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Washington State University Graduate Student Success

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.


Mitigating the Impact of Sexual Violence

By Cheryl Reed


Amber Morczek could be the poster child for doing something better with your life in spite of the fetters of family history. Her work at WSU has catapulted her towards a career that looks a bit different than she originally thought.

In 2011, prompted by a father who nurtured in her a love for education, Amber uprooted herself from a New York family tree pocked with poverty, trauma, criminality, and addiction–and replanted herself at Washington State University Pullman to pursue a Ph.D. in criminal justice and criminology.

Since arriving at WSU, Amber has won a number of awards and become a gender scholar and content expert on rape culture and sexual violence. She has also been involved in correctional education at a local prison and become a sought-after speaker, receiving invitations from prominent institutions. Her dissertation examines the elements of rape culture within Internet pornography and its relationship to violence towards women. The connection between pornography and violence toward women is a topic most find thought-provoking, but few know how to approach. Amber hopes to change this by creating a safe space for dialog to make change. Her engaging and educational presentations are delivered with passion and humor.

“I’ve been lucky in that I’ve been able to present information to the public in a palatable way where attendees feel comfortable discussing issues that may fall slightly outside their comfort zones,” says Amber, who has 10 speaking engagements scheduled from June, 2016 through February, 2017.

Delivering the Message

Amber was recently invited to speak at Syracuse University, not far from where she grew up—an invitation particularly meaningful to her. Although she earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from SUNY Institute of Technology and a master’s degree in criminal justice from SUNY College at Buffalo, she had always viewed Syracuse enviously from afar.

“After growing up the way I did, it felt like a very big deal to be contacted to speak at a prominent institution like Syracuse University,” she says. Amber will be speaking at SUNY Polytechnic Institute on October 3 and Syracuse University on October 4 on pornography and normalizing the relationship between violence and sex.

Moreover, it was partially because of her history that Amber became interested in corrections and now volunteers at prisons across Washington State, presenting at places like the Washington State Penitentiary and Coyote Ridge Corrections Center. She says that her life experiences prepared her to interact well with those behind the walls.

“I often preface my presentations by telling the inmates that we probably have a lot more in common than they may think,” she says.

Having been invited to present more than 20 keynote addresses, webinars, and presentations since 2014, Amber’s most recent surge in invitations actually began at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Connell, Washington, where she participated in a Prison Debate Project. The program took WSU criminal justice undergraduate students and partnered them with students getting AA degrees at Coyote Ridge. The benefits were two-fold: WSU undergraduates were able to get hands-on experience within a prison setting, and inmate students were able to extend their education by working with those going to college on the outside.

“The impetus for the program was to help inmates learn and actually practice skills that would help them integrate back into society,” says Amber. “After all, it’s well documented that prison-based education benefits inmates both while in prison and upon release.” In June, Amber volunteered to speak to the inmates about overcoming adversity to achieve success—and has since begun filling her calendar with speaking engagements, including a recent talk here on the WSU Pullman campus for the Common Reading Program.

Serving the Local Community

On September 7, Amber presented the inaugural lecture for the Common Reading program’s year-long consideration of Malala Yousafzai’s memoir I am Malala. Her talk, titled, “The Synergistic Connection Between Rape Culture and Violence Toward Women,” garnered positive responses from students such as, “I LOVED THIS! So good. I love her, she is AMAZING. This was so great I’m glad we talked about real world issues. I wish I had classes like this.”

Karen Weathermon, co-chair of the Common Reading Program, said in a letter to Amber, “You struck a chord with the students who attended your presentation. The material you presented was excellent and an important perspective to bring to the issues of gender violence in our book—but it was your skill in presenting that pushed your presentation way above the ordinary. That you so completely engaged students around a difficult topic speaks volumes about your strengths as a presenter and teacher.”

Amber generally begins her presentations with a brief overview of the rape culture that normalizes, condones, minimizes, satirizes, and eroticizes violence toward women. Her talks are sex positive, candid, and interactive discussions on what mainstream pornography teaches about sexual violence and what we can do to mitigate the impact.

“Research indicates that viewing pornography has measurable effects on both attitudes and behaviors,” says Amber. “But unfortunately there are very few safe spaces with which to have a candid discussion about the impact – especially via a sex positive lens.”

Not only is Amber a prominent speaker, she is widely published and the recipient of numerous awards. Her research is published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, Family & Intimate Partner Violence Quarterly, the International Journal of Cyber Criminology, Sexuality & Culture, and 3 front page manuscripts in The Sexual Assault Report. Her 2016 awards include the President’s Award for Leadership, the Outstanding Student Award from the Division of Student Affairs, the Arnold & Julia Greenwell Memorial Scholarship for Social Sciences and Humanities from the Graduate School, and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Distinguished Service Award. Prior awards include the 2015 Outstanding Service Award from her department, the 2014 Karen P. DePauw Leadership Award from the Graduate School, the 2014 Women of Recognition Award from the President’s Commission on the Status of Women, the 2012 Excellence in Teaching Award from her Department and the 2009 Morgan Graduate Award from SUNY College at Buffalo.

“Every aspect of Amber’s existence is dedicated to making the world a better place for men and women,” says Faith Lutze, associate professor in criminal justice and criminology, and Amber’s faculty advisor. “She encourages people to act when they may have turned away.”

Amber is a transplant. From a broken family to a new life with purpose planted in the rivers of education and research, she is now directed toward giving, leading, educating, and creating a better world. Amber’s research and work at Washington State University is advancing social justice and improving education, and her life is a testament to the hope that change is always possible, no matter your roots.

Find out more about graduate programs at Washington State University at

When Black Holes Collide: A graduate student’s role in the detection of gravitational waves

By Cheryl Reed

Washington State University graduate student Bernard Hall was part of a team of WSU physicists who contributed to the recent detection of gravitational waves in space, confirming a theory posed by Einstein about 100 years ago. The gravitational wave detection is significant because it provides a new window into space, telling the story of the origins of the universe and the nature of gravity. The wave is believed to be the result of two black holes, 29 and 36 times the mass of the sun, which collided in the southern hemisphere about 1.3 billion years ago. The energy generated from the collision was about 50 times that of the entire universe, rippling through space and creating a blip on the radar of a Laser Interferometer Gravitational Observatory (LIGO) in both Washington and Louisiana in September of 2015.

Formed from the collapse of stars as they burn out, black holes pack immense gravitational pull, and continue to grow while consuming dust and gases from around them. Black holes range in size from small to supermassive—the ones that are believed to hang at the center of every galaxy, including the Milky Way. Although black holes are invisible because their gravitation pull is too strong for light to escape, their presence can be detected through their interaction with other matter, sometimes creating some of the most brilliant objects in the universe. Astronomers can determine the size of black holes by measuring the path of the stars orbiting around them, and have thus estimated the supermassive black hole at the core of the Milky Way to be about 4.3 million solar masses.

When Einstein developed the theory of relativity—which basically predicts that a sufficiently compact mass can deform space-time to form a black hole, he believed that two black holes orbiting each other would lose energy through gravitation waves, drawing them together to finally collide. During that brief, powerful explosion, a portion of the black holes’ mass is converted to energy, creating a powerful thrust that forms gravitational waves that ripple across space.

Hall is excited to be part of the team who first detected the gravitational wave. Originally from Georgia, Bernard moved to Post Falls as a teenager and was home schooled. After graduating, he attended IT Tech and earned a bachelor’s degree in video game design. He worked in broadcast television for 12 years, then joined the Army Reserve as a medic for nine years. In 2003 he was deployed to Syria. After learning that President Obama had initiated a post-911 GI Bill for those who had been on active duty during the Gulf War, Hall decided to take advantage and study astrophysics. He attended Spokane Community College for two years, then transferred to WSU in 2012, where he began working with Dr. Sukanta Bose.

The Graduate School talked with Bernard about the gravitational wave discovery.

Graduate School: First, can you talk how you became interested in physics and why you chose to attend WSU?

Hall: There’s actually a lot of physics involved in video game design, which was my first bachelor’s degree, because you have to understand gravity and how things collide to make the games realistic. I have experience in programming languages and was really interested in the physics of how things move based on my video game design experience—but I wanted to learn more. When I researched universities that offered programs in physics, I found that WSU has one of the best.

Graduate School: How did you begin working with Dr. Sukanta Bose and his Relativity Group?

Hall: I looked Dr. Bose up when I arrived at WSU as an undergraduate student, and after meeting with him, he invited me to work in his lab. I was able to work with the relativity research group for two years as an undergraduate student. The team was searching for gravitational wave signals that could be present in the LIGO. I wrote my senior thesis on that research, then kept working for the group for a year after I graduated. I started the Ph.D. program just this year. Right now Dr. Bose is part of an effort to build a LIGO in India, so we communicate via Skype.

Graduate School: Tell me about the LIGO and what your role has been in the discovery of gravitational waves.

Hall: The LIGO that is located at Hanford was built in about 2002, but was eventually shut down a few years ago because nothing had been detected. We’ve been working on upgrades to it since then, to make it more sensitive. I’ve been working on developing two new tools: one that detects non-linear couplings and another that compares environmental channels. The LIGO is so sensitive that it picks up thousands of environmental channels, including its own thermal noises. Half of the job of analyzing the data is figuring what is a real signal and what is not. The tools I built help discriminate false signals from real signals by filtering out the false signals.

Graduate School: How did you feel when you heard about the gravitational wave detection at both Hanford and Louisiana last September?

Hall: I was cautiously optimistic. When I first heard, I looked to Dr. Bose to see if he was excited, and he was. But we had to keep the information secret until it was thoroughly researched. There has to be two sites that pick up the signal, otherwise it is usually considered a false reading. When the Livingston, Louisiana LIGO also detected it 2,000 miles away, we believed it could be real.

Graduate School: I’m really curious about the gravitational wave that was detected. It seems like we were lucky because we happened to have the LIGO turned on at the exact right moment in time.

Hall: That’s right. You might say we were lucky because we were actually just testing our LIGO when the wave was detected. It was functioning fully, but we were still performing an engineering run with it.

Graduate School: I read that the scientists believe the wave was created from two black holes colliding. Can you tell me about that theory and why they believe this?

Hall: In a nut shell, the wave forms look different according to the event that caused them. There have been models built based on Einstein’s theory, so we know that the wave was caused by a collision of phenomenal force.

Graduate School: I understand that the gravitational wave was actually detected in September of 2015. Why has it taken so long to be made public?

Hall: We needed to make sure that it was a real signal. There were large teams of scientists studying the data to make sure it was not a false detection. We didn’t want to make an announcement only to find out later that it was false.

Graduate School: What are the implications of this discovery?

Hall: Gravitational waves can tell us about the origins of the universe. Light emitted after the Big Bang only goes back 300,000 years, but these waves go back even further. The patterns we can study originally came from quantum fluctuations and can help us come closer to quantum theory and to identify the forces at work. It can help us bring quantum mechanics and relativity together. We can conduct a lot of science with this data—from that very small detection.

Graduate School: What is your ultimate goal after you earn your PhD in physics?

Hall: My ultimate goal is to be a scientist because I am fascinated with cosmology. I enjoy talking to my sons about science and my work in the field of gravitational wave detection.

From Puerto Rico to the White House

A First-Generation WSU Alumnus Recognized by President Obama

By Cheryl Reed

On February 11, 2015, President Barack Obama publicly recognized a group of heroes, including WSU graduate Dr. Guillermo “Billy” Pimentel.

“Last summer, as Ebola spread in West Africa, I said that fighting this disease had to be more than a national security priority, but an example of American Leadership,” said Obama. “We are here today to thank the troops and public health workers who headed into the heart of the Ebola epidemic. They represent what is best about America.”

Commander Pimentel, PhD, MSC, USN, couldn’t believe he was there, standing right behind the President. When he received the news that he would be recognized by the president for his work in Operation United Assistance in Liberia for the Ebola epidemic, one of the first things he did was call his mother in Puerto Rico.

“She could not believe it,” said Billy. “I never thought I would be shaking the President’s hand. I come from a poor family in Puerto Rico and was a first-generation college student. This was too surreal.”

The President continued. “Billy led a team of Naval microbiologists to set up mobile laboratories that can diagnose Ebola within four hours. And he said, ‘It has been an honor for us to use our skills to make a difference.’ These values – American values – matter to the world.”

Billy’s journey to the White House began in Puerto Rico, where at 17 years old, he joined the U.S. Naval Reserve as a hospital corpsman and served during the first Persian Gulf War. After completing his enlisted career, he used his veteran’s benefits to earn a bachelor’s degree in industrial microbiology and a master’s degree in biology from the University of Puerto Rico. When he began searching for a doctoral program, of the top three he looked at, he decided to go with Washington State University.

“I decided to go with the best,” said Billy. “Drs. Lori Carris and Jack Rogers invited me to apply, and even though my GRE scores were low because English is my second language, they let me in and believed in me. I never thought I would have that opportunity. Ultimately, I feel like I owe my success to WSU.”

Steve Burkett of the WSU Graduate School was able to award Billy a research assistantship, providing him with the needed financial support for his program for his first two years, and Carris was able to secure an assistantship for him for the rest of his program. When Billy and his family arrived at WSU in the winter of 1995, it was a culture shock. His wife and two young children had never been out of Puerto Rico and that first winter was pretty cold in Pullman.

“Our first winter there the temperatures were minus 20 degrees,” said Billy. “But the people were so friendly and nice. My oldest son at the time was three years old and within just three months was speaking English. Our four years at WSU were the best for our family.”

Billy completed his Ph.D. in plant pathology with a concentration in mycology and population genetics under the supervision of Lori Carris in 1999, and was commissioned as a Lieutenant in the Navy that July. His first duty station was the Naval Medical Center in Portsmouth, VA, where he was head of the microbiology department.

Second Tour: The Land of the Pharaohs

“I had wanted to go into academia because I love teaching,” said Billy, “but joining the Navy was a good career choice.”

In Portsmouth, Billy taught at the Old Dominion University and enlisted personnel going through the Advanced Lab Technician program. He was then transferred to the Naval Medical Research Unit #3 (NAMRU-3) in Cairo, Egypt for nearly seven years, from 2003 – 2010. There, he had the opportunity to teach microbiology courses to laboratory personnel from multiple Middle Eastern and former Soviet Union countries.

“That was very fulfilling,” he said. “It made me change my perception of who we are as humans – that we are global citizens and that we need to give back.”

Billy served in multiple leadership positions in Cairo, including the Disease Surveillance Program, International Emerging Infections Program, and Global Disease Detection and Response Program. He managed more than 25 scientific research projects that strengthened laboratory-based disease surveillance capacity worldwide. He traveled extensively, developing joint collaborative research projects important for force health protection. He provided laboratory support during several H5N1 outbreaks in West Africa and Central Asia. During the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, he coordinated and led the NAMRU-3 outbreak response support to deployed forces in Afghanistan, Iraq and Ministries of Health in 20 countries.

When the Ebola epidemic began in 2013, there were limited laboratories in West Africa capable of detecting Ebola. In August 2014, the World Health Organization put in an official request to the U.S. Embassy in Liberia for laboratory assistance. At that time, Billy was in charge of the only four Navy rapid deployable mobile laboratories responsible for the detection of biowarfare agents and infectious diseases. Built to be quickly deployed, the laboratories weigh only about 1100 pounds. In September 2014, the Department of Defense flew Billy into Liberia to look at a location where two of his mobile laboratories might be placed. Within 14 days two labs were set up and fully operational.

“Before we arrived in Liberia, it was taking at least seven days to get Ebola lab results back to the physicians at the Ebola treatment units,” said Billy. “With my labs, the results took only four hours.”

Suspected Ebola patients waited in a common room at the Ebola Treatment Units, and some of those patients may not have had the disease. Long delays in getting lab results could have been a factor in the spread of the outbreak. The mobile labs were able to confirm true cases rapidly and assist placing patients in quarantine quickly.

“My laboratory at the Island Clinic ETU provided critical laboratory services and within just three weeks confirmed cases of Ebola had dropped significantly there,” said Billy.

“We are a force multiplier,” said the President during the press conference. “Today marks a transition in our fight against this disease. Ebola treatment units have been built, over 1,500 African health workers have been trained, and volunteers around the world gained the confidence to join the fight.”

Education Pays

As the only mycologist in the Navy, Billy is adamant about the role his time and education at Washington State University has played in his success.

“Washington State University taught me to think outside the box,” he said. “Earning a Ph.D. is not about becoming an expert, it’s more about learning how to think and solve big problems. My mentors at WSU were dedicated and believed in me. Dr. Carris said that with strong dedication, you can do miracles, and when I’m working, I sometimes think, ‘What would Dr. Carris do?’ I am extremely proud of my education at WSU and believe I owe it my success!”

Pimentel’s next assignment will be Executive Officer, second in command, at the Naval Medical Research Unit #6 in Lima, Peru, where he will serve for two years. When he retires from the Navy, he thinks that teaching at a community college would suit him. What would he like to tell graduate students? “They can use their knowledge to make a difference in the world. With a graduate degree, the sky is the limit,” he said.

“What makes us exceptional,” said Obama, “is when there’s a big challenge and we hear somebody saying it’s too hard to tackle, and we come together as a nation and prove them wrong. Thank you all for proving again what America can accomplish.”

View the President’s press conference about the Ebola response on C-Span:

“NICBR Exploring Careers in a Scientific Environment SymposiumAdditional Washington State University alumni serving as microbiologists in the Navy:

CAPT Marshall Monteville, Ph.D., Executive Officer at NAMRU-South East Asia (Singapore)
CDR Matthew Doan, M.S., (Duty Under Instruction at Penn State University)
LCDR Brent House, Ph.D., Lab Director at the Naval Medical Center San Diego
LT Kimberly Edgel, Ph.D., Naval Medical Research Center, Silver Spring, MD (working in malaria)
LT Rebecca Pavlicek, Ph.D., NAMRU-South East Asia (Singapore)
LT Robert V. Gerbasi, Ph.D., NAMRU-6 in Lima, Peru (working in malaria AND he deployed to Liberia)


Left: Dr. Pimentel teaching a course