Sloan Scholars

Author: John Zhu Page 2 of 5

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.


Gonzales Featured in SloanConnect Newsletter

Sloan Scholar Gavin Gonzales was featured in the May 2021 issue of the SloanConnect newsletter. The profile is reprinted below with permission from the Sloan Foundation.

Sloan Scholar Spotlight: Gavin Gonzales


Gavin Gonzales is a rising third-year doctoral student in biomedical engineering at Duke University, where his academic career has evolved from theoretical ideas to applied research—a journey that reflects his passion for both learning and doing.

Gavin studied physics at the University of New Mexico, researching quantum dots and how they absorb and emit light. His work as an undergrad taught him that “research is about finding what makes something work, and then studying how that implication goes further.” He enjoyed physics and was interested in his research, but he couldn’t apply it to anything outside the lab.

His first opportunity to see how research can be taken further was at Duke during a summer research program through Maximizing Access to Research Careers (funded by the National Institutes of Health). There, he worked with bioengineering and biomaterials for the first time, and he realized the appeal of applied research. Then, the summer before he started his PhD, he worked at Draper Laboratory on prosthetic heart valves for children.

Both research experiences exposed him to the power of applied research and collaboration. The experience at Draper, in particular, made him realize his passion for bioengineering and the problems it solves, specifically at the intersection of academia, industry, and research. At Draper, he participated in collaborations between Draper researchers and professors at other universities, giving him insight into how industry collaborates with academia.

Now at Duke, Gavin is researching the design of knee-joint lubricants, investigating how they bind to cartilage and can reduce the amount of wear on the joint from daily activities. He is also designing a joint-model system to mimic the body’s repeated motion on cartilage.

For Gavin, this research is more than broadly practical: he worked at a physical therapy clinic throughout high school, and he was impressed by the therapies that improved people’s quality of life. Now as an adult, Gavin is passionate about spending time outdoors, hiking, running, and his own health in general. In bioengineering, his passion for knowledge can combine with real-world applications.

While Gavin was inspired by his time in private industry, he is just as passionate about staying in academia, wanting to become a professor after he graduates. He’s seen applied research from both sides, and he’s looking forward to collaborating with other researchers and other industries. But, importantly, he also wants to mentor students.

His own experiences with mentors have motivated him to expose as many people to good mentors as he can. Not only has Gavin been a one-on-one mentor, he also works on programs that bring mentoring to communities. Most recently, he volunteered in a mentoring program with the Society for Hispanic Professional Engineers. He’s also spoken to middle and high school classrooms, highlighting why he got into research and what he finds fun about it.

“Being a mentor has made me realize that in order to help someone, you need to understand what they are looking for. Now I know I need to communicate my expectations to my mentors so they can help me. Two-way communication is very important.” When he has struggled with coursework in the past, he had a similar approach: reach out to peers with your challenges. Usually, each person is struggling in a specific way, and your classmate may have an understanding you don’t, and visa versa.

Just as Gavin seeks to apply what he learns and share that knowledge with others, he recommends other Sloan Scholars do the same. “Be ambitious, figure out your goals, and share them with as many people as you can. Make connections, advocate for yourself, and know that you can help yourself develop the most.” For him, being a Sloan Scholar (and now a member of the SloanConnect Student Advisory Committee) means having access to professional development, mentors, and friends—”a community away from home.”

Eric Yeats

Yeats’ Paper Accepted by Leading Conference in Machine Learning

Sloan Scholar Eric Yeats is the first author on a paper recently accepted to the International Conference on Machine Learning (ICML) 2021. The paper is titled “Improving Gradient Regularization using Complex-Valued Neural Networks.”

The ICML is the leading international academic conference in machine learning. During this year’s conference, Yeats will deliver a presentation, and his paper will be published in the conference proceedings.

Yeats, who came to Duke in fall 2019 as a member of the second cohort of Sloan Scholars, is pursuing his Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering under the guidance of Helen Li, the Clare Boothe Luce Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering. His research interest centers around neuromorphic computing—the design of novel brain-inspired computer hardware and algorithms for data-driven learning. Yeats is interested in pushing the performance boundaries of low-power, data-driven computing applications to make artificial intelligence more secure to malicious adversaries.

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