SPOTLIGHT: Juan Martinez Vera MFA ’14, Montes Scholar and Sloan Film Grant Recipient

by Justine Saquilayan

“People said, ‘It’s hard to get money. It’s hard to have a stable career.’ I say it’s about passion and having that drive to achieve what you want.”

In 2010, Juan Martinez Vera found himself at a crossroads. With a newly-minted Political Science degree in hand, the lifelong arts and politics enthusiast was faced with a tough choice between pursuing a career in film or attending law school.

“Those were always my two passions, and I think I always tried to find a way to blend them and use film as a way to convey my political ideas or inclinations,” said Vera. “I made a bold decision, and I moved on to film.”

Once he committed to this path, he applied to the top schools in the country. Since immigrating to the United States from rural Mexico at the age of eleven, he knew he could use the art form as a platform for change. Following his acceptance into USC’s program, the decision to enroll was a simple one. In his words: “it’s legendary.”

Upon entering the USC School of Cinematic Arts program as a Film Production Master’s student, Vera has amassed a noteworthy amount of local and national awards to fund his various film projects. Even amid all these accomplishments, he attributes much of his success to learning in a competitive, challenging and collaborative environment.

On set_Stairways“We have a pool of incredibly talented people and I learn from them as much as I learn from the school itself. I helped with projects, graduate projects, thesis films. I just fell in love with the school, and I worked on as many projects as I could.”

His experience working in different aspects of filmmaking was put to the test when he was awarded a director position on Stairways, a 546 Project short film developed throughout a semester in a highly-selective, advanced production course. Only three 12-minute films are produced by a crew of producers, cinematographers, production designers, editors, sound designers, and an assistant director.

Vera describes the emotionally-charged Stairways film as “a story about a social worker who works on Skid Row who is struggling to come to terms with her tragic past.”

Stairways Set_2

Vera directing on the set of the film, Stairways.

In addition to the recently premiered 546 film, Vera has also been awarded a Sloan Film Grant, a national award given to filmmakers who fuse science and art in their stories.

The story’s called Spark. It’s about a student in Venezuela who’s protesting against the violence and the lack of social necessities. When he gets captured, he uses a software designed by a Chinese developer to communicate with his fellow students and let the world know he is captured. The science is in the software that circumvents government censorship and allows people to upload things on Twitter and social media sites despite the government’s attempt to censor those pictures to try to cover up corruption. It’s going to be fun.”

Vera also credited his ability to create films in school to the support he received as a three-time recipient of the Rodolfo Montes Scholarship. The award is administered yearly by the Graduate School to students who have outstanding academic records and a history of community involvement.

“It was an honor to receive it, and it just shows that hard work pays off when you have an ideal or conviction that you want to achieve. Nothing is impossible. The connection to him is just an honor for me. I don’t know how I would have done it without that support all those semesters.”

As for what’s next in his career, Vera says he has a list of projects, including twenty scripts and countless ideas, that he plans to develop.

His advice to current graduate students and aspiring filmmakers: “There are always people who believe in you. As long as you are honest about what you want to do, there will always be people who will help out. Keep working, and you’ll get there. As long as I get to make what I want to make, I’m happy.”

Introducing the 2014 PhD Achievement Award winners: Tianyin Zhou


Tianyin Zhou
USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences
Doctor of Philosophy, Computational Biology and Bioinformatics
Faculty Advisor: Remo Rohs

As a graduate student, Tianyin developed the methodology for predicting local DNA shape features on a genomic scale. This approach has been described as a breakthrough in genome research because it makes possible the analysis of sequencing data in 3D, which more accurately reflects the molecular mechanisms and physical interactions involved in recognizing the double helix by proteins. Tianyin has co-published six papers in journals such as Cell and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. His work has received four significant paper awards, including several Top-10 Paper Awards from the International Society for Computational Biology. Tianyin also received the Harrison M. Kurtz Award given to the most outstanding Ph.D. student in the biological sciences at USC. He was recently hired by Google where he will apply machine learning in search algorithms.

Congratulations, Tianyin!

Introducing the 2014 PhD Achievement Award winners: Yin Tian

Yin Tian 
USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences
Doctor of Philosophy, Mathematics
Faculty Advisor: Ko Honda

Yin’s research centers on low-dimensional topology, representation theory and mathematical physics. In particular, his work focuses on the interaction between “categorification” and quantum physics. The practical application of “categorification” is to give improved invariants of knots, a concept intricately related to quantum computing. In the fall, Yin will begin a three-year position as a Research Assistant Professor of Mathematics at Stony Brook University. The position will allow him to interact with mathematicians and physicists and to explore questions of common interest.

Congratulations, Yin!

Introducing the 2014 PhD Achievement Award winners: Nan Li

Nan Li
USC Viterbi School of Engineering
Doctor of Philosophy, Civil Engineering
Faculty Advisor: Burcin Becerik

Nan’s research brings together a number of disciplines, including emergency response, civil engineering, and computer science. He has developed novel methods for the localization of first responders and trapped occupants during building emergencies.

His work has resulted in 11 high-quality peer-reviewed journal papers and 14 peer-reviewed conference papers. One of his papers received the Charles M. Eastman Top PhD Paper Award, which recognizes the importance of developing young researchers in the field of integrated IT through the life cycle of design, construction, and occupancy of buildings and related facilities. Nan also received the USC Department of Civil Engineering’s Best Dissertation Award, which will be honored at this years hooding ceremony. He will join Tsinghua University next year.

Congratulations, Nan!

Introducing the 2014 PhD Achievement Award winners: Ana Lee

Ana Lee
USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences
Doctor of Philosophy, Comparative Liverature
Faculty Advisor: Roberto Ignacio Diaz

Meet Ana Lee, a PhD in Comparative Literature from USC Dornsife, and a recipient of the 2014 PhD Achievement Award.  Here she is in front of the Praça de Camões in the main plaza in Lisbon, Portugal, where she’s completing a Fulbright Fellowship. In the Fall, she will begin a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship at Tulane University, and in July 2015, she will join the faculty of Latin American and Iberian Cultures at Columbia University.

Congratulations, Ana!

Introducing the 2014 PhD Achievement Award winners: Chin-Hao Huang

Chin-Hao Huang
USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences
Doctor of Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations (May 2014)
Faculty Advisor: David Kang

Chin-Hao’s research explores how and why emerging economies and rising powers in Asia take on self-constraining commitments and comply with international norms. He is the primary author of ten publications, including refereed articles, research monographs, a Congressional testimony, and book chapters in leading presses such as the Oxford University Press and Routledge. One research article, which draws from a chapter from his dissertation, received the highest distinction from the American Political Science Association (APSA) for the “2014 Best Foreign Policy Paper Award.”

Chin-Hao has received grants from the United States Institute of Peace, and the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office Strategic Programme Fund. In 2014, Chin-Hao was awarded a Collaborative Research Grant from the MacArthur Foundation to study the theoretical, empirical, and policy implications of China’s rise for newly-emergent U.S. security partnerships in Southeast Asia. He will be a Principal Investigator working with a network of scholars from Australia, Indonesia, Myanmar, and Vietnam. Beginning in 2014, Chin-Hao will join the faculty of Yale as an Assistant Professor of Political Science.

Congratulations, Dr. Huang!

Introducing the 2014 PhD Achievement Award winners: Samuel Hartzmark

Samuel Hartzmark
USC Marshall School of Business
Doctor of Philosophy, Finance & Business Economics (May 2014)
Faculty Advisor: Wayne E. Ferson

Samuel’s work brings an interdisciplinary approach to the study of finance. He explores empirical patterns suggested by  psychology and economics that are not incorporated into the field’s current theory. His research has published in the Journal of Financial Economics and the Quarterly Journal of Finance. In 2013, Samuel’s paper on investor trade assets was awarded the UBS Global Asset Management and the Michael J Barclay Young Scholar Award from the Financial Research Association. With offers from the University of Chicago Booth, the University of Pennsylvania Wharton, and Boston College, Samuel has accepted a position at the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago.

Congratulations, Samuel!

USC Doctoral Student Fuses Physics and English to Publish a Book of Poetry

USC Doctoral Student Fuses Physics and English to Publish a Book of Poetry
By Lauren Evashenk

Many Ph.D. students find the dissertation writing process taxing enough to inspire a break after graduation, but Elizabeth Cantwell hasn’t broken her stride; she’s already on her way to turning hers into a book.

A USC Provost Fellow and Ph.D. candidate in the USC Dornsife English Literature & Creative Writing program, Cantwell will publish her first book of poetry, Nights I Let the Tiger Get You, with Black Lawrence Press in April 2014, just in time for Commencement.

Cantwell credits USC for helping to develop her talents and career. “This is a unique program. It’s not typical for a doctoral degree to combine the traditional study of literature with a creative component,” Cantwell said.

The unique style of scholarship that brought Cantwell to USC is also what sets her apart; the critical analysis portion of her coursework led her to find inspiration for her own writing in unexpected places.

“My dissertation focuses on Renaissance literature and the idea of ‘the infinite.’ The telescope and microscope were invented during the early modern period, and these groundbreaking developments enabled people to look both out and in, forcing them to actually deal with infinity’s implications.” Cantwell said.

Encouraged by the interdisciplinary links she found in Renaissance works, Cantwell began looking to the sciences for her own inspiration. She found the interdisciplinary work so compelling that the study of physics became a central piece of her dissertation; one of her dissertation committee members is even a faculty member in the USC Physics and Astronomy Department.

Though physics and poetry seem like an unlikely pair, Cantwell views poetry as a powerful tool for interdisciplinary learning. Inspired by her brother’s troubles in school, Cantwell taught high school after graduating from Yale University, and plans to return to teaching after completing her doctoral studies to inspire the next generation of thinkers and creators. She hopes that writing creatively about scientific topics will help students to better understand the subjects, enjoy learning, and feel accomplished for having completed a creative project.

Cantwell plans to continue her growing writing career after she returns to teaching. In addition to her forthcoming book, Cantwell recently won the Chapbook Contest with Grey Book Press, and the house will publish her short collection, Premonitions, this year. Cantwell was also a finalist for the 2012 Hudson Prize, and has published poems in a variety of journals, including PANK, The Los Angeles Review, Anti-, La Petite Zine, and the Indiana Review.

Read an excerpt of Nights I Let the Tiger Get You in Tinge Magazine.

From the “Badges” Series: “New Research — Getting Started”

From the “Badges” series…

New Research: Getting started
By Adam Feinman 

There are three questions I want to briefly address about being a new graduate student:

  1. How do you choose an advisor/lab?

  2. How do you develop original ideas or projects?

  3. In particular, how do you develop a dissertation?

Each of these questions could be a book in and of themselves, so I’m just going to throw out some ideas and a story.

Choosing an advisor is an extremely personal process, and there are many factors to consider. In my opinion though, the most important factor is making sure you can have a positive relationship with your advisor. I mean, competence and success are crucial as well, but those are necessary conditions. Once you get past that, being able to click with someone should be a deciding factor. This inherently makes this choice extremely personal and difficult to give advice about. No advisor or lab group is perfect, but you need to feel like you belong. “Impostor syndrome” is a well-characterized phenomenon, and it can kill your career. Better to avoid it by feeling good about the people you work with. (See in my previous post why I don’t think unfamiliar research is a bad thing.)

Once you select an advisor and have an idea of research areas you are interested in, the next major hurdle in the process is actually identifying research questions that haven’t been addressed yet. This is challenging in the best of circumstances. Therefore, the path to good research questions always begins with the infamous literature search.

The girth of academic literature can be an overwhelming ocean to brave, but fear not. There are often lots of good web resources that explain simply the concepts you need to know to get started, and every lab has at least some people (hopefully, but not necessarily, including your advisor) who can and will field your questions.

While the Internet and Google Scholar have simplified the search process significantly, you do need to jump in and start reading at some point. Here are a few tips and tricks I’ve developed or heard over the last few years:

  • You need to have a list of keywords. They should include more general words, but there is a trade-off between specificity and the number of things that will come up in your search.

  • Never read a paper without reading the abstract first! Abstracts will tell you a lot about a project. Often, you don’t even need to read the paper. Sometimes the abstract will tell you the paper is irrelevant to you, and occasionally, the abstract will give you all the information you need.

  • Use citations and references. Every paper has a list of references, and those papers’ abstracts are worth browsing. Also, when you search Google Scholar, below the link to the paper is a “cited by” link that displays all the papers that cited the one you’re looking at as a reference.

  • Search dynamically. Keep updating your keyword list, and don’t stop reading papers just because you have a project going.

Once you get the hang of it, the trick will be selecting a Ph.D.-size chunk of research. In the sciences, this is usually much smaller than you think initially. That was Ryan’s experience.

“Once I got through my literature search, I thought that I had some good projects lined up. But as I began to design the first experiment, it became apparent that just the first project could be a dissertation. Over the course of my graduate work, my advisor and I have changed the shape of my dissertation and narrowed the focus many times before it became manageable. But I’m really happy now with how it’s shaping up.”

I’ve found this to be fairly characteristic of grad school research. Don’t feel bad about progress to graduation being a dynamic process with some degree of flux. Your dissertation only has to be fixed when you turn it in!

I’m an engineer and a scientist, so most of the stories I have to draw on come from those fields. If you are reading this and have a different spin (professional school, humanities, etc.), please email me at, I would love to hear your experiences! Anonymity will be protected.

New Research: Unfamiliar Territory

From the series, Badges: Trials and Tribulations on the Road to Graduate/Professional School Success, by Adam Feinman

New Research: 
Unfamiliar Territory
By Adam Feinman 

We all enter graduate programs with an idea of what we are looking to get out of it. Some may wish to make a change in the world; others may be looking to better their employment opportunities. Perhaps there is a historical era of fascination, or a physiological question unanswered. For some of us, however, that goal (or set of goals) may not be as well-defined. One may be aware of their skills or areas of interest but unsure of how they intend to apply them. Even if one has plans in mind upon entry, for various reasons students sometimes end up with an advisor whose research focus is out of their comfort zone.

One thing is assured: if you are going to do research in graduate school, even if you have done research previously, you’re going to have to traverse uncharted waters.

This can be particularly scary if you aren’t well-equipped to do the research in labs who do work you care about. Even nice graduate advisors have notoriously high expectations of their graduate students. Laura is a young lady I met who is doing some clinical training now to boost her academic CV after a prestigious postdoctoral position. She recalled to me that when she was first meeting with her graduate advisor, he told her flat-out that he considered it a reasonable expectation for Ph.D. students to design, execute, write, and defend in three years (regardless of former research training).

It is extremely easy to allow oneself to get caught up in frustrating things like this, but knowing what you stand to gain can help.

Firstly, I think that sometimes it’s good to have a balance when starting research between what you know and what you don’t. If you always do projects that are close to home, your CV will end up looking very narrow. You’ll also run out of topics quickly, and even the projects you do will be minor contributions to your field. Keep an open mind, and always be ready to either learn something new or pull in a collaborator who knows what they’re doing. Or both!

I’d also say that it’s really important in an academic career (and in life in general) to avoid stagnation. We have to keep our minds sharp, especially when you’re in a competitive field.

I wish I had thought of this quote myself, and I can’t remember who said it, but here it is: “Be a jack of all trades and master of one.”

I’m an engineer and a scientist, so most of the stories I have to draw on come from those fields. If you are reading this and have a different spin (professional school, humanities, etc.), please email me at, I would love to hear your experiences! Anonymity will be protected.