The University Record, May 24, 1993

4 Distinguished Dissertation Award winners share ‘war stories’

By Kate Kellogg
News and Information Services

The crisp, linear path of research, writing and defense that should be the doctoral student’s existence, says Gregory S. Carleton, really is “more like mushy cereal with soggy flakes dipping into various extremes of doubt and confidence.” Carleton recently earned his Ph.D. in Slavic languages and literature.

Carleton received one of this year’s four Distinguished Dissertation Awards for the work that emerged from his “mushy cereal.” He and the three other recipients of the annual award were honored April 30 at the Distinguished Dissertation Award Symposium at the Rackham Graduate School. Phillip D. MacKenzie, Wendy M. Motooka, Ping Xie and Carleton are this year’s winners.

Their dissertations so clearly met the criteria of originality, contribution to field, accessibility to outside audience and quality of research, that the Michigan Society of Fellows came to an unusually quick agreement on the selections, according to Fellow Andrea K. Henderson, assistant professor of English language and literature. The society each year evaluates about 30 semifinalists nominated by University faculty and Rackham deans.

Even more surprising, all the award-winners completed their dissertations within five to six years, as opposed to the more typical eight to 10 years, noted John H. D’Arms, vice provost for academic affairs and Dean of the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies. “I have the sense the future of research and graduate education are in pretty good hands,” he said.

Carleton, who has taken an assistant professorship at Tufts University, emphasized the wavering state of his confidence as he struggled to complete his dissertation on the Russian writer Mixail Zoscenko.

“One day I would think my work was going to change the field (the study of Soviet literary production and criticism) and other days I would think it wouldn’t affect it at all,” Carleton said. “I vacillated between wondering how the dissertation would affect my professional career and wondering if I would have one.”

Philip D. MacKenzie was one of those students who could solve every problem his professor posed to the class. Finally, MacKenzie’s faculty adviser Quentin F. Stout, professor of electrical engineering and computing science, found the problem that inspired MacKenzie’s dissertation, “Parallel Algorithms with Ultra-Fast Expected Times.” His objective was to find the limits of a Parallel Random Access Machine system, which includes several separate processors working collectively on the same problem.

“You give each processor a bit of information and then try to make them communicate so that one doesn’t finish before the others,” said MacKenzie. “You need to balance the work load so that the system knows who’s idle and who’s busy, who to send the information to.”

MacKenzie has taken a position as postdoctoral fellow in computer science at the University of Texas.

Wendy Michiko Motooka set out to explore reason in “The Age of Reasons: Quixotism and Sentiment in 18th-Century Britain.” The recipient of a Ph.D. in English language and literature, she chose the character Don Quixote—ostensibly an example of irrational power—to illustrate a paradox: the so-called Age of Reason had no reliable standard of reason.

As she studied the relationship of Don Quixote to that culture, Motooka discovered that many idealistic and sometimes confrontational phenomena fall still into the “Quixotic” category.

Multiculturalism, according to Newsweek is Quixotic, she said. “ ‘LA Law’ says movie-makers are Quixotic people and Aretha Franklin sang ‘The Impossible Dream,’ from the musical based on the story of Don Quixote, during Nelson Mandella’s visit to Detroit. Clearly, the power of Quixote is immense.”

This revelation convinced Motooka that her dissertation might have universal relevance after all and dispelled her fear that English literature is “profuse and arcane stuff, accessible only to the already initiated.”

Motooka is an assistant professor of English literature at Harvard University.

Ping Xie broke new ground in laser technology with his dissertation, “Continuous-Wave, Cooperative Upconversion Lasers.” Xie took on the task of making a laser that operates at a shorter length than most.

This challenge was “like asking Detroit to make a new model with completely new engineering design and alternative fuel capabilities,” said Xie’s faculty adviser, Stephen Rand, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science. While most solid state lasers use infrared light, he explained, Xie was searching for a laser that could use ultraviolet for a wider variety of applications.

Xie, postdoctoral fellow at Los Alamos National Laboratory, produced a laser that has applications in areas like cancer removal, communication, color displays and high density data storage. He even convinced a skeptical laser manufacturer of the new laser’s commercial possibilities.

The Distinguished Dissertation Award Symposium is sponsored by University Microfilms International. The company now publishes more than 600 dissertations by U-M students each year.