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Making the Most of Duke on the Road to the Ph.D.

Three students share opportunities that strengthened their doctoral education

Jessica West, Ph.D. in Sociology

Joining a Team of Global Experts on Hearing Loss

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studies the health and well-being of individuals with disabilities. She is particularly interested in the experiences of people with hearing loss, as she herself has worn hearing aids since the age of 17.

West’s dissertation, “Stress Proliferation and Disability over the Life Course,” is organized into two chapters that address questions regarding stress proliferation and disability using data from the Health and Retirement Study, a longitudinal, nationally representative sample of U.S. adults over the age of 50 and their spouses.

How she got involved with a working group on hearing loss stigma

During the second year of my Ph.D. program, I reached out to Dr. Debara Tucci, an otolaryngologist at Duke. I was interested in meeting her because in addition to her fantastic basic science research, some of her clinical research focused on addressing barriers to hearing health care.

In 2019, The Lancet Commission on Hearing Loss(LCHL) was formed to identify ways to reduce the global burden of hearing loss. Dr. Tucci invited me to participate in the inaugural meeting. Once the Commission realized they needed a stronger focus on stigma, Dr. Tucci asked me to become part of the stigma working group, which is co-led by Dr. Laura Nyblade (RTI) and Dr. Howard Francis (Chair of the Department of Head and Neck Surgery and Communication Sciences at Duke).

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Jessica West (fourth from right) at the inaugural meeting of the LCHL in October 2019

The RTI team is part of this working group and has several tasks. First, we are conducting an extensive literature review of past evidence on the stigma related to hearing loss and hearing-related assistive devices. Second, we have been tasked with creating a framework for thinking about hearing loss stigma. Finally, we are creating a survey that will be fielded in two countries to generate a more current understanding of hearing loss stigma.

Through the LCHL, I have had the opportunity to meet and work with world experts in hearing loss whose work I have read and cited throughout my doctoral training. Joining the RTI team has introduced me to Dr. Nyblade, who has extensive expertise in stigma and discrimination, especially surrounding HIV and AIDS. In some of her past work, Dr. Nyblade has developed, tested, and standardized a tool for measuring stigma. Working with Dr. Nyblade has shown me ways in which academic research can be translated into public health interventions.

Edgar Virgüez, Ph.D. in Environmental Sciences & Policy

Making the University a Better Place

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Edgar Virgüez is an energy systems engineer promoting a rapid and cost-efficient energy transition toward a decarbonized electric power system. His research integrates methods from operations research, geospatial analysis and environmental economics. At Duke, he has received several of the most prestigious awards for graduate students, including the Graduate School Dean’s Award for Excellence in Teaching and the Forever Duke Student Leadership Award.

Virgüez has served on numerous boards and committees across the university. He took part in The Graduate School’s Emerging Leaders Institute, where graduate students and postdocs work in teams to improve Duke’s campus environment, a Bass Connections project (read his reflection) and many other interdisciplinary endeavors. Expecting to graduate later this year, he has accepted a postdoctoral position at Stanford University.

What he gained from engaging in governance

For the last few years I have served on the resources committee of the Board of Trustees. Through that experience, President Price invited me to be part of the search committee for the new executive vice president. I learned about the most pressing challenges for higher education, and how to engage in the decision-making process to prepare the university to confront these challenges.

I have worked with eight of the eleven vice presidents that we have. Through our interactions I have learned so much from them. They have answered my questions and shared their wisdom and expertise. My dream is to become a university president, and they gave me so much insight, information and passion for continuing this path.

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Edgar Virgüez speaks on a panel of Cross Scholars at the Association of American Colleges & Universities 2020 Annual Meeting.

I’ve also made the most of my Duke experience by actively participating in the Graduate and Professional Student Government, where I have served since 2017. For example, last fall, I introduced a resolution to remove the GRE as a mandatory requirement. Engaging students, admissions officers and members of The Graduate School taught me how to tailor a proposal that reflects multiple perspectives. The final product received approval from the student government. I believe it provides a platform for student advocacy efforts to remove some of the barriers that prevent Duke from being a more inclusive and diverse place.

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A man and wife smile with the Duke president
Edgar and his wife Temis with President Vincent E. Price

I hope to return to Duke one day. This place has become a home for us. My wife [Temis Coral Castellanos, MEM ’19] finished her master’s degree here. We had our first baby at Duke Hospital. This place provided so many resources for us that it changed our lives forever.

While our experience at Duke has been defining, this does not mean that everybody else’s experience has been as positive. There are things to improve. Rather than sitting down and being passive, we have been actively trying to change the university. We want Duke to be a place where everybody can thrive regardless of where they were born or how they self-identify. Even if you don’t have the resources to apply for the standardized exams, or you face multiple barriers to entry, you should have a chance to be part of the Duke family.

Hannah Ontiveros, Ph.D. in History

Looking at Humanitarian Work from a New Angle

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Hannah Ontiveros studies the history of women in the 20thcentury. Last summer, while working on her dissertation about American humanitarian responses to the Korean War, she took on two research projects for CWS Durham. This branch of Church World Service supports immigrant and refugee new arrivals in the Triangle area.

Through a Graduate Student Training Enhancement Grant she designed herself, Ontiveros explored strategies for fundraising and community outreach, and conducted interviews with congregational partners and CWS staff. From her research, she crafted reports on her findings and recommended strategies for shaping future programs.

Ontiveros also served as a Story+ graduate mentor and a Bass Connections project coordinator (read her reflection).

Why she chose this internship

I specifically wanted to work for a progressive faith-based organization, because those are the kinds of institutions I write about in my dissertation. I knew that understanding how these organizations operate on a practical, local, contemporary basis would strengthen my historical analysis of how they operated in the 1950s. Conversely, I wanted to bring my historical research on these organizations to bear on present-day operations.

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A graphic of yellow words that read CWS

CWS was a great fit. The organization’s emergency relief efforts crop up a lot in my dissertation; CWS Durham operates locally and works in grievously under-served communities; and the organization’s focus on refugee resettlement and advocacy addresses a timely problem with roots in the historical period that I study.

My work with CWS showed me how such organizations continue to operate 70 years later. As part of my research for CWS, I interrogated how donors and volunteers articulate their duty to serving refugee populations. I address the same kinds of questions about duty and motivation in my research. In both cases I found similar answers, demonstrating narratives of deservingness, civic duty and care that run across 70 years. It demonstrated to me the ongoing necessity of studying how and why humanitarianism operates, and how it functions in American society.

My research for CWS required me to use methods outside and beyond the historical and archival ones I’m accustomed to. I had the opportunity to conduct interviews, to engage philanthropic studies literature, and to utilize some qualitative and quantitative research methods on congregations’ mission statements. Through my research I pushed myself to think in a more interdisciplinary way.

Advice for Doctoral Students

Make connections with people outside of your home discipline because they can often provide perspectives or other connections that you might not otherwise be able to access. The benefit of these connections may not be immediate – it may take a few months or years, but they are still worth fostering. – Jessica West

Push yourself to find an internship that’s as far outside of your direct area of inquiry as you can. This will help you develop an understanding of broad implications of your research and of your skillset. It will also expand your employment prospects, both in adding a diverse c.v. line and in pushing your research and writing skills into new environments. Also, don’t be afraid to send that introductory email to a potential internship host. – Hannah Ontiveros

Use the interdisciplinary initiatives that we have at Duke. There is a tool from The Graduate School called Duke OPTIONS to quickly identify all of the resources that we have here. Anything that you could dream of, there is a possibility that we have a resource related to that. – Edgar Virgüez