Sloan Scholars

Author: John Zhu Page 1 of 4

Yeats' robotics club standing by the Duke D in Cameron Indoor Stadium

Yeats Helps Middle Schoolers Get in Touch with Fun Side of Engineering

By John Zhu

When he was an undergraduate at Vanderbilt, Eric Yeats volunteered with an initiative to teach programming to K-12 students. In those sessions, students learned to write code that moved cartoon characters around a computer screen. While some of them had fun, Yeats felt something was missing from the experience—he wanted something more tangible than pixels on a screen.


Eric Yeats

Now entering his fourth year as a Ph.D. candidate at Duke, Yeats has spent the past few months creating the experience he envisioned by partnering with Durham Public Schools to offer a free robotics club for local middle schools that need more STEM-based afterschool opportunities.

“What really inspired me to do this project is I just really enjoy the process of engineering and problem-solving, and especially programming, and I just wanted to share how much I enjoy it with the kids at school,” said Yeats, a Sloan Scholar who is pursuing a Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering in Professor Hai “Helen” Li’s lab.

Yeats pitched the idea to Durham Public Schools officials and received an enthusiastic response. For three months this spring, he spent three afternoons a week going to Lucas, Githens, and Lowe’s Grove Middle Schools for one- to two-hour afterschool sessions, teaching anywhere from five to 15 students how to program robots to avoid obstacles, understand voice commands, interact with each other, and even play soccer.

He also organized a Duke visit in May for the students, who toured the Shared Materials Instrumentation Facility and the Co-Lab Studio before ending their day at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Students getting into clean-room suits

Middle school students from Eric Yeats’ robotics club try on clean-room suits during a tour of Duke research facilities.

“I wanted to start a program that was focused on programming and teaching engineering fundamentals, but was also fun,” Yeats said. “The goal wasn’t necessarily to have the students learn as much as possible about engineering, but to just see how fun it can really be.”

Funding for the robots came from a GradEngage Fellowship, which is part of the Purpose Project at Duke. The fellowship helps graduate students partner with local community organizations to develop solutions for pressing social issues. Yeats also got help from a couple of his labmates, as fellow Ph.D. students Brady Taylor and Edward Hanson helped facilitate some of the afterschool sessions and the students’ Duke tour.

While the GradEngage project period has ended, Yeats said Durham Public School officials are now talking to him about expanding the afterschool club into a yearlong program, securing other sources of funding, and getting more Duke students involved.

“The feedback has been good,” he said. “The students wrote me a card and they are going to mail it to me, so I’m really excited about that. And the site leaders apparently liked it a lot. The people from the administration at Durham Public Schools said, in their words, that the program got ‘rave reviews.’ ”

Video: Robots programmed by students in Yeats’ robotics club

Jacqueline Looney

Duke UCEM Director Featured in SloanConnect Newsletter

This story is republished from the May 27, 2022, issue of the SloanConnect newsletter.

Sloan Leader Spotlight: Jackie Looney

After 30 years at Duke University, Senior Associate Dean Jackie Looney will retire next month. Dr. Looney was not only a critical part of the Sloan Scholar program at Duke, but she also led the creation of other programs that enhanced graduate student life on campus.

When she first arrived at Duke, she was a recent PhD graduate from Vanderbilt University. Initially an assistant dean for graduate recruitment, she took up the charge of creating services and finding resources to support graduate students. At first, she admits she didn’t entirely know the way, but she trusted her intuition (having just finished graduate school herself), and she knew how to do her research! She investigated other programs, looked at graduate schools across the country, and talked with students and faculty members about what they needed. With this approach, she used multiple voices and her own instincts to forge a path ahead.

Incorporating multiple voices was equally as important when launching the University Center of Exemplary Mentoring and Sloan Scholars program. At her suggestion, every academic department that signed on to the program had to commit two faculty champions. Additionally, she built in administrative support: every unit in the graduate school had to contribute, including academic affairs, finance, and admissions. This approach not only gave the Sloan Scholar program buy-in from the start, it also made it sustainable—multiple people in the graduate school contributed the program’s success.

Jackie Looney with two Sloan Scholars

Jacqueline Looney with Sloan Scholars Celine Robinson (left) and Natalie Rozman

To further its sustainability, Dr. Looney also aligned Sloan Scholars with the graduate school’s strategic plan, including recruitment, professional development, student well-being, and mentoring. She explains how this was a win-win: “While we wanted to have a program that was giving opportunity to underrepresented students, we also wanted to create a program that was going to benefit the larger graduate population at Duke.”

And Dr. Looney didn’t stop at Sloan Scholars. She also introduced a mentoring award, parental leave policy, and numerous other programs that benefit Duke students in real and meaningful ways.

“I am so proud to know that Duke is one of the graduate schools in the country that sets a standard—the standard of care for your students,” Dr. Looney says.

Those who work with her agree. “Having worked in higher education for over twenty years, there are people who stand out in my mind as true servants to the field. Jackie is one such person,” says Lorelle Espinosa, program director for higher education at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. “Jackie is on my short list of individuals to reach out to when in need of guidance. She is deeply passionate and skilled at advancing our mutual goals advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion in STEM higher education—I am indeed lucky to have her in my corner, and so is Sloan!”

Dr. Looney encourages students to approach their graduate work with similar tenets to her own career:

  • Collaborate. Create a board of directors for your graduate career: a faculty advisor for academic requirements, a staff person for the ins and outs of the department, a senior grad student for a tutor and friend. “You can’t get everything that you need as a graduate student from one individual. Number one, you’re going to wear that person down. Number two, someone who’s comfortable helping you navigate the academic requirements may not be comfortable helping you navigate the personal matters,” she says.
  • Reach out. Become engaged with the university, with the graduate school, with student groups, and with the community. Dr. Looney encourages student groups to reach across disciplines, across schools, and to bring other students in the mix. Broadening your view to include other people, other interests, and other members of your community will energize your work in the lab.
  • Most importantly, have mentors. “The one thing that I know to be true about good mentoring is that when students have it, they are more productive, they become more involved in their departments, and they become more involved in the life of the university,” she observed. “They are more satisfied with their programs, where they are, what they’re doing.”

The Sloan Scholars program at Duke and other University Centers of Exemplary Mentoring have benefited from Dr. Looney’s vision, persistence, and wisdom. Thanks to her, graduate students—Sloan Scholars and otherwise—have greater opportunities and more fulsome support systems.

Ortega and Martin

2 Duke UCEM Students Earn Honorable Mentions for NSF Graduate Research Fellowships

Sloan Scholar Eduardo Ortega and Sloan UCEM Affiliate Aristotle Martin were among the Duke Ph.D. students who received honorable mentions for the prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships for 2021.





Ortega is a Ph.D. student in electrical and computer engineering with a concentration in hardware security. His research focuses on understanding how emerging computational technology may be pivoted as a cryptographic scheme for hardware security primitives. He is a member of the fall 2021 cohort of Sloan Scholars.

Martin is a Ph.D. student in biomedical engineering. He is part of the inaugural cohort of Sloan UCEM Affiliates, a new initiative launched by the Duke University Center of Exemplary Mentoring in fall 2021 to expand its support to more students. His research focuses on using supercomputers to simulate blood flow in patient-specific vascular geometries at cellular resolution.

Among the Duke UCEM’s 40 Sloan Scholars and eight Sloan UCEM Affiliates, seven have received NSF GRFs, and four others have earned honorable mentions.

Icons of test tubes, microscope, beaker, circuit symbol, atom, pie, and close tag symbol

Video: 2022 Duke UCEM Research Summit

Ten Sloan Scholars presented short talks about their research at the 2022 Duke UCEM Research Summit on February 17. Now in its third year, the summit offers an opportunity for Sloan Scholars to present their research relatively early in their graduate school careers. As part of their professional development, the Scholars also received coaching on their presentations before the summit.

Howard Conyers (Ph.D.’09 Mechanical Engineering) delivered the keynote address, speaking about his professional experience as a NASA engineer and a pitmaster and barbecue enthusiast.

Watch the Summit

Jump to Specific Presentations


Duke UCEM Director Jacqueline Looney Featured in Chronicle of Higher Ed

Jacqueline Looney, director of the Duke UCEM, recently spoke to The Chronicle of Higher Education about lessons learned in the 30 years she spent recruiting and supporting graduate students of color:

Faculty involvement was — and still is — the single most important part of this strategy. Most of my first few years on the job were spent meeting with, and listening to, faculty members across departments to learn what they looked for in prospective students.

Read the full interview at

Register for 2022 Duke UCEM Research Summit, Feb. 17

2022 Duke UCEM Research SummitThe Duke University Center of Exemplary Mentoring (UCEM) will host its annual Research Summit on February 17 at 3:00 p.m. Ten Sloan Scholars—select Ph.D. students from Duke’s physical sciences and engineering programs—will deliver short virtual talks about their research.

Members of the Duke community are welcome to attend. Register at

In addition to Sloan Scholars’ presentations, the event will also feature a keynote address by Howard Conyers (Ph.D.’09 Mechanical Engineering), an aerospace engineer at NASA and a pitmaster and barbecue enthusiast who has hosted a food show on PBS and been featured in the New York Times and other national publications.

Event Program (PDF)

Keynote Speaker

Howard Conyers, Ph.D.’09 Mechanical Engineering

Howard ConyersHoward Conyers, Rocket Scientist and Pitmaster from Paxville, South Carolina, is the founder of Conyers Family BBQ, Gumbo Jubilee, and the 100 Acres Project. After over 20 years of learning the history of the South and earning a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, he has worked for NASA for over 10 years.

He officially launched Conyers Family BBQ LLC in 2016 to be a pitmaster, cultural food educator, and STEM expert in the New Orleans area. His emphasis quickly became cultural educational dinners, media productions, and demonstrations. In 2018, Dr. Conyers hosted and co-produced the PBS Digital Studios show Nourish, and it was awarded the Telly Award and a Webby Nominee in its pilot season.

For his combined interest, Dr. Conyers was one of 25 people recognized as a Southerner of the South by Southern Living in 2018. In 2020, he partnered with Kingsford’s Charcoal to lead the development of the Preserve the Pit Program, which provides training and mentorship for barbecue professionals.

Dr. Conyers has conducted much research in validating the oral history of barbecue, distilling, and Southern food culture, and he has uncovered foundations of Southern foodways that were shaped by Black hands. Renowned for his knowledge of American barbecue and Southern foods, he is showcasing that African Americans have heavily shaped American barbecue despite not getting their proper credit, while also exhibiting their ingenuity. As a product of the deep rural South, he is taking important lessons of the past and applying them to the present.

Sloan Scholars at SHPE

Sloan Scholars Represent Duke at SHPE

Sloan Scholars Natalie Rozman, Gavin Gonzales, and Alex Mangus were among the Duke representatives at the 2021 Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers National Convention on November 10-14 in Orlando. Typically drawing more than 9,000 attendees, the event is the largest gathering of Hispanics in STEM every year. (Photos courtesy of Natalie Rozman and Gavin Gonzales)


Sloan Scholars Natalie Rozman, Gavin Gonzales, and Alex Mangus (second, third, and fourth from left) with the rest of the Duke contingent at the SHPE National Convention.

Angela Duckworth's GRIT book

Grit: Why It Matters

On November 8 and 10, Duke UCEM Director Jacqueline Looney conducted two workshops with Sloan Scholars to discuss the importance of grit, based on psychologist Angela Duckworth’s New York Times best-selling book on the power of passion and perseverance. Sloan Scholars took Duckworth’s grit test beforehand and discussed aspects of grit during the workshop. They also received a copy of Duckworth’s book.

Quick Takeaways

Based on responses from the Sloan Scholars who participated

Group of Sloan Scholars discussing grit-related questions

Grit isn’t just the perseverance to do the hard things. But it is also resisting giving up when faced with challenges you didn’t expect.

When discouraged or feeling inadequate, remember by showing up and giving your best effort, something will change.

Be more accepting of failures as opportunities.

Our talent is only part of the story. What we do with it matters.

4 Characteristics that the Grittiest People Share (from Duckworth’s Research)

  1. Duke UCEM director Jacqueline Looney delivers her presentation to Sloan ScholarsInterest: being deeply interested in what you are working on
  2. Practice: having discipline and effort
  3. Purpose: what motivates you to keep going
  4. Hope: a belief that your dreams are within reach

Workshop Photos

Zane and Dena in virtual escape room

Supporting, and Being Supported: Reflections from Duke UCEM Graduate Interns

By Dena Zhu Ho and Zane Swanson
Graduate School Administrative Interns for the University Center of Exemplary Mentoring

We worked together for the better part of a year as interns supporting the Duke University Center of Exemplary Mentoring (UCEM), a Graduate School-led effort to increase the diversity of Ph.D. graduates in the physical sciences and engineering. Yet the two of us have met in person only once—both at a distance and while properly masked, of course. Despite this, and all the other struggles during these difficult months, our final semesters of graduate school have been highlighted in no small part by our time with the Duke UCEM.

From Virtual Early Start in summer 2020—in which we had the task of introducing ourselves, Duke, and Durham to the newest Sloan Scholars (Ph.D. students recruited through the Duke UCEM) while stuck behind our computer screens—to the various online events and intern office hours held throughout the academic year, we received the opportunity to grow as colleagues and mentors to a group with boundless ability. Our work also involved close collaboration with the UCEM administrative oversight team, whose dedication and brilliance resulted in the awarding of a grant renewal—with commendation—for the Duke UCEM earlier this year.

In this post, we reflect on our individual internship experiences, what we’ve gained in tangible skills that we will carry into our careers, and the personal growth that will color all aspects of our lives. We are proud of what we were able to accomplish this year and thankful for all the relationships we built as members of the Duke UCEM family.

Zane and Dena at virtual escape room

Duke UCEM graduate administrative interns Dena Zhu Ho and Zane Swanson (highlighted) pose for a photo with Sloan Scholars at the end of a virtual escape-room session that they organized during spring 2021.

Dena Zhu HoDena Zhu Ho

Ph.D.’21 Mathematics

I knew I wanted to go into industry, so this Graduate School Administrative Internship provided the perfect opportunity for me to gain leadership and mentoring experience. As it happened, when I interviewed for the full-time consultancy job I will begin after graduating, one of the questions they asked me was about my administrative work experience. I believe this internship played a key role in me getting that job offer.

The experience of being a Duke UCEM intern really went far beyond my expectation. Despite the challenging environment that Covid has imposed on all of us, there was never a moment where I felt alone or overwhelmed about this internship. Rather, I was constantly reminded of the support system we have at the Duke UCEM, where we were truly appreciated for the work that we have accomplished. It is really a privilege to be able to build connections with our brilliant and friendly Sloan scholars, and very fulfilling to know that I took part in their journey to success.

More personally, this internship has granted me the opportunity to be part of an organized entity where I learned how I can turn voices into actions through coordinated work with the others, especially my co-intern, Dr. Swanson. The Graduate School deans working with the UCEM were never shy in giving us important tasks and letting us in on all the detailed programming. My opinions were valued, which enhanced my sense of responsibility while knowing that I was part of something big, and something where my efforts could make real differences.

As a graduate student, The Graduate School used to be just the place I check in when I first arrive at Duke or when I needed some official documents, but now I can proudly say I am truly a member of The Graduate School. My work has made an impact, and I have built so many priceless relationships with the deans, who always try their best to help us. I am sad that I am graduating and leaving, but I know that even if I am no longer at Duke, the UCEM team is still there to support me and to help me go further in my professional career.

Zane SwansonZane Swanson

Ph.D.’21 Evolutionary Anthropology

The Graduate School Administrative Internship for the Duke UCEM was more than it promised to be. When I first discussed the role with Dean Jacqueline Looney and other members of the oversight team, I envisioned an opportunity to give back to The Graduate School that I had found a home in. The reality of my time as an intern, however, was as much about personal growth as it was about helping to continue the successes of the Duke UCEM and the Sloan Scholars.

The position was dynamic, one day brainstorming the best solution to corral more than three dozen *very busy* Sloan Scholars’ schedules for social and academic events, and the next helping the UCEM oversight team as they planned and executed a grant renewal for the Duke UCEM, itself. Always working in close collaboration with my co-intern, Dr. Dena Ho, I grew as a member of a team that facilitated my development as a mentor and administrator.

My time spent with Sloan Scholars allowed me to view my academic career from a different perspective, which I hope provided the scholars with some helpful insights about their own academic journeys as they continue to stride into the future. With everything I have been able to be a part of, I now understand better the important roles that the administrative, academic, and social structures play in promoting successful graduate careers, something I might have taken for granted just a year ago.

Having said all that, when the idea of writing these reflections came up, my first thought was of problem-solving. Problem-solving, in a variety of forms, is an integral part of being a graduate student. For most of my graduate school experience this problem-solving felt insular, hyper-focused on the single goal that I was working toward. The work was meaningful, of course, but also isolating at times.

My work with the Duke UCEM was different, though. I learned and grew in an environment with colleagues, all far more senior than me, who offered respect and support toward the collective aims of the UCEM. The work felt important, and I was made to feel important to the work. In a year where it was easy to lose touch with so many things, I was tethered to the encouragement of peers and mentors. For fear of sounding too sentimental (if I haven’t already), I will leave it at this: I gained exactly what the Duke UCEM offers—a structure in which to thrive, built by those who care enough to support it.

Sloan Foundation Renews $1 Million Grant to Duke UCEM

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation will continue to fund a Duke University program to increase the number of underrepresented minority Ph.D. graduates in the physical sciences and engineering, approving a three-year, $1 million grant renewal.

The grant, supplemented by funding from Duke’s Office of the Provost and The Graduate School, will support the University Center of Exemplary Mentoring (UCEM) at Duke, one of eight such centers in the country.

“We are very grateful for the Sloan Foundation’s continued support and encouragement for this critical effort,” said Duke Graduate School Dean Paula D. McClain, one of the co-principal investigators for the Duke UCEM. “This funding will help us build on the momentum that has been generated in the UCEM’s first three years and keep working toward making Duke a more diverse, inclusive community.”

In its first three years (2017-2020), the Duke UCEM met its goal of recruiting 30 Sloan Scholars into Ph.D. programs in chemistry, computer science, mathematics, physics, statistical science, biomedical engineering, civil and environmental engineering, electrical and computer engineering, and mechanical engineering and materials science. Sloan Scholars receive scholarships to support their academic progress and enrichment. The UCEM also creates robust programming and support networks to advance their academics, mentoring, professional development and well-being.

“One of the guiding principles of this initiative has been that we cannot stop at just recruiting more underrepresented students to Duke; we have to make sure they are supported during their time here,” said Calvin Howell, a professor in physics and the UCEM’s other co-principal investigator. “So we have been very intentional about developing resources, building a support infrastructure, and identifying individuals to provide multiple layers of mentoring for our Sloan Scholars.”

That work has been a joint effort by The Graduate School, the Office of the Provost, Counseling and Psychological Services, and the nine affiliated Ph.D. programs (soon to be 10 with the addition of the University Program in Material Science and Engineering this year). The UCEM’s day-to-day operation is led by Graduate School staff in close collaboration with faculty champions and directors of graduate studies in each program.

The center’s work has benefitted students and programs beyond just those directly affiliated with the UCEM, said Senior Associate Dean Jacqueline Looney, the Duke UCEM director.

For instance, the UCEM has helped The Graduate School make important enhancements to its holistic admission process, and has held workshops that were open to students, faculty, and staff from other STEM programs. Various elements of the UCEM’s work have also served as models for components of other Duke efforts to better support students from a diverse range of backgrounds.

“The first three years of the UCEM have been encouraging because of the progress we have made, humbling because of the insights we have gained about the significant work that remains, and invigorating because of the enthusiasm from the faculty, staff, and administrators involved with the program,” Looney said. “They recognize how important this work is to building a better university and strengthening Duke’s scientific research, and they are committed to doing the work.”


The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation is a philanthropic, not-for-profit grantmaking institution based in New York City. Established in 1934 by Alfred Pritchard Sloan Jr., then-president and chief executive officer of General Motors, the foundation makes grants in support of original research and education in science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM) and economics. This grant was made through the foundation’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion program, which aims to increase the quality, diversity, inclusion, and equity of higher education in STEM fields.

The Duke Graduate School provides research-based graduate training that prepares students to thrive and lead in a wide variety of professions. Its 2,500 Ph.D. students and 1,000 master’s students are enrolled across more than 80 programs, where they work closely with more than 1,300 graduate faculty members in small, collaborative research settings, pushing academic boundaries, offering fresh perspectives in research approaches and giving voice to emerging fields.

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