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The Calculus of Grace

By Brian Charles Clark

For Valerie Cheathon, it all adds up. She plans to earn a master’s degree in applied math so she can make movies. Sitting in the Compton Union Building on the Pullman campus of Washington State University one morning, she clearly sees the world as a weave of numbers—and stories.

“I like applied math. You can help people with math. You can solve problems. Like, how much air conditioning is needed,” gesturing at the expanse of the CUB, “that’s a math problem. The doors are nodes and the connecting hallways get different values depending on width, length, and so forth.”

The other thing Cheathon likes about math is that it is “not up for debate.” There are no alternative facts: “You either get the answer, or you don’t. I love writing too, but I rarely show it to other people because it’s your baby. And when they say, you should put a pink dress on that baby and not a blue one—well, it’s mine! But with math, you don’t really have that. You can discuss the ways you got to the answer but, pretty much, there is a single answer we are all gunning for.”

The Kids are Alright

But life is not like math. Answers are often hard to come by, and logic is nonexistent. Her kids, though, “pretty much saved my life,” she says. Like a lot of us, Cheathon had a rough few years in her late teens and early twenties.

“After my parents divorced,” she says, “I kind of spiraled through a lot of bad choices.” But after first Benjamin, and then her daughter, Kennedy, were born, she decided, “I had to have more money per hour!” So she went back to college.

She majored in applied math at Arizona State University. “The ways I made money when I was younger was braiding hair and tutoring math,” she says, so she pushed ahead with her studies.

Keep the Faith

If her kids saved her life and are her inspiration to constantly pressure herself to do more, to do better, then her foundation is her faith. The daughter of a Baptist preacher, Cheathon considers mathematics to be the intersection of the divine and the mundane. “A person might look at theoretical math and say, ‘Wow, humans are so awesome, we don’t need God!’ But I look at it and think, ‘Wow, God is so awesome!’

“And if you’re right,” she adds, “you can help a lot of people.” Basic life skills, like figuring out a budget for a family or a business, determining if a loan is fair, or the odds on winning a lottery, are all skills that applied mathematicians teach.

Issues of social justice can be likewise approached through math. How are limited resources, like food, water, and housing, most fairly distributed? Empowered with math skills, environmentalists have shown that the neighborhoods of people of color are often at greater risk for toxins and trash than more affluent areas. The concepts of gerrymandering, gentrification, racial profiling, and food deserts—in which low-income neighborhoods often have no access to supermarkets or farmers markets with fresh produce and other nutritious foods—can all be identified and corrected using math.

An appreciation of how other cultures have used applied math can give students a new perspective on the value of diversity. Fractal geometry, for instance, is an ancient and important part of many African architecture and aesthetic systems, while origami is a venerable and entertaining system for visualizing geometrical problems in a hands-on way. Teaching math is thus a kind of activism.

Power to the Teachers

Cheathon is a teaching assistant for calculus classes at Washington State University. “One thing about growing up in church is you learn to deal with a lot of different personalities. And as the preacher’s kid, when all those personalities are at you about this thing or another, you have to handle it like customer service. Everybody wants something, they want your attention, and they want to feel special. Even here, when we’re teaching calculus lab with 30 or so people, you want to reach them. You want to inspire and motivate them.”

But it’s not always easy, she says: “You’re trying to be more exciting than their phones! And then there’re the hecklers. You have to prepare and be able to answer ‘why?’ about three layers deep. Especially as a minority female, you have to be prepared.”

And it turns out that teaching is not unlike storytelling. “You’re part psychologist, counselor, and performer. And each performance is individualized! It’s a dance and they’ll call you out if it’s not a good dance.”

A big fan of documentaries, especially shorter films such as the ones featured on Independent Lens, Cheathon says, “I’ve always liked to write, I love storytelling.”

Hearing Voices

She’s also concerned about whose voice gets heard. As with so many professions, white males dominate filmmaking. She says she has been jotting down ideas for a film about being of mixed race, based not only on her own experience but on those of friends who have lighter skin tones and this “get it from both sides. The stuff I’m interested in doing would be pretty gritty. It’d be about people’s struggles.”

Writing also helps ground her and keep her own struggles in perspective. “It helps de-stress me,” Cheathon says of keeping a journal. And raising two kids as a single mother is definitely a struggle—especially while navigating the world of higher education.

Although she was raised to be self-reliant, she realized that always going it alone was not sustainable. She had a professor at ASU, Dr. Erika Comacho, who was also a single parent in graduate school.

“She told me, ‘Don’t sit there quiet if you need help; say you need help.’”

Burst Your Bubble

Cheathon pauses to reflect, then adds, “It’s easy to be in a white bubble, a black bubble, a Hispanic bubble—but that’s not the way I want to be and it’s not the way I want my kids to be. You have to take people on a case-by-case basis,” Cheathon says.

“If you’re a person of color, you cannot convince yourself that a white person cannot help you. You cannot give up on other people. You’ve got to establish relationships, especially with other single moms.”

Inspired by her children, her faith, and her love of people and their stories, Cheathon is always striving to be more. That’s something she wants to share with other people—through teaching and filmmaking.

“If I can be entertaining, that’d be great,” she says. But the thing she really wants to share is more intangible. It’s that feeling of “I got this!” she says, laughing, delighted at a memory that is like “a splash of cold water on a hot Phoenix day.” It was the discovery that, with a little help from friends, mentors, and her children, “I understand this! And I can explain it to others.”

Artificial Intelligence and Society

Back in the 1980s, Antonie Bodley was a youngster with a new friend. Teddy Ruxpin was a robotic, storytelling teddy bear that never grew cranky or impatient. Its eyes blinked. Its mouth moved. And the bestselling toy of 1985 engaged kids with stories, songs, and comforting pronouncements about friendship and camaraderie. Bodley, now 34 and a WSU IIDP  graduate, knows that’s where her fascination with robotics and artificial intelligence began to take root. Read More

The Doctoral Program of Endless Possibility

2017 Ph.D. graduate Mason Burley finds ways to improve mental health treatment

By Amir Gilmore

Graduate School Evening of Excellence event at the Banyan’s event center on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016 in Pullman.

Imagine the endless research possibilities and complex problems you could solve in a flexible graduate program tailored to your individual interests. Spokane native and 2017 Ph.D. graduate Mason Burley realized the possibilities in WSU’s individual interdisciplinary doctoral degree program (IIDP), where he researched mental health treatment through the lens of epidemiology, biostatistics, health administration and policy, and public health.

“The IIDP allows students to draw upon the strengths and resources from three different departments,” says Mason. “We can ultimately address critical problems that may not be unique to a single discipline.”


Mason graduated May 5 at the Spokane campus commencement ceremony.

When considering a Ph.D program, Mason talked with Kenn Daratha associate professor in the College of Nursing and a 2004 WSU IIDP graduate, and decided the IIDP program would be a good fit for his research interests.

“The program is designed to be flexible,” says Mason. “There is a lot of balancing between engaging with your committee members and communicating your research goals— but that is the nature of interdisciplinary research.”

Mason’s interest was mental health treatment. He recognized that only about half of the individuals with mental health conditions were receiving psychiatric treatment, so he focused his dissertation research on improving acute in-patient psychiatric treatment by developing a risk profile for individuals who face recurrent psychiatric hospitalizations over a short period.

“I am interested in access and availability and engagement in mental health treatment,” says Mason.

In addition to the flexibility of the program, students also benefit from strong academic support from faculty that span the three disciplines. Mason’s mentor and committee chair, Kenn Daratha, advised him on scholarly research and authored several publications with him. John Roll, vice dean for research in the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine, was a staunch supporter of Mason’s research, and Mel Haberman, professor in the College of Nursing, helped with grant development and research writing. Jae Kennedy, professor and Chair of Health Policy and Administration, gave Mason the opportunity to teach statistics to his graduate students. Graduate School Associate Dean Patricia Sturko and Associate Dean Lisa Gloss were essential in guiding Mason through interdisciplinary research and providing a space to cultivate ideas. With the support of his committee, Mason was the recipient of the 2015-16 Russ and Anne Fuller Fellowship.

“The IIDP gave me the opportunity and confidence to pursue research without any preconceived constraints,” says Mason. “During my time in the program, I really valued the expertise of my committee members and looked to their suggestions about how I could apply discipline-specific knowledge to address overarching issues affecting behavioral health policy and treatment access.”

Last December, Mason began working for Premier, Inc., a hospital-owned quality improvement organization based in Charlotte, North Carolina. He works specifically for a division of the company called Premier Research Institute, which interfaces with foundations, university researchers and federal agencies to complete health outcomes research.

For more information about IIDP, and what students are researching, visit the IIDP website.


2016 Annual Report Available

The Graduate School 2016 Annual Report is now available. To read enrollment, degrees awarded, graduate school diversity, scholarships and assistantships as well as Graduate School initiatives and student success, download the PDF HERE.

2017 Evening of Excellence

The Graduate School hosted the third annual Evening of Excellence on April 13, 2017 at Banyans on the Ridge to honor 53 graduate student scholarship recipients.  In addition to the student scholarships, the Graduate School  also awarded the second Graduate School Mentor Academy Award for Excellence. Read More.

Association for Faculty Women honors four graduate students

By Cheryl Reed

The WSU Association for Faculty Women has awarded four graduate students for their ongoing leadership, research and exceptional academic performance.

During its annual ceremony on April 6,  the association presented its AFW Founders Award, Harriett B. Rigas Award and Karen P. DePauw Leadership Award. The recipients were nominated by WSU faculty, staff and peers.  Read More

Phyllis Eide Receives Mentor Academy Award for Excellence

By Cheryl Reed

The WSU Graduate School has awarded Associate Professor Phyllis Eide the 2017 Graduate School Mentor Academy Award for Excellence for her work in mentoring graduate students. Eide has been a faculty member in the College of Nursing on the WSU Spokane campus since 2002, and a member of the Graduate School Mentor Academy since 2009.

“When I found out I had won the award, I just about fell off my chair,” said Eide. “I am gratified beyond belief. It is one of the highlights of my year.”

The Graduate Mentor Academy is a group of faculty who have volunteered to assist students during the most challenging aspects of their program, including preliminary examinations and defenses. The Graduate School established the Graduate Mentor Academy to provide students an unbiased and supportive presence during exams and defenses—someone to ensure that university policies and procedures are followed and correct protocol is observed. For example, Mentor Academy faculty will collect ballots, make sure that no committee member leaves during a defense, and assist in creating a comfortable test environment for the student.

“Logistically, taking exams and defending can be very difficult for students,” says Bill Andrefsky, dean of the Graduate School. “People in the Graduate School programs department rely on faculty mentors to step up and serve students as advocates, either upon the student’s request, or for a student’s second exam attempt. Dr. Eide is one faculty who has always willingly served graduate students over the years—which is why I established this award last year. Faculty need to be recognized for their service.”

Faculty members volunteer for the Graduate Mentor Academy upon invitation from the Graduate School, and serve for a three-year term—although their term is often renewed.

“Dr. Eide mentored nine different students on two different test retakes this year,” says Mary Stormo, academic coordinator in the Graduate School. “She also met with committees and assisted in negotiating the swirling waters around students who were taking their exams for the second time. She helped work out the exam kinks with the department to ensure that fair testing was in place.”

Eide says that her presence at exams and defenses usually has a calming effect on the student, but that is not her only purpose. She also takes care of other more concrete tasks of the exam and defense process to make sure the process is comfortable and as stress-free as possible.

“I always arrive early to coordinate with the chair,” she says. “At the last event, I contacted the IT Department to make sure that all the technology was working correctly to prepare for electronic testing.”

In spite of the time commitment, Eide says that serving the students has been an honor.

Eide is an associate professor in the WSU College of Nursing in Spokane. She has been certified by American Nurses’ Credentialing Center in advanced practice nursing as a clinical nurse specialist in community health since 1992 and holds a certificate in Decision Making for Climate Change from the University of Washington (2010). Before entering academia in 1992 at University of Hawaii/Hilo, she worked in a wide variety of community settings, including positions in public health, migrant school nurse, Associate Director of Hawaii Nurses’ Association, and vocational rehabilitation. Her primary practice and research interests are rural health, global climate change, and public health.

“It takes a village for this kind of work,” says Eide, who plans to use the Graduate Mentor Academy award to fund her new research on climate change.

Eide will receive her award at the Graduate School Evening of Excellence event on April 13. This is the second year that the Graduate School has awarded the Graduate School Mentor Academy Award for Excellence. In 2016, Lisa McIntyre of the Department of Sociology won the first annual award.

For more information about the Graduate School’s mentor policy and the role of Graduate Mentor Academy members, visit HERE.

Music is His Life

By Amir Gilmore

Although he is already a successful musician and entrepreneur, Chicago native Richard Owens has found value in putting his career on hold to get a graduate education at WSU.

Richard has already generated a lot of buzz composing music and playing his trombone for his own record label. With dedication to music, passion for knowledge, and focus on his craft, Richard has been successfully balancing life as a musician and graduate student in the Kimbrough School of Music at WSU.

Richard has been playing the trombone most of his life. His passion for music comes from his early childhood, when he recalled spending summers with his grandfather, a Korean War veteran. He would take Richard to White Castle, pull out his keyboard, and play music. Since that time, Richard knew music would always be a part of him.

On Career Day in the eighth grade, a guest artist played for the class without any sheet music. Enamored by the artist’s grace and passion for the music, Richard realized that a person could actually make a living playing music.

“For me, that was a spiritual and educational experience. Music is how he made his money. Music is how he paid his bills. Music was his life.”

Since then, music has become Richard’s life. He’s made a decent living traveling around the world, and been fortunate enough to perform and be around high profile musicians like Dr. Joe Sample and Dr. Matthew Knowles. The late Joe Sample, who was a member of the original Jazz Crusaders, is Richard’s greatest inspiration.

“Much of what I learned from Dr. Sample you can’t find in a book,” said Richard. “He taught me how to be artistic in the field of music, as well as recording, engineering, producing great quality music, and overall just being passionate and a good human being.”

Richard met Knowles when he took a class from him as an undergraduate student. Knowles is a professor, talent manager, entrepreneur, and the father of Beyoncé and Solange Knowles. He taught Richard about entrepreneurship within the music industry, such as record label terminology, business terminology, album sales, and digital sales. With the help of these two men, Richard has become a successful musician.

In 2014, Richard signed to GVR Records as a part of a band called The C.I.T.Y., which released an album called #StayTuned in 2015. Richard is also a part of the jazz band the RADS Krusasders II.0, which is based off Sample’s old band, The RAD Crusaders. They released an album called In Session in 2014. Along with alumnus and former professor Horace Alexander Young, Richard is featured in Donna E. Scott’s 2015 album titled, Somehow I Knew,. Most recently, Richard was featured in an advertisement in Downbeat Magazine to promote the WSU’s Jazz Studies Program.

Growing up, Richard was told he would amount to nothing. He wanted to prove that theory wrong and set the expectation bar high for his family—so despite his commercial success, he decided to pursue higher education. Richard came to WSU because of the Graduate School’s Research Assistantships for Diverse Scholars (RADS) program. The purpose of the RADS program is to increase access and opportunities to graduate education for U.S. students from underrepresented communities and to increase graduate student diversity at WSU. The first thing Richard noticed about WSU was the family environment. To him, WSU is home.

“The faculty in the music department, everyone here is like family,” said Richard. “You can easily approach any of the faculty members here. The students are like family, too; we share our ideas with each other.”

Another thing Richard appreciates about WSU is the vast amount of resources.

“The faculty are walking resources that can guide you in the right direction,” he said. Moreover, he noted, WSU is a great place to enhance his practice as a musician with the music library and performance stage at Bryan Hall. By putting his music career on hold and focusing on his education, Richard believes he will be able to learn more than the average musician.

“To have Bryan Hall is amazing because as a performer, there will be a point in time where you will be in atmospheres like this, performing in halls like this.”

Richard is currently finishing this master’s thesis project, which includes three compositions that incorporate West African Afrobeat, Highlife music, and American Western Jazz. His compositions are a hybrid form of jazz that incorporate improvisation and exotic percussion, as well as ethno instruments. Once he finishes his master’s, Richard will continue to work on his label he created in 2010 called Legacy Music Company, operated by he and his brother out of Houston, Texas.

”We’re looking to grow the label and sign other artists,” said Richard. “Making and playing music brings joy to my heart and I want to bring that same joy to other artists, so they, too, can make a living with their music.”