Alum Wins Prestigious Dissertation Award

The University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing is thrilled to recognize two-time alum Maura McCall, PhD ‘22, MSN ‘10, who received the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS)/ProQuest Distinguished Dissertation award in the field of Biological and Life Sciences – a prestigious international honor for doctoral dissertations. McCall was recognized during the Council of Graduate Schools 63rd annual meeting in Washington D.C. on December 7, 2023.

These international awards recognize recent doctoral recipients who have made significant and original contributions in their fields. Only two awards are given each year, rotating among four general areas of scholarship.

“I was astounded,” said McCall when she learned she was receiving the award. “I am very humbled.”

McCall’s dissertation research addressed a significant problem in cancer care, that of poor adherence to prescribed oral cancer therapy. “Genotypic and Phenotypic Predictors of Cancer Therapy Adherence and Symptom Trajectories in Women with Breast Cancer” analyzed women’s experiences with side effects from types of early-stage breast cancer treatment that when taken are highly effective in eradicating the cancer after five years. Only 48 percent of women adhere to the regimen in the first year due to the symptoms, or side effects. McCall’s work uses data to analyze the relationships between the types of symptoms experienced over time to help identify interventions for women who may stop adherence to the medicine due to the burden of these symptoms. She was able to establish bidirectional relationship between symptoms and adherence, a new finding in this research area.

“The University of Pittsburgh is thrilled that Dr. McCall was honored for her groundbreaking research on breast cancer treatment,” said Dr. Amanda Godley, vice provost for graduate studies, who nominated McCall for the award. “Dr. McCall’s innovative research demonstrates a novel approach to understanding the roles of adherence and symptoms in aromatase inhibitor therapy. We are proud of Dr. McCall’s accomplishments and anticipate that her scholarship will continue to impact the field for years to come.”

McCall spent several years at Pitt Nursing, first as a staff member, then staff member and student, followed by a full-time doctoral student.

“Through my work at Pitt, I knew nearly everyone,” she said. “Our school is like a small town – faculty and staff are friendly, helpful and kind.”

She said it was through those relationships that her research interest began.

“The most influential person was our Dean Emeritus Jackie Dunbar-Jacob,” she said. “She hired me as a nurse interventionist on her first R01 (before she was a dean), and I've worked for her on numerous projects through the years. My interest in medication adherence was a result of working with Jackie. Dr. Cathy Bender was my dissertation chair, and her work and expertise with symptoms experienced and adherence in women with breast cancer played a large role in my dissertation study. I've known Dr. Susan Sereika for as long as I've known Jackie, and her expertise in statistics was invaluable. Dr. Peg Rosenzweig piqued my interest in health disparities in breast cancer when I worked with her wonderful team as a graduate student researcher. And Dr. Yvette Conley was particularly influential regarding my training in genetics. When she offered me the T32 scholar position, I was able to quit my Pitt job and begin as a full-time doctoral student. That was an important step because I was eligible to apply for grants of my own at that point--with the support of my committee.”

At Pitt, McCall was awarded a highly competitive F99/K00 award from the National Cancer Institute for her study entitled, A Multi-Omics Approach to Examine Symptoms and Medication Adherence in Women with Breast Cancer. Only 24 are awarded by NCI annually. The K99 portion of this award now supports her postdoctoral training at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing.

“In my postdoctoral fellowship, we are replicating the dissertation results in women with breast cancer who have experienced symptoms that differ from the ones we studied in the doctoral research, and we are examining the role of additional biomarkers and their influence on symptoms women experience,” she said. “After that, I will focus on specific populations of persons with breast cancer. I am also involved with a phenomenal group of scientists at CWRU who are exploring potential health effects after a toxic exposure that recently occurred near my home in Northeastern Ohio.”

The CGS/ProQuest Distinguished Dissertation awards have been distributed annually since 1982 and recognize recent doctoral recipients who have made significant and original contributions in their fields. CGS President Suzanne T. Ortega said the work represents the best of graduate education and research.

“The CGS/ProQuest Distinguished Dissertation Awards recognizes the innovative research of young scholars and their important impact on their disciplines and the broader graduate education community,” said Ortega. “Their tenacity and dedication to their scholarship is apparent in the significant contributions Dr. Shawna Cunningham and Dr. Maura McCall have made in their fields.”

Chris Burghardt, Senior Vice President of Information Solutions, Academia and Government at Clarivate, said, “Dissertations are not only a critical milestone of accomplishment in the academy, but an important— and often underutilized— source of expertise, methodological innovation, and intellectual insight. The new integration between the Web of Science and ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global ensures that these valuable contributions are made accessible to researchers at institutions of higher education across the globe. I am proud to honor Dr. Shawna Cunningham and Dr. Maura McCall with the 2023 Distinguished Dissertation Awards. I am pleased to announce that their dissertations will be cross listed in the Web of Science and PQDT Global!”

ProQuest, part of Clarivate – whose ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global database (PQDT) features the world's most comprehensive, curated collection of dissertations and theses – sponsors the awards, and an independent committee from the Council of Graduate Schools selects the winners. The winners receive a certificate of recognition, a $2,000 honorarium, and a travel stipend to attend the awards ceremony.

This is the second time someone from the University of Pittsburgh has been recognized. In 1998, Luis Lehner’s dissertation “Gravitational Radiation from Black Hole Space Times” won in the Math/Physical Sciences field.