The University Record, May 7, 1996

Five receive 1996 Distinguished Dissertation Awards

Weisbuch (center) presented (from left) Drennan, Grigsby, Graver and Sampath with Distinguished Dissertation Awards at a ceremony last Thursday.

Photo by Bob Kalmbach


Five former doctoral students were honored with Distinguished Dissertation Awards at a ceremony last Thursday. The awards are presented to the authors of dissertations that are "exceptional both for the high quality of the scholar ship and for the significance and interest of their findings," said Interim Dean of the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies Robert Weisbuch. Equally exciting, he added, was that all five recipients have found employment after earning their Ph.D. degrees.

Winners of the 1996 awards are: Cathy Drennan, biological chemistry; Janet Finn, social work and anthropology; Tresa Grauer, English language and literature; Darcy Grigsby, history of art; and Meera Sampath, electrical engineering.

Drennan's dissertation focused on examining the structural basis for the modulation of enzymatic reactivities of protein bound cofactors---discovering how vitamin B12 binds to protein. Her work is in two parts: the first is a study of flavodaxins, the second is a study of protein-bound cofactors using the vitamin B12-methionine synthase system.

"Structural analysis of molecules by x-ray crystallography is a long, complex and arduous process often fraught with frustration and dead ends," wrote Mary Jo Pilat, internal medicine research fellow. "In the end, the 3.0 angstrom structure of the B12 binding domain of methionine synthase was determined and conformational changes were observed for B12 upon interaction with methionine synthase. She also identified amino acid residues in methionine synthase which are important for the binding of B12."

Drennan also wrote about the problems she encountered during her research to aid other crystallographers who are doing similar research.

Finn, who did not attend the ceremony, chronicled the effects of the Anaconda copper mining company on Butte, Montana, and Chiquicamata, Chile.

"A native of Butte," wrote Sarah Caldwell of the Society of Fellows, "Finn skillfully weaves her nuanced historical study together with autobiographical reflection, achieving a deeply empathetic understanding of local human struggles for survival and dignity. Tracing the impact of mining on the ecology, economy and sociology of her respective field sites, Finn also explores the hidden contribution of women to that history, unearthing what has so often been silenced and invisible: women's suffering and women's contribution to community and practice.

"Her superb, clear yet passionate prose smoothly melds together data from narratives, interviews, newspaper clippings, archival documents, participant observation, community social work and autobiographical reflection into a compelling, origi nal whole," Caldwell continued. "Finn's study convincingly demonstrates the utility of practice theory to social work."

Tresa Grauer's thesis explored and disputed the stereotypes of contemporary Jewish American literature; that all contemporary Jewish American literature is written by neurotic, intellectual males.

"Grauer's work explores the question of Jewish self-definition by showing the traditional exegetical goals and religion-cultural inheritance which modern American Jewish literature preserves without espousing particular confessional allegianc es," wrote Kathleen Malone O'Connor of the Society of Fellows.

"She rejects characterizations of Jewish American literature as weakened by secularism, assimilation, nostalgia or grief for Jewish ways of life which are passing or lost," she continued. "Her definition of writing is one in which modern Jewish storytelling is a continuation of the history of Jewish textual self."

Darcy Grigsby overcame three years of research in France, French bureaucracy and grief over the death of her mother to finish her thesis about the politics of art in Napoleonic France.

"Grigsby has produced a meticulous and finely nuanced study of the vicissitudes of aesthetic judgment during the period of the French revolution," wrote Paul Franks of the Society of Fellows. "Taking as her focus the competition of 1810, in which the Napoleonic regime undertook to judge the art produced since 1800 ... Grigsby illuminates a remarkably broad range of ae sthetic, political and personal issues.

"Grigsby analyzes in fascinating detail the imperial regime's failure to overcome resistance to its political and cultural agenda," he continued. "The Empire has suffered astonishing neglect by art historians, but Grigsby's meticulous and wide -ranging study shows it to be a rich and exciting field."

Meera Sampath arrived at the U-M in 1991 and finished her Ph.D. in 1995. In between, she got married in India, had a child and completed an internship with Johnson Controls in Milwaukee. She finished her thesis on systems fault diagnosis in four years.

"Sampath's dissertation about fault diagnosis offers a critical examination of current methods, and the introduction of a promising new approach that already is attracting interest from industry," wrote Michael Piasecki, research fellow and adjunct lecturer in civil and environmental engineering. "Examples of systems that would be amenable to her method include large scale manufacturing systems, communication networks, automated transportation systems, traffic control systems, flight control systems, and heat and ventilation systems.

"She demonstrates the value of her approach by applying it to various real-world systems and comparing her results with those of other methods."

The Distinguished Dissertation Awards are sponsored by University Microfilms International.