The Graduate School at Virginia Tech has presented its Outstanding Dissertation Awards for 2013.

Two awards are given each year; one in science and engineering, the other in humanities and social sciences. The awards are based on originality of the idea, contributions to the field, presentation of the ideas, and the quality of writing. Each department may nominate one dissertation per year for the award. Recipients receive $1,000.

Laura Gambrel of Bemidji, Minn., a 2012 doctoral degree graduate in human development in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, won the social sciences category for her dissertation, “The Mindful Transition to Parenthood Program: Developing and Evaluating a Psychoeducational-Experiential Intervention for Couples.”

Gambrel developed a prevention program for first-time parents based on interpersonal neurobiology, a theoretical framework that combines attachment theory, psychology, mindfulness, and neuroscience. Her research showed the transition to parenthood was a stressful time for couples and that many new parents experienced a decrease in relationship satisfaction during that time. The interpersonal neurobiological concept suggests that mindfulness training can change brain structures to increase executive functioning, self-regulation, and capacity for empathy, which can lead to biological change that causes sustained improvements in relationships. 

Gambrel designed and conducted a relationship enhancement program for 33 expectant couples. Her analysis supported the value of the program, especially for men, who showed increased relationship satisfaction and mindfulness.

“Laura’s findings are extremely relevant to many areas of study,” said Cynthia Smith, associate professor of human development. “Not only does it support the couple and their relationship, but it also supports the child’s development as marital quality is related to more optimal child development. I can see this program being used not only by other therapists and counselors but also by healthcare practitioners such as midwives, doulas, and labor coaches to support the couple as they become parents.”

Gambrel received her bachelor's degree from Goucher College and her master's degree from Naropa University.

Justin Lemkul of Blacksburg, Va., a 2012 doctoral degree graduate in biochemistry in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the College of Science, won the science and engineering category for his dissertation, “Molecular Modeling of the Amyloid ß–Peptide: Understanding the Mechanism of Alzheimer’s Disease and the Potential for Therapeutic Intervention.”

Lemkul chose to do his dissertation research on the amyloid ß-peptide (Aß) that is associated with Alzheimer’s disease. He focused on two understudied areas in the field, one being the interaction of Aß with membranes, and the other being the mechanism by which certain small molecules may reverse or prevent the development of Alzheimer’s disease.

Through his research, Lemkul determined the mechanism of how small molecules influence the aggregation of proteins involved in the progression of the disease. He was invited to write a review article in “ACS Chemical Neuroscience,” and his research was highlighted in the cover page of a special issue about Alzheimer’s disease. In addition, he has been invited to give seminars at major research universities in the United States and in Europe.

Lemkul independently developed all of the research projects described in his dissertation and created special programs to analyze his data.

He received his bachelor's degree from Virginia Tech.

Honorable mentions went to:

  • Kristen Capogrossi of Madison, Wis., a 2012 doctoral degree graduate in agricultural and applied economics in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
  • Tracy Leigh Scheffler of Blacksburg, a 2012 doctoral degree graduate in animal and poultry sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Dedicated to its motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), Virginia Tech takes a hands-on, engaging approach to education, preparing scholars to be leaders in their fields and communities. As the commonwealth’s most comprehensive university and its leading research institution, Virginia Tech offers 240 undergraduate and graduate degree programs to more than 31,000 students and manages a research portfolio of $513 million. The university fulfills its land-grant mission of transforming knowledge to practice through technological leadership and by fueling economic growth and job creation locally, regionally, and across Virginia.