In November 2023, the Duke University Center of Exemplary Mentoring (UCEM) received a $1 million grant renewal from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to support its continued programming over the next three years.
The latest grant is the second and final renewal of generous financial support from Sloan, who by 2027 will have supported the UCEM program at Duke for close to a decade.
The Duke UCEM was founded in 2017 with a mission to expand Duke’s capacity to attract and retain STEM students from all walks of life and from all backgrounds, including those traditionally underrepresented in the physical sciences and engineering fields. The program was initially founded under the leadership of Senior Associate Dean Jacqueline Looney, who retired from her 30-year career at Duke in June 2022.
Yan Li, Psy.D., Dean of Graduate Student Affairs, serves as the center’s director and shares her immense pride of the progress UCEM has achieved thus far.
“When I joined The Graduate School in 2022, it was an honor to step into a leadership role in UCEM and continue the great work of Jackie Looney, Dean Paula McClain, and so many others,” says Li. “It really takes a village to make a program like this work. Over the past year, our faculty champions, mentors, oversight committee, and leadership teams have engaged with the Sloan Foundation to make plans to expand the Duke UCEM to its next stage and provide support to more students. This grant renewal is not only a testament to that hard work, but a reminder that there is still much work to be done.”
Fostering a Stronger Culture of Mentoring
In preparation for the grant renewal, the UCEM’s leadership team mapped out the future of the center, refining its strategy based on feedback received during a Sloan site visit to Duke in the spring of 2023.
Among several other initiatives, the grant renewal will allow UCEM to expand its recruitment efforts through partnerships with national societies and minority serving institutions, strengthen student support through enhanced faculty mentoring, and partner more closely with additional campus services, such as Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) and Duke Recreation & Physical Education, to provide stronger wellness support.
In support of the UCEM’s grant proposal, Duke University President Vincent E. Price recognized the UCEM’s role in upholding Duke’s inclusive values.
“Duke University is committed to addressing systemic racism and eliminating systems of inequality in its curricular, programming, and research activities,” said President Price. “Diversity in STEM fosters greater excellence, tapping into the full range of human talent and bringing a greater depth and breadth of perspective, ideas, creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving, and expertise. The UCEM’s structure and activities ensure all affiliated departments and programs are supported in pursuing these goals.”
The Sloan Experience
Duke is one of eight universities with UCEM programming sponsored by the Sloan Foundation. Students selected for the program at Duke—aptly named Sloan Scholars—receive an annual scholarship as well as robust mentoring, training, and professional development opportunities. More than 60 scholars have taken part in the program at Duke, with the first Scholars completing their Ph.D. programs in 2023.
Sloan Scholars have shared that the program has allowed them to form close relationships within their cohorts, and also to network with faculty and students outside of their programs, finding unique opportunities to collaborate across the institution. Initiatives designed to welcome scholars to Duke begin before students even start their Ph.D. programs.
Joshua Crittenden, doctoral candidate in Civil and Environmental Engineering, was a member of the first scholar cohort, and six years later defended his dissertation in the fall of 2023.
Looking back at this initial experience with UCEM, he remembers the impact of the Early Start program in UCEM, which helps scholars get acquainted with Duke before starting their doctoral program.
“Having the chance to do the Early Start program for Sloan before my Ph.D. allowed me to get plugged in with a lot of resources,” Crittenden said. “It has given me the ability to find folks who are ahead of me on campus, and connect with and bounce questions and ideas off of them as well.”
The Power of an Inclusive, Interdisciplinary Space
UCEM’s two principal investigators, Suzanne Barbour, Ph.D., Dean of The Graduate School & Vice Provost for Graduate Education and Professor of Cell Biology, and Adrienne Stiff-Roberts, Ph.D., the Jeffrey N. Vinik Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, have a vision to expand UCEM to become an even greater institutional resource.
Dean Barbour says the real power of UCEM is in the creation of an interdisciplinary environment that expands beyond campus laboratories and classrooms, allowing students to fully engage with one another as they explore their research and academic pursuits as well as their own personal identities. These include activities where the students can give back to the Duke and Durham community, including through participation in service projects such as Habitat for Humanity.
“The magic of UCEM is its focus on building a community of scholars,” Dean Barbour says. “In that way, UCEM models the working world where people work across disciplinary lines to develop solutions to the world’s most intractable problems.
A Sustainable Model for UCEM
Sustainability will be a major focus of UCEM in the next three years, as it looks for ways not only to continue financial support to Sloan Scholars, but to increase the impact of UCEM across the Duke community.
Duke University Provost Alec D. Gallimore shared his enthusiasm for UCEM’s expansion in a message to Sloan site visitors in 2023.
“I commend the Duke UCEM on its successes to date, and am pleased to learn that the program’s influence extends beyond the individual students you support, positively impacting others across the University,” Provost Gallimore said. “I look forward to working together with The Graduate School to build upon this foundation of outstanding work, as we continue to actualize the ‘equity-centered’ values we hold at the center of our mission.”
The Duke UCEM will work to form new partnerships across the institution to make this vision a reality.
“UCEM has proven to be a successful model in showing new ways that the university and The Graduate School can positively impact the student experience at Duke,” says Yan Li. “As the center expands, we look forward to collaborating with our colleagues across the university to find new ways of building a culture of mentorship and collaboration for our students.”