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Martha Cottam

Mentor Academy Award for Excellence Winner Announced

By Ruth Williams

The Graduate School is pleased to announce that Martha Cottam is the recipient of the 2018 Graduate School Mentor Academy Award for Excellence. Professor Cottam, who is also the Graduate Studies Director of the School of Politics, Philosophy, and Public Affairs, has worked at WSU for more than 25 years, and is one of the longest-serving members of the Graduate Mentor Academy.

“I was really surprised and honored to receive the award,” says Cottam.

The Graduate Mentor Academy (GMA) was started around 2005 for the purpose of identifying graduate faculty with significant mentorship experience and skills, and providing them with additional training, according to Lisa Gloss, interim dean of the Graduate School.

“Faculty from the GMA provide support, guidance, and encouragement to graduate students during preliminary exams or final defenses and ensure that the correct policies and procedures are followed,” says Gloss. “While the majority of student examinations—candidacy or final defenses—proceed without any complications or concerns, GMA members will attend exams where academic issues might arise, such as a student retaking an exam after failing the first time.”

Cottam is particularly proud of her record as a member of the GMA—none of the students she has mentored has failed their exams or defenses.

“It’s always a troublesome situation for the graduate students,” she says, “but it’s a privilege to be the person who knows the rules and can make sure the students are comfortable and the rules are followed. It reassures them that they’re going to get every chance to be successful.”

Cottam says she enjoys volunteering for the Graduate Mentor Academy because of the broad scope of students she’s been able to work with, including graduates in mathematics, education, plant biology, and many other subjects.

“Dr. Cottam is very appreciated by the Graduate School staff,” says Gloss. “She is willing to serve whenever she is available, responding promptly and positively to requests. After the exam, she provides helpful reports so that the Graduate School is aware of any reasons for future concerns—or if everything went just fine and the student is on track to progress in his or her graduate program.”

Cottam, along with graduate student scholarship awardees, will receive her award at the annual Graduate School Evening of Excellence on April 19.

Naomi Wallace

Three Minute Thesis Award Winner

By Ruth Williams

Grad Student Naomi Wallace looking at brain activityNaomi Wallace won the WSU 2018 Three Minute Thesis (3MT) award in March for her research presentation titled, “Developing Brains and Biological Clocks.” Naomi is an ARCS PhD neuroscience student in the College of Veterinary Science. She was among nine other WSU competitors for the award.

Three Minute Thesis® is a research communication developed by the University of Queensland wherein doctoral students have three minutes to present a compelling oration on their thesis and its significance. The exercise develops students’ ability to explain their research to a non-specialist audience. The first place winner receives $3,000 in a travel award to the research conference of choice.

Naomi earned her undergraduate degree in psychology from the University of Denver and became interested in how mental health and sleep are intertwined. She wanted to continue studying the intersection of these two topics in graduate school, and decided to research the effects of sleep deprivation and interruption on animals to learn more about the mechanistic parts of the equation.

She now performs circadian disruption experiments on mice.

“It’s not the same as sleep deprivation, but it does tend to be associated with a lot of similar effects,” she explains. “We put our mice on a light cycle that gives them a 20-hour day instead of a 24-hour day, and that causes their circadian rhythms to become desynchronized. We’re particularly interested in what happens in the brain in response to that.”

The 20-hour day means that the mice get the same amount of sleep as they normally would, but their sleeping schedule is fragmented—so instead of sleeping for several longer stretches, they sleep more frequently and for shorter periods of time.

“That alone leads to increases in obesity, problems with glucose tolerance−which looks like prediabetes−and other effects. We’re  looking for a way to prevent the negative neurological effects of circadian disruption and find potential targets that later down the road could be used to develop treatments for people who are circadian disrupted.”

Naomi’s advisor, Ilia Karatsoreos, focuses his research on circadian disruption and stress biology, and another student has recently joined their lab from the immunology and infectious diseases department. Naomi anticipates collaborations that will look at the immune affects of circadian disruption.

Naomi has a deep connection to WSU. Her father earned his Ph.D. here, and she grew up hearing about what a great place it is.

“There were a lot of good reasons to end up at WSU,” she says. “When I interviewed, I fell in love with the neuroscience department—and I also got financial support from an ARCS scholarship.”



Miriam Fernandez

Learning Náhuatl


By Cheryl Reed

In August of 1521, Spanish and indigenous soldiers conquered Tenochtitlán, the capital of the Aztec Empire. Historians believe nearly a quarter million Tenochtitlán citizens died in the conquest, and all of the majestic temples, palaces, pyramids, and artifacts were destroyed. Read More

Kristin Pratt

Doctoral Graduate Wins Prestigious Outstanding Dissertation Award

By Cheryl Reed

Kristen Pratt, Ph.D., a 2017 WSU doctoral graduate in education, has won the 2018 American Educational Research Association (AERA) Outstanding Dissertation Award in the area of second language research. Read More

Kevin Gray and Afshin Kahn

Improving Chemotherapy Treatment to Reduce Side-effects

Two WSU doctoral graduates partner to become entrepreneurs

By Kakali Chakrabarti

When someone close to you is diagnosed with cancer, it can change your life perspective — and sometimes your life projectory. For Kevin Gray, a WSU doctoral graduate, the diagnosis drove him to a new research passion and creation of a biotechnology company to develop novel cancer treatments. Read more.

Nathan Grant

Research to Feed the Future

Doctoral student Nathan Grant joins the WSU/U.S. government’s global hunger and food security initiative through his research

By Cheryl Reed

Passion and compassion aren’t synonymous, but in the case of molecular plant sciences doctoral student Nathan Grant, the two provide the synergy for his research and future career goals. Working side-by-side with his faculty mentor, Dr. Kulvinder Gill, Nathan is helping develop a heat-tolerant variety of wheat that could be grown in some of the world’s most hot and hunger-challenged regions of the world. Read More

Derick Jiwan

The Heart of WSU’s Entrepreneurial Spirit

WSU post-doc Derick Jiwan and team are turning byproducts from the Greek yogurt industry into a healthy drink—while realizing a higher purpose for their scientific research

By Kakali Chakrabarti and Ruth Williams

From left: Henry Baker, Andrew Jaboro, Jose Orenday-Ortiz, Alex Wu Hagen, Derick Jiwan

The Greek yogurt industry produces thousands of gallons of acid whey – the unused liquid drained from yogurt to make it creamy. The cost of handling and disposing of all the whey, although rich in nutrition, has been a major expense to the industry—so researchers have been looking for a way to convert the whey into a useable and profitable product. A group of WSU students and scientists may have found the answer.

Team Semplice, led by WSU postdoc Derick Jiwan, began as a food science project to study whether or not these yogurt byproducts could be recaptured to make a nutritious and sustainable drink. The proprietary information is protected by WSU and in the early stages of finding its way to the marketplace.

Team Semplice brought together a diverse team of postdoc, graduate, and undergraduate students studying marketing, food engineering, bioengineering, and communication.

“The benefit of having such a diverse team is that we have every expertise needed to take on an entrepreneurship endeavor—scientific knowledge as well as marketing and communication skills,” says Jiwan. In 2016, the team was part of the WSU NSF Innovation Corps (I-Corps) three-year grant, and in April, 2017 won first place in the Carson College of Business’s Annual Business Plan competition, taking home $15,000. Team Semplice found further accolades as second place winners at the Idaho Pitch Competition, and was invited for a Lightning Pitch round at the 2017 CleanTech Innovation Showcase.

The spirit of innovation

Jiwan earned his Ph.D. from WSU in molecular plant sciences in 2011. While working on his dissertation, he participated in a number of service-based agricultural research projects and worked with several different teams to develop trade secrets and proprietary information. In 2012, Jiwan helped his faculty advisor, Amit Dhingra, form a biotech agricultural biotechnology company that provides true-to-type plant rootstock to growers.

Through this experience, Jiwan caught the entrepreneurial spirit. In 2016 he teamed up with Charles Daiko, who was a food science graduate student working on the yogurt byproduct concept that eventually became Semplice. To know whether the product was palatable to consumers, Team Semplice conducted a consumer taste panel with several hundred people. With highly favorable responses, the team realized their product could have real potential.

Team Semplice has received significant support from the WSU Office of Research and Office of Commercialization in getting funding and other scholarship opportunities, and has received recommendations for taking the product to the next level. Semplice is the exclusive licensee of the proprietary material owned by WSU.

Semplice currently uses WSU’s Food Science Department’s USDA certified kitchen, and rents the Ferdinand’s Ice-cream Shoppe facility when they need more space. They have found great support and enthusiasm from other departments in the university as well, such as Carson College of Business, Voiland College of Engineering, and Murrow College of Communication, which have helped them with marketing and public relations, and provided them with opportunities to help take the product to next stage.

More than a start-up

Dhingra required Jiwan to work with undergraduate students while he was a graduate student, which gave him practical experience with supervision, administration, teamwork, and time management. “There is no course on time management, teamwork with students, interdisciplinary teamwork, or work-life balance, so this experience was really valuable,” says Jiwan.

As a result of that experience as a doctoral student, Jiwan hopes to use Semplice as a model to train undergraduates in developing leadership skills while giving them work experience in areas outside their core degree. “Such experiences make students more marketable,” he says.

As Jiwan looks back on his doctoral work, he values an adviser who pushed him to break the disciplinary boundaries and fulfil the larger purposes of scientific research. “Dhingra helped me realize that the purpose of scientific research is to help people,” says Jiwan. “If research is limited to labs or scientific publications, it might miss out on a significant impact in the world.”

Jiwan believes entrepreneurship requires leadership and a desire to contribute to the larger community. An idea may not be Nobel Prize-worthy, but may still have an impact on a smaller scale.

“My experiences taught me that ideas are great, but one also needs a great team, great support and great mentorship,” says Jiwan.  “Entrepreneurship is both a science and an art.”

In addition to his business venture, Jiwan works in the wheat quality lab for his post-doc in crop sciences, where he uses genomic data to help breeders and farmers reduce the time and energy they spend in the land by integrating quality trades. He has also developed a project in Colombia, trying to synthesize academia and industry so that they can support each other to solve problems like oil palm disease and cocoa disease. He is organizing a workshop in 2018 to bring more government support into this research and develop private-public partnership models.

“I think WSU is doing a great job encouraging students to not just research and publish, but to also commercialize,” says Jiwan.  “The emphasis on interdepartmental research and support for commercialization will create more WSU brand loyalty, and when these students become alumni, they will be motivated to give back.”

Nancy Carvajal Medina

Working to break stereotypes around homelessness and build more empathetic communities across the Palouse.


By Kakali Chakrabarti

Nancy Medina smilingHomelessness is a monumental, worldwide problem. According to the 2016 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 549,928 people experienced homelessness in the United States on a single night in 2016. The majority (68%) stayed in emergency shelters, transitional housing programs, or safe havens, and 32% in unsheltered locations. More than one-fifth (22%) of homeless people were children below 14 years.

Nancy Carvajal Medina, a fall 2017 doctoral graduate in the Cultural Studies and Social Thought in Education (CSSTE) program in the College of Education has been working to develop more understanding and empathy towards the issue through her work at Washington State University and beyond.

Early inspiration

With a B.A. and M.A. in language teaching, Nancy taught applied linguistics, critical thinking, English as a Foreign Language (EFL) didactics, and EFL research methods to pre-service teachers for 10 years in Tunja Boyacá, Colombia, where she spent the majority of her life working and studying. She also taught at the master’s program in Language Teaching at Universidad Pedagógica y Tecnológica de Colombia-UPTC. In 2010, she started exploring possibilities of academia-community collaboration to solve real life problems in Tunja, which was experiencing steady displacement and rural-to-urban migration of youth, children and families due to violence and capturing of farmlands by illegal arms groups. With the help of a non-governmental organization (NGO) called Juventas, Nancy supported its initiative to start a language school, and engaged pre-service student teachers through a volunteer program to teach the displaced youth and children on weekends.

“I founded the group Knowledge in Action (KIA) with the vision of making bridges between academia and the community,” says Nancy. “This vision is grounded in action. When I invited the members of KIA and other EFL pre-service teachers to volunteer and work with Juventas, I told them, ‘you will not get any grade, you will not receive any payment or any reward in exchange for this work, but you will fulfill your social responsibilities as educators.’”

During her work with Juventas, Nancy met a Fulbright assistant and was inspired to apply for a Ph.D. in the USA. She was one of six people out of about 300 applicants to receive a Fulbright scholarship in 2013 from Colombia in the modality Fulbright for the Regions.

Life at WSU

For her doctoral research, Nancy was specifically looking for a program that emphasized critical thinking rooted in action. She chose the WSU College of Education for its emphasis on critical studies and social justice, which enables students to critically reflect on social justice issues through a variety of methods, thereby developing an understanding of alternative narratives.

Nancy recalls the first class she took at WSU. People were introducing themselves with various labels such as sex, gender, race and ethnicity. “This is when I could only think about myself as a human being under construction,” says Nancy, who thinks these labels are peripheral, visual, and constraining as there are multiple assumptions and expectations attached to every label. “I respect people’s ways of self-identifying. I understand the political and cultural ground on which they do it. But personally, I believe no label may be ascribed to reflect the complexity of humanity. More than labels, my words, actions and relationships are what really defines who I am and who I may become. Society expects people to self-impose these labels on them. So I wanted to go under the skin and find ways to connect us all through our understanding of humanity.”

Discovering identities “Under the Skin”

Growing up as a Mestiza, the dominant ethnic group of Colombia, Nancy did not face the stereotypes and discrimination tied with race and ethnicity, but she did face social discrimination as a woman, and fought her way to pursue post-secondary education. These complexities and multiplicities of identities were the inspiration for the workshop series she conceived and titled, “Under the Skin,” a dialogic community that offers a welcoming space to share stories, transform interactions, and dismantle stereotypes and labels, thus facilitating personal and community healing processes.

“People have called this space home and a safe space. That is a very meaningful connection in times where the political climate is reducing the spaces to feel safe and be yourself,” Nancy explains in her dissertation.

So far, she has organized 11 interactive workshops on various themes, such as painting, writing, photography, yoga and meditation. “People were ready to be open and vulnerable. We heard others’ stories, hugged each other and cried for them, although we didn’t really know them. People rekindled their desire to paint, draw, sing, or dance.”

Houseless, not homeless

These experiences with stereotypes and identities made Nancy further think about her work with the displaced youth and children in Colombia—a work she could not continue due to financial and administrative constraints. She spent her first year at WSU trying to understand meanings and contexts of displacement in the US. She found two shelters in the Pullman-Moscow area that offer services to unstably housed people, and has been working and interacting with the people in Sojourners Alliance, in Moscow, Idaho for almost three years now. To gain their trust and confidence, she lived at Sojourners Alliance for five weeks.

“It was then the people grew to trust me and share their stories,” she said.

Nancy says that the root causes of homelessness are not always associated with individual responsibilities, but often with structural causes such as a lack of affordable housing, lack of jobs, increase in rent prices, etc. Some people might have made decisions in their lives that led to homelessnesss, but those stories also have layers of complexity.

“My work concentrates on breaking the stereotypes around homelessness to raise awareness that homelessness is not always a choice, and homeless people, instead of being stigmatized, should be offered a second chance. The word house is about a structure, whereas home is about family and emotions.These people lack a house, but not necessarily a home.”

Houseless testimonials

Nancy organized three workshops in August 2017 with the support of Neil Public Library in Pullman titled, “My story is the only thing I own. Houseless’ Testimonios of Survival and Resistance.” The workshops were an attempt to engage the larger community in focused dialogue and to develop empathy among those who have not experienced oppression towards houseless people. The testimonials featured stories of middle class people, many of whom do not fit into the stereotypes of drug addicts, alcoholics, mentally ill or the criminal, who ended up experiencing homelessness due to different social circumstances.

“Sometimes, these stories are complex and difficult to understand when you have lived in your own world of privilege,” says Nancy. “In the last workshop of the series, one person shared that she had met two middle class families who had lost everything overnight. Their experience was similar to the stories we heard in the workshops. She mentioned that discussing some of the issues about housing instability in the workshops allowed her to empathize without being judgmental.”

Nancy considers this a unique opportunity to dismantle stereotypes and understand the intricacies of housing instability.

Through community-engaged work, academia can help remove the stigma around homelessness, and other such multi-layered complex issues in society. Nancy is grateful to the houseless people who shared their stories, the administration of the homeless shelters, and her advisor Dr Pam Bettis in the College of Education for their support of her work. She plans to return to Colombia to continue her work with the issues of homelessness and help bring about long-term positive changes in society.


Graduate student Kakali ChakrabartiDr. Kakali Chakrabarti is a fall 2017 graduate of the Murrow College of Communication and a research assistant in the Graduate School.

Ruby Siegel

Doctoral student Ruby Siegel jumps ahead to a new career opportunity later in life

By Ruth Williams

Spokane native Ruby Siegel is not your average Washington State University Ph.D. student: she spent 17 years working in a clinical laboratory and raising a son between earning her degrees. At 43, she’s older than most of the other students in her research program in pharmaceutical sciences in the WSU College of Pharmacy. One of the youngest of her fellow students is only 20, and Ruby jokes that her son is older than that.

Returning to school after investing so much time in her career wasn’t easy. “Planning ahead” was her theme as she looked at schools, assistantships, and degree programs. One of the biggest hurdles she found in transitioning back to being a student was the pay cut— the graduate student stipend she earns now is considerably less than her recent salary as a lab supervisor.

So why go back to school at all? Ruby has her eyes set on becoming the director of a clinical lab, and in order to reach that goal she’ll need a doctorate. Beyond that initial motivation, however, other possibilities may become available: earning a doctorate will open the door to different areas in the pharmaceutical industry, new and exciting fields of research, or even a job in academia.

Her advice to other adult learners thinking of pursing graduate degrees is to just jump in, take the first step, and move on from there. “It’s easier to steer a car that’s moving than one that’s standing still,” she says. “You can get caught up in the details of planning, but just take that first step and it will all fall together.”

Going back to school, Ruby says, has helped her realize that she was becoming intellectually stagnant in her field. She’s had to work hard, reviewing basic biochemistry and molecular biology, while switching back to the mindset of a student with homework and assignments. At the same time, she says she has been “craving to learn” and didn’t realize it. “I feel like a battery being recharged,” she says with excitement.

Since she was awarded her master’s in 2000, there has been an exponential growth of knowledge in the fields of histocompatibility (a field of medicine that matches organ and marrow donors with possible recipients and identifies why and how an immune system may reject a transplant), genetics, and immune responses. Ideas that were just surfacing as theories when she first studied them are now being utilized in novel laboratory tests and treatments.

She brims with enthusiasm when talking about the research opportunities available to her, the faculty she’s studying under, and even the laboratory facilities on the WSU Spokane campus.

At the moment, she’s studying retroviral vectors under Dr. Grant Trobridge. Research in his lab aims to improve retroviral vectors which can be used for gene therapy for patients who have inherited a defective blood or immune gene. The viral vectors can permanently insert correct copies of the gene into autologous (“self”) blood stem cells from the patient, which can then be transplanted back into the patient to “reboot” their bone marrow and blood system with the correct gene. If it sounds a bit like science fiction, that’s because it’s still an investigative therapy. “It’s not used routinely to treat patients yet. Laboratories like Dr. Trobridge’s are still working out safety issues,” clarifies Ruby. Occasionally, the retrovirus gene insertion disrupts a necessary gene or activates unwanted genes.

Ruby’s program will allow her to do more than one rotation before choosing her PhD project. She is also interested in working in Dr. Salah Ahmed’s lab. His research is focused on the inflammatory processes and tissue damage in rheumatoid arthritis: how it occurs, and which genes or proteins to target for therapy.

These two labs appeal to her because her master’s degree is in biotechnology and much of her previous work experience had to do with to transplants and the genetics of immune responses.

She has a practical attitude when facing setbacks and discouragement: “You have to keep your eyes on the ultimate goal,” she says. “In scientific fields, you want your experiment to work, but you can learn from negative results as well. A number of major scientific discoveries were accidents or unintended results. I will learn something whether my experiment works or not.”