Ph.D. Candidates Recognized for Outstanding Academic Careers

Ph.D. Achievement Award Reception. Photo by Steve Cohn © 2019

Six outstanding Ph.D. candidates at the University of Southern California have been selected to receive the 2019 Ph.D. Achievement Award. The annual award recognizes students from across the University who have exceptional academic profiles and have excelled in their field. Each recipient’s faculty advisor is also recognized with a Graduate School Ph.D. Mentoring Award.

“When I think about the Ph.D. Achievement Awards, I think, Yes! This is what we do here,” said Vice Provost for Graduate Programs Sally Pratt. “The Ph.D. Achievement Awards are a beacon. This really shows what a USC Ph.D. can be. It is very special.”

Ph.D. award winners at the Ph.D. Achievement Awards reception. (From left: Shanyuan Niu, Rebecca Peer, Aroussiak Gabrielian, Pragya Goel, Maria Francesca Piazzoni and Jennifer Candipan.) Photo by Steve Cohn © 2019.

This year’s Achievement Award recipients are Jennifer Candipan, Aroussiak Gabrielian, Pragya Goel, Shanyuan Niu, Rebecca Peer and Maria Francesca Piazzoni.

Ph.D. Achievement Award recipient Jennifer Candipan. Photo by Steve Cohn © 2019.

Jennifer Candipan is part of the Department of Sociology at USC’s Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. Her research explores the link between neighborhoods and schools and how that can contribute to inequality in children’s education. Specifically, Candipan explores how gentrification simultaneously segregates schools and integrates neighborhoods and the problems that arise from this new paradigm. Candipan’s primary faculty advisor is Ann Owens, Associate Professor of Sociology.

Candipan’s work has been published in top sociology and urban studies journals. She will receive her degree in May and will start a two-year postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University in the fall.

Arroussiak Gabrielian with Vice Provost for Graduate Programs Sally Pratt. Photo by Steve Cohn © 2019.

Arroussiak Gabrielian is a Ph.D. candidate in the Media Arts & Practice Ph.D. Program at the School of Cinematic Arts. Over the past five years, her work has focused on questions of environmental justice, health and ethics. Her dissertation project is called “Encounters in the Anthropocene: Synthetic Geologies, Diegetic Ecologies and other Landscape Imaginaries.”

“My work aims to torque our imaginaries to get us to rethink our interactions with both human and non-human agents on the planet,” said Gabrielian. “I use technology to amplify the energies of the living world using various different creative projects.”

Holly Willis, the Associate Dean of Research in the Media Arts & Practice Division is Gabrielian’s primary faculty advisor. Upon completion of her Ph.D, Gabrielian will stay in the Trojan family and teach in the landscape program at the USC School of Architecture.

Ph.D. Achievement Award recipient Pragya Goel. Photo by Steve Cohn © 2019.

Pragya Goel is a Ph.D. candidate in Molecular and Computational Biology at USC Dornsife. She says she is broadly interested in neuroplasticity and how remodeling specialized connections between neurons can influence memory, behavior and cognitions. Specifically, her research focuses on how neurons in the brain communicate with each other and what can go wrong in neurological diseases. Goel has been a key member of her faculty adviser, Dr. Dion Dickman’s, laboratory.

Goel has published and co-authored multiple papers throughout her time at USC. By the time she completes her degree, she is expected to have at least nine first author publications. Goel has accepted a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University.

Ph.D. Achievement Award recipient Shanyuan Niu. Photo by Steve Cohn © 2019.

Shanyuan Niu is a Ph.D. candidate in the Materials Science Program at USC Viterbi. Niu says his research focuses on developing new materials to solve problems like renewable energy generation and efficient light emission detection. Niu’s faculty advisor is Jayakanth Ravichandran, Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science and Electrical and Computer Engineering – Electrophysics. Niu has multiple offers for postdoctoral fellowships and will make a decision on which to accept soon.

Rebecca Peer is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Her research focuses on energy and water systems. Her dissertation looked at cooling water and water requirements for electricity systems across the United States. Peer says she focuses on understanding and quantifying the relationship between the water and electricity sectors by combining elements from computational modeling, data analysis and statistics.

Rebecca Peer with her faculty advisor Kelly Sanders (left) and Vice Provost for Graduate Programs Sally Pratt. Photo by Steve Cohn © 2019.

Kelly Sanders, Assistant Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering serves as Peer’s faculty advisor. Peer will start a position as a postdoctoral researcher at the Carnegie Institution for Science at Stanford University in June. In 2020, she will join the University of Canterbury as a Lecturer (equivalent to Assistant Professor in the United States).

Ph.D. Achievement Award recipient Maria Francesca Piazzoni. Photo by: Steve Cohn © 2019.

Maria Francesca Piazzoni is a Ph.D. candidate in Urban Planning at the Price School of Public Policy. Piazzoni is about to earn her second Ph.D. She completed her first Ph.D. in Architecture at the University of Venice in 2014. Piazzoni’s research focuses on how planners can make cities more inclusive through urban design.

“I work on issues of immigrants in cities specifically in the built department,” said Piazzoni. “My research was on the immigrant street vendors in Rome, looking at the ways in which transformations of the built environment can help to create cities that welcome everybody.”

Piazzoni’s faculty advisor is Tridib Banerjee, Professor and the James Irvine Chair in Urban and Regional Planning. Piazzoni’s first book, The Real Fake: Authenticity and the Production of Space was published by Fordham University Press last year. Piazzoni will join the University of Liverpool as a Lecturer in Landscape Architecture and Urban Design in the fall.

All six Ph.D. Achievement Award winners and their advisors were honored during a reception hosted by USC Graduate School. Congratulations to all the recipients on their remarkable academic careers.

Where in the World Will Your Ph.D. Research Take You?

Ph.D. research doesn’t have to keep students tied to a single university in a single city. In fact, there are many funding opportunities to help students explore and take their studies abroad. During the course of their Ph.D. research, students from USC have found themselves interviewing children in South Korea, combing through archives in France, working with the government in Peru and more. 

View in South Korea taken by USC Ph.D. student Stephanie Kang.

Each year, the University of Southern California helps graduate and undergraduate students apply for and receive funding from the Fulbright U.S. Student Program. It is sponsored by the U.S. government and allows U.S. citizens to travel, study and work abroad. About four to five Ph.D. students typically apply for Fulbright awards in any given year. USC is encouraging more Ph.D. students to consider a Fulbright award and is providing resources to help students during the application process.

Depending on your field, a Fulbright award can help you dive deeper into your research and take advantage of resources you might not otherwise be able to access. Natalia Lauricella, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Art History, received a Fulbright for the 2018-2019 academic year to conduct archival research in Paris. Lauricella says her dissertation looks at the networks of master lithographers, avant-garde painters and art dealers who produced color prints, posters and books in the late 19th and early 20th century in France. The Fulbright award is allowing her to examine archival material housed in libraries in Paris for nine months. Lauricella says the length of the Fulbright gave her a unique opportunity to immerse herself in the research.

Natalia Lauricella, Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Art History

“One of the central figures in my dissertation is a master lithographer who opened his own atelier in the 1890s. The atelier still operates in Paris, and during my time here, I have spent many afternoons visiting the shop and speaking with the printers and artists working there today. Because of the Fulbright grant and the length of time I am in Paris, I have had the opportunity to return multiple times to the atelier and cultivate relationships with these printers. Some of the most important developments in my project have come from my discussions and observations in the print atelier,” said Lauricella.

Another Ph.D. candidate’s research has taken her to South America with a Fulbright award. Hai-Vu Phan is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science and International Relations. Her research focuses on renewable energy policies. Through Fulbright, she was able to work with the energy regulator of Peru. She says she visited wind farms and solar farms as part of official state visits. She also traveled to isolated communities in the Amazon to check on distributed solar energy systems.

Hai-Vu Phan, Ph.D. candidate in Political Science and International Relations

“I highly recommend that students apply for Fulbright,” said Phan. “It is a generous award. You are offered many resources in the host country and you forever belong to an alumni network of distinguished people that can help your career in the future.”

Stephanie Kang’s research took her to South Korea. Kang, a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science and International Relations, says her research focuses on the design and implementation of security commitments between countries and how such commitments affect the likelihood of conflict. She says the U.S.-South Korean military alliance is the ideal case study for her dissertation project. She says she her Fulbright award has allowed her to interview people at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, the U.S. Combined Forces Command and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Stephanie Kang, Ph.D. candidate in Political Science and International Relations

“The Fulbright program provides a unique opportunity to establish academic and professional relationships with scholars outside the U.S.,” said Kang. “These avenues for transnational research cooperation are important for PhD students who conduct research on international topics or have area interests in which the perspectives and work of scholars and professionals from other countries is essential.”

Kang says aside from the academic opportunities, one of her most memorable experiences in South Korea was having Thanksgiving dinner at the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Seoul, complete with turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie.

Thanksgiving dinner in Seoul, South Korea

Katie Capra, the Associate Director of Academic Honors and Fellowships, says Ph.D. students who are interested in applying for a Fulbright should attend one of USC’s Fulbright Writing Workshops or watch the workshop online. She also encourages students to think about how the timing of a Fulbright will enhance their dissertation. Once students decide to apply for Fulbright, they need to participate in advising during the summer with Academic Honors and Fellowships staff. Students can find detailed information on the application process and resources here.

Cancer Research Becomes A Work of Art

When you think of cancer, you hardly think of beauty. You likely think of a destructive disease that wreaks havoc on the body and causes heartache and suffering for millions of people around the world. However, if you look at the process of diagnosing cancer from a purely aesthetic perspective, you could confuse it for art. The colorful tissue biopsies and stains that are used to identify, subtype and select treatments for cancer can look a lot like photographs, water colors or oil paintings intended to hang on a wall.

Rishi Rawat, an MD-PhD student at the University of Southern California, encountered the striking aesthetics during his research to develop digital pathology. Rawat submitted an image taken during his examination of cancer cells to the USC Graduate School’s annual “Deck Our Halls” competition. The competition is designed to showcase student research and creative work in its many different forms. Students submit their projects and those who are selected display their pieces on the walls of the graduate school office for one year. Rawat will exhibit an image of a slide that is part of his cancer research.

“This is a picture of the natural fluorescence of 35 pieces of cancer tissue without any dyes and stains, just the intrinsic, naked fluorescence of the cells,” said Rawat. “As a person, looking at this image gives me the chills because if I didn’t know it was cancer, I’d think it was beautiful.”

Rawat is working on groundbreaking research that could revolutionize the way cancer is diagnosed and treated. The idea behind digital pathology is to use technology and artificial intelligence to analyze cells and tissue and detect abnormalities. It has major implications in cancer research as a computer is able to recognize cell patterns more quickly than a human. Rawat says digital pathology could reduce the amount of time it takes to diagnose a disease and allow patients to start treatment faster. It can also be used in situations where doctors are not readily available to diagnose cancer.

“If you go to places where they barely have the technologies to take the biopsy and perform the simple stains, they don’t have the expertise to look at that biopsy and give you a deep comprehensive analysis. But, a computer could do that,” said Rawat. “A computer could learn patterns from the tissue, patterns that it learns on its own automatically and patterns that we teach it from the expertise of pathologists, and we could democratize pathology.”

Digital pathology has the potential to improve our understanding of cancer. Rawat says a computer can learn from far more data points than a human, meaning a computer has the potential to learn patterns and discrepancies that go beyond our visual understanding of cancer.

“It could teach us things that we don’t know,” said Rawat. “The more we study cancer, the more we realize it is an extremely complex disease. Computers are going to be able to help us synthesize all of the knowledge that exists into a framework that we can use to think about it more intelligently.”

Interdisciplinary research is central to Rawat’s work. He currently has four mentors at USC’s Keck School of Medicine and USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering who come from a variety of backgrounds: David Augus, a professor in both the medical and engineering schools; Dan Ruderman, a professor at the Keck School of medicine who has a background in physics; Fae Sha, a professor at Viterbi who specializes in artificial intelligence and machine learning; and Michael Press, a professor in the Department of Pathology at Keck and an expert in breast cancer pathology.

Rawat earned his undergraduate degree from the University of California at Berkley and says he decided to continue his education at USC because of unparalleled access to the best professors in each field. “This particular project and this program not only connected me to the best medical people, but to people in other fields who could help me grow in a multidimensional way,” said Rawat.

Rawat’s image of cancer cells will be displayed in the USC Graduate School offices through the year alongside the work of about 30 other USC graduate students. In February, USC Graduate School and the Office of Undergraduate Programs hosted a reception and invited the USC community to see the new creative works decorating the walls.

PhD Spotlight: Examining the Link Between Neighborhoods and Schools

You’ve probably heard the term gentrification thrown around many times to describe how neighborhoods are transforming in cities like Los Angeles, New York, Denver, Seattle, San Francisco and Portland. You probably think of gentrification and picture an influx of hip coffee shops and trendy restaurants. But, have you considered the impact on children and schools?

Jennifer Candipan, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, is diving into this question. Jennifer is studying the relationship between neighborhoods and schools and is specifically looking at racial, ethnic and socioeconomic composition. She’s trying to understand the effects on students and how certain circumstances can shape a child’s experience or contribute to inequality.

She says part of her dissertation focuses on trying to understand the changes in how parents choose neighborhoods and schools, especially as more and more parents decide to send their children to non-neighborhood schools, like charter schools, magnets schools or private schools. Jennifer says she has found that the link between where you live and where you attend school has not changed much over time, but it is decoupling the most in gentrifying neighborhoods.

“I look at trends over time in terms of where this is happening and to what degree,” said Candipan. “The second part of it is understanding on a more individual level what are the family factors, the neighborhood factors, and the school factors that are contributing to those decisions.”

Candipan looks at cities across the U.S. for her research, but she says she was partly inspired by what she saw in Los Angeles. Candipan grew up in Southern California and has lived in Los Angeles at various times throughout her life.

“Everyone talks about Los Angeles being this diverse metropolitan region, but seeing all the segregation in various contexts, the segregation in the neighborhood level and the school level and all sorts of institutional settings. Being here really awakened me to these larger processes that were probably happening at a national level,” said Candipan.

Candipan says that housing policy and school policy are often looked at separately, but they shouldn’t be.

“In order to solve this very longstanding issue of school segregation you kind of have to fix things at the neighborhood level too and have affordable housing and neighborhood initiatives that keep people in place without displacing them,” said Candipan.

Candipan is a recipient of a 2018 National Academy of Education/Spencer Dissertation Fellowship, allowing her to spend this academic year writing her analysis. The fellowship is awarded to researchers who focus on education and the improvement of education. The fellowship incorporates professional development and mentoring sessions with senior academics in the field. Candipan is scheduled to present her research at the National Academy of Education/Spencer Dissertation Fellowship Spring Fellows Retreat in March in Washington D.C.


Rock the Vote: Meet USC Graduate Students Studying Voting

As you vote in the midterm elections, you may not realize just how many students at USC are researching voting and politics. Ph.D. candidates across multiple schools at USC spend countless hours studying voting, what drives people to the polls and how we express our political opinions.

Sara Sadhwani, Ph.D. candidate at USC

Sara Sadhwani is receiving national attention for her research on voting. Sadhwani is a Ph.D. candidate in the Political Science and International Relations program at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. Her work focuses on estimating vote choice using surname matched vote returns for Asian American and Latino voters.


Sadhwani wrote an article for The Washington Post in May, just ahead of the primary elections. She looked at the potential influence of Asian American voters in Orange County. She found that Asian American voters in Southern California tend to lean Republican. This finding is the opposite of the national trend. However, she also found that Asian Americans in many Southern California districts supported Hillary Clinton over President Trump in the 2016 election. Sadhwani notes in her article that Asian Americans are the fastest growing immigrant group in the U.S. The research she details in The Washington Post article was also highlighted in two pieces in the New York Times and on KCRW radio station.

Jarred Cuellar, Ph.D. candidate at USC

Another Ph.D. candidate, Jarred Cuellar, is researching Latino voting behavior. His research focuses on what mobilization efforts drive Latinos to the polls. He’s looking at the impact of a variety of mobilization techniques including “Get Out the Vote” campaigns, mailers and canvassing. Cueller is currently a second year Ph.D. candidate in political science.




Jeeyun (Sophia) Baik, Ph.D. candidate at USC

At the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, part of Ph.D. candidate Jeeyun (Sophia) Baik’s research focuses on how people express, or hide, their opinions about politics in conversations and on social media. Baik says, “I am researching (re)configurations of public spheres facilitated by communication media and their impacts on people’s engagement in social and political issues.” Baik says she plans to further investigate people’s privacy concerns when they express opinions on digital platforms.

Whitney Hua, Ph.D. candidate at USC

Whitney Hua, a Ph.D. candidate in the Political Science and International Relations program, is also studying the impact of social media in political communication. Her work focuses on how elected officials communicate with the public via social media, and how the public receives and processes those messages. “We hear a lot about politicians from both the right and the left nowadays thinking that the opposing side is simply wrong about various political issues,” says Hua. “I think understanding how our elected officials view ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, and concurrently, how they use language to support these conceptions in their public messages, is an important area of study given that this may be a huge contributing factor in the political polarization we’re seeing today.”

Meet the Professor Inspiring Students to See Horror Films

Do you need a push to see a horror movie this October? Dr. William Whittington, a professor in the USC School of Cinematic Arts, might inspire you to embrace the spirit of the season and take a trip to the movies.

Dr. Whittington recently taught a seminar called “Horror and the Disruption of Modern Media and Society” to a group of Ph.D. students as part of the Annenberg Graduate Fellowship Micro Seminar Series. Dr. Whittington outlined the history of the horror genre, explaining how it emerged and developed over time. He focused part of his lecture on explaining why horror movies are relevant today.


Dr. Whittington leads a seminar during the Annenberg Graduate Fellowship Micro Seminar Series. Photo by Steve Cohn.

Just as we apply other film genres to our lives, we can do the same with horror films. “Horror films are particularly attuned to the moment… they represent the anxieties of the moment,” said Dr. Whittington. We can look to many current horror films and TV series to see some of the issues our society is grappling with. For example, we can watch the television series “Westworld” and see the representation of one of our current fears—the fear of technology taking over. Similarly, “Get Out” draws attention to current racial tension and the anxiety over our social climate. Dr. Whittington explained that the horror genre allows us to contain certain issues, think about them, and then apply our analysis to the real world.

“Go to see horror because, weirdly, there is hope. Despite the mayhem, there might be a final survivor or a final solution,” says Dr. Whittington.

Dr. Whittington is currently working on his second book about sound design in horror cinema. It follows his first book, “Sound Design and Science Fiction,” which focuses on science fiction cinema. Dr. Whittington says he used to love horror movies as a teen, but has grown less found of them. Right now, he is particularly interested in the artistry of horror films and their relationship to artistic traditions like surrealism and expressionism.

Dr. Whittington’s lecture was part of the USC Annenberg Graduate Fellowship Program’s ninth annual Micro Seminar Series. The micro seminars are designed to bring together USC Annenberg Graduate Fellows from three different schools; the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, the School of Cinematic Arts, and the Viterbi School of Engineering. Faculty can propose topics for the micro seminar that are relevant to students in all three schools. The event typically draws more than 100 Annenberg Fellows who have an opportunity to interact with students and faculty from outside of their programs and get to know each other.


Students listen to a lecture during the Annenberg Graduate Fellowship Micro Seminar Series. Photo by Steve Cohn.

Dr. Whittington has participated in almost all of the micro seminars since the series began in 2009. He says the seminars allow people with different perspectives and research focuses to come together, discuss topics and develop new insights.


Students and faculty gather at a reception during the Annenberg Graduate Fellowship Micro Seminar Series. Photo by Steve Cohn.

Now back to Halloween. You can learn something from horror movies, so why not dive right in? Dr. Whittington has some recommendations. If you want intellectually stimulating and scary movies, try watching international horror films. Dr. Whittington’s top three choices in the category are “Pontypool” (from Canada), “The Orphanage” (from Spain), and “Ju-on: The Grudge” (from Japan). If you’re looking for horror films with some comic relief, he recommends “The Final Girls,” “Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse” and “Dead Snow.”