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Pamela Bjorklund

Pamela Bjorklund won a Best Dissertation prize for studies in the field of nursing.

No dissing these dissertations

From the subatomic realm to the world stage, four award-winning dissertations cover the intellectual map

By Deane Morrison

June 12, 2007

What do people with borderline personality disorder have in common with the Pentagon's Vietnam travel brochures of the early 1960s? Two things, actually. Both are largely invisible to the public, and both have been brought to light by winners of the University Graduate School's Best Dissertation award for 2007. Every year, one graduate student from each of four major areas is selected for a dissertation that stands out from the pack. Going where no researcher has gone before, this year's winners have pulled back the curtain on worlds most of us never think about.

Social and behavioral sciences and education:
Pamela Bjorklund, nursing

School of Nursing student and instructor Pamela Bjorklund wrote about the moral and ethical work to be done in helping the mentally ill function in society. The unseen world that drew her in was a small residential facility where women with borderline personality disorder, or BPD, tried to get their lives in order. People with BPD tend to be impulsive and to suffer instability in their relationships. Such women may walk among us every day, but their condition isn't obvious. Until, says Bjorklund, one such person, who is normally invisible, " ... suddenly shows up to disrupt the workaday world of more powerful others." In about 10 percent of diagnosed BPD cases, the patient eventually commits suicide. For these people, who are more often women than men, rational behavior is difficult for a variety of reasons. Yet, to function in society, they must learn to take the responsibility of becoming competent people in charge of their own lives. And, asks Bjorklund, how do professionals deal ethically and morally with such patients? "Taking responsibility has a variety of forms and meanings in that setting," she says. "[The condition has a] complex etiology. Some are episodically psychotic. They have issues about identity and attachment. There is not a drug to control symptoms per se." Caregivers have a moral responsibility to undertake the hard work of helping BPD patients normalize the chaos and "craziness" not just of individual lives, but of the "craziness" of the larger mental health system, Bjorklund concludes. It's a matter of "uncovering, recognizing, and resolving the paradoxes invisibly embedded in everyday life.

Biological and life sciences:
Laura Diaz-Martinez, genetics, cell biology, and development

It was a collaboration with a Spanish scientist that made Diaz-Martinez, who hails from Mexico, fall in love with chromosomes. For her dissertation, she examined how chromosomes--the strings of protein and DNA that harbor most of our genes--stay together until it's time for them to part.

Laura Diaz-Martinez
Laura Diaz-Martinez won for her dissertation on chromosomal biology.

This happens whenever any cell in our body undergoes cell division. In almost all of our cells, we have two copies of every chromosome, one from our mother and one from our father. Each must be passed on to the two new cells created when a "mother" cell divides. To do that, the chromosomes first must duplicate themselves. After duplication, each chromosome exists as a double strand; that is, it is now two strands of identical material, bound together by rings of a protein called, appropriately, cohesin. When the cell divides, the two strands come apart and end up in separate "daughter" cells, and the cohesin dissolves. The role of cohesin is, therefore, to keep the strands from separating prematurely. Were the two strands not held together, they could easily end up in the same daughter cell, and genetic chaos would result. What Diaz-Martinez discovered was that in human cells, cohesin isn't the only thing holding the chromosomes together. "When we got rid of cohesin rings [artificially early], the two strands stayed together," she says. Diaz-Martinez' discovery of evidence for a new agent holding chromosomes together is bound to generate intense interest, given the importance of ensuring the proper function of chromosomes.

Physical sciences and engineering:
Nathan Schultz, chemistry

Just as the ways people interact in private can have profound implications for public life, so the ways in which small groups of atoms interact can control large-scale behavior of substances. Take, for example, powdered aluminum, which has a very public role as a rocket propellant.

Nathan Schultz
Nathan Schultz won for his work on the chemistry of nanoparticles.

Looking at nanoparticles of aluminum containing between two and thousands of atoms, Schultz found a way to compute how easily any two particles come together--or don't. Such a measurement can only be done on a computer, Schultz says, but is important for calculating other properties of nanoparticle-based materials so that--as is crucial for rocket fuel--their behavior can be understood and controlled. As nanoparticles of different chemical composition increasingly become the building blocks of components for electronics and other uses, Schultz's work will find many more applications.

Arts and humanities:
Scott Laderman, American studies

The lens of travel and tourism may seem a strange way to view the history of the United States and Vietnam, but Laderman uses it to reveal how both countries attempt to shape opinions about present and past political situations.

Scott Laderman
Scott Laderman won for his dissertation on the role of tourism in shaping ideas about Vietnam.

Following the Geneva accords of 1954, the newly established South Vietnamese government saw tourism as a way of legitimizing itself. Besides pumping foreign currency into the treasury, tourism generated warm sentiments toward the new southern state "that would translate into popular support and diplomatic goodwill, thus serving the interests of both America and its client in multiple ways," Laderman says.

Back in the USA, the Pentagon published pocket guides for Vietnam in 1963, 1966, and 1971, using the allure of exotic travel to sell military service in Southeast Asia. The guides not only touted sightseeing and breathtaking beaches, but showed how U.S. servicemen were Cold War actors in the American campaign to defeat the revolutionary insurgency in southern Vietnam. "I argue that tourism has been--and, in important ways, has continued to be--intertwined with the projection of American power," says Laderman. Laderman is now an assistant professor at UMD. Bjorklund is an assistant professor at the College of St. Scholastica, Diaz-Martinez is a postdoctoral associate at the University of Texas, and Schultz is a senior research chemist at 3M.