Skip to content

How software helps innovate Duke research

Panda climbing a tree

From environmental science to political science, faculty benefit from software offered at Duke

Duke’s Office of Information Technology offers more than 100 software packages to students, faculty and staff for free or at a steep discount to help support campus activities from research to class projects. From conservation efforts to public policy reform, learn how software programs are being leveraged to make big changes from the regional to global level.

Tracking Giant Pandas with ArcGIS

Researcher Binbin Li hugging panda from behind


Trekking through the thick coniferous forests and tall mountains of Wanglang National Nature Reserve in China, Binbin Li, assistant professor of environmental science at Duke Kunshan University, is surveying the 124-square mile reserve that’s home to more than two dozen endangered giant pandas. Li’s goal is to understand how freely-roaming livestock in the area influence giant panda populations. To learn more, ArcGIS is an optimal tool of choice as it handles and analyzes geographic information by constructing visuals and using statistics.

Li’s research revolves around conservation problems including how human development influences biodiversity and methods for protecting endangered and endemic species, such as giant pandas. Time spent studying giant pandas within Wanglang includes planning routes with rangers to some of the most remote regions of the reserve so that Li can survey bamboo plots and identify and track the footprints of the population.

With this data, Li is able to use ArcGIS to create data visualizations that provide powerful answers. The program allows Li to see spatial relationships between where livestock are grazing and how their instructions affect giant panda activity. These visualizations provide insights not just for Li, though.

“A lot of people want to know where things are happening,” Li said. “Seeing these relationships in a visual way helps people orient and understand how our research relates to themselves.”

ArcGIS is funded and supported by the Nicholas School of the Environment.

Visualizing the Metabolism with ChemDraw

James Bain, Professor in the Department of Medicine

Long before James “JB” Bain, Ph.D., a Professor in the Department of Medicine (Endocrinology), joined Duke, he was using ChemDraw, a scientific illustration tool, to make molecular sketches of small organic molecules, including metabolites he encounters during studies of cells, tissues, and organisms. After more than twenty years using the program, ChemDraw is the go-to tool Bain relies upon to do critical work in metabolomics. 

In the Duke Molecular Physiology Institute (DMPI), Bain and many of his colleagues focus on cardiovascular, endocrine, renal, and other major metabolic diseases to better understand how the human body functions and fights substantial public-health challenges. To dissect these processes, Bain and his colleagues in DMPI’s labs use twelve mass spectrometers, scientific instruments that have the ability to identify and measure the organic compounds of metabolism. 

ChemDraw illustration of the breakdown of acetoacetic acid

Bain makes regular use of ChemDraw to analyze and illustrate metabolites and their biochemical reactions within the human body. For example, he used ChemDraw to illustrate the spontaneous breakdown of acetoacetic acid to acetone and carbon dioxide in human circulation. This acetone can often be smelled on the breath of a patient who is experiencing severe ketoacidosis, a potentially life-threatening complication of diabetes.

After many years of illustrating biochemical reactions, Bain praises the program’s robustness, stability, and reliability — he can still pull up and modify molecular sketches that he made more than 20 years ago.  Such molecular sketches help people to better visualize and understand metabolic processes. 

“We humans are visually-oriented animals, and molecular sketches can be more effective than words alone,” Bain said.

Understanding Public Policy Trends with STATA

Nick Carnes, Professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy

As a political scientist interested in the working-class’ involvement in government, Nicholas Carnes, Creed C. Black Professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy, spends much of his time combing through datasets from surveys on public opinion to state legislative candidates. This work helps Carnes paint the political landscape, but to get the full picture, using STATA to produce data visualizations, statistics and automated reports is a go-to.

Ever since Carnes compiled his first dataset in STATA during his dissertation, the software has been his first choice because of its reliable and user-friendly nature. Carnes praises the software’s ability to merge multiple datasets with ease, an important feature given that his most recent publication compiled enough data to create 10 unique datasets. His recent publication, The Cash Ceiling: Why Only the Rich Run for Office--and What We Can Do About It (Princeton University Press, 2018) describes the obstacles working-class Americans face in launching campaigns compared to white-collar candidates. STATA helped to illustrate this through its numerous functions.

“Everything from really simple averages up to regression models, it's all happening here. It's all happening right there in STATA,” Carnes said.

Ready to take your work to the next level? OIT offers other popular programs including Adobe Creative Suite, MATLAB, EndNote, and more. Explore what software is available by visiting the OIT website at

By Lesa Bressanelli, OIT Communications Intern