Nicholas School Faculty and Students Work with Duke’s Bass Connections Program to Tackle Complex Global Health and Energy Problems

April 1, 2014

by Shannon Switzer MEM ’15

A number of students and faculty at the Nicholas School are benefiting from a new universitywide initiative that encourages interdisciplinary collaboration to address a constellation of complex global problems.

Bass Connections, launched with a $50 million gift from business magnates Robert and Ann Bass, creates teams and comprehensive educational pathways to address five focal areas: Brain and Society; Information, Society and Culture; Global Health; Education and Human Development; and Energy. The teams are drawn from all ranks of the university community—undergraduates, graduate students, postdoctoral associates, and faculty—and, importantly, from outside the world of academia.

According to Susan Roth, vice provost for interdisciplinary studies at Duke, there has been a long-standing commitment to interdisciplinary approaches at Duke that gained momentum when it was formalized in the 2006 Strategic Plan. “Bass Connections represents a forward-looking tripartite mission of collaborative scholarship, cross-disciplinary education and engagement outside of the university,” Roth explains.

Several of the Bass Connections focal areas play to the strengths of the Nicholas School. William Pan, assistant professor of environmental health, is leader of one of the longer standing projects in the Global Health area called Environmental Epidemiology in Latin America. The project has been in existence for several years now, with funding last year from Bass, and has gained new dimensions with each iteration.

“We currently study heavy metals, human health and environmental change, so the funding translates to around 20 students being trained in environmental epidemiology, hydrology, land cover change, toxicology, and biogeochemical cycling,” Pan says. Not only did participating students gain in these fields, but they also used their fieldwork to collect data for four master’s projects or theses and three doctoral dissertations, according to Pan.

One of the students who developed a masters project from the team’s work was Jessica Cain, a Master of Environmental Management (MEM) student at the Nicholas School in the Ecotoxicology and Environmental Health track. She met Pan through a work-study position with the Duke Global Health Institute, where he also is affiliated.

“One day he asked me if I wanted to go to Peru. I thought he was joking. He wasn’t joking,” Cain recalls. Several months later, she found herself in Lima at the Navy Medical Research Unit undergoing epidemiology training before heading to the Amazon rainforest region of Madre de Dios for six weeks of insect collection in “la selva” (the wilderness).

According to Cain, prior to their work, no one had conducted vector collection in this the region. This meant there was a missing link in understanding whether the local human population was contracting insect-borne maladies like malaria, dengue and leishmaniasis in their own communities or when they ventured to surrounding communities. The mosquitoes and sand flies the team captured for analysis could help solve this mystery and inform a disease prevention plan.

“Being able to put human faces to the data we collected was the most impactful part of this project. It helped me not lose sight of why I was doing it,” Cain explains of her time in the Peruvian jungle. “Plus, growing up I’d always wanted to be Indiana Jones, so wading waist-deep across rivers was the realization of a childhood dream.”

But not all of the Bass Connection project teams head to far-flung places; many conduct their work right here in Durham. This is true of the team working on the project titled Communicating about Energy in the Triangle headed by adjunct professor Brian Southwell. Faculty and students, including four from the Nicholas School, work with the nonprofit Clean Energy Durham to determine what is the most effective way to communicate information about energy efficiency and energy savings to low-income residents. The team recently hit the streets of Durham to conduct interviews with both low-income residents and building managers and owners.

Team member Kristina Ronneberg, a Nicholas School MEM student concentrating in Global Environmental Change, says she’s learning techniques to influence individual and collective behavior that she’s been able to apply to other areas of student life. “Understanding the psychology of behavior is really important,” Ronneberg explains, “and through background research for our interviews, I’ve learned methods I can now apply to my work with the Duke University Greening Initiative.” She also cites spending time outside the classroom in the Durham community as one of her favorite aspects of the project.

“The Bass Program has been quite rewarding, as it allows unconventional collaboration and allows us to get into the field and provide experiential learning for the students,” Southwell says.

That seems to be the consensus program-wide, according to Susan Roth, who has helped shape Bass Connections from its infancy. This enthusiastic feedback may explain why in its second round, the number of project teams funded has increased from 37 to about 50, with a third of the projects continuing from the first round, in an expanded form.

Hallie Knuffman, director for administration and program development for Bass Connections, who works closely with the faculty and academic leaders involved in the program, sees this growth as a testament to the program’s unique design.

“Bass Connections is such a complex and comprehensive program that supports— and requires—deep collaboration across the university, and builds upon Duke’s rich history of interdisciplinary research and education. The interest we’ve gotten from faculty and students in just the first few months has been remarkable,” Knuffman says.

With this kind of support and momentum, the program seems to be leaving an indelible mark on Duke’s approach to bridging academia and real-world challenges—an approach that has always been embraced by the Nicholas School and that bodes well for future Nicholas School involvement in the program.

Shannon Switzer MEM ’15 is a member of the Duke Environment blogging team and is a Nicholas School communications assistant.