I’m a Doctor! New PhDs Receive Their Charge

I’m a Doctor! New PhDs Receive Their Charge

emily hittner arms raisedSchool of Education and Social Policy doctoral graduates should continue their dogged pursuit of knowledge with honesty and rigor, faculty member Mike Horn said during a virtual hooding ceremony for newly-minted PhDs.

“The hood represents a solemn charge,” said Horn, associate professor of learning sciences and computer science who presided over the ceremony with Emma Adam, Edwina S. Tarry Professor of Human Development and Social Policy. “Share what you’ve learned with other people. Mentor new scholars with patience, and honesty, and humility, and do good in the world.”

The academic hooding ceremony is a powerful rite of passage that is believed to date back to the 12th century. The hood itself symbolizes the continuity of learning; its personal conferment symbolizes the academic mentors' admission of their students to the ranks of academe.

Northwestern’s newest PhDs include Amalia Donovan, who received her doctor of philosophy in learning sciences; and Emily Hittner, Sara Thomas, and Claudia Zapata-Geitl who received a doctor of philosophy in human development and social policy. SESP offers a third doctoral program, the Joint PhD Program in Computer Science and Learning Sciences, which builds on enduring and growing connections between research on learning and computation. 

Adam commended students for bringing together knowledge from a variety of disciplines in their dissertations, a process, that creates new, powerful, ideas. “Knowing all of you, we know you will use that knowledge for good to help individuals or institutions learn, grow, and thrive,” she said.

Read more about each doctoral student’s dissertation:

amalia donovanAmalia Donovan, learning sciences
Adviser: David Rapp, professor of learning sciences and psychology

Donovan’s dissertation has already been accepted for publication in the journal Memory and Cognition. “At Northwestern, she has been an incredibly productive researcher, wonderful collaborator, and an active member of the SESP community,” Rapp said. Donovan is now working at Everspring in Chicago as an instructional designer.

Dissertation: "You Could Look It Up: Exposures to Inaccurate Information and Online Search"

Reading helps us understand the world. This can be a good thing when the information is valid. But studies suggest readers are swayed by both accurate and inaccurate information. Donovan investigated how online searches might influence the rate that people rely on inaccurate information. Though a ubiquitous practice in daily life, online search techniques haven’t been extensively studied related to the use of inaccurate information. In four different experiments, Donovan’s research indicated that online searches help people respond more accurately in the face of falsehoods. Her results also provided insights into what influences search engagement. 


emily hittnerEmily Hittner
Advisers: Claudia Haase, assistant professor of human development and social policy; Emma Adam, Edwina S. Tarry Professor of Human Development and Social Policy

Haase called Hittner aa rockstar scientist, a role model, and a dedicated mentor to others.” An expert on emotion, relationships, stress, and health, Hittner's work has been published in the top journals in the field. Along the way, she picked up a master’s degree in statistics and is now the director of research at Hinge, a dating app. 

Dissertation: "The Role of Emotional Functioning in the Embodiment of Social Adversity"

Well-being, health, and relationships can be powerfully shaped by the ways we generate, regulate, and understand emotions. Hittner explored how emotions related to everyday stressors – such as financial stress ­– predict well-being and health throughout life. Her findings suggest that “emotions play a key role in mediating and moderating the consequences of adversity—for better or worse,” she said. Hittner focused on two aspects of emotional functioning: emotional reactivity and empathy.

One study, drawing on longitudinal data, showed that current and lingering negative emotions like shame are a pathway through which social adversity becomes biologically embodied; this is reflected in dysregulated stress hormone patterns across the day. Her second study demonstrated socioeconomic differences in emotional reactions to daily stress. Her findings showed people with lower income background display heightened negative emotions as well as preserved/maintained positive emotions.

“You might imagine that some people who experience stress have more negative emotions and fewer positive emotions,” Hittner said. “But what was really interesting was that we found that individuals from lower income backgrounds experience more negative emotions in response to stress but not fewer positive emotions. Their positive emotions remain intact.”

Finally, she found that empathy is most beneficial for well-being in those living in low socioeconomic status contexts. “Taken together, my work sheds light on the role of daily emotions, and how the social contexts that elicit emotions matter for health across the lifespan,” Hittner said.


Sara ThomasSara Thomas, Human Development and Social Policy
Adviser: Simone Ispa-Landa, associate professor of human development and social policy

Thomas’s dissertation was “original, ambitious, and I knew she would pull it off,” said adviser Simone Ispa-Landa, associate professor of human development and social policy. Thomas will be working as a postdoctoral fellow with the Health Disparities and Public Policy program in Northwestern's Feinberg School of Medicine. 

Dissertation: "Romantic Relationships, Consent, and the Impacts of Early Sexual Force on Long-term Health"

Thomas explored young people’s experiences with romantic relationships, their ideas of consent, and the long-term association between early sexual violence and mental and physical health in adulthood. Her findings were three-fold: First, though most teens receive some sexuality education, the focus is often on preventing sexuality transmitted diseases and teen pregnancy through either abstinence or contraception. What’s missing are what teens themselves say is most relevant: information about the qualities of healthy relationships, boundary-setting, consent, and balancing independence and connection.

A second finding suggests that young men and young women have vastly different views on consent. For young women, it can be ongoing; they describe active consent as unrealistic and challenging; whereas, males see it as simple, straightforward, and obtained through a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’.  Finally, the risk of sexual assault differs for males and females throughout life. Males are proportionately more likely to experience sexual force as children; for young women, the risk of sexual violence increases as they move through adolescence. Across all ages, young people who experience sexual force in their childhood or adolescence are more likely to report compromised mental and physical health in adulthood. By using a development and educational perspective rather than a public health approach to studying romantic relationships and sexuality, Thomas shed light on the stories and needs of young men, which have historically been ignored.

“Research has historically focused on challenges to young women and ignored the stories and needs of young men,” she said. “The approach in this dissertation reveals the ways young men and women’s needs both overlap and diverge regarding talking about romantic and sexual relationships.” 


claudia_zapata_gieltClaudia Zapata-Gietl, human development and social policy
Adviser:  Dan McAdams, professor of human development and social policy and psychology

Zapata-Gietl may be “the most intellectually voracious student I have ever worked with in the HDSP program," McAdams said. "Her dissertation on civic engagement and social activism among young adults is a model for how to bring social science theory to bear on important policy issues.” Zapata-Gieetl is a senior researcher at University of Chicago’s NORC, one of the largest independent social research organizations in the United States.

Dissertation: "Working to Change the World: Emerging Adults and Career Planning for Social Change"

Zapata-Gietl’s work looks at emerging adults – those between the ages of adolescence and full-fledged adulthood – and their concern for others in the context of higher education. She uses three different examples: a group of 10 Latino emerging adults working to address inequalities in access to higher education for undocumented students; a large national sample of college students; and a sample of 37 college students from a selective university in the Midwest. Her research points to the need for emerging adulthood theory –  a relatively new field that proposes a new life stage – that addresses concern for others in the context of higher education.

By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 6/26/20