Dissertation Sampler: 2015

Laney Graduate School

Doctoral education at Emory, a top national research university, provides the creation and transmission of new knowledge to the next generation of intellectual leaders. Students at Emory's Laney Graduate School are future intellectual leaders who will affect society.

Emory encourages scholarship about solutions to pressing and complex public issues -- scholarship that takes risks, challenges conventions and crosses the boundaries of academic disciplines to reach outside the university and make a difference in the world.

Browse this page to read how selected 2015 PhD recipients describe their research and its impact. For more topics, refer to the Electronic Theses and Dissertations database.

image of Orion Paul Keifer

Orion Paul Keifer

Dissertation: The Development and Application of Ex Vivo Magnetic Resonance Imaging Techniques to Understand the Neural Basis of Pavlovian Fear Conditioning and Extinction

Adviser: Kerry Ressler, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences; Co-Director, Trauma Clinic, Fulton County Behavioral Sciences; Investigator Howard Hughes Medical Institute

Simplifying the abstract: How the human brain changes with learning is a fundamental question in neuroscience. It is often studied in humans through indirect means like magnetic resonance imaging which can provide indirect clues about the structure and function of the brain. However, what these changes in MRI signals means on a cellular level is unclear. My work focused on studying mice using MRI and then analyzing the cellular makeup of the brains with microscopy to understand what the MRI signals may mean.

Making a difference: How my research will impact my future
Essentially it is providing clues on what MRI changes really mean on a cellular level which may allow for a better understanding of human brain function and dysfunction.

What I'm doing after graduation:
Finishing Medical School.

image of Jonathan Drucker

Jonathan Drucker

Dissertation: Neural bases of core and conceptual self: Implications for the representation of other persons and groups of people

Adviser: Lawrence Barsalou, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Psychology

Simplifying the abstract: Selfhood - the experience of being a person - is grounded in the feeling of having a body and being able to use it to interact with our environment. We extend this sense of embodiment to other people in order to understand their personhood.

Making a difference: How my research will impact my future
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), brain systems involved in A) representing our bodies and B) preparing to make intentional actions were implicated in the much more abstract task of thinking about people. This helps advance the idea that complex cognitive processes are embodied in evolutionarily older neural systems for perception and action.

What I'm doing after graduation:
Post-doctoral appointment at the Atlanta VA Medical Center

image of Brendan Ozawa-de Silva

Brendan Ozawa-de Silva

Dissertation: Becoming the Wish-Fulfilling Tree: Compassion and the Transformation of Ethical Subjectivity in the Lojong Tradition of Tibetan Buddhism

Adviser: John Dunne, Associate Professor in the Department of Religion

Simplifying the abstract: Emotions play a very significant role in our health and happiness; are central in stress and stress alleviation; and have measurable effects on our brain function, physiology, and even gene expression. This has given rise to entire fields such as psychoneuroimunnology and the emerging "science of compassion." It has also given rise to the scientific study of contemplative practices that cultivate compassion and other prosocial emotions like forgiveness. Yet few have studied the source traditions from which compassion training programs derive and placed those traditions in dialogue with contemporary science. This dissertation explores the possibility of viewing ourselves as beings who have “compassion at the core” in order to make a contribution to the emerging fields of contemplative science, positive psychology and the interdisciplinary “science of compassion.” It does so by drawing from Tibetan and Sanskrit texts from the Buddhist Lojong (blo sbyong) tradition, as well as contemporary research in psychology, neuroscience, phenomenology and anthropology that focuses on compassion, emotions, empathy, embodiment, and meaning in life. Much of this research involves a reorientation away from an individualistic account of selfhood towards a recognition of the deeply social and moral nature of experience itself and the implications this has for our understanding of human nature, compassion, and ethics.

Making a difference: How my research will impact my future
Three years ago I was invited to give a talk at Life University on my dissertation research, and was offered a job within six months to develop programs there based on compassion training and research. People are very excited and interested about the potential of compassion training. We have since launched the first Masters in Positive Psychology program to have a track in contemplative science and secular ethics; and have also launched the Center for Compassion, Integrity and Secular Ethics at Life University, which will promote research into compassion and prosocial emotions in conjunction with community programming. The flagship project is creating a university degree program for prisoners in Georgia.

What I'm doing after graduation:
Associate Professor of Psychology at Life University.

image of Tressie McMillan Cottom

Tressie McMillan Cottom

Dissertation: Becoming Real Colleges in the Financialized Era of U.S. Higher Education: The Expansion and Legitimation of For-Profit Colleges

Adviser: Richard Rubinson, Professor of Sociology

Simplifying the abstract: How I'd explain my research to friends
My research asks if for-profit colleges like The University of Phoenix are legitimate and how they gain critical financial, legal, and public support. I not only aim to explain how for-profit colleges expanded so rapidly but what their growth means for the social mobility of the over 2 million students enrolled in them.

Making a difference: How my research will impact my future
My research has been featured in several academic journals, academic books, and over 40 public press articles. I am frequently invited to consult with higher education policy makers, think tanks and student activist organizations that are trying to understand the scope of for-profit higher education and inequality. The goal is to produce quality research that bridges academic, political and private sector silos. I am especially proud to support the Corinthian 100, a group of former for-profit college students fighting for student loan reform. My hope is that my work shifts the conversation about for-profit colleges from one about villains and victims to one about the possibilities of an educational system that works for everyone.

What I'm doing after graduation:
Assistant Professor of Sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University & Associated Faculty at The Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. The book is under contract and this fall I'll be a keynote speaker in South Africa to think about what for-profit higher education looks like internationally. I'm very excited to take Emory Sociology and Laney Graduate School out into the world with me.

image of Samantha Allen

Samantha Allen

Dissertation: Feeling Fetishes: Toward an Affective Theory of Sexuality

Adviser: Elizabeth Wilson, Professor of Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies

Simplifying the abstract: How I'd explain my research to friends
From the early days of sexology to the work of Sigmund Freud, researchers have understood sexuality as being the product of a drive or sexual instinct. Unusual forms of sexuality, like sexual fetishism, have traditionally been seen as pathological deviations of that drive. But if we follow psychologist Silvan Tomkins in thinking of sexuality as being primarily affective (or emotional), then atypical forms of sexuality are neither pathological nor unusual—just different.

Making a difference: How my research will impact my future
In my field of queer theory, scholars too often think of sexuality as either a pernicious historical construct or a straightforward biological force. An affective (or emotional) theory of sexuality has the potential to solve this debate because it can still see sexuality as being biological without stigmatizing atypical forms of sexuality like sexual fetishism or homosexuality.

What I'm doing after graduation:
Staff writer for The Daily Beast.

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