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Meet Our Ph.D. Students

Tanya Bailey

Tanya Bailey photo with horseTanya Bailey ( is a doctoral student interested in Animal-Assisted Interactions (AAI), with specific emphasis in codifying the therapeutic relationship between animals and people to help support mental health and special education programs. She is also interested in Care Farming practices in European models of health care. She received her B.S. in Human Development and Family Studies from Indiana University and her M.S.W. from Washington University, where she created her own independent focus in AAI. She then spent 20+ years developing a nonprofit business providing AAI for youth, families, groups and community organizations, and is skilled at partnering with horses, dogs, chickens and other species in AAI delivery. She is the Animal-Assisted Interactions Program Specialist at the University of Minnesota’s Landscape Arboretum and teaching faculty at the Center for Spirituality and Healing, and serves as a national committee member to develop AAI best practices. Her social work advisor is Dr. Helen Kivnick.

Minhae Cho

Minhae ChoMinhae Cho ( received her B.A. and Master's degrees in Child Welfare from the Sookmyung Women’s University, South Korea. She completed her M.S.W. at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. She has worked as the secretary-general at an adoption organization to promote domestic adoption in South Korea and to challenge long held prejudice and negative perceptions of adoption there. Based on her work and academic experiences, her research interests are the well-being of vulnerable children and families, especially how society responds to these families with social change. Her advisor is Dr. Wendy Haight.


Tonya Cook

Tonya Cook ( received her BA in Political Science and English from St. Olaf College and her MSW from the University of Minnesota. She worked for six years at a refugee resettlement agency, serving five years as the resettlement director. She has been involved in the founding of two ethnic community-based nonprofits in Minnesota and is passionate about the empowerment of refugee communities. Tonya’s research interests broadly include U.S. refugee resettlement policy, creating trauma-informed intervention models for refugee families and communities, measurements of wellbeing for resettled refugees, informal self-help networks, and community-based participatory research. At the University of Minnesota, she works with Dr. Patricia Shannon on the development of culturally-adapted mental health screening tools for newly-arrived refugees. Tonya is also pursuing a clinical social work license and works with Sue Johnston, LICSW, piloting a mental health treatment program in a community-based setting, currently with refugees from Burma.

Alex Fink

Alex Fink ( received a B.A. in Cultural Studies and Philosophy from the University of Minnesota and is continuing his education in the dual degree M.S.W./Ph.D. Social Work program. Alex worked for several years in leadership education at the college level and has returned to that work as a Graduate Assistant in the Undergraduate Leadership Minor program, where he coordinates new instructor development and teaches several undergraduate leadership classes. Alex brings youth work and leadership development orientations to his social work, where he is interested in: youth cultural and political geographies and meaning making, mentoring relationships, and skill/craft/practice development models for social services practitioners. Alex's advisor is Dr. David Hollister.


Kristin Hamre

Kristin Hamre ( received her B.A. in Psychology, English, and Women’s Studies from St. Olaf College in 2000. She completed her Master’s in Public Health (MPH) at the University of Minnesota in 2010. During her MPH program, Kristin completed a Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disabilities (LEND) fellowship, completing a comparative policy analysis on the use of seclusion and restraints in Minnesota and across the nation. Kristin also traveled to Zambia, Africa with the Twin Cities Zambia Disability Connection, working with local partners on strengthening policy, building advocacy, and improving the lives of people with disabilities. Her research interests include disability policy and services, and health and human rights. Kristin works as a Research Assistant at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Community Integration, where she is currently working on an interdisciplinary team exploring the prevalence of autism spectrum disorders in the Twin Cities Somali community. Kristin’s advisor is Dr. Elizabeth Lightfoot.

Renee Hepperlen

Renee Hepperlen ( received her B.A. in psychology, with a double minor in music and biology, from Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, MN. She then attended the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration, where she obtained an A.M. in clinical social work and participated as a Maternal and Child Health (MCH) Trainee. Prior to entering the Ph.D. program, Renee was employed for 15 years, including 8 years as a social worker assisting families that had young children with delays in their development. Her primary research interests include supports for families and individuals who have developmental delays and the early identification of autism. Renee presently assists with research at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Community Integration and is a fellow through Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disabilities (LEND). Her academic advisor is Dr. Elizabeth Lightfoot. Curriculum vitae.

Ndii Kalomo

Ndii Kalomo ( received her B.A. in Social Work from University of Namibia in 1997. After graduation, she worked for three years as a social worker at the , Women and Child Protection Unit, Windhoek, Namibia. She served survivors of sexual abuse and physical abuse, marital problems, family problems and HIV/AIDS related challenges with a special emphasis on counseling. She completed her M.S.W. at the University of Norwich, UK focusing on international child welfare issues. After her M.S.W., she took a position as a junior faculty in Social Work at the University of Namibia, in 2003. She taught, advised students, and designed community field placements for students. Over the years she has been involved in various projects related to the impact of HIV/AIDS on families in sub-Saharan Africa developed and interest. Ndii is interested in the grandparents caring for their grandchildren, who are either infected or affected by HIV/AIDS. Curriculum vitae.

Parmananda Khatiwoda

Parmananda Khatiwoda ( is a doctoral student with a research interest in vital involvement and psychosocial health among refugee elders. He received his BA in English and Psychology from India (1996), MA in English from Nepal (2005), MSW from the University of Minnesota (2012), and an LGSW in Minnesota (2012). Parmananda was born in Bhutan, but lived in a refugee camp in Nepal between 1992 and 2008. He was one of the pioneers in starting education system in the Bhutanese refugee camps, and was a principal of a private high school in Kathmandu between 2000 and 2008. He came to Minnesota in 2008 through U.S. refugee resettlement program, and has also been actively involved in organizing and developing culturally appropriate programs and services in the Minnesota Bhutanese community. In 2006 he received “Ambassador of Peace Award” in Seoul for his contribution to positive change in the society. Parmananda’s advisor is Dr. Helen Kivnick.

Belle Khuu

Belle Khuu ( received her BS in sociology, BA in philosophy and psychology with a minor in Asian American studies at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities in 2003. After graduation, she worked as a clinical research coordinator for the University of Minnesota Department of Psychiatry Schizophrenia Program. Belle completed her MSW in mental health practice and MPH in community health education with a minor in prevention science. Belle is now a doctoral student in the School of Social Work. Belle is a research assistant for Richard M. Lee, PhD and Hee Yun Lee, PhD. Her social work program advisor is Hee Yun Lee, PhD. Belle’s overall research interest is cultural adaption and implementation of mental health promotion initiatives among Southeast Asian Americans. Her other research interests include: acculturation and acculturative stress among ethnic minorities, impact of ethnic identity on mental health outcomes, and social determinants of mental health disparities including health utilization behaviors.

Rusudan Kilaberia

Rusudan KilaberiaRusudan Kilaberia, M.S.W., ( is a doctoral candidate at the University of Minnesota School of Social Work, where she also completed her master's degree with a concentration in human services management.  Rusudan is interested in gerontological social work, and has lived alongside older adults at a Continuing Care Retirement Community.  Rusudan is currently studying diversity in palliative and end-of-life care teams.  Her previous work includes projects related to long-term care, older immigrants, and elder financial exploitation.  Rusudan is currently working with her dissertation committee.

JaeRan Kim

JaeRan KimJaeRan Kim ( received her BSW from Metropolitan State University and her M.S.W. from the University of Minnesota. She has worked with adults with mental health disabilities, in child welfare training for the MN Department of Human Services, as a Child Specific Adoption Recruiter at Hennepin County, and in post-adoption services at Minnesota Adoption Resource Network. JaeRan has been a Title IV-E Scholar and a Leadership and Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disabilities (LEND) Fellow. JaeRan is the program coordinator for the Permanency and Adoption Competency Certificate at the Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare and her academic interests are in adoption, children with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and social media. JaeRan’s dissertation research explores the intersection of internationally adopted children with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the child welfare system. JaeRan’s advisor is Jeffrey Edleson.

Tammy Kincaid

Tammy Kincaid ( ) received her Bachelor of Social Work from Minnesota State University Moorhead in 1986. After graduation, she spent two years working with Adults with Developmental Disabilities. She then spent 20+ years working at a suburban Minnesota county as a social worker and social services supervisor in Child Protective Services. She is currently working as the Director of Human Services in a suburban/rural mix county in western Wisconsin. She completed her M.S.W. at the University of Minnesota in 2005, focusing on direct practice as a child welfare scholar. She also earned a Master of Public Affairs degree with an emphasis on Social Policy. Tammy’s research interests include family and child welfare policy and evaluation, inter-generational programs, social work workforce development, and human services financing and administration. Tammy currently works as a Research Assistant with her advisor, Dr. Ron Rooney.

Michael Lee

Michael Lee ( has worked for nearly fifteen years as an advocate, organizer, and researcher in the LGBT community. As an undergraduate, he founded Michigan State University’s first queer literary magazine, which highlighted the first-person stories of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students. Michael’s subsequent pursuit of an M.S.W. at Michigan State led him to work in HIV/AIDS prevention, primarily with the Minnesota AIDS Project. Michael’s accomplishments include implementing an evidence-based HIV prevention program; managing a large, metro-wide volunteer program; federal grant writing; and, overseeing major fundraising events. Michael’s Doctoral interests include mixed methods research, teaching, and evaluation studies, with a specific interest in the formation and maturation processes of LGBT community organizations. He currently works as a research assistant for Dr. Colleen Fisher while teaching part-time at St. Cloud State University. He has also worked as a research assistant for his advisor, Dr. Jean Quam.

Mihwa Lee

Mihwa Lee ( is a doctoral student interested in aging. She received her B.A in Gerontology and Social Work from Seoul Women’s University and M.A in Lifelong Education focusing on educational gerontology from Seoul National University in South Korea. During her M.A, she worked as an assistant researcher in several research projects including “Human Resource Development (HRD) Strategies for The Middle and Old Aged as Lifelong Learning”, “Learning history and Learning Outcomes investigate of Successful Leader”, and “Elderly Education Policy and the Current Situation”. She also spent two years as an education volunteer coordinator with elderly at a local nonprofit. Her research interests include productive and civic engagement in later life, and community services to older adults. Mihwa currently works as Research Assistant with her advisor, Dr. Hee Lee.

Shawyn Lee

Shawyn Lee ( is a doctoral student interested in research examining how LGBTQ identities impact over all experiences of transracial and intercountry adoptees. Shawyn received a B.S.W. from St. Thomas University and an M.S.W. from the University of Minnesota. Having worked as a community practice social worker at Family & Children's Service (now the Family Partnership), the University of Minnesota, and Hamline University, much of Shawyn's professional experience has been in and with LGBTQ communities as an organizer and social justice advocate. Additionally, Shawyn has taught undergraduate BSW courses at St. Catherine University and the College of St. Scholastica. Returning again to the University of Minnesota, Shawyn works as a Research Assistant with CASCW doing research in foster care and the juvenile justice system. Shawyn's advisor is Dr. Jeffrey Edleson.

Mariah Levison

Mariah LevisonMariah’s ( primary research interest is how to build consensus on social policy issues. She is interested in the social-psychological reasons that the public supports or opposes social policies and the effectiveness of consensus building practices. She is also interested in pro-social behavior. Before joining the doctoral program in Social Work, Mariah worked for several of the country’s largest conflict resolution centers. Her work in conflict resolution includes mediation, facilitation, assessment, collaborative processes and restorative justice. She teaches a mediation course and clinic at the University of Minnesota Law School. Mariah has a B.A. in conflict resolution from Hampshire College and an M.A. in International Affairs from Washington University in St. Louis. Her advisor is Dr. Elizabeth Lightfoot.

Kao Nou L. Moua

Kao Nou L. Moua ( received her B.A. in Cultural Anthropology from the University of Montana-Missoula in 2006. In 2009, she completed her MSW at the University of Montana-Missoula. She has over 10 years of experience working with youth on integrating leadership skills and social justice issues focused on racism, sexism, and homophobia. Her research interests include youth development and empowerment, intergenerational trauma, and Hmong cultural and ethnic identity development. Kao Nou’s advisor is Dr. Michael Baizerman.


Hoa Nguyen

Hoa Nguyen ( completed her B.A. in English at Hanoi University, Vietnam and earned the M.S.W. at the University of Minnesota, USA. Her research interests include violence against women, poverty and economic empowerment, immigration related issues and program evaluation. Prior coming to the United States, she worked at the Institute of Policy and Strategies for Agriculture and Rural Development on various foreign aid projects. She also worked as an interpreter for an HIV/AIDS project associated with the United Nations Development Program. Hoa won an Interdisciplinary Dissertation Fellowship and plans to do her dissertation about online financial literacy for battered women. Hoa’s advisor is Dr. David Hollister.

Mary Nienow

Mary Nienow ( is the Executive Director at Child Care WORKS. She spent several years as the lead researcher on Health and Human Services for the Minnesota Senate DFL Caucus. Mary has a Master’s Degree in Social Work from the University of Minnesota and over a decade of experience in research, teaching, advocacy, programcoordination, policy development and analysis in early childhood and community service organizations. Mary was the co-founder of Grasstops, a nonprofit advocacy organization that assists nonprofits and small community groups with their policy and advocacy goals. Her advisor is Dr. Wendy Haight. Mary's reserach interests include child care policy and the role of macro practice in the field of social work.

Kelly Nye-Lengerman

Kelly Nye-LengermanKelly Nye-Lengerman ( is a Ph.D. student interested in disability and employment, integrated employment initiatives, Autism, and human service management. Kelly is a Training Coordinator at the University of Minnesota's Institute on Community Integration where she works with the Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental Disabilities (LEND) program and College of Direct Support (CDS). Prior to her work at the University she worked for community rehabilitation providers in SE Minnesota. Kelly has spent over 13 years working with individuals and families affected by disability. She is also involved with MN Association for Professionals in Supported Employment (APSE) and the MN Employment First Coalition. Kelly is an instructor at St. Mary's University in the Graduate School of Health and Human Service Administration. She received her bachelor degree in Social Work from Luther College and her M.S.W. degree from the University of Minnesota. She is also a licensed graduate social worker (LGSW) in Minnesota.

Ebony Ruhland

Ebony RhulandEbony Ruhland ( received her B.A. from the University of Minnesota in 2003. She then went on to obtain a master's degree in Counseling and Psychological Services from St. Mary’s University. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Social Work at the University of Minnesota. Ebony has been employed for 10 years at a local nonprofit agency specializing in criminal justice research, policy, and direct service. Currently, she is working on a federally funded grant to examine the legal needs of crime victims. Ebony’s research interests include examining how individuals, families, and communities are impacted by crime and the criminal justice system. Her advisor is Dr. Wendy Haight. Curriculum vitae.

Chittaphone Santavasy

Chittaphone SantavasyChittaphone Santavasy ( received her bachelor of Pharmacy degree from the National University of Laos. With a British Chevening scholarship, she completed her Master in Development Studies at the University of East Anglia, UK, in 2001. She was a Hubert H. Humphrey Fellow, at the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota from 2005-06. She worked over ten years with Save the Children and UNICEF in the field of Child Protection and Child Rights in Laos. Chittaphone is interested in the development of youth friendly social welfare system, youth policies, positive youth development, and civic youth work. Chittaphone currently works as a Research Assistant to her advisor, Professor Michael Baizerman.

Sarah Thilmony

Sarah Thilmony ( is a doctoral student interested in researching the effectiveness of utilizing animals for therapy, specifically the use of horses, with individuals who have mental and/or physical disabilities. She received her BSW from Minnesota State University-Moorhead in 2007, volunteered at a therapeutic horseback riding program - Riding on Angels Wings - and worked as a hospital social worker with chemically dependent and mentally ill adults after graduation. She received her MSW and a certificate in animal-assisted social work from the University of Denver in 2009. While attending school in Denver, she interned as a therapist at the Mental Health Center of Denver in the children’s day program, utilizing a therapy dog/handler team. She also conducted research on the effectiveness of equine therapy with children with disabilities. At the University of MN, she works as a Research Assistant with Dr. Elizabeth Lightfoot, who also acts as her advisor.

Tasha Walvig

Tasha Brynn Walvig ( is a Ph.D. candidate interested in policy research on welfare reform, particularly Minnesota’s implementation of TANF. She received her undergraduate degree in psychology and English from Macalester College, and her M.S.W. from the University of Minnesota. She has worked as a Women’s Advocate for survivors of domestic violence and as an Employment Counselor for families participating in the Minnesota Family Investment Program. Tasha is currently employed by the Minnesota Center for Twin and Family Research. Her advisor is Dr. James Reinardy.

Courtney Wells

Courtney Kellerman Wells ( received her B.A. in Psychology and French from St. Catherine University and completed an MPH (Maternal and Child Health) and M.S.W. at the University of Minnesota. In 2010-2011 she completed the Leadership Education in Adolescent Health (LEAH) program at the University of Minnesota Medical School. Courtney is passionate about improving the lives of young people living with chronic and terminal illness through clinical and community practice, research, and teaching. Her specific interests include: grief and loss, adolescent identity development, resiliency promotion, and training health care professionals. Courtney currently does research in the School of Social Work with Helen Kivnick and faculty in the department of Pediatrics at the University of Minnesota Medical School and is an adjunct professor in the Psychology department at St. Catherine University.