The Doctors Are In

Rutgers–Camden’s three Ph.D. programs have worldwide impact

Prentiss Dantzler, who earned a Ph.D. in public affairs/community development, taught at Colorado College, where this photo was taken. He is now an assistant professor at Georgia State University.

By Tom McLaughlin

When Neeta Goel arrived at Rutgers University–Camden nine years ago to begin her doctoral studies, she had spent almost two decades in her native India working to improve the lives of children. She hoped that a Ph.D. in childhood studies would deepen her understanding of children’s issues, which it did, but Rutgers–Camden offered her much more. “The curriculum struck the perfect balance between enjoyable qualitative research courses and a significant opportunity to build my skills in quantitative research,” said Goel, who earned her Rutgers–Camden doctorate in 2016 and now works for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Delhi, India.

A senior program officer of measurement, learning, and evaluation for the Gates Foundation, Goel said the expert statistical skills that she developed at Rutgers–Camden serve her well in her role focusing on insights from research and evaluation to inform and improve policies and programs. She is a member of a growing cadre of alumni of Rutgers–Camden’s burgeoning doctoral programs—in childhood studies, computational and integrative biology, and public affairs/community development—who are making their marks throughout the world. “Our three Ph.D. programs, each of which has been in place for more than a decade, have produced exceptional scholars and professionals who are leaders in their fields,” said Dan Hart, a distinguished professor of psychology and childhood studies who is serving as interim provost. “These doctoral programs continue to flourish, and will have a long future of sending Rutgers University–Camden scholars and professionals into the world.”

Neeta Goel, who earned a Ph.D. in childhood studies, is a senior officer for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation supporting children’s programs in India.

The Nation’s First Childhood Studies Ph.D.

The doctoral program in childhood studies at Rutgers–Camden launched in 2007, becoming the nation’s first Ph.D. program of its kind. Sarada Balagopalan, associate professor and director of graduate studies for the Department of Childhood Studies, said that Goel’s success is emblematic of the program’s emphasis on research that focuses on the issues, concepts, and debates on childhoods across time and space. In addition to Goel, successful graduates of the childhood studies doctoral program include Deborah Shine Valentine GSC’13, executive director of early care and education at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Lara Saguisag GSC’13, an expert on children’s and young adult literature who is an associate professor of English at the College of Staten Island–City University of New York. “The department’s unique multidisciplinary training is a valuable asset to successfully pursuing highquality doctoral research as well as a broad range of careers related to children and childhood,” Balagopalan said.

Goel was able to take a lifelong passion for working with children—she spent years as an aid worker assisting disadvantaged children—and focus her doctoral dissertation on how an Indian government antipoverty policy affects the life outcomes of children. “I found that we may be mistaken in our assumption that these programs always benefit children,” Goel said.

Balagopalan noted that such invaluable contributions to solving real-world issues are indicative of the childhood studies program’s ability to prepare students for successful careers as academics, as well as policymakers and practitioners, in the fields of child welfare, education, and child advocacy. “Graduates of the program become productive advocates for children and figure in a larger discourse of childhood studies in policy, politics, and scholarship,” Balagopalan said.

An Integrative Approach

Back in New Jersey, fellow Rutgers–Camden alumnus Matt Niepielko, an assistant professor of computational biology at Kean University, is teaching his students how to navigate multiple scientific disciplines. Integrating computer programming, mathematics, and experimental biology is a rarefied, comprehensive skill set that he learned en route to becoming the first graduate of the Ph.D. program in computational and integrative biology in 2014. “The advancement of research technology has enabled biologists to collect an enormous amount of data at a very fast rate,” he said. “In order to make sense of these data, one must have a diverse skill set and understand different disciplines of science. My training in the Center for Computational and Integrative Biology has enabled me to adapt to these advancements.”

Grace Brannigan, an associate professor of physics and graduate program director at the Rutgers–Camden center, said the application of computational approaches to fundamental principles from chemistry and physics proves beneficial, time and again, to the study of biological systems. “Physics and chemistry provide powerful toolboxes that have been very useful to biology,” she said. “But gone are the days of working out models by hand—we now allow computers to do the modeling.”

Brannigan said one of the hallmarks of the Ph.D. program is its integrative approach. It prepares scholars such as Niepielko to explore how their research fits into the larger body of existing biological research and equips them with tools from other disciplines to inform their work. In addition to Niepielko’s success, Rutgers–Camden doctoral graduates hold post-doctoral and tenure-track faculty positions throughout the United States and Europe; researcher positions in companies such as Genentech, Evotech, and LG Chem; and jobs with federal agencies such as the Federal Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “For students, working in a lab with an integrative approach allows them to have a more flexible mindset, and will open them up to studying many different problems at later points in their career,” Brannigan said.

Niepielko’s quick trajectory from Ph.D. student to tenure-track professor teaching biology and computer programming courses is a testament to the approach. “The unique skill set that I gained from the Rutgers–Camden program has also allowed me to collaborate on projects and build new relationships with other scientists that are outside my main field of research,” Niepielko said.

Matt Niepielko, who earned a Ph.D. in computational and integrative biology, is an assistant professor at Kean University.

Public Affairs and Community Development

Prentiss Dantzler, a 2016 graduate of Rutgers–Camden’s Ph.D. in public affairs/community development, is busy preparing the next generation of leaders and advocates in community development as an assistant professor in the Urban Studies Institute in the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta.

Dantzler, who was named a Fulbright Scholar in fall 2019, was inspired to study community development more than a decade ago. He graduated from Penn State University and returned to his home in West Philadelphia in 2009 to see change had come. An old housing site in the neighborhood was fenced off and awaiting demolition, and his family was facing a foreclosure crisis that mirrored similar crises happening throughout the country. “The idea of community development was really prevalent and very personal to me,” he said.

He soon turned his attention to Rutgers–Camden’s Ph.D. program to get a handle on the many moving parts that shape a community. He particularly wanted to investigate housing issues more closely and jumped at the opportunity to do so in his own backyard under the guidance of Rutgers–Camden scholars making headway in the field. “I got to see firsthand how communities come together and how they are destroyed,” Dantzler said.

Dantzler credited the doctoral program for giving him the space to cultivate his own journey. In addition to working as a full-time research assistant, he was able to pursue his own research, publishing papers on housing policy with fellow cohort members. He ultimately developed an “intersectional look” at community issues, he said, working alongside researchers and practitioners across a wide range of fields, including city planners, sociologists, economists, and public policy professionals. Moreover, he had the rewarding opportunity to pass along what he had gleaned while leading his first undergraduate courses in urban affairs. “The Rutgers–Camden doctoral program was a great opportunity for me to become more independent, and that has really translated into me being more successful in my career,” said Dantzler, who taught at Colorado College from 2016 to 2019, when he joined the Georgia State faculty.

Dantzler is among a field of outstanding graduates of the public affairs/community development doctoral program. Other notable alumni include Wendy Osefo GSC’16, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University and frequent commentator on national television, and Christopher Wheeler GSC’17, the chief data officer for the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs. “We’re dedicated to ‘doing the work’ of community development,” said Stephen Danley, graduate director of the program and an associate professor of public policy and administration. “That means supporting and training our students as they conduct world-class research that has real-life impact in communities struggling with issues such as gentrification, displacement, and lack of affordable housing.”

Posted in: 2020 Spring, Features

Comments are closed.