How to innovate: Learn from failure to find new solutions

“Not everything is going to work first time; sometimes you need to step back and figure out a new solution.”

That philosophy, articulated by materials science major Rane Hill as she sought a sustainable alternative to plastic food wrapping, is widely embraced among her undergraduate peer group at Duke Kunshan University.

It was frequently called upon by students involved in the 100 or so research projects and activities funded in 2023 through two programs run by the Office of Undergraduate Studies.

Summer Research Scholars (SRS) and the Student Experiential Learning Fellowship (SELF) facilitate research collaborations between undergraduates and faculty as well as students taking part in off-campus learning activities.

More than 150 students working with 54 DKU faculty on 72 SRS projects have been researching topics across, and often overlapping, the divisions of natural and applied sciences, social sciences, and arts and humanities. For SELF, 23 students embarked on projects either independently as an experiential learning activity or under the supervision of someone not affiliated with DKU or Duke University.

The two programs, part of the rich research opportunities available to DKU undergraduates, offer vast possibilities for discovery and learning, not just for the students but wider society. Below we talk to three of them about their experiences.

“Engagement of our undergraduate students in research is part of our commitment to the liberal arts and to a top university program,” said Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies Dr. Paul Stanley, who oversees the SRS/SELF programs.

“Students are active contributors to the scholarly community, learning to collaborate as peers with faculty. Our eager students dive into the experience with enthusiasm and creative originality, and it is a delight to see the finished products, papers, and presentations.”

Rane Hill

Finding an ecofriendly and safe alternative to petroleum-based plastic food wrapping is a big motivation for Rane Hill, a materials science student from the Class of 2024.

She has been investigating the potential for algae-derived bioplastics to replace the packaging made from high-polluting fossil fuels.

“What is currently on the market is not biodegradable and the vast majority of those plastics don’t get recycled,” said Hill, from Atlanta, Georgia, in the United States.

“By creating a plastic substitute from algae polysaccharides, we’re able to create something that’s sustainable from the beginning.

“We’re cutting out the use of petroleum and creating something that’s biodegradable, so it’s more sustainable from start to finish, from cradle to grave.”

Hill said there are several reasons why algae-based wrapping has yet to emerge as the industry standard for food packaging, such as its relative fragility and concerns over food safety.

“Sometimes you have to take a step back and try and figure out a new solution. And that’s how innovation is made”

Her project, titled “Bio Textiles: Experiments with Fungi and Algae” and mentored by media and arts professor Vivian Xu, seeks to build on efforts to make bioplastics viable by altering their mechanical properties.

First, she created bioplastic sheets in the laboratory using derivatives of seaweed and other algae including algal polysaccharides, agar and sodium alginate. Then she tried adding plasticizers and adjusting the amount of the polysaccharide to increase the flexibility and tensile strength of the sheets.

Hill said that research of this nature is often a “trial and error” process.

“It’s about trying to find solutions,” she said. “Whether doing research or working in industry, not everything is going to work the first time around.

“Sometimes you have to take a step back and try and figure out a new solution, a new approach. And that’s how innovation is made.”

Hill, who enjoys learning languages such as Spanish and Chinese in her spare time, said her time at DKU has given her a “whole new perspective” on what materials science could achieve, in particular when linked with environmental science.

During an internship at elevator engineering company Kone, Hill helped to evaluate the sustainability credentials of its products.

“In recent years the world has opened its eyes at least a little bit and started to recognize that all these extreme weather events are not normal,” she said.

“Corporations are more cognizant of sustainability and I think that’s wonderful because it’s putting some of the responsibility on the companies that are producing a lot of the greenhouse gas emissions and material wastage.”

Post-graduation, Hill intends to continue her studies with a view to entering industry to help find sustainable solutions that push back against climate change.

She said Duke Kunshan encourages students to develop solutions-focused thinking by stepping outside traditional academic boundaries.

“DKU has allowed me to dive into a topic that I’m really interested in and that I want to pursue within industry.

“Instead of just studying things that would be part of my major, it has pushed me to branch out and really identify how interdisciplinary the topics we study can be.”

Jason Duan

Sleep disorders keep Xiaoyu (Jason) Duan up at night. The global health major spent three months in Wuhan studying insomnia in Parkinson’s disease (PD) patients, often working late in the laboratory analyzing data after putting in long hours at hospital with the subjects of his study and academic supervisors.

Duan hopes that patients with PD — a neurodegenerative disorder affecting over 6 million people worldwide, 80 percent of whom report suffering sleep disorders — can offer fresh insights into alleviating insomnia and related conditions for everyone.

Working with Huazhong University of Science Technology faculty in a project funded by the SELF program at DKU, Duan is one of the first to undertake this type of research in Hubei province. By closing this knowledge gap, he hopes to better understand the risk factors for sleep, mood and cognitive problems.

“DKU has given me my first opportunity to engage in clinical research,” said Duan, who is from Shiyan in Hubei province, China.

“It’s challenging to get familiarized with these processes, but it’s given me valuable experience.

“Recruiting for studies, conducting tests and handling blood specimens in the laboratory, that was all new to me. Statistical analysis is very different in a real-world setting to the classroom.”

“When you observe eyes filled with optimism or void of any expression, everything starts to become more tangible”

The cross-sectional and multicentral project was born out of Duan’s interest in pursuing biological research to complement the policy-level focus of his major.

Duke Kunshan funded his accommodation and other costs as he linked up for the study with Dr. Nian Xiong, a neurologist at the Tongji Medical College of HUST and Wuhan Union Hospital.

“DKU has given me many opportunities to explore my interests and it’s very easy to get involved in a wide range of research or even establish your own research,” Duan said.

“My scientific literacy has been developed very well at DKU. I found when doing research with others in Wuhan that my research mindset is very strong.

“The interdisciplinary learning environment at DKU helps me to think of the full picture, to consider social, genetic and environmental factors and to think dynamically.”

His research suggests that neurobiological pathways — the communication systems within the nervous system — could explain the mechanisms of sleep disorders and why they take root.

Duan also found that these pathways offer potential insight into the interplay between PD patients’ motor symptoms, those that affect movement and balance, and non-motor ones like depressive mood and sleep issues, as well as the broader implications for public health.

Duan graduates from the Class of 2024 this summer and plans to continue studying the epidemiology of aging, including how getting older influences sleep and cognition. He also wants to deepen his understanding of chronic diseases.

Connecting face-to-face with patients has made Duan even more passionate about improving health outcomes for people.

“When you are sitting in front of the laptop reading papers and analyzing data it’s hard to imagine how this is helping real people,” said Duan, who plays the violin and enjoys swimming in his spare time.

“But with field work, you are interacting with patients, physicians and professors.

“When you see hunched-over elderly people and patients with trembling hands in the hospital, or when you observe eyes filled with optimism or void of any expression, everything starts to become more tangible.

“It makes me feel even more committed to doing what I can to help them.”

Nino Nadirashvili

Nino Nadirashvili spotted an opportunity to explore a relatively untapped area of research by studying female astronauts.

The Class of 2024 undergraduate wanted to look at the gendered narratives at play when it came to women and space travel, including the biases surrounding their suitability for space exploration and the media coverage they received.

“There is a lot of room for new ideas in this largely uncovered area,” said Nadirashvili, who is from Tbilisi in Georgia.

“I ended up putting together a proposal for a paper where we would look at space travel from the lens of womanhood, approaching the project by profiling several individual female astronauts.”

Under the mentorship of religious studies professor Ben Van Overmeire, Nadirashvili set about analyzing the experiences of three female astronauts: Valentina Tereshkova (USSR), Sally Ride (U.S.) and Liu Yang (China).

“A really unique thing about DKU is how seriously we are taken as undergraduates to perform important research”

“What’s interesting so far is that it seems these women did not fly into space with an acute awareness that their gender represented a breakthrough moment for women as a whole,” she said.

But on their return to earth, Nadirashvili added, they were soon made aware of the extent to which they were being framed by their gender.

“For instance, some media articles had talked about the make-up they could take on a space flight or joked about the shoes that Tereshkova would wear,” she said.

“There’s also a political aspect in the way Tereshkova was covered in the West which was more tilted toward that narrative, really hyper-focusing on those kind of identifiers of womanhood instead of their experiences.”

Nadirashvili is putting the finishing touches to the SRS project, called “Women in Space: Gender and Transhuman Experiences”, which she plans to submit to academic journals for publication.

The opportunity to embark on high-level research was one of the draws of Duke Kunshan for Nadirashvili when she was looking for places to study more than four years ago.

“I’ve been involved in research since my freshman year here,” said the political economy major.

“I think a really unique thing about DKU is how seriously we are taken as undergraduates to perform important research.

“DKU is right to put that kind of faith in the undergraduate student population, which is not something that is seen in a lot of institutions.

“I think it’s something students should try their best to take advantage of.”

As well as the astronauts study, Nadirashvili has worked with faculty on two other research projects, one focused on Jewish refugees in Shanghai during World War II and another on innovations in democratic governance.

After leaving DKU, she hopes to pursue graduate study before seeking opportunities at development organizations such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and the United Nations.

She said she felt very fortunate to have built solid friendships and partnerships with students and faculty at Duke Kunshan.

“It takes a certain type of person to end up at DKU,” said Nadirashvili, who outside of academia enjoys soprano singing.

“I really feel that open mindset in terms of how much support we get from faculty and just how available and down to earth they are with students. I’m really grateful for that.”

For more about undergraduate research at Duke Kunshan click here.

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