Provost Fellows

Doctoral students have interests as wide as the world

The six Tufts doctoral students known as Provost Fellows have interests as varied as the world itself. One studies the genetic basis of cancer; another analyzes ways to contain weapons of mass destruction. One student is conducting her research in nearby Massachusetts towns; another is working in the South Pacific.

Yet they all have benefited from the Provost Fellowship, a university-wide scholarship program that was launched a year ago to enhance graduate education at Tufts.

“I think we’ve had a very successful initiation as far as both raising awareness of Ph.D. programs throughout the university,” said Vincent Manno, associate provost.

Provost Jamshed Bharucha created the fellowship program, following recommendations from the University Council on Graduate Education, a panel President Lawrence S. Bacow appointed. “We said students should be provided with adequate funding to carry out their graduate studies and that there should be some mechanism to improve our attractiveness to potential graduate applicants,” said David Walt, professor of chemistry and chair of the graduate council.

Provost Fellows receive a $5,000 annual stipend for two years. The program is open to students from the schools that grant Ph.D.s, and fellowship candidates are nominated by their respective schools during the admissions process. The students in this year’s inaugural group represent the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the Fletcher School and the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences.

“We want to get to the point where about one in 15 Ph.D. students at the university will have held Provost Fellowships,” Manno said. The university hopes to enroll 10 to 12 new fellows for the 2005-06 academic year, he said.

Meet the first class of Provost Fellows:

Theater as social commentary
Virginia Anderson comes from a math and science family, but she’s studying theater to understand the sociological implications of disease.

Virginia Anderson © Melody Ko

“Theater is one of the most social of art forms,” said Anderson, a drama student whose research focuses on the theatrical depiction of AIDS. “It can bring people together to talk, to recognize their prejudices, to change attitudes.”

Various theatrical works over the past 20 years have helped to empower those suffering from AIDS and to reduce the social stigma associated with it.

Since AIDS was first medically recognized in 1981, there have been roughly three generations of AIDS plays, Anderson said. “The first generation, we were dealing with attitudes of fear and uncertainty. In the second generation, there was more anger. By the third generation, which is more or less now, AIDS has become a kind of background issue, but it’s still very much present.”

Yet the crisis is far from over, Anderson said. “There are millions of people living with AIDS/HIV, and people are still getting infected every day.” Playwrights and other artists can spread that message. For example, she said, the show “Rent” made the subject approachable for teenage fans of the Broadway musical. “It made 16-, 17-year-olds comfortable talking about AIDS, and this group really needs to be talking.”

A similar experience with a musical during her teenage years is what helped develop Anderson’s interest in theater while simultaneously introducing her to the issue of AIDS. As a “fairly sheltered” high school junior from a small town near Buffalo, N.Y., she saw a production of William Finn’s “Falsettos.” “It was seeing ‘Falsettos’ that opened my eyes—and my heart—to something new.”

As an English and theater major at Carleton College in Minnesota, Anderson later had the chance to direct “Falsettos.”

“Along the way, I saw how theater could change attitudes. It’s a very simple idea, but it’s very, very powerful,” she said.

Anderson holds a master’s degree in drama from Stanford University and a master’s in performance and culture from Goldsmiths College of the University of London. In June, she will present a paper, “Laughing in the Face of Death: Comedy and Carnival in the Theatre of the AIDS Crisis,” at a conference of the International Federation for Theater Research.

Anderson wants to teach theater at a liberal arts college, and she said that Tufts’ drama and dance department, with its emphasis on theater in a social and historical context, “is a great way to prepare to teach theater in a way that will make a difference.

Facing down WMDs
At the age of 14 in a social studies class in her native Australia, Emma Belcher learned about nuclear weapons.

Emma Belcher © Mark Morelli

“I was horrified, but also fascinated,” recalled Belcher, F04, a doctoral candidate at the Fletcher School. Some years later, she was working at the Australian Embassy in Washington, D.C., on the day of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Although she already had decided to pursue a career in international security and conflict resolution, the events of that day and all that followed “made it that much more important,” she said.

Belcher’s current research is focused on an endeavor known as the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), an international effort the United States launched in May 2003, in which a group of nations has agreed to cooperate in developing legal, diplomatic, economic, military and other ways to block shipments of weapons of mass destruction, their components and their delivery systems.

The PSI’s primary mechanism is interdiction—boarding suspect vessels and seizing illicit materials related to WMDs.

The PSI was begun with 11 founding countries, including Australia. The initiative “has been quite successful,” Belcher said. For example, she said, interdictions by PSI nations have been credited with influencing Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi to abandon his nuclear program.

“This is international cooperation in an ad-hoc way, trying to deal with a very immediate threat,” she said. Belcher is interested in exploring whether the PSI can continue to work in this fashion and whether the model could be applied to international security issues.

“I’d like to see whether it will continue to have legitimacy, or if it will run into legal problems,” she said. “Will this kind of cooperation be the way for the international community to deal with threats in the future, or will it break down?”

For the next few years, Belcher will conduct research for her dissertation from Australia, where she has returned to work for the government. “This opportunity came up, and it will be great to have an insider perspective, to understand more about what I’m writing about,” she said.

Belcher graduated from the University of Melbourne with a degree in political science and Arabic, and she spent a year as a foreign exchange student at Georgetown University.

Belcher also completed two internships during her time at Fletcher: one in the Weapons of Mass Destruction branch in the U.N. Department of Disarmament Affairs and another at the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis in Boston.

Receiving the Provost Fellowship helped convince Belcher to continue with her graduate studies. “It really helped me out financially. It can be hard for international students to get loans,” she said.

“It’s great to have the camaraderie with Ph.D. students from vastly different fields,” she said. “For my work, there is a need to understand other fields—biology, chemistry—there’s more than the political and theoretical things to grasp. Increasingly, work is interdisciplinary, and there’s a great benefit to talking to other people and getting a different perspective.”

Culture and child-rearing
Virginia Diez, G99, a doctoral student in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development, is a firm believer in the idea that society and culture play a vital role in child rearing. Understanding those cultural factors and how they influence the family helps ensure better outcomes for the children, she said.

Virginia Diez © Melody Ko

“Different cultural communities have different ways of raising children,” said Diez, who subscribes to a cultural psychology perspective on children’s development. “It’s not just a matter of individual differences. There are some shared cultural elements” that influence how children learn and mature.

“I’ve always been interested in human behavior from an interdisciplinary perspective,” said Diez, who holds a master’s degree in education from Tufts. “When I came to Tufts, I gravitated toward my current advisor, Dr. Jayanthi Mistry, a cultural psychologist. Her perspective jelled my understanding of my life as a Latin-American immigrant in the United States.

“You cannot separate individuals and their families from their social and historical contexts,” she said. That’s where we learn to make meaning of the world.”

Diez also has worked as a researcher for a public policy consulting firm in Washington, D.C., and a media relations specialist for C-SPAN, and she earned her undergraduate degree in international affairs from American University. Those interests are reflected in her current projects: “Everything I do has some policy component to it,” she said.

Diez’ current research is in conjunction with the Tufts Massachusetts Healthy Families Evaluation, which analyzes a program for at-risk families, with the goal of preventing child abuse and neglect. Diez is involved in the ethnography portion of the evaluation, led by Mistry, examining culturally based similarities and differences in attitudes, beliefs and behaviors among clients in the program. The idea is to find out how the Healthy Families program is used by young mothers in the communities that it serves. Diez is analyzing the program in relation to three groups of young mothers: Puerto Rican mothers living in a former mill town; African-American mothers in an urban neighborhood and European-American mothers in an ex-urban community.

Her other project is establishing a home-school communications program for an elementary school in Lawrence, Mass., where many of the parents are Spanish-speaking immigrants, primarily from the Dominican Republic. A native of Uruguay, Diez conducts monthly parent meetings in Spanish as well as in-service training for teachers.

Just as Diez was drawn to early education and child development because of its interdisciplinary nature, that’s what also intrigues her about the Provost Fellowship program. “One thing I’ve found interesting about the Provost Fellows” is that their work encompasses so many fields, she said. “I’ve crossed boundaries, both geographic and disciplinary all my life. I’m curious to start exploring the other schools [at Tufts] for possible scholarship or research opportunities.”

Breast cancer genetics
Before anyone can feel the dreaded lump or see the shadowy spot on the mammogram, breast cancer—like all other cancers—begins with cells gone astray.

Christine Fillmore © Melody Ko

For scientists studying the disease, understanding how these normal cells become tumor cells is the core of the challenge. Christine Fillmore, a genetics student at the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences, is eager to explore that question.

“Every organism has genes, and you can manipulate them in any organism to explore what the genes are doing,” Fillmore said. “Almost every disease has a genetic component that you can explore to develop novel therapies.”

Like all Sackler students, Fillmore is scheduled to complete four rotations during her first year of graduate study. She is working at the Molecular Oncology Research Institute at Tufts-New England Medical Center in the lab of Philip Hinds, professor of radiation oncology.

In Hinds’ lab, researchers are investigating one of the major cell cycle central pathways, known as the retinoblastoma protein (pRb) pathway, and how it becomes deregulated in breast cancers. Specifically, Fillmore is involved in studying the role of cyclin D1 and IGF signaling in breast tumorigenesis.

Fillmore’s interest in cancer research was sparked during her undergraduate studies at Middlebury College, where she majored in molecular biology and biochemistry. After she moved to Boston and started working as a research technician at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, “I found it was even more complex and more interesting and more applicable to human disease. That’s when I decided this is what I wanted to do.”

Although she also was accepted to a graduate program at an Ivy League university, Fillmore said her decision to attend Sackler was based, in part, on the faculty, students and administrators she met. “I found Tufts [to be] much more dynamic. They seemed to care so much more about their graduate students and had a better core curriculum.”

The Provost Fellowship also played a role, she said. “It was nice to know that they definitely wanted me and were willing to do a little extra.”

The dark side of paradise
The South Pacific nation of the Marshall Islands, with its sandy beaches, palm trees and never-ending ocean vistas, looks like paradise.

Caleb McClennen © Melody Ko

But this paradise also has its dark side—rapid urbanization has created significant public health and environmental problems.

“There are all sorts of dilemmas facing small island nations like the Marshalls,” said Caleb McClennen, F04, a doctoral student at the Fletcher School. McClennen’s specialization is in environmental economics and development in coastal regions; his current research concerns the effects of urbanization in the Republic of the Marshall Islands.

The Marshalls lie mid-way between Hawaii and Australia. The chain of more than 1,000 low-lying islands and coral atolls has few transportation links to developed areas and a limited amount of products—namely, coconuts and fish—available for international trade. Most Americans are probably aware of the Marshalls as a testing site for the early U.S. nuclear program—its most famous spot is, arguably, Bikini atoll.

As more Marshallese migrate to the capital city of Majuro, the country is fast witnessing the problems associated with development, compounded by a dearth of useable land. “People are living on top of each other; there are health problems, unemployment, typical urban issues like water pollution, [managing] sewage and solid waste. If we could take those problems away, they’d have a faster-growing economy,” McClennen said.

In March, McClennen left Massachusetts to spend 18 months in the Marshalls. In addition to conducting his own research on the environmental cost of urbanization, he will be working as an environmental consultant to the government there.

McClennen comes to the field of environmental economics via his interest in marine biology and coastal resource management. He received a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies and geography from Middlebury College and worked as a marine scientist for the Sea Education Association in Woods Hole, Mass., for five years.

In 2003, he arrived at Fletcher to study international environmental policy and development economics. His interest in marine biology led to work as a research assistant for Dr. Acacia Warren, associate professor of environmental and population health at Tufts School of Veterinary Medicine. Warren was researching a disease affecting South American shrimp. McClennen, in addition to assisting Warren, conducted his own research on the socioeconomic and environmental implications of the shrimp epidemic, specifically in Mexico, Ecuador and Peru.

It was while delivering a paper on this research at a conference in Hawaii that McClennen met representatives from the Marshall Islands and was eventually offered the consulting position.

McClennen said the offer of the Provost Fellowship played a definite role in his decision to pursue his doctorate at Fletcher. “The Provost Fellowship was crucial, and I’m very appreciative that I was considered for it,” he said.

Plumbing the progression of disease
Inside the human body lie thousands of mysteries. For all the advancements of modern medicine, our organs and cells remain, to a great extent, unknown territory, with the secrets of treating and curing disease locked within.

Michelle Tangredi © Melody Ko

It’s the lure of helping to unravel these mysteries that drew Michelle Tangredi to neuroscience. “In this field, there is so very much that is unknown, and that makes it all the more appealing,” said Tangredi, who is in the first year of the six-year neuroscience program at the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences.

Currently, she is working with Eric Frank, professor of physiology, on a project involving muscle stretch reflexes. She is investigating the localization of a particular protein in the muscle and the role it may play in muscle reflexes.

Earlier, she worked in the lab of F. Rob Jackson, professor of neuroscience, on a project that studies the circadian rhythms of the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster. Before that, she investigated a protein involved in the cell invasion of a particularly fast-spreading form of brain tumor in the lab of physiologist Daniel Jay.

“In most of this research, we’re really trying to figure out what is happening in disease,” Tangredi said. “A wide variety of diseases all involve neurodegeneration, but how a normal, functioning central nervous system reaches that point is not fully understood. To create all kinds of therapeutics—drugs, tools for early diagnosis—it helps to know what is going on, how the disease progresses.”

Neurobiology—particularly the connection between biochemical processes, disease and human behavior—has intrigued Tangredi since she was in high school. She graduated from the College of the Holy Cross with a degree in biology and worked at Massachusetts General Hospital, doing research related to Alzheimer’s disease before she arrived at Tufts.

Tangredi said being offered a Provost Fellowship helped her choose the graduate program at Sackler. “It definitely had an effect when I was trying to decide where to go,” she said. “It’s a real honor to have your previous accomplishments acknowledged and know that a highly-respected institution wants to invest in your future.”

Helene Ragovin is a senior writer in Tufts’ Office of Publications. She can be reached at