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Students pursue FOCUS topics outside classroom

You've seen the shirts around campus: "FOCUS.... Hell was already taken." You hear freshmen complaining about hundreds of pages of reading and numerous papers.

But for many, academic overload is far from the only impact FOCUS has had on their lives. From starting house courses to writing novels, FOCUS alumni are often inspired to take their academic passions further in their Duke careers and beyond.

Senior Brian Skotko is still reaping the benefits from his experience in the Exploring the Mind program. "FOCUS really was an exceptional experience for me and a great way to start off my Duke career," Skotko said.

"Everything that I've done in the past four years has blossomed out of FOCUS," he said.

A required independent research project focusing on children with Down's Syndrome encouraged Skotko to write a novel that will be published next month. In addition, FOCUS has opened the door to a once-in-a-lifetime research opportunity.

Throughout the program, which explored neurobiology, students learned about a famous patient known only by the initials H.M. This patient underwent experimental brain surgery in 1953 where doctors removed the hippocampus. Scientists subsequently discovered the hippocampus' function when H.M. lost the ability to remember facts.

Skotko has since been researching H.M. since Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher Suzanne Corkin-who experiments on H.M.- spoke to one of his FOCUS classes.

"This was an awesome, incredible, eye-opening experience for me," said Skotko. "I got to work with some amazing professors at Duke and statisticians at MIT."

Guven Guzeldere, director of Exploring the Mind, believes that the ingenuity of the students selected plays an integral part in their continuation of projects and service. "The FOCUS Program made the opportunity available to Brian Skotko, and it's up to the student to follow through on it," said Guzeldere, an assistant professor of philosophy.

Exploring the Mind is just one of 12 FOCUS-First-year Opportunity for Comprehensive Unified Study-programs offered to freshmen. Participants and directors in all programs agree that FOCUS students reap the benefits of small-group discussions on one set of issues.

Melissa Malouf, director of Arts in Contemporary Society, stressed that the close faculty-student interaction often leads students to become more involved.

"The faculty members often remain mentors to the students and help find them possibilities," said Malouf, associate professor of the practice of English.

Freshman Ben Morris, one of Malouf's students, agreed. The English major is collaborating with other students to lead a reading and creative writing house course next spring. "The attitude I've developed is, that if there's something you want that's missing, you can start it," Morris said.

Freshmen Sara Hudson and Joseph Lee, alumni of Humanitarian Challenges at Home and Abroad, echoed this sentiment. The two students have established the Duke-Durham Hunger Alliance. The organization has been running a food drive on the Bryan Center Walkway since last week, which raised $4,500 in the first two days. Hudson and Lee also hope to bring to Duke the Hunger 101 course they took in Washington, D.C.

In addition to providing unique opportunities, the FOCUS program helps students find peers with common passions. Four alumni of Exploring the Mind became good friends when they started The Duke Mind, a journal geared toward undergraduate research in neurobiology.

"FOCUS brings together kids that have similar interests," said junior Neil Gupta, one of the journal's founders. "Otherwise, the four of us would have never gotten together."

FOCUS Program Director Seymour Mauskopf, professor of history, said he was proud of FOCUS students and noted that Duke's past two Rhodes Scholars-Trinity '00 Julian Harris and senior Matthew Baugh-have participated in the program.

Guzeldere agreed. "FOCUS students often go on to do bigger and better things," he said. "I am very proud of our successful students."


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