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2013 Dean’s Award: Zakiya Nicole Whatley

April 19, 2013
Zakiya Nicole Whatley

Dean’s Award for Excellence in Mentoring

Zakiya Whatley, a Ph.D. student in the Genetics and Genomics Program, received and Bachelor of Science in Biology with a concentration in Cellular and Molecular Biology from Hampton University. Her research focuses on the genetic study of DNA damage and repair in Escherichia coli.

Zakiya is considered by one of her nominators "to be exemplary in her concern for her fellow students, her mentoring and inspiration of younger students, her outreach to the community, and her multiple roles in helping to recruit the best new students to graduate programs." She exhibits her concern in a many ways, including helping "multiple graduate rotation students as they worked in the lab and frequently asking helpful questions and making good suggestions about other students' research projects during weekly lab meetings." Another nominator notes that "Zakiya freely offers her time to assist classmates with experimental design and techniques, adding that "she is well-respected among her peers and constantly engages the younger students, providing scientific assistance as well as personal words of encouragement."

In mentoring younger students, Zakiya is patient but does not lower her expectations because of their inexperience. Working with high school students and undergraduate students, "Zakiya spent a great deal of time teaching them laboratory techniques, explaining rationales, and helping them to interpret their studies. She showed great patience when the students were working hard and applying themselves, but then firm resolve to tell them when they were not reaching the standard that she expected of them. She was very adept at this direct one-on-one mentoring and each of the students gained much from her efforts."

Zakiya has also "played a particularly strong role in diversity efforts at Duke, most of which have very strong mentoring components."  One such effort is the Summer Research Opportunities Program, in which Zakiya served as a graduate student mentor for several summers. In this position, Zakiya's time was spent "educating the visiting undergraduates about careers in science, progress in graduate school, and orienting them to the Duke campus. The students appreciated her guidance and mentoring and benefited from her efforts."

Another example of Zakiya's mentorship is her involvement in the Bouchet Society, a student organization at Duke for underrepresented minorities pursuing degrees in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. One nominator describes Zakiya's impact on the society, "I became involved in the Bouchet Society during my first year as a graduate student. During this time, Zakiya was President, and one of her main focuses was to instill the values of the organization and ensure that younger students would have a good foundation to build up the organization. I can definitely say that without her time as President the organization would not be in the place it is in today." Her mentorship also extends to community outreach in her work in the Building Opportunities and Overtures in Science and Technology (BOOST) program, which works with 5th and 6th graders in the Durham Public Schools who have a strong interest in science, even "bringing some of them into our lab so they could see first-hand what a research lab looks like." One nominator observes that Zakiya "gives tirelessly to ensure that those less fortunate gain exposure, build confidence, and are encouraged to enter STEM fields."

Despite the fact that "Zakiya has been pursuing a difficult and very interesting project," as one nominator says, she remains "connected to helping students define and achieve their academic future career goals and mentors students within the lab, working very closely to provide constructive feedback when needed." It is clear that Zakiya's generous mentoring has implications that extend beyond the individual and that, in fact, "Zakiya has been more than a mentor, she has been a leader in teaching others about the comprehensive benefits of mentorship, motivating others to give back in a way that is conducive not only for personal development for the mentor and the mentee but also in a way that has substantial implications for a broader cause."