Screen capture of video image of five people looking into computer camera
Kyle Crowley and his thesis committee, from top left to right: Alp Sehirlioglu, Xuan Gao, Jesse Berezovsky, and Walter Lambrecht.

PhD candidates defend dissertations remotely

On March 26, Kyle Crowley became the first student in the history of the Case Western Reserve University Department of Physics to defend a PhD dissertation remotely. The following day, Jagjit Sidhu became the second. Aided by Zoom technology and keeping with the university mandate that all activities be conducted remotely whenever possible, the Department of Physics decided to allow the dissertation defense process to continue as scheduled.

Jagjit Sidhu

“All essential functions of the dissertation, including the public presentation of the thesis results, the review of the dissertation and the examination of the candidate can be accomplished without actually being there physically in person,” said Corbin Covault, co-chair and professor in the  Department of Physics.

Crowley’s dissertation, “Electrical Characterization, Transport & Doping Effects in 2-D Transition Metal Oxides,” represented his successful efforts to isolate ultra-thin layers of 2D oxides and study their electrical properties. He plans to pursue a career in industry, putting his education and skills to use in condensed matter/materials science.

“I’m simply thrilled that this defense could happen [remotely],” said his adviser, Professor Xuan Gao. “I know Kyle worked hard over the past few years on his projects. It would [have been] a real pity if we had to cancel or postpone.”

Sidhu presented “Probing Macroscopic Dark Matter Parameter Space.” According to his adviser, Glenn Starkman, co-chair and professor of physics and astronomy, Sidhu has studied a remarkable diversity of systems—from people to neutron stars—to search for what would be extremely rare, but very energetic, interactions of dark matter with observable systems. 

“Hopefully, this work will one day result in an exciting announcement of the discovery of dark matter,” Starkman said.

Sidhu, who enjoys working on calculations by hand and computationally, is considering his next steps and determining if he’d prefer to work in industry versus academics.

Physics was not the only department in the College of Arts and Sciences to report a remote dissertation. Stephen Liu successfully defended his master’s thesis in mathematics remotely on March 19.

Miyoung Yoon was the first student from the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences to defend a dissertation virtually. On March 16, she successfully presented her work, “Neighborhoods and Problem Behaviors Among At-Risk Adolescents,” from her home in Illinois.

In the School of Dental Medicine, Shabnam Behdin also presented virtually on March 16, also a first for that school, with a thesis titled, “Prevalence of cancer in periodontal disease: A cross sectional NHANES study.”

Other departments also may be taking advantage of remote technology to allow dissertations to proceed. Do you have a story to share? Let us know what other firsts your department/school/college have achieved due to the COVID-19-related virtual learning environment.