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Amanda Jennings
Amanda Jennings, who won the Interdisciplinary Research Prize for her dissertation in economics education, and her 12-week-old son, Ahmes -- in matching robe -- share the moment with UD President Dennis Assanis as Carol Vukelich, dean of the College of Education and Human Development (left), and her adviser Elizabeth Farley-Ripple look on.

Distinguished dissertations

Photo by David Barczak

Top honors for research in engineering, biology, sociology, economics education, political science, art history

Completing the defining piece of doctoral study -- the dissertation -- is an extraordinary achievement that few accomplish. The University of Delaware's Hooding Ceremony celebrates that academic milestone.

Part of that ceremony includes special recognition of students whose dissertations are especially distinguished.

This year, six students received dissertation prizes, including Nicole Cook (art history), Amanda Jennings (economics education), Francyne Kubaski (biological sciences), Faith Okpotor (political science and international relations), Subramani Sockalingam (mechanical engineering) and Tanya Whittle (sociology).

The outstanding dissertation prizes include:

• The Allan P. Colburn Prize in mathematical sciences and engineering was awarded to Subramani Sockalingam in mechanical engineering, whose dissertation -- "Transverse Impact of Ballistic Fibers and Yarns" -- was co-chaired by John Gillespie and Michael Keefer. Sockalingam digs into the tiniest details of protective fabrics — such as Kevlar — to show how they respond under ballistic pressure. Using models, simulation and unique experimental approaches, he predicts the progression of fabric failure with nanometer precision.

“The depth and breadth of his research work surpasses the levels in all but a few of the dissertations I have seen in my 30-plus years teaching at the University,” Michael Santare, professor of mechanical engineering, wrote in his letter of nomination. “... It is rare to find a researcher with Dr. Sockalingam's combination of intellect, creativity and hard work.”

His work has prompted researchers at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, Southwest Research Institute, Sandia National Laboratory and Purdue University to study these mechanisms at micron and microsecond scales for the first time, said Gillespie, director of the Center for Composite Materials.

“His research is having national and international impact,” Gillespie said.

His research was supported by the Army Research Laboratory as part of a nationwide university consortium led by the University of Delaware, Johns Hopkins University, CalTech and Rutgers University.

• The Interdisciplinary Research Prize for doctoral programs ranging from bioinformatics and biomechanics to economics education, financial services analytics, ocean engineering and water science and policy, was awarded to Amanda Brooke Jennings in economics education.

Jennings' dissertation -- "Exploring the Autonomous Economic World of Children" -- focused on the naïve economic theories that children use to figure out resource allocation. Their theories are incomplete and based upon their limited understanding of their own experience. Jennings’ research shows how better curriculum design will help children develop theories more like expert theories.

“Amanda's dissertation represents the pinnacle of what our interdisciplinary, joint program hopes to produce,” wrote her adviser and dissertation chair, Elizabeth Farley-Ripple. Kent Messer, director of the Center for Experimental and Applied Economics, wrote, “Her dissertation research shines as an example of how to build upon the strengths of multiple approaches to develop a compelling understanding of her topic.”

And James Butkiewicz, chairman of the Department of Economics, called her research “path breaking” and said practitioners in the field of economic education already are expressing considerable interest in her findings.

“Her work challenges existing practices and provides new directions for economics education.”

• The Dan Rich Prize for an idea with the potential to make a valuable difference for Delawareans was awarded to Tanya Whittle in sociology.

Supervised by Chrysanthi Leon, Whittle’s project, Constructing Prisoner Re-entry: Service Providers’ Roles, and Perceptions of Law, Justice and Fairness, analyzes the service providers who work with people leaving prison. These “re-entry service providers,” as she calls them, are not just probation officers. They are case managers working with health, housing and employment agencies that serve returning citizens.

Whittle is described by one of her nominators as an “innovative socio-legal scholar.”

“She has created … conceptual tools and a model that bridges divergent literatures within law and society and criminology.”

To complete her research, Whittle conducted 35 in-depth interviews, job shadowed for 120-plus hours and engaged in observation work for more than 140 hours, examining pre- and post-release corrections and re-entry assistance programs.

• The George Herbert Ryden Prize in the social sciences was awarded to Faith Okpotor, political science and international relations. Her dissertation -- “Electing Violence: Post-Election Violence in Africa” -- supervised by Gretchen Bauer, focused on the post-election violence that plagues a number of African nations that have been making the transition to democracy.

Okpotor provides an explanatory framework for understanding why this violence occurs and policy implications for mitigating it.

As part of her research, she pursued five months of intensive fieldwork in Nigeria, Ghana and Ivory Coast. Recent elections resulted in little to no violence in Ghana, but sparked civil war in Ivory Coast. She interviewed political party leaders, party activists, campaign officials, party “foot soldiers,” former combatants and others

“Ms. Okpotor is by any measure one of the strongest Ph.D. students we have had in our department,” David Redlawsk, chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations, wrote in his nomination letter.

Okpotor won prestigious fellowships to support her research and writing from both the National Science Foundation and the United States Institute of Peace.

Letters of support also note that she is “a talented and highly trained teacher” and describe her as “a remarkable young scholar, with a very promising career ahead of her.”

• The winner of the Wilbur Owen Sypherd Prize in the humanities was Nicole Cook, art history. Her dissertation, supervised by Perry Chapman, is titled "Godefridus Schalcken (1643–1706): Desire and Intimate Display."

An innovative painter from the Dutch Golden Age, Schalcken invented a new genre of painting — the candle-lit scene of intimate conversation and seduction: In a studio, at night, an artist and his model study an antique sculpture, or in a darkened bedroom, a young man offers jewels to the object of his affection. In their day, these pictures simultaneously pushed the boundaries of propriety and advanced notions of intimacy and introspection. Cook’s dissertation puts Schalcken and his paintings at the center of a bold examination of the ways in which early modern viewing and reading practices were intimate, private, even secret.

She also sheds light on how Schalcken crafted — and romanticized — his image as a painter of night through alluring, candle-lit self-portraits. And she did this while working full-time at the Leiden Collection in New York, one of the world’s most significant private collections of 17th-century Dutch paintings, and currently for the Chemical Heritage Foundation.

In a letter of recommendation, David Stone, director of the curatorial track Ph.D. in art history, referred to Cook's project as “a breakthrough work of scholarship.” He described her dissertation as “that rare bird, a carefully researched, beautifully written piece of scholarship that is a joy to read, thought-provoking and — while rooted in archival documents and past literature — is unafraid of trying out experimental, even controversial interpretations."

• The Theodore Wolf Prize in the physical and life sciences was awarded to Francyne Kubaski, biological sciences. Her dissertation -- "Diagnosis and Therapies for Mucopolysaccharidoses" -- supervised by Erica Selva, describes two ways to evaluate disease progression in the rare genetic disorder known as Mucopolysaccharidoses (MPS).

MPS is caused by the body’s inability to produce certain enzymes and can cause severe developmental disabilities. By the time symptoms emerge, considerable damage has already been done.

Kubaski's research was done in the lab of Dr. Shunji Tomatsu at Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children. In a letter of endorsement, Tomatsu said, “Her work will significantly improve current patient care, reduce morbidity, mortality, public health care costs, and it has great potential in aiding development of new therapies such as gene therapy.”

Robert Mason, head of clinical biochemistry in the Department of Biomedical Research at Nemours Center for Childhood Cancer Research, said Kubaski's work “will have a direct positive impact on the lives of patients who typically have lifelong medical issues.... Data presented in this thesis provide a new method ... that can be incorporated into a newborn screening technique that will identify babies with MPS. This will enable treatment prior to onset of the irreversible symptoms that are currently the primary mechanism of identifying affected individuals.”


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