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New PhD students span broad range of research interests

By Kimber Williams and Laura Douglas-Brown | Emory Report | Aug. 25, 2016

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As a PhD student in history, Virgo Morrison plans to examine the impact drug abuse and drug policy had across the rural-urban spectrum in the South — research that could contribute to more effective drug policies in the future. Emory Photo/Video

They arrive at Emory ready to become change agents — scholars, scientists and researchers driven by curiosity and seeking to make a difference in the world.

This fall, Emory’s Laney Graduate School welcomes 376 new degree-seeking students. Eighty percent of them will be pursuing the PhD.

Bringing with them a rich assortment of both academic and life experiences, Emory’s new doctoral students were drawn here by faculty expertise, academic resources and an environment that supports collaboration and innovation.

“Our students’ histories, experiences and interests have led them to the Laney Graduate School,” says Lisa Tedesco, dean of the Laney Graduate School. “From here, the best is yet to come through their accomplishments and the work they will do in the world.” 

From exploring research questions in the fields of public health and medicine to unraveling social, historical and literary complexities within the liberal arts, these new PhD students all share a desire to contribute new knowledge.

Gaea Daniel first connected with Emory as the family member of a patient receiving care at Emory University Hospital (EUH) and then through her experiences with Emory Healthcare, both as a nursing student completing clinical rotations “where I had amazing learning opportunities” and later as a nurse in the surgical/transplant intensive care unit at EUH.

Now, she seeks to study how the microbiome of the human gut differs among populations with health inequities and how those differences affect patient outcomes.

“Once I made the final decision to pursue a PhD in nursing, I knew that I would not find a better fit anywhere else,” Daniel says. “I am thrilled about building a solid foundation in research methods in one of the nation’s top 10 graduate nursing programs.”

For Kevin Maloney, Emory offers a chance to study HIV transmission patterns with graduate faculty based in the Rollins School of Public Health, “one of the top institutions in the world to study epidemiology.”

“I was particularly drawn to the program’s practical approach to epidemiology and the pursuit of research questions that can have a large direct impact for communities,” he explains.

Across the board, Tedesco sees a group of scholars prepared to become “tomorrow’s intellectual leaders.”

“With the guidance and mentorship of diverse and expert graduate faculty, our students will leave Emory equipped to confront and solve some of the most complex challenges,” she says.

“From discovering innovative drug treatments to understanding the human condition through the lens of history, culture and literature – our graduates will contribute to change and innovation. We are immensely proud to see them through this part of the journey.”

Take a moment to meet just a few of the new PhD students who have chosen Emory for the next chapter in their academic careers:


Giovanni Calixte

Hometown: North Miami Beach, Florida

Emory degree program: PhD in biomedical engineering through the Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering, a joint effort between Georgia Tech, the Laney Graduate School, and the Emory School of Medicine

Completed degrees: BS in biomedical engineering, University of Miami

Focus of scholarship: I am very interested in developing electronics that have neuro-related applications.

Why it matters: Making electronics that can work with the body and the brain, to me, is a vastly unexplored area.

Proudest academic achievement to date: Surviving my senior year at the University of Miami: applying to graduate schools, taking classes to meet their requirements, studying for the GRE, taking the GRE, completing a research project, and serving as a prime player on a senior design project.


Gaea Daniel

Hometown: Tifton, Georgia

Emory degree program: PhD in nursing

Completed degrees: BLS from Mercer University and MS in nursing, clinical nurse leader from Georgia Regents University (formerly Medical College of Georgia)

Focus of scholarship: I am interested in how the composition of the gut microbiome (the trillions of microorganisms that live in the intestines) differs among populations with health inequities and its effects on health and patient reported outcomes.

Why it matters: Populations with health inequities have higher incidences of morbidity and mortality. Discovering differences in the gut microbiome of these populations compared to populations without health inequities could have huge implications for how diseases and conditions are managed in populations with health inequities.

Proudest academic achievement to date: I am most proud of being selected as a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Future of Nursing Scholar. In 2013, I was selected as an RWJF New Careers in Nursing Scholar by Georgia Regents University. The support has helped lift the financial burden of being a student and exponentially increased my professional opportunities and connections, all while encouraging me to explore and participate in ways to improve the culture of health.


Hannah Hjerpe

Hometown: Key West, Florida

Emory degree program: PhD in English

Completed degrees: Double BA in English literature and Italian studies, with a minor in women’s studies, from Ithaca College; MPhil in Irish writing from Trinity College, Dublin

Focus of scholarship: I plan to examine themes of isolation and exile in contemporary queer postcolonial literatures. The bulk of my research will focus on the literatures of island nations and, more specifically, on how the relationship between self and space plays out in queer Caribbean writing.

Why it matters: Marginalized, inherently non-canonical narratives have historically received poor critical attention, as such traditional criticism that often attributes little value to them. I approached my research with the understanding that there is more inherent critical value in work that challenges canonical practice than in criticism that reinforces a canon that continues to silence, marginalize and exoticize nontraditional narratives.

Proudest academic achievement to date: My MPhil was completed at Trinity with the submission of a dissertation written over the summer. I had decided to write on three early works of a contemporary Irish lesbian author, all of which featured lesbian protagonists. Though multiple faculty members suggested I should choose a "more traditional" topic, with guidance from my dissertation adviser (an Emory alum), I submitted my work on concepts of queer space in contemporary Irish author Emma Donoghue’s early novels and was awarded First Class marks.


Kevin Maloney

Hometown: Stow, Massachusetts

Emory degree program: PhD in epidemiology

Completed degrees: BS in biological sciences, Drexel University; MPH in epidemiology, Boston University.

Focus of scholarship: I am pursuing a PhD in epidemiology, with a specific interest in infectious diseases — especially HIV and other sexually transmitted infections — in populations of gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men. My work seeks to describe transmission patterns so that we can better understand the epidemic and improve approaches to prevention.

Why it matters: We have the tools and knowledge to prevent HIV, but the epidemic has remained persistent in some marginalized communities, even while rates of transmission in the United States have declined overall. As a gay man, I want all members of my community to have equal access to resources for treatment and prevention.

Proudest academic achievement to date: I completed my MPH at Boston University while working full time as a research assistant. These complementary experiences allowed me to grow and learn concurrently. My academic success was honored with the Dr. Theodore Colton Prize for Excellence in Epidemiology, while I was promoted to the position of project coordinator.


Virgo Morrison

Hometown: Woodstock, Georgia

Emory degree program: PhD in history

Completed degrees: BA in history, MA in history, Virginia State University

Focus of scholarship: Traditionally, drug abuse has been perceived as primarily a Northern metropolitan phenomenon and much of narcotics history has been similarly one-dimensional. Through my research I intend to broaden the field by exploring the impact drug abuse and drug policy had across the rural-urban spectrum in the 20th century American South. I am specifically interested in how regional manifestations of segregation, conservativism, and drug rehabilitation influenced the formation of drug policy and popular sentiments about drug abuse.

Why it matters: If the current opioid epidemic has shown us anything, it is that we still do not understand how to craft effective drug policies. It is perhaps too ambitious to hope there is an answer to this problem within our history but I do believe that an accurate account of our past successes and failures could provide us with, at the very least, a solid foundation.

Proudest academic achievement to date: While completing my master’s degree I picked up a day job as a masonry restoration specialist for a historic preservation company. My days were spent tuckpointing marble balustrades or laying brick six stories high whereas my nights were spent formatting footnotes and reading for classes. Looking back now I view this experience as an accomplishment rather than an obstacle. I never missed a class, I graduated, and I even became a decent bricklayer to boot.


Belen Pueyo-Ibanez

Hometown: Pamplona, Spain

Emory degree program: PhD in philosophy

Completed degrees: BMUS with specialization in violin performance (Escola Superior de Música de Catalunya, Barcelona); BJ (Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona); graduate diploma in contemporary art history (Goldsmiths, University of London); MA in philosophy (The New School for Social Research, New York City).

Focus of scholarship: I am interested in exploring the principle of altruism, including the possibility that goodness might be considered, not as a natural human attribute, but as a social strategy. I would like to be able to prove that being a good person is something that can be taught and learned.  

Why it matters: Studying philosophy has made me more sensitive to the social problems that exist around us, especially those of a moral character. This is the reason why ethics has become the center of my academic interests. I think that my research around the notion of altruism conceived as a social strategy that can be trained and improved could have undeniable implications for our practical lives. 

Proudest academic achievement to date: Apart from my admission to Emory, I am most proud of having obtained a Fulbright grant to complete my master’s degree in philosophy at The New School for Social Research. During that time in New York, I had the opportunity to write a master’s thesis that I have presented at different international conferences and part of which has been published in a peer-reviewed philosophy journal.