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Stewards Among Us: MEMS Graduate Student Committee

Liz Bloomhardt, a third-year doctoral student in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science, shares how MEMS students and faculty are working together to foster intradepartmental collegial relationships that enhance the graduate student experience. Pictures included with the article were taken during the MEMS retreat.

The Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science (MEMS) Graduate Student Committee grew out of a seminar series put on by graduate students to bring together a department that was physically divided with the completion of the new Fitzpatrick Center for Interdisciplinary Engineering, Medicine and Applied Sciences (FCIEMAS) building in 2004. The Materials Science half moved out of Hudson Hall and away from the Mechanical Engineering half to occupy the space in the new building. As Justin Jaworski, former Co-Chair of the Committee, put it, “the seminars were the only way for graduate students to meet and to be aware of the research within the department.”

He went on to describe the committee’s evolution from that point, “After a year or two, Professor Earl Dowell became Director of Graduate Studies and was interested in our opinions on graduate student matters. He commissioned Elizabeth Irish and me, the seminar series organizers at the time, to form a committee of students to represent the opinions of the graduate students across the various disciplines. Also, he allowed us to structure a budget for the grad-operated seminar series, which he considered unique among departments at Duke as well as other universities. An approved budget for the seminar series was the first major success of the committee, as it provided funds that could be earmarked from year to year to maintain the quality of the seminars and activities of the Committee. Also, by allowing us a budget, the faculty was making a vote of confidence in our ability to use monetary resources to optimize the graduate experience.”

Since the inception of the committee, its responsibilities and activities have grown considerably. The committee still oversees the organization of the seminar series which features graduate students speaking about their research to the department’s community of graduate students. In addition, the committee now also organizes a department-wide retreat, as well as taking a lead role in the organization of recruiting and orientation events. Jaworski described the success of the first MEMS Retreat in this way: “The MEMS Retreat was immensely successful, to the point that its repetition as an annual event was described by former MEMS Chair, Professor Tod Laursen, as a ‘no-brainer.’”

With all its success and growth, current Committee members think there is yet more opportunity to improve the graduate student experience within the department. While striving to meet the challenge of maintaining the high quality of the events it currently organizes, the MEMS Graduate Student Committee plans to pursue new opportunities to develop and promote students in the department through fellowship writing workshops and social events.

As the MEMS Graduate Student Committee looks to the future, Jaworski summarizes that at the core of its success is a “faculty that is willing to support the infrastructure of the committee and to have its program improve and succeed [by allowing the] MEMS graduate students to not only be researchers but also stewards of their own program.”