An objection to a book’s content takes on a life of its own
It’s probably fair to say that the selection of Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic as the Common Experience Selection for the Class of 2019 caused a “stir”— as in a “slight disturbance.” Yet that disturbance was more off-campus than on, more in the media than among the Duke community. It began when freshman Brian Grasso began a conversation about the book on a Duke Facebook page, saying reading the book compromised some of his moral and religious beliefs. The work, with themes of love, family, and identity, documents the author’s sexual exploration and her decision to come out as a lesbian. It includes images of sexuality. Grasso found those images pornographic. He later wrote a commentary about his objections for The Washington Post. A handful of students made similar comments, and Grasso said about twenty students who shared his concerns or offered support privately messaged him. Other freshmen defended the memoir, which is recommended and not required. Local and national media picked up the story, and several bloggers weighed in. On campus, Michael Schoenfeld ’84, vice president for public affairs and government relations, offered a bit of perspective. “With a class of 1,750 new students from around the world, it would be impossible to find a single book that did not challenge someone’s way of thinking. We understand and respect that, but also hope that students will begin their time at Duke with open minds and a willingness to explore new ideas, whether they agree with them or not.” For his part, Grasso, who wrote that he had no problem grappling with ideas he didn’t agree with, said he’d eventually read the book. A friend sent him page numbers of sexual scenes so he could avoid them.
Dempsey and Matlock are the newest Rubenstein Fellows
General Martin E. Dempsey A.M. ’84, the recently retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the nation’s highest- ranking military officer, has been named a 2016 Rubenstein Fellow at Duke. This spring, he will co-teach a Sanford School course on American civil- military relations with Duke political scientist Peter Feaver. Next fall, he will teach management and leadership at the Fuqua School. In addition, he will deepen his ties to the Duke Program on American Grand Strategy, the Fuqua/Coach K Center on Leadership & Ethics (COLE), and Duke Athletics, and will speak to student and faculty groups Dempsey—who earned a master’s in English from Duke and who delivered the commencement address in 2014— earlier served as the Army’s chief of staff. He was also commander of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, deputy commander and acting commander of U.S. Central Command, and commanding general of the Multi-National Security Transition Command in Iraq. This fall, another Rubenstein Fellow, former ambassador to Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union Jack Matlock ’50, returned to the Duke classrooms where his interest in Russia originated. During the Reagan administration, he was director of European and Soviet affairs at the National Security Council. Matlock is spending two years on campus based in the Center for Slavic, Eurasian, and East European Studies; he is teaching courses, collaborating with students and faculty members, engaging with journalists and policymakers, and delivering lectures on and off campus. He’ll also lecture in the Duke in Russia summer program in St. Petersburg. The Rubenstein Fellows, a university- wide initiative to bring leaders to Duke with a focus on global challenges, was established by trustee chair David M. Rubenstein ’70.
Students use their skills to save two lives
Duke students often get accolades for matters demonstrating their intellect. Two recent incidents, however, showcase a different kind of prowess. During the pre-orientation PWILD (more formally known as Project Wilderness Initiatives for Learning at Duke), three students saved the life of a man suffering from anaphylactic shock. While on their way to a swimming spot, seniors Jared Schwartz and Kyrstin Lulow and junior Iza Szawiola came across a man wheezing and holding his chest. The man had been stung, presumably by a yellow jacket. One of the students ran back to the parking lot and got an Epinephrine pen from another member of their crew. EMT-certified Szawiola administered the shot, while Lulow checked the man’s vital signs. By the time the local emergency services arrived thirty minutes later, Lulow says, the man was fine, but they performed a follow-up assessment.
Then in September, four Duke EMS students resuscitated George Grody, visiting associate professor of markets and management, who had suffered cardiac arrest during a meeting of the Duke Marketing Club (which he advises). The incident happened in the library’s Link; juniors Kevin Labagnara and Kirsten Bonawitz and senior Kristen Bailey were studying nearby. Bonawitz cut off Grody’s shirt, Labagnara began chest compressions, and Bailey ran outside to get equipment from the Duke EMS vehicle. Senior Rikita Patil, at a meeting elsewhere in the library, prepared and then used a defibrillator on Grody’s chest to restart his heart. Grody underwent bypass surgery and is recovering.
A Gates Foundation gift helps ensure another record-breaking year
Among other things, the recent Ebola outbreak that started in Africa and reached America was a pointed illustration of the need to address global-health challenges. Now the university has received a $20 million grant that will help the Duke Global Health Institute educate new leaders and experts and build research capacity to deal with those issues. The grant comes from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. (Melinda Gates ’86, M.B.A. ’87 is a Duke alumna.) The first $10 million is aimed toward endowment support of DGHI. The other half will support a challenge that will match one dollar for every dollar given. That approach means the grant actually will amount to $30 million and will allow other donors to join with the foundation’s goals. Among those goals are recruiting and supporting faculty to work across disciplines and schools, bolstering financial aid for students, and strengthening DGHI’s partnerships in places like Haiti, Kenya, and South Africa. The gift helped the university set a fundraising record during 2014-15, for the third consecutive year. Contributions amounted to $478 million, an 8 percent increase over the previous fiscal year’s total of $442 million.
Neurologist Oliver Sacks makes a last visit to see Duke’s lemurs
Oliver Sacks, the renowned neurologist and best-selling author, was celebrated for being a prolific writer. And when he was suffering from terminal cancer, he made no exception: He regularly wrote journals, letters, and published pieces. This past March, he wrote “Ninth Avenue Reverie,” a short essay in The New Yorker that expresses his concern for the dwindling forests of the world—particularly those that are home to lemurs. “I love lemurs. One has to see them, study them, to grasp the origin of our primate nature.” Several months later, he was touring Duke’s Lemur Center. The invitation came from biology professor Anne Yoder Ph.D. ’92, who had hosted Sacks before. In 2007, then-provost Peter Lange contacted her about a VIP visiting the Duke Lemur Center. Sacks was known to exhibit unmatched intellectual curiosity, expressing an interest in science, humanity, and countless topics in between. As it turns out, one of those topics was lemurs. Yoder was more than happy to give him a tour. That tour lasted several hours. Sacks, she says, was fascinated. “Every time we would open up a door, you could just see his mind connecting with the animals. He was absorbed.” To thank him for his trip, Yoder wrote him a note. And in keeping with Sacks’ writing career, he carried on a correspondence with her for more than a year.
After the New Yorker piece, Yoder reached out and offered Sacks another visit. His illness didn’t dampen his lively intellect and kindness, Yoder says. Several guests had been invited to the event to engage Sacks, but he was fascinated with the lemurs above all else. “He asked question after question,” Yoder says. “Nothing escaped his notice.” He returned after hours to tour the Lemur Center’s huge natural-habitat enclosure. Yoder told him that he had the soul of a field biologist: “He’s such a great explorer.” Sacks’ second visit to the Lemur Center made it into “My Periodic Table,” an essay he wrote for The New York Times in July: “...I wanted to have a little fun: a trip to North Carolina to see the wonderful lemur research center at Duke University. Lemurs are close to the ancestral stock from which all primates arose, and I am happy to think that one of my own ancestors, 50 million years ago, was a little tree-dwelling creature not so dissimilar to the lemurs of today. I love their leaping vitality, their inquisitive nature.”
Sacks died August 30 in New York. —Sofia Manfredi
Using monkeys, research suggests human innate ability to understand fractions
It seems we can use “understanding fractions” as the preface to the well-worn expression “so easy a monkey can do it.” In a study published in Animal Cognition, Duke researchers revealed their methodology in discovering whether rhesus monkeys are able to compare ratios. They began by letting the monkeys play on a touch-screen computer for a candy reward. The monkeys received the sweets if they touched a black circle on the screen, but they didn’t get any if they touched a white diamond. Naturally, the black circle became a favorite choice. Next the team introduced the monkeys to fractions. “We showed two arrays on the screen, each with several black circles and white diamonds,” says Caroline Drucker, who is in the neurobiology graduate training program. “The monkeys’ job was to touch the array having a greater ratio of black circles to white diamonds.” So, if there were three black circles and nine white diamonds on the left, and eight black circles and five white diamonds on the right, the monkey needed to touch the right side of the screen to earn candy. The monkeys were able to learn to compare proportions. They chose the array with the higher black-circle-white-diamond ratio about three-quarters of the time. Not only do the results suggest that monkeys understand ratios, they also indicate that monkeys might be able to reason through analogies. And, the researchers say, that means human minds are likely to have been set up with those skills as well. “The next step for this line of research will be to figure out how best to employ these in-born abilities when teaching proportions, percentages, and fractions to human children,” says Drucker.