You can’t accomplish anything without the possibility of failure.
~Lazarus Lake – creator of the world’s most difficult ultramarathon
I’ve just spent the last 4 years in the very privileged position as a PhD student in Analytics and Data Science at Kennesaw State University. Today I “defended” my position in the field to earn the title “Dr.” A PhD program is very much like an ultramarathon; there are moments where you feel badass, moments where you have no idea why you’re doing what you’re doing, and many existential crises in between. Just like an ultramarathon, even though you have to put your own feet one in front of the other to get the finish line, the journey is often not possible without incredible support. I’ve had so many amazing family and friends act as my PhD ultramarathon crew over the last few years, I knew it would not be possible to thank them all during the public defense presentation. For that reason I’m including the full text of my dissertation acknowledgements here. Even then, I know I must have missed some folks. Please know, if you’ve patiently remained in my life these last 4 years, or became my friend during that time and actually like me still, then you are so loved and appreciated.
Here is where I get to use my own voice and time to thank the incredible people in my life, hopefully without the band playing me off the stage. That also means I have no excuse if I accidentally leave someone out, but it will probably still happen so apologies in advance. First and foremost, a PhD is not a solo adventure and my husband, Adam, knows that more than anyone. He walked this path with me for the past 4 years, and took the brunt of the highs and lows, stress, mood swings, and every other emotion that comes with self-imposed academic masochism. He took it all like a champ; there is no one else in my world who lifts me up more than he does, and I’m forever grateful for the best partner in an incredible adventure.
My mom and dad, Tim and Sheryl Moore, always joke that they do not know how two ‘C’ students created an ‘A’, but 23 years of cumulative education and too many degrees later, here we are. My parents did not always understand what made me tick, but they are masters at supporting whatever each of their unique kids needed or wanted in life. From putting me on a plane by myself at age 10 to go to Space Camp to traveling all over the country for robotics competitions, they made sure my brother and I never missed an opportunity. When they moved me 1000 miles away from home to Atlanta when I was 18 for college, I did not fully understand the difficulty and sacrifice of that transition at that time. It is an amazing testament to their faith in me and my ability to face challenges (which I had yet to recognize in myself), although I am not sure they realized I would still be here 17 years later. I grew up on Long Island but my parents now live in the great state of New Hampshire. Whenever people ask me where I am from, I almost always respond, “New Hampshire”, because home will always be wherever I find my mommy and daddy.
My “baby” brother, Dan, is one of my biggest supporters even though he also thinks I am a huge nerd. It only took 35 years, but I finally felt cool after I started doing some sports analytics and Dan was finally interested in my nerdiness. I knew I had made it in life when I was able to call my brother for sports stats advice. Now I just need to get a job with the Yankees and I will officially be the best sister ever. I am working on it Dan. 🙂
My sister-in-law and brother-in-law, Jenn and Brandon, are the family everyone else wishes they could marry into. The time and adventures we get to enjoy together have brought so much joy to my life. Now that I have finally reached the end of this academic journey I really hope there are many more adventures to come, hopefully with me being less of an anxiety-filled mess. Thank you for your enduring love and patience.
I think the two biggest supporters of the Jessica Rudd fanclub will always be my grandparents, Marvin and Sandy Udasin (in blessed memory). Granna and Grandpop always seemed so excited seeing the personal and, particularly, academic achievements of their grandchildren. Granna was an exceptionally happy, caring person who taught me how to make the best matzoh ball soup and latkes. When I was scared during a thunderstorm, she would just tell me it was the sound of god bowling. She was a very talented afghan knitter; whenever I was having a particularly bad day trying to write this beast of a dissertation, I would sit at my desk wrapped in one of her many cozy creations. It was always like getting a hug. She left us last fall but the last time I saw her I was able to tell her that I would be the first doctor in the family very soon. Whenever I hear thunder now, I just think she must be bowling. Granpop used to joke with me when I told him I got 100 on a test, “well, why didn’t you get any extra credit?” He was always very proud to share that he “graduated last at Brooklyn Tech”. He was a Navy veteran and very proud American, and one of his ways of sharing that was to hand out state quarters to all the kids. It was his way of giving back and making sure no one left his house without change in their pocket. I have a roll of Georgia State quarters sitting on my desk that I meant to hand out at my defense as a way of honoring his memory and giving something back to an incredible community who has supported me through this process. I can no longer do that in a virtual defense but will hold on to them for a time when we can all meet in person again. If you are reading this, you definitely deserve a quarter. This whole dissertation is dedicated in honor of Granna and Grandpop, and the many other family members who are no longer with us including grandfather Richard, grandmother Agnes, Uncle Rich, Aunt Jan, and my father-in-law Hollis Rudd.
I am also incredibly grateful to an amazing family of friends, most of whom are from the Atlanta running and cycling community. The Atlanta Track Club community has given me mental and physical strength, much laughter, and a little bit of insanity required to take on literal marathons as well as the metaphorical marathon that is a PhD. In my application letter to the program, I suggested that completing a PhD would be like completing a marathon or ultramarathon. I was not wrong. Very special credit is due to my fun size wonder twin, Tina, who is an incredible cheerleader, and always supported this PhD process in the best possible way; with a never-ending supply of mimosas. Stephanie and Amy round out the Charlie’s Angels girl-gang that every woman deserves. Carol Gsell invited me on the best Boston Marathon weekend of all time and deserves rock star status for editing this entire dissertation on last minute notice in less than 2 days. To Michael and Brad who are always up for a Backstreet Boys concert or a trip to Six Flags. There are really so many other people I am so lucky to have in my life, I would list them all if I didn’t think it would jeopardize my ability to actually graduate this year. If you are my friend from Atlanta Track Club, Bike Ride Across Georgia, or BibRave you are on the list. I owe you all a party like it’s 1999 as soon as quarantine possible.
To the three incredible mentors who wrote my recommendations for entrance into this program. My biostatistics professor from Rollins School of Public Health, Paul Weiss, helped spark my love of statistics and analytics in general. His mantra, “there are people in p-values” perhaps started the obsession that resulted in this dissertation. My team lead in CDC Division of Viral Diseases, Aaron Curns, told me that he hired me to be a “Jane of all trades” and then gave me the space in my career to do just that. Atlanta Track Club coach and 2018 Olympian Amy Begley (the same Amy in the aforementioned Charlie’s Angels girl gang), gave me the confidence to think of myself as an athlete and inspired me through her own perseverance on the road to the Olympics. I am honored to have her as a friend; this PhD is my own Olympics.
Of course, a PhD journey is not possible without an academic family. I am incredibly thankful to have an all-star committee of Dr. Gene Ray, Dr. Jennifer Priestley, and Dr. Lin Li. I had the pleasure of working with Dr. Li on a really fun “data for good” project for Bert’s Big Adventure in 2018 and was very happy she was excited to join my dissertation committee. Her unique insight, especially after my proposal presentation, was very helpful for formulating a well-connected research problem.
I am pretty sure that Dr. Ray became my committee chair through a long series of begging and no shortage of tears, but he deserves now a long series of thanks for his invaluable input, time, and constant encouragement. One of the most difficult parts of academic research, in my opinion, is learning how to feel confident in your knowledge and ideas. Dr. Ray through his many roles as professor, adviser, dissertation chair, and a simply friendly ear when I needed it, taught me how to “make it my own” and find my academic voice. I kicked and screamed the whole way but, by the end, I can say I enjoyed it because I ended up part of an awesome academic lineage.
Dr. Jennifer Priestley, Mother of Dragons, is the most influential academic and professional cheerleader I have ever had in my life. I would not be in this program at all had it not been for her belief in my ability to succeed in a program I was, on paper, not qualified to attend. Dr. Priestley works hard to make sure the Analytics and Data Science students have as many academic and professional opportunities as possible, and I benefited from so many of them. She wrote me countless recommendations whenever I asked, and never said no to something I was interested in pursuing. I am most thankful for her determination to make the PhD program full of talented women, as well as her ability to encourage the best work from people. I still don’t think I can beat her at Galaga but, no, I’m not whinging and my heart is definitely not troubled.
There are many other faculty and staff connected with the Analytics and Data Science Institute who have been incredible resources to me over the past 4 years. In particular, Dr. Sherrill Hayes has been my fellow social sciences warrior in the Institute, and provided key encouragement for finding my own way with a dissertation topic I felt very strongly pursuing. His insights helped me articulate and connect my passions for both social science and data science. I am also immensely grateful for the many hours he allowed me to use his office during my moments of existential crises, as well as many discussions of all things nerd-related. Cara Reeve is an indispensable resource for every student and faculty within our program; I am confident we would all be quite useless without her. Dr. DeMaio, Dr. Westlund, Dr. Yang, Dr. Xie, Dr. Moazzez, Dr. Ni, Dr. Ferguson, Dr. Chowdhury, Dr. Laval, and Mr. Michael Frankel have all had incredible influence on my academic and professional development while at KSU and I would not have made it to the finish line without any one of them.
Finally, a PhD is truly not possible without the support and teamwork of awesome classmates. My fellow Cohort 2 classmates Yiyun Zhou, Lili Zhang, Yan Wang, and Shashank Hebbar are perhaps the best team of people with whom I will ever work. My “mei mei” (little sisters) Lili and Yan, are the most brilliant women I know and never had a shortage of kindness or patience whenever I needed it the most. When I entered the program with barely enough mathematics background to survive, Bob Vanderheyden and Bogdan Gadidov provided an endless supply of notes and explanations, and Bob was always the best classroom partner. Lauren Staples is the classmate and friend every female academic deserves. Sanjoosh Akkineni often drove me crazy, but he always knows how to throw a birthday party. To all of the current and future cohorts of students: “The pursuit of a PhD is an enduring daring adventure (Lailah Gifty Akita).” I’m glad we took this adventure together.