Dean's Dissertation Fellowship
Discovering How People Learn
Neural Science doctoral candidate Nicholas Gustafson has been fascinated by the workings of the brain since his undergraduate days at The University of Texas-Austin, where he majored in neurobiology. "During that time, I was interested in molecular, cellular, and electrophysiological questions related to how the brain works," he says. But he was ready to "try something different" when he came to NYU. A rotation project with now-adviser Nathaniel Daw led him to that very thing, and Nicholas has begun a dissertation analyzing the complex processes of learning and decision-making.
"I've been running a set of experiments looking at how people learn to choose among different options based on unreliable information," Nicholas says. "How do we learn from past experiences and use them to guide decisions in new situations? What are the brain areas and processes that support that kind of learning?"
During his Dean's Dissertation Fellowship year, Nicholas also worked on a paper discussing how different brain cells can support learning in a spatial environment; the paper was recently accepted for publication. His dissertation work has prompted an interest in the way machines, as well as humans, learn. "That's a natural consequence of being in Nathaniel's lab," he says. "We use machine learning tools every day in research, and some of them are pretty awesome."
Unlocking the Secrets of Pathogenic Bacteria
A few years ago, if you had told Horizon Fellow Peter McKenney that he would end up a microbiologist at NYU, he would not have believed you. "I had no interest whatsoever in microbiology," says Peter, who earned his undergraduate degree in molecular biology at SUNY Fredonia. "It was a field that was incredibly
important in deciphering the genetic code and figuring out how genes work—but I thought it had basically ended in the 1980s."
Instead, Peter discovered that significant advances in cell imaging had made the field newly relevant. Now, with the encouragement of his mentor, microbiologist Patrick Eichenberger, Peter is working on a dissertation about Bacillis subtilis, a species of bacteria similar to the pathogens that cause anthrax and botulism. "When these bacteria run out of nutrients, they shut down and form a dormant spore that can survive for years, until it can 'boot up' again inside a nutrient-rich human body," he explains. That makes Bacillis subtilis extremely resilient, which is why it has become one of the most common hospital-acquired infections. Peter's research uses high-resolution image analysis to unlock the mysteries of the bacteria's spore coat, a multi-layered protective coating of protein.
His work has even had an unexpected culinary benefit. "I found out that the bacteria we study produces the Japanese fermented soy bean dish natto," he says. "That got me interested in fermented foods, and in the last couple of years I've experimented with making different things: sauerkraut, kimchee, pickles, yoghurt. Only a few have been inedible."
Examining Islamic Televangelism
Anthropology doctoral candidate Yasmin Moll is applying her Torch Fellowship to underwrite her travels to Egypt, where she is studying Islamic televangelism. "I grew up in Egypt surrounded by people who watched or avoided, appreciated or ridiculed the Islamic religious channels," she says. "Everyday talk about these channels—and the celebrity televangelists associated with them—sparked the seeds of my dissertation: How do the producers of these channels think about their viewers? How do they make television that is 'Islamically correct'?"
Six months into her fieldwork, Yasmin was thrown a curveball: the Egyptian revolution plunged the country into turmoil. "For those 18 days and the weeks following, my dissertation research was far from my mind as I blogged, tweeted, and debated endlessly with family and friends about the changes sweeping the nation," she says. But as things calmed down, she realized the impact the revolution had on the Islamic satellite channels. "While prior to the revolution, televangelists steered clear of politics, now many are participating in the emerging political process," she says. "This marks a dramatic shift in televangelical discourse, one that I hope to trace further in the coming months."
Yasmin, who earned her undergraduate degree at Georgetown, and a master's in Middle East Studies from the University of London, trained in ethnographic filmmaking in NYU's innovative Culture and Media program. Her short video about women's participation in the Egyptian uprising has earned several awards at film festivals.
National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant
Analyzing Cypriot Artifacts
Cyprus has long preoccupied anthropology student Matthew Spigelman, who has traveled there regularly for almost a decade. "I've
found that the rich archaeological record of Cyprus has not received the attention of many academics, who have focused on better-known mainland cultures instead," Matthew explains. He used his 2009 Fulbright Fellowship to fund nine months of study on the Mediterranean island, concentrating on the Bronze Age pottery collections of the Cyprus Museum. Matthew's research probes how the production of Cyprus' distinctive decorative pottery changed as the island became part of a larger trading community 3,500 years ago.
During his Fulbright year, Matthew visually examined Cyprus' Bronze Age ceramics, looking closely at patterns in their shape and decoration. Now, thanks to a Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant from the National Science Foundation, he is conducting a chemical analysis of about 200 of those pottery samples. "Laboratory research allows me to identify where and how ceramics were produced, adding additional dimensions of understanding to the results of the stylistic research I conducted during my Fulbright," he says.
Matthew, who earned his undergraduate degree at Haverford College, was also awarded the GSAS Outstanding Teaching Award in 2008 and the CAS Outstanding Teaching Award in 2009 for his work developing and teaching "Archaeology: Early Societies and Cultures," an anthropology course at NYU.
Documenting Archaeological Variety in Italy
Traveling to Calabria, Italy, for the 2010 academic year almost felt like a homecoming for Torch Fellow Rose Trentinella, a doctoral student in art history and archaeology. Her parents were both born in Calabria, and throughout her childhood she made frequent trips there to visit her extended family. "When I entered graduate school, I had a strong desire to focus my research on that area for personal reasons," she says. "But I discovered I could also make a real contribution to the scholarly community with a dissertation about Calabria, which is relatively unknown in English-language archaeological scholarship."
Most archaeological research in southern Italy has focused on its Greek period, long considered the height of civilization in the region. Rose instead chose to study Roman-era villas. These villas, the Romans' country houses, ranged from "luxurious structures with every imaginable amenity to rustic farms intended for practical purposes only," she explains. "The wide variety makes it a fascinating aspect of Roman life to study." Rose was also able to incorporate a hobby, photography, into her studies in Calabria, illustrating her research with images of villa sites throughout the region.
Before beginning her studies at NYU, Rose received a B.A. in both Latin and Italian from Vassar College, and won a Lifchez/Stronach Curatorial Internship that allowed her to work in the Department of Greek and Roman Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. After earning her Ph.D., Rose will begin the hunt for a position as a professor of art history, another of her passions.
Dean's Dissertation Fellowships are awarded to doctoral students who
will be entering the final year of writing their dissertations.
The Horizon Fellowship is awarded to an outstanding doctoral student
in the natural and physical sciences. The award supports research and
study or travel to present invited papers.
Torch Fellowships provide stipends for students to conduct research
abroad with the aim of encouraging multilateralism and increasing
understanding and knowledge of the cultural and social relations
shared by the United States and the world. Torch Fellowships are made
possible by the generosity of Ronald S. Katz, Esq., Dr. Libby Roth,
Esq., and Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP.
The National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Improvement
Grants provide funding for doctoral dissertation research to improve
the overall quality of research. Funding supports participation in
scientific meetings, conducting research in specialized facilities or
field settings, and expanding an existing body of dissertation