Celebrating Our Contributors #1

Last year, we celebrated those members of the EHN community who, despite the difficulties posed by COVID-19, completed their degrees. As this month marks the end of yet another pandemic year, we want to continue that tradition of celebrating our contributors’ brilliant work.

This March, we will publish a series of posts to showcase the work and celebrate the accomplishments of nine EHN contributors who graduated in the past year. Today, let’s toast to Amanda Katz, Jessica S. Samuel, and Emily Webster!

Dr. Amanda katz

Amanda Katz

Graduated in August 2021,
PhD in History earned

at Carnegie Mellon University.

Dissertation titled:
“Miracle Miles: From
Roadbuilding to American
Highway Engineering, 1893-1933.”

Give us your elevator pitch. What was your thesis/dissertation?
My dissertation traces the development of American highway engineering during the first half of the twentieth century by arguing that private-public partnerships (most notably the federal government) experimented with scientific roadbuilding in rural America long before urban highways were constructed.

What was one thing that stood out to you, a cool find you came across, or something that surprised you in the course of your research?
Some of my most favorite stories uncovered were those that involved testing materials for road surfaces. In one particularly hilarious incident, Pennsylvania roadbuilders experiments with wintergreen oil, which proved durable during high-volume traffic. It also made the Hummelstown Pike smell really nice, and the greater Harrisburg community reported no illnesses that year. Similarly, engineers used molasses – a by-product of cane and beet sugar refineries – to build a road in Newton, Massachusetts, because they thought it had excellent binding capabilities. Townsfolk took to calling it “Candy Road,” and much like the wintergreen road, it held up rather nicely.

Tell us a little bit about your process. Was there anything unique about how you did the work?
I had a pretty solid routine for writing in the morning, breaking for a long lunch, writing in the afternoon, breaking for dinner, and then writing for a few hours more. The best part was that my advisor, Scott Sandage, gave me the best idea to hold myself accountable to my time (for writing and non-writing activities). Each day, I filled out an index card, accounting for the time I spent on anything that day. Often, it included notes like this:

7:00-7:30a: drank coffee and stare at ceiling
7:30a-12:00p: wrote
12:15-1:15p: went for a run
1:30-2:00p: ate something (and checked mail, on the off chance someone wrote to me)
2:00-6:00p: wrote more
6:00-8:00p: ate dinner and binged Netflix
8:00-10:00p: wrote, just a smidge more
0:00p: attempted sleep

It was an extraordinarily rough year to complete a degree. What kept you going?
As someone who often fears the blank page or has difficulty starting the writing process, the pandemic created an environment in which I could no longer avoid writing. With little else to do (I was notorious for going on long walks or runs so to “think about writing,” reading more books, doing my laundry, grocery shopping, or completing any other productive task that wasn’t writing), my productive procrastination tactics no longer worked. I, for once, had too much time on my hands. The silver lining of the pandemic is that the necessary isolation worked well for me as the task before me was simply to write. My research had already been completed, and I have a functional outline for each of my chapters. Figuring that I might never have this much time on my said again, I wrote. All. The. Time. I wrote for six months straight. And then I revised for three more months. And then I finished. I don’t know if I would have if the pandemic hadn’t forced me to face those 300+ blank pages.

Dr. JESSICA S. SAMUEL

Jessica S. Samuel

Graduated in May 2021,
PhD in American Studies

earned at Boston University.

Dissertation titled:
“Consuming the U.S. Virgin
Islands: Education and
Conservation on St. John.”

Subtitles by Nicole Welk-Joerger.

Dr. Emily webster

Emily Webster

Graduated in August 2021,
PhD in History earned at
the University of Chicago.

Dissertation titled:
“Microbial Empires: Changing
Ecologies and Multispecies
Epidemics in Imperial
British Cities, 1837-1910.”

Give us your elevator pitch. What was your thesis/dissertation?
My dissertation explores the relationship between ecological change and infectious disease in three British imperial urban spaces. I look at the emergence of tuberculosis in Melbourne, Australia; plague in Bombay, India; and typhoid fever in Belfast, Ireland. Combining epidemiological and historical methods, I argue that these epidemics arose because of radical changes to local ecologies imposed by British imperial economic, political, and social structures. I contend that when these two things – ecology and imperialism – clashed, they created an ideal ecological niche for the bacteria in question.

What was one thing that stood out to you, a cool find you came across, or something that surprised you in the course of your research?
So much! I think the coolest finds were probably related to rats in Bombay. The epidemic coincided with (and fueled) the emergence of the rat-flea theory of plague, so there were a cache of public health reports that went into extraordinary detail about rat behavior, movement, response to stress, etc. My favorite one was a record I found at the National Archives of India from a doctor who performed experiments to see how high rats could jump and whether they could scale walls made of different materials. The diagrams and descriptions of the experiments were really amusing, and also a sign of how much medical officers at the time were thinking through plague as grounded in a particular environmental context.

Tell us a little bit about your process. Was there anything unique about how you did the work?
I learned over the course of my project that I really work best when I’m writing and researching at the same time. I learned my process pretty early on, but it took a while to get comfortable with it – I would always feel like I should be using research time to just be looking at archival materials, and write when I get home, but it really didn’t work for me. Instead, I learned to lean into the generative space that was the archive. I would hit the archives and read until I started to get a feeling for the type and scope of sources – in short, once the majority of the records I was calling were not telling me anything new compared to the ones I had already seen, I knew I was starting to form a picture of the historical event I was working on. Then, I would go write until I hit a wall – what didn’t I know that was tripping me up? What did I feel uncertain about? Then I would dive back into the archives.

It was an extraordinarily rough year to complete a degree. What kept you going?
There were a couple of things that kept me going. First and foremost was my quarantine bubble – my partner, Robert, our neighbor (also named Robert), and our pets, Baldr and Clara. We established little weekly plans together – Thursday night game nights and Sunday hikes – that helped me feel like I had things that I was looking forward to and working towards.

The other big thing was taking up long-distance running, and especially doing it *outside*. Running put me on a more structured weekly schedule, gave me a goal that wasn’t centered on work to focus on, and burned enough energy that I could really sit down and focus without feeling too anxious and stressed. Doing it outside made me feel connected with my community and its ecology, and gave me that little boost of natural light that really woke my brain up. I wasn’t a very active person when I started grad school and used to be like “yeah, blah blah exercise,” but I am now one of those completely insufferable people that won’t stop talking about how much it has improved my life.


*Cover image: Artwork (October 2021) by EHN contributor Kay Sohini.

[Cover image description: a scenic comic image of snow-capped mountains with few fluffy clouds illustrated as a backdrop. At the top, a text box reads “with every recollection, I lose more and more details, except for this one unflickering image that has remained distinct through the years—” Below, four smaller images detail a cartoon scene. The first shows two figures from behind, one with short hair wrapping their arm around a smaller figure with shoulder length hair and a text box that reads “My grandfather marveling at how the days seemed to have gotten shorter,” above it, a small translucent image of a palace fades into the larger mountain scene. The next box shows two bowls of food sitting on a table. The next box, two figures face each other leaning against a door frame that opens to a mountain view. The final cartoon box reads, “In that moment, we attributed the speediness of time to our brief respite from the daily demands of life and the joy it brought us.”]