Enhancing the Research Enterprise at Duke: Building on Duke Science and Technology

By David Hart

Duke University recently launched Duke Science and Technology (DST), a fundraising and faculty recruitment and retention effort aimed at elevating and sustaining excellence in the sciences. The effort is designed to accelerate the recruitment of new faculty and expand core research strengths in three main areas: resilience of the body and brain, computation, and materials science.  

Sally Kornbluth, MD, provost of Duke University, welcomed a panel of scientists, all recently recruited to Duke in fields relevant to DST. They discussed the research environment, strategies for fostering interdisciplinary collaboration, and more.   

Duke Science and Technology, Challenge Accepted

On the Research Environment at Duke

Chantell Evans, PhD, assistant professor of cell biology 

“I was able to get a secondary appointment in neurobiology, and for me, that was great because I sit at this nexus between cell biology and neurobiology. …I'm really focused on thinking about what's happening inside one cell, and they're out there thinking about cell-cell interactions and network interactions and all of these things. Having that interaction allows me to really step outside my field and think in a completely different way. From that, I'm able to bring some new points of view to my area of research.” 

Eric Laber, PhD, professor of statistical science and biostatistics and bioinformatics  

“Coming to a new place, there's always the worry that you're not going to be able to find [a core group of collaborators]. But for whatever reason, the culture at Duke is such that people don't hesitate to reach out and say, ‘There might be something here. We seem to be interested in similar things.’ I received a bunch of emails like that when I arrived and was able to hit the ground running. I really hope Duke continues to do that for new faculty, just fostering that culture that people should have those conversations. Not all of them led to projects, but enough of them did, and now I feel like I'm fully invested.” 


On the Importance of Creative Collaborations

Josh Huang, PhD, professor of neurobiology and biomedical engineering 

“I think exciting science is all about people. It's all about forming the right functional networks. I’ve found very exciting networks already, certainly within neuroscience. …Science requires cross-disciplinary interactions and technology: not just neuroscience, but engineering and medicine. That's the part that I've been looking for. I can find other neuroscientists in my department. It's not difficult. But this very practical problem that we have is that, for example, I believe we have fantastic technologies that can be improved by engaging our neurobiology community … but also by applying them to many other contexts, from engineering to cancer biology, immunology, or infectious disease. That's where I think there's this opportunity as well as a challenge.”  

On Opportunities to Enhance the Research Environment


“I have two ways in which I think Duke could do a little bit better. I don't think either of them are unique to Duke; I think it's all universities. One of the things I think we could do better is increasing our ethnic and racial diversity in the basic sciences. Representation is important, but also having people who are coming in from different and diverse backgrounds who are going to help us to address and answer our questions in unique ways.”  

“I think the other way we could work better, in terms of biology and especially neuroscience, I think we're moving into bigger and bigger datasets, and we are not trained in how to deal with these very large datasets. Our interactions with data scientists are really important because they can help us to be able to analyze and interpret some of the information from the dataset that we're getting. It's hard to establish those connections, but I think that would be a great starting point, just to be able to have some of those conversations and open that up. That would help all of our science.” 

Sharon Gerecht, PhD, professor of biomedical engineering 

“I think one way would be by facilitating interdisciplinary training programs, both for graduate students and postdocs. What I mean is that you have co-mentorship, in which one is from, say, engineering, and one is a clinician. I think that will initiate a project that has to be interdisciplinary.” 


“I wonder whether there can be a mechanism for major technical advances in basic science to be more quickly known to the medical community, whether there is some sort of technology that can be disseminated across the medical disciplines so that the basic scientists can see the low-hanging fruit and the clinical scientist can see a strategy or an approach to these. How to connect that in a concrete way seems to be very exciting to explore.” 

On Involving Undergraduates in Research


“I think as long as you include them and really give them something to do, a lot of people will take ownership of that. They really thrive off having that project to do. It doesn't have to be something huge, but it can contribute to our understanding of something that's simple that a graduate student or a postdoc doesn't want to take on as a full project. …I was exposed as an undergraduate to research, and I think that's something that really drove me and kept me involved in science and wanting to go to graduate school. I think it's a great opportunity for them.” 


“We've run a high school intern program for the last, I don't know, eight years or something. It's based on the idea that people do have something to offer, even if they don't have technical training. I work in a technical field, sort of applied mathematics and so on; there's heavy machinery there in terms of needing math. But they have intuition, they have ideas, they can learn to program, they can learn the basics of a research problem, they can help... I think we just need to be adaptive in how we use include those students because they all have things to offer.” 

“The same goes for undergrads. I've started working with a couple undergrads since I joined, and they've been great. They surprise you, I think. If you give them the chance and the responsibility to do meaningful things and really contribute to the research, I think they can.” 

On the role of Philanthropy in Science


“We have been very successful in generating grants from NIH, and that obviously is very useful bread and butter. But typically those have specific aims, and we need to report yearly, if not quarterly. I think the strength and the impact of philanthropy, especially when applied with the right mechanism, can be extremely effective by, one, investing in key technology. I think technology is what drives discovery and medicine. The other is to fund research that is outside of a researcher's usual branch portfolio. For example, if I want to apply our technology to treating liver cancer or heart disease — some area that we have never done but that I know will have a great outcome — then even some seed money can get this started and then lead to a large amount of federal funding. That's where this leverage effect from philanthropic investment can give outsized outcomes.” 


“I think technology by itself, the NIH won't fund, unless it's answering specific questions. I found also that moving from small animals to large animal studies and toward the clinic, that's kind of a gray area that it's not funded really by the NIH. I think that's another thing: we want to push some of the technology towards diagnostic or therapeutics. I think that's another place where philanthropy can have a huge impact.” 

Meet the Experts 

Sally Kornbluth, PhD, (moderator) is the provost of Duke University and the Jo Rae Wright University Distinguished Professor of Biology. 

Chantell Evans, PhD, is an assistant professor of cell biology at the Duke University School of Medicine. 

Josh Huang, PhD, is a professor of neurobiology in the Duke University School of Medicine and a professor of biomedical engineering in the Pratt School of Engineering.  

Sharon Gerecht, PhD, is a professor of biomedical engineering in the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University. 

Eric Laber, PhD, is a professor of statistical science in Trinity Arts & Sciences, a professor of biostatistics and bioinformatics in the Duke University School of Medicine, and a research professor in the Duke Global Health Institute.  

Dave Hart is director of editorial services in the School of Medicine’s Office of Strategic Communications