical factor of susceptibility we considered is one that will impact us all — aging. Over the past 50 years, the average life expectancy has increased by 25 years, making aging a consideration for almost every disease. For this reason, throughout my time in the Tighe Lab, I have focused on studying the differences in ozone response in young and old mouse models.

In my studies, we found interesting differences in the inflammatory response based on the age of the mice. We believe there are many potential reasons for this, including prior work showing that in older individuals immune cells are both less responsive and less effective. This can be due to a known phenomenon called “inflammaging,” where there is low, yet chronic inflammation found within the body.

While excited about my results, I find myself asking more questions, interested in trying to uncover what is happening when we look closer. Do our bodies become less efficient in some immune processes and importantly, is there a way we can make them better?

This research has been influential to my personal growth as a scientist, communicator, and person. I have presented this work several times over the last three years to people from all walks of life and each time I become more excited not only about the future direction of this research, but for my future as a scientist. In the fall I start my PhD in immunology here at Duke and I hope I can continue to research and ask questions about how science can benefit our health. I hope one day I can be a small part in someone else’s story in science as so many people have been part of mine.

Emi Hegarty

Distinction in Theater Studies:
“Biology, Movement, and Theater”

Emi Hegarty used her training in biology and theater studies to better understand the title character in the play Eurydice.
In fall of 2022, I took Mechanisms of Animal Behavior with Professor Steve Nowicki in the pursuit of my biology major. A large component of what we discussed in this course was how each organism has a unique worldview you need to account for when conducting experiments. Biologist Jakob von Uexküll coined this concept Umwelt. To give a popular example of Umwelt, take a tick: it is honed into three primary biosemiotic markers – the odor secreted in mammal follicles, the specific temperature of mammal blood, and the texture of hair – which may seem bleak to humans, but these senses comprise its Umwelt and allows it to answer important questions about its world and find food.

Around this same time, I was beginning to consider pursuing distinction in my theater studies major: a lot of departmental acting distinction projects focus on personal process, but personal process wasn’t quite what makes me distinct as a Duke student or actor. I began thinking about how concepts from my biology studies could be tied to my theatrical world: From this, “Biology, Movement, and Theater” was born: I was to apply Umwelt to Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice, studying the script along with the mythological history to understand Eurydice’s self-centered world.

In spring 2023, I discovered the key in transitioning the very internal concept of Umwelt to something that can be perceived by audiences: embodied movement and memory. I figured this out in Professor Johann Montozzi-Wood’s course The Moving and Sounding Body. It brought me out of my head – a very comfortable place for most Duke students – and into my body. Embodiment work allowed me to communicate Eurydice’s Umwelt to audiences with a tilt of my head or the breath patterns in response to environmental stimuli. The biggest outcome of my project is a new approach to character work, built on an understanding of the biological concept of Umwelt, that allows me to be more flexible and responsive onstage.

“Throughout my time here, I have had opportunities to grow into myself both in my STEM interests and theatrical pursuits.”

My distinction work represents all Duke has allowed me to become. Throughout my time here, I have had opportunities to grow into myself both in my STEM interests and theatrical pursuits. The theater studies department has encouraged me both onstage and academically, and tailored my education to meet my interests and needs. This project is the embodiment of the liberal arts education promised by Duke: a combination of biology and theater studies shaped by my interests and supported by staff in both departments.

Connor Gregg

Distinction in Mechanical Engineering:
“Building an Improved Engine Dynometer”

Engineering student Connor Gregg in the Duke Motorsports Club garage.
When I first got to Duke, everything was virtual because of COVID, including the career fair. I've been a fan of NASCAR for my whole life, so when I saw Motorsports club at the virtual fair, I thought that sounded fun. I’ve been part of the club ever since.

My father had taught me how to weld when I was young, and they didn’t have a good welder in the club then, so that’s where I started. Because of that job, I got to spend a lot of time in the garage, even though we were limited to five people in the space. That’s how I started learning about all the different car systems. I fell in love with the engine so I was the powertrain head for two years and now this year I'm the president.

“Because of that job, I got to spend a lot of time in the garage, even though we were limited to five people in the space. That’s how I started learning about all the different car systems.”

We've always struggled with tuning the engine because we don't have a good way to test it under controlled conditions. The best we've done in years past is taking the car out to the parking lot. Having a better dynometer has allowed us to really dial and get good data. Ultimately what we're looking for with this is trying to maximize our torque and power without harming our fuel economy too much.

This project has been a great way to incorporate a lot of the things I've learned in the class on something that goes above and beyond what the team would usually do. It’s been a great experience from an academic standpoint while also helping the team in competition.

Working on this has been a passion project of mine for about the last two years and definitely one of my favorite things I’ve done at Duke. I'm sure I'll look back in 10 years and realize I had no clue I was doing at first, but I learned so much about engines and design. There were even things I wouldn't thought of, such as how to build the frame for the dynometer in a way that all the forces react right or that things aren’t moving too much, or the electronics involved in the engine.

So this project has really helped me synthesize material that I've learned in a lot of different classes into something that's really cool and a lot of fun.

Jessica Sue-Kam-Ling-Lewis

Distinction in Cultural Anthropology:
“Joy in Full Swing: An Ethnographic Exploration of the Past, Present and Future of the Lindy Hop”

Jessica Sue-Kam-Ling-Lewis found a supportive community and a great research project in Duke Swing Dance.
I began college in 2020, the COVID year, and dance activities were off my radar. However, one of the first events of my sophomore year was the Duke Dance FallCase which introduces students to the school's dance teams. Duke Swing was one of the last groups, and I was attracted to the fact that it looked like genuine excitement on stage. I've gone back and forth about whether I fell in love with the people in the club first or the dance first, but I think it was a little bit simultaneous.

“I've gone back and forth about whether I fell in love with the people in the club first or the dance first, but I think it was a little bit simultaneous.”

The team quickly became a central part of my belonging and community at Duke. As I progressed with Duke Swing, I realized that there was an interesting relationship to gender within the partner dance. Additionally, there was tension between Duke Swing as a performance team and the Lindy hop as a social dance. A Duke Swing alumni introduced me to the history of swing, and I was particularly struck by the dance's African American origins that didn't align with the dance scenes I was seeing or a part of.

All of these things came together in my thesis, exploring how swing dancing — specifically the Lindy Hop — can operate as a community-building mechanism, understanding the dance's Black roots, the gendered understanding of the lead-follow relationship, and the Duke Swing dancer's transition from performance to social dancing.

I did most of my research over the summer in Boston and in my hometown of Charlotte. It was cool that in both of those places all I had to do was join a Facebook group or attend swing events, and I could connect with dancers in the area. As I leave college, I appreciate knowing that wherever I go, I'll be able to share and engage with my love of the Lindy Hop.

Before Duke Swing, I was struggling to find community at Duke. I found my people through swing dance, and this project allowed me to honor and acknowledge the love and joy that them and the style have brought me on and off the dance floor. Additionally, it brought together the methodologies of Cultural Anthropology and my interests to create an applied anthropological project that shares the past, present, and future directions of and for the Lindy Hop.

Rujia Xie

Highest Distinction in Public Policy:
“Mapping the Palate Palette: Measuring the Community and Consumer Environments of Food Stores in Durham, NC, with Culturally Appropriate Tools”

Food policy scholar Rujia Xie, clothed in her dress and blankets in the middle of the Durham Food Co-op, emphasized the value of small, local food networks in her research
As someone who just moved to the US four years ago, I visit my local ethnic stores every week. These establishments aren’t merely places where I buy groceries; they also carry deep emotional, social, and cultural importance for me. Consequently, I became especially passionate about the study of food, particularly how people interact with their food environments on a daily basis and how food policies shape people’s purchasing and consumption behaviors.

“These establishments aren’t merely places where I buy groceries; they also carry deep emotional, social, and cultural importance for me. Consequently, I became especially passionate about the study of food.”

Driven by such interests, I identified a gap in nationally used food environment measures. Drawing from my own lived experience, ethnic stores serve as vital hubs within minority communities. However, conventional food environment measures often lack culturally sensitive metrics, which can bias the assessment of ethnic stores’ nutritional environment and significance. Therefore, I centered my thesis on creating culturally sensitive tools to better understand the food landscapes in Durham ensuring a more inclusive mapping of food environments.

In my thesis, I leveraged Google Maps data to paint a fuller picture of how different types of food stores are distributed geographically. Then, to see how the healthy food availability differs across stores, I created the first multi-ethnic food store survey and administered it in 47 diverse stores in Durham. My results highlighted that the conventional measures fail to comprehensively depict the food landscapes in racially and ethnically diverse neighborhoods. This omission particularly overlooks the significance of ethnic stores, which can effectively offer access to healthy, affordable, and quality food. By studying the multi-faceted urban foodscape, my thesis challenged the prevailing binary narrative that equates the absence of supermarkets with a “food desert.” Instead, it advocated for a paradigm shift towards asset-based policies that recognize, affirm, and enhance the vital role of existing networks of local groceries in providing food access within the community.

This thesis is one of the highlights of my Duke experience, as it offers me an opportunity to make scholarly contributions to a field I am deeply passionate about. I’ve learned so much professionally and personally from my mentors from the Duke Global Health Institute and Sanford School of Public Policy throughout the process. The rigorous Honors Seminars have not only prepared me for my forthcoming pursuit of a Ph.D. in Community Nutrition but have also significantly honed my skills across the entire research journey, from study design and data collection to analysis and manuscript preparation. As an aspiring researcher, completing my thesis and presenting it to people who may or may not be familiar with the field are the proudest moments of my undergrad!

Produced by Bill Snead and
University Marketing & Communications