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ALLI Bridges the Gap in Leadership Education

Suman Das posing with a volumetric pipette.
Photo credit: Becky Kirkland

Beyond the Bench

Suman Das always envisioned himself as a leader.

An Indian émigré with degrees in chemistry from the University of Calcutta and the National Institute of Technology in Rourkela, Das graduated from CALS in May 2022 with his Ph.D. in molecular and structural biochemistry.

He possessed a passion for leadership. But cultural contrasts and a lack of leadership knowledge kept him from reaching his higher goals. 

Perusing the online job boards, Das noticed that many companies wanted people to have good leadership and communication abilities.

“Now, how do I get that?” he wonders. “I’m working on my Ph.D. in molecular and structural biochemistry, typing all day and doing research bench work. I don’t have time to get another master’s degree or an MBA simultaneously.”

Das knew he needed more experience.

Then, he found the Agricultural Leadership Learning Institute (ALLI) for Graduate Students.

Led by Interim Assistant Director for Student Success Rhonda Sutton through the CALS Leadership Office, ALLI (pronounced “ally”) is a free, non-academic leadership certificate program that provides professional development courses for graduate students like Das.

I always wanted to be in a leadership position and work with people.

As a member of Associate Professor Tom Makris’ research lab, Das gained technical experience researching the mechanisms of enzyme-mediated hydrocarbon biosynthesis in certain bacteria and the plant toxin-resistance demonstrated by two-spotted spider mites.

But bench work alone didn’t give him the edge to succeed in the job market. He needed an ally.

Graduate students take professional development courses beyond academia’s rigors through the leadership program. Participants discover their unique communication styles and learn how to lead with empathy.

These “soft skills” are increasingly valuable in the science and technology industries. Employers desire prospects who can persuasively present research, communicate effectively with colleagues and assume leadership responsibilities.

Learn to Lead

“I always intended to undertake leadership roles,” Das says. “It is something that I enjoy.”

After Das arrived at NC State for doctoral work, he realized that he lacked the communication skills to navigate academic and professional settings successfully.

“I felt I wasn’t taking the opportunities I should; at times, I even let go of opportunities I should have taken.” 

The ALLI short course Self-Awareness helped Das understand himself, identify his strengths and weaknesses and provide him with solutions to overcome blind spots.

“Suman was always engaged, asking questions and sharing his perspectives on the leadership topics we discussed,” Sutton recounts. “The ALLI program was all on Zoom, but this did not deter Suman from promoting discussion about the concepts he learned.”

Narrow the Cultural Divide

How we communicate with each other is primarily affected by our culture. And leadership is heavily influenced by our communication styles. Moving from east to west presented Das with challenges in his cross-cultural exchanges.

Das credits ALLI with helping narrow the cultural gap in his communication style.

“American children are taught to express themselves and manage conflict,” Das observes. “In India, this isn’t a part of our curriculum. We don’t receive extensive training to deal with [interpersonal] issues and resolve conflict.” 

The ALLI short course Influence addressed Das’ shortcomings as he learned more about team leadership, practiced assertiveness and built the confidence he needed to assume more leadership roles while pursuing his doctorate.

Through team exercises, he learned how to interact with diverse groups of people who could be colleagues or employees.

Hone in on Emotional Intelligence

Understanding the nuances of work interactions is key to leadership development.

The ALLI short course Communication taught Das how to talk to people with diverse personalities and work with them in a professional setting.

“The course also taught me how to handle difficult conversations and underscored the importance of clarity and objectivity while working as a team member or leader.”

The course also helped Das identify communication challenges between himself and his lab mates, learning to differentiate between assertiveness and aggression.

At the end of the program, Das completed two surveys that produced a detailed profile of his personality and communication style and an emotional intelligence analysis. 

These takeaways equipped Das with the personal knowledge he needed to make relationally relevant decisions and a newly gained sense of wisdom.

Get a Career Boost

The ALLI program requires graduate students to have at least one career coaching session and a complete LinkedIn profile to earn their course certificate.

Das soared ahead of the curve, utilizing resources offered by CALS Career Services before beginning ALLI classes in the fall of 2021. “CALS career coaching was beneficial for job applications. I got my resume, CV and cover letter read, corrected and polished by the CALS career coach.”

Das credits ALLI for helping him prepare to apply, interview, and land his new job as a scientist for Takeda Pharmaceuticals in Cambridge, MA.

“I was applying for all kinds of companies, from start-ups to big companies,” he remembers. “During my interviews at Takeda, I used the lessons from ALLI to understand the personalities of my interviewers, which gave me a slight edge while answering their behavioral questions.”

His new position at Takeda, an international company with over 50,000 employees in 70 countries, is a “dream come true” moment.

Launch Your Leadership Potential

The job market has evolved over the last two decades, and scientific research and industry positions are becoming more interdisciplinary. Companies expect job candidates to have a firmer grasp of human relations and management.

The ALLI program recognizes this shift in the job market and helps graduate students bridge the gap between technical knowledge and emotional intelligence.

CALS wants all of its students to be successful. Taking advantage of opportunities like ALLI for Graduate Students can enhance your success.
Interested in honing your leadership skills?

Fill out this ALLI interest form to learn more.