By Lizzie Devitt

On May 10, 1950, President Truman signed the National Science Foundation Act, creating the only federal agency charged with funding fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering.

Today, we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the outstanding impact it has had on university research and society over that past seven decades. The NSF is currently the third largest federal sponsor of research at Duke, providing over $45 million in total funding in FY 2019. Vice President for Research Larry Carin noted, “The reach and impact of the National Science Foundation at Duke cannot be overstated. It has provided critical support for my research career and has touched a large swath of the Duke community. It has supported graduate students who are at the beginning of their careers, large centers investigating complex issues facing society, and hundreds of projects underway by researchers in biological and social sciences, engineering and physical sciences, and multiple disciplines in between.”

 It’s important to not only recognize NSF’s past achievements, but also the great things the agency has in the pipeline for the future and the ways it is impacting our U.S. universities now. This is the first of a series of posts during the remainder of the year that will highlight the impact of NSF at Duke and beyond. The COVID-19 pandemic has upended many aspects of our lives, but also provides a good illustration of the role NSF plays in preparing our country to meet and overcome complex societal challenges.

RAPID Response

NSF provides a mechanism for providing funding for research projects that are urgently exploring outcomes after natural disasters or other unanticipated events. Duke researchers have benefitted from these RAPID awards over the years to learn more about how flash floods develop in the Great Smoky Mountains, the potential of telenursing robots to remotely treat Ebola patients, and the how to improve the design of base-isolated buildings during rebuild following earthquakes, to name a few examples. In March 2020, NSF put out a call for fast-track ideas related to COVID-19 and to date, Duke has received four RAPID awards, two of which are supported through funding made available through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

Duke biomedical engineers recently received a Rapid Response Research grant from NSF to adapt the fast, simple and low-cost diagnostic tool to detect the COVID-19 virus. The team has been working on adapting a rapid testing platform originally designed to detect Ebola to see whether it could be of use in detecting COVID-19 antigens. Inkjet-printed on a small glass slide, the D4 assay is a self-contained diagnostic test that detects low levels of antigens from a single drop of blood, throat or nose swab sample.

Another key challenge with the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic is developing protective countermeasures that can slow the spread of the disease. With funding from the Macromolecular, Supramolecular and Nanochemistry Program of the Chemistry Division, Professors Stephen L. Craig and Michael Rubinstein of Duke University received an NSF Rapid grant for their research to develop macromolecules for use as inhaled countermeasures to reduce the rate of infection with SARS-CoV-2. The research team is developing an inhaled polymeric countermeasure that will reinforce mucosal layers, enabling individuals to demonstrate a substantially decreased rate of infection from SARS-CoV-2 after exposure or to tolerate a larger dose without developing severe symptoms.

Two other RAPID awards will investigate ways in which we can track and model COVID-19 infection rates.  One awards is for Poirot, a privacy-preserving system that uses smartphones to detect contact with potentially infectious individuals and provide recommendations for infection control. Jason Xu, associate professor of statistical science, will use a RAPID award to develop rigorous statistical models to better understand how COVID-19 spreads and which interventions are most successful.


In 2018, the NSF funded a proposal by John Board, associate chief information officer and associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, and Tracy Futhey, Duke’s vice president for information technology and chief information officer, to create a threat detection and intelligence sharing network among universities to fight cyberintrusions. The Shared Threat Intelligent for Network Gatekeeping and Automated Response (STINGAR) is essentially a crowd-sourced threat intelligence system that uses “honeypots”, which are devices deliberately created to be compromised, in order to gather information to identify malicious actors, and block them in near-real time.

Board and Richard Biever, chief information security officer and director of identity management, gave some insights to how STINGAR has brought immense value to Duke. Board noted that now over two dozen schools participate in STINGAR, which is helping universities collectively protect each other from billions of cyber-attacks per day. Board said the “system is easy to operate and low cost, so many colleges and universities including HBCU’s and MSI’s are able to run these tools effectively and economically.”

Under COVID-19 circumstances, STINGAR has proven even more critical to Duke’s cyber security. As offices, labs and classes shut down to prevent the spread of coronavirus, Duke and partner universities did not have to worry about having hands on-site to prevent impending malicious system hackers. Biever explained that because of STINGAR, “our systems at Duke didn’t shut down when people left, our data centers are still running and Duke is still connected to the Internet. Meanwhile, hackers haven’t taken time off. Having this system in place to protect Duke, is a huge deal.”

Biever and Board underlined that STINGAR is helpful to anyone doing any type of research. “STINGAR has definitely contributed to our ability to protect systems involved in research related to COVID-19 from malicious hacks,” Board concluded.

Microscopes for Take Out

The Research Triangle Nanotechnology Network (RTNN) is a partnership between Duke, UNC and NCSU part of the NSF’s National Nanotechnology Coordinated Infrastructure network. As labs closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, key equipment continued to play a starring role.  The cryo-electron microscope (cryo-EM) located in Duke’s Shared Materials Instrumentation Facility (SMIF) is one of a few instruments still running during the shutdown and is proving to be a critical resource for Duke researchers studies the coronavirus protein spike structure, which can aid in the development of an effective vaccine. Holly Leddy is a cryo-EM specialist for SMIF and has been coordinating with Mark Walters, director of SMIF, to keep it operational.

Leddy’s work doesn’t stop there, though, as she also launched an online K-12 educational program called, “Take Out Science.” The program uses a scanning electron microscope that is currently housed in her guest bedroom.

Every Tuesday at noon (ET) the team streams a live 30-minute show focused on a different theme.  All shows are designed with K-12 audiences in mind—although adults have found them fascinating too. “We’re aiming for a broad audience and introducing the mechanics slowly over time,” said Leddy’s colleague, RTNN associate director at NC State’s Analytical Instrumentation Facility, Maude Cuchiara.