Dean’s Award for Excellence in Mentoring
Ph.D. Candidate in Biomedical Engineering
Erika Chelales is a Ph.D. candidate in biomedical engineering. She completed her bachelor’s in science engineering and biomedical engineering at Tulane University in 2018, as well as her master’s in science at Duke in 2022.
As an undergraduate at Tulane, Chelales founded the School of Science and Engineering Undergraduate Student Mentor Program, in which she matched more than 145 freshmen in science and engineering with student mentors. During her graduate career at Duke, she has been a direct mentor to more than 24 undergraduate students. In Nimmi Ramanujam’s lab at Duke, Chelales created and directed an eight-week High School Engagement Program, during which she was also the primary research mentor to a female high school student.
She was also an instructor of record for the Duke Pre-College Program in the summers of 2021 and 2022, in which she designed and taught the entire curriculum for her course titled “Engineering Solutions for Global Health: The Human Centered Design Process.” She taught 63 high school students in total and mentored her students in capacities beyond her role as instructor.
Chelales is also committed to diversity and inclusion, and organized the first implicit bias workshop for Ph.D. students in her program who were participating in student recruitment. That workshop is now required training for her department. She also co-organized her department’s first-year seminar course in 2019 and 2020, and expanded that course with the addition of a workshop on diversity and inclusion.
What do you think are the most important qualities of a good mentor?
A good mentor is open-minded, adaptable, creative, supportive, and an effective communicator. In a strong mentoring relationship, it is essential to create a supportive and safe environment where the mentee feels empowered to ask questions, learn new skills, work collaboratively and independently, and make mistakes. I have found that creating time to directly discuss mentoring needs, research and professional goals, and general wellbeing with students I mentor allows me to adapt my mentoring style to each student and ensures they have opportunities to ask for changes when desired.
What is something you have done as a mentor that you are really proud of?
I am really proud of the moments where I have been able to be a mentor to mentees beyond simply research skills or experimental work. My goal in mentoring is to be a mentor to the whole person, not just a mentor in the lab. I am most proud of the times I have been able to support the students I mentor in prioritizing their mental health and managing challenges both in and out of their research role.
How do graduate students benefit from serving as mentors?
Serving as a mentor allows graduate students to grow both personally and professionally. While it is of course wonderful to have an undergraduate student helping with your research and supporting your workload, I think the most important benefits of mentoring are unrelated to the research progress. Serving as a mentor allows graduate students to cultivate management and communication skills that will be advantageous for any interpersonal relationship. Serving as a mentor challenges graduate students to think in new ways, understand new perspectives, and work collaboratively. These skills are valuable regardless of future career path or success of experimental work.
IN THEIR WORDS
Excerpts from Chelales’ nomination
“As she understands that we are all busy college students, Erika is extremely empathetic to personal issues and accommodations. As a woman planning to enter the scientific/medical field, having a young and personable female mentor is incredibly inspiring.”
“Erika is a great mentor who is extremely patient, understanding, and always eager to teach new things to anybody who wants to learn. My work with such a great mentor has made me realize my love for research and has greatly impacted my time at Duke.”
“She truly dedicates herself to making time for each of her undergrads to make sure they have structure and support in their work. More importantly, Erika is someone that I can turn to about things beyond research. She humanizes conversations that address things in our personal lives, and always makes time to support us as students. I have learned so much from working with Erika and admire her for investing so much time and effort in her undergrads to help them grow in all aspects of their Duke experience.”