Alumni newsmakers

March 14, 2016

Living her passion pays off

When Geeta Patel ’98 travelled to India on a family vacation six years ago, she took along a camera she had just purchased.

Fresh from producing a PBS documentary about the civil war between India and Pakistan over the Kashmir region, she had decided she needed to get better at shooting if she was going to make filmmaking her life’s work.

“I took it on the plane, had the instruction manual out, tinkering with it,” Patel says.

What began as practice turned into Meet the Patels—a documentary released last year that attempts to answer the question, “Whom do you decide to love?”

“The beginning frames, it’s the worst footage ever because it’s not supposed to be a movie,” Patel says. “It was supposed to be me learning how to use a camera.”

As the vacation commences, brother Ravi has just broken up with his non-Indian girlfriend whom his parents did not know about. In fact, both Ravi and Geeta are worried about meeting their parents’ cultural expectations for marriage. Parents Vasant and Champa offer to find Ravi an Indian bride during their vacation, which happens to be during the October to December wedding season. Ravi attends matrimonial conventions and goes on dates his parents have set up—debriefing on-camera with Geeta along the way, with laugh-out-loud results.

“The story of this film changed our lives,” Patel says. “After the film, Ravi and I were able to tell our parents when we were dating someone, no matter what background they were. We realized whenever we had a problem, we needed to actually step toward it, rather then step away from it. We learned when there is hate, the answer is to love, love harder than you’ve ever loved before. Or when there is fear, love your fear to death.”

Choosing to live her passion as a storyteller was difficult. As a comparative-area studies major at Duke and later as an M.B.A. candidate, Patel says she felt like a “closeted artist” who wanted to please her family.

“My family gave up a lot to give me this education. I felt a great deal of responsibility,” Patel says.

The turning point was when she realized she couldn’t be happy unless she pursued an arts career. Patel quit her M.B.A. program and moved to Los Angeles to work as a writer’s assistant. She has been an associate screenwriter involved in production rewrites of movies like The Fast and the Furious and Blue Crush.

Most heartwarming in the journey to film, Patel says, is that despite anxiety over pleasing her parents and over whether she could make it in the industry, taking the risk paid back rewards. Her parents embraced her decision to abandon finance.

Meet the Patels mirrors a similar story about risk-taking and finding what or who you love, she says.

“This is a story that is not just mine,” Patel says. “It’s others’.”

Now she's tinkering with robots

Growing up, Rosanna Myers ’09 was a Lego enthusiast and considered herself a “tinkerer.” So shifting from building things to creating mobile applications was easy, and it prepared her for a more challenging transition to robotics. Now, Myers is the cofounder (along with Dan Corkum, who also attended Duke) and CEO of San Francisco-based startup Carbon Robotics. The company produces the Kick Ass Trainable Intelligent Arm (KATIA), “a robotic arm with the capabilities of an industrial robot, but the price of a laptop.”

Of course, KATIA isn’t her first project. She and Corkum led the team that won $5,000 in the Duke Start-Up Challenge in 2007 for developing an environmentally friendly technology that cools water and other fluids 120 times more efficiently than other methods. After graduating with a political science major, Myers designed and coded Acceleread, an educational app to help people read quickly and effectively. It became a best seller on iTunes.

So, what can one do with a robotic arm? A lot, Myers hopes. Once you physically guide KATIA through a task, she can replay it flawlessly. She can be controlled through an iPhone and accepts attachments like pan-tilt heads for filmmaking or sensors for 3D scanning. The goal, the former Alice M. Baldwin Scholar says, is to leave room for what the user can imagine. That’s why KATIA is also hackable.

“We’re transforming [robots] into beautiful, intuitive, and intelligent devices that are designed purposefully for people,” Myers says. “We’re doing for robotics what the PC did for computers.”

His photography has no limits

Photography was a hobby for Mikael Owunna B.S.E. ’12. But when he was on a Fulbright in Taiwan, it became something more. Owunna taught art in an aboriginal school in Nan’ao and helped launch a photography project for elementary-school students to tell their own stories. It eventually earned a full-floor exhibit in the National Taiwan Museum.

The project put him on a path to use his work to elevate marginalized communities. He started with his own. As a Nigerian-Swedish-American in the LGBTQ community, Owunna struggled. His conservative Igbo family twice tried exorcism to “cure” his sexuality, which they deemed un-African. From those experiences came “Limit(less),” an ongoing project that, through photography and storytelling, explores how first- and second-generation LGBTQ African immigrants in the diaspora navigate their identities and overcome the supposed tension in those identities through style and fashion.

Working on the project, Owunna says, has helped him feel less alone. “Before the project, I knew one person like me in the LGBTQ African community,” he says. “Now I can’t even count.”

Other newsmakers

The CEO of International Speedway Corporation, Lesa France Kennedy ’83 topped Forbes’ list of “The 25 Most Powerful Women In Sports.”

L. Scott Levin ’77 led the world’s first pediatric bilateral hand transplant on an eight-year-old boy at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Economist Enrique Peñalosa ’77 is mayor of Bogota, Colombia—again. The urbanization expert was also mayor from 1998 to 2001. He’s credited with building the city’s mass-transit system.

Faith Begay M.P.P. ’15, of the Lower Brule Sioux reservation, is the first Native-American graduate of the Sanford School of Public Policy. She is Kul Wicasa Lakota, Sicangu Lakota, and Diné.

The National Geographic Channel aired “Brain Surgery Live with Mental Floss,” the magazine founded by Will Pearson ’01 and Mangesh Hattikudur ’01. The show featured an operation used on patients with Parkinson’s disease.

Mandisa Muriel Maya J.D. ’90 is the first female deputy president of the Supreme Court of Appeal in South Africa.

Chris Kempczinski ’91 is the new strategy chief at McDonald’s Corporation.

Lisa Borders ’79 has been appointed president of the WNBA. Borders, who is also a Duke trustee, was most recently chair of The Coca-Cola Foundation and vice president, global community affairs, at The Coca-Cola Company.

Fast Company Digital featured a story about Helix Sleep, a company cofounded by Kristian von Rickenbach ’08 that uses data and analysis to mold mattresses to your body.

British singer Leona Lewis is wearing a custom graffiti bar necklace designed by Katherine Kane M.B.A. ’12 in some of the images from her latest album, I AM.

Norbert Schürer Ph.D. ’01, a professor at California State University, Long Beach, explored literary critical approaches to J.R.R. Tolkien for the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Among those listed on Essence magazine’s “29 Powerful Black Women Calling the Shots in the Obama Administration” were Kristina Broadie ’10, deputy associate director of the White House social office, and Crystal Brown ’02, senior policy adviser to the general counsel at the Office of Management and Budget.

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