Dual doctorate student defends dissertation virtually

By Steven Bartolotta

Grace Pham

The outbreak of COVID-19 has impacted the educational plans of millions, but Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine student Grace Pham wasn’t about to allow it to get in the way of hers.

Pham, who is pursuing the dual-doctorate degree of DO/PhD, is in the final stages of the marathon race to earn those degrees. There is extra motivation for Pham as she will become the first woman from her family to earn doctorate degree of any kind.

Pham’s last hurdle to the dual-doctorate was the defense of her dissertation. But because of the outbreak, the in-person defense was switched to a virtual one, something that had never been done before.

“Defending a dissertation is both exciting and stressful for a student,” said Dr. Michael Smith, who advises dual-doctorate candidates and serves as TCOM’s Director of Year 1 Curriculum. “Converting to a virtual format for the defense with just two weeks’ notice adds to this stress.”

Pham, who as a child when recess came along would stay inside to read the encyclopedia, took the news in stride and began the virtual preparations.

Pham and Dr. Keisa Mathis
Pham and her PhD advisor, Dr. Keisa Mathis stand in front of her presentation at Research Appreciation Day in 2017.

“The transition from preparing for an in-person defense to a virtual defense via Zoom was actually really simple,” Pham said.  “I will say that, in some ways, a virtual Zoom defense isn’t as nerve-wracking because you’re sharing your screen with your PowerPoint open. There’s no imperative to make periodic eye contact with your committee or audience members.”

Pham’s dissertation, “Dysfunctional neuroimmune pathways promote the development and maintenance of lupus hypertension” not only was well received, it was nearly flawless.

“We had been practicing well before COVID-19, so switching to the virtual presentation just took a few rounds of practice to make sure we understood Zoom controls and had optimized lighting, sound and other aesthetics,” said Dr. Keisa Mathis, Assistant Professor of the Department of Physiology and Pham’s PhD advisor. “Her talk was flawless and I think it was because of this extra effort.”

“She handled the presentation delivery, fielding questions from the 50-plus attendees, and occasional WiFi challenges with grace and poise,” Dr. Smith said.  “Her passion for pushing the research envelope and for clinical practice is very evident, and bodes well for a career filled with success and leadership in her field.”

The committee passed Pham with distinction, which is the highest grade and recognition one can receive while defending their dissertation. Pham, who will be the only graduating DO/PhD student in the TCOM Class of 2020, overcame what she described as an “isolating experience at times” since pursuing the dual-degree in TCOM and the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.

She is headed to the Baylor College of Medicine for a psychiatry residency, and she obtained the only spot dedicated for a research track in its program. She plans using the knowledge, training and education she received at HSC to help her patients in many different areas.

“The discovery and creation of knowledge is one of the highest pursuits a person can undertake, and leaves a lasting imprint upon our collective understanding of this world,” Pham said. “I have many research interests in psychiatry, including psychodynamic therapy, autism in adult women, suicide prevention, and improving tele-psychiatry access and implementation, and I think my PhD will serve as a strong foundation for conducting clinical research.”

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