The University Record, May 6, 2002

Dissertation award winners demonstrate courage and skill

By Theresa Maddix

Katherine Masur, Jonathan Bolton, Heather Heying, Sarah Ross, Su Fang Ng and Hsien-Hsin Lee with Rackham Dean Earl Lewis (Photo by Martin Vloet, U-M Photo Services)
Trapped in a tent with the rain dripping for days on end during a 10-month stay in the rainforest of Madagascar, Heather Heying may have been thinking about writing an outstanding dissertation. In her study of the sexual selection process of the Madagascan poison frog, she probably wasn’t thinking about writing a non-scientific book about the experience or imagining the renown her resulting dissertation would receive. Most likely she was focused on keeping dry.

In the very different setting of the Michigan League April 25, the Distinguished Dissertation Award ceremony honored Heying and seven other candidates for the clarity, contribution and impact of their 2001 dissertations.

Their work was chosen from 40 finalists of the more than 600 U-M dissertations that year. Jeremy Straughn of the Michigan Society of Fellows, who helped narrow the field from 40 to 8, described the recipients’ work as “the best of the best of the best.”

Anyone thinking about following in the footsteps of these intrepid scholars should be cautioned, however. The paths the honorees shared that led to their final products were inevitably long and challenging. Jonathan Bolton reported that a month before his dissertation was due, he dropped his laptop on his adviser’s hardwood floor. “Miraculously,” Bolton says, “Nothing happened to it.”

His tale is mild compared to that of Su Fang Ng who survived an SUV turning into her driver’s side door one week before the ceremony. Ng, it seems, is no stranger to bumps in the road. Her original adviser at Emery University died of cancer, leaving Ng a self-described “academic orphan.” Ng, who examined family life in 17th-century England, “found an academic home at the University of Michigan.”

Katherine Masur described her struggle as dealing with “clamoring, constant voices in my head.” Masur says, “It is hard to find your own voice in scholarly writing.” Masur, who most frequently seems to have heard voices of her advisers, also reports beginning to hear the voices of the citizens she studied in post-Civil War Washington, D.C.

Sarah Ross, who studied the signaling pathways that lead to obesity, says she did not always have the confidence her advisers see in her. In the beginning of graduate school, Ross thought “people were going to notice me” as someone who doesn’t measure up to the intellectual rigor demanded of her field. Ross says the supportive environment in the Department of Physiology helped her to quickly gain confidence and choose a newer, and consequently more risky, research project.

Ross cites three necessary elements of a personally, successful dissertation:

  • The self-confidence to take a risk on something

  • The persistence to push research through

  • A supportive environment with support at every level

    Hsien-Hsin Lee began in 1992 as a graduate student in a well-funded project. Three years later, the computer company supporting his work declared bankruptcy. Lee took a break for a lucrative research job at Intel. But, drawn to his own research, Lee came back to Michigan in early 1999 to again study microprocessor architecture. Lee says the long trials toward a doctoral degree are a “needed process while climbing up to a giant’s shoulders to see farther.”