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Six students win PhD Achievement Award

by Lauren Evashenk
Professor Steven Anderson, Susana Ruiz, Saber Naserifar, Assistant Dean Meredith Drake Reitan, Professor Anthony Dukes, Yi Zhu, Harshvardhan Vathsangam and Professor Gaurav Sukhatme. Not pictured: award winners Julia Staffel and Martin Hilbert (USC Photo/Steve Cohn)
Photo: Professor Steven Anderson, Susana Ruiz, Saber Naserifar, Assistant Dean Meredith Drake Reitan, Professor Anthony Dukes, Yi Zhu, Harshvardhan Vathsangam and Professor Gaurav Sukhatme. Not pictured: award winners Julia Staffel and Martin Hilbert (USC Photo/Steve Cohn)

The USC Graduate School has announced that six students will receive this year’s PhD Achievement Award in recognition of their outstanding academic research. Selected by a committee of distinguished USC faculty members, the recipients represent a breadth of disciplines ranging from business to cinematic arts and computer science.

Each of the award winners will receive a $2,500 prize and lead the PhD column at this month’s commencement ceremony. The students’ faculty mentors will also be recognized with a $500 mentoring award.

Susana Ruiz, a PhD candidate and Provost Fellow in Media Arts and Practice at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, has written a dissertation titled “Playing for Change: Crafting and Creating Intersections Between Social Justice, Nonfiction Storytelling and Game Design.”

Ruiz co-founded Take Action Games, a Los Angeles-based organization that addresses critical social issues through innovative gameplay. She wrote a chapter in the book Designing Games for Ethics: Models, Techniques and Frameworks, and in 2009, she received the Adobe Max Award from Adobe Systems Inc. for her “Finding Zoe” project. In addition, she received a Dissertation Completion Fellowship from the USC Graduate School.

“I want to be part of a movement that builds tools, processes and artifacts that move culture toward social equity,” said Ruiz, who studied under the tutelage of Professor Steven Anderson. Through her research and collaborations, she is creating ways to promote positive social change.

Harshvardhan Vathsangam, a PhD candidate and Annenberg Fellow in computer science at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, used inventive programming to help improve the quality of people’s lives. His research thesis focuses on a cellphone’s use of motion information to accurately predict how many calories people burn throughout the day.

He received the Merit Prize for Academic Performance from the Indian Institute of Technology Maras in 2008. A U.S. patent has been filed for his research at the USC Stevens Center for Innovation titled “Physical Activity Monitoring and Intervention Using Smartphone and Mobile App.” Harshvardham’s faculty adviser is Professor Gaurav Sukhatme.

Vathsangam hopes that his research will make an impact both in his field and in the everyday lives of people around the world.

“I want to … [push] the envelope in what smart sensing, information processing and management of big data can do for personal health. … I want to make a permanent dent in health care, making it more affordable and accessible for people throughout the world,” he said.

Besides working on topical research, the students have also drawn on scholarship from multiple fields to build interdisciplinary projects.

PhD candidate and Provost Fellow in Communication Martin Hilbert has taken courses in engineering, psychology, sociology, preventive medicine, computer science and biology to gain a deeper understanding of the way complex systems process and communicate information.

Under the guidance of University Professor Manuel Castells, Martin has created a public policy and public relations-oriented approach to understanding the changing role of information and communication in social, economic, psychological and political development on a global scale. His work has been featured in Scientific American, The Economist, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, NPR, BBC and the German newspaper Sueddeutsche.

Saber Naserifar, a PhD candidate in USC Viterbi’s chemical engineering department, has worked with Professor Muhammad Sahimi. His doctoral thesis is on the “Molecular Modeling of Silicon Carbide Nanoporous Membranes and Transport and Absorption of Gaseous Mixtures.”

In 2012, Naserifar received a Material Engineering and Science Award from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) and the Soft Matter Journal Award at the 2012 meeting of the AIChE. He hopes to earn an appointment as a professor of chemistry and chemical engineering.

Julia Staffel, a PhD candidate in philosophy at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, believes that the PhD Achievement Award is a perfect end to a rewarding graduate career at USC.

“The award shows me that USC values all my work and my accomplishments just like I value the support and resources given to me [by the university],” Staffel said. “I especially like that this award also recognizes my adviser, Jacob Ross. He is a brilliant philosopher, and he went far above and beyond the call of duty to support me and my work.”

Staffel, a Provost Fellow who specializes in epistemology, wrote a dissertation titled “Reasoning With Degrees of Belief.” She will be a postdoctoral fellow at the Australian National University from July to December before beginning work in January as an assistant professor of philosophy at Washington University in St. Louis.

For others, the PhD Achievement Award celebrates personal growth.

“Ten years ago, even in my wildest dreams, I never thought that I would become a PhD in one of the best business schools in the world,” said Yi Zhu, a PhD candidate in business administration at the USC Marshall School of Business and Provost Fellow.

Zhu’s research aims to advance the understanding of marketing processes in light of emerging new media. One of his papers won the 2012 Shankar-Spiegel Best Dissertation Proposal Award from the Direct Marketing Educational Foundation. Zhu, who studied under Professor Anthony Dukes, also received the Center for International Business Education and Research dissertation grant given by USC Marshall.

“The PhD Achievement Award tells me three things. One we need to dream big. Two we need to work hard. Three don’t let anything stop you from pursuing your dream, no matter how difficult the path may look,” Zhu said.

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