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Social Work doctoral students win research fellowships

USC School of Social Work doctoral candidate Lisa Davis, Mercedes Hernandez and Diana Ray

Three doctoral candidates in the USC School of Social Work are among an exclusive group of students selected to receive a USC graduate fellowship for advanced PhD scholars.

Lisa Davis, Mercedes Hernandez and Diana Ray received fellowships featuring $30,000 stipends, in addition to tuition, fees, insurance and possible travel grants for further research opportunities.

Offered in three categories, the fellowships provide support to USC students as they complete their PhD studies. Particular focus is given to programs in which research assistantships are not available, and teaching is the main source of financial support, according to Meredith Drake Reitan, assistant dean of fellowships for the USC Graduate School.

“The selection process is highly competitive, and only a small number of candidates were selected by an interdisciplinary faculty committee,” Reitan said.

Davis, Hernandez and Ray are among only 58 students who received a fellowship out of hundreds of applicants throughout the university.

In addition to endowed fellowships and dissertation completion fellowships, which have been awarded in past years, university officials introduced the research enhancement fellowship. The $30,000 stipend included with each fellowship is a substantial increase from the $23,000 award provided in previous years.

Davis received a dissertation completion fellowship, which is intended to support students during the final stages and submission of their dissertations. Her dissertation involves evaluating an innovative group intervention that combines mindfulness training and psycho-education to enhance the well-being and community functioning of individuals with schizophrenia and similar disorders.

“The intervention is designed to help people improve their self-regulatory capacities through mindfulness training,” Davis said. “The psycho-education portion targets stress reduction, self-care and goal setting. The fellowship will provide me with the necessary resources to recruit participants from a community-based psychosocial rehabilitation agency, implement the intervention and evaluate the results.”

John Brekke, Frances G. Larson Professor of Social Work Research, who serves as Davis’ faculty mentor and adviser, said her work on this project has the potential to significantly improve how mental health agencies deliver interventions to the seriously mentally ill.

“Lisa is doing very sophisticated intervention development work with a highly vulnerable population,” he said. “These funds can supercharge her dissertation, allow her to gather more data and help her to produce more powerful publications from that data.”

Brekke said her research will increase Davis’ competitiveness in the job market and has implications for her productivity as a junior faculty member, a sentiment shared by Concepción Barrio, an associate professor who serves as a faculty adviser and mentor for Hernandez.

“I think it is to their benefit to leave the program completely equipped, not just in writing and conducting statistical analysis of data, but in how to undertake a study from conceptualization to completion,” Barrio said. “This fellowship and experience will carry [Hernandez] through as an independent researcher after she graduates.”

Hernandez received a research enhancement fellowship designed to provide financial support to students whose research requires work in complex or distant settings or results in other unusual expenses. The fellowship is particularly helpful to Hernandez, who is conducting a mixed-method study on the role of protective factors in intervention outcomes for Latino consumers with schizophrenia or families of individuals living with schizophrenia.

“It is very challenging for doctoral students who decide to collect their own data,” Barrio said. “It takes a great effort to locate participants and schedule interviews. [Hernandez] stands out because she goes beyond what normal students do, and her work speaks to her capacity to perform this sort of study.”

Hernandez said time-intensive efforts in the field required to complete her dissertation will be more manageable, and the award will allow her to develop as a researcher focused on creating and enhancing psychosocial treatments for Latinos with serious mental illness.

Ray, who received the Oakley Endowed Fellowship, is also interested in issues that affect an underserved minority population. The endowed fellowships are awarded to students making good progress in both the quality and timeliness of their research and degree completion. Her dissertation examines the complex dynamics that contribute to surprising physical and mental health outcomes among Asian-Americans, an approach that involves conducting secondary analyses of a large, nationally representative data set.

“I am seeking to answer whether there are cultural protective factors that can mitigate a decrease in health for Asian-American immigrants after arriving in the United States,” Ray said. “How can social workers and those in behavioral health support the maintenance of cultural traditions to protect their health? The fellowship will allow me to dedicate a year of full-time study to delve into the nuances of these questions to hopefully produce an accurate portrayal of this very heterogeneous segment of U.S. society.”

Associate Professor Karen Lincoln, Ray’s faculty adviser and mentor, said Ray’s research will contribute to knowledge about mental health and health disparities for this population.

“Her work challenges us all to expand our current thinking around treatment to include intellectual and theoretical frameworks that incorporate psychology, public health and social work, as well as sophisticated quantitative methods,” Lincoln said.

Lincoln believes the fellowship will support Ray’s future efforts and position her as a groundbreaking social work and mental health scholar whose work will be highly influential across health-related disciplines and behavioral sciences.

Ray said she feels unbelievably fortunate to have received the fellowship, and all three students believe the fellowship is a boon beyond their current endeavors and will benefit their professional careers.

The awards are also seen as a win for the School of Social Work.

“Getting these fellowships and having this kind of work done here is a feather in our cap as a doctoral program,” Barrio said. “I think these students will be wonderful examples of the kind of candidate for faculty positions we produce in our program.”

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Social Work doctoral students win research fellowships

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