'Graduate Student of the Year' Audrey Ellerbee Leads by Example

March 20, 2007

ellerbee.jpgAudrey Ellerbee, of Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering, has been selected by The National Society of Black Engineers as its “Graduate Student of the Year.” Ellerbee will receive her 2007 Golden Torch Award at the society’s 33rd national convention held in Columbus, Ohio, on Saturday, March 31.

Ellerbee also will be discussing her path and future as a participant in the web-based Engineers Week Global Marathon on Thursday, March 22. The 24-hour Global Marathon, For, By and About Women in Engineering will highlight the increased opportunities in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics for women in many countries. (Listen to Ellerbee's presentation at www.eweek.org.)

Inspiring Others

A Ph.D. candidate in Pratt’s biomedical engineering department, Ellerbee is many things: an engineer-scientist, a leader, a dancer and an international traveler. But perhaps one of her best features is her natural ability to inspire and lead by example.

After graduating from Princeton University with a degree in electrical and computer engineering, Ellerbee chose a nontraditional path for an engineer, taking off to Singapore for a year teaching math and computer science. That experience, and many excursions to other countries, solidified her interest in traveling as a way of learning first-hand about other cultures and becoming more “internationally aware.”

“I like feeling connected with people of different cultures and having something in common with them,” Ellerbee said. “Just about anyone I meet, I have some experience that I can relate to them with.”

She has since found that her Asian adventure made a difference to others as well.

Her time in Singapore helped inspire her parents to spend time living abroad themselves in Switzerland. A friend of hers heard about her position in Singapore and decided to serve as her replacement when her time there came to an end. She also took another friend with little travel experience to visit her parents in Europe, opening up new possibilities for her.

“My one experience in Singapore, even though not directly related, changed the lives of people around me,” she said.

A Leader in the Making

While Ellerbee’s talent for leadership seems to come with ease, she credits the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) with the development of her skills. She served as vice president of her undergraduate NSBE chapter at Princeton, a role that she said led to her current position as president of Duke’s Graduate and Professional Student Council (GPSC), among other campus leadership positions at Duke.

“NSBE is where I started to take leadership,” Ellerbee said. “I developed skills that have allowed me to take on more responsibility at Duke. This group helped birth that interest for me.”

Ellerbee also served as the Academic Excellence Chair for NSBE at the chapter and regional levels as an undergraduate, spreading information about scholarship resources and organizing workshops for high school students. Such activities fulfilled her “passion for helping students succeed academically.”

She emphasized that, for her, leadership isn’t about being “the leader.” Rather, Ellerbee, who said she is more comfortable working behind-the-scenes, noted that “for me, leadership is about service.”

“I like putting people in touch with others in ways that empower them,” she said. “As GPSC president, I might hear about an issue from students and know an administrator that they should be in touch with. I like to slip people into meetings and open doors for students to speak on behalf of themselves.”

Next Steps

Ellerbee hopes to complete her doctoral work developing new ways of observing the internal workings of beating heart cells in 2007 (for more on her research, see an earlier story about Ellerbee.) While she hasn’t yet decided what’s next, she said she does have one big goal for the future.

“I’d love to start a nonprofit organization to help inner city youth travel,” Ellerbee said. “They could spend time learning about a country and then travel to new places,” building political and international awareness in the process.

“The first time someone gets their passport,” she said, “it’s just amazing.”

Learn about Duke’s NSBE chapter.