Experiencing those ‘aha’ moments during research

The Class of 2023 graduated this year from Duke Kunshan University with many academic accomplishments to be proud of, not least their Signature Work research projects.

A core component of the undergraduate program, Signature Work requires students to turn their critical thinking and problem-solving skills to an original topic of importance to society.

The projects cover issues as varied as living with Alzheimer’s disease, protecting Bangkok’s culinary tourism, the environmental impact of burning wood pellets, links between mood and gut health, and stock market prediction using machine learning.

Read on for a closer look at just a handful of the impressive projects produced by the Class of 2023.

Preserving street food culture in Thailand

Charlie Colasurdo from the United States drew on his many experiences of exploring Asian street food to review the state of culinary tourism in Bangkok and present policy solutions to challenges facing the industry.

The co-founder of the Duke Initiative for Urban Studies developed an academic interest in urban policy and planning during his time at DKU, but his passion for Bangkok’s culinary culture can be traced back to his high school days when he was working part-time at a local Thai restaurant.

“My fascination with Bangkok developed into an intense eight-month exploration of the city’s markets, temples and sois [side streets] through the lens of my camera, part of an internship with Bangkokvanguards, a boutique tour company run by urban explorers,” said Colasurdo, who graduated in political economy and now works as a development analyst for a real estate development firm in Durham.

“I sampled food across Bangkok’s rich culinary offerings, from dumpling stalls down narrow alleys to decades-old bakeries serving mango with coconut sticky rice.”

In his project “Street Food City: A Future for Culinary Tourism in 21st Century Bangkok”, he describes the city as a haven for “cheap, accessible and delicious food”, but says that “significant challenges remain to its culinary heritage, including gentrification, regulation, political instability, and the loss of recipes and knowledge passed down through generations”.

His recommendations for preserving the sector include urban design changes such as widening sidewalks, establishing a tuk-tuk culinary tourism program, developing and promoting neighborhood food guides, nominating street food culture in Bangkok for UNESCO status, and building apprenticeship and incubation programs for street vendors.

“My keen interest in shaping the urban conversation has led to my desire to develop the skills needed for managing the city of tomorrow — and I can’t think of a better place to start than shaping the future of culinary tourism in Bangkok,” Colasurdo added.

The emotional power of sound in film

Jiaqi Ling from China wanted to explore the role of sound and music in developing the narrative of films, a centuries-old theatre technique that is not always obvious to audiences.

She teamed up with fellow media and arts majors Yanzhang Song and Mingyu Zhou to produce “Meimei” or “My Sister”, a clay animation about the impact of Alzheimer’s disease on families.

“Music in narration has a long history; it was used in theatres for operas hundreds of years ago,” said Ling.

“I found this more interesting than I originally thought I would. Sound and music are often so subtle in films that the audience does not pay them much attention, but they can control emotions and the atmosphere.”

Ling, whose project is titled “Sound and Music: How the Two Elements in Theatrical Arts Can Inform the Use in Film and Animation”, said she set out to create an atmosphere with music and sound that would “resonate with the creative goal of the film”.

“Animation is quite different from other film projects because music and sound need to match the movement of the characters and visual images.

“I needed to test different sounds even after composing to make the sound match the film.

“This was a new challenge for me, and completing it marks what I could do at the end of the four years of my college life. I feel proud of what I have achieved.”

Could better gut-health help treat mood disorders?

Glory Agun from Nigeria investigated the links between mood and gut-health to advance our understanding in this area.

“By fully understanding how gut-health can affect mood and vice versa, we would be able to move towards more holistic methods of treating mood disorders such as depression that would be more focused on improving gut-health through diet and other therapeutic solutions,” said Agun, who is now pursuing a Ph.D. in genetics, genomics and development at Cornell University.

For her project — “Serotonin: From Food to Mood: A Boolean Logic Model of the Impact of Antidepressants and Gut Dysbiosis on Gut-Brain Signaling” — she used a logic system to measure serotonin uptake, release and the consequent firing in the central and enteric nervous systems during gut dysbiosis, an imbalance of microorganisms.

“While this simplifies the complexities of true physiological processes, I saw this as an opportunity to come up with a system that would be fast and give simplified answers to aid us in asking the more complex questions.

“Serotonin activates receptors on the surface of the cell and can affect mood and behavior in the brain and also modulate intestinal activity.”

She said the most enjoyable aspect of the Signature Work process was experiencing those “aha” moments after several hours of work.

“Arriving at a conclusion, whether favorable or unfavorable, was always satisfying as it showed that there was progress and that my efforts paid off.”

Can we use AI to predict crypto markets?

Gustavo Salas Flores was captivated by a documentary about the first computer program to defeat a professional human player of the strategy board game Go.

Ever since then the data science major has been fascinated by deep reinforcement learning, a subfield of machine learning that is used for self-driving cars and medical robots.

For his project, Flores from Mexico tested two deep learning programs — an AlexNet convolutional neural network (CNN) and a Vision Transformer developed by Google — for their potential to make good investment decisions on cryptocurrency markets.

Flores said that emerging asset types such as cryptocurrency pose both new challenges and opportunities for the notoriously difficult task of predicting the stock market.

In “Evaluating Deep Reinforcement Learning for Asset Management in the Crypto Market”, he found that “Vision Transformers tend to perform better in the evaluation dataset compared to CNNs and also take less volatile strategies, contrary to CNN-based models which either take high-risk or very neutral strategies”.

On Signature Work as an undertaking, Flores said, “It really helped me to understand the process of reading papers, how and where to locate the important information and — probably the most important skill — how to translate those words or mathematical expressions into code,” said Flores, who now works as a software development engineer at Amazon Web Services.

Counting the cost of burning pellets for energy

With a long-held interest in climate justice, Wynona Eurj Curaming from the Philippines wanted to assess the environmental impact of burning imported wood pellets for energy.

“Due to the ‘biomass loophole’, a carbon accounting policy, greenhouse gas emissions from generating electricity using imported biomass are not counted in the consuming country,” she said of the international rules. “They are assumed to be carbon neutral and given large subsidies.”

She focused on estimating the scale of unaccounted greenhouse gas emissions from imported wood pellets in the United Kingdom and Denmark as well as the pellets’ overall environmental impact throughout their production life cycle.

In her study — “Environmental Impacts and Unaccounted Greenhouse Gas Emissions From Imported Wood Pellet Use” — Curaming found that imported pellets had the highest environmental impact in 12 out of 18 categories such as ecotoxicity and ozone formation when compared to the three other main sources of electricity in the U.K.

“There is a need to amend the carbon accounting policy for imported biomass use for energy,” said Curaming, who majored in environmental science and is now pursuing a master’s in environmental management at Duke University.

Her aim is to become a climate and sustainability consultant, advising companies on their decarbonization strategies and implementation.

Nudging people to recycle and cut waste

Siyue He from China examined ways of motivating people to reuse, reduce and recycle their waste.

She focused on nudge theory — which highlights how subtle changes in the local environment can influence decision-making — and fun theory, a similar concept that champions the provision of entertainment as the best way to change behavior.

In her study — “Do Recycling Nudge Stickers Placed on Packaging and Trash Cans Improve Waste Sorting Behavior in China?” — He asked 80 people to rate the sweetness and bitterness of several drinks, all contained in different types of packaging.

However, the tasting exercise was a decoy for the true purpose of the study: Testing the waste-sorting accuracy of the participants.

They were divided into three groups; one was presented with standard nudge stickers, another had fun ones and the control group did not receive any special guidance.

“Overall, the accuracy of the participants’ waste-sorting behavior improved in experimental group 1 (normal sticker) and experimental group 2 (fun sticker),” He said.

“This study finds that the nudge stickers are statistically significant to change individual waste-sorting behavior generally, but the fun theory application can be confusing to the participants due to short-period exposure.”

The environmental science graduate, who is now doing a master’s in sustainability management at Columbia University, said the process helped her to develop her critical-thinking, writing and interviewing skills.

She was also pleased to see how keen members of the DKU community were to engage with nudge theory and its applications.

“They also told me that my study motivated them to become more aware of their pro-environmental behaviors and I was glad that this study can become a positive influence on them,” she said.

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Gareth McPherson

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