The Pandemic Wrenched Their Dissertation Plans. Catalyst Grants Are Easing the Challenges

Jessica Fletcher, Dean Schafer, Megan Henriquez, and Kristena Newman

Understanding how infections spread is especially important in light of a pandemic, and Ph.D. student Megan Henriquez (Anthropology) intends to do that with her dissertation on parasitic infections in capuchin monkeys. Ironically, though, the pandemic is wrenching her plans to travel to Costa Rica to collect samples. She had to change how she gathers data, and a grant from The Graduate Center is helping.

Henriquez is one of 60 Ph.D. students — 20 each from the humanities, social sciences, and sciences — to receive the first round of The Graduate Center’s Early Research Initiative (ERI) Catalyst Grants. The grants of $2,000 each are supported by private donors and are intended to help students overcome the research challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Some students, like Henriquez, are unable to travel to collect samples or conduct interviews or archival research. Henriquez is using her grant to help pay a local researcher to collect samples for her. She will also use data collected from previous parasitological surveys.

“I am really glad that The Graduate Center is able to provide students with funding opportunities, like the ERI Catalyst Grants, during this particularly uncertain time,” Henriquez said. “It is a relief to know that my research can continue despite the COVID-related hiccups.”

“The creativity and tenacity Graduate Center students have shown in finding new ways to conduct their innovative research in the face of this pandemic are inspiring,” said Graduate Center President Robin L. Garrell. “We are committed to supporting students’ continued progress towards completing their dissertations under very challenging circumstances. I am deeply grateful to the many generous donors who are making these Catalyst Grants possible through contributions to our Research Continuity Fund.”

“The pandemic has had a devastating effect on students’ ability to carry out dissertation and pre-dissertation research,” added David Olan, associate provost and dean for academic affairs. “The Catalyst Grants are an important first step in getting students back in the swing of their research.”

For her Art History dissertation, Ph.D. student Jessica Fletcher planned to compare how women reformers and their allies in New York and London built and adapted buildings to provide affordable health care to working-class people between the world wars. Fletcher is British but COVID-related restrictions mean that going home to conduct research could threaten her ability to return to the U.S. So she changed her dissertation to focus solely on New York. She will use the Catalyst Grant to purchase rare, out-of-print materials and, when conditions permit, travel to an archive in New Haven, Connecticut.

Dean Schafer, a Political Science Ph.D. student, was supposed to fly to Turkey last March to begin months of fieldwork for his dissertation on the consolidation of power by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He still intends to conduct in-person interviews when it is safe to travel. In the meantime, though, he is taking advantage of information that is available online, particularly through Twitter. He plans to measure the democratic sentiment of Erdogan’s various cabinet ministers and advisers by collecting and coding their tweets between 2010 and 2020. His Catalyst Grant will help him buy software and data access and pay a research assistant. 

Students who whose labs had to shut down because of the pandemic have been especially hard hit. “Research is at the very core of every doctoral student’s journey and when the pandemic struck, our science Ph.D. students were locked out of their labs and had to return home from their research sites, putting a pause on their work,” said Josh Brumberg, dean for the sciences.

Psychology Ph.D. student Kristena Newman had to store antibodies and serums worth thousands of dollars in her lab’s freezer when the shutdown began last March. The freezer broke while the lab was closed, and the supplies were lost. With the grant, she’ll replace the most crucial antibodies and materials to complete her study of how learning affects the development and retention of new neurons. 

Students in Ph.D. programs in Anthropology, Art History, Biochemistry, Biology, Chemistry, Comparative Literature, Criminal Justice, Earth and Environmental Sciences, English, French, History, Latin American, Iberian, and Latino Cultures, Linguistics, Music, Political Science, Psychology, Social Welfare, Sociology, Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences, and Theatre and Performance received grants in this first round of funding. 

Funding Is Ongoing and Support Is Welcome

Applications for the next round of Catalyst Grant funding are due on February 16. Learn more on the Early Research Initiative website

Learn more about The Graduate Center’s Research Continuity Fund and how to support it

Published by the Office of Communications and Marketing.


Submitted on: JAN 27, 2021

Category: Anthropology | Art History | GCstories | General GC News | Grants | Political Science | Psychology | Student News | Voices of the GC