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.

We Love Our Global Fellows

Valentine’s Day isn’t just about showing love for your significant other, family, friends, or even yourself! USC Graduate School wants to take this day to show our appreciation for our global fellows, many of whom moved thousands of miles to continue their education at USC. Incoming students from China, India, Brazil, Taiwan, Mexico and Chile are eligible for the fellowships that are funded collaboratively by their home countries and USC. These opportunities help to ensure that international PhD candidates have access to everything they need to successfully conduct their research.

We’re excited to introduce some of our global fellows from Taiwan and Chile and to share their groundbreaking research.

Camille (Hsu-Yu) Chen is a Ph.D. candidate in the Programs in Biomedical & Biological Sciences (PIBBS) at Keck.  She joined PIBBS because of its diverse and collaborative faculty members and the opportunities to explore sciences in different disciplines. Chen’s research focuses on HIV gene therapy, specifically targeting the latency of the infection. Through her research, Chen aims to eliminate HIV latency. Within her program, Chen works closely with experts in HIV and gene therapy research.  Their collaborative efforts has supported her goal to eliminate HIV latency.  The USC Taiwan Global Fellowship is funded in part by the Republic of China (Taiwan) Ministry of Education. The fellowship has provided Chen with the opportunity to stay up to date with the latest research pertaining to HIV.

“The USC Taiwan Global Fellowship has not only supported my study at USC, but it has also provided a travel award to attend conferences to learn about the most advanced findings in the field,” said Chen.

Li-Ping Chen is a Ph.D. candidate in the Comparative Studies in Literature and Culture program at Dornsife and is also funded in part by the Republic of China (Taiwan) Ministry of Education. The global prestige of USC and the diverse intellectual community encouraged Chen to become a Trojan. Her research examines East Asian, Sinophone and Asian Diaspora literature.  Chen says her dissertation explores the cultural identity and national consciousness of Taiwanese writers in postwar Japan and North America, and how their literary writings responded to nativist models of ethnicity, language and homeland in the age of global capitalism and postcolonial displacement.

Kun-Hao Yu is a Ph.D. candidate and USC Taiwan Global Fellow in the Civil and Environmental Engineering program at Viterbi. Cardinal and gold are familiar colors to Yu. In 2017, Yu graduated from USC with a Master of Science degree in Civil and Environmental Engineering with a concentration on structural engineering. His experiences in the program encouraged him to return as a Ph.D. candidate.

“The experience volunteering in Dr.Qiming Wang’s lab during my M.S. degree at USC had established my strong interests in structural and mechanical engineering field,” said Yu.

Yu’s research focuses on mechanics and additive manufacturing of self-healing polymers. Recently, Yu and his colleagues developed analytical theories to explain their research on self-healing mechanics of dynamic polymers.  Their works have been published in the prestigious Journal of Mechanics and Physics of Solids.

“These theories are the first set of analytical model in the field to mechanically explain the healing performance of the self-healing polymers,” said Yu.

Yu’s career goal is to become university faculty in Taiwan.

Ariel Calderon is a Ph.D. candidate studying Mechanical Engineering in the Viterbi School of Engineering. Calderon’s research is focused on robotics. In his soft robotics work, Calderon is designing systems that can mimic muscles in animals. A current project is a soft robot inspired by the way earthworms move. You can check out this video to see Calderon’s work in action. The robot contains artificial muscles that can contract and expand so the “worm” can move. In Calderon’s micro robotic work, he creates tiny robots. It’s is a meticulous process that involves using a laser cutter to cut shapes out of materials like carbon fiber and then manually assembling the shapes under a microscope. Recently, Calderon created a robotic bee that can flap its wing and fly. The bee is about the size of a penny.

Calderon is one of USC’s Global Chile Fellows. He chose USC because it has one of the few labs in the world that can fabricate the kind of technology he is working on. “The Autonomous Micro-robotic Systems Labe in the AME Department was a great opportunity to learn and design robots that I’ve been dreaming about since I was a kid,” said Calderon.

Rodrigo Riveros is a Ph.D. candidate in the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC’s Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and another one of USC’s Global Chile Fellows. His research focuses on understanding how adolescents develop life goals. He primarily focuses on Latino and East-Asian teenagers. As part of his research, he conducts interviews and analyzes behavioral and neuroimaging data. Riveros also studies the effects of art-based social emotional intervention on adolescents and adults. Riveros says this work has inspired him to transfer his lab and community research into objective recommendations for social betterment.

Riveros says he chose to pursue a Ph.D. at USC because of the opportunity to work with Dr. Immordino-Yang. “I felt deeply connected with Dr. Immordino-Yang’s scientific approach, conducting research that acknowledges the multiple levels and dynamics of human development with the highest standard of quality and rigor,” said Riveros.

Black History Month: Campus Resources That Support Students of Color

February is recognized as Black History Month. Since 1976, February has been designated as the annual celebration of the achievements of African Americans and their prominent role in American history. Black history is not limited to one person, country or experience. Many schools and universities develop programs to educate their students about the richness of Black history, as well as using the month as an opportunity to showcase current achievements within the Black community.  Here at USC, the Center for Black Cultural Student Affairs (CBCSA) partners with student organizations, resource centers and local community leaders to coordinate events for Black History Month. Though CBCSA coordinates these events, its main role is to serve as a resource for Black students on campus.

CBCSA was created in 1977 through the work of student activists who recognized the need for services and resources for Black students at USC. Since its creation, the primary goal of CBCSA has been to retain Black students at USC by giving students the opportunity to develop academically, culturally, socially and professionally.

“I think it’s important because students need to be able to see people that look like them, especially at places like USC,” said Dr. Rosalind Conerly, director of CBCSA.

Dr. Rosalind Conerly, Director of CBCSA

A Southern California native, Dr. Rosalind Conerly, has passionately served students in CBCSA since 2012 beginning as the assistant director.  She is a first-generation college student with a bachelor’s and master’s from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. Conerly also has a Doctorate of Education degree from USC Rossier. She leads the center with Assistant Director Dr. Theo Fowles.

“We provide a safe space for students to have conversation and get feedback from one another where they may not be able to do that in the classroom,” said Conerly.

CBCSA also has a legacy of involvement with the Black community here in Los Angeles.  The first director of CBCSA, Mr. Willis Edwards, established the Beverly Hills chapter of the NAACP.  Because of Edward’s legacy of involvement, CBCSA works hard to keep their bond with the Black community in Los Angeles through events and by supporting Black owned businesses.

Student’s enjoying CBCSA’s annual Labor Day BBQ

In her role, Conerly sits on many committees at USC advocating and sharing the narrative of Black students. She and her team work tirelessly to empower students, advocate on their behalf, educate administrators on students’ needs and provide the necessary resources for students.

“I’m also able to do what I call consulting with a lot of faculty and administrators in academic units who are trying to figure out how to better engage with their Black students,” Conerly said.  “Because we are not attached with an academic discipline, we are able to see students across disciplines.”

CBCSA provides a large assortment of student development, engagement and cultural programs for Black students. The Black and Latinx New Student Symposium is a one day orientation for all incoming students, undergraduate and graduate, to learn about campus involvement opportunities and resources.  Weekly “Real Talk” is a facilitated discussion hosted in the center for students to openly discuss topics like social justice and campus climate. Through these programs, CBCSA aims to create and maintain a space for Black students to feel included, confident and secure.

Sistah Circle’s End of Semester Brunch

In addition to their programming, CBCSA supports student organizations for Black graduate students. The Black Graduate Student Network (BGSN) focuses on connecting Black graduate students across departments and disciplines.  Grounded in Black feminist thought, Sistah Circle provides a space for Black women in various graduate programs. There are also academic and department specific Black graduate student organizations such as the Black Graduate Business Leaders, Black Law Student Association, Black Social Work Caucus and Rossier’s JENGA.

“There are more black graduate students than undergraduate students,” Conerly said. “We work hard to figure out ways to support graduate students knowing that they can’t make it to the center and events all the time.”

During Black History Month, CBCSA partners with its undergraduate counterpart organization, the Black Student Assembly (BSA) to put together one calendar of events for February.

Graduates waiting to cross the stage at CBCSA’s African American Cultural Celebration.

“It also encourages other students to come out to these events because they are not just for the black community, they are for the USC community,” Conerly said.

This year, CBCSA hosted their second annual F.R.O. (films representing ourselves) Fest, a film festival that gave black filmmakers a chance to showcase their work. Other events for the month include a gala, basketball tournaments, lectures, panels and game nights.

“We make Black history month very impactful by showcasing our Black community here at USC as well as our alumni,” Conerly said. “It’s our launching pad for everything else planned later in the semester.”

For more information about CBCSA, please click here.

The 2019 Black History Month.


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.”

Horrors Beyond Halloween

Halloween has changed and evolved throughout the centuries. However, the spookiness and horror of the annual holiday remains the same. Millions of people spend time and money to experience fear in haunted houses and movie theatres during the Halloween season. After a moment of horror, people have the luxury of returning safely to their homes knowing that whatever they just witnessed was pure fiction. Unfortunately, there was a group of people who lived a Halloween horror story every day for many years experiencing fear, trauma and pain that go beyond a brief fright in a haunted house. A PhD student at USC dedicates her time and research to understand the fear and traumas World War I soldiers overseas.

Jenna Ross

Jenna Ross is a fifth year PhD student in the history department of USC Dornsife. Her research is centered on the experiences of fear in the trenches of WWI amongst soldiers. Prior to studying at USC, Ross lived in Italy for three years. During that time, she traveled throughout Europe visiting small towns and villages. Her curiosity about WWI was sparked when she noticed the frequency of WWI memorials in every town she visited.


“It was something uncanny about the first World War and I wanted to explore it,” Ross said.

During the beginning stages of her research, Ross came across a 1917 article by a psychiatrist who wrote about the fear of soldiers. Contrary to popular publications during the 1910’s, the psychiatrist explained how fear was normal, necessary and beneficial. This article was the catalyst to Ross’ intellectual pursuit.

Ross’ research is transnational. She travels to England, France and Germany to visit

The Imperial War Museum, London.

various archives such as The Imperial War Museum in London. To prevent misinformation, Ross solely reviews diaries, letters and court martial records from 1914 to 1918.

“Second hand information takes away the initial feelings and information,” Ross said. “I [want] to get as close to the actual source as I can.”

Many soldiers wrote every day during the entire war, revealing the dark things that haunted them on a daily basis.

“I’ve spent thousands and thousands of pages with these men,” explained Ross. “I feel like I know them just like I know my own friends.”

The majority of the battles during WWI were fought in complete darkness, either at dusk or dawn. The only source of light were large fireworks called star-shells that gave temporary brightness on the battlefield. These men heavily relied on their five senses, training and fellow soldiers for survival.

A will for a soldier written in his Soldier’s Small Book.

During her research, Ross encountered a major who vividly reflected on a battle in a letter. This major and his men heard a sudden crash, which followed with rapid fire of machine guns. He instructed a line of his men to look over the top of the hill while the rest of them prepared and positioned themselves for battle. Soon after, screaming was heard from the hill. In the bursts of light from the star-shells, the major saw that his line of men running back towards them. What they saw caused such a fright the major had no choice but to retreat to a safer place in the darkness. The source of fear was never identified.

“You get [stories] like that a lot where they’re eerie and haunting,” Ross said.

This Halloween night, there will be tons of objects and people portrayed in costume. Many people choose the patriotic route and dress as the soldiers who protect and serve our country. However, where do you draw the line between honor and mockery? The average citizen who has never stepped foot on a battlefield cannot fathom the fear and trauma. Ross has learned through her research that many men who have served in wars did not have safe spaces to discuss the things that they experienced in fear of

A muddy French court martial for desertion in the presence of the enemy.

being seen as unpatriotic. People dressed as soldiers for Halloween are not aware of the severity of battlefield traumas and this lack of knowledge creates a level of insensitivity.

“I don’t think dressing as a soldier is a complement especially since it’s often sexualized,” Ross said. “The [mindset] is like ‘Oh, women like soldiers. I’m going to dress as a soldier!’ Well do you want to have all the mental trauma that’s associated with it?”

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.”

Atlas of an Unbroken World: Invisibly Disabled in Japan (Part I of a Study Across Countries)

By: Laura Cechanowicz


Looking up into cherry blossom trees.

Spring in Japan is marked by the arrival of the cherry blossoms, an event that begins at a slightly different time from year to year depending on the weather. The cherry blossoms themselves are then remarkably fragile. While it is said they peak for one to two weeks, the truest critic I know claims they only last two to three days. The argument is that once the petals begin to fall and the green leaves peak out, their ephemeral beauty is diminished, quickly but a memory. In many ways, the cherry blossoms are an example of my dissertation research in Japan.

For my dissertation in iMAP in the School of Cinematic Arts Department of Media Arts + Practice, I am researching the experience of disability in several countries, and this year of travel is funded by the USC Research Enhancement Fellowship, and later this summer also the USC ACE-Nikaido Fellowship. I am working with locals with invisible disabilities to understand the challenges they face daily, and we are working together through worldbuilding, a practice I learned and developed in the USC World Building Media Lab with Alex McDowell, to imagine solutions to a few of their greatest difficulties. Our work includes documenting our lives now, and sharing those stories via various media outlets, as well as presenting and fabricating fictional stories to elaborate solutions to our problems and to tell our stories in a unique form. The work is also an investigation into how worldbuilding can be used in identity formation, while depicting the neuroscience of the embodied mind.


Photo of six members of non-profit Passione during Rare Disease Day in Kyoto, explaining the Japanese “helpmark” symbol for passers by in an underground shopping center. “Helpmark” is a visual symbol developed in Japan and distributed by the government to communicate that someone has an invisible disability.

As I am also a person with an invisible disability, in each country, I am working to understand my experience of disability in different spaces and cultures. I seek to, in an embodied manner, and by capturing and creating media in each place, capture a fraction of how my experience in that space and with different people is unique. Working with locals, I am also identifying and narrowing in on iconic objects from each culture, reimagining them in a future world that deals with invisible disabilities head on.


Photo of Laura Cechanowicz at a Sanjūsangen-dō Temple wearing the Japanese “helpmark” tag (photo taken by Yuske Fukada).

As a concrete example of my approach, the cherry blossoms are an archetypical Japanese symbol, repurposed for my work here in a future fiction context. Below is an excerpt from a world where everyone develops an invisible disability at some point in their lives. Society, culture, infrastructure, architecture, and more, are rethought and redesigned so that all citizens have as full of a life as possible.

“I still have dreams about running. It may be my greatest wish to run again.

I wonder, is it cruel to teach a child to run if you know someday soon they will never run again?

We call our philosophy of activity now ‘Sakura,’ but our use of the word is an extension of the traditional idea of cherry blossoms as helping people come to terms with life and death. We think of our varied abilities as having life and death cycles, drawing attention to our fleeting ableness. So we cherish our activity. But we don’t consider only that ability abandons, rather, that as one ability disappears, a new one often evolves. The man who becomes blind develops a strong ear.”


Image Description: Photo of a hundred people under cherry blossom, sakura, trees, in Arashiyama in Kyoto, Japan.



Photo of blurred cherry blossom tree in the distance, with a cherry blossom tree whose petals have all fallen in the foreground, brilliantly green.


5 Ways for Grad Students to Practice Self-Care


The school year is coming to a close and academic life has never seemed so hectic! Final exams surely bring a torrent of stressful situations. Not to mention, being a graduate student can be difficult in general. We must balance research and classes with jobs, family responsibilities, and even financial insecurity from time to time (or always. Is it just me?) .

But never fear! These 5 self-care tips, inspired by recommendations from the American Psychological Association, will have you prepared to tackle almost any challenge.

1. Exercise Your Body.

Heart-pumping exercise is a proven stress-buster. But one thing is for sure: running to class because you are five minutes late is not enough. Sustained activity for at least thirty minutes a day is recommended. If you aren’t the athletic type, try something fun like going for a hike or joining a zumba class.

Yoga_Class_at_a_Gym4 2Photo credit: LocalFitness

2. Be mindful.

While getting your body moving is a good thing, sometimes your mind just needs to be still. Mindfulness has been scientifically proven to reduce stress, improve attention, and promote a general sense of well-being.

Processed with VSCOcam with x4 preset

3. Find mentors.

Find that person who completed her Ph.D. in three years while working full-time with two kids. Get all of the tips you can get and never let go! Even if you don’t have a superhero faculty member or colleague, there are likely individuals in your department who have been on a journey similar to yours. Seek them out for advice. They will probably be very flattered that you even asked.


4. Rely on your friends.

If you are a graduate student, it is likely that a good chunk of your friends are also graduate students. Talk out your struggles together. It doesn’t matter how you do it: during a study session, over coffee, or in a What’sApp message. Make sure to keep in touch and check-in over the course of the semester.

5. Seek help if you need it.

If you are feeling overwhelmed, reach out for help. Student Counseling Services are available at the USC Engemenn Student Health Center. They offer a stress relief clinic as well as individual therapy, crisis support, and psychiatric therapy. If you are in need of immediate emotional support, call (213)740-7711 to speak with a crisis therapist.

6 Things I Learned about Transgender Studies

I recently sat down for a conversation with Emmett Harsin Drager, a PhD candidate in American Studies and Ethnicity at USC Dornsife. Emmett’s research focuses on the period of time in the United States during the 1960’s and 1970’s when research universities began performing gender reassignment surgeries. Thousands of people wrote to universities requesting sex change operations. Some were accepted while others were denied. How did doctors decide who qualified for surgery and who didn’t? The answer is, in part, the subject of Emmett’s dissertation. Specifically, they focus on the history of gender identity disorder and the development of official diagnosis and treatment protocols for transsexual patients.

  IMG_9536Emmett Harsin Drager, PhD candidate in American Studies and Ethnicity

Here are the top 6 things I learned about Emmett’s research and the developing field of transgender studies from our conversation.

1. Transgender and transsexuality are not the same.

The term transgender is used to characterize gender identity or gender expression that
doesn’t conform to social expectations based on assigned sex at birth. Transsexuality
refers to the desire or practice of making physical changes to the body, often through
gender reassignment surgery or hormone therapy. Those who identify as transgender
may not identify as transsexual.

2. Christine Jorgensen may be the biggest celebrity you’ve never heard of.

Christine was one of the first well-documented persons in the United States to undergo a sex change operation. In the early 1950’s, Christine travelled to Europe for the new procedure and returned to an abundance of American media attention. Even though this was during the Korean and Cold War, sensationalized news coverage about Christine dominated the news. Emmett explained that Christine’s story, along with many other sensationalized tabloid stories about transexuals, exposed the possibility of gender reassignment and unleashed a new demand for the procedure in the United States.

Christine_Jorgensen_1954Christine Jorgensen, 1954

3. Doctors used to be the gatekeepers of sex change operations. Today, insurance
companies play a similar role.

Emmett uses archived correspondences from individuals who were denied gender
reassignment surgeries to determine the criteria that doctors used to make their
decisions. Today, doctors generally no longer make that distinction. Rather, insurance
companies require someone who requests a sex change operation to have an official
diagnosis from a psychologist.

4. Assumptions about trans individuals were rooted in perceptions about race.
Emmet explained that the original diagnosis of transsexuality was believed to be the
result of an unhealthy relationship with a parent. At the same time, racial attitudes about
the black family also led to pervasive pathologization. Emmett used the example of Mrs. G, described as a very masculine black woman. Doctors pinpointed Mrs. G’s close
relationship with her single mom as the reason behind her transsexuality, echoing the
conclusions of the infamous Moynihan report that blamed black mothers for social and
economic stagnation.

USC Professor C. Riley Snorton, one of Emmett’s mentors and an expert in trans
studies, recently published a book that puts racial formation at the forefront of
transgender studies titled Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans.

black on both sides

University of Minnesota Press, 2017.

5. A lot has changed in the medical community surrounding the diagnosis of transsexuality. But a lot hasn’t.
Transsexuality was originally termed Gender Identity Disorder by the medical
community and classified as a mental illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical
Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Although today the term has been changed from
gender identity disorder to gender dysphoria, which serves to destigmatize transsexuality, gender dysphoria is still included in the DSM.

6. There’s more to come at USC!
In the fall of 2018, Emmett will host a plenary on gender and sexuality as part of USC
Annenberg’s Critical Mediations Conference. The conference is scheduled for October
4-5, so be sure to mark your calendars!