Find out below what our alums are up to, where they've gotten jobs, and what graduate students are publishing while they're still in the program.
From early childhood in working class neighborhoods in São Paulo, Brazil, Fernanda Rosa paid close attention to inequality and injustice. The 2019 graduate of the doctoral program in Communication Studies at the School of Communication has carried that passion for social justice into everything she has done since.
Rosa wrote her dissertation about how inequalities function at the deepest layers of internet infrastructure, between the Global North and South. Her dissertation, “Global Internet Interconnection Infrastructure: Materiality, Concealment and Surveillance in Contemporary Communication” was defended with distinction. She is an Assistant Professor in the Science, Technology and Society department at Virginia Tech.
After getting her MA in Public Policy and Management at Fundacao Getulio Vargas in São Paulo, Rosa took a research position at Columbia University. While auditing a course, she was inspired by Laura DeNardis’ work on Internet governance. “Wow,” she thought, “how can she be so clear about such difficult stuff?”
Soon, she was working with Prof. DeNardis as her dissertation advisor.
After graduating, Rosa held a two-year Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Center for Advanced Research in Global Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. There, she developed her dissertation into a book, and published and submitted several research articles on conspiracy theories in Brazil, indigenous infrastructure, internet interconnection, and code ethnography, an original method to investigate underlying layers of the internet.
The Ph.D. program at AU was a great fit for Fernanda Rosa. “A three-year program for people who already have a master’s degree is a good match,” she says, pointing out to the five or more years common in programs where cohorts come straight from undergrad programs.
The focus on Media, Technology and Democracy was also key, because it “allowed me the freedom to go in the direction I wanted.” Its interdisciplinary nature “allows you to bring in theories and methods that are meaningful for you, without constraints.” Faculty introduce expansive ideas at this intersection, in areas ranging from disability research to LGBTQ studies to copyright.
“AU has this amazing group of scholars who are really committed to understanding technology better,” she said. She is still in touch with these professors, too. “They are truly inspiring and supportive. I’m always in touch with them, no matter what.”
By Neil Perry, PhD Class of 2024
When Dorian Davis decided to pivot away from acting and writing in the entertainment industry—he’d started out as an MTV host--“college professor” might have seemed a bit of a stretch. But it turned out that he could bring his performance chops and storytelling ability to the unfamiliar challenge of researching, to sprint through SOC’s PhD program.
Today, Prof. Dorian Davis teaches in the media studies program at Webster University, in St. Louis, MO. His areas of expertise and research are political communication and social media. He also formed an Anti-Racist Task Force at Webster and has won two faculty research awards.
Prof. Davis turned to AU’s Media, Technology and Democracy PhD program because he was fascinated with social media’s effects in political communication. The combination was perfect, he thought. “You can’t understand one of those things without thinking about the others,” he said. “Media and technology can either be used to promote democracy or subvert democracy. So, studying all three gives us a more holistic view of the forces that shape society.”
He also liked the accelerated program—and used it adeptly to finish within three years. And he was hired before he even had his PhD in hand.
But there was a learning curve, he admitted. “I had no research experience. But the instructors were supportive, and the courses were enlightening, so I developed a lot of knowledge and skills I wouldn’t have had otherwise.”
He ended up writing his dissertation on Twitter and agenda-setting in the 2016 election . He’s since published, with Professor Aram Sinnreich, an analysis of President Trump’s tweets that predicts when Trump is lying and written about President Biden’s use of social media to project empathy.
“I also had the chance in that program to be entrepreneurial,” he said. “There’s institutional support for sure, but we were encouraged to create our own opportunities as well. I’ve had some research articles and conference presentations result from that spirit of entrepreneurship.” For example, he presented “Is Twitter a Generalizable Public Sphere? A Comparison of 2016 Campaign Issue Importance among General and Twitter Publics” at the International Conference on Social Media & Society.
“And I made connections in that program with people I now consider friends, colleagues, collaborators, and mentors.”
Davis recommends the PhD program to anyone “looking for a rigorous, collegial, collaborative program where you can work with some of the top scholars in communication today.”
By Mariana Sánchez Santos, PhD Class of 2023
So, how does a filmmaker get to be a postdoctoral research scientist at Columbia University’s Data Science Institute? Ask Dr. Isabelle A. Zaugg, who joined the institute after completing her Ph.D. from the American University’s School of Communication.
“I was actually brought to the institute because of my qualitative research skills,” says Zaugg. She learnt these skills while studying digitally disadvantaged languages—which are not fully supported in digital spaces—during her doctoral program at SOC.
Zaugg’s dissertation traces the digital history of Ethiopian and Eritrean languages, which use the Ethiopic script. “I looked at language and script choices being made on Facebook pages popular among Ethiopians, where you see a considerable number of Amharic speakers,” she says.
Part of her dissertation involves “non-traditional content analysis” of Facebook data. Another part draws on in-depth interviews with pioneers who developed the first digital tools to support Ethiopian language speakers and contributed to the script’s inclusion in Unicode, the universal standard for representing text in digital format.
She graduated in 2017. But Zaugg, who grew up in the San Luis Valley of Southern Colorado and was introduced to the power of images while studying Art Semiotics at Brown, initially came to SOC for a Master’s in Film.
“In my second year, I received a Fulbright scholarship and went to Ethiopia,” she says. It was a life-changing experience. Zaugg partnered with a local social enterprise named Whiz Kids Workshop to produce one season of a children’s TV show. “I also taught filmmaking to arts education students at Addis Ababa University,” she adds.
Zaugg wanted to become an independent filmmaker but decided to apply to the Ph.D. program after taking a course with Dr. Patricia Aufderheide, who teaches both film and communication studies at SOC. “I was offered a spot in the program, and it was a dynamic transition for me.”
She has fond memories of her time as a doctoral student in the McKinley building, which houses SOC. She especially remembers the mentorship she received from her advisors, Drs. Rhonda Zaharna and Deen Freelon. Zaharna’s scholarly focus is intercultural and international strategic communication, while Freelon, who has since moved to the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, specializes in computational research on digital activism and social inequality. Working with Dr. Laura DeNardis, a global thought-leader on internet governance and technical infrastructure, also helped develop her research agenda. “It was fantastic to benefit from their diverse perspectives,” Zaugg says.
It was this rare combination of qualitative research skills and computational know-how that led Zaugg to Columbia University. She initially joined as a Mellon-Sawyer Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society and collaboratively led a seminar on “Global Language Justice” for two years. Later, she moved to the Data Science Institute.
Zaugg is part of the Collaboratory initiative, which supports the integration of data science courses with traditional disciplines at Columbia. She has co-authored a Harvard Data Science Review article with colleagues on how this initiative can serve as a model for cross-disciplinary data science coursework at other institutions. She has also designed and taught two courses at Columbia, including the course “Multilingual Technologies and Language Diversity,” which won a Collaboratory grant. She co-teaches this course a computational linguist, Dr. Smaranda Muresan.
While continuing to teach and work on her research projects at Columbia, Zaugg will also take on the position of Program Director and Project Coordinator of Advancing Public Health Research in Eastern Africa through Data Science Training, funded by the National Institutes of Health. The project will design and implement new public health data science training programs at Addis Ababa University and University of Nairobi.
But Zaugg remains a filmmaker at heart. As a student, she made successful documentaries and narrative films about life in Colorado, including “The Strong Force,” which was screened at multiple film festivals in 2017. More recently, she has been collaborating with her husband, Abel Tilahun, as a creative producer on a film that explores the contributions of art, images, and imagination to space exploration. “I’m always ready to jump back into filmmaking,” she says.
Zaugg also remains proud of her SOC roots. The Ph.D. program was relatively new when she joined. “I’ve been very impressed with how quickly it’s gained prominence and prestige,” she says. “I believe that’s thanks to the profiles of amazing faculty, the selection of very good candidates, and excellent mentoring.”
Bu Junki Nakahara
Even trailblazers need mentors. Jan Lauren Boyles knows this well.
Boyles, a tenured associate professor at Iowa State University's Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication, was the first graduate of the American University’s School of Communication (SOC) PhD program, defending her dissertation in 2014.
“I'm really grateful for the faculty that really made an investment in students,” Boyles said in an interview. “I feel that something that sets the SOC apart is that the faculty really are engaged …. If not for folks like Kathryn Montgomery [the founding director of the PhD program who retired in 2018], I would have not have been able to finish in three years. The mentorship was really what made it a wonderful experience for me.”
Boyles’ dissertation, When the Newsprint Fades: How the Media Ecology of New Orleans Produces News Knowledge, was a case study of disruptive innovation in the news industry. The study examined the news ecology in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It found that journalists navigate both physical and digital spaces, where they engage directly with audiences. Boyles said the dissertation also found that people expect to be actively involved in the process of newsmaking.
Boyles’ background in journalism helped in conducting in-depth interviews. She worked as well to expand her methodological skills, recalling:
“I started with qualitative methods and then, while I was at the SOC, I also was fortunate enough to have some internships and fellowships and ultimately a fulltime position at the Pew Research Center. While I was there, I acquired more of the quantitative skills in survey research,” which allowed her to “marry those two halves” of research methodology in her dissertation.
During her time at SOC Boyles said she worked strategically by creating multiple mini deadlines to reach academic goals. Boyles found her relationships with faculty to be vital, noting: “The faculty really encouraged me and guided me to look for professional opportunities, beyond what I ever thought possible.”
Finding down time while in an accelerated doctoral program can be challenging but it’s important, she said, adding:
“Finding time to have dinner with friends or work out or, do something that's going to get you away from the computer screen, get you away from the research so that you can come back and be a bit recharged. It's hard to balance all of it but it can be done.”
Boyles joined the Iowa State faculty in August 2014 and earned tenure there in April 2020. In 2016, she was a Scripps Howard Visiting Professor in Journalism and spent two weeks in residence at the Post and Courier newspaper in Charleston, SC.
She also has received the Early Achievement in Teaching Award and Graduate Student Mentoring Award from Iowa State's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Additionally, Boyles has become a force within the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, serving as vice chair, and now chair, of the organization’s Council of Divisions, which seeks to promote high standards in conference programming.
To focus on her writing these days, Boyles sometimes seeks out a quiet corner of the library at Iowa State, a place she has likened to “the Acela quiet car of Iowa State’s campus” and has occasionally mentioned on social media.
“I find that it's a place where I can turn off email,” she said. “I can just be in quiet solitude and really think and focus. Sometimes that's hard to do when you're in your office or you're on and you want to be there for your colleagues and students, sometimes you need that time to just focus.”
Bay State College, Boston
Iowa State University
Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab, American University
Santa Barbara City College
Savannah State University
Texas A&M International University
University of Peshawar, Pakistan
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Center for Media & Social Impact, American University
Center for Advanced Research in Global Communication, University of Pennsylvania
Data Science Institute, Columbia University
National Anti-Bullying Centre (ABC), Dublin City University
Center for Policing Equity
Peace Tech Lab
Pew Research Center
Ranking Digital Rights Project, New America Foundation
Goodwin Simon Strategic Research
Cyber and Information Security Division, Apache Independent Experts
Agency for International Development
National Telecommunications and Information Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce
With Professor Saif Shahin. “All the president's media: How news coverage of sanctions props up the power elite and U.S. hegemony,” in S. H. Davis and I. Ness (Eds.), Sanctions as war (Studies in Critical Social Sciences Series). Brill Publishers, 2021.
With Stokes, B., Arroyo, H., Loewen, M., Karr, C. J. (2020). A Playful City in the Cards: Sharing Power in Game Design by Extending the Card Metaphor. CHI PLAY ’20: Extended Abstracts of the 2020 Annual Symposium on Computer-Human Interaction in Play, 375–378. Presented virtually at CHI PLAY, Ottawa, Canada.
With Prof. Filippo Trevisan and Vaughan, M., and Vromen, A. (2020) “Mobilizing Personal Narratives: The Rise of Digital ‘Story Banking’ in U.S. Grassroots Advocacy,” Journal of Information Technology and Politics, 17(2): 146-160.
With Prof. Saif Shahin. “Not ready for prime time: biometrics and biopolitics in the (un)making of California’s facial recognition ban,” in Pieter Verdegem, ed., AI for Everyone? University of Westminster Press, 2021.