Sloan Scholarships Attract Innovative Thinkers to STEM Fields

Program received $1 million grant to support Duke efforts

Sloan Scholars collaborated with Duke BioCoRE Scholars on building a Habitat for Humanity House in Durham.

Sloan Scholar Support

Duke is one of eight universities with UCEM programs funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. More than 60 scholars have taken part in the program at Duke, with the first Scholars completing their Ph.D. programs in 2023.

In addition to standard graduate school financial and academic support, each scholar receives $40,000 in supplemental funding during their five years of study to bolster their academic progress and enrichment. 

Discovering Durham

Shamarie King

Even though they are involved in scientific research that may one day have a global impact, these students still find time to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity and the Diaper Bank of North Carolina, enjoy a Durham Bulls baseball game, and other entertainment spots in the city’s downtown district.

“One of my favorite [community] visits was to NC Escape,” said Sloan Scholar Shamarie King, a second-year doctoral student studying mechanical engineering and materials science, about the group’s trip to the Orange Street venue that features a series of escape rooms and encourages team building.

“We didn’t beat the time record, but we did it pretty quickly,” added King, a native of Jamaica who was in the 11th grade when she moved with her family to Biloxi, Mississippi. “We did it in under 30 minutes.”

Sloan Scholar Trey Highland is a first-year doctoral candidate studying biomedical engineering. The Montgomery, Alabama native said volunteering last summer at a Habitat for Humanity location near Chapel Hill was memorable.

King and Highland were among a group of Sloan Scholars who recently talked about their research and how they have benefitted from the mentoring program.

King appreciates being part of a multi-racial community who arrived at Duke “from all walks of life.”

“The community has been really great,” King said, “especially when I need to talk with someone about interests outside of school.”

In the laboratory

Jafer Vakil

Jafer Vakil is a native of Worcester, Massachusetts who graduated from Miami of Ohio in 2020 with a degree in biochemistry and is now a fourth-year chemistry doctoral student.

Vakil’s research focuses on the molecular structure of polymers, which are long, chemical chains.

“Polymers are all around us,” Vakil explained. “Our DNA, our clothes, and our food are all comprised of polymers. Polymers are ubiquitous.”

He studies materials such as elastomers - elastic materials made of polymer strands that return to their original shape after they are stretched, like rubber. He’s also studying hydrogels, materials whose polymer strands absorb large amounts of water, and are remarkably tough.

Vakil said the goal is to understand materials from a chemical perspective. This sort of framework would allow them to, for instance, figure out how to strengthen materials for practical applications in everyday life: like car tires.

“How can we extend the lifetime of materials and reduce their turnover or need for production?” asked Vakil, who pointed out that “millions of car tires are discarded annually,” and if the research his lab is doing can strengthen the rubbery polymer strands, “it has the potential to reduce the environmental burden of mass production.”

Darryl Taylor

Taylor grew up in Washington, D.C. He is a third-year student at Duke in the mechanical engineering and material science program.

Taylor is interested in the practical use of nanocellulose, a plant-derived material that currently “has applications in many industries,” but he thinks could expand into even more applications.

“It could be used to clean drinking water contaminated with metals like lead,” Taylor said. 

King is a graduate of Alcorn State University, a historically Black college in Mississippi. She studies the properties and structure of mucus, and how the body clears the substance out of the respiratory system.

King’s research focuses on how to change the properties and structures of mucus that will enable the substance “to flow or glide out of the respiratory tract in disease.”

Meanwhile, Highland builds microscopes in his biomedical engineering lab where he conducts “functional phasing imaging,” a process that enables him to track the progression of carcinogenic transformation to better understand how cancer cells metastasize to other parts of the body.

“It’s pretty early on in the game right now, but in the big picture, one day we can take a normal tissue sample — for example, if someone has abdominal pain — and based on the likeness of existing pictures, to determine if the sample shares precursory characteristic of cancerous tissue that could develop later in life.”

Receiving a Sloan Scholarship cinched Vakil’s decision to enroll at Duke in the fall of 2020. He said the scholarship offer seemed “too good to be true.”

Building a Community

Vakil said the community of Sloan Scholars has been edifying beyond the classroom and science labs. He enjoys interacting with other STEM graduate students at teaching conferences they have attended.

“Those are really fantastic,” Vakil said about the conferences. “We get to meet other Sloan Scholars and talk about our experiences in academics and beyond. The stereotype about grad school is that it’s hard, cruel and unyielding. It’s true that it’s tough, but the Sloan scholarship and community shatters that stereotype from my experience.”

Taylor said the mentoring opportunities have been important, and if he cannot find the answers in his own department, he can visit other graduate school programs and talk to others “who will figure out a way to help you.”

Taylor also pointed to the intangible benefits of the Sloan Scholarship.  “I can’t really put it into words,” he said. It’s how I conduct myself, how I explain myself, and how I communicate with others.”