“Truly Phenomenal” Doctoral Student and “Unparalleled” Postdoc Honored for Outstanding Mentorship

April 15, 2019

Kathleen Burns and James Herrera headshots

Doctoral student Kathleen Burns (English) and postdoctoral associate James Herrera (Evolutionary Anthropology) are the winners of the 2019 Bass Connections Award for Outstanding Mentorship. This award recognizes the vital role graduate students and postdocs play in mentoring students on Bass Connections teams.

Burns and Herrera will each receive a $1,000 prize and be recognized at the Bass Connections Showcase on Wednesday, April 17.

Among many strong nominations, those for Burns and Herrera rose to the top. Nominations from their fellow team members and leaders described the essential role both individuals played in setting an inspiring vision for their team, guiding students through new research material and methods and cultivating a supportive and inclusive team environment.

Kathleen Burns

Ph.D. Student, English
Bass Connections Project Team: DECIPHER: Case Studies in Drinking Water Quality

Kathleen Burns is a fourth-year doctoral student in the English Department. Her research explores ecological and evolutionary narratives in art, science and literature from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day. Her current dissertation chapter focuses on Alexander von Humboldt, Charles Darwin and the emergence of ecology from geology. She is the lead graduate student and a co-instructor on the DECIPHER team.

On April 16, Burns and several of her teammates will be sharing their research on local drinking water and the complex factors impacting its quality at Periodic Tables, an informal science gathering at Motorco Music Hall in Durham. Team members will showcase their creative projects and share insights from communities and stakeholders across the state about the kinds of risks they encounter in their drinking water.

Kathleen Burns and teammates at the 2018 Bass Connections Showcase.

Kathleen has been a great mentor to me and my group as we have navigated our way through each stage of the research conducting experience. [She has taken] time out of her day to meet with my group outside of class meeting times, when she did not necessarily have to. Furthermore, she is always connecting us to great resources and people and providing valuable help so that we can create the best possible research project and make our vision come true. –Jande Thomas ’20

Kathleen has been a truly phenomenal partner in designing and teaching the DECIPHER research project…She cares deeply about the material, about effectively conveying knowledge, about sparking new ways of thinking and about engaging each student individually in the communal learning. Moving through two entirely different topics...Kathleen has modeled and guided students and faculty alike in how to source and combine knowledge across a number of disciplines into a coherent vision of the complex trade-offs and human aspects involved with a host of complicated decisions that affect the health of our environment, including ourselves. –Christine Hendren, Team Leader

Over these two years, I have come to admire Kathleen’s ability to create a stimulating and supportive learning environment for students of all ranks and for faculty. In particular, I have noticed an innate talent for empathizing with students’ occasional frustrations while encouraging them to explore the limits of their abilities and curiosity to make the absolute best of the open-ended and exploratory Bass Connections projects. Kathleen therefore balances empathy with rigor in a way that makes her mentorship uniquely well-rounded for any career stage. –Ryan Calder, Postdoctoral Associate, Civil & Environmental Engineering

James Herrera

Program: Postdoctoral Associate, Evolutionary Anthropology
Bass Connections Project Team: How Do People Affect Zoonotic Disease Dynamics in Madagascar?

James Herrera is a postdoctoral associate in Evolutionary Anthropology and the assistant director of the Triangle Center for Evolutionary Medicine (TriCEM). He received his Ph.D. from Stony Brook University in 2015 and was also a postdoctoral fellow at the American Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. Herrera’s research interests include ecology, evolutionary biology, infectious diseases and global health.

An avid field biologist, Herrera has conducted research in Madagascar since 2007, including leading his team of three Duke undergraduates and one Malagasy master’s student into the field for two months of research on human land use, biodiversity and zoonotic diseases in the summer of 2018.

James Herrera and team in Madagascar.

I look up to James for many reasons, but most of all, I admire his versatility and well-roundedness. James is the rare type of individual who can succeed anywhere – whether it be in a rice field in Madagascar trapping rats like we were last summer for our fieldwork, or back in Durham running statistical analyses on the mountain of data we collected. This makes him an incredible mentor to have when people get into environments where they’re not comfortable. Whether our teammates were struggling with the physical challenges of the field or the mental demands of the data analysis, James’ guidance was a steady presence. –Ryan Fitzgerald ’19

James was an unparalleled resource in the field. James’ fluent Malagasy language skills and his deep understanding of Malagasy culture were a key component in our teams’ success. James did much more than translate though – he put in extra effort on a daily basis to foster mutual understanding, purpose and positive energy between the English-speaking and Malagasy-speaking team members. –Sachi Oshima, MD Student ’21

We had many opportunities to see James’ leadership and mentoring in the field. For example, we were deeply impressed by James’ initiative to plan a syllabus of readings for the team to discuss at a weekly meeting. Importantly, James involved our team of four Malagasy men and one Malagasy student in these discussions with our Duke undergraduates, weaving between English and Malagasy and showing how we all have things to learn from one another...During our own visits to the field site, we witnessed this incredible cross-cultural learning process first hand. –Charles Nunn and Randall Kramer, Team Leaders

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