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Karla Sosa

Dean’s Award for Excellence in Mentoring
Ph.D. Candidate in Biology



Karla Sosa is a Ph.D. candidate in biology. She completed her bachelor’s in environmental biology at Columbia University in 2013. Sosa has received a number of fellowships and awards for her research at Duke, including a National Geographic Young Explorer award, and has completed fieldwork in Australia, Costa Rica, and Peru. Her research is focused on plant dispersal, biogeography, and taxonomy.

In nominating her for the Dean’s Award, current Ph.D. students praised the mentorship she offered them, starting at recruitment weekend and continuing throughout their time at Duke. Her undergraduate mentees also credited her with helping them discover and foster their research interests. Sosa is founder and former co-chair of the Duke University Biology Graduate Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Anti-Racism Committee, whose work has earned it a Dean’s Award for Inclusive Excellence in Graduate Education. Sosa has also been recognized for her efforts as a teaching assistant, receiving the Biology Department TA Award in 2020. In addition, she has served as a scientist pen pal to middle school students in under-resourced communities through the Letters to a Pre-Scientist program, as well as a tutor in the Scholars to College program at the Emily Krzyzewski Center.


What do you think are the most important qualities of a good mentor?

It is critical for a mentor to never judge an idea as a bad idea. Taking the time and effort to listen, engage with, and workshop a thought or proposal is essential not only in uplifting the voices of mentees, but for both their and my growth. And it is growth that is at the core of mentorship: to learn from each other so we can broaden our capabilities and our understanding of the world.

What is something you have done as a mentor that you are really proud of?

It has been a humbling honor to lead the Biology Department’s Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Anti-Racism (IDEA) Graduate Committee since its inception. Through my role as chair I have mentored other graduate students in pursuing justice and equity. I have rarely been as challenged as I am by the people who are part of the committee, who have pushed me to reconsider my most closely held ideals. By attacking “every day of (our) brief bright life in struggle”, we have blossomed and continue to blossom into our strengths and our truths.

Who are some good mentors you have had, and are there mentoring practices or traits from them that you have tried to incorporate into your own approach to mentoring?

One of my first and most supportive mentors is Dr. Fabián Michelangeli, from the New York Botanical Garden, whom I started working with during my junior year in college. He has always demonstrated a dedication for providing opportunities that expand my experience and push my boundaries. On one occasion, when we were discussing my thesis project, he said something that struck me: “My goal is that by the end of this project, you’ll know more about this topic than me. My goal is that you will be the expert.” It is this spirit of humbleness and generosity that I have aimed to carry into my own mentorship practice. 


Excerpts from Sosa’s nomination

“As someone whose parents immigrated to the United States (and pursued their studies elsewhere), I did not know much about academia in the United States and the opportunities that exist. As someone who came here [from another country] herself, Karla made that exploration process easy by always telling me about what is possible.”

“She was able to nurture my investment in the work, which I believe is critical to engaging undergraduates in research. Because of how she encouraged my interests and melded those to our work in the lab, she made me feel like I had a purpose and stake in the research that was being conducted.”

“I can easily claim that Karla developed a harmonious relationship with her students. She is easy to talk to and is a cheerful person, who I have come to have immense respect for.”