People who really know Kate Whetten know she is swamped—she needs an assistant just to keep up with her work email. But if you didn’t know her, you might never guess.
“Professor Whetten’s demeanor is quite unassuming for someone who is so ridiculously busy and successful in her scholarship,” said Hart Leadership Program director Alma Blount.
“When we met, I never dreamed Kate would have time to join us. She has now been the research director of the Hart Fellows program for 13 years. It’s got to be a labor of love, with so many other things begging for her time and attention.”
Growing up, Whetten knew she wanted to make a difference in the world. But after college, she didn’t quite know how. As an undergrad she studied how societies interact internationally. Then she joined the Peace Corps, and began developing her lifelong interest in public health.
In Zaire Whetten worked with midwives and health workers, helping to stem a measles epidemic by encouraging vaccinations. She was a volunteer for four years, but eventually realized she had to dive into policy to make the impact she desired.
“It was frustrating seeing decisions being made in Kinshasa about what programs should be funded, and what communities should be doing, that made no sense for the communities,” Whetten said. “My motivation for getting my graduate degrees was never to go into academia; it was to be able to keep the world moving forward, to improve lives.”
As the primary research trainer and mentor for Hart Fellows since 2001, Whetten has helped 54 Duke graduates reach similar goals in intensive, field-based research projects around the world.
The Hart Fellows Program offers ten-month fellowships in low and middle income countries. Fellows collaboratively develop a research question with a community partner, and then conduct a study that culminates in a presentation to the partner organization at the end of the fellowship. Over the years, fellows have also presented their projects at conferences and been published in journals.
Whetten is an integral part of the program, coaching fellows every step of the way to discover and refine their research questions, to design research methodologies, to go through the institutional review process for research with human subjects, to collect, analyze and synthesize their data, and then to draft recommendations.
“Kate knows the field research experiences are going to be up and down and sometimes just downright tumultuous for the fellows,” said Blount, “and that is just fine. That’s where all the juicy learning happens.”
“It’s almost always the case that they go out with an idea of what they are going to do, and it just doesn’t work out the way they want it to,” said Whetten.
Whetten was initially drawn to the Hart Fellows Program because of its focus on local organizations, and its strong mentoring network. But, years later, Whetten continues to serve as research director because she wants fellows to critically examine their own actions in the world.
“My motivation is about how we engage in the world. And I want all of us to do a better job of that. I think the program does that very well,” said Whetten.
This motivation ties together with Whetten’s own scholarship on marginalized populations. She studies health disparities and inequalities for the poor, disenfranchised, and chronically ill. She is currently directing investigations on the experiences of orphan children around the world, and she wrote a book about the narratives of HIV/AIDS patients in the South, who are often stigmatized.
Hart Fellows receive strong structural support, through assignments that include “Letters Home” to their research mentors, and frequent check-ins with program staff.
“While the program has a strong framework,” Blount said, “the goal is not to introduce fellows to structure and rigidity. It is to introduce them to life as it is, in all its messiness and beauty, so they can realize there are no easy answers to the problems they witness.”
“The Hart Fellows Program has such a tight structure because the entire experience is really about encountering chaos…this will be about meeting complexity and chaos head-on, with no clear guideposts,” said Blount.
Whetten believes the demands and rewards of the learning process help the fellows become the next generation of leaders doing international work.
Whetten’s idea of leadership is centered on humility and adaptability. Fellows must be game for any task or challenge they encounter. They need to get good at reading contexts and deciphering what is going on in dynamic systems, so they can develop the ability to diagnose complex problems down the road.
“For me, leadership is finding your own strengths and being able to identify the strengths of the people around you. Your leadership is helping everyone move forward in developing their strengths,” says Whetten. “In this position, the fellows are going into these organizations, and not coming in as the expert to fix it. They are coming in to help, and they’re bringing in expertise, and they move things forward.”
Whetten wears other hats at Duke, such as directing the Center for Health Policy and Inequalities Research, which brings together interdisciplinary teams to address health disparities. She also teaches and mentors undergraduates, graduate students and nursing students.
With such a busy schedule she no longer has much time to immerse herself in community work, as she did in the Peace Corps. In a way, though, the Hart Fellows Program offers her another outlet to get into the field.
“I’m now more removed from the hands-on work that we’re doing. My hands-on work is with students. To be able to see them change and learn and figure out where they want to be in the world has been really important.”