Current PhD Students

Balancing rigorous, high-level research training with leadership skills and the acquisition and application of cutting-edge scientific knowledge, a USC Leonard Davis School PhD prepares graduates to take the lead in the research of their chosen aspect of gerontology.

Current Gerontology PhD Students

Mariola Acosta is a Puerto Rican PhD student in Gerontology at the University of Southern California. She completed her Bachelor of Sciences in Psychology at the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico and her Master of Science in Psychology at Ponce Health Sciences University. Her primary research interests are modifiable risk factors, cognitive impairment, dementia, and health disparities in the Latino/Hispanic population. She is currently working under the advisement of Dr. Joseph Saenz. 

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.

Shelby Bachman is a doctoral student in the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology working under the direction of Dr. Mara Mather. Shelby’s research is focused on how emotional arousal affects the brain and cognition across the lifespan. In particular, she is interested in how the locus coeruleus-norepinephrine system changes across the lifespan and the consequences of those changes for memory performance, attention, brain structure, and brain function. She uses behavioral, psychophysiological, and neuroimaging methods to investigate these questions. Prior to her doctoral studies, Shelby completed a Master of Science at the Berlin School of Mind and Brain and a Bachelor of Science in Neuroscience at USC.

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 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 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.”

Eunyoung Choi is a PhD student at the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from Yonsei University in 2015 and her Master of Arts in Gerontology at Kyung Hee University in 2018. Her research interests primarily lie on psychosocial factors such as subjective perception of aging and its influence on older adults’ overall well-being and general health. She is also interested in older adults’ technology use to better manage their health and lifestyle. During her master, Eunyoung worked as a research assistant on the nationally funded project “The Development of Dementia Literacy Intervention Program”, aimed at developing a mobile-based intervention program to increase the dementia literacy levels of older Korean adults. She also has prior work experience at the Samsung-ro Nursing Care in South Korea, assisting with implementing intervention programs for cognitively declined older adults to maintain their functions and delay further progression.

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 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.

Haley Gallo is a Gerontology doctoral candidate in Dr. Kate Wilber’s Secure Old Age Lab. She received her Bachelor of Science degree in Psychobiology with a minor in Gerontology from the University of California, Los Angeles. Haley’s research examines policies that help older adults and people with disabilities to live independently in their homes and communities, with a focus on the role of Area Agencies on Aging, State Units on Aging, and home and community-based services. In the Summer of 2019, Gallo served as the inaugural Greg O’Neil Policy Intern with the Gerontological Society of America (GSA) in Washington, D.C., where she contributed to GSA’s requested language for the reauthorization of the Older Americans Act. Her dissertation examines how the structure of Area Agencies on Aging allow for service delivery at the local level. She is passionate about including older adults and service providers—particularly those from groups who are traditionally left out—in the development of research and policy that affects people of all ages. 

Yujin Franco is a doctoral student at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology. Her research interests include dementia mortality and immigrant populations. She graduated summa cum laude from Korea National Sport University with a Bachelor of Art in Sport and Healthy Aging. She then completed a Master of Arts in Gerontology at San Francisco State University as a Fulbright Scholarship recipient. During her master’s degree, she was a Community Outreach Intern at the Alzheimer’s Association in San Francisco. She is currently working under the guidance of Dr. Jessica Ho.

hyewon_kang150x150Hyewon Kang is a doctoral student in the Davis School of Gerontology at the University of Southern California working under mentorship of Eileen Crimmins and Jennifer Ailshire. Her research is broadly focused health among older adults, with particular interests of individual and contextual risk factors for diseases and health care use. She holds Master of Public Administration from Cornell University and Master in Area Studies from Kyunghee University. Past work experience includes working as a consultant with the World Bank, an intern with International Food Policy Research Institute.

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 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 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.

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.

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).

Carly Roman is originally from Rockville Centre, NY and began her doctoral studies at USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology in 2016. She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in Psychology. Carly’s research interests include creating and evaluating positive psychology interventions aimed to increase meaning and well-being in older adults. She became interested in positive psychology and aging through volunteering with GlamourGals, a national not-for-profit that brings high school and college students into senior homes to provide makeovers, manicures, and companionship to senior home residents. She is the current recipient of a University of Southern California Provost’s PhD Fellowship and is working under Dr. Cleopatra Abdou-Kamperveen.

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.

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 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-_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 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 (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 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 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 (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.