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PhD Students Present Final Defenses with Little Degree of Online Difficulty
More Than Half of Record 100 Dissertations Were Defended Online This Spring

Dr. Francesca Filbey (right), professor in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences and associate provost, participated in the virtual defense of Yuefeng Huang, who successfully defended his dissertation on human memory retrieval function using a noninvasive brain stimulation technique.

Dr. Juan González, dean of graduate education, was excited at the prospect of The University of Texas at Dallas having the largest number of dissertations in its history this spring semester. So when the COVID-19 pandemic caused the University to move its classes and most services online, González and his team moved quickly to ensure that every eligible doctoral student would have the opportunity to make a defense, which is the final step in qualifying for a doctoral degree.

The day after spring break ended, all remaining doctoral defense meetings were moved online.

Infograph: Defending dissertations online in spring 2020. 100 students defended their dissertations, 60 of them online. Most dissertations: electrical engineering with 14. Time to defend ranged from 90 minutes to 3 hours. More than 400 professors participated, 237 of them online. 8 phds earned at least their third UTD degree.

“Throwing in a monkey wrench like this at the last minute was difficult for these students,” González said. “They had been looking forward to the defenses, and their family members had been excited as well.”

Since online defenses had never been done at UT Dallas, students, faculty and the Office of Graduate Education (OGE) wanted this important moment to go without a hitch.

“It was a different platform than I was expecting. I was hoping to participate in an in-person meeting so I could see everyone and engage with them,” said Adolfo Lozano, a mechanical engineering graduate student whose defense was moved online.

The OGE staff worked with each PhD candidate and each participating faculty member to ensure a smooth process. González said students could choose the videoconferencing platform they preferred so that they would be comfortable with the technology. Students who did not have Wi-Fi or a strong signal were helped to find better locations, and faculty members learned how to use various software functions, such as a virtual waiting room so that faculty could privately discuss the student’s defense performance.

“It went way better than I expected it to go,” said Dr. Kristen Kennedy, program head of cognition and neuroscience in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, who chaired the defense of graduate student Maria Anna Boylan.

“It was the very first one after spring break, so we were pretty nervous. But we were very happy about how well it went,” Kennedy said.

“The first degree that this University awarded was a PhD in physics. This is who we are. We have never had one semester in our 50 years of history without at least one PhD student graduating. We were not going to break that record this semester. We wanted to make this possible, and I’m glad we did.”

Dr. Juan González, dean of graduate education at UT Dallas

Lozano said that despite his initial concerns, everything went well.

“I think having the comfort of being at home helped some. Otherwise it was normal. I was still dressed up in a suitcoat and tie, although I told the committee that they couldn’t prove that I didn’t have shorts on,” he said.

Of the 100 students who participated in dissertations this spring, 60 delivered them virtually. One benefit of the online meetings, according to Kennedy, was that more people were able to participate in the public portion.

“Many people normally wouldn’t have the time or opportunity to drive to campus to hear a student’s defense. The online meeting allowed more family and friends to watch and listen,” she said.

Mechanical engineering doctoral candidate Adolfo Lozano had approximately 20 people virtually attend his defense, which was held earlier this spring.

González, who is a professor of molecular and cell biology in the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics and the Francis S. Johnson Chair for Graduate Education, said that as part of the online preparation for doctoral candidates, the OGE set up a virtual chat room where tips and information could be shared with students. He said the chat room became popular among the students as they shared their ideas for defense preparation.

The success of the chat room has inspired González to use one each semester as another way to help students; however, González said not to expect online defenses in the future, unless it’s required by the current pandemic or some other crisis.

“My philosophy has been that there are three occasions for which you should be present in person: One of them is for your wedding; one of them is for your doctoral defense; and the other is for your funeral. So, I’m going to stick to that in the future. But we now know that in an emergency like this we can come up with a new solution.”

While some U.S. universities postponed their dissertation defenses because of the COVID-19 crisis, González said that was never an option at UT Dallas.

“The first degree that this University awarded was a PhD in physics. This is who we are,” González said. “We have never had one semester in our 50 years of history without at least one PhD student graduating. We were not going to break that record this semester. We wanted to make this possible, and I’m glad we did.”

Best Graduate Researchers’ Work Honored

Eight UT Dallas graduate students were recently honored by the Office of Graduate Education for their dissertations and research. Six students received the Best Dissertation Award from their respective schools, and two were awarded the David Daniel Thesis Award.

Faculty committees in six of the University’s eight schools chose the following recipients:


Best Dissertation Awards

Sharron Conrad PhD’19, School of Arts and Humanities (Humanities)
Title: “Calculated Re-Vision: Kennedy, Johnson and African American Views of Their Civil Rights Legacies”
Research Mentors: Dr. Stephen Rabe and Dr. Theresa Towner

Kerrianne Morrison MS’16, PhD’19, School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences (Psychological Sciences)
Title: “Individual and Relational Social Impairments in Adults with Autism”
Research Mentor: Dr. Noah Sasson

Adrienne Gathman MA’16, PhD’19, School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences (Political Science)
Title: “Divided Plural Executives: Explaining the Where, the Why, and the Do They Even Matter”
Research Mentor: Dr. Robert Lowry

Pavel Bolshakov BS’15, PhD’19, Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science (Materials Science and Engineering)
Title: “Investigation of Critical Interfaces of Transition Metal Dichalcogenide Devices for Future Device”
Research Mentor: Dr. Chadwin Young

Zhongwen Fan PhD’19, Naveen Jindal School of Management (Management Science)
Title: “Shareholder Value Implication of Blockchain Recordkeeping of Stock Ownership”
Research Mentors: Dr. Ashiq Ali and Dr. Ningzhong Li

Kahawatte Gedara Gunawardhana PhD’19, School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics (Chemistry)
Title: “Synthesis and Characterization of Thieno[3,2b]pyrrole Based Organic Semiconductors for Organic Field Effect Transistors”
Research Mentor: Dr. Mihaela Stefan


David Daniel Thesis Award

Two students earned the David Daniel Thesis Award, which is supported by an endowment established in 2006 by Daniel, president emeritus of UT Dallas and former deputy chancellor of the UT System. The awards recognize an exceptional doctoral student each year in the Jonsson School and the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics.

This year’s recipients were Oscar Javier Chaparro Arenas PhD’19 in software engineering and Afshan Nawas MS’15, PhD’19 in molecular and cell biology. Dr. Andrian Marcus was Chaparro’s research mentor, and Dr. Nikki Delk was Nawas’ mentor.

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].