When Sabhyata Jha was a teenager, a catastrophic earthquake devastated parts of her native Nepal. The April 15, 2015, Gorkha quake killed almost 9,000 people and damaged or destroyed more than 600,000 structures.
Jha, now a data science major at Duke Kunshan University, was lucky, she says. Her family survived and their house remained standing. Still, hundreds of aftershocks – some lethally powerful – disrupted her 10th grade year and changed thousands of lives throughout her Himalayan homeland.
“How do you even comprehend an entire country going through PTSD?” Jha says.
During her second year at DKU, Jha learned about the Earthquake Early Warning in Kathmandu project, part of Bass Connections, Duke’s signature interdisciplinary research program. Celebrating its 10th year in 2023, Bass Connections brings together faculty and students from across the university to explore big unanswered questions about major societal challenges – often thorny, complex issues beyond the scope of any one discipline.
Finding a way to warn residents of Nepal that an earthquake is imminent is one such complex issue – and one close to Jha’s heart. In 2022 she joined the effort to design and implement an early warning system, working on the data science side. Today Jha is writing code that may someday dispatch life-saving quake alerts faster than a human could.
Success is not guaranteed on any project. Yet in its first decade, Bass Connections has become one of the hallmark Duke experiences. More than 4,600 students have participated in more than 800 projects. The problems they study are real. The collaboration – between faculty and students, between communities and Duke teams – is real. For some students, the Bass experience fast-tracks their involvement in their chosen field. For others, it clarifies their purpose, leading them down unexpected paths. Administrators, faculty, students and alumni light up with authentic excitement when they discuss it.
“It's not just a statistics homework assignment or an English paper,” says Nicole Schramm-Sapyta. “It's taking a problem that is big and societally relevant and using multiple levels of tools.”
Schramm-Sapyta co-leads Bass Connections Brain and Society theme, one of the program’s six areas of focus. When she joined the program in 2013, she was junior faculty and had gotten bored with the basics. In her administrative role on the evaluation team, she helped vet what went under the Bass Connections hood. Her burnout evaporated, replaced by excitement and enthusiasm.
“It was this really awesome moment of freedom,” Schramm-Sapyta recalls. “Credit to the good idea. It really took on a life of its own.”
Soon, she was leading her own teams. A professor of the practice in the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, Schramm-Sapyta studies the neurological bases of drug addiction. She was itching to reduce the stigma surrounding this disease by sharing her knowledge. Bass Connections led her from the lab to the intersection of mental health and criminal justice.
Through a series of projects, each building upon the one before it, Schramm-Sapyta studied everything from the local facets of the opioid epidemic to the inner workings of the Durham Police Department Crisis Intervention Team. Studying Durham County census tracts and anonymous data from Duke Health, her team confirmed that the people arrested most often and requiring the most medical care for addiction live in the poorest areas of the county.
“That pushes us to the question of, OK, how do we break this cycle?” she asks.
This summer, Schramm-Sapyta and team added health-care costs to their data set. Their guiding theory is that it is cheaper to build supportive housing than to have people in crisis cycling through hospital emergency rooms.
It’s a complex problem in the real world, which is what Bass Connections was created to prepare Duke students to tackle, says Laura Howes, director of Bass Connections. Because Duke is a research university, students arrive ready to engage in research, she says. Some leave the program knowing how to run their own projects.
When Saumya Sao ’20, arrived at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, where she is a research program coordinator, she already knew how to look for grants, develop surveys and write focus group discussion guides. She was able to jump directly into her own research almost straight out of college, which she credits to her Bass Connections experience.
“Our team was called Big Data for Reproductive Health,” Sao explains. “We were trying to figure out how we could use big data to better identify intervention points for key stakeholders in global reproductive health, and specifically talking about contraception and family planning.”
For Sao, Bass Connections helped clarify her path. She arrived at Duke thinking she would study chemistry but realized that, while she loved science, her true passion was helping people directly. She became laser-focused on global reproductive health and maternal health. Today, Sao also co-leads the adolescent sexual and reproductive education nonprofit The Violet Project.
“You have these incredibly bright students who are really interested in a topic, really smart about it, and can bring new thoughts, new ideas,” says Robert Bonnie M.E.M.’94, M.F.’94, USDA Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation.
From 2016 to 2020, Bonnie returned to Duke as a Rubenstein fellow and then as an executive in residence at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. His focus on conservation and environmental issues in rural America included leading two Bass Connections teams.
“The Bass Connections work was a recognition that there's a role for the government to step in and provide incentives and technical assistance and finance [for climate-smart agriculture],” Bonnie says. “The idea that we had been thinking about at the end of the Obama administration was use of this Commodity Credit Corporation. In essence, it's a bank that USDA has that can support agriculture.”
A Bass Connections team tested the idea that such a corporation could finance the broad adoption of climate-smart practices without losing sight of the practical concerns of farmers. Upon Bonnie’s return to Washington, the idea became the Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities, through which the USDA is investing $3.1 billion in 141 projects involving small and underserved producers. If all goes well, these projects will start to yield results next year.
“The idea changed a lot once it left Duke because we opened it back up, allowed folks in agriculture and forestry to look at it,” Bonnie says. “But the work done at Duke was really important.”
One of the most beautiful things about Bass Connections, Schramm-Sapyta says, is that it’s the opposite of the ivory tower cliché of “eggheads” caught up in insubstantial thought experiments. Making progress in complicated real-world problems requires a willingness to fail, says Ed Balleisen, Duke vice provost for interdisciplinary studies. When a team fully realizes how difficult a problem is, he says, and are still willing to work together, listen and be creative, they may learn something new and even edge toward critical solutions.
“When Bass lives up to its ideal, which I would say is 99 percent of the time, everybody's learning from each other, and everybody's doing some kind of work that's important,” Schramm-Sapyta says. “When a team is working really well, everyone should feel ownership.”