How Dzifa Duose uses communication to solve problems

Bioengineering Ph.D. alumna is a research group leader at MD Anderson.

Dzifa Duose

“After high school, I spent a year teaching second grade in Ghana, and that is where my foundation in communication actually began,” said Dzifa Duose '11, a Research Group Leader at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. The Rice University bioengineering Ph.D. alumna said about half of her class of 42 students could not read and about a third were not up to their grade level in math.

“These kids could not relate to the curriculum, and it was actually a hindrance for some of the students who came from different backgrounds. My first goal was to learn their stories and what excited them, what interested them. Then I could tailor lessons to their needs.

“For example, an addition and subtraction problem could be reframed around something happening in their lives; I might even ask them to role play a scenario. Once I could capture their attention, they wanted to learn how to figure out the answer. That experience is something I’ve leaned on for all my interactions requiring me to present complex information to audiences at varying levels.”

Duose’s current audiences span a wide range of scientists, doctors, and research teams, as well as mixed audiences with varying degrees of medical industry experience. Understanding the audience that is reading or hearing her update is paramount to the success of her communication. To ensure her information is well-received, she tailors her message so audience members at every level of the spectrum can understand at least 80% of her content.

“To reach the maximum number of readers or listeners, I incorporate simplified and highly relatable examples that explain the concepts being discussed. This way, highly knowledgeable people get a refresh and the less knowledgeable audience members grasp the basics.

“When presenting, it is easier to gauge the reaction of the audience. Am I going in the right direction? Too much detail? Too little? When writing, again the audience is key; for a scientific audience, I include background information and then relate any new concepts to the more established concepts that are already familiar to most scientists in my field.”

Duose always seeks to balance her message, shaping the delivery so people from different backgrounds can appreciate and engage with the content. Finding the right balance is an exercise she has learned to apply to her career as well, when administrative and managerial responsibilities were added to her scientific goals. At that point, her engagement in the lab work shifted to designing assays, tests, and experimental plans as well as analyzing the resulting data.

She said, “In my role I have been very lucky to have opportunities to continue learning new things. One lesson I have learned from working with a lot of MD’s is that you don’t necessarily have to touch an experiment yourself in order to understand, apply or contribute to its success. As your career evolves, you may need to change your perspective. And PhDs are very good at this; approaching a particular problem through different avenues is reinforced throughout our training.

“We learn so much during our Ph.D. years, outside the technical aspects. Primarily, we learn how to troubleshoot and how to be persistent. These are lessons that apply in both my professional and personal life and I’ve found them to be invaluable.”

Like many Ph.D. students, Duose’s graduate years were a series of successes and setbacks. There were days when she felt she was wasting time; her friends were getting jobs and buying houses and she was still a graduate student, then a postdoctoral fellow. But Duose persevered and now looks back on those years as her training ground, when she learned to be resilient, to troubleshoot, to think long and deeply about an issue, to acquire and apply knowledge to solve problems.

“In short, a Ph.D. is not just about gaining scientific or technical knowledge. What you learn can be applied to solve many different problems in the future. I built mental strength through what I felt were ‘failures’ as a grad student. Recognizing and pushing through that mental stress when things were not going well gave me tools and taught me resilience and stamina for dealing with the kinds of problems I would face later. Training as a Ph.D. made me a stronger, more empathetic and more persistent person,” said Duose.

Today, her work as a Research Group Leader involves troubleshooting issues beyond the actual experiments in their lab. Duose also works with her team to identify and correct process inefficiencies, and their recent successes were surprisingly rooted in the modified work environment spurred by the pandemic shutdowns in 2020.

“If something good can be linked to the pandemic, it was the opportunity to completely rethink the hours and standard operating procedures (SOP) for our lab,” she said. “Personally, I had just returned to the lab for two days after a maternity leave when the physical space was shut down. Suddenly, I was at home with an 8-week old baby, a toddler, and a five year old. My colleagues were facing similar challenges to their blended work-life environments, so we had to figure out how to move forward with the resources we did have.

“One thing we initiated during the three-month shutdown was the 15-minute check-in. It could be through text, Zoom, whatever worked where you were at the designated time. I asked how everyone was doing, not necessarily how their projects were going, and it built a kind of empathetic, connected community we hadn’t experienced before.”

Beyond the virtual community building exercises, Duose helped her team shift into tasks that had been lower priority while the physical lab was running. “So you can’t do lab work? Do data analysis and reporting. Write those papers you’ve had to postpone. Think about your typical day in the lab – if we could change some of our processes or update our methods, what would that look like?

“By spending time outside the lab, thinking of ways to make it better, we had opportunities that never arose when we were deep in the actual work with a continual barrage of incoming samples and requests. This was our time to lean new skills and software to speed up our analysis, to catch up on publications in our field, and to plan out our experiments.”

Then the lab reopened while schools were still in virtual mode. Like Duose, many of her colleagues had school-aged children. Access to the lab was restricted to a few workers at a time to create space for social distancing, so MD Anderson allowed the lab to change the alignment of their shifts.

Duose said, “Some of the lab researchers came in earlier, some later – and that made us cross-train, something we’d needed to do any way. We never expected to run the lab 6:00 a.m.-9:00 p.m., until we had the chance to create two shifts. These expanded hours actually increased our productivity because we no longer had people trying to use the same equipment at the same time.

“By 2022, we had learned if a scientist finished their lab work early and headed home —avoiding the 5:00 traffic and logging on later in the evening— their stress went down, their home responsibility satisfaction went up, and their work-life balance improved.”

According to Duose, offering flexibility to meet their set goals seemed to help each team member realize they were highly valued, and that they needed to be mentally and physically healthy to enjoy their work. She also began celebrating every team member’s individual milestones – at home and at work – and she now encourages everyone to take their spring, summer, and/or Christmas vacations to refresh and recharge.

She said, “I actually have to remind people to take time off. For new employees who haven’t accrued enough hours, I can – as their manager – give them up to three days of recognition leave for good work done. I encourage everyone, including myself, to take these breaks because I realize that having time away from a problem gives you new perspectives on how to solve said problem. And our work is primarily about finding solutions to the problem that is Cancer.”

This story is part of a series of profiles for the ACTIVATE Engineering Communication program.