Public Health Doctoral Dissertation Defenses Go Virtual

Online dissertations

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] - For doctoral students, the dissertation defense is the culmination of at least four years of study and research. A major academic and career milestone presented before a live audience, a successful defense is usually celebrated with colleagues, friends, and family, and plenty of champagne. For nine PhD students in the School of Public Health, and for doctoral students around the world, however, the dissertation experience has become much different.

When Brown moved to online instruction and telecommuting status in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, dissertation defenses, planned months in advance, had to be moved online to virtual presentations. As public health scholars, students in the School of Public Health, understood the necessity of the change but were disappointed nonetheless.

“As someone who works in public health, I understood why it needed to happen,” said David Meyers, who completed his PhD in Health Services Research in April, “but dissertation defenses are something you build your graduate experience towards. It is both the final step for the PhD, but also a chance for the community you've built in the past 4-5 years to come together to support your work. I was disappointed I would miss the opportunity to open a bottle of champagne with my friends, family, and colleagues.”

Besides not being able to gather together, and the technical challenges of working with the Zoom platform that many remote workers have encountered, the main difficulty students reported was not being able to gauge audience reaction as they presented. Lacey Loomer, another Health Services Research student said “I didn't see anyone's reassuring face when giving the presentation. It felt like I was talking into the abyss.” Meyers agreed, saying “It's always helpful when giving a talk to see if the audience is nodding when things are going well or frowning when they aren't. Without being able to see their faces, you just have to hope that any silence means rapturous attention and not utter boredom.”

Despite the challenges, there were upsides to holding the dissertation defenses remotely. Hannah Ziobrowski, PhD student in epidemiology said “I ultimately felt like it was less stressful than a defense in person, because I was able to be comfortable in my own home.” Students were also grateful to be able to invite those who would not have been able to attend in person and found the virtual presentation more accessible overall. “It allows for a larger audience” Loomer said. “One of my external committee members is at the University of Washington so she was always going to have to Zoom into the defense, and I think it was nice that she was not alone in the experience.”

While students agreed that an online component is an important supplement to the traditional defense, virtual presentations are no replacement for the in-person experience they had always expected. Professor Brandon Marshall, who led the dissertation committee of epidemiology PhD student William Goedel agreed. “I wouldn't recommend this format in the long-term,” he said. “I don't think anything can truly replace an in-person experience, at least for the candidate, the committee, and close colleagues.” 

When asked for advice on presenting research virtually, Loomer said to be ready for anything. “Even if you practice on Zoom, something unexpected will happen,” she said. “You just have to be ready to act on the fly!” 

The following public health doctoral students defended their PhD dissertations virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic

4/7 Adedotun Ogunbajo, BSHS (Advisor: Matthew Mimiaga)
“Substance use, mental health, and other psychosocial health problems in the context of HIV sexual risk behavior among Nigerian gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men”

4/9 William Goedel, Epidemiology (Advisor: Brandon Marshall)
“From Surviving A Plague to Ending the Epidemic: Using Biomedical HIV Prevention to Reduce Racial Disparities Among Gay and Bisexual Men in the United States"

4/9 Lacey Loomer, HSR (Advisor: Vincent Mor)
"The Impact of Rural Add-on Payment on Medicare Beneficiary Access and Outcomes”

4/17 Arjee Javellana Restar, BSHS (Advisor: Don Operario)
“Modeling the Socio-Ecological Factors of HIV Prevention Services among Filipinx Trans Women & Cis Men”

4/20 Shaun Forbes, HSR (Advisor: Thomas Trikalinos)
“Propagating Ambiguity into Decision Analyses of Test-and-Treat Strategies”

4/22 Hannah Ziobrowski, Epidemiology (Advisor: Alison Field)
“Patterns of Child and Adolescent Maltreatment and Their Associations with Disordered Eating and Body Weight in Adulthood”

4/24 Ashleigh LoVette, BSHS (Advisors: Caroline Kuo, Abigail Harrison)
“Resilience in the context of HIV risk: A strengths-based perspective for HIV prevention among South African girls and young women”

4/27 Harry Jin, MPH, Epidemiology (Advisor: Matthew Mimiaga)
"Improving Uptake and Adherence of HIV Biomedical Interventions by Sero-discordant Male Couples” 

4/30 David Meyers, HSR (Advisor:​ Amal Trivedi)
“The Validity of Medicare Advantage 5-Star Ratings”