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Duke Research in Engineering Program (DukeREP)

2020 Dean’s Award for Inclusive Excellence in Graduate Education



About the Program

Reflecting on her own high school days, Hala El-Nahal realized that she didn’t really understand what it means to be a scientist, to have a Ph.D., or to conduct research in a university lab.

After she began pursuing her Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at Duke, El-Nahal started thinking about how to address that issue for high school students. She found four fellow BME Ph.D. students who were interested, and out of their efforts came the Duke Research in Engineering Program (DukeREP).

“High school students are at a juncture in their lives where they are making a lot of important decisions about their future, like whether or not they are going to college, what they are going to major in in college, whether or not they want to join a research lab as an undergrad,” El-Nahal said. “The goal of DukeREP is to expose our students to research in engineering in the hopes of encouraging them to pursue academic or professional careers in STEM down the line, and also to prepare them for the college application process.”

DukeREP provides an immersive summer research experience for local high school students, especially those from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds and groups that are underrepresented in STEM. Selected rising juniors and seniors choose a research lab at the Pratt School of Engineering where they will be embedded for seven weeks, during which time they are paired with a graduate student or postdoc.

“We encourage them to ask a lot of questions,” said Raveena Kothare, one of the Ph.D. students who helped launch the program. “We try to instill in them that this environment is a place of curiosity, so not knowing something is not a fault or flaw, but an opportunity to learn something.”

In addition to working in the lab, the students participate in programming that helps them develop their résumés and college essays, take part in advising seminars held by the Duke College Advising Corps, and attend talks by professors from a wide range of backgrounds. The students receive a $2,000 stipend—important because many of them are working during the summer to support themselves financially—as well as daily lunches and a GoPass for transportation.

The Ph.D. students leading DukeREP—El-Nahal, Kothare, Anthony Alers, Sheridan Carroll, and Ishaan Puranam—didn’t just come up with the idea; they also worked to get the buy-in and funding to bring their vision to life. For the program’s first year, they secured more than $20,000 in funding, including support from the BME department, the Office of the Provost, The Graduate School, Pratt, and the Duke-Durham Neighborhood Partnership.

In addition, the Ph.D. students oversaw the operation of the program, coordinating with Durham Public Schools, recruiting and selecting the high school participants, identifying Ph.D. and postdoc mentors, setting up the programming, and managing the finances.

The program launched in summer 2018, placing four high school students in BME labs. All four are now college undergraduates, and at least three are pursuing STEM degrees.

Thanks in part to efforts by another Pratt Ph.D. student, Natalie Rozman, the program grew to 13 students the following summer and expanded to include student placement in labs in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science. Its total funding has grown to more than $100,000.

“I am very proud of these Ph.D. students for juggling their degrees and research with launching this worthwhile program,” BME department chair Ashutosh Chilkoti wrote in his nomination of DukeREP for the Dean’s Award. “The time commitment involved is significant and underscores how strongly they feel about outreach aimed at increasing diversity in STEM fields.”



Excerpts from the Nomination

“The world of graduate education is almost entirely invisible to many high school students from underprivileged backgrounds. What I love about DukeREP is how it drives straight at this problem by providing an opportunity for local high school students, with an emphasis on underrepresented minorities, to work with Ph.D. students, scientists, and engineers. For at least one summer they are immersed in a Duke lab and get to truly see what grad school is about and where it could take them. The experience gives faces, names, and personalities to the otherwise abstract concept of a ‘Ph.D.’ ”

— Marc A. Sommer, DukeREP faculty adviser