Graduate student fellows spotlight
Graduate students are skilled partners in carrying out research, leading labs, developing new ideas and assisting in teaching. They help create and maintain much of the innovative environment that makes Cornell and the College of Human Ecology an ideal place for undergraduates to thrive.
Increasing graduate fellowship funding is one of Human Ecology’s top priorities because of its importance to the college’s continued success and research reputation. For more information on how you can show your support through philanthropic contributions, contact Human Ecology Alumni Affairs and Development at HEaad@cornell.edu.
In her first four years at Cornell, Human Development graduate student Betul Urganci has served as first—or co-author—on eight peer-reviewed papers, with five more manuscripts in production. Most semesters, in addition to her own coursework, research, and writing—Urganci has also served as a teaching assistant and shouldered an active service load as a member of the graduate student council and an ad hoc reviewer for the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. “In many ways, Betul is already functioning one step ahead as a post-doc or assistant faculty member,” says professor Corinna Loeckenhoff, director of graduate studies for HD.
In the fall of 2020, Urganci received the Flora Rose, Esther Stocks, Ethel B. Waring, Harold Feldman, Human Ecology Alumni Association, and Serby-Gildea Graduate Fellowship. The $26,000 award covered the costs of Urganci’s tuition, stipend, and health insurance, giving her the freedom to focus fully on her own scholarship, which investigates how intimate partnerships affect our wellbeing. “The main question is how positive experiences in romantic relationships make us happier and healthier,” says Urganci, who also investigates the risk factors for infidelity. “The findings and results from all of these projects have important implications for couples’ well-being.” Current projects explore the relationship features that buffered the stress of the pandemic among some couples, how racism affects Black couples, and a psychological mechanism known as sociosexuality, that may mediate the association between relationship quality and a partner’s likelihood to stray.
With living expenses covered by her fellowship, in Fall 2020 Urganci took a break from teaching to prepare for her candidacy exam, which she passed in December 2020, and put the finishing touches on her dissertation proposal. She missed being in the classroom, but credits the “gap semester”—free of grading, office hours, course meetings, and so on—for an insight that she expects will serve her well in her career as an academic. “When I focus on my research, that gives me different opportunities like writing papers, presenting research—and I realized that those also make me happy,” says Urganci, who has presented her work at multiple conferences every year since she was a master’s student at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey.
In Spring 2021, Urganci returned to the classroom as a teaching assistant for “Human Bonding,” taught by Cynthia Hazan, a professor of Human Development who serves on Urganci’s dissertation committee. Urganci has TA’d the course twice before; in Summer 2020, she even served as sole instructor for the 22-student course. Urganci credits the fellowship—and the attendant benefits of getting to catch her breath—with infusing every aspect of her scholarship and teaching. “I feel much better, more confident, and not overwhelmed with TA duties, but efficient with my time,” she says. “Having the gap semester let me get back on track.”
Anthony Ong, a professor of Human Development who directs the Human Health Labs, serves as Urganci’s dissertation committee chair. “Betul has been incredibly independent in terms of her intellectual evolution,” he says, noting that Urganci’s research to characterize how individuals perceive partner responsiveness offers unique insights into relationship dynamics. “All of my connection to this area of research has been driven by her and her research,” says Ong.
In the courses he teaches—“The Science of Well-being,” and “Positive Psychology”—Ong often invites guest lecturers to present on their fields of expertise. It’s an honor he typically reserves for fellow faculty. “I’ve asked Betul on several occasions to give a guest lecture on the subject of romantic love, which is related to her interest in partner responsiveness,” says the professor. “She’s clearly demonstrated mastery of her subject matter.”
As a young professional in her native India, Uchita Vaid learned to listen closely to residential, retail, and hospitality clients to design interior spaces that would materialize their visions. Today her clients are the tens of millions of women who live in the slums that India’s government has targeted for redevelopment.
Now a PhD in Human Behavior and Design and an assistant professor of design studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Vaid investigates design methods and strategies for evaluating affordable housing in urban settings. Her vision: Leverage the human-centered design values that informed her first job to involve the women whose voices are often absent from redevelopment planning processes, even as their lives are most affected by the resulting policies. That goal owes in no small part, says Vaid, to a Human Ecology graduate fellowship she received in 2018, during the third year of her PhD studies.
Vaid enrolled in Human Ecology in 2010, as a master’s student in Human Environment Relations; her 2012 thesis compared housing quality and well-being among women living in makeshift slums and in public housing. After a stint as a research associate for the Center for Urban Equity at Cept University in Ahmedabad, she returned to the Department of Design and Environmental Analysis for her doctoral studies. India had just announced its ambitious Housing for All policy to construct low-rise apartment buildings on the site of slums, intended to minimize community disruption. Existing analytic frameworks to evaluate the policy largely focused on socio-economic consequences of redevelopment.
As a recipient of the $50,000 Home Economics Extension, Butts, Orrilla Wright Memorial, Jean Failing and Virginia F. Cutler Fellowships, Vaid spent nine months in Ahmedabad, India, tracking how the move from informal settlements to government-provided housing affected women’s daily lives, their health, and their well-being.
“The financial support Uchita received was indispensable for conducting longitudinal research in another country,” says her advisor Gary Evans, the Elizabeth Lee Vincent Professor of Design and Environmental Analysis. “It provided her time on the ground listening and learning from low-income residents of slums as well as professionals in NGOs and governmental agencies who develop housing policies.”
Vaid, who grew up in Ahmedabad, calls the experience “life-changing.” “Being able to actually conduct research and engage with people in the field reframed how I see my scholarship and its impacts,” she sas, “making me realize that what I wanted to do is translational research that sees design as a tool for social change.”
Vaid’s mixed-methods research project combined in-depth interviews and focus groups with standardized, observer-based housing quality assessments. Her resulting dissertation, “Is Moving Up Really ‘Moving Up’?” examines how the built environment affects community dynamics, as well as women’s physical health, mental health, and social networks. Vaid hypothesized that altering the form of the built environment would affect residents’ socio-cultural practices in those spaces. While she documented some important housing quality improvements as women moved from slums to government-provided housing, she also documented the loss of both social support and social capital—intangibles that are vital to women’s survival in precarious economic circumstances. “One of the critical avenues for making a difference in peoples’ lives is through teaching and mentorship,” says Evans. “Professor Vaid brings to the classroom not only her own diverse background as an international scholar but also as an instructor who does research that is informed by the needs of communities and policy makers.”
Since Vaid returned stateside, she’s stayed in touch with the women she met during her fieldwork through WhatsApp. Beyond the four peer-reviewed papers (and counting) generated by her fieldwork, Vaid credits the ongoing human connections with sparking a new project: design guidelines for government and private developers embarking on future housing projects, co-created by likely residents. “Community members are actually taking lead on it,” says Vaid, who sees herself more as a facilitator. “The relationships I built with women in Ahmedabad are going to last me for a really long time. I feel responsible for bringing my learnings from this research project into actual policy change that can positively impact people’s lives.”
As a first-year PhD student in Human Ecology’s Department of Policy Analysis & Management, Katharine Sadowski dove into coursework in economics and data science, learned two new programming languages, continued the original research into public school quality that she had begun as a master’s student at the University of Virginia, and launched into new projects at Cornell’s Future of Learning Lab and Harvard’s Teacher Simulation Lab. “Human Ecology provides so much flexibility and support to students,” says Sadowski, whose interests bridge the economics of education and data science.
The breadth and depth of Sadowski’s experience in her first year has multiple benefits, says Maria Fitzpatrick, a professor in the Department of Policy Analysis and Management for whom Sadowski now serves as a research assistant. “She’s at a stage with her own research project and mentorship networks that usually we wouldn’t see until a graduate student is much farther along,” says Fitzpatrick, who is also director of the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs, and the University’s associate vice provost for the social sciences. “By the time she finishes, she’ll have a much more thoroughly developed, broader, and deeper research portfolio.”
Both Fitzpatrick and Sadowski credit a first-year fellowship in 2019–20 that gave Sadowski the freedom to focus on acquiring skills she would need to realize her vision of improving public school student outcomes, without the additional responsibilities of simultaneously serving as a teaching or research assistant. “It’s like compound interest,” says Fitzpatrick. “If you give students the space to do their research and build their skills from the beginning, there’s a much better return on investment.”
Sadowski’s capacity for data mining and predictive risk modeling has been vital to Fitzpatrick’s current investigations—combing electronic health records for insights into the effect of COVID-19 on maternal health outcomes and searching for clues to predict child maltreatment and abuse within the voice recordings made by social workers. “By building a suite of data science tools, Katharine has been able to make contributions to our joint work together that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise,” says Fitzpatrick.
Consider, for example, natural language processing, the approach Fitzpatrick and Sadowski are using to investigate child maltreatment. “Natural language processing is a fancy way of saying ‘let’s use a computer to analyze what someone is saying, break it into its components,’” says Sadowski, who is currently analyzing voice recordings of case worker conversations related to abuse and neglect referrals. “A computer might be able to pick up nuances and trends that aren’t as obvious to a human observer.”
The project has implications for Sadowski’s own research into the effect of race and gender differences on student-teacher interactions, as revealed in video recordings of classroom dynamics. “We’re interested in whether these differences could predict differences in student performance or teacher evaluations,” the graduate student explains. Such insights could inform pedagogical training and help teachers make the most of their interactions with students. “Public school students are falling behind and teachers are overburdened,” she notes. “How can we provide resources to improve their experiences?”