Provost Funds Six Problem-Focused Research Teams

Second round of PFIRST grants address environmental health, regulation, mental health, decision biases, and ethical issues around climate change

Since the end of the 1990s, the number of Chinese migrants in African countries has increased dramatically, and more Chinese continue to come to Africa each year. But just how many are there? And what are they doing? In a continent where good health remains a major challenge, how is their health faring in the new country?

A team of seven Duke faculty with expertise in sociology, public policy, economics, demography, global health and medicine and led by M. Giovanna Merli, associate professor of public policy and global health, hopes to answer those questions with seed funding from the Duke Provost Peter Lange's PFIRST initiative.

PFIRST, for Problem-Focused Interdisciplinary Research-Scholarship Teams, was designed to award seed funds to support faculty-led collaborations that address research in areas of contemporary relevance from multiple perspectives.  Five other proposals being funded by PFIRST this year address environmental health, regulation, mental health, decision biases, and ethical issues around climate change.

This is the second year for PFIRST funding, which was awarded  to five projects last year. One of last year's projects, an examination of health, environmental, and climate impacts of household energy choices in India led by Subhrendu Pattanayak, associate professor of public policy and environmental economics, used last year's PFIRST funding to garner additional funding from other sources to build on their work.

Three of last year's other projects received a second PFIRST award this year:

"Understanding linkages between climate change, water resources and health in Ethiopia" is co-led by Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry, and Marc Jeuland, assistant professor of public policy and global health. The group plans to test potential interventions for enhancing Ethiopian populations’ ability to cope with climate variability and/or reduce exposure and vulnerability to toxic water contaminants.

"Rethinking Regulation: Democratic Norms, Organizational Culture, and the State" is led by Ed Balleisen, associate professor of history, and looks at the purposes and strategies of regulatory governance around the world. The project engages faculty from the Schools of law, business, environment and medicine, as well as the social sciences and philosophy.

Mental health in Haiti in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake has received a second year of PFIRST funding for Haiti Humanities Lab co-directors Deborah Jenson, a professor of French and romance studies, and Laurent Dubois, professor of romance studies and history. The group plans to create a large study that will validate the use of three different traumatic stress questionnaires in Haiti and incorporate the training of Haitian mental health workers in traumatic stress resiliency techniques.

Two additional projects received smaller PFIRST development awards. One project, led by Neil Vidmar in the Law School, combines faculty from law and neuroscience to investigate biases and sources of error in legal decision-making. The other project, led by Noah Pickus in the Kenan Institute for Ethics, will focus on the ethical and theological lens of the climate change debate, in collaboration with the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and faculty from the Divinity School.

"Once again, some of the most exciting collaborative research ideas from faculty have come to our attention through the PFIRST competition," said Susan Roth, vice provost for Interdisciplinary Studies, who oversees the competition. "Nurturing and growing these collaborations is a high priority for Duke."

Periodic updates on the projects will be available on the Interdisciplinary Studies website at