Alumni newsmakers

March 6, 2017

On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall began to fall in Germany, and with it communism in Eastern Europe. PENKA KOUNEVA Ph.D. ’97 was an aspiring composer living in Bulgaria, and her parents told her it was time to leave.

“There was chaos. Nobody expected communism to collapse,” Kouneva, now a Hollywood video-game composer, says of that time. “My parents told me, ‘You have to look for an opportunity to study composition in the United States.’ ”

And she did. Kouneva scrambled to finish her application to Duke to pursue music composition and received the prestigious Mary Duke Biddle Fellowship in composition. At Duke, she studied with composers Stephen Jaffe and Scott Lindroth, and she became the university’s first Ph.D. in music composition. “That was the most life-changing moment in my life, ever,” Kouneva says.

But getting to Duke certainly wasn’t as easy as it sounds. There were obstacles along the path, much like the barbs and bunkers of video games, that Kouneva overcame with a mix of determination, grit, and even a little of something that seems like fate.

Kouneva didn’t know anything about Duke until a chance encounter with an ad placed in the International League of Women Composers’ newsletter in 1989. But even before then, she faced the challenges of living as a young girl who dreamt of composing in a society that didn’t envision that career for her. She couldn’t get into composition classes open to her male classmates, she says, even though she was composing music for children’s theater as early as age twelve.

Pursuing her dream, however, was something fully supported by her parents. Kouneva’s mother, a professional musician and professor of music theory, was her family’s fourth generation of college-educated women, while her father was a scientist.

“The composing process gave me a sense of: This is something I can do, this is something that makes me who I am—and I just kept doing it,” Kouneva says.

Fast-forward to today, and Kouneva is still doing it. For the past seventeen years, she’s worked as a composer for films, television, and video games. Her work includes composing and orchestrating the music for The Transformers, The Matrix, and The Pirates of the Caribbean films and video-game series, the documentary-style television show Forensic Files, and a host of video games, including Prince of Persia and World of Warcraft.

She moved to Los Angeles shortly after earning her degree, without a job and without knowing anyone. But it wasn’t long before Duke’s network intervened.

She met Patrick Williams ’61, a well-known composer who has scored music for nearly 200 TV films, feature films, and television series, including The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and who was the musical director for Frank Sinatra’s final studio recordings. Williams became her mentor and introduced her to fellow composers, including Bruce Fowler, the orchestrator for Hans Zimmer; and Steve Jablonsky, the lead composer for the Transformers film series produced by another Duke alumnus, Mark Vahradian ’89.

Kouneva says she’s deeply grateful for all Duke has done for her in helping her to pursue her composing dreams. As a mark of that gratitude, she gave the music department $10,000 in 2015 to make a way for orchestral works by graduate students to be performed and recorded by the North Carolina Symphony Orchestra, which the composer says will help students have a competitive edge in the field.

Making a way for others to pursue a career in composing is as much a passion for Kouneva as is pursuing her own goals. Recognizing that she works in a field in which women are underrepresented, she teaches classes for and mentors young female composers.

In 2015, Kouneva composed a cinematic orchestral album called The Woman Astronaut, inspired by the fact that “there are more women astronauts than women composers for film.” It follows the path of a female astronaut from Earth, from taking flight to entering space, and closes with a song called “Solar Flare.” A solar flare occurs when magnetic energy in the solar atmosphere builds up and explodes—the equivalent of millions of hydrogen bombs exploding all at once.

Booming and triumphant before lingering in haunting silence, the song draws the listener into the explosion of determination and tenacity Kouneva always has been. “I was willing to go through whatever I had to in the name of being true to my passion,” she says.—Christina Holder

After graduating from Duke, SOLEIO CUERVO ’03 found himself in Silicon Valley, where he was developing a social-commenting tool nicknamed the “awesome button” by employees at a then little-known social-networking site.

That tool eventually became what is known as Facebook’s “Like” button, one of several tools, including Facebook Video, Messenger, and Groups that Cuervo is credited with developing and launching during his six years at the company.

Though he’s often pegged solely as the “Like” button designer, the entrepreneur and software developer sees the tool and the cultural phenomenon it ushered as one stop in a career built upon the ability to see “the possibility in a product,” he says. The “Like” button, for instance, stayed in “product purgatory” for almost two years, Cuervo says, and launched with a healthy dose of internal skepticism that it would last.

Eight years after its debut, it is the signature gesture of the world’s most active social-networking site (1.79 billion monthly users), has been copied by millions of other websites, and has morphed into an even more precise tool for expressing social feelings via emoticons that display love, anger, surprise, sadness, and laughter.

That ability to envision possibility was a product of part personality and part Duke—where Cuervo studied music composition via Duke’s interdisciplinary, create-your-own-adventure major, Program II, and taught himself Web design and development on the side. In between his studies, Cuervo launched a side business from his dorm that helped Duke organizations launch and maintain an online presence. His work caught the eye of a Facebook recruiter and landed him a job as the company’s second designer as it was just starting up.

Cuervo left Facebook in 2011 and later joined file-collaboration platform Dropbox, first as an investor, and later as head of design, taking the company from a team of three designers to more than forty designers, researchers, and creatives.

Now an entrepreneur and early-stage investor, Cuervo hasn’t lost his passion for the possibility of new invention. He is as disciplined in looking for the next new start-up to invest in, as he has been in his career track. That’s a lesson he hopes to pass to Blue Devils who come after him, he says.

“Cultivate good habits. College is an environment that will command a lot of your attention and allow you to lead an undisciplined life,” he says. “I think people who cultivate discipline in an environment like this are the ones who really thrive later on.”—Christina Holder

Research by KAFUI DZIRASA Ph.D. ’07, M.D. ’09 on using neurobiology to find new treatment methods for mental illness has earned him a TedMed talk, a visit to the White House during the 2016 White House Frontiers Conference, the Presidential Early Career Award, and numerous other awards and acknowledgments.

Yet, neurobiology was not his initial goal when he began his academic career. In fact, before coming to Duke, Dzirasa attended the University of Maryland, where he received the prestigious Meyerhoff Scholarship and earned a degree in chemical engineering.

Two chance meetings led to his interest in using neurobiology methods to treat mental illness. As part of several undergraduate biomedical engineering classes, he participated in a lab tour at Duke where he met Miguel Nicolelis, the Duke neurobiologist well-known for his work on neuronal population coding, brain-machine interfaces, and neuroprosthetics. That work got Dzirasa thinking about the possibilities of using his engineering knowledge in a neuroscience context.

Then, during his first clinical rotation, he spoke with a war veteran who was experiencing the symptoms of schizophrenia. “Nobody could tell me what had changed about his brain; nobody could tell me how the medications worked. All of a sudden the idea of using the same technologies that were being used to create robotic arms and legs, to create prosthetic devices for psychiatric illness became a real driving force for me.”

Dzirasa went back to his mentor Nicolelis and proposed a research project that would answer the question of whether neuroprosthesis could be used to treat mental illness. He has been working on the project ever since.

Dzirasa ultimately hopes his work will lead to a breakthrough in the way we treat mental illness. He’s also set to take a leading role in the newly formed Next Generation Research Committee, a committee sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences that aims to identify policy changes and programs that will aid the U.S. in increasing and supporting the next generation of researchers in the biomedical and behavioral sciences.—Lynn Brown

Other newsmakers

Eric Oberstein ’07 is a producer on Cuba: The Conversation Continues, which won a Latin Grammy Award for Best Latin Jazz Album.

Sara Danius Ph.D. ’97 is the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, a role held by men since 1786. Danius had the honor of announcing the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature winner, Bob Dylan.

Eric Greitens ’96, a former Duke boxer, Navy SEAL, and Rhodes Scholar became governor of Missouri in an unprecedented gubernatorial race in which the first-time politician defeated long-running attorney general Chris Koster. In other election news, Blue Devils returning to Washington for the 115th Congress include: Dan Lipinski Ph.D. ’98 (D-Ill.), Mo Brooks ’75 (R-Ala.), Bradley Byrne ’77 (R-Ala.), David Trott J.D. ’85 (R-Mich.), and Scott Peters ’80 (D-Calif.) in the House; and John DeFrancisco ’71 (R-N.Y.) and Rand Paul M.D. ’88 (R-Ky.) in the Senate.

Sally Dawson ’77 was named a recipient of the J.J. Sakurai Prize for Theoretical Particle Physics.

A film by Duke Young Trustee Jamal Edwards ’16, See Me in My Black Skin, was among winners of MTV’s Look Different Creator Competition.

Carl Kurlander ’82, the screenwriter for St. Elmo’s Fire, now is a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, where he teaches the art of the screenplay.

Kelly Fayard ’02 is director of Yale’s Native American Cultural Center.

Lisa Radinovsky Ph.D. ’99 teamed up with a Princeton-educated computer scientist to produce a new website about Greek olive oils.

Research ecologist Chris Oishi ’97, Ph.D. ’12 studies the journey of water by analyzing watershed data that have been recorded every five minutes since 1934 at a hydrologic lab in Otto, N.C.

Charlie Rose ’64, J.D. ’68 received the 2017 William Allen White Foundation National Citation for outstanding journalistic service.

Jennifer Manning ’94 was elected corporate secretary and associate general counsel of The Coca-Cola Company.

Daina Falk ’05 published The Hungry Fan’s Game Day Cookbook, which features favorite recipes of professional athletes.

Martin Dempsey A.M. ’84, former chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was elected to the board of directors of the Bob Woodruff Foundation, which seeks to meet the needs of veterans.