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USC Leonard Davis School PhD students in the Gerontology and Biology of Aging programs are some of the most promising minds in the science of aging.

Current Gerontology PhD Students

Isabella Arellanes

Year of Program Entry: Fall 2022
Faculty Advisor(s): Eileen Crimmins, Hussein Yassine
Email: icordova@usc.edu

Isabella Arellanes is a doctoral student at the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology. She completed her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles in 2016, and her Master of Public Health at the University of Southern California in 2022. She previously worked as a Research Coordinator for a clinical trial on Alzheimer’s Disease at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. Her primary research interests include dementia and health disparities among the Latino/Hispanic population.

Elizabeth Avent

Elizabeth Avent began the doctoral program at the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology in Fall 2017. She completed her Bachelor of Arts in Sociology at Georgia State University in 2012 and her Master of Arts in Gerontology at Georgia State University in 2016. She works under the direction of Dr. Kathleen Wilber in the Secure Old Age Lab and at the USC Center on Elder Mistreatment. Her research interests include elder abuse policy, prevention and intervention, the impact of adverse childhood experiences into later life, late-life intimate partner violence, and improving and developing appropriate services for older victims through community and policy interventions.

Liz has worked as a research assistant with the Convoys of Care Research Team at Georgia State University on a NIH-funded study that focused on the care networks of residents in assisted living facilities. She has worked as a research assistant at Grady Memorial Hospital on a care transitions research study and for the Georgia Council on Aging, where aging issues are selected by a coalition of older adults to advocate to policymakers.

Erik Blanco

Erik Blanco is a doctoral student in the Gerontology Program at the University of Southern California working under the mentorship of Jennifer Ailshire. Prior to starting the doctoral program, he graduated with a BA and MA in Sociology from California State University, Los Angeles. His research interest include health disparities and the social determinants of health in the Latinx population. He specifically wants to focus on the importance of the neighborhood environment and walkability in determining health outcomes.

Valeria Cardenas

Valeria Cardenas is a doctoral student at the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Social Welfare and Justice, and Public Relations from Marquette University; and a Master’s in Aging Services Management from the University of Southern California. Valeria’s research interests are in palliative care and hospice care for the Latino community. She is currently working with Dr. Susan Enguidanos.

Jessie Chien

Jessie Chien is a first-year PhD student who works under the advisement of Dr. Teal Eich. Before coming to USC, she received her Master of Arts in Psychology from Brandeis University and Bachelor of Science in Psychology from Penn State. 

Her research interests surround memory, emotion, and aging. 

During her Master’s program, she investigated the influence of emotional details on Overgeneral Autobiographical Memory across cultures.

Her current project examines how emotions distract inhibitory control in memory specificity between young and older adults and she hopes to adopt neuroimaging methods for her future research.”

Lilly Estenson

Lilly Estenson is a doctoral student at the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology. She completed her Bachelor of Arts at Scripps College and her Master of Social Work at the University of Michigan. She is interested in how health insurance and long-term services & supports models can be innovated to better support the health and well-being of diverse beneficiaries. She works under the direction of Dr. Kate Wilber and Dr. Mireille Jacobson.

Gillian Fennell

Gillian Fennell is a doctoral student working under the advisement of Dr. Elizabeth Zelinski. Prior to beginning the PhD program, she graduated with a Bachelors in Human Development from Cornell University in 2019. Her primary research interests include assessing the efficacy of emotion-focused pain coping strategies and chronic pain patients’ subjective assessments of their own future and life expectancy. Her work is largely inspired by Socioemotional Selectivity Theory and the Strength and Vulnerability Integration Model.

Narae Kim

Narae Kim is a doctoral student at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology. Her research interests focus on the evaluation of health and insurance policies and the provision of affordable care for vulnerable seniors.

Prior to the doctoral study, Narae received a Master of Public Health from Brown University and a Bachelor of Science and a Bachelor of Arts with Political Science, Economics and Philosophy concentration from Sogang University in South Korea. She worked as a global marketer at Samsung Medison for four years and worked as a research assistant at the Rhode Island Department of Health for two years. Under the direction of Dr. Mireille Jacobson, she is currently studying Health Economics and working as a research assistant.

Susanna Mage

Susanna Mage comes to USC after working in New York City for the healthcare/pharmaceutical industry for several years. Her previous educational background was in Environmental Science (Masters from Brown University 2012 & Bachelors from University of Delaware 2010). Suzy’s current interests stem from her more recent experience in being her father’s caregiver, which has led her to interest in a career focusing on how to best provide caregiver support and in influencing social policy for the elderly. She works under the direction of Dr. Kathleen Wilber in the Secure Old Age Lab.

Kelly Ann Marnfeldt

Kelly Ann Marnfeldt is a doctoral student at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, where she also received her Master of Science in Gerontology in 2019. During her master’s program, her research focused on 3 key areas: the impact of caregiver burden; the complexity of elder mistreatment; the importance of social connection and maintaining a sense of purpose across the life course.
Kelly will continue her research in the Secure Old Age lab at USC in the following areas: reexamining the meaning of justice for the individual in cases of elder mistreatment; the varying effects of episodic, serial and perennial caregiving across the life course; evaluating social connection in the context of the digital age. Kelly employs a mixed methods approach to her research and has a strong foundation in narrative analysis to compliment her quantitative skills.
Prior to attending USC, Kelly’s experience in the arts, communications and media led her to establish a creative writing and performance workshop that provided a space for older adults to create and perform original works that dismantle age bias in media and the performing arts, with a hearty focus on the value of intergenerational connectivity for people of all ages.

Margarita Osuna

Margarita Osuna is a doctoral student in Gerontology at the University of Southern California. Under the mentorship of Jennifer Ailshire, she is conducting research in the Ailshire Lab focused on Latin American demography, health, and aging. She is also interested in socioeconomic inequalities in health and well-being in the Latin American older adult population. Margarita graduated from Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in 2015 (Colombia) with an undergraduate degree in Sociology and is currently a member of the LAHA research group (Latin America Health and Aging research group).

Stephanie Rubinstein

Stephanie Rubinstein is a doctoral student at the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology. Prior to her start at USC, she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and Music from Loyola University Maryland in 2017. She then went on to work as a research assistant at Boston University School of Medicine for the New England Centenarian Study, under the direction of Dr. Tom Perls. Her primary research interests include memory, cognition, and the detection of dementia in older adults. She is currently working under the advisement Dr. Elizabeth Zelinski.

Sheila Salinas Navarro

Sheila Salinas Navarro is a doctoral student at the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology. She completed her Bachelor of Science in Business Administration at California State University, Long Beach in 2016, and her Master of Public Administration at California State University, Long Beach, in 2018. Her research interest is on economic security for the Latino/Hispanic immigrant communities living in the United States. She is currently working under the advisement of Dr. Kathleen Wilber and Dr. Reginald Tucker-Seeley.

Meki Singleton

Meki Singleton began the doctoral program at the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology in Fall of 2018. Originally from Florida, Meki attended the University of South Florida where she earned a BA in Psychology and Gerontology and an MSW. After completing her masters, she became a Health Educator Consultant for the Florida Department of Health in Okaloosa County. She worked directly with the Ryan White clinic, which provides medical care to people living with HIV/AIDS. Her main role was overseeing the medication assistance program and performing administrative duties. Meki is a part of Dr. Susan Enguidanos’ lab, and her research revolves around the older adult LGBTQ + population and how they access and utilize end-of-life care and planning and long-term care support and services.

Olivia (Yu-Hsuan) Wang

Olivia (Yu-Hsuan) Wang works under the direction of Dr. Susan Enguidanos. Olivia received a BS in psychology, MS in Clinical Psychology from National Taiwan University. From 2015 to 2018, she worked in hospice as a clinical psychologist in Taiwan. Her research interests are advance directives and palliative care issues.

Kristi Wisniewski

kristi-_wisniewski150x150Kristi Wisniewski is a doctoral candidate at the University of Southern California Leonard Davis School of Gerontology working under the direction of Dr. Elizabeth Zelinski. Kristi graduated from The University of Alabama in 2013 with a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and minor in Biology. Before coming to USC, Kristi worked as a research analyst at the Vanderbilt Memory and Alzheimer’s Center in Nashville, Tennessee and contributed to the Vanderbilt Memory and Aging Project and the NOBLE clinical trial.

Kristi’s research interests surround cognition, memory, and aging in older adults. With a focus on screening measures for cognitive impairment, specifically Alzheimer’s disease, Kristi examines personal perception of memory or cognitive decline compared to objective neuropsychological performance and health outcomes. Her current projects involve geographic variation in rates of subjective cognitive complaint, personality factors and health behaviors associated with cognitive decline, and physician-patient communication regarding brain aging. Kristi is currently a predoctoral recipient of the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award funded by the National Institute of Aging.

Qiao Wu

Qiao Wu is a PhD student at the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, studying and working under the mentorship of Dr. Eileen Crimmins. He completed his BA in History in Capital Normal University (Beijing, China), and Master of International Public Policy and Management in Sol Price School of Public Policy, University of Southern California. Qiao is interested in biodemography and population health. In particular, he has a focus on using large national surveys with biomarkers to understand the trends and differences in population health. He is currently examining and cardiometabolic health among older Americans and older Chinese. 

Mengzhao Yan

Mengzhao Yan (闫孟昭) is a PhD student at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, where he received a Master’s degree in Aging Services Management and has worked as a Staff. Prior to coming to the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology in 2018, he was a researcher and an administrator at Beijing Foreign Studies University in China. His research interests include: administration of aging and health services; development of age-friendly ecology; organizational behavioral issues related to aging; and social alienation among the marginalized population. He also holds a CA RCFE Administrator Certificate. He is currently working under the advisement of Dr. Jon Pynoos and Dr. Kate Wilber.

Mutian Zhang

Mutian Zhang is a PhD student at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology. As a Research Assistant in the Tucker-Seeley Research Lab, Mutian is currently working on the Nursing Home Staffing Level project. She is conducting the literature review on determinants of nursing home staffing levels, determinants of disparities in nursing home staffing levels, and policy efforts to ensure adequate nursing home staffing levels. In addition, Mutian focuses her attention on the research and policies surrounding Asian immigrant caregivers and healthy aging. She intends to identify and bridge the gap between Asian immigrant caregivers, minority older adults, and the US healthcare system.

Erfei Zhao

Erfei Zhao is a PhD student working under the mentorship of Dr. Eileen Crimmins. He joined the USC family with an MSW from Columbia university and a BA in Economics and minors in Dance and French from Washington University in St. Louis. He previously worked at a senior center under University Settlement in New York. Erfei is interested in various aspects that influence the subjective well-being of older Chinese, such employment quality and intergenerational relationships. He is also interested in how older adults are portrayed in the media. Outside of studying, Erfei is also a passionate dancer. He is currently a member of the USC-based competitive urban dance team Chaotic 3.

Yujun Zhu

YuJun (Fisher) Zhu is a PhD student at the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology. He worked in a local hospital after getting his bachelor’s degree in public health in Shanghai, China. Then he came to the United States and got his Master of Science in Gerontology degree here in 2017. His research interest is technology implementation in health care, especially in end of life care. He is currently working under the direction of Dr. Susan Enguidanos.

Fisher used to be a student worker of our school’s IT department and he loves problem solving variety of technical issues.

Current Biology of Aging PhD Students

Katelyn Adam

Katelyn received her B.S. from UC Berkeley in molecular environmental biology. As an undergraduate she worked in Dr. Caroline Williams lab studying physiological ecology. Katelyn joined the Garrison lab as a Research Associate to study the role of neuropeptides in aging and reproductive longevity. She continues her work as a PhD candidate in the USC-Buck PhD program.

Edward Anderton

Edward Anderton is a PhD student in the USC-Buck Biology of Aging Program in the Lithgow lab at the Buck Institute. Originally from the United Kingdom, Edward received his integrated bachelor’s-master’s degree in biochemistry from the University of Oxford. His thesis project focused on differential expression of Hox genes in the evolution of the mammalian brain. After graduating, he worked in project management for the UK’s largest retail bank for three years before returning to his real passion – science and solving aging. His research at the Buck centers on protein homeostasis decline during normal aging and in Alzheimer’s Disease. His project applies deep proteomics to uncover the proteins and pathways most impacted by aging in worm models of disease and in the human brain and in doing so he aims to identify novel genetic drivers of cognitive decline and neurodegenerative disease. When he isn’t buried in papers he likes to climb boulders, travel to distant countries and explore the great outdoors.

Juan Bravo

Juan is a PhD student in the Biology of Aging program at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology. As a member of the Benayoun lab, he studies the molecular biology, cellular biology, and genomics of transposable elements–fragments of DNA that can generate additional copies of themselves. Since transposons have been implicated in multiple aspects of aging, including senescence, inflammation, and genome instability, the focus of his research is to characterize 1) the functional consequences of unrestrained transposon activity and 2) novel mechanisms of transposon regulation. His research has been funded by a USC Provost Fellowship, NIA T32 Training Grant, and NSF Graduate Research Fellowship.

Aeowynn Coakley

Aeowynn is a PhD student in Jennifer Garrison’s lab at the Buck Institute, where she will pursue her interest in reproductive aging. She received her B.S. in biology with a concentration in systems physiology from San Jose State University in 2021. As an undergraduate, she participated extensively in research, both in science education and in bench science. Aeowynn contributed to the lab of Dr. Frank K. Huynh studying the role of sirtuin 4 in mammary tissue, as well as leading a project on sirtuin 4’s potential role in reproductive physiology. For her doctoral work, Aeowynn’s research goal is to understand how brain-ovarian signaling changes with age. Her research is funded by the NIA T32 Training Grant.

Huixun Du

Huixun “Zoe” Du joined the lab of Dr. Daniel Winer at the Buck Institute as a graduate student from the University of Southern California-Buck Biology of Aging Ph.D. program in May 2021. Prior to this, she completed her B.S. in pharmaceutical sciences at the University of California-Irvine and studied the function of ion channel PIEZO1 in neural stem cell development as an undergraduate intern. Currently, in the Winer lab, she is studying the relationship between mechanical forces and cellular senescence with the goal of better understanding fibrotic diseases.

Brenda Eap

Brenda completed her B.S. in Biochemistry with a minor in Forensic Science at California State University, Los Angeles in 2017. She studied how to delay senescence in Arabidopsis thaliana and was quickly intrigued by the aging process in plants. Brenda entered the USC-Buck Ph.D. Biology of Aging program in 2018 and joined the Newman Lab. Her Ph.D. work focuses on age-related changes in ketone body metabolism and how ketosis can help maintain energy homeostasis in aging. More specifically, she is interested in how a ketogenic diet and exogenous ketones can be useful therapies in older adults. She also investigates how the ketone body, beta-hydroxybutyrate is an important metabolite and epigenetic regulator in aging.

Ariel Floro

Ariel is a Ph.D. student in Dr. Eric Verdin’s lab at the Buck Institute. She graduated from UCLA with a B.S. in Microbiology, Immunology, and Molecular Genetics and a minor in Biomedical Research. Her undergraduate research focused on the structure of the HIV accessory protein vpr. After graduating, she worked as a research associate, studying inflammation in macrophages via UVB radiation and the neuro-immune interactions of psoriasis. She decided to pursue aging research as it ties together her passions for science and healthy living. Aside from lab, she enjoys training and teaching martial arts and wrestling.

Elissa Fultz

Elissa is a Ph.D. candidate in Dr. Ralf Langen’s lab at USC. She graduated from University of California – Santa Barbara in 2017, where she did undergraduate research studying the role of glutamate in methamphetamine and alcohol addiction. Before starting at UC Santa Barbara, she volunteered at a lab at University of California – Los Angeles studying how opioid receptors mediate pain sensitization. Her research focus shifted (dramatically) to structural work when she joined the Langen lab, where she studies the huntingtin protein, the main culprit in Huntington’s disease. Her thesis work focuses on how the huntingtin protein forms the characteristic aggregates seen in the brains of patients with Huntington’s disease, and how to prevent them from forming.

Angelina Holcom

Angelina is a PhD student in the USC-Buck Institute Biology of Aging program. Before joining the program she completed her B.S. in Biology at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa, where started studying aging for her undergrad thesis. Currently as a member of the Lithgow lab at the Buck Institute, she studies Alzheimer’s disease using the model organism C. elegans. Her project focuses on characterizing a C. elegans strain that expresses both Aβ and Tau. This project involves determining phenotypes specific to single and co-expression of Aβ and Tau and utilizing multi-omics to further understand the observed differences in these AD worm models. Her research has been funded by the USC DIA Fellowship and NIA T32 Training Grant.

Jonathan Levi

Jonathan is a PhD candidate in the USC-Buck Institute Biology of Aging program. He received his Bachelor’s degree in molecular biology and biochemistry at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has multiple years of experience in molecular biology, bioengineering, biochemistry, stem cell biology, and aging. His current work in the Bonaguidi Lab at the USC Broad CIRM Center focuses on neural stem cells during aging and Alzheimer’s. He studies cellular and molecular mechanisms underlying the decline of neural stem cell function with age and how to harness neural stem cells for rejuvenation. Through his PhD he has been funded by the NIH T32 Training Fellowship in Developmental Biology, Stem Cells and Regeneration.

Sidharth Madhavan

Sid is a doctoral fellow working under Dr. John Newman at the Buck Institute. He completed his Bachelor of Science in Honors at Virginia Tech where he majored in Clinical Neuroscience. As an undergraduate, he studied the biochemical structure and function of human tau proteins under Dr. Bin Xu. Sid is currently investigating how ketone bodies and other signaling metabolites regulate the solubility of misfolded and potentially toxic proteins. He is interested in understanding the mechanistic and molecular underpinnings of interventions relevant to translational geroscience, and his research benefits greatly from Dr. Newman’s expertise as a practicing geriatrician. Sid’s research has been funded by the USC Provost Fellowship and he is passionate about creating space for underrepresented groups in STEM.

Cassandra Joan McGill

Cassie is a PhD student in the labs of Dr. Christian Pike and Dr. Berenice Benayoun. She obtained a Bachelor of Science in Genetics from the University of California, Irvine, where she discovered her interest in using “omics” to investigate neurodegenerative disease and aging. Cassie’s current research focuses on investigating genotype-specific responses to longevity-promoting interventions in an Alzheimer’s disease context. Cassie’s research is funded by an NIA T32 Training Grant.

Lewis Randall

Lewis Randall is a PhD student in the USC-Buck Institute Biology of Aging Program in the lab of Gordon Lithgow at the Buck Institute. At the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, he obtained degrees in biology and music, after which he worked in a lab at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill studying immune cell populations in the lung. Using the worm model C. elegans, his research project explores the metabolic and epigenetic mediators of the impact of exercise on protein homeostasis. From these studies, he hopes to uncover novel mechanisms contributing to the beneficial effects of physical activity. When not in the lab, he spends time cycling, backpacking, and baking bread. Lewis’ research has been funded by a USC Provost Fellowship and an NIA T32 Training Grant.

Michelle Rice

Michelle is a PhD student in the Biology of Aging program in the Lee lab. She received her B.S. in neuroscience and B.A. in anthropology at Tulane University, before moving to New York to do research in the Choi lab at Weill Cornell Medicine. Her research there focused on understanding the role of necroptosis and extracellular mitochondrial DNA in lung and kidney injury. As a graduate student in the Lee lab, Michelle is interested in how the innate immune system changes with age and the role of mitochondrial-derived peptides in immunometabolism. When not in the lab, Michelle may be found under a beach umbrella eating a taco.

Andrew Rodriguez

Andrew studied Bioengineering at Stanford University and got his master’s degree in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at UCSB. After that, Andrew worked in industry for a few years testing the biological effects of radiation-based cancer treatments at Varian, then worked for a year with Professor Brack at UCSF in muscle stem cell biology. In the Buck Institute laboratory of Professor Jennifer Garrison, Andrew is investigating how neuropeptide signaling can regulate healthspan and longevity.

Sarah Shemtov

Sarah is a PhD candidate in Dr. Marc Vermulst’s lab at USC. Here, she studies the role of mitochondrial mutagenesis in the context of aging to answer fundamental biological questions in the field by tracking mitochondrial DNA mutations over time. Prior to starting her PhD, she graduated from the University of Miami with a BS in Chemistry and a MS in Skin Biology and Dermatological Sciences from UM’s Miller School of Medicine. At the same time, Sarah worked at a cosmetic company in their R&D labs. In the future, she hopes to apply the knowledge and skills she acquires to understanding the impact of mitochondrial dysfunction on cutaneous aging.

Daria Timonina

Daria is a PhD candidate in Eric Verdin’s lab at the Buck Institute. She received her Bachelors of Science from the University of Arizona with a dual degree in Biochemistry and Molecular and Cellular Biology. After graduation, she worked for two years at Massachusetts General Hospital in partnership with Harvard Medical School. Using tumor samples from patients in the hospital, she created xenograft cancer models in mice to study drug resistance in non-small cell lung cancer. In her graduate research, she is applying her laboratory skills to study how sleep impacts aging in mice. Her research is funded by the T32 grant.

Wang Xiang

Wang is a PhD student at the USC-Buck Institute Biology of Aging PhD program, she has extensive experience in the fields of bioinformatics and  computational biology. She completed her Bachelor of Science at Harbin Medical University, China majored in Bioinformatics.As a member of the Bonaguidi Lab at the USC Broad CIRM Center, she studies stem cell biology, neuron science, aging biology, scRNA-seq transcriptomics and pharmacogenomics. Her research focuses on integration of single-cell omics and pharmacogenomics for neurological disease. Specifically, she aims to define NSC rejuvenation mechanisms using pharmaceutical bioinformatics networks and identify drugs targeting immature astrocyte states in human epilepsy through single cell pharmacogenomics.