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The Issues That Matter to Our Grad Students

From finances to energy, health care, and more, UNLV graduate student researchers are asking important questions about America’s future.

Research  |  Oct 20, 2016  |  By Raegen Pietrucha
Katelyn DiBenedetto holds an arrowhead

UNLV anthropology doctoral student Katelyn DiBenedetto. (R. Marsh Starks/UNLV Photo Services)

Editor's Note: 

The third annual Rebel Grad Slam 3-Minute Thesis Competition takes place Oct. 31-Nov. 4. Graduate students have until Oct. 25 to register to participate in the competition. The Graduate College hopes to see you at each round of the competition as well as at 4 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 4, in the Science & Engineering Building Auditorium for the final competition and reception. For more details and to view the full event schedule, visit the Rebel Grad Slam webpage


With more than 5,000 graduate and professional students and 152 options for graduate studies, it should be of no surprise that some of our student researchers have set their sights on addressing issues of national and international importance.

UNLV’s inaugural Graduate Student Showcase, held during Research Week, featured work pertinent to the current presidential election. The seven students highlighted below are contributing to larger public discourses through their research. Here are the public policy recommendations they made based on their work.

Try Fighting Bioterrorism and Rising Health Care Costs With Research Funding

Terrorism comes in many forms, and Chandler Hassan, an M.S. student in chemistry and biochemistry, is most interested in the addressing the biological kind. He’s been studying the 2001 anthrax attacks, in which the U.S. Postal Service was unknowingly used to conduct an act of bioterrorism, and is working with faculty advisor Ernesto Abel-Santos on potential treatments for the deadly bacteria.

“As we’re moving forward here, 15 years removed from this incident, we’re asking ourselves, ‘Are we any safer today than we were then?’” Hassan said. “That’s an issue that our presidential candidates and all political leaders are going to have to answer, and we expect the answer to be yes.”

Finding solutions to such a resilient disease is no easy feat, though, especially without funding for this vital research. It’s a concern shared by Hassan’s peer, Jacqueline Phan, a fellow M.S. student in chemistry and biochemistry in the Abel-Santos Lab.

Phan studies antibiotic-resistant Clostridium difficile infections, more commonly known as C. diff. Besides being deadly, Phan said, it’s an expensive disease, costing an average of $35,000 to treat a single infected patient, which adds up to $3.2 billion in annual costs to the U.S. health care system and taxpayers. This cost could be cut dramatically if funding were directed toward finding cures for this and similar diseases.

“C. diff and other antibiotic-associated diseases are an imminent threat that many Americans are forgetting to consider in this upcoming election,” Phan said, adding that in September the United Nations declared antibiotic resistance the greatest and most urgent global risk.

Make Better Use of America’s Natural Resources

Mismanagement of natural resources is not only costly, it’s unsustainable, as mechanical engineering doctoral student Srikanth Madala and anthropology doctoral student Katelyn DiBenedetto know all too well.

Madala is concerned about America’s fossil-fuel-dependent economy. Today, 81 percent of our country’s energy is generated by petroleum, natural gas, and coal, he indicated. So he’s working with faculty advisor Robert Boehm on creating solar concentrators whose designs can not only reduce or eliminate the need for fossil fuels but also exceed the efficiency of current solar panels by 65 to 80 percent, thanks to a stationary design.

“Presidential candidates need to put more emphasis on a renewable energy future,” Madala said, noting that other countries already invest in and incentivize the use of this and other sustainable technologies.

DiBenedetto, who works with faculty advisor Alan Simmons, is worried about our water supply. She pointed to farm subsidies for water-intensive crops, laws that promote water waste, and leaky and broken infrastructure as major contributors to this national problem. She noted that by 2040, if humankind doesn’t become better at managing water resources, the demand for water will exceed the supply — a situation that could lead to water being used as a weapon, water terrorism, and water wars. This makes the next decade extremely critical with respect to our survival.

“It is very clear that water resource management is important for us here in the West, for other parts of the country, and globally — yet it remains one of the underdiscussed issues of this presidential election,” she said.

Look to Research on Recent Legislation to Prevent Future Financial Crises

Who can forget the 2008 financial crisis? More importantly, what can be done to prevent a repeat, especially in the free market? Public policy and leadership doctoral candidate Michael Biesiada, faculty advisor Helen Neill, and researchers like them studying the effects of legislation put out after 2008 might be able to provide some valuable insights to our legislators, boards, and presidential candidates.

“The president is seen as someone who can spearhead legislation to address the most pressing public policy issues facing America,” Biesiada said, and preventing another financial crisis is one such issue. But since the crisis was so recent, how can a leader make informed decisions on the subject?

Biesiada is looking at what the market response has been before and after the implementation of the recent Dodd-Frank Act, which protects consumers and investors by increasing corporate transparency and accountability. Research on even recent acts like this could help guide the crafting of future legislation to address market malfeasance; direct institutional investors toward making wiser investments; and inform boards of directors and trustees in their decision-making. 

Messaging Really Matters

Many meanings can be embedded into a single presidential speech, moving the nation toward unity or dissention. Just ask Gabriela Tscholl, an M.A. student in communications studies, who’s been researching such speeches alongside faculty advisor David Henry.

Tscholl has reviewed speeches President Barack Obama has delivered during times of tragedy and has found that by using messages of unity and hope to create sense of identification between the audience and the fallen, Obama has comforted, exercised his authority, and ultimately led a nation through the tragedies that befell it at the same time.

“It is no surprise that issues of gun violence, terror, and national security remain at the forefront of the presidential election and debates, for it is within these moments of chaos and confusion that citizens look to their president to provide both comfort and understanding,” Tscholl said. She suggested that by carefully examining persuasive communications strategies, voters can gain a deeper understanding of the ways communication is being used to mobilize them in a particular fashion, so it is important for candidates to consider their messaging from this perspective.

Along similar lines, political science doctoral candidate Nathan Henceroth has concluded through his research on European politics and populism that a change in rhetorical strategy may be necessary for populist candidates to continue their momentum once they move beyond the primaries. 

Populism, the political ideology that asserts that common citizens — versus a small group of elites — can and should band together to control their government, is known for its emotionally driven rhetoric. “Populist politicians and candidates have their own way of communicating, and that’s thrown people for a loop here in American politics,” he said. “For supporters, anger is the policy — anger at the system.”

Working with faculty advisor Chris Jensen, Henceroth has noted that populism typically fares better in primaries because populist voters are less modern in their viewpoints. However, in general elections, he said, populism is less successful because mainstream voters tend to be more diverse and moderate and emotionally driven rhetoric tends to make populist candidates appear underprepared.