PhD Students

To learn more about our PhD Students, read their individual profile pages.

  • William Frey's research interests: race, social media, racism, whiteness, social algorithms, human development

    William R. Frey is a Ph.D. Candidate in Columbia University's School of Social Work with a secondary focus in sociology, under the mentorship of Dr. Courtney D. Cogburn. His research focuses on a transdisciplinary, multi-methodological examination of race and social media. Each line of William's research seeks to uproot, dislodge, strange, and grasp at how race is made in everyday life, for the purpose of eradicating inequality and its racial justifications. Specifically, his research falls along three interconnected lines, against the backdrop of social media and social algorithms: 1) how white people come to understand and present themselves through processes of racial categorization, socialization, identification, and performance, 2) how people participate in and attempt to resist interpersonal and institutional racism, and 3) examining the processes through which people seek forms of solidarity, community, and belonging. He also engages in digital community-based collaboration supported by his affiliation with the Citizens and Technology (CAT) Lab at Cornell University, directed by Dr. J. Nathan Matias.

    For over 15 years, William has facilitated inter-/intragroup dialogic educational spaces, where participants engage in conversation and reflection around their experiences with and understandings of race, racism, and whiteness, including what this means for everyday life (e.g., The Space for Uprooting Whiteness). This applied practice directly informs his research priorities. William holds a B.A. in psychology and an M.S.W. in community organization from the University of Michigan.

  • Sophie Collyer is a Policy student who has a dual degree MSW/MPA from Columbia University and a Master’s of Science from Johns Hopkins School of Education. Sophie’s research interests include racial inequalities and child poverty.

  • Sarah Valentina Diaz's research interests: Neighborhood effects, social cohesion, segregation, mental health, Latinx data disaggregation

    Sarah is a doctoral candidate at Columbia School of Social Work working under the guidance of Dr. Carmela Alcantara, with the support of a Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award F-31 predoctoral fellowship through the National Institute of Mental Health. Her research background is primarily in community-based settings working with Latinx populations on health and mental health disparities. Sarah's current research interests are on the association between the neighborhood social environment and composition and mental health. Additionally, her work aims to contribute to uncovering disparities that may exist within groups by disaggregating health outcomes in the Latinx population. Prior to her doctoral studies, Sarah spent time in Washington D.C. as a Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute Public Policy Fellow and later as legislative affairs assistant at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. She also received an MSW from Boston University School of Social Work and a B.S. in Community Health and Cognitive Brain Science from Tufts University.

  • Sara Landers’ research interests: Adolescents and young adults, citizen science, harm reduction, HIV/STIs, mental health, participatory research, substance use

    Sara E. Landers is an Advanced Practice PhD candidate at Columbia School of Social Work. Sara’s research aims to advance creative, collaborative approaches to promoting adolescent and young adult health. She primarily focuses on the intertwined areas of HIV/STIs, mental health, and substance use. Her current work involves using digital phenotyping and intensive longitudinal methods to examine mental health status among adolescents in New York City, as well as using crowdsourcing to develop content for an HIV stigma reduction intervention among adolescents and young adults in Kazakhstan. Sara is especially passionate about citizen science and using innovative participatory methods to engage youth in the co-creation of equitable health solutions. Outside of her work with young people, Sara is proud to be a co-founder of the Labor of Love project, a research partnership between doctoral students and community members that uses photovoice to promote equity in harm reduction work.

    Prior to entering the doctoral program, Sara conducted adolescent health research at both Columbia University Irving Medical Center and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Sara is also trained as a clinician with a specialization in working with young people and their families. Sara received her BS in Psychology from Haverford College, her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy & Practice, and is a Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW) in the state of New York.

  • Nathan Aguilar's research interests: Gun Violence, Victimization, Urban Neighborhoods, Street Gangs, Criminal Justice, Tech Intervention, Social Media, Trauma, Grief, Ethics, Collective Efficacy


    Nathan is PhD student focusing on gun violence intervention under the guidance of Dr. Desmond Patton. Nathan’s research focuses on the perceptions and experiences of victimization, trauma and grief among gang affiliated individuals. Furthermore, he is interested in technological interventions that can reduce gun violence and increase social efficacy within urban neighborhoods. As a research assistant in the SAFElab Nathan is currently exploring the online grieving practices of black youth and is working to develop ethical standards for social work researchers working with social media data from marginalized communities. For the five years prior to returning to graduate school Nathan worked with gang involved youth on probation and gunshot victims in Chicago. As a result of these experiences he embraces the engagement of community members as collaborators in research and co-producers of knowledge. Nathan holds an MSW from Washington University in St. Louis and a BA in Business Administrations from The University of Colorado Denver.

  • Madison is a doctoral student at Columbia University School of Social Work exploring the intersections of intimate partner violence (IPV), illicit drug use, and criminalization. Her research explores the multi-level impact of substance use coercion among women who use drugs, aiming to understand the survival and care strategies they engage in when traditional paths to safety are unavailable. 

    Currently, Madison is a fellow in the NIH T-32 Predoctoral Training Program on HIV and Substance Use in the Criminal Justice System, under the mentorship of Dr. Victoria Frye. Her goal is to develop a syndemic-focused intervention to enhance safe drug use and reduce health-related risk factors associated with substance use coercion, such as intimate partner homicide. 

    Prior to her doctoral studies, Madison worked as a counselor and legal advocate for criminalized survivors detained at Rikers Island. She also served as a case manager for incarcerated men in Detroit, MI. In her personal time, Madison runs a community mutual aid initiative providing survivors of IPV and sex trafficking with free tattoo cover-ups.

    Madison earned her BA from Rutgers University, New Brunswick, and her MSW from Columbia University School of Social Work.

  • Leesh Menard is a student in the combined MSW/PhD program, who has a Bachelor of Arts in
    Psychology and Sociology from Vassar College. Leesh’s research interests include care access for gender minorities as well as the impact of racism, homophobia and/or transphobia on mental and physical health.

  • Research Interests: conceptualizations of care; liberatory care work; settler colonist projects and anti-colonialism; non-profit industrial complex; personhood; Critical Participatory Action Research; disability justice; Clinical practice with the expansiveness of queer and trans identity: non-normativity as a roadmap; queer irreverence; LGBTQ+ suicidality; queering death

    Kelsey G Reeder, LCSW-R (she/they) is a Clinical Social Worker, PhD Student in Advanced Practice, and the Senior Lead Teaching Fellow at Columbia University School of Social Work. Kelsey has worked in therapeutic foster care, school social work, and community mental health. With post-graduate training from the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy, she maintains a therapy and supervision practice focused on relationship challenges, family conflict, and the expansiveness of queer and trans experience, and provides clinical supervision to lifeline counselors supporting LGBTQ+ youth experiencing crisis or suicidality. Kelsey’s research aims to subvert social work education and practice through lenses of queer irreverence and mess. She explores conceptualizations of care that contribute to or disrupt collective queer and trans liberation (community-based vs. institutional care) and how social work is taught and carried out in ways that position social workers as sites of social control within their own communities, as well as how this impacts the personhoods of the clinician and client, interrupts collective liberation by enforcing unidirectional healing, and stems from settler colonialism and white supremacy.

  • Julia Berenson's research focuses on the social determinants of health from a policy lens. My work spans broad areas of health and social policy, identifying the social determinants of health that impact health and health equity, and the social policies that can create healthier and more equitable communities.


    Julia Berenson, M.Sc., M.Phil., is a Social Policy Analysis and Economics PhD student, focusing on health policy under the guidance of Dr. Carmela Alcántara and Dr. Peter Muennig. Julia's research focuses on the social determinants of health from a policy lens. Her work spans broad areas of health and social policy, examining the social determinants of health that impact health and health equity, and identifying the social policies that can create healthier and more equitable communities. In her dissertation, Julia is examining relative inequalities in health across U.S. states, and assessing the impact of state-level, evidence-based social policies on relative inequalities in health across U.S. states. Previously, Julia completed a Masters in Health Policy jointly awarded by the London School of Economics and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and received a Bachelors of Arts in International Relations from the University of Pennsylvania. In addition to her academic pursuits, Julia has worked for leading health organizations in managing research and programs focused on strengthening health systems and supports for vulnerable populations. Most recently, as a Senior Consultant for the World Health Organization in Cambodia, she managed in-country implementation of a project to advance health equity. Julia's research and policy analysis informed the development of a routine system for health equity monitoring currently used by the Cambodia Ministry of Health. Previously, Julia worked in the United States (U.S.) for the U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Minority Health, New York Academy of Medicine, Commonwealth, and Center for Health Care Strategies where she developed and managed research and programs focused on health issues pertinent to vulnerable populations, including health disparities, social determinants of health, Medicaid, safety net health systems, and chronic disease prevention and health promotion. She has also had the opportunity to publish her research and policy recommendations, including in the peer-reviewed journal Health Affairs. In recognition of her health services research and policy, Julia received the Alice S. Hersh Student scholarship award from AcademyHealth and has served on expert panels organized by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, AcademyHealth, WHO, Office of Minority Health, Columbia University, and others, focused on health inequalities, social determinants of health, and policies to promote health equity.

  • Jimin Sung is a student in the Advanced Practice track, who has a master's and bachelor's degree in social welfare from Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul, South Korea. Jimin's research interests include health and well-being of stigmatized populations.

  • Jeong Hyun (Jennifer) So is a 1.5-generation Korean immigrant and a PhD candidate in policy analysis at the Columbia School of Social Work (CSSW). Jen is interested in how people think about time and how people's use of time impacts their well-being. Jen’s dissertation examines (1) long-term time poverty trends among U.S. adults, (2) time poverty and life satisfaction among working-age adults in South Korea, and (3) generational differences in time poverty. In addition to her own research, Jen has been serving as a project manager and a graduate research assistant to Professor Qin Gao and collaborating on multiple research projects. The latest project, the State of Chinese Americans 2022, was a nationwide survey of more than 6,500 Chinese Americans across various dimensions of life. Jen is interested in connecting her doctoral education, training, and research to practice, program, and policy initiatives that seek to improve the lives of individuals and communities.

    Outside CSSW, Jen most recently worked as a Co-Director at Camp Naru, a weeklong sleepaway summer camp for Korean American youth aged 8 through 15, where she oversaw staff recruitment, training, and supervision, as well as communication with camp families and external stakeholders. Prior to doctoral studies, Jen worked at the New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC) as the Manager of Immigrant Services Support, Events. She managed the NYIC’s Key to the City initiative, a citywide program bringing critical services to undocumented immigrants and immigrant neighborhoods throughout New York City in partnership with public schools. These services included consular identification services, immigration legal services, and education, health, and social services workshops and referrals. Jen’s other work experiences span program administration and evaluation, project management, and community outreach in New York City and abroad.

    Jen obtained her MSW from CSSW, with Advanced Generalist Practice and Programming as the method of practice and a concentration in Contemporary Social Issues. Her MSW practicum placements at the Queens Criminal Court and the Korean American Family Service Center involved spearheading and completing program evaluation projects. Jen received a BA in psychology from New York University. She is bilingual in Korean and English.

  • Hye-Min Jung is a student in the Policy track who has an MA from the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy. Hye-Min’s research interests include advancing the lives of low-income families and promoting intergenerational mobility.

  • Hao Wen is a student in the Policy track who received an MSW from Columbia University. Hao's research interests include mental health, strength-based interventions, stress reduction, and related public health policies.

  • Chris is a Social Policy & Policy Analysis PhD student at the Columbia School of Social Work. His research interests include social mobility, poverty, and the social safety net. He is especially interested in how the tax-and-transfer system affects the transmission of economic status across generations. Before Columbia, Chris was a research analyst at the Brookings Institution, where he focused on inequality, mobility, and the American middle class. Chris holds an MPA from the Maxwell School of Syracuse University.

  • Chelsea Allen's research interests: Historical Trauma; Intergenerational Trauma Transmission; Race; Racism; Social Determinants of Health; Health Disparities


    Chelsea Allen is a doctoral student at Columbia University's School of Social Work. She currently works with Dr. Courtney Cogburn examining the role of racism and race-related stress in the production of health inequities. Additionally, this work studies the effect of immersive virtual reality experiences on psychological processes, such as empathy/social perspective taking, racial bias and decision making. Previous to attending Columbia, she practiced as a clinical therapist working with children and families. Chelsea's scholarship is interested in historical trauma and its specific application to African American communities. Her current research involves developing a conceptual model that reframes this theory through a multi-disciplinary lens that integrates various perspectives that are related, but not intentionally grounded, in a historical trauma framework.

  • Ashley Cole is a student in the Advanced Practice track who received an MSW from Columbia University. Ash’s research interests include barriers to academic success and mental health for Black male students.

  • Anna Balakrishnan is a student in the Advanced Practice track, who has an MSW from Columbia University. Anna’s research interests include community development and trauma-informed care in international settings.

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