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Stretching beyond Their Disciplines, Graduate Students Gain New Perspectives

Last year 19 Duke graduate students received 2016-2017 Graduate Student Training Enhancement Grants (GSTEG) from the Office of the Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies. The disciplinary homes of these students ranged from engineering, environment and biology to history, theology and medicine.

A key feature of Together Duke, the university’s new academic strategic plan, GSTEG allows graduate students to deepen preparation for academic positions and other career trajectories. Stretching beyond their core disciplinary training, these doctoral and master’s students acquired skills, knowledge and field experiences that widened their intellectual networks and enhanced their original research.

Explore the links to below to learn more about the recipients’ experiences with hands-on training, internships, workshops, courses and community engagement.

Hands-on Training

Nanotechnology at Los Alamos

Zhiqin Huang (Ph.D. in Electrical and Computer Engineering, Pratt School of Engineering) spent half a year at the Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. Exposure to the lab’s cutting-edge facilities and other resources amplified her dissertation research on novel nanostructures that can generate extremely low-energy and ultrafast plasmonic switches.

The main purpose of the visit was to learn optics-related experiment techniques. Based on the rich resources, I even built a new pump-probe system independently and did a group of experiments using newly fabricated samples and obtained primary results. Furthermore, I attended several forums related to nanooptics as well as invaluable seminars. Through discussions with some talented experts in the field of my research, I gained a much better understanding on both theory and experiments.

Coastal Wetlands

Fateme Yousefi Lalimi (Ph.D. in Environmental Science, Nicholas School of the Environment) visited Dr. Andrea D’Alpaos’s lab at the University of Padova and conducted fieldwork in the Venice Lagoon, in order to strengthen her dissertation on coastal wetlands.

I was able to extend a hydrodynamic model of coastal wetlands to larger scales with the use of robust numerical modeling techniques. Visiting and working in Venice marshes expanded my observational perspective beyond the study sites I was familiar with in North Carolina and Virginia. Besides the academic training and research aspect of this experience, I could extend my professional network and scientific collaborations with leading scientists in my field. I am currently working on a scientific paper that is the result of my trip.

A Closer Look at Stormwater

Mark River (Ph.D. in Environment, Nicholas School of the Environment) works in the Duke University Wetland Center. For his dissertation research on how phosphorus is transported by particles in stormwater, he tapped into the resources at Virginia Tech’s National Center for Earth and Environmental Nanotechnology Infrastructure (NanoEarth).

I traveled to Virginia Tech and learned hands-on transmission electron microscopy on two different instruments, which I had no exposure to previously. Using the data I obtained in the two full days at Virginia Tech, I am working towards a nice publication that I would not otherwise have the data for.

A Social Science Angle on Coral Restoration

What do managers of coral reefs need to know about coral restoration methods before they start new restoration projects? Elizabeth Shaver (Ph.D. in Marine Science and Conservation, Nicholas School of the Environment) set out to answer this question in partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and The Nature Conservancy.

In the process of creating and implementing the survey, I learned valuable skills in the social sciences that I otherwise would not have obtained in my graduate work, including training on the wording of surveys, the Institutional Review Board process and pre-testing, to name a few. And the NOAA workshop I attended was a small and selective group of practitioners and scientists that I was only able to attend because of my role in this project. This workshop provided countless networking opportunities that I have since used to develop a postdoctoral proposal on coral restoration.

Sticky Business of Underwater Adhesive

Zoie Diana (Master of Environmental Management, Nicholas School of the Environment) went to the Okeanos Research Laboratory at Clemson University to probe for chitin in the decorator worm (Diopatra cuprea) tube and underwater adhesive. This training furthered her understanding of conserved molecular mechanisms in invertebrate bioadhesive and structure and informed her thesis, “Learning to Glue Underwater: Inspiration from the Decorator Worm.”


Brazilian Governance 

Travis Knoll (Ph.D. in History, Arts & Sciences) served as an intern at the U.S. Embassy in Brasilia. He focused on issues ranging from Brazil’s internal political scene to the key role the country’s foreign policy plays in the region and beyond.

My time in Brasilia helped me connect historical debates with public policy. Both writing policy reports on affirmative action and meeting important public figures has opened up the possibility for focusing less exclusively on the push for affirmative action in Rio de Janeiro state.

Sufi Spirituality and Social Justice 

To strengthen his dissertation research on the Sufi spiritual movement and commitment to social justice, Daanish Faruqi(Ph.D. in History, Arts & Sciences) traveled to Jordan and Turkey to help Syrian refugee communities through relief foundations operated by Sufi networks.

I did considerable work with the Syrian refugee community under the auspices of SKT Welfare, a charitable organization founded and run by the Sufi spiritual movement that is the subject of my academic research. It made painstakingly clear the intimate connection between this group’s spirituality and commitment to worldly service. This experience will be crucial in helping better piece together the social and humanitarian dimensions of Islamic spirituality more broadly, and in understanding this movement that forms the basis of my dissertation in particular.

British Art and Poetry

Christopher Catanese (Ph.D. in English, Arts & Sciences) interned at the North Carolina Museum of Art to contribute to the exhibition “History and Mystery: British Old Masters, 1550-1850,” which provided experience within two departments of a major public arts organization and informed his research on 18th– and early 19th-century British poetry.


Capitalism, Slavery and Freedom 

Alisha Hines (Ph.D. in History and African & African American Studies, Arts & Sciences) attended the History of Capitalism Workshop at Cornell University. She learned about technical content areas such as statistics, accounting and economic theory in order to apply quantitative methods and techniques to her study of slavery and freedom in the middle Mississippi River Valley.

The workshop was quite useful to me because I use steamboat company records in my research and I now feel more confident reading ledgers and account books, and can ask new questions about the hiring practices, for example, of steamboat captains and how they might have assessed the risk of employing enslaved men and women in river work. In addition, I was able to learn more about mapping techniques I can use to chart patterns of mobility of black women in the Mississippi River Valley.

Modeling and Data Analysis for Biology

Eight months before defending her dissertation on the effects of genetic variation on signaling dynamics, Selcan Aydin (Ph.D. in Biology, Arts & Sciences) spent two weeks in the Computational Synthetic Biology Track of the Quantitative Biology (Qbio) Summer School at the University of California, San Diego. She built skills needed for the modeling and data analysis challenges of her research.

The group project was very helpful in gaining hands-on mathematical modeling experience where I had the chance to interact with computational biologists. This allowed me to improve my collaboration and scientific communication skills in addition to the scientific knowledge I have gained in computational and mathematical modeling.

Big Data and a Bird Migration Route

Danica Schaffer-Smith (Ph.D. in Environment, Nicholas School of the Environment) participated in a week-long workshop on environmental data analytics in Boulder, Colorado, offered by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON). The technical knowledge she gained will inform her dissertation on spatiotemporal variability of inland waterbodies along the Pacific flyway. More than a billion birds use this flyway every year as a north-south migration route.

Participating in the workshop assisted me in developing new modeling and computing skills, including an emphasis on big data and integrating diverse datasets in a unified analysis framework. The tutorials on Bayesian data analysis and spatiotemporal data analysis have proven to be directly applicable for my own work and I am currently using these methods in two chapters of my dissertation.

Environmental Genomics

Tess Leuthner (Ph.D. in Environment, Nicholas School of the Environment, Integrated Toxicology and Environmental Health Program), attended the Environmental Genomics training program at the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory.

I gained the knowledge to create, manage and analyze genomics datasets, but I also met new colleagues and collaborators. I continue to communicate and collaborate with scientists and peers that I met during this course.

Evolutionary Quantitative Genetics

Brenna R. Forester (Ph.D. in Environment, Nicholas School of the Environment) participated in two workshops hosted by the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS) in Knoxville and a workshop on conservation genomics in Montana, to inform her dissertation research in the emerging field of landscape genomics.

I learned skills that have allowed me to be a more effective collaborator, and have better prepared me for the postdoctoral position I have just started at Colorado State University.


Printmaking and Suffering

Stephanie Gehring Ladd (Ph.D. in Religion, Arts & Sciences) took a printmaking course at UNC Chapel Hill to gain insight into the process of intaglio printmaking. This experience enhanced her observational powers in writing about prints and informed her dissertation on attention to suffering in the work of Simone Weil and Käthe Kollwitz.

Professor Brian Garner was fantastic to work with. He let me custom-tailor a course within his Introduction to Intaglio, so that I was able to focus on the intaglio printmaking techniques most used by the artist I am studying, Käthe Kollwitz. I learned an enormous amount about how her work was done.

Singapore’s Urbanization 

Nathan Bullock (Ph.D. in Art, Art History and Visual Studies, Arts & Sciences) spent a semester taking courses at the Yale School of Architecture to inform the application of architectural theory to his dissertation on contemporary Singapore.

Seeing how students learn about architecture in a professional program was eye-opening in comparison to the approach taken by humanists in an art history department. I was most struck by how deep the divide really was between theory and practice. This experience will certainly change how I interact with and write about the architects I study in my dissertation research.

Marketing and Philosophy

Adela Deanova (Ph.D. in Philosophy, Arts & Sciences) completed a series of online courses in digital marketing in order to contribute to Project Vox, a digital initiative that recovers the lost voices of female philosophers in the early modern era.

The experience proved to be very valuable for me, not only because I learned about leading-edge business marketing practices in theory, but also because it allowed me to apply the theoretical insights to three practical projects: the Capstone Project for the Digital Marketing certification; the user experience strategy for Project Vox; and the Story+ project for RTI International.

Christian Engagement with Architecture 

Joelle A. Hathaway (Th.D., Divinity School) took a photography course at Durham Tech and conducted fieldwork in England. Her aim was to compile a portfolio of high-resolution images of religious art and architecture and conduct interviews about contemporary art in Anglican cathedrals, which will inform her dissertation about Christian practices of engagement with architecture and built environments.

I presented a paper at the Southeastern Commission for the Study of Religion based on the interviews and research I did at Salisbury Cathedral. I have two other paper proposals submitted for other academic conferences, also on cathedrals from my trip. I could spend the next decade researching and unraveling the different threads I uncovered through this experience!

Community Engagement

Empowering Young People to Become Healthy Adults

Banafsheh Sharif-Askary (M.D., School of Medicine) established the Health, Advocacy and Readiness for Teens (HART) program with partners Bull City Fit and Healthy Lifestyles. The program equips young people with tools and resources to help them lead healthier lives and learn behaviors that will continue into adulthood.

The Graduate Student Training Enhancement Grant was a crucial component of starting HART and ensuring that we had the necessary resources to serve our teens. Personally, HART has challenged us to be more flexible, thoughtful and accountable and we believe that these qualities will better equip us to be high-quality patient-oriented clinicians.

Art and Community Self-help

Jung E. Choi (Ph.D. in Art, Art History and Visual Studies, Arts & Sciences) traveled to Singapore to nurture community self-help in deprived urban neighborhoods and to inform her dissertation on the intersection of art, technology and space. Since then, Choi received her Ph.D. and completed the Graduate Certificate in Information Science + Studies.

I organized 12 different meet-ups among artists, community members and visitors and had opportunities to discuss various ways to enhance the understanding of the neighborhood and find better ways to engage with the environment involving art. Through this project, as a curator/scholar, I was able to understand the practical issues of curation that involve ongoing conversations among community members as well as the integrated approach to art and life.

Learn More

See which students received Graduate Student Training Enhancement Grants for 2017-2018 and what they plan to do.

In late 2017 or early 2018 an RFP will invite all current Duke graduate students (including master’s, professional and Ph.D. students) to propose graduate training enhancement activities lasting up to one semester, for use during the 2018-2019 academic year.