The Role of a Mentor and Mentee

Dean Ashby discusses the importance of mentors to her career in academia

Dean Valerie AshbyIt is fascinating to consider that Duke’s illustrious Dean Valerie Ashby of Trinity College of Arts and Sciences once struggled with the same concerns of an inexperienced undergraduate student like myself. Even before she began college, Dean Ashby had set her sights on majoring in chemistry, but she still grappled with questions that are shared by many students such as what her career would be and what she would do with her degree. As Dean Ashby progressed in her career in academia to professorship, she continually battled with imposter syndrome, and despite her talent and strong work ethic, she questioned her abilities and sense of belonging. Dean Ashby’s journey to success is a remarkable and personal story of courage and inner struggle. However, one characteristic theme that distinguished Dean Ashby’s story for me was the importance she placed on the mentors she had in her life. Dean Ashby’s story was wonderful to me because many major steps in her life involved the guidance of trustworthy mentors that supported her in becoming the great Dean Ashby we know today.

Dean Ashby’s story highlights the responsibility and role of the mentor and mentee. Some admirable characteristics that Dean Ashby’s mentors displayed were their ability to encourage individuals to take the next step, their capability to instigate curiosity and creativity, and their willingness to deeply know their mentees. Heading into the end of her junior year in college with no research experience, Dean Ashby did not know what she wanted to do with her interest in chemistry. Her mentor at the time encouraged her to push forward and pursue undergraduate research in industry.

That summer, Dean Ashby experienced a level of excitement she had never experienced before. She had the opportunity to work on an original project in an agricultural company and even discovered a novel molecule. Through her work, Dean Ashby discovered her interest in research, and with the support of her mentor, she was inspired to attend graduate school. During her first year of graduate school, Dean Ashby met Dr. Joseph DeSimone – her exceptional PhD advisor. In an unconventional conversation, Dr. DeSimone presented Dean Ashby with two remarkably similar yet spectacularly different materials – Kevlar and Nomex. A slight difference in the molecular structure of the materials translated into exceptional differences in their characteristics and applications. Dr. DeSimone’s demonstration ignited curiosity and creativity within Dr. Ashby, and she worked in the laboratory to design new materials from fighter jet stealth coating to scaffolds for tissue engineering. As Dean Ashby finished her PhD, Dr. DeSimone suggested that she become a professor because he noticed her passion for research and service. He introduced Dean Ashby to her postdoc advisor in Germany who also believed and supported her decision to pursue a faculty position at a university.

As a member of faculty, Dean Ashby was in a drastically different world than she had been before. She now trained students for projects, obtained grant money, and devised ideas for her own research. As she observed other faculty and colleagues, her imposter syndrome influenced her greatly, causing her to overwork from the extraordinarily high standards she set for herself. Despite the support of great mentors she had throughout her life, this internal struggle could only be resolved if Dean Ashby alone allowed it to. Dean Ashby’s freedom from imposter syndrome is a crucial steppingstone in her story and is a beautiful demonstration of the role of the mentee.

You don’t need to have this mapped out. You just need to have great mentors, pay attention to what you love, have great experiences, and the process will work itself out.

dean asbhy dances with students

There is no doubt of the crucial role her mentors had in the story of her life, but Dean Ashby’s role as the mentee during these times was a critical part of her success story. In every important decision in her life, Dean Ashby had the courage and conviction to see within herself the potential that her mentors had seen within her, and throughout her years in academia, she continued to strive forward through difficult paths despite her struggles with insecurities and questions of her belonging. In every step of her journey, Dean Ashby had the courage and resolve to take the more difficult and challenging path, fulfilling her role as the mentee.

A few years after Dean Ashby joined the faculty at UNC, she became the chair of the chemistry department. With her freedom from imposter syndrome, she found joy in academic leadership through hiring new faculty, guiding them through teaching standards, and working on the budget and curriculum. In 2015, she was appointed to be the dean of Trinity College of Arts and Sciences at Duke. Dean Ashby describes her joy clearly – “Being the dean is being the chair times 38 – for the 38 departments in Trinity. This is the best job ever.”

Being the dean is being the chair times 38 – for the 38 departments in Trinity. This is the best job ever.

Sunggun Lee, Huang Fellow ’24

Lee_SunggunSunggun is a first-year student from Baton Rouge, Louisiana planning to major in Biomedical Engineering. He is interested in projects related to health equity and international development through designing tools and technologies that are low-cost and accessible