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ELI Helps Graduate Students Flex Leadership Muscles

Students complete an activity during a session of the Emerging Leaders Institute.
Courtnea Rainey (Ph.D.'15) participates in an activity during the 2015 Emerging Leaders Institute.

By Brooke Helton
Communications Intern

In July, new Ph.D. graduate Amy Hafez will start a postdoctoral fellowship at the Center for Tobacco Research and Education at the University of California, San Francisco – the first step in a career in which she hopes to help bridge the gap between biomedical sciences and policy makers.

At the same time, she will also be serving as Duke’s Graduate Young Trustee, a position that will give her the opportunity to voice the interests and concerns of graduate students.

In both roles, she plans to use what she learned in the Emerging Leaders Institute (ELI), which Hafez said helped her improve her communication and collaboration skills.

The ELI program began at Duke in 2014 and is co-sponsored by The Graduate School and the Office of Postdoctoral Services. It focuses on five core competencies: communication, leadership, self-awareness, professional adaptability, and interdisciplinary teamwork. ELI is offered every spring and includes five intensive workshop sessions, provides individual coaching from professionals inside and outside academia and culminates in a capstone team project and presentation.

Amy Hafez participating in ELI in 2015
Amy Hafez (Ph.D.'18) said the skills she honed in ELI
will help in her role as Duke's next
Graduate Young Trustee.

After passing her qualification exams, Hafez received an email from The Graduate School, which highlighted ELI. The timing was right for Hafez, and she completed the program in the spring of 2015.

“I think that for at least biomedical Ph.D. students, we gain a certain set of skills, we all learn how to think critically and we, to a certain extent, learn how to communicate our science to others, but we don’t necessarily learn how to work effectively in a group setting,” said Hafez, who received her Ph.D. in Molecular Genetics and Microbiology in May.

“This program was really great because it supplemented my Ph.D. training with external advice on how to effectively work in group settings, how to effectively lead your own research project ... It really helped me shape the way that I communicate with other people and how I push forward my project.”

The skills she developed in ELI will also help Hafez in her role on the Board of Trustees.

“It’s going to be challenging to learn how to communicate with people from so many different fields and so many different experiences and also very well-established members on the Board of Trustees…” she said. “ELI has really set me up very well to communicate my point of view and be able to communicate my questions throughout this experience.”

Assistant Dean Melissa Bostrom, ELI program director, said that ELI has recognized the importance of teaching students to communicate their value.

“We focus on communicating value … having people practice starting to talk about their value, what they bring to a team, to an organization and being able to communicate that in different situations,” she said.  

Over the years, the program has grown to focus on self-assessment and awareness.

“The program isn’t just about teaching leadership principles,” Bostrom said, “it’s about teaching people how to identify their strengths, preferences and opportunities for development and helping them think flexibly about how those might work differently in different contexts and situations.”

Another aspect of ELI is an interdisciplinary team project aimed at improving the campus environment for graduate students and postdocs. Bostrom said this component is important because “employers say graduate students and postdocs don’t have that experience when they want to transition into careers outside the academy.”

For first-year public policy student Travis Dauwalter, the team project set ELI apart as a leadership development program. Dauwalter spent five years serving in the military after completing his undergraduate education and then worked for another five years in marketing and business before coming to Duke for his Ph.D. He has received leadership training through those experiences, but found ELI to be unique.

Travis Dauwalter presenting during ELI
Ph.D. student Travis Dauwalter, who participated in ELI in spring 2018, said the program is different from his previous leadership training.

“When I’ve gone through leadership training like this in the past, it’s leadership training for leadership training’s sake, which is very valuable, but [ELI] has a product at the end which is meant to make the community better, and I think that’s very thoughtful in the design of the program,” said Dauwalter.

He said the team project is also important because collaboration is becoming more prevalent in research today.

“We have more access to more data and we have more connections that we’re making across disciplines,” he said. “The ability to be able to lead effectively in those situations is really important…. The relevancy of ELI is becoming more important now than maybe it was two decades ago.”

Dauwalter recently was elected as the president for the Graduate and Professional Student Council and will be putting his new leadership training to practice as he presides over the 14-person committee.

Through ELI, Dauwalter was able to identify strengths, weaknesses, and tendencies in his leadership. He said the personalized coaching was very valuable and that the coaches were highly qualified.

“The whole process of working with your coach is to identify what you tend to do when the going gets tough and how that can be perceived by the people you are working with or leading,” he said.

“Leadership is like a muscle,” Dauwalter said. “I hope that more people continue to apply to ELI just because you get the opportunity to flex that leadership muscle…. You’ll never know when you’re actually going to apply it, and my guess is that you’ll apply it a lot sooner than you expected and in a position that you never would’ve imagined you’d be applying it.”