UW News

October 2, 2008

Best of the best: Graduate School rewards student work with three new awards

UW News

That patience and persistence pay off is dramatically illustrated by the scholarly work of Mona Atia, whose recent dissertation on trends in Islamic charitable giving was hailed by one reviewer as “the best dissertation I have read anywhere.”

It was so good, in fact, it was named the 2008 Distinguished Dissertation of the Year, one of three new awards to be given out annually by The Graduate School.

Atia, now an assistant professor of geography and international affairs at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., spent about a year in Cairo in late 2005 and 2006, working against cultural and gender biases to research a dissertation later titled “Building a House in Heaven: Islamic Charity in Neoliberal Egypt.”

The other two new annual honors are the Distinguished Master’s Thesis and the “6th Chapter Award.” Named by Suzanne Ortega, former Graduate School dean, the 6th Chapter Award refers to the five-chapter length of most dissertations. In a hypothetical sixth chapter, Ortega reasoned, candidates would propose practical applications resulting from their research, translating their insights into real-world policies or programs.

The first Distinguished Master’s Thesis Award was given to C. Pascal Clark, who is now pursuing his doctorate in electrical engineering at the UW. And the first 6th Chapter Award went to Wendy Weber, who recently earned her doctorate in epidemiology and is now a research associate professor in the School of Naturopathic Medicine at Bastyr University.

Clark’s master’s thesis is titled “Effective Coherent Modulation Filtering and Interpolation of Long Gaps in Acoustic Signals.” Clark, 24, is the son of an electrical engineer, and said his interest in the field was piqued when he took an undergraduate signals and systems course.

Clark described his research in an e-mail message: “My thesis presents a new tool to help researchers understand how the human ear processes speech. We take a common method of speech analysis, called modulation analysis, and challenge one of its key assumptions.” Using theory and simulations, he explained, “we demonstrate a new form of ‘coherent modulation’ that allows distortion-free analysis and modification of speech.” He noted that the innovation could be applied to practical recording problems such as noise removal and enhanced speech intelligibility.

Les Atlas, a professor of electrical engineering who was Clark’s adviser, said in a nomination letter that Clark’s work had resulted in a “100-fold improvement” over previous techniques in the field. “He loves the current challenges that I face in my research — the same challenges that are too difficult and burn out other good students,” Atlas wrote. “Pascal is the highest-potential student I ever worked with.”

Weber, winner of the 6th Chapter Award, trained as a naturopathic physician at Bastyr University, where she now works, before coming to the UW. She received a Career Development grant from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health, to study the effectiveness of the herbal remedy St. John’s wort in treating childhood ADHD.

Weber wrote of her research that while the use of alternative medicines is commonplace, there is little research on what treatments are safe for childhood conditions. “My research career focuses on evaluating the safety and efficacy of herbal products used to treat pediatric conditions. My dissertation project evaluated the use of St. John’s Wort for the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and found that it was not effective for this condition,” she wrote.

Noel S. Weiss, professor of epidemiology, wrote in a letter of nomination for the award, “Prior to Dr. Weber’s study, there was virtually no valid information bearing on the efficacy of St. John’s Wort. Her results … can be expected to lead to a great reduction in the use of this apparently-futile approach, and hopefully will stimulate the development of interventions that genuinely do have efficacy.”

But it was perhaps Mona Atia who faced the greatest personal challenges as she pursued her research in Egypt. “In many situations Dr. Atia was initially spurned as a woman and given little or no information, and in some cases she was perceived as an American spy,” wrote Katharyne Mitchell, professor and chair of the Department of Geography, in her nomination letter. “Obtaining the extraordinary amount of information she did is almost inconceivable — but she was able to do it through her incredible perseverance.”

Atia described a year of research in Egypt that began with frustration but improved when she won the trust of colleagues. Working on a Fulbright grant, she had been assigned an adviser who also was director of the Saleh Kamel Centre for Islamic Economic Studies at Al Azhar University — but he wasn’t much help at the start.

“For the first few months when I went to speak with him, he pretty much would just ignore me,” Atia said, adding that his distance was due partly to her gender — “A lot of my male informants were very pious, and were not comfortable being alone with a woman” — and partly because she was “an outsider coming in.” The adviser’s resistance melted when she helped him with information he needed for a project on American charitable giving. “It was his light bulb moment,” she said, and “all of a sudden he welcomed me and opened all these doors” and she was treated with respect.

Atia summed up her research saying, “I found that charities are becoming more development-oriented — moving away from direct-service provision and handouts and instead funding programs that encourage skill upgrading and foster entrepreneurship.”

Mitchell, her department chair, called Atia’s work “superb on every level.” She said such research “is a great example of what we do best in geography … we don’t just make maps and locate resources. We also learn languages, spend months and years in the regions we study, and investigate in great depth the inter-relationships between people and places worldwide.”

Also offering praise for these award-winners is Gerald Baldasty, interim Graduate School dean and a professor of communication.

“All three of these awards are new and are part of the Graduate School’s effort to recognize and promote high-quality work,” he said.

“The winners of these awards exemplify the very best of creative thinking and innovations at the UW,” Baldasty added. “They’ve taken on topics in a fresh way, and in ways that no one else has really considered. Their work has the potential for helping many people — and I think we’ll be hearing more from them in the future.”