New doctoral program to graduate first three students

December 17, 2014 | Features, News, UToday, — Languages, Literature and Social Sciences
By Samantha Watson

The first three graduates of a new PhD program at The University of Toledo will cross the stage at commencement, and all of them have already started their careers.

These students completed the PhD Program in Spatially Integrated Social Science, which began in 2009 in the College of Languages, Literature and Social Sciences. It is a program that combines aspects of spatial technologies — such as geographic information systems, Global Positioning System and Google Earth with social sciences, including geography, economics and public health — to create a unique mixture of expertise and address a wide range of important issues.

“A lot of it is focused on location — where are the ideal locations for infrastructure, for populations, or in moving goods and materials from one area to another,” said Dr. Patrick Lawrence, professor and chair of the Department of Geography and Planning, home of the new program.

Even before coming to UT, spatially integrated social science was a major initiative of the National Science Foundation that started at several research centers, including the University of California-Santa Barbara. The field has been identified as a major area of job growth by the U.S. Department of Labor.

Though one program, students can tailor their experience based on their academic interests within the social sciences. For example, one student can study the efficiency of transporting goods via rail or ship, while another can research how public health services are impacted by location.

This variety begins with the program’s six required courses, but students can subsequently choose three different seminars and three different electives from the four departments involved: Geography and Planning; Economics; Political Science and Public Administration; and Sociology and Anthropology. This provides a learning experience tailored to the student’s research interests.

“Not only is this an outstanding program that allows students to focus on spatial studies and tie that to their own interests, but the students are fortunate to work with wonderful faculty who provide exceptional guidance in their roles as mentors,” said April Ames, one of the program’s new graduates and now an assistant professor in the UT College of Medicine and Life Sciences.

Ames’ research is on the application of geographic information systems in evaluation of the association of health symptoms with fields that use biosolids, organic matter recycled from sewage and used in agriculture. Prior to her dissertation, she worked for Dr. Kevin Czajkowski, a UT professor in the Department of Geography and Planning, on a USDA-funded project related to various aspects of biosolids, so her research in spatially integrated social science was a natural extension of her work.

“Although I’ve worked and studied in the environmental and occupational health fields, I’ve always remained passionate toward my interest in geospatial applications,” Ames said. “The Spatially Integrated Social Science Program gave me a venue to further my education and tie my interests together.”

Ames is one of three students who will be at commencement Saturday, Dec. 20. She will be joined by Qi-Feng (Eric) Wang, who is now working in Seattle, and Jeff Eloff, who defended his dissertation this semester.

The program, which is the only one of its kind in Ohio, currently has 17 students and accepts new students each fall. It is a four- to five-year program, depending on the length of time students take on their dissertations.

Current areas of graduate research within the program include intermodal freight, location analysis of level one trauma centers, and the planning for urban trails. Faculty in the program have been able to secure external funding to support work by many of the doctoral students from the National Science Foundation, NASA, the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Army Corps of Engineers.

Graduate students have received several awards for their research and presented their work at national and regional professional conferences and meetings.

“We think we’ve hit on something successful,” Lawrence said. “There’s a demand for it, there’s an interest in it, and the program is showing success in terms of the students being able to go through the program, do the research, get funding, give presentations, complete publications, and being able to secure full-time career jobs in both academia and the private sector.”

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