Ph.D. Emory University

Samantha Vanhorn: I am given the ability to truly study what I want to study and that is my job!

Interviewed by Nowreen

Interviewer’s note: Thanks to Samantha for sharing her story about her experiences as a doctoral student at Emory University. Emory University is a private research university in Atlanta, in the U.S. state of Georgia.

Samantha Vanhorn

Samantha Vanhorn

Ph.D. student

Department of Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies, Emory University

I am a fourth-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies (WGSS) at Emory University with a focus on lesbian body image experiences and disability studies; and a doctoral certificate student in the Center for Ethics studying bioethics.

I am given the ability to truly study what I want to study and that is my job—that’s super exciting, and literally nothing to complain about!

About me

I’m originally from Honolulu, Hawaii, and received both my BA and MA (I was in a dual-degree BA/MA program) in psychology from New School University in New York City. My track was specifically in research psychology— not clinical psychology.

While I did have wonderful opportunities to work and train within the realm of clinical psychology, my passion has always been ‘research’. During my BA/MA program, I had the privilege of working in a lab where we studied shame and borderline personality disorder (BPD). My own personal interest was (and continues to be) body image; even though shame and BPD are not my main interest, the skills and methodologies I acquired by working in this lab really honed my ability to be an excellent researcher. Plus research experience is so important (and fun!) and luckily I knew this.

After graduating with my M.A. I went on to work as the research director in the department of pediatrics in a New York City hospital. I graduated in the heart of the recession—no one was getting jobs, my own mother had just been laid off, and I remember applying for jobs that I technically wasn’t qualified for but I knew that I could do.

For example, the job description asked for someone with a Ph.D. or MD and I had only just received my MA! But I knew I could do all of the listed responsibilities and then some… so I applied and I got the job.

As a young professional really just starting out my career, I had no idea at the time just how much I was responsible for—it’s something I actually didn’t realize until after I left that job to come back to school for my doctorate degree.

As the research director, I attended grand rounds with attending physicians and residents, presented (and defended) our research proposals in many Institutional Review Board (IRB) meetings, taught research methodology workshops to medical students and residents, and assisted in various publications.

In short, in that position, I was the first line of ethical review. I had a say whether a research project could happen or not before it was submitted to the IRB and before the research even began— this is a really big deal! It’s because of this experience that I became so enamored with medical ethics and research ethics—namely, bioethics.

As such, at Emory University I am a fourth-year Ph.D. student within the Department of Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies (WGSS) with a focus on lesbian body image experiences and disability studies; and I am a doctoral certificate student in the Center for Ethics studying bioethics. My current goal is to work within the field of biotech as a bioethicist. I hope to be a “feminist narrative bioethicist”… and my end goal is to own my own bioethical research facility (a girl can dream!) where I am the head researcher and CEO.

Why Emory University

I could be wrong… but when I was starting to look into Ph.D. programs to specifically study body image, I kept finding two things:

  • Universities in areas I didn’t want to live in. For example, I knew I didn’t want to stay in New York City for a doctoral program for three reasons:
    1. I received two degrees in NYC and wanted to experience life and learning elsewhere.
    2. I’m from Hawaii. NYC is freezing. As such, I wanted to be out of the cold completely!
    3. NYC is expensive.
  • No one studied body image! Every doctoral program I found that kind of seemed to maybe relate to “body image” specifically studied eating disorders. That’s great, and that research totally needs to be done! Eating disorders are very important. But eating disorders are not my primary area of interest— body image is. When I did find programs that mentioned body image specifically, they tended to be related to medical school/psychiatry in some way. After working in a hospital for five years, I knew I had no interest in practicing medicine, so medical school wasn’t the right path for me.

I had zero experience with Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies or feminism in general—I had never taken any class related to gender studies or feminism and it was entirely new to me.

Emory’s WGSS department is the only Women’s Studies program I applied to because I honestly felt under-qualified (due to my lack of classroom experience with these topics.)

Even so, I had a hunch that Emory’s WGSS department would allow me to do the research I wanted to do. All other programs seemed to be telling me, “Hmm… well no one is doing what you want to study so maybe it’s not as important as you think… so why don’t you change your interest a bit and help Professor X do this other research instead!”

But Emory’s WGSS department seemed to say, “Wow that’s weird. How is no one studying this? If no one is studying this already then clearly it needs to be done… you might be the right person to do this. We don’t have anyone that can 100% guide you along the way since, as you know, no one is studying this! So you might have to figure out a lot on your own. But if you’re interested in taking that journey and doing a lot of really hard work… then we’ll support you.”

My research area: lesbian body language

I study lesbian body image. Within that main research interest, I incorporate knowledge from the fields of disability studies and bioethics.

Currently, my dissertation asks: to what extent can current concepts, theories, assumptions, and methods of body image studies accommodate lesbians? (Specifically, women who identify as lesbians.) This is the general question under which my project lies.

My dissertation is a project that explores the various concepts found within the topic of “lesbian body image” and seeks to critically reassess the study of and approach to body image as a whole.

In order to answer this question, I employ the fields of disability studies and bioethics as my theoretical and methodological tools of analyses for the study of body image broadly, and lesbian body image in particular— tools that have heretofore been largely overlooked and neglected in existing studies of body image. In doing so, I hope to discern what questions about lesbian body image reveal about the strengths and weaknesses of the existing tools of analysis and measures found within body image research.

That is, to what extent does asking questions about lesbians challenge the very basic foundational core concepts, theories, assumptions, and methods of the whole field of body image studies? Ultimately, I want to explore how approaching the study of body image from the field of disability studies using a feminist narrative bioethical lens can shed more light on what is known and not known about lesbian embodiment and body image.

Focusing on women who identify as lesbians is one way to think about how the fields of disability studies and bioethics trouble what is currently understood about body image; focusing on the experiences of lesbians and new understandings of body image become a means to a larger end.

At this moment, my project and my participants will focus solely on cisgendered women who identify as lesbians. I am looking at how this positioning within gender and sexuality cannot be adequately addressed by the current body image measures and definitions. This coming semester, I will work on my project to show that I do understand “lesbian identity” and “queer identity” and be better able to articulate why my project will focus solely on cisgender women who identify as lesbians—I am still working through this.

I hope to be a “feminist narrative bioethicist”… and my end-goal is to own my own bioethical research facility (a girl can dream!) where I am the head researcher and CEO

Funding for my research

I am a domestic student. I am provided with a 100% tuition scholarship from Emory’s Laney Graduate School. In addition to my scholarship, I receive a monthly living stipend also from the graduate school (which I suppose is “funding for research,” in the sense that I am being “paid” to “work” (i.e. research) as a graduate student at Emory.)

On top of this stipend, I have a fellowship with another department in the university to help them with statistical analyses and assessment development.

Further, the graduate school sets aside additional funds for graduate students that are not part of our scholarship or stipend money—these additional non-competitive funds are limited to a total of $7,500 over your entire time within the program and can go toward things like conferences, training, and research.

Teaching or research assistantship within the Department

My department mandates both research and teaching assistantships. We all must be research assistants for at least one semester during the first years of our program.

We all are teaching assistants for at least two semesters, and we are expected to teach for at least two semesters on our own after the assistantship

What I love/hate about being in Atlanta

I love that I feel valued and supported by the graduate school as a whole. I love that I’m not freezing all the time and I love how relatively affordable Atlanta is (after living in only Hawaii and New York City, Atlanta is a much more affordable option.)

I hate the public transportation in Atlanta—you basically need a car and I hate that. I wish there was more “transparency” in my department—sometimes I feel like students are “kept in the dark” in some ways, which I think is unnecessary and unintentionally damaging.

My background as an undergraduate student

Psychology, Eugene Lang College: The New School for Liberal Arts, part of New School University in New York City.

Finding a supervisor and settling

Finding a supervisor was very challenging for me because no one studies lesbian body image! There was no one I could work “with” or “under” to learn more about lesbian body image. Further, I wasn’t familiar with gender studies at all or any feminist theory. I felt like I was starting from the ground up— and I was!— and everyone around me seemed to have advanced degrees in women’s studies, etc.

Once I got my footing and started to figure out the field bit-by-bit, I realized the beauty of how interdisciplinary WGSS truly is. As such, Irene Browne is my supervisor. She is a genius wizard when it comes to statistics and methodology! Since one of the main points in my dissertation is critiquing the existing body image methodologies, I knew she’d be an asset to my research and guide me in ways I didn’t know existed.

I also have Rosemarie Garland-Thomson on my committee, one of the “founding mothers” of disability studies, who has done a lot of work on embodiment and feminist theory.

Lastly, I have Cory Labrecque, a trained bioethicist, on my committee whose work often discusses ethics of bodies/embodiment, etc.

Just get stuff DONE. Not everything has to be absolutely perfect.

Life as a graduate student

Yes. I am literally “broke” all the time—however, I realize how incredibly privileged I am to be a “broke” graduate student. I am getting a FREE, excellent education. I am given the ability to truly study what I want to study and that is my job—that’s super exciting, and literally, nothing to complain about!

But leaving a high-paying position to come back to school, especially in a subject area I initially felt ill-prepared for, was very difficult. I miss reading, as crazy as that is. I read constantly, hundreds of pages a week, but I can’t remember the last time I actually picked up a book I only wanted to read instead of needed to read.

How I became interested in this field

Even though I am now studying within WGSS, my interest has always been body image. I remember being about 10 years old sitting inside Borders Books and Music skimming through the pages of various eating disorder and dieting books—I was always just fascinated with this topic.

My older sister has her psychology doctorate, so I grew up seeing her do psychology homework, etc. I thought she was “so cool” so I think that she unintentionally influenced me to be interested in psychology. But for me psychology was never an afterthought— I went to Eugene Lang College because of the great reputation their psychology program had, and I knew I could apply into the dual degree BA/MA program with the New School for Social Research and earn my MA in psychology simultaneously.

So even though I am now housed within WGSS and not psychology, my psychology background undoubtedly influences my research within WGSS. Plus, I’m gay… and to be quite blunt, there’s something special about identifying as a lesbian and doing such awesome research in a WGSS department. No, we’re not all gay! But we do get to be intellectually curious about a lot of really amazing issues, specifically as they pertain to women and equality.

Advice for students who wants to enter this field

Open your eyes! It’s totally interdisciplinary and that should be embraced.

Advice for new students new to this department

The first year will be hard and anyone who tells you otherwise is probably lying. The second-year will be harder. ENJOY YOUR SUMMERS! You truly will have earned it. The third year is like a taste of heaven after the coursework and various commitments you’ll encounter during the first and second years.

If your friend asks you to go out for a beer and you have “too much work to do,” go out for the beer. You need to keep your sanity, and you need to keep your friends. We all know that somehow that paper will get done, whether you have a beer or not. Just get it done. And that’s another thing—just get stuff DONE. Not everything has to be absolutely perfect.

For people who come to Atlanta expecting a “real” city like NYC or Tokyo, you’ll be disappointed. I actually was disappointed. It took me a long time to figure out how to love Atlanta… and I did figure it out, but it took me about two years.

To be fair, the first two years of my doctorate program were also the most challenging of my life and I’m sure that played into my emotions toward Atlanta.

But know that Atlanta isn’t a megacity—it’s very sprawling and the public transportation is truly awful (unless you need to get to the airport… then it’s pretty good.) I would advise saving money for a car or a scooter (I have a scooter and I love it!)

My short-term and long-term career plans

I have no interest in a tenure-track position and I never have. That’s helpful to me because all of the horror stories I hear about “no one hiring for tenure-track positions” don’t impact me in the same way that they may impact others.

That’s not to say that I won’t apply for tenure-track positions should the opportunity arise, but I’m more interested in positions that are more related to biotech/consulting/UX.

I’d love to get hired by a biotech company in Los Angeles, or somewhere along the west coast, where I could do bioethics in some capacity, while also learning more about my other interests (UX and human factors design, etc.)

What I do in my free time

Bake! I love baking. I also love traveling. To de-stress I usually bake… anything with chocolate. I love going out to eat with friends—generally Mexican or Sushi. Pizza is also always a clear winner.

I love doing things, so walking along the Beltline, going to the High Museum, playing with my dog (he has an Instagram! @AtlantaDog), going to different shows with my girlfriend… those are all pretty standard things I do regularly.

My favourite books

I love anything by Chuck Palahniuk. I can’t remember the last time I read a book for fun. My favorite books are A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson and The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Noel Adams. I can spend hours watching things like Grace and Frankie, Parenthood, etc etc. These shows don’t necessarily “inspire” me, but I completely enjoy them.

My achievements

I want to include these items below because they’ll give future students an idea of where I came from, especially in terms of my experience. I find that we all have different ideas of “experience,” so below is what I consider to be my “meaningful” experience.

I entered this program in August 2013 and I applied around April 2012. The dates below offer a glance of what I did before I applied, and what I’ve done since.

Leadership Appointments

10/2014– :                    Co-Founder and Coordinator, Undergraduate Disability Studies Initiative, Professor Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Emory University, 201 Dowman Drive, Atlanta, GA, 30322

08/2013– :                    Member, Disability Studies Initiative, Professor Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Emory University, 201 Dowman Drive, Atlanta, GA, 30322

12/2013– :                    Academic Advisor, Emory College, Emory University, Office of Undergraduate Education, White Hall Suite 300, Atlanta, GA, 30322

Hospital Appointments

05/2015 – 08/2015:        Bioethics practicum, 71ICU, Emory University Hospital Midtown, 550 Peachtree Street NE, Atlanta, GA 30308. Hospital supervisor: Jim McMurtry MSN, APRN, CNS-BC, CCRN, Clinical Nurse Specialist. Practicum supervisor: Kathy Kinlaw, Center for Ethics at Emory University.

05/2010 – 08/2013:        Research Director, Department of Pediatrics, New York Methodist Hospital, 506 Sixth Street, Brooklyn, NY 11215

Academic Appointments

12/2013– :                    Academic Advisor, Emory College of Arts and Sciences, Office of Undergraduate Education, White Hall Suite 300, Atlanta, GA 30322

08/2016 – 12/2016:        Instructor, Introduction to Women’s Studies, Emory College, Emory University, Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, 550 Asbury Circle, Atlanta, GA 30322

01/2016 – 05/2016:        Instructor, Introduction to Women’s Studies, Emory College, Emory University, Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, 550 Asbury Circle, Atlanta, GA 30322

12/2014 – 08/2015:        Teaching Assistant, Sociology of Sex and Gender, Professor Irene Browne, Emory College, Emory University, Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, 550 Asbury Circle, Atlanta, GA 30322

05/2014 – 12/2014:        Teaching Assistant, Introduction to Women’s Studies, Professor Irene Browne, Emory College, Emory University, Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, 550 Asbury Circle, Atlanta, GA 30322

08/2009 – 08/2010:        Adjunct Professor of Psychology, Saint Peter’s College, 2641 John F. Kennedy

Boulevard, Jersey City, NJ 07306

10/2008 – 6/2009:         Academic Advisor, Eugene Lang College, The New School for Liberal Arts, 65 W. 11th Street New York, NY 10011

08/2005 – 05/2008:        Seminar Fellow Instructor, Eugene Lang College, The New School for Liberal Arts, 65 W. 11th Street New York, NY 10011

Research Appointments

01/2013 – 05/2013:        Research Assistant, Professor Holloway Sparks, Emory University, Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, 550 Asbury Circle, Atlanta, GA 30322

01/2012 – 08/2013:        Research Assistant, Dr. Jonathan Scher, 1126 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10128

11/2010 – 08/2013:        Research Assistant, Placental Analytics, 93 Colonial Avenue, Larchmont, NY 10538

06/2009 – 03/2012:        Research Scientist, Institute for Basic Research in Developmental Disabilities, NYS DOH, 1050 Forest Hill Road, Staten Island, NY 10314

06/2007 – 07/2007:        Behavioral coder and research assistant, Dr. Marsha Linehan, The University of

Washington, Behavioral Research and Therapy Clinics, 3935 University Way NE, Seattle, WA 98195

08/2006 – 05/2009:        Laboratory Assistant, Eugene Lang College, The New School for Liberal Arts, 65 W. 11th Street and The New School for Social Research, 65 Fifth Ave. New York, NY 10011

Honors and Awards

  • 2015, 2016 Writing Program Top-Off Fellowship, Laney Graduate School, Emory University, 201 Dowman Drive, Atlanta, GA 30322
  • 2015, Piedmont TATTO Fellowship, Laney Graduate School, Emory University, 201 Dowman Drive, Atlanta, GA 30322
  • 2013, Outstanding Research Award, Department of Pediatrics, New York Methodist Hospital, 506 Sixth Street, Brooklyn, NY 11215
  • 2008, Honors graduate, New School University, Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts, 65 W. 11th Street, New York, NY 10011
  • 2008, Alumni Coalition Award, New School University, Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts, 65 W. 11th Street, New York, NY 10011

Published peer-reviewed articles

  1. Catalyst for conversation: A narrative approach to end of life planning. Samantha VanHorn, MA. The Rutgers Journal of Bioethics, Volume 7, 2016.
  2. Increasing Maternal Body Mass Index During Pregnancy Increases Neonatal Intensive Care Unit Admission in Near and Full-term Infants. Debbie Suk, MD, Taehee Kwak, MD, Nayaab Khawar, MD, Samantha VanHorn, MA, Carolyn Salafia, MD, Pramod Narula, MD. Submitted to The Journal of Maternal-Fetal & Neonatal Medicine, January 2016.
  3. A Young Adult Jehovah’s Witness with Severe Anemia. Nnenna Ukachi, MD, Wynne Morrison, MD, MBE, Samantha VanHorn, MA, Revathy Sundaram, MD, John D. Lantos, MD. Pediatrics (Ethics Rounds), 132.3 (2013): 547-51.
  4. Histologic Chorioamnionitis as a Consideration in the Management of Newborns of Febrile Mothers. Danthanh Hoang, MD, Pradeepkumar Charlagorla, MD, Carolyn Salafia, MD, MS, Samantha VanHorn, MA, Beata Dygulska, MD, Pramod Narula, MD, and Ashraf Gad, MD. Journal of Maternal-Fetal and Neonatal Medicine 26.8 (2013): 828-32.