As we approach our spring 2022 commencement date, we wanted to spotlight a handful of extraordinary graduate students that are completing their degrees this semester. While these students come with stellar recommendations from faculty and peers, their extensive resumes detailing their research, academic, and professional achievements speak for themselves. The stories of Odysseus, Alyssa, Rachel, and Régis are reflective of the diverse life experiences and passions of our entire graduating class of 2022 and all that they have achieved during their time at the UT Graduate School.
Odysseus Bostick came to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, with professional experience in state government and teaching, both of which helped shape his pursuits during his PhD program in economics. During his time at UT, Odysseus served as an economic advisor on the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) Integrated Resource Planning (IRP) Working Group, helping TVA plan investments in electricity generation for the next decade. He was also appointed as a graduate student member of the Tennessee State Energy Policy Council in 2020, advising the governor and general assembly on optimization of state energy resources. As Charles Sims, associate professor in the Department of Economics and co-chair of Bostick’s committee states:
“His graduate career had given him the skillset to perform the research needed to inform the plan and his past experience in California state government had given him the personal skills to interact with members of the council.”
His dissertation work includes a focus on designing and implementing policies to efficiently transition the energy sector from fossil-based energy to renewable energy, a passion he brought with him from his experience working in California state government. Two areas of research on this topic involve the problem of undeveloped fossil fuel reserves becoming “stranded assets” by climate policies driven by renewable energy and the factors that lead to adoption of rooftop solar generation.
Odysseus was also the graduate teacher of record for three economics classes at UT, and his excellence in the classroom was recognized with the 2019 Haslam College of Business Outstanding Doctoral Student Teacher Award.
After receiving her undergraduate degree at the University of South Florida and an MA in history at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Alyssa Culp continued her studies in European history at UT in pursuit of a PhD. She has received numerous grants, fellowships, and awards in recognition of her research, including a grant from the German Academic Exchange Service and a Fulbright Fellowship that originally would have taken her to Germany in the summer of 2020. While the initial trip was postponed due to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, Alyssa finally made it to Munich, Germany in February 2021 to conduct archival research on the spread of German morgues during the nineteenth century.
Even in 2021, the pandemic still presented challenges to her research, because of limited hours and limited availability in the state, church, and municipal archives she visited. But she persisted, ironically investigating the history of German cholera epidemics of the 1850s while remaining masked and socially distanced in the middle of a different health crisis. Through a history of nineteenth-century morgues, her dissertation traces the emergence of key features of Germany’s modern public health landscape.
Alyssa has also been recognized for her exceptional teaching skills. Denise Phillips, associate professor in the Department of History, notes:
“For polish, organizational ability and industriousness, Alyssa has few rivals, and according to faculty who have observed her teach, she is a charismatic and flawlessly poised presence in front of the classroom.”
In 2019, she was awarded the Department of History’s Susan Becker Prize for Outstanding Teaching for her talents in the classroom.
Rachel Ponder came to UT in 2017 following a career in law enforcement. After graduating from the police academy, she worked as an officer in the Knox County Sheriff’s Office where she served on the Special Operations Response Team and the Security Threat Group/Gang Intelligence Investigation Team. She became interested in how gangs form and what needs are met by those who gravitate to gangs and decided to pursue graduate education in sociology to learn more about transformative justice. Rachel’s dissertation, “Justice Involvement During COVID-19 and The Possibility of Transitional Justice,” asks whether the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, disproportionately devastating to poor people, minorities, and the incarcerated, could in fact provide a platform from which our nation begins to undo mass incarceration, human rights violations, and the systematic violence intrinsic to criminal justice practices.
This dissertation topic is fitting for a person who is so dedicated to helping people, both within the UT community and beyond. During the midst of her PhD program, Rachel created Academy in Motion (AIM) in 2020, a network that provided a community for fitness, health, and mental wellness during a difficult and isolating time. And she and her wife have been providing foster care for children since 2021 after a lengthy foster parent application and approval process.
Her ability to work with people extends to the classroom, as well. One of the undergraduate students that Rachel has taught had this to say about her teaching:
“Professor Ponder is one of the best professors I have had at UT…If I could take another course by her, I would in a heartbeat!”
In 2019, her abilities as a teacher led her to be honored with the Department of Sociology’s Graduate Student Teaching Award.
Régis Nisengwe was born and raised in Kigali, Rwanda where he earned his bachelor’s degree in environmental science at the University of Rwanda. He went on to complete his MS in natural resources and environmental management and policy as a MasterCard Foundation Scholar at Michigan State University. After his master’s degree, Régis returned to Rwanda and worked with non-profit organizations and consulting firms involved in natural resources, food security, and agriculture. As Adam Willcox, associate professor in the Department of Forestry, Wildlife and Fisheries, notes:
“[Régis’] research career has already enabled him to impact local communities and advance the scientific community’s understanding of the drivers that promote pro-environmental behavior.”
Régis is completing his PhD in natural resources at UT during which he explored the interface between natural resources and food security. His research was not without challenges. Although he received funding through a W.K. McClure Scholarship and the UT Center for Global Engagement Catalyst Fund, his plans were postponed indefinitely as the world struggled through the pandemic. Despite the travel difficulties imposed by COVID-19, Regis was able to conduct his dissertation research in Rwanda, surveying hundreds of Rwandan farmers on their attitudes, norms, and behaviors towards natural resource use and conservation. He plans on starting a career in quantitative research after graduation.
Beyond his dissertation, Régis has served as a graduate assistant in two areas related to the work that has been a driver of so much of his research. He worked on a USAID-funded project promoting poultry production, sales and consumption in Rwanda, where he analyzed data and produced multiple reports and policy briefs in addition to three peer-reviewed publications. He has also worked as a graduate assistant with the Center for Global Engagement and the Smith Center for International Sustainable Agriculture, where he documented the efforts of many faculty, units and staff across the campus to engage in the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations.