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Each year, The Graduate School recognizes four doctoral candidates or recent doctoral graduates for creating exceptional dissertations in each of the following fields: biological and life sciences; humanities and fine arts; mathematics, physical sciences and engineering; and social sciences.

“This year’s award recipients are emblematic of graduate students whose creation of new knowledge will transform their fields and contribute to solving the most vexing challenges of our day,” Beth Mayer-Davis, dean of The Graduate School, said. “I’m thrilled to recognize these hard-working and dedicated students. Their exciting and diverse areas of their dissertation research are a triumph, and we are grateful for these students’ curiosity and how they’ve excelled in graduate school.”

The 2023 recipients of the Dean’s Distinguished Dissertation Award are Jocelyn Burney ‘14, Julie Kafka (‘18 MPH, ‘22 Ph.D.), Qiang Zhang (‘21 Ph.D.) and Cathy Spangler ‘16 (‘22 Ph.D.).

Meet the award recipients

Jocelyn Burney ‘14
Department of Religious Studies, College of Arts and Sciences

“During the late Roman Period (2nd-6th centuries CE), large numbers of diasporic Jewish communities lived in the Mediterranean region. Unfortunately, their history, beliefs, and practices are difficult to reconstruct because virtually no written documents produced by these communities survive. My dissertation sheds new light on the religious lives of diaspora Jews in mainland Greece, the Aegean, and western Turkey by analyzing the archaeological remains they left behind, with specific focus on the funding, building, and maintaining of synagogues over multiple generations.”

Julie Kafka (‘18 MPH, ‘22 Ph.D) 
Ph.D., MPH, Department of Health Behavior, Gillings School of Global of Public Health A woman poses for a photo

“Being in an abusive romantic relationship can increase a person’s risk for depression and suicidal thoughts; however, it is unclear how often intimate partner violence (IPV) is a contributing factor for suicide. I developed a supervised machine learning tool using natural language processing to record information about IPV exposure prior to suicide based on text from death investigation reports from a national suicide mortality data system. Findings highlight the value of applying data science methods to public health research while showcasing the need to address the overlapping risks for self-directed violence and interpersonal harm.”
Qiang Zhang (‘21 Ph.D.) A person wearing glasses and a button-up shirt smiles
UNC/NCSU Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering

“My dissertation investigates the neuromuscular signals sensing fusion approaches to detect human ankle joint motion intent and incorporates surface electromyography (sEMG) signals and/or ultrasound (US) imaging signals in the closed-loop control of neurorehabilitative robotic devices, including functional electrical stimulation (FES) and powered lower-limb exoskeletons, for individuals with mobility deficits due to neurological disorders, such spinal cord injury, stroke, and multiple sclerosis.”

Cathy Spangler ‘16 (‘22 Ph.D.) A woman wearing a white tank top smiles
Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics

“My dissertation research sought to uncover the structural basis of how nucleosomes, the fundamental DNA packaging unit within chromatin, are recognized by various nuclear proteins that regulate gene expression. By revealing atomic-level details about these nucleosome-protein interactions, this work provides a basis for the rational design of targeted therapeutics for leukemia and other diseases.”

The recipients will be honored at The Graduate School’s annual recognition ceremony, to be held in mid-April 2023.

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