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An Engineering Student’s Summer of Misinformation

Khari Johnson came to Duke to translate his love of science into engineering that can change the way medicine serves people. As a Ph.D. student in Biomedical Engineering preparing to write his dissertation proposal, he anticipated spending the summer of 2020 continuing his work on materials to be used in medical contexts. When the pandemic intervened, Johnson tapped into Duke’s pledge to provide summer employment opportunities for all Ph.D. students who needed them.

He secured a virtual internship with RTI International to assess how misinformation affects people’s receptivity to health initiatives. Guided by Brian Southwell, director of RTI’s Science in the Public Sphere program (and an adjunct faculty member at Duke), and Sarah Ray, communication scientist, Johnson worked with researchers who were interested in finding relationships between news coverage, social media patterns, online searches, and behavior related to medicine and well-being.

With collaborators in RTI’s Women’s Global Health Imperative, Johnson helped develop a survey of clinical researchers in various African countries regarding their perceptions of how medical misinformation is spread.

Thanks to a relationship between RTI’s Science in the Public Sphere program and the public television show NOVA, Johnson also contributed to a project to increase minority representation in STEM. “I got the privilege to work with NOVA Science Studio and assist with their efforts in hopefully starting a webinar/workshop series,” he said. He explained that the goal is “to get high schoolers from diverse backgrounds interested in science and STEM, building science literacy early on so we can improve their representation.”

2 people talking in a virtual Zoom meeting
Khari Johnson and Brian Southwell during the 12th Annual RTI Internship Showcase

During the 12th Annual RTI Internship Showcase on August 7, attended by more than 150 people, Johnson said he hopes this work will help improve access to health improvements. “We can be doing a better job as far as expanding and diversifying the voices that are being presented [to reach a range of communities],” he said.

Looking back on the summer, Johnson highlighted the value of collaborative research. “For me, the biggest takeaway was that you can always find [people with] similar passions in the place you least expected it, and building on those collaborations can be very fruitful.”

Read his essay for NOVA, Finding My Voice.

Symposium on Misinformation and Mistrust

On October 2, 2020, Brian Southwell will chair a session of the Duke University symposium Misinformation and Mistrust: COVID-19 Conversations on Race and Gender EquityLearn more and register for the online event.

Duke Summer Interns at RTI International

In addition to Khari Johnson, RTI hosted eight other Duke Ph.D. students. According to the internship showcase program:

  • Cole Campton (Computer Science) worked to understand project methodology, perform data management and analysis, and draft a written report for the International Education Division.
  • Tom Cinq-Mars (History) documented the use of off-grid energy products in Sub-Saharan Africa; worked with researchers to identify the impacts of off-grid energy on education, health, and agriculture outcomes; and served as head author of a journal article.
  • Travis Knoll (History) interned with the University Collaboration Office, where he was responsible for mapping stakeholders and writing narrative-driven summaries and case studies of collaborative projects.
  • Shawn Li (Environment) analyzed data, reviewed literature, and accomplished other activities for the Applied Public Health Research division.
  • Gabriel Madson (Political Science) was responsible for analyzing AddHealth data, determining patterns associated with non-consent to the use of wearable data, and writing a journal article based on the team’s findings.
  • Francisco Meneses (Public Policy) worked on conducting literature reviews about using technology to assess soft skills, performing research about how low-income countries provide educational continuity during COVID-19, and contributing to the research and development of policy briefs.
  • Mavzuna Turaeva (Economics and Public Policy) was responsible for conducting data analysis, coding, and researching for the International Education Division.
  • Tara Weese (Philosophy and Law) described trends in readability data for terms of service agreements, analyzed the content of these agreements, and drafted an article for publication with RTI Press about the findings.

Caption for main image: Khari Johnson in Barcelona in 2019