The Graduate School has named Outstanding Dissertation Awards for 2012. 

Two awards are given each year; one in science and engineering, the other in humanities and social sciences. The awards are based on originality of the idea, contributions to the field, presentation of the ideas, and the quality of writing. Each department may nominate one dissertation per year for the award. Recipients receive $1,000.

Robert “Bobby” Neal from Richmond, Va., a 2011 doctoral graduate in biomedical engineering, won the science and engineering category for his dissertation titled, “Irreversible Electroporation Therapy for the Treatment of Spontaneous Tumors in Cancer Patients.” 

Neal’s research hypothesized whether irreversible electroporation (IRE) can be used to treat cancer in the complex settings of human patients, including large and irregular tumors as well as heterogeneous environments. The IRE procedure involves placing needle electrodes into or around a targeted tissue. The electrodes deliver a series of low-energy, intense microsecond electric pulses for approximately one minute. The pulses induce irreversible structural changes in the cell membranes of the targeted tissue that lead to cell death.  Because IRE affects only a single molecular component of the cell membrane, it has the ability to create a complete ablation between normal and dead tissue. The procedure does not induce thermal damage to the ablated area, which enables important parts of the tissue remain healthy and have the ability to re-grow.

Neal’s dissertation resulted in the first paper assessing the feasibility of IRE to treat heterogeneous tissues in a complex environment. Other notable articles included the second paper published using IRE to treat tumors in a mouse model, but using a custom-built electrode that could be used in clinical settings; as well as a case study outlining the treatment of a dog with a large tumor untreatable by conventional therapies, which was ultimately put into complete remission with a dramatic improvement in the animal's quality of life. In all, he has 10 journal articles, four pending patents, several peer-reviewed conference proceedings, and two book chapters to his name.

“Bobby effectively collaborated with an interdisciplinary team comprised of engineers, cancer biologists, veterinarians, and physicians,” said Rafael Davalos, associate professor in the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest School of Biomedical Engineering Sciences and Neal’s thesis advisor. “His project has advanced from the lab bench to the bedside, and several animal patients have already been treated using his therapy.”

Catherine Larochelle, from Quebec City, Quebec, a 2011 doctoral graduate in agricultural and applied economics in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, won the social sciences category for her dissertation titled, “Three Essays on Productivity and Risk, Marketing Decision, and Changes in Well-being over Time.”

Larochelle’s dissertation examines the relationship between natural resource use and poverty reduction in rural areas.

Her first paper addresses a problem commonly found in rural areas of developing countries: the economic costs of self-insurance by small-scale farmers in Bolivia against environmental risks. Larochelle combines economic with geospatial analysis to examine how risk can be reduced by diversifying over space and income generating activities. Her approach also allowed her to measure the production efficiency and yield losses associated with these risk-management strategies.

Her second essay examines three types of agricultural marketing choices in Bolivia. Her work is the first to combine an analysis of decisions about three choices: market entry, volume sold, and market choice. Her study uses an innovative approach to analyze the qualitative aspects of market choice.

Finally, in the third essay Larochelle uses data from Consumption and Expenditure Surveys collected by the Central Statistical Office of Zimbabwe from 2007-08, a time of hyperinflation and economic crisis, to examine how severe economic turmoil has affected poverty. Her dissertation research can be used in cases where measurement of poverty using income or consumption is not possible, but policy makers need information on conditions faced by the poor.

“Catherine’s dissertation is a product of truly original thinking, dogged perseverance in search of appropriate data, careful attention to detail, and an ability to identify clever solutions to tricky research problems,” said Jeffrey Alwang, professor of agricultural and applied economics and Larochelle’s thesis advisor. “The three essays demonstrate her creativity, her ability to identify and solve a research problem, and her ability to clearly communicate her ideas to a professional audience.”

Honorable mentions in the dissertation awards went to Ganesh Balasubramanian of Kolkata, India, a doctoral candidate in mechanical engineering in the College of Engineering, and Robert Knee of Palmyra, Va., a doctoral candidate in psychology in the College of Science.



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