The University Record, May 9, 1994

Award winners share ‘human side of doctoral research’

By Bernie DeGroat
News and Information Services

As if writing a doctoral dissertation isn’t difficult enough, imagine having your research destroyed by a natural disaster, living weeks without water or electricity, conducting experiments in the midst of a military coup, working under the constant threat of attack by insurgent soldiers, and being mistaken for a CIA agent in a country where American intelligence officers were being killed.

For Edmund P. Russell, who received his doctoral degree in biology in 1993, these were the realities in researching and writing his dissertation.

Russell was one of four recent Ph.D. students selected from more than 600 to receive a Distinguished Dissertation Award given by the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies. The award honors outstanding dissertations and “celebrates the human side of doctoral research—the obstacles, sacrifices and intellectual rewards involved in completing the dissertation.”

Other recipients, all of whom earned their doctorates in 1993, include David D. Leitao, classical studies; Karen E. Smith, mathematics; and Xueyan Wang, physiology.

“The awards recognize the authors of doctoral dissertations that are exceptional both for the high quality of scholarship and for the significance and interest of their findings,” says John H. D’Arms, vice provost for academic affairs and dean of the Graduate School.

Russell, whose dissertation examined the connection between chemical warfare against humans and against insects, began his research on the ecology of rice fields in the Philippines.

“Doing research in the Philippines posed a host of challenges,” he said. “In my first few months there, a typhoon destroyed my field experiments and an assistant’s mistake killed all the plants in my laboratory.”

Russell said that as the only foreigner at the International Rice Research Institute who spoke Tagalog, the native language, he was rumored to be a spy.

“This was not a good thing, for about this time the New People’s Army killed several American intelligence personnel and it was reported that the institute where I worked had been targeted for an attack,” he said. “Just when I got my experiments up and running again, the American military staged a coup and the country’s infrastructure shut down.”

Although David Leitao’s research on the nature of male adolescence in ancient Greece did not involve environmental or political turmoil, he nevertheless had to overcome several obstacles in writing his dissertation off campus in Chicago.

“Looking back, I guess I would say I have mixed feelings about writing ‘in exile,’” he said. “The down side was that I didn’t have daily contact with my advisers or my fellow graduate students who are an important source of inspiration and moral support.”

Leitao also said that during the first year of writing his dissertation, one of his key faculty advisers was out of the country. Furthermore, having no daily access to scholarly resources on campus posed problems.

“I couldn’t use, for example, an interlibrary loan or an on-line data base of Greek and Latin texts,” he said. “So I had to wait until I came to Ann Arbor to use these resources.”

Leitao said, however, that there also was an advantage to being away from campus. “I could come up with my own ideas, as crazy as many of them were. It gave me the psychological independence to do something a little different, something that would matter to me.”

For Smith, whose “landmark” research focused on the mathematical concept of closure, “doing something different” meant working on the same problem for over a year—with little progress.

“I can’t tell you how many times I banged my head against the mathematical brick wall—hours and hours of staring at blank pieces of paper, writing the same formulas, drawing the same pictures,” she said. “Finally, when you make some progress, you notice there’s another wall. It doesn’t end.”

Smith said it wasn’t until she began working on another problem that she was able to solve the first one in which she had invested so much time.

“Finally, all these ideas started to crystallize into a theorem, into a proof, into a whole point of view, and on that high I was able to go back and solve the other problem,” she said.

The nature of mathematical research itself can make it a very trying process, Smith said.

“I never had the experience of going to Nicaragua and collecting specimens, I never zapped some crystals with X-rays to see what would happen, I didn’t even have the daily routine of feeding the lab mice everyday.

“In math, it’s not like that. Most of my research was actually conducted while jogging, eating or, far too often, while tossing and turning in bed at night.”

Like Smith, Wang, whose “pioneering” work explored the effects of binding a growth hormone to its receptor, initially spent great lengths of time engaged in research with little to show.

“Two years zipped by, but my project stayed where it started,” she said. “I was worried, depressed and, many times, even thought of giving up, but the tremendous encouragement and support I received kept me going through the hard times.

“People told me that there would be a point when something’s going to work and, finally, I came to that magic point.”

Wang, who came to the United States from China in 1985 to join her husband and continue her education, overcame a multitude of obstacles—including a language barrier—even before embarking on her dissertation.

“It was impossible financially for me to support myself,” said Wang, who cleaned houses, washed dishes, baby-sat and worked in a warehouse to save money for school.

She said the turning point came when she became a physiology research assistant and, a year later, began her doctoral studies, which she calls “a dream come true.”

The Distinguished Dissertation Awards are sponsored by University Microfilms International, which publishes 35,000 dissertations annually. Dissertations nominated for the award by faculty members and Graduate School deans are evaluated by members of the Michigan Society of Fellows and faculty members.