Six Thesis & Dissertation Prize winners are breaking new ground

Can we control mosquito populations and limit the spread of disease? What are strategies for empowering Indigenous populations to repossess/protect traditional territories? What are the limits of “empathy” in art? These are some of the big questions being asked by York’s researchers: six recent graduates of the Faculty of Graduate Studies (FGS) have been named recipients of the FGS Thesis & Dissertation Prize.

“From the politics of food security in India to a film about the refugee experience in Canada, these projects showcase the range of knowledge being created at York,” said Thomas Loebel, Dean of the Faculty of Graduate Studies. “This research shows our graduates critically engaging with, and breaking new ground in, their academic disciplines. The result is work with real-world impact.”

The Thesis & Dissertation Prizes are distributed by FGS to celebrate exceptional master’s and PhD theses from the previous calendar year. Recipients will be invited to the FGS Scholars Reception in November, where their work will be showcased and recognized.

Master’s Prizes

Azizia Wahedi (MSc, Biology), “Characterization of the Adipokinetic Hormone/Corazonin-Related Peptide Signalling System in the Mosquito”
Azizia Wahedi’s thesis could lead to the development of a novel method for controlling mosquito populations and therefore limiting the spread of disease.

In her thesis, she accomplished several things: 1) She discovered the receptor of an important neuropeptide ACEP in a disease vector mosquito; 2) Characterized the expression of this receptor in the mosquito and correlated it with the expression of the ACP neuropeptide, and therefore 3) provided the first meaningful information for deducing a function for this neuropeptide signaling system (which regulates reproductive maturation in these animals).

Wahedi’s work required mastering challenging experimental procedures: Wahedi first cloned the putative receptor from the mosquito itself, then proved that the clone receptor was an ACP receptor. One of her chapters has already been published in the top-ranked scientific journal Nature Scientific Reports. “The committee unanimously agreed without hesitation and without the need for discussion on the matter, that Azizia’s thesis should be nominated for the thesis prize,” wrote Biology Professor Andrew Donini in a nomination letter.

Daniel Debebe Negatu (MFA, Film), "Tesfaye/Hope”
Daniel Debebe Negatu’s thesis film is an experimental documentary, telling a first-hand story of migration to Canada by a refugee from Ethiopia. Told through the personal story of its central character, it chronicles his journey through Africa, including harrowing experiences as a stowaway, a narrow escape from drowning, and the racism he faced in Canada.

The statement from the examining committee notes that the film is “Beautifully shot and edited, incorporating poetic and political sensibilities of displacement and belonging within the Ethiopian Diaspora.” Cinema & Media Arts associate professor Barbara Evans wrote, “The film is a poignant reminder of the hardships, obstacles and suffering experienced by those who flee the country f their birth for political or humanitarian reasons.”

Andrew Paul (MA, Geography), "'With the Salween Peace Park, We Can Survive as a Nation': Karen Environmental Relations and the Politics of an Indigenous Conservation Initiative”
Grounded in long-term engagement with Burma/Myanmar, Andrew Paul’s project seeks to advance the establishment of the Salween Peace Park (SPP)—an Indigenous Protected Area in post-conflict Karen State, Burma.

Paul’s research 1) explored how the mobilization of Karen environmental relations can form the basis of governance in the SPP, and 2) interrogated the political strategies informing the creation of the protected area. He illustrated how Karen spiritual-environmental relations are central to their traditional governance system, and documented for the first time the ways displacement and war have shaped this governance in the post-war state. His conclusion: while conservation has long been rightly blamed for dispossessing Indigenous peoples of their traditional territories, the SPP is an example of how conservation, when led by Indigenous peoples themselves, can potentially enable the repossession or protection of traditional territories.

Paul spent seven months based in Thailand, with extended trips into Karen state—a community accessible only by boat and day-long walk. “This is remarkable effort for a MA student and has resulted in research detail and nuance that we would normally only see at the PhD level,” wrote Robin Roth, Associate Professor at the Graduate Program of Geography.

Dissertation Prizes

Anna Veprinska (PhD, English), “‘The Skin of Another’: Empathetic Dissonance in Twentieth and Twenty-First-Century Poetry after Crisis”
Studying poetry that emerged from three catastrophic events (the Holocaust, Hurricane Katrina, and 9/11), Anna Veprinska’s dissertation navigates the amorphous new field of “affect” studies. She sought to reimagine the role of empathy in relation to cultural and historical trauma, and offer a novel and ethical way of engaging with literary texts that respond to horrific real-life occurrences.

Her core theoretical concept, what she terms “empathetic dissonance,” highlights the many problematic aspects at play in empathy while also showing that a broader conceptualization of empathy will create a richer and more just understanding of cultural trauma. She examines “empathy” as a structure to explore how we are held together with others as well as apart from them.

“Not all outstanding dissertations garner the attention they deserve,” wrote Karen Valihora, Associate Professor and Director, Graduate Program in English. “Dr. Veprinska’s is attracting this kind of attention because of the sheer lucid engagement her work offers to its readers: it is at once brilliantly observed and written, and a formal demonstration, in its critical and theoretical attunement, of the empathy that is its subject.”

Sara Rafique (PhD, Psychology), “Development of Low-Frequency Repetitive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation as a Tool to Modulate Visual Disorders: Insight from Neuroimaging”
In broad terms, Sara Rafique’s research is a series of experiments in which she uses non-invasive brain stimulation to ameliorate a visual brain disorder in a neurological patient case study. She built upon her initial findings to further refine the stimulation parameters, and characters the biomarkers of this form of non-invasive stimulation.

For her first study, she used a brain stimulation approach with transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) in a patient study to ameliorate disruptive visual hallucinations that had arisen after an occipital stroke. For her second study, she demonstrated changes in the structural connectivity of the infarct region of cortex with other cortex regions associated with the patient’s hallucinations. Finally, she measured the effectiveness and duration of different dosages of the stimulation. The impact of this work will help inform parameters for the use of TMS in clinical settings as a therapeutic tool. To conduct her research, Rafique used a combination of challenging MRI techniques.

This foundational work is the first known therapeutic use of medium-term TMS to improve visual outcome in visual hallucinations, and could lead to clinical trials in future.

Guillaume Dandurand (PhD, Social Anthropology), “The Techno-Politics of Food Security in New Delhi: The Re-Materialization of the Ration Card”
Drawing on 17 months of ethnographic fieldwork among the Right to Food activists in New Delhi, Guillaume Dandurand’s research tracks how the National Food Security Act came to be passed, and how it has impacted the infrastructure of food procurement for the urban poor.

Dandurand focuses on one particular document: the ration card, which is used to access subsidized food. He describes the everyday practices of accessing rationed food among the residents of two informal settlements in New Delhi. In charting the terrain of rights and provisions, the dissertation analyzes how the digitization of the card and associated bureaucratic practices have generated systematic exclusions from the public and private infrastructure of food rations.

“It draws upon, and refines, theories rooted in governmentality, development studies and science/technology studies, and applies them productively to explore the changing landscape of basic food provision in India,” wrote Philip Kelly, Professor in the Department of Geography.