Eight students receive the Graduate School’s 2022 Distinguished Dissertation & Thesis Award

With topics ranging from Vietnamese cinema to reconstructive plastic surgeries in south India, eight graduate students were honored for their outstanding research in their doctoral and master’s studies.  

The Graduate School’s Distinguished Dissertation and Thesis Award recognizes exceptional scholarship in four categories: biological sciences, humanities & fine arts; mathematics, physical sciences & engineering; and social sciences.   

Professors who nominated these graduate students noted the progressive nature of their research, pragmatic and scholarly contributions to their field, and the student’s engagement with the academic community through service and mentoring.   

Humanities & Fine Arts

Long Tran, Master of Arts, Cinema & Media Studies  

Thesis: “Việt Film Fest, Little Sài Gòn, U.S.A.” 

Long Tran wants people to take away few things from his thesis: Viet Nam is more than a war. It’s a country filled with beautiful culture and people. Which is why he decided to focus on art and humanize Vietnamese people.   

Viet Film Fest was established to combat negative representations of Viet Nam in Hollywood and to curate a safe space for Vietnamese filmmakers looking to create empowering works about history, culture, and language. In his thesis, Long illustrates that the Viet Film Fest has allowed artists to tell stories and cover topics that are considered controversial in Viet Nam.  

The world’s understanding of the Viet Nam is predominantly through the lens of western perspective and media. By historizing the Viet Film Fest, Long can present post-war new views and experiences from the Vietnamese and Vietnamese Americans that have been impacted post-war through cinematic representation (or artistic expression). 

To pique interest in Vietnamese culture, Long recommends viewing “The Scent of Green Papaya.” Viet Nam’s first and only Oscar nomination. 

Matt Poland, Ph.D., English Language & Literature 

Dissertation: “The Global Migrations of George Eliot and Charles Dickens: Books, Newspapers, Archives” 

Matt Poland was interested in how 19th century fiction circulated around the world and how they transformed to what we now describe as “important works of literature” rather than entertainment. This led to his exploration of canonical authors of the Victorian era, and how literary scholars need to refocus their scholarship and teaching on present-day struggles. 

His dissertation became a study of how literature interacts with the world, whether geographically or temporally, proving integral to a “global” imaginary. He examines Victorian fiction and the ways they created new knowledge about global migration and societal change. Matt also investigates the archives of Dickens and Eliot to understand how archival collecting practices shaped modern scholarship.  

He shows how the international trade depicted in Dickens’s novel Dombey and Son is bound to the economy of cheap collected editions of the novels themselves. And he charts what happens to our understanding of Eliot’s pastoral and provincial modes when Middlemarch was reprinted as a serialized newspaper novel in colonial Australia. 

Matt maintains that his research must be made “useful to current social struggles.” His inquiry is one that has real implications for how we organize and understand literary studies. 

Nastasia Paul-Gera, Master of Arts, Feminist Studies 

Thesis: “Ecologies of Power: A Feminist History of State Building in the Gond Kingdom of Garha, 1500-1870s” 

Nastasia uses a feminist framework to investigate the ecologies of the Gond Kingdom of Garha from the early modern to early colonial period. Her thesis is split into two chapters. Chapter one shows how the gendering and sexualization of elephants in early modern South Asia was crucial for state building in Garha, stitching the kingdom into the social, political, and economic fabric of the wider region. 

In chapter two, Nastasia demonstrates how British colonial actors used gender and sexuality to construct Gond people, forests, and the nonhuman animals who inhabited them as primitive and isolated, or ‘wild,’ in the areas of witchcraft, hard drinking, and hunting. This justified the extraction of resources and labor from the kingdom, and ultimately facilitated British colonial state building in the region. 

Nastasia’s thesis thus traces the histories of a kingdom often rendered invisible in scholarship on South Asia, ultimately seeking to destabilize the discursive grounds that undergird the material marginalization of Gond people today. By using a feminist approach, she additionally reveals that gender and sexuality have long constituted both multispecies social relations and states in South Asia’s histories. 

Biological Studies  

Sarah Crist, Ph.D., Molecular & Cellular Biology  

Dissertation: “Skeletal muscle: An exploration into an anti-metastatic niche, and the molecular mechanisms that underlie it”   

In her research, Sarah Crist examines the active role of the tissue environment on breast cancer cell survival and growth into full-blown metastasis, or new tumors that arise in organs different from the original site.  

Metastasis is a considerable fear when dealing with cancer because of this ability to spread throughout the body. Sarah approached the study of the host tissue from a different angle, believing there to be just as many benefits to understanding the biology of organs devoid of metastases.  

To determine what makes a host inhospitable to metastasis, Sarah used skeletal muscle as a model, since metastases rarely colonize this tissue. The idea was to identify whatever makes skeletal muscle tissue unfriendly to breast cancer cells, then use that information to make metastasis-welcoming environments more hostile. In her work, Sarah was able to provide important insights into why skeletal muscle is resistant to breast cancer metastasis and how we might leverage this mechanism to suppress metastasis elsewhere in the body (e.g., the lung).  

She showed that a specific type of stress caused by oxidants, when sustained, drives a metabolic imbalance in skeletal muscle that poses a unique problem to the breast cancer cells, preventing them from growing further. Her work adds to mounting evidence that sustained oxidative stress should be considered a hallmark of disseminated tumour cell biology and that this state might be exploited for metastasis prevention. 

*Shwetha Sanapoori, Master of Public Health 

Thesis: “Evaluation of a Community Intervention to Increase Recognition of Alarm Signs in Children Under 5 in Low-income and Indigenous Communities in the State of Yucatan, Mexico” 

Social Sciences  

Lily Shapiro, Ph.D., Sociocultural Anthropology  

Dissertation: “(Re)Constructing the Body: An Ethnographic Study of Factory: Accidents and Reconstructive Plastic Surgery in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu” 

Lily Shapiro’s dissertation closely examines the working conditions and accidents in factories in India that lead to reconstructive surgery for workers and the care they received after.  

Fluent in Tamil, she conducted 15 interviews in that language to assess safety conditions and bring to light the daily operation of neo-capitalism. Not only were workplace accidents happening more often and frequently, but workers were able to receive care that allowed them to be back in those same working conditions and the trauma workers carry after.   

Lily’s advisors noted the scope of her work will contribute to how we rethink care, medicine, and labor for years to come. She documents the everyday workings of capitalism and how it sutures and is sustained by different areas of care and labor. 

Mathematics, Physical Sciences, and Engineering 

Zerina Kapetanovic, Ph.D., Electrical and Computing Engineering 

Dissertation: “Wireless Communication and Sensing for the Environment” 

Zerina Kapetanovic had always been curious about how things worked and the environment. For her dissertation she combined her two interests of wireless technology and nature by applying new technology to the environment.  

Her dissertation provides breakthroughs on how to connect farms and forests, and how to communicate using very innovative technologies – such as using thermal noise to enable wireless communication. These systems can change the way future devices are connected and communicate. 

She has also worked with Microsoft Farmbeats for precision technologies in agriculture. In this project she works on developing an end-to-end Internet of Things (IoT) system to enable data-driven agriculture and help farmers use more sustainable farming practices.  

The work Zerina has accomplished is recognized commercially and via awards. Her contributions to data-driven agriculture will impact society and the future in immeasurable ways. 

*Anika McManamen, MS in Applied Chemical Science and Technology 

Thesis: “Capillary Flow Characterization and Application in Saliva Sampling

*Students were unable to respond to interviews.