In early March 2022, Claire Wickersham and Meghan Hendricksen successfully defended their UMass Boston gerontology doctoral dissertations. The two new PhDs faced the added challenge of researching and writing their dissertations during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Dissertations are inherently isolating, so you often feel lonely,” says Hendricksen. But with faculty and students sent home from campus in spring 2020, she and Wickersham missed even the opportunity to see fellow students in the gerontology offices. Instead, they got creative with online support groups. Wickersham even traveled to Chicago for a writing retreat with other PhD candidates who she met through a Facebook group.

Both women used the national Health and Retirement Study (HRS) for their research. Wickersham studied “The Role of Physical Activity and Gender as Moderators for the Relationship Between Insomnia and Depression.” Her central finding was that people with insomnia were twice as likely to experience depression two years later. She also determined that older women are at higher risk of depression, but older people who are physically active have lower risk. A proponent of physical exercise, she taught an online fitness class for the Gerontology Institute’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) during her doctoral studies. “I started the class with my parents during COVID when gyms were closed,” Wickersham says. “It’s a mix of some meditation, light dumbbell work, balance, and stretching.” Many of her OLLI students told her they loved the convenience of taking the class virtually, saying they wouldn’t have had the energy to take the bus to campus to take the class. 

Hendricksen studied “Perceived Discrimination and Health Outcomes in Older Adults.” She found that women and people of color who experienced discrimination—reporting that they felt they received poorer service from doctors and hospitals than others did—had poorer self-reported poorer health, and increased likelihood of heart attacks. “Health equity has always been an interest of mine,” she says. One drawback of using secondary data such as the HRS is that she couldn’t dig deeper into questions. Amongst people who experienced discrimination and showed poorer health outcomes, Hendricksen couldn’t tease out which aspect was the source of discrimination—gender, race, or weight, for example.

Both women chose to pursue a gerontology doctorate because they want to make an impact on policies affecting older adults. “I decided to go into gerontology when I was volunteering in nursing homes and saw people being given the wrong medications,” Wickersham says. She is interviewing for jobs, hoping ideally to help a health technology startup with marketing to older adults.

“You go into the program really excited about the impact you can make,” says Hendricksen. “Narrowing down a research question into something that will be doable was a learning curve for me.” She worked full time throughout her dissertation as a project director for Hebrew SeniorLife. She recently wrapped up work on a National Institutes of Aging grant, a four-state qualitative study that involved data management and visiting nursing homes to interview staff and proxies of residents with advanced dementia. She hopes to continue doing research in an applied setting, bridging the worlds of academia and practical settings. 

“Claire and Meghan, like many of our students, came into the doctoral program wanting to do something that would have an impact on policy,” says Kathrin Boerner, PhD, gerontology professor and graduate program director. “In their careers to date, both women were exposed to some on-the-ground shortcomings in the field and want to make things better. They leave our program well equipped with the tools to realize this vision. For us as faculty, it’s exciting to see. We have the privilege of supporting them and their impressive development over the course of the program. And then we watch proudly as they enter the field.”

Read more of our April 2022 Advances newsletter