UW Graduate School

Meet the Winners of the Grad School’s 2018 Distinguished Dissertation Award

IMG_0070 - Aaron H McKennaAllison_photo - Allison C. KellyWhitakerImage20160918_142158 - Quin'Nita Cobbins-Modica

The Graduate School recognizes exceptional scholarship and research at the master’s and doctoral levels. These awards recognize a thesis and a dissertation in four categories: Biological Sciences, Humanities & Fine Arts, Mathematics, Physical Sciences & Engineering, and the Social Sciences. Meet the winners of this year’s Distinguished Dissertation Awards! 


 

Biological Sciences: Aaron McKenna, Ph.D.'18, Genome Sciences

IMG_0070 - Aaron H McKennaDissertation: “Whole organism lineage tracing by combinatorial and cumulative genome editing

Please “lol” your dissertation
One fish, two fish, red… no, just the cell lineage of two fish.

Post-dissertation life: 
Senior fellow in the Shendure lab

What is the potential impact of this work?
Every cell in our body is the result of fate decision by its ancestors, all the way back to the single-cell zygote. If we want to engineer tissues for treatment, understand how complex diseases subtly alter cell composition, or understand how tumors evolve, we need to know when and how critical choices are made. A full lineage tree (the focus of my thesis) would provide a map of these divisions for every cell in the body. Such a map has been transformative (and Nobel prize winning) for the worm, and the equivalent in mammals would be hugely important.

What sparked your interest in this topic or subject? 
I had previously developed computation approaches to help characterize how one cancerous cell becomes a tumor. The led to the larger question: what is the pattern of cell divisions in any complex life form?

Name one of your advisors or mentors and explain the impact they had on your work.
My advisor is Jay Shendure. I joined Jay’s lab having no experimental experience or training, as I had only done computational work at the Broad Institute. Of course I wanted to take on an ambitious wet lab project. Jay supported me through extensive failures and horrendous lab meeting presentations, all the while finding the silver lining in any experimental result. His support for his trainees is unwavering, and he always makes his time available to answer any question or give advice. I can’t imagine a better environment for scientific success.

Social Sciences: Allison C. Kelly, Ph.D.'18, Evans School of Public Policy and Governance

Allison_photo - Allison C. KellyDissertation: “Improving REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) Programs”

Post-dissertation life: 
I am working as a post-doc at the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan.

Please “lol” your dissertation:
Seeing the forest for the carbon.

What is the potential impact of this work?
It can help to improve REDD+ programs at the national and subnational level by informing policy making.

What sparked your interest in this topic or subject? 
I served as a Peace Corps volunteer and became aware of REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) programs. They are exciting because they have the potential for multiple benefits: those for the local community’s economy, the local forest ecosystems, and the global carbon balance. Because these programs may have sweeping impacts on forest use it is important for us to understand the best ways to structure programs at the multiple scales where they operate.

What’s next for you?
I am currently seeking jobs outside of academia that work toward achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

Name one of your advisors or mentors and explain the impact they had on your work.
My committee chair, Professor Alison Cullen, has expertly guided my development as a researcher since my first day at the UW. Being the first person to attend graduate school in my family meant I was at a bit of a disadvantage in understanding the best path for my work, but Alison was there at every step to provide advice.

Mathematics, Physical Sciences, Engineering: Michael Barbour, Ph.D.'18, Mechanical Engineering

WhitakerImageDissertation: “Computational and Experimental Investigation into the Hemodynamics of Endovascularly Treated Cerebral Aneurysms”

Post-dissertation life:
Immediately after finishing I took some much-needed rest and spent a few weeks traveling through Mexico. I didn’t take much time off though, and about a month after my defense, I started working at Intellectual Ventures Laboratory in Bellevue. At IV labs I work with a diverse group of scientists and engineers attempting to solve some of the most challenging problems in global healthcare and development. I’m thrilled to be starting at IV labs and to be staying in the Seattle area for the near future.

Please “lol” your dissertation:
It wasn’t exactly brain surgery, but I may have made it a little easier.

What is the potential impact of this work?
My work focused on improving the efficacy of endovascular treatment methods for cerebral aneurysms (a section of a cerebral artery which has dilated, weakened, and is at risk of rupture). Endovascular techniques are less invasive than previous techniques which required removing a portion of the skull, but a successful outcome (a healed aneurysm) is not guaranteed. During my PhD, I worked to characterize and quantify the effect of endovascular treatments on the blood-flow environment inside of an aneurysm. Additionally, I developed a clinically accessible tool-kit that is predictive of an individual patient’s endovascular treatment outcome. This work enables clinicians to better predict the outcomes of endovascularly treated cerebral aneurysms and provides them with a means to further tailor treatments to specific patients – maximizing the likelihood of a successful outcome. This work also has broad implications for the biomedical community as it provides a blueprint for bringing engineering based predictive medicine to a realm where it can impact clinical strategy and improve patient outcomes.

What sparked your interest in this topic or subject? 
My primary engineering focus has always been fluid mechanics, and I have always had an interest in medicine and healthcare. When I was looking for a PhD program, I started learning more about cardiovascular fluid mechanics and realized it was a field right at the cross-roads of my two interests – fluids and medicine. When I started at UW, I was introduced to Dr. Michael Levitt, a neurosurgeon at Harborview and a future member of my committee. Dr. Levitt was interested in the role that engineering analysis and computational fluid dynamics could play in assisting him in the endovascularly treatment of cerebral aneurysms. The project that he and my advisor had been discussing was exactly what I was looking for, so I jumped on it. It would enable me to use the engineering skills I was most interested in developing and apply them to a problem with a tangible clinical impact.

Name one of your advisors or mentors and explain the impact they had on your work.
Advisor: Alberto Aliseda. Alberto’s support and friendship was instrumental to the success of my PhD. His unwavering optimism and energy was a source of inspiration, and his technical insight and guidance continuously propelled my research forward. He taught me to ask the right questions and pursue research areas even they were on the fringe of my main-focus: some of the most impactful results of my thesis may have otherwise gone overlooked. He has also always encouraged me to explore professional and personal opportunities outside of the lab, and I can’t imagine a more well-rounded PhD experience.

Humanities/Fine Arts: Quin'Nita Cobbins, Ph.D.'18, History

20160918_142158 - Quin'Nita Cobbins-ModicaDissertation: “Black Emeralds: African American Women’s Political Activism and Leadership in Seattle, 1940-2000”

Post-dissertation life:
I am currently a post-doc at Gonzaga University.

Please “lol” your dissertation:
Many have said black people do not exist in the Pacific Northwest; yet I uncovered a 100-year history of black women’s activism.

What sparked your interest in this topic or subject?
I became interested in this topic because I wanted to learn more about the roles and contributions of black women in a city that historically comprised a small black population. As one of the most understudied groups in the region, I knew black women had a story, and I wanted to tell it.

 

Want to read about more exceptional grad student research? Check out what the winners of the Distinguished Thesis Awards had to say about their work! 

Published September 2018