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The social science magazine of Duke University spring 2015, VOLUME 9, ISSUE 1

gist Voices

Together Music Therapy & Autism in Elementary Schools

Nechyba’s Niche

Working on important social science issues? We have the resources to help. Data security is mentioned by several researchers in this issue of GIST. What’s SSRI’s role in this? Nechyba: This is an issue we have worked very hard on over the past two years. The challenge is that social science data is becoming more sensitive, bigger and requires more collaboration across multiple sites and multiple disciplines. The old model of locking up sensitive data in a room on a stand-alone computer just isn’t the way of the future. So what we have done is invested in a collaboration with OIT to create the SSRI Protected Research Data Network—the “PRDN”. Think of it as a collection of virtual locked rooms, accessible from anywhere to those who have authorization—and potentially linkable across rooms. Within the PRDN, computational power can be brought to the data essentially in real time, and our staff can manage all the annoying aspects of working with sensitive data—from data use agreements to IRB protocols, thus enabling researchers to focus on the science. The PRDN left the pilot phase in April and is now fully

operational, with over 100 users already utilizing it, including, as you say, some of those featured in this issue of GIST. The Biodemography Research Unit in particular is really challenging the new infrastructure— big data, big security concerns and big computational needs are all part of this, and theses kinds of projects are likely to become a big part of the frontier in the social sciences.

There has been some talk this semester about the $250k Social Science Challenge. What is it—and what’s SSRI’s role? Nechyba: When our new Vice-Provost for Research (Larry Carin) suggested a collaboration on crafting a challenge to the social science community, my hope was that we could do something a little different—and that is in fact how we have structured it. Rather than simply call for research proposals, we want to challenge the faculty at Duke to think about what is standing in the way of more collaboration across the social sciences and beyond. If you could invest $250,000 with a goal to starting something big that could become sustainable, what would you do? So we

Duke University Photography

This year, the five themes of Bass Connections are being merged into insitutes, with the Education and Human Development theme coming to SSRI. How does that impact the institute as well as the Bass theme? Nechyba: With SSRI’s move to campus in Gross Hall, we have really re-imagined the institute as first and foremost building an integrated research infrastructure— everything from grants and IRB support, to issues surrounding data and the various methodologies used throughout the social sciences and beyond. I think that’s why Duke asked us to be the place to incubate new communities in the Education and Human Development (EHD) area through our newly established EHD incubator, and that of course has become the natural home for the EHD-Bass theme. The idea then is to leverage the research infrastructure of SSRI to support EHD projects—much as we support other types of projects, but with a particular intentionality of growing new communities that cross institutional barriers. Actually, you see three great examples of this in this issue—the Voices Together project, the Resilience project as well as the REDY program. Each of these is benefitting from different aspects of the SSRI infrastructure.

SSRI’s grants operation integrated into Gross Hall only this year. What does this mean for researchers at Duke? Nechyba: When we first moved to Gross Hall, we opened a small grants presence there through our partnership with DuPRI (the Duke Population Research Institute)— and it turned out to be a big success. So we decided to bring the entire grants team together and onto the campus, and it’s been one of the best things we have done. A unified team is stronger than a fractured one, and a team integrated into the research infrastructure we are building can better serve the faculty. We then partnered with ORS to bring ORS-West to SSRI, with the resulting exchange of information and ideas strengthening both. That success has helped us better serve our grantactive faculty, and has inspired thoughts of connecting to other off-campus support units (like OIT or IRB) in similar ways. And of course it doesn’t hurt that the grants team is now physically closer to their clients.

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started with Round 1 where we simply asked for big picture ideas of directions that the challenge could take. We are now processing a ton of great ideas and trying to tease out common threads and themes—and then we’ll move to Round 2 where we encourage teams to be more specific. I have a feeling something pretty big will come out of it, but stay tuned. You are scheduled to teach some “signature courses” this coming year, with themes closely associated with SSRI’s mission. How did these come about? Nechyba: Yes, these are in fact SSRIsponsored signature courses in the sense that a good portion of our infrastructure will be put in service of the courses—and I’ll be calling on many of my social science colleagues to help bring the courses to life. They are also, in a way, gateway courses for the Bass theme in Education and Human Development (EHD). The idea is to take important substantive issues in EHD and think carefully about how the various social science methods—as well as the disciplinary lenses that shape these methods—help us find ways of knowing more about what we care deeply about. These aren’t courses that teach the methods themselves—rather they step back to think critically about what different methods can, in principle, help us understand. My hope is that freshmen and sophomores will come away from these courses more intentional about the rest of their time at Duke—and more excited to get the basic training to become part of the exciting research environment here.

ssri . du k e . edu / gist

2 Music Therapy

6 Removing the Achievement Gap Through Early Intervention


Discovering the Secrets of How Age-related Genes Work


SSRI: Helping Projects Grow

Maximizing Student Health

Managing Editor: Courtney P. Orning courtney.orning@duke.edu

Scan this QR code to read GIST online.

Contributors: Whitney Howell Nancy Oates Mary-Russell Roberson Taylor Sisk Designer: Regina Barnhill-Bordo regina@bdesign-studio.com

Tom Nechyba Director, SSRI


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Music Therapy & Autism in Elementary Schools

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Eric Atkinson Photography

hrough the specialized music therapy program, Voices Together, Yasmine White has seen kids with autism speak for the first time or tell someone their name—social interactions they’ve never done before. Through the program model, she has engaged developmentally disabled children and adults, who find social and emotional interactions very difficult, with remarkable success. Voices Together received a grant to grow to a national organization, requiring a level of research beyond what her program has done thus far to find out exactly what works and why. Researchers from various departments at Duke, students from Bass Connections

and faculty at the Social Science Research Institute (SSRI) have combined their resources to move Voices Together to the next step. The multidisciplinary team has launched a rigorous research study to collect qualitative and quantitative outcome data, analyze the results and fine-tune a curriculum that could be used by music therapists across the country to improve the quality of life for their clients. “It’s an exciting opportunity to be part of a research team in our area of expertise in something that means so much to us,” White said. Geraldine Dawson, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral science, psychology and neuroscience and the director of the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development, leads the Duke team that includes Dr. Laura Hans, a pediatrician who researches developmental and behavioral issues through SSRI; Jan Riggsbee, director of Duke’s Program in Education; Michael Murias, an associate research professor from the Duke Institute for Brian Sciences; Carol Ripple, associate director of education at SSRI’s Education & Human Development Incubator; and four students participating in Bass Connections.

Duke has a long history of fostering an interdisciplinary approach to research. SSRI brings together researchers from disparate fields to take on real-world problems and offers a collaborative space on Duke’s West Campus that brings together data analysis experts and behavioral and social science researchers. Bass Connections, launched in fall 2013, pulls undergraduates into the world of multidisciplinary research. White had been looking for researchers to help her validate her anecdotal successes. A certified music therapist, she founded Voices Together in 2006 and, with a staff of four certified music therapists, conducts more than 60 music therapy groups each week in the Triangle and Triad. Each group has eight to 10 children or adults with developmental disabilities. Some groups are run in public schools, others in the community. All told, Voices Together serves about 700 individuals who have difficulty interacting with others through spoken language and struggle with identifying and expressing emotions and connecting socially. During the hour-long sessions, which are half spoken and half sung, White strives for a constant, consistent flow of interaction among participants.

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Through music, we’re able to engage in new ways and create new pathways toward language. Our overriding goal is that clients generalize what they learn in this group into their lives.

“Music triggers different things, and it processes differently from language,” she said. “Through music, we’re able to engage in new ways and create new pathways toward language. Our overriding goal is that clients generalize what they learn in this group into their lives.” Most autism research focuses on people with language skills; less is done on nonverbal individuals. But recently, research has begun to explore therapies to promote social and language skills in individuals who have minimal speech. Some of the therapies that are being explored, including music therapy, have been shown to be effective in helping persons with stroke regain speech. Dawson, in considering research projects, observed a Voices Together session and was impressed by how engaged the children were and their facility with social interaction. “Voices Together was developed to give

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kids confidence that they could speak and that their speech is valued,” Dawson said. “We need to understand how the therapy works, and we need to demonstrate that it has measurable benefits.” Dawson gathered a team that includes a doctoral student from UNC-Greensboro who has developed a behavioral coding system that will enable the researchers to code affective and social behaviors observed in the videotaped therapy classes. She also enlisted the help of Guillermo Sapiro, professor of engineering and computer sciences at Duke, whose team will use computer vision analysis to study whether the therapy increases the range of facial emotional expressions in the children and adolescents with autism. The study was carried out in three classrooms this past fall, and will continue into the spring. Three new classes have

begun this spring, and they will serve as the comparison group. Comparing the results of the students who essentially had a double dose of therapy with those in the spring-only classes will allow the impact of the longer-term therapy to be evaluated. All of the sessions are videotaped by Bass Connections students, who then observe the videos to look for behaviors that signal emotional expression or social engagement—eye contact with the therapist or another student, or speaking directly to anyone in the room, or a smile. Once the behaviors are coded and entered into the computer database, they can analyze whether the therapy resulted in measurable change in the children’s behavior. SSRI is helping with the software analytics and ensuring that the data are kept secure. Ali Goldsmith, a sophomore at Duke’s Trinity College, applied to work on the

Voices Together project through Bass Connections. Her brother is autistic. She has seen the myriad therapies he has tried and is well aware that there is no magic cure. She observed a Voices Together session for adults. “It was amazing to see how much the participants came to life with the music,” said Goldsmith, who is considering a psychology major and plans to work in the field of autism in some capacity. “They were so happy. Watching them, I got teary.” Goldsmith and the other Bass Connections students work directly with Hans, the pediatric researcher affiliated with SSRI. Hans makes sure the Duke students are getting the most out of the research experience. She teaches them about autism and will help them figure out what behaviors are important to catch in the video. And she guides them through the technical

aspects of conducting research, everything from the broad—“Sometimes researchers are too ambitious in their first draft”—to the basic—“How do you get consent that protects the subject but lets you use the data you need?” Bass Connections students do not need to be planning a career in research to participate in the program, Hans said. “Anyone can benefit from being part of a team doing something innovative that has an important application in the real world. Learning that starts from a problem or question is more enduring.” The goal of Bass Connections is to learn to work in a diverse team that comes at a problem from all different angles, she said. “That experience can be helpful in any career.” The team received approval from the Institutional Review Boards at Duke and

at Durham Public Schools, the latter being a particularly competitive endeavor, given the large number of research proposals DPS receives. The team has launched the yearlong study in selected public schools in Durham. The Voices Together therapy is very affordable, seems to be successful and is not complicated to implement. And if the Duke study validates the method and outcomes, the therapy could have a wide reach. “The more data you have that have been validated, and the more partnerships we have with professionals researching and focusing on the same area,” White said, “the more progress you’ll make in a community in finding solutions and support for individuals with autism.”

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Removing the

achievement gap

Through Early Intervention Program aims at closing the racial divide in classroom performance


he achievement gap between white children and those of color in our nation’s schools has profound repercussions for families and communities. But consider as well what it means to us collectively: According to a 2009 McKinsey & Company report titled “The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America’s Schools,” if the performance gap of black and Latino students as measured by test scores had caught up with that of white students by 1998, the gross domestic product in 2008 would have been between $310 billion and $525 billion higher, an improvement of roughly 2 to 4 percent. “The magnitude of this impact will rise in the years ahead,” the report states, “as demographic shifts result in blacks and Latinos becoming a larger proportion of the population and workforce.” Angel Harris is well steeped in both the social and economic implications of this disparity. Harris is a Duke professor of sociology and African and African American Studies, and author of Kids Don’t Want to Fail: Oppositional Culture and the Black-White Achievement Gap. A passion for closing this gap is the impetus for his launch of a program housed within the Social Science Research Institute (SSRI) called Research on the Education and Development of Youth, or REDY. According to the authors of the McKinsey report, “The wide variation in performance among schools serving similar students suggests that these gaps can be closed.” Harris trusts this to be the case. “Race and poverty are not destiny,” they avow. Harris knows this to be true.

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Angel Harris

Raised by his grandparents in the Brooklyn projects, Harris was not much of an achiever in the classroom. He was persuaded by family friends to apply to Grambling University in Louisiana, and somewhat reluctantly left home. It was his first ride down an interstate highway. “It was the first time I ever left New York,” Harris told the Princeton Weekly Bulletin in 2008. “Once I got there, I realized what an opportunity I had. At Grambling, I experienced firsthand how education can really change people’s lives,

particularly if they’re coming from a lower socioeconomic background. I wanted to know why some people are able to succeed while others are not.” That pursuit continues to drive him. He earned a bachelor’s in psychology from Grambling, a master’s in sociology from Kansas State University and a Ph.D. in public policy and sociology from the University of Michigan. He then taught at the University of Texas at Austin and Princeton before arriving at Duke in 2013. Research into practice

Test scores, Harris believes, matter a lot. He writes: “Elite colleges and professional schools are relying more heavily on test scores despite the fact that standardized tests are weaker predictors of college performance for some groups. Considering that

affirmative action programs tend to be concentrated among the most selective four-year institutions, and that graduates from elite universities receive greater returns to education than those from non-elite institutions, achievement gaps can be expected to exacerbate inequality.” Intervening early is critical, Harris believes, and that’s what REDY aims to do. The program’s objective, he says, is to “provide teachers with the tools to reach students who have different learning styles,” thereby better preparing them for life beyond the classroom. REDY has three components: research, training and public engagement. The research component allows Duke social science graduate and undergraduate students to see their work applied in the real world. REDY received a $1.3 million grant from the federal Department of Education to implement the program in North Carolina’s Wake County, with kindergarteners being instructed in the curricula through the second grade. There will be 16 experimental schools and 16 control schools; ultimately, roughly 7,000 Wake County students will be involved. The REDY program is built on the premise that the most effective learning environment is one in which students are encouraged to learn not only in the manner to which they’re most inclined, but through alternative approaches. Some have a visual preference, some auditory, others tactile and still others kinesthetic. Teachers will be trained to make adjustments to their curricula to tailor it to these different styles of learning, exposing students to all four. At the end of the five-year grant period, the results will be assessed to determine whether a greater share of the kids in the experimental group have been identified as gifted and talented relative to their counterparts in the control group and if the achievement gap has been narrowed. Simplif ying life

SSRI has played a key role in getting REDY launched.

Of that partnership, Harris says, “It’s been fantastic.” SSRI has provided REDY with computing and website support, and, he adds, “the grant staff is truly amazing. They’ve made the grant process so much smoother.” “When I’m writing a grant, I can just focus on the science portion. I can then turn it over to them and they put it into the proper form to go through the [Office of Research Support].” “SSRI is able to do all that behindthe-scenes work, beyond the science,” Harris says. “These are resources that make a faculty member’s life much, much simpler.” Redefining destinies

Harris believes the REDY program can be an effective tool in reshaping what may have seemed preordained destinies. “I’d like to see a large wave of research coming from REDY,” he says. “I’d like for REDY to become a resource for educators from around the country, where they can exchange information on issues related to education and the development of youth.” Education plays such an important role in defining futures, “and not everyone in this country is accessing the benefits of education equally,” Harris says. “We have substantial achievement gaps by social class and by race, and even by gender.” “We’re not maximizing the potential of a substantial portion of our population, and that makes it harder to compete on a global scale.” Harris says that, on average, black and Hispanic 12th-graders are graduating with an eighth-grade skill set. And, as the McKinsey report points out, people of color comprise an ever-larger percentage of our population. Harris offers context: “Imagine this: In 15 years, 2030, at least 40 percent of the U.S. population will be black or brown. You can’t have nearly half of the population walking around with an eighth-grade skill set; there’s no way it doesn’t affect everyone.” He knows, first hand, that outcome can be altered.

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Maximizing Student Health T

he Resiliency Project, a $3.4 million initiative of the Duke Endowment that aims to maximize the health and well being of students at four schools, is under way and generating enthusiasm. With its longstanding interest in funding projects focused on facilitating positive outcomes, the Duke Endowment has thrown its weight behind this collaboration between researchers in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience and practitioners in the Department of Human Affairs at Duke, Davidson College, Furman University, and Johnson C. Smith University. Universities have long sought to maximize student health, but there is a general perception that today’s students face unprecedented challenges. “There are almost too many opportunities,”

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says Rick Hoyle, of Duke’s Psychology & Neuroscience Department, one of the creators of the study. “Part of having a good experience here is learning to manage decisions about what to do and what not to do.” At the heart of the project are two tests of approximately 450 questions each. Students bound for one of the four colleges first filled them out at the end of high school, providing researchers with valuable “pre-matriculation information.” These new freshman are currently responding to the second go-round of testing. “Knowing who they are when they arrive helps us understand who they become while they’re here,” says Tim Strauman a Duke social scientist with a longtime interest in the relationship between selfregulation and good health. “We want

Rick Hoyle and Tim Strauman

more than just a snapshot of a single time. We want to know the strengths and vulnerabilities that students bring to campus with them.” According to Hoyle, many of the indicators for success are in place early on. One reason is that college students are “emerging

adults”—they are still developing. “Part of what we want to see is how things change, particularly over their freshman year, academically as well as socially, in personality and decision making. The idea is that people get on a sort of trajectory pretty early on, and that trajectory is going to result down the line in them having a productive professional and personal life, [or not]. We want to put as many people as we can on that positive trajectory.” The project is especially exciting to researchers, offering them a rare kind of immediacy. “Having that direct feedback loop, with the results from the study being presented and shared with practitioners who are working with students every day was something that is really different and really rewarding for us,” says Molly Weeks, a researcher on the project. With four colleges involved, the study will generate extensive data. SSRI will make a vital contribution by providing housing for it. “Over time we hope it will involve integrating new data we collect with administrative data, and we need a place to store and keep that data safe,” says Hoyle. The wealth of data will enable schools

a rare chance to evaluate their myriad programming efforts. New practices might be in the offing, but actions undertaken as a result of the project might as easily entail modification of existing programs, or the identification of successful ones and implementation of them on other campuses. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that millions of dollars have to be poured in to creating additional opportunities for Duke students,” says Strauman. “It may be that we’re doing some things really well already and we can tweak some other things to get more bang for the buck.” Researchers will also be able to evaluate popular beliefs about the situation of college students. “A lot of these are assumptions based on anecdotes, or topics in the press,” says Hoyle. “So the idea is to get a good read on what’s going on. For example, the

role of parents in a college student’s life has changed. The general assumption is that’s a bad thing, that helicopter parenting is not in the best interests of the student. That may or may not be true. We’re hoping to collect data to confirm whether continued extensive involvement favors resilience or actually undermines it.” The project is still in the data-collection stage, but anecdotal evidence indicates a warm response throughout the Duke community. “I can’t think of a person who we asked to be part of the project who hasn’t immediately responded positively,” says Strauman. “I think people really see this as a way for a great university to become even greater.”

The idea is that people get on a sort of trajectory pretty early on, and that trajectory is going to result down the line in them having a productive professional and personal life, [or not]. We want to put as many people as we can on that positive trajectory. —Rick Hoyle

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Discovering the secrets

of how age-related genes work T

here’s no question. Getting older means getting sicker. Conditions can be relatively minor and manageable—high blood pressure—or severe and complicated—dementia. It’s clear, though. A person who lives long enough will develop some type of ailment. But, what if science could put a stopper in aging or at least put the brakes on a little? A group of researchers in the Social Science Research Institute (SSRI) is working on doing just that, asking whether there’s a link between genetics and the likelihood a disease will strike an individual in the future. “People have started looking at the genetics of aging, health, and longevity and the key idea that people are now spending a huge amount of money on disease,” said Anatoliy Yashin, scientific director of Duke’s Center for Population Health and Aging (CPHA). “But, if the diseases of aging are related somehow, why not focus on aging and postponing or slowing it down?” If science reaches that goal, he said, it could change how healthcare systems approach aging and the associated chronic and acute conditions. “Individuals who have some kind of frailty or vulnerability to disease die first,” he said. “This predisposition could be genetic, and if there are genetic differences, they should be taken into account when we consider the population composition is changing.”

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Ongoing Research

Fundamentally, Yashin’s group wants to discover the secrets not only of how age-related genes work, but also of how they work together to cause sickness. Deciphering the details of those relationships could significantly impact health, lifespan, and tailored treatments. “What we’re doing is related to personalized medicine. When we understand this well, we will contribute a lot to prevention,” Yashin said. “What you treat as a risk factor isn’t absolutely a risk factor. You must remember to consider genetic factors and the environment to understand how genes act at a specific age.” Ultimately, he said, the team hopes to unearth two gene types that directly impact life span. The first will influence the age of disease onset, and the second will likely affect how long an individual lives after developing a condition. To reach these goals, his team, including senior research scientists Svetlana Oukraintseva, Ph.D., and Alexander Kulminski, Ph.D., as well as senior research fellow Konstantin Arbeev, Ph.D., and research professor Eric Stallard, Ph.D., are tackling the science behind the genetics of aging through a three-pronged research effort: the genetic effects on life span, the genetic effects of aging, and how genes’ impacts changes over time.

Conventional wisdom points to multiple co-morbidities as a driving factor behind the speed of aging progression. But, according to the team’s research, the true nature of risk factors is more nuanced. “It turns out when we talk about genetics and longevity factors of disease and life span, everything depends on the situation,” Yashin said. “Risk factors could change with age. The genetic risk could be present for a 70-year-old but be neutral for an 80-year-old.” Clearly, he said, something changes within the human body as it ages, and understanding what and how it happens could unlock the mysteries surrounding why some individuals are long-lived. But, even the slower aging among centenarians doesn’t guarantee a lower risk for disease, Oukraintseva said. Responses to stress will increase, and any recovery will be slower or incomplete. Instead, their longitudinal research revealed how gene functions morph and present themselves differently over time. For example, she said, traditional research methods show older adults have a higher body mass index (BMI) than younger people. But without BMI data from longer periods—often decades—researchers can’t capture an accurate picture of aging and genetic effects. Collecting long-term data, she said, highlights exactly how genes influence bodily changes and how they relate to health and life span, directly or indirectly. Project results show genetic functions and mutations are not absolute—they shift and change throughout a person’s lifetime. This work strikes close to the heart of peoples’ desires for long lives—but only if they’re healthy. It’s possible, Kulminski said, for a gene to be harmful during middle age but have a protective benefit in older age. “Our research shows genes—either good or bad—don’t create an unchangeable fate. They can work differently in different periods of human life,” he said. “This shows the effect on disease or survival and life span is only associated with specific age ranges. Genes can change their effect.”

For example, current investigations show a mutation of a single allele on a single gene can impact how the human body metabolizes lipids differently over decades. Knowing this, he said, could help doctors tailor how they treat high cholesterol in patients with this genetic alteration. But older adults rarely have only one chronic or acute condition, making examining the associated genes necessary to learn whether—and how—they’re interrelated. Evidence exists, Oukraintseva said, that multiple gene mutations act differently together than they would individually, and analyzing these relationships could reveal how genes swing the pendulum between harmful and helpful.

The SSRI Difference

Having a team with such varied expertise is critical to successful research, Yashin said, but much of the work wouldn’t occur without extensive support from SSRI. “[Nechyba] understands the importance of what we’re doing, and we’re very pleased with this,” he said. “SSRI is developing a more secure computer network, and we’ll probably be the first group to test its applicability for analyzing complicated problems and models that have millions of bits of genetic data.” In addition to providing access to high-level, secure data, SSRI regularly brings this team together with other faculty to discuss challenges and to create

synergistic efforts that could benefit the institution overall. “The real value for Duke is in their mission statement of being excellent in everything they do,” Oukraintseva said. “Their commitment to and support of us is reaffirmation they view our research as world class—among the best it can be at this time.”

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GIST Spring 2015  

Music therapy and nonverbal students with autism, how age-related genes work, and maximizing student health.

GIST Spring 2015  

Music therapy and nonverbal students with autism, how age-related genes work, and maximizing student health.

Profile for ssriduke