Enhancing My Network of Mentors in 36 Hours
As I began the third year of my doctoral program, I started envisioning a strategy for a successful transition to my next professional endeavor. This raised a multitude of questions. How could I prepare myself for this shift? What transferable skills should I hone during this time? Will my connection to Duke fade after I obtain my degree? Remembering some of the insights I gained while cultivating a culture of mentoring, I knew that my mentor network could help answer these questions.
With the goal to enhance my network in mind, I became interested in participating in “36 Hours at Duke,” an event that promotes rapid connection-building among a small cohort of current Duke students and a diverse group of accomplished alumni. Tony Brown, Professor of the Practice at Sanford School of Public Policy, launched this program in 2013 with the idea that an intensive experience, combining facilitated activities and unstructured time, would boost the attendants’ professional development in just 36 hours.
My “36 Hours at Duke” experience began in early October after I was selected to participate from an initial pool of 60 applicants. Shortly after being notified, I received bios of the other attendees, including 21 Duke alumni ranging from talented young members of Forbes’ 30 under 30 in the Energy Sector to a recently retired Chief Operating Officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Each current student in attendance would be paired with an alumni mentor, but the identity of our assigned mentors would remain hidden until the program began!
The kickoff event was hosted at The Bullpen in downtown Durham, with a special activity to unveil the mentor/mentee pairs. After navigating around the room, meeting new people and seeing if the puzzle piece they had been given matched mine, I discovered that my mentor would be Eric Rohlfing, a Senior Technical Advisor and former Deputy Director of the Advanced Research Project Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). What an honor! The weekend looked promising.
As we sat down for our first conversation, I executed my plan to go through a series of carefully selected questions about Eric’s professional career in order to identify the skills that allowed him to occupy leadership positions in the energy sector. However, after talking for a while, our meeting evolved into a more fluid conversation, discussing personal insights and a variety of experiences. I learned that Eric is not formally a Duke alumnus, but had been granted honorary status for the weekend. Not only is he married to Celeste Rohlfing, another 36-hour attendee and Duke alumna with an exceptional career in science administration, but both of their daughters graduated from Duke. I realized just how great an impact Duke has made on his life and how excited he was to contribute to the university’s energy community.
Before wrapping up the first day, we were instructed to choose an energy challenge to tackle during the weekend. My first thought was grid decarbonization. This is a big issue, and one which is closely connected to my dissertation. However, I thought that the 36-hour program was a great opportunity to step out of my comfort zone. Eric agreed, so we chose a topic in which I did not have ample experience, concerning methods for steering patient private capital toward transformative energy innovation. I left the first meeting bursting with ideas and excited about my future professional path.
The second day was also packed with valuable lessons. First, we listened to a great panel discussion of trends in energy innovation and the role of new energy technologies. Then, we broke into small groups and worked on the energy challenges we had chosen the previous night. After brainstorming with five other attendees, we decided to design a systems-thinking institute to promote innovative research in topics like negative emissions technologies, while simultaneously creating a database and accompanying methodology for project selection that would expedite the funding process. We tried to create a compelling visual representation of our institute, but, as shown in the picture, the result wasn’t exactly the work of art we envisioned.
After this intensive session, we took a break and had dinner together, reuniting for a warm reception at the house of Brian Murray, Duke University Energy Initiative Director, where we enjoyed some delicious desserts from local Durham bakeries and listened to a live performance of Duke´s oldest a capella group, The Pitchforks. A relaxing end to a busy day!
The final day’s work focused on the identification of potential synergies between alumni and students. After identifying the importance of providing a wide variety of engagement opportunities for alumni, and the benefits these opportunities could have for current Duke students, we proceeded with the traditional closing ceremony ritual: the group photo.
What did I ultimately take away from my experience in this program? By engaging in meaningful conversations and listening to the advice of multiple mentors, I was able to answer many of the questions I had about my future transition. The 36-hour program reinforced the idea that being disciplined and having a strong technical preparation is as valuable as being able to communicate efficiently and engage with team members. I was able to polish my research pitch and gain confidence about the way I communicate. I established connections that would allow me to access the data I needed for my next research paper. I enhanced my understanding of the skills required to succeed in academic and research administration. After being part of the program, I can confirm that Tony Brown’s premise was true. I learned that once a Blue Devil, you are always a Blue Devil (Forever Duke!).
This experience could not have been possible without the tireless work from Duke University Energy Initiative staff. They deserve all the recognition for putting together one of the most intellectually stimulating and professionally supportive experiences I have ever had.
I hope that by reading this entry you will be encouraged to establish connections with Duke alumni and explore how mentorship can enrich your professional development. My next blog post will explore my experience as an international student at Duke and what I have learned about the added value of my diverse cultural background.
Ph.D. student, Environment
Edgar Virguez is a Ph.D. student in the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke. He is developing quantitative tools that support the transition to a deeply decarbonized electric power sector, by incorporating operations research, data science and geospatial analysis into a common framework.