‘I had a grand old time looking at all these bones’ | Duke Kunshan University

‘I had a grand old time looking at all these bones’

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Erin Greig, Class of 2023

Editor's note: Student Voice offers an insight into what our students are doing on and off campus, from research projects to entrepreneurial activities, and a student’s-eye view on activities and issues connected to Duke Kunshan.

Duke Kunshan student Erin Greig ’23 took part in two research projects at Duke University over the summer: one involved analyzing micro CT scans of lemur fossils; the other focused on historical attitudes toward Alzheimer’s disease in the United States. The global health major (biology track) secured both projects through the Muser platform, which allows undergraduates to browse and apply for a wide variety of research and mentorship opportunities at Duke.

What did the Duke Lemur Center project involve?

“The project with lemur bones focused on data collection and analysis, and was led by Gabriel Yapuncich [assistant professor of the practice of medical education]. The Duke Lemur Center had taken micro CT scans of different specimens and species, such as lemurs and bush babies, and what I had to do was use those scans with software to create a 3D image, which could potentially be 3D printed. We’d put these images into statistical software in the hope of creating a program that can predict the original body mass of the fossil species. There are ways now to use different bone measurements to predict body mass, but it’s cumbersome. If we can make a model to do this based on our calculations, we could potentially automate the process. It’s important to be able to predict the body mass because it helps us know the original diet and locomotion in life history of the species, which you can't get just from observing a fossil.”

“I had a grand old time looking at all these bones. When I started, it was relatively hard for me to look at flat scans and be able to identify the bones. But I’d get so excited when I picked the right one. It was really fun, and I’m hoping to still continue working on the project.”

How about the Alzheimer’s project?

“This was interesting because the project didn’t start out for me how it ended. When I applied, it was for a position more focused on going through the Duke Medical Center’s archives to look for how old age was perceived and thought of at Duke from the 1960s to 1990s. James Chappel [the Gilhuly Family Associate Professor of History], who was leading the research, was interested in questions of race and equity, a sort of humanities and natural science blend, which I thought was cool. He also wanted to focus on North Carolina history and the South. When we had our initial meeting, I told him I was more interested in the natural science part, so he encouraged me to take a kind of cultural look at Alzheimer’s, to see how fear of the condition and of aging in general increased in the ’80s and ’90s.

“I found that even just looking at Alzheimer’s there are still issues of race and equity. It was portrayed mostly as a ‘white man’s problem,’ even though it disproportionately affected women, and different races and ethnicities weren’t really included or studied in any press or advertisements. Only after U.S. president Ronald Reagan announced he had Alzheimer’s did more research start happening.”

Competition among undergraduates for research projects at Duke is fierce. How do you feel you stood out as a candidate?

“For the lemur bones project, I’d taken part in fossil events in the Science Olympiad at high school and have an interest in fossils. I don't know if that helped, but we did talk about it during my interview quite a bit. For the Alzheimer’s research, the professor didn’t explicitly mention anything, but we had a really nice conversation about our personal feelings on aging and how the thought of getting older is absolutely terrifying. After that conversation, he told me he thought I’d be really fun to work with.”

 

Learn more about Duke Kunshan’s interdisciplinary global heath major, with disciplinary tracks in biology and public policy.

Find out more about the Muser research platform at Duke University.