Image taken by drone of Lehigh University's Alumni Memorial Building

Celebration Honors Doctoral Graduates

The live and pre-recorded Zoom event recognized participating doctoral candidates. 

Story by

Kelly Hochbein

On Saturday, a virtual doctoral celebration honored the accomplishments of participating doctoral candidates. A formal hooding ceremony will take place at a later date, when the Lehigh community can gather together safely again. 

The event began with a slideshow of student photos accompanied by music from the Lehigh University Wind Ensemble’s album, followed by a live webinar on Zoom featuring brief reflections by President John D. Simon; Provost Pat Farrell; Alan Snyder, vice president and associate provost for research and graduate studies; Beth Dolan, deputy provost for graduate education; and Kathleen Hutnik, associate dean for graduate life, as well as pre-recorded messages from the deans of Lehigh’s five colleges. Nick Ungson ’19G, who received a Ph.D. in psychology, served as the graduate student emcee. 

“It takes perseverance to earn a doctoral degree even in the best of times,” said Simon. “Those of you who just finished did it in an unexpectedly challenging environment, including conducting your dissertation defenses via Zoom. But you have now achieved the highest academic degree, a distinction that marks you as an expert in your chosen field. … Those of you who finished last summer or winter, you likely never expected your postdoctoral careers to begin in such a remarkable set of circumstances. But the perseverance it took to get a Ph.D. has likely served you well these past few months in such uncertain and chaotic times. The world needs rigorous and independent thinkers. Graduates, I urge you to take risks to find ways to make a difference in the world. And know that we expect spectacular things from all of you.” 

Farrell emphasized the important role of doctoral students at Lehigh and how much the university values their contributions.  

“Obviously your work helps to fuel the research enterprise that is part of the overall Lehigh University,” Farrell said. “But also you create the academic fabric that is so valuable and valued by everyone at Lehigh...We appreciate your contribution to helping create the academic environment that we think will make future graduate students and future undergraduate students really thrive.” 

Snyder offered some advice to the graduates: “... The world needs people who think as you do, who are comfortable with ambiguity as you are, who have toiled to say precisely what they mean and to put it in writing. You've all published, and publication is an act of giving and also an act of bravery. The world needs your intense curiosity, your ability to reframe a problem when everybody's stuck, your ability to explain, never divorced from your ability to listen. The world needs people like you in public life, in generous conversation with your neighbors. So don't keep it to yourselves, you'll continue to dwell in those rarefied spaces, and to do good work and then equally find ways to be good and engaged citizens.” 

Dolan shared and reflected on a quote from Swiss philosopher Henri-Frédéric Amiel: “'Uncertainty is the refuge of hope.”

“I understand this sentence to mean that hope takes shelter in uncertainty,” Dolan said. “Hope lives in uncertainty. Think back to your doctoral research. Ph.D. research is at its core about creating new knowledge. And so there are necessarily uncertain moments when you can't see the answers to the questions you are pursuing. But as I know you have learned, all the possibility is in those moments. Hope takes shelter there, in the uncertainty, on the edge of discovery. You've all experienced this feeling, and the wild patience you learned as you followed your research questions through this uncertainty is going to serve you well—serve us all well—during this current challenge and beyond.”

Hutnik spoke about the challenging process the graduates faced as they pursued their doctoral degrees. 

“I hope it makes you realize that whatever difficult thing you do next, that you've developed the grit and determination to succeed,” Hutnik said. “Of course you use your good brains, but you also learn to ask for help from advisors and colleagues, you learn to pick yourself up after setbacks, you learn to trust yourself, and you learn to take care of yourselfbody, spirit and soul. … I hope that despite the long hours and the semi-poverty that you built a meaningful life here, and that you will look back on this chapter with affection.” 

The celebration included recognition of the four recipients of the Elizabeth V. Stout Dissertation Award, which recognizes doctoral dissertations that were judged to have made unusually significant and original contributions in their fields. The award was endowed by the late Robert Stout, former dean of the graduate school and professor emeritus of materials science and engineering, in memory of his wife.

This year’s recipients were:

  • Wei Fu, who received a Ph.D. in economics, for “NIH Grants Expansion, Ancestral Diversity and Scientific Discovery in Genetic Research.”
  • Le Wang, who received a Ph.D. in chemistry, for “Nanoscale Infrared Microscopy through an Atomic Force Microscope.”
  • Louis Rivera, who received a Ph.D. in counseling psychology, for “Military Sexual Trauma: Exploring the Moderating Role of Restrictive Emotionality and Adverse Childhood Experiences among Male Veterans.”
  • Andres Pajares Martinez, who received a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering and mechanics, for “Integrated Control in Tokamaks using Nonlinear Robust Techniques and Actuator Sharing Strategies.”

Rachel Engl Taggart, who received a Ph.D. in history, was awarded the College of Arts and Sciences Dean’s Dissertation Award. Her dissertation was titled “America’s First Band of Brothers: Friendship & Camaraderie within the Continental Army during the Revolutionary Era.”

A special element of the event was a digital “doctoral wall,” on which each participating doctoral graduate was featured on a “tile.” Each tile included an image submitted by the doctoral graduate, along with program and dissertation information. Participating graduates and faculty members exchanged messages on the tiles, and attendees offered notes of congratulations. The comment section on the doctoral wall will remain open for at least a week to allow others to share good wishes, and a recording of the event will also be available. 

Story by

Kelly Hochbein