Photo by Evan Krape May 31, 2022
UD recognizes six with prizes for exceptional scholarship
Six University of Delaware doctoral students have won dissertation prizes for outstanding work in their disciplines — including chemical engineering, art history, criminology, physics, human development and family services, and bioinformatics data science.
The dissertation is the culmination of the doctoral effort, an extensive written document that addresses in detail the question that was the focus of research, explains the process used for that research and describes the findings of the research.
UD’s 2022 awards, announced during the Doctoral Hooding Ceremony and Graduate School Convocation on Thursday, May 26, underline the potential impact these works could have on the world.
The winners this year include Kristen Nassif, Wilbur Owen Sypherd Prize in Humanities; Nancy Rios-Contreras, George Herbert Ryden Prize in the Social Sciences; Lin Shi, Allan P. Colburn Prize in Engineering and Mathematical Sciences; Utkarsh Bajpai, Theodore Wolf Prize in Physical and Life Sciences; Ginnie Sawyer-Morris, Dan Rich Prize; and Juniper Lake, Interdisciplinary Research Prize.
Wilbur Owen Sypherd Prize in Humanities
Kristen Nassif, art history, won the Sypherd Prize for her dissertation “Unseeing Sight: Blindness in American Art and Material Culture.” In this work, Nassif explores how sighted and blind people made works of art in the mid-to-late 19th century, producing a “ground-breaking contribution to the field of American art history,” according to Wendy Bellion, professor and Sewell Biggs Chair in Art History and director of the Center for Material Culture Studies.
“At a moment when the humanities are closely attuned to the important questions about access, (dis)ability and equity, this interdisciplinary dissertation on the historical and cultural representations of blindness will impact multiple fields and excite many readers,” Bellion wrote in her letter supporting the nomination.
Sandy Isenstadt, professor and chair of the Department of Art History, said Nassif’s work is a “tour de force demonstration of the dynamic and mutually interdependent relationship between vision and blindness. Drawing from fields as diverse as anatomy, prosthetics, optometry, cartography, tariffs and taxation, education and more, not to mention the fine arts, Kristen’s work will without doubt astonish scholars in her field.”
George Herbert Ryden Prize in the Social Sciences
Nancy Rios-Contreras, criminology, won the Ryden Prize for her dissertation “Lo Único Que Queremos Es una Oportunidad de Vida (All We Want is an Opportunity of Life): Intersecting Migrant Experiences En Route to the United States-Mexico Borderlands.”
The work is a study of the migrant experience, focused on those traveling through Mexico en route to the United States, looking especially at ethnicity, gender, citizenship, culture and resilience. She spent more than 200 hours in the field and interviewed 100 migrants, mostly from Guatemala, Honduras, Haiti and Mexico, according to the letter of nomination by Eric Rise, associate professor of sociology and criminal justice.
Tricia Wachtendorf, professor of sociology and criminal justice and director of the Disaster Research Center, said the work “makes important contributions to social science fields, but — perhaps most significantly — her work sheds light on challenges of national and international import around the issue of migration, human rights and justice.”
Amarela Varela Huerta, professor at Universidad Autónoma in Mexico City said “this thesis honors and demonstrates many intellectual and political strengths to investigate social processes that seek to put the dignity of migrant and binational communities at the center.”
Rise said the dissertation “is a timely investigation that advances scholarly understanding of the migrant experience, challenges the dominant political discourse about immigration and honors the humanity of her research participants.”
Allan P. Colburn Prize in Engineering and Mathematical Sciences
Lin Shi, chemical engineering, won the Colburn Prize for his dissertation “Performance, Durability and CO2 Removal of Hydroxide Exchange Membrane Fuel Cells.”
Shi’s work addressed the key challenges in developing hydroxide exchange membrane field cells (HEMFCs) for affordable zero-emission fuel cell vehicles.
Among his contributions, “Lin improved the performance and durability of HEMFCs to an outstanding level through careful engineering, including material screening, operating condition optimization and fuel cell modeling,” according to Prof. Yushan Yan, Henry Belin du Pont Chair of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. He also “demonstrated the world’s highest HEMFC performance and longest durability with a non-platinum anode and proposed a new concept for fuel cell water management after observing a unique feature in the polarization curve.”
His work “is significant from both science and technology point of view, which makes him stand out among his peers in exhibiting academic excellence,” Yan said.
Shi also invented a new UD reactor design and published eight peer-reviewed journal articles during his doctoral work.
“The work pushes forward, both at UD and in the international community, an important shift toward electrochemical processes that enable renewable energy sources, sustainable catalytic processes and advances critical decarbonization efforts to achieve long-term climate stability while maintaining and growing the quality of life for all people on the planet,” wrote Eric Furst, professor and chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.
Theodore Wolf Prize in Physical and Life Sciences
Utkarsh Bajpai, physics, won the Wolf Prize for his dissertation “Quantum-Classical Hybrid Approach Towards Out-of-Equilibrium Time-Dependent Spintronics Systems and the Role of Backaction of Conduction Electrons.”
“His dissertation is a theoretical and computational work that deepens the understanding of and the insights into critical issues in the field of spintronics, which started about 30 years ago and has evolved into a very broad and vibrant research area with great technological potential and intellectual depth,” Yi Ji, associate professor of physics and astronomy, and Edmund Nowak, professor and chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, wrote in a joint letter of support.
“For the success of spintronics, it is immensely important to understand the behaviors and interactions of spins and charges in non-equilibrium and many-body situations in magnetic materials,” they wrote. “These are complicated physical problems to tackle and require profound physical insights, strong analytical skills and extraordinary computational talents, all of which have been demonstrated by Dr. Bajpai.”
Bajpai wrote 12 peer-reviewed articles during his doctoral work and his adviser, Prof. Branislav Nikolić, said he “will produce many important contributions in the future. He is heading toward a stellar research career in academia or industry comparable to other graduate students or postdocs who were working on the frontiers of nonequilibrium quantum many-body physics.”
Dan Rich Prize
Ginnie Sawyer-Morris, human development and family sciences, won the Dan Rich Prize — awarded to a student whose doctoral research has the potential to make a difference in the lives of Delawareans — for her dissertation “Exploring Gender-Specific Differences in Substance Abuse Disorder Recovery Capital: A Multiple-Group Latent Growth Modeling and Random Forest Approach.”
Sawyer-Morris’ work represents cutting-edge science with highly advanced data analytic techniques, Valerie Earnshaw, associate professor of human development and family services, wrote in her letter of nomination.
“Her growing program of research, including her dissertation research, seeks to identify factors that facilitate women’s recovery from substance use disorders,” Earnshaw wrote. “This is a critically important issue to study today. The opioid epidemic has gotten worse during the COVID-19 pandemic, with deaths due to overdoses hitting record highs over the past two years. Delaware has been particularly hard hit by the opioid epidemic.
“Although gender has been recognized to play an important role in addiction and recovery, it has been understudied during the opioid epidemic and overlooked in recovery programming nationally and within Delaware. Ginnie’s research fills this critical gap.”
Interdisciplinary Research Prize
Juniper Lake, bioinformatics data science, won the Interdisciplinary Research Prize for her dissertation “Muscle Disorder or Metabolic Disorder: Genomic, Transcriptomic and Metabolic Insights into the Pathogenesis of Wooden Breast and White Striping in Commercial Broiler Chickens.”
Wooden breast is a muscle disorder in broiler chickens. Lake’s work required collaboration in data science and systems biology.
“Juniper’s dissertation project provided novel bioinformatics applications using cutting-edge research, which may lead to the cause of diseases in animals, as well as provide clues about the cause of similar diseases in humans,” Cathy Wu, Unidel Edward G. Jefferson Chair in Engineering and Computer Science and director of UD’s Data Science Institute, wrote in her letter of support.
“Integrating experimental and bioinformatics data, Juniper’s research will have broad impact on the scientific and data science community, allowing researchers to address important bioinformatics and systems biology-related questions.”
Behnam Abasht, associate professor of animal and food sciences, said “Juniper’s studies continue to form the basis for a much-needed comprehensive understanding of the progression of Wooden Breast and eventual mitigation strategies. She has made substantial progress on this topic and her work has drawn the attention of poultry scientists as well as major players in the poultry industry.”