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Home » Discover Rackham » Rackham Celebrates Donors and Students at Annual Appreciation Event

On Friday, October 4, Rackham honored its donors and friends with the annual Donor Appreciation Event, this year titled, “Celebrating Our Donors and Their Lasting Impact.” Rackham Dean Mike Solomon welcomed attendees by briefly sharing his vision for the future of graduate education, both here at U-M and nationally. He described four major goals over the coming years: reimagined academic experience, strengthened diversity, enhanced partnerships and community, and strengthened organizational culture and climate.

Dean Solomon also introduced some of the initiatives already underway at Rackham, including expanded internships, a graduate-student mental health task force, and ongoing campus conversations, including a series of symposia, the first of which focused on research conducted around the graduate-student experience. The second in the series invited the broader campus community to join Dean Solomon for a State of the Graduate School, and the third will engage national leaders with U-M faculty in a discussion around the topic of reimagining graduate education.

A panel discussion, titled “Graduate Students and Their Exploration of the Future,” highlighted the event. Panelists at varying stages of graduate work spoke both about their specific areas of study and the impact of donor gifts on their ability to conduct critical research. Panelists gratefully spoke of the funding they received, including donor-funded research travel grants, conference travel grants, and predoctoral fellowships, and its vital role in allowing them to immerse themselves in knowledge creation and share the knowledge they have gained. “I have taught students who are now in graduate and medical school,” said Adrian Melo Carrillo, a Ph.D. candidate in ecology and evolutionary biology. “Your help has impacted not only me, but many people who are not necessarily here at Michigan.”

Guests were eager to know more about the students, including why they chose Michigan and how they landed in their field of study. Panelists’ answers were varied, but shared a few themes, including access to abundant resources, excellent faculty, opportunity for interdisciplinary work, and a sense of community. “The community inspires growth,” said Maribel Okiye, a second-year Ph.D. student in chemistry. “It gives you cutting-edge research opportunities without pitting you against your peers. You learn at your own pace.”

The Rackham Graduate School would like to thank all who were able to attend, and invites you to read more about our graduate-student panelists and view the event photo gallery below.

Graduate-Student Panelists

Cara Bess Janusz, M.P.H., M.A. | Ph.D. Candidate, Epidemiologic Sciences

Immunization is considered among the most cost-effective public health interventions. Still, an astonishing number of children, adolescents, and adults are under- or un-immunized globally due to a complex set of factors including access, vaccine hesitancy sentiments, and supply interrupted by civil strife. And, the resulting resurgence of vaccine-preventable diseases globally is cause for concern. Cara studies the determinants of immunization uptake in low- and middle-income settings in order to identify policy and programmatic opportunities to optimize uptake. Specifically, her dissertation research focuses on assessing the impact of programmatic and policy changes to immunization efforts on the timeliness and completion of the infant vaccination series in sub-Saharan African settings. Prior to her tenure as a Ph.D. candidate in epidemiologic sciences in the School of Public Health, Cara led a technical assistance program at the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) to advise governments in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) on evidence-based immunization policy. Doctoral-level training, under the direction of Dr. Matthew Boulton, with financial support from Rackham and other sources at U-M is offering Cara the opportunity to build stronger analytical and methodological skillsets to return to the field of immunization policy with data-driven approaches to problem-solving. Outside of Ph.D. research, Cara continues to collaborate with PAHO on evaluating the impact of vaccination policy and strategies in the LAC Region. She also enjoys mentoring undergraduate and graduate-level students in the School of Public Health on career opportunities in global health.

Yiran Chen | Ph.D. Student, Higher Education

College undermatching is a phenomenon describing how some high-achieving students do not attend colleges that match their academic credentials. Since undermatching occurs primarily among students from low-income families, it has triggered concerns among researchers, educators, and policymakers. The prior theories hypothesize that students undermatch either because they “prefer” the lower-ranked colleges (e.g., closer to home) or because they lack information about the better alternatives. Accordingly, the interventions focused mainly on providing college information to the targeted students.

Borrowing insights from the prospect theory, Yiran provides an alternative explanation, attributing part of the enrollment pattern to low educational expectations. Educational expectations play a critical role in the college decision-making process as they divide college options into gains (at or beyond the expectation) and losses (below the expectation). The prospect theory posits that people are loss-averse so that they have stronger incentives to avoid losses than to realize gains. As a result, a high-achiever with a low expectation may be satisfied with a less-selective college, without feeling the urge to seek better options. According to his theory, effective policy interventions need to not only provide college information but also foster educational aspirations.

Yiran used to be a workaholic, so he did not have a life outside his work. Fortunately, he finally found balance when his two daughters were born in 2017 and 2018. Now he enjoys visiting museums, taking field trips, reading children’s books, and chatting with other parents at playgrounds.

Joe Iafrate | Ph.D. Candidate, Applied Physics

Today’s electronic devices utilize the charge of the electron as the carrier of information for storage and processing. Future spintronic devices would utilize the spin of the electron, with the potential to be smaller, faster, and more energy-efficient than their electronic counterparts. Electron spin is a fundamentally quantum property that manifests like a tiny magnet. Unlike your everyday magnets, spin has only two orientations, “up” and “down.” Before spintronic devices can be fully realized, we must answer important questions about spins in our materials of interest. How do we align electron spins? What factors impact that alignment and its persistence? How do we detect the spins? Understanding electron spin dynamics is key to ushering in a spin-based future.

Under the guidance of Professor Vanessa Sih in Physics, Joe works to answer these questions in the semiconductor gallium arsenide. We can align and detect electron spins in this material using laser light, giving us the opportunity to study what happens in that time between. Complicating this picture further are the atomic nuclei, which themselves have spin that interact with the electron spins. Through a series of optical studies, Joe is moving one step closer to understanding this interplay.

As president of the Applied Physics Student Council, Joe oversees the council’s efforts to build community among applied physics graduate students through social and professional development events. The sixth-year Ph.D. student is also a coordinator for RELATE, a science communication training organization founded at Michigan. He is invited by groups both inside and outside the university to lead workshops on the fundamentals of effective communication.

Adrian Melo Carrillo | Ph.D. Candidate, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Genetic variation is the foundation for a population to adapt to an environment that is always changing. For example, high genetic variation in genes related to adaptive immunity is advantageous in a population as it allows for the recognition of a broader set of pathogens. Genes of the Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC) encode molecules that are essential in the adaptive immune response and are the most variable genes in humans. Moreover, research has provided evidence that an important subset of this MHC genetic variation in modern humans comes from archaic humans (Neanderthals and Denisovans) as a product of ancient hybridization (interbreeding of two genetically distinct lineages). Adrian’s research focuses on assessing the effect of hybridization on the variation of MHC genes looking at two species of howler monkeys (Alouatta palliata and Alouatta pigra) that hybridize in the wild in southeast Mexico. His goal is to provide empirical support for the importance of hybridization as a source of genetic variation for immune-related genes.

Outside of lab, Adrian is a member of the ecology and evolutionary biology Ph.D. admissions committee. He has been part of outreach programs such as: Michigan DNA Day and F.E.M.M.E.S. Also, he is currently a translator for the Mi-Sci Writers program.

Maribel Okiye | Ph.D. Student, Chemistry

The human oral cavity is comprised of a number of different habitats and harbors, more than 700 microbial species. There is much research on the relationship between the bacterial composition of salivary microbiota and various oral diseases. The synergy and interaction of variable oral microorganisms help protect the human body against invasion. Moreover, the oral microbiome plays an important role in the human microbial community and human health. In recent research it’s been found that imbalances of microbial flora not only contribute to oral diseases, but can be an effective indicator for systemic diseases, such as diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis (RA), and systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). The use of recently developed molecular methods has greatly expanded our knowledge of the composition and function of the oral microbiome in health and disease. However, methods by which the diversity of oral microbiota is maintained and affected by various oral and systemic diseases is poorly understood. Thus, under the guidance of Dr. David Sherman, and Ashootosh Tripathi in the Natural Products Discovery Core, Maribel aims to develop a library of characterized secondary metabolites derived from the human oral biota. This library will be evaluated to further distinguish their roles in the bacterial equilibrium in the oral cavity, as well as their possible connection to other systemic diseases.

Outside the lab, Maribel takes part in various extracurricular activities. She is an executive board member for two of Rackham’s largest student organizations, Rackham Student Government and Students of Color of Rackham. In addition, Maribel serves as a mentor for high school students in Ann Arbor and volunteers in miRcore, a non-profit organization that supports high school biology curriculums by exposing public high school students to current biotechnology through various field trips and summer camp experiences. Beyond her mentoring, Maribel is a proud member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., which is a predominately African American Greek-lettered sorority, composed of college-educated women dedicated to public service with an emphasis on programs that target the black community. In addition, she actively trains in CrossFit. She is currently training for the Spartan Race, a series of obstacle races of varying distance and difficulty ranging from three miles to marathon distances.

Rachna Reddy | Ph.D. Candidate, Anthropology

Male animals compete for mates, and large, strong, and old males typically win competitive encounters. Nevertheless, adolescent and young adult male chimpanzees, who like humans of similar age are physically and socially immature, father many offspring. To investigate how they do so, Rachna studied the social lives 30 males in a community of wild chimpanzees living at Ngogo in Kibale National Park in Uganda where chimpanzees have been studied for 25 years. Adolescent and young adult males mated by forming relationships with females. These involved grooming and comforting females and their offspring, and behaving aggressively toward females. Although males of all ages were aggressive to females, the impact of aggression on mating success increased with male age; as they grew older, larger, and increasingly high-ranking, males used aggression to coerce females sexually. Coercion was most effective when used against females with whom males were familiar. These results shed light on the evolution of social bonds between human females and males, which can involve affiliation, co-parenting, and sometimes coercive violence.

While not following chimpanzees, Rachna talks about how they live and the threats that they and other wildlife face with K-12 students in Uganda and in the United States. She further explores the development of social relationships through studies of how young (human) children interact with animals. She also mentors others in scientific research and works to create and implement policies that prevent sexual misconduct at remote field research sites like her own.

Jung Yoon Wie | Doctor of Musical Arts Student, Composition

Born in Seoul, South Korea, Jung Yoon Wie is a composer, educator, pianist, and producer. Themes of identity have been the center of her compositional journey, and her doctoral dissertation involves creating a short film in collaboration with filmmaker Toko Shiiki, dancers Rie Kim and Jun Wakabayashi, and Converge String Quartet. She has had the privilege of collaborating with Aizuri String Quartet, Invoke String Quartet, Calidore String Quartet, Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, Magnus Lindberg, Avanti! Chamber Ensemble (Finland), Ensemble Signal, Back Pocket Duo, Front Porch, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, the Cleveland Chamber Symphony, the University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra, and the Wooster Symphony Orchestra.

Jung Yoon’s dissertation, Han: Otherness and Syncretism, attempts to transform static notions of identity as fixed by appearance and language by suggesting multiple identities, cultural hybridity, and women’s experiences in an intercultural context by merging visual and musical art and re-appropriating technological modes of presentation. The new composition created by Jung Yoon herself, Han for string quartet, dance, and digital video promotes a syncretic approach to these themes by drawing from diverse musical sources such as Korean, traditional, folk, American, and European music and representing marginalized female voices with the concept of han, a specifically Korean emotion characterized by contradictory emotions such as sadness, anger, vengeance, hope, isolation, and passion.