Nina Gheihman virtually gathered more than 70 friends and family for a monumental life event on the first Friday of April. She wore white, and champagne and dancing were involved.
Gheihman was defending her doctoral dissertation in sociology, “Veganized: How Cultural Entrepreneurs Mainstreamed a Movement.” The white outfit was a pantsuit chosen as a symbol of solidarity with trailblazing women in her field and beyond. Her guests included her three-member dissertation committee.
“It was all the people who are important to me in my life, and I was wearing white, but it’s not my wedding,” Gheihman joked.
After the panel unanimously approved her work, Gheihman had a smaller online celebration with friends, drinking champagne and having a “Doctor of Philosophy Dance Party” with a playlist featuring ABBA and James Brown.
Her outfit, inspired by the one New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wore at her 2019 swearing-in ceremony, was the only holdover from her original plans for defending her dissertation and graduating from her doctoral program.
“Of course, I was disappointed at first,” she said of scrapping her plans, which included a vegan celebration dinner at Oleana in Cambridge, a trip to New York to meet with publishers about a book proposal based on her dissertation, and a meditation retreat.
But a defense in the days of social distancing also opened possibilities.
“I just decided that this was an opportunity to invite a lot of people who have been part of the research as part of the dissertation defense,” she said. “Normally I would have invited 30 people in person, but [because it was being done remotely] I was able to invite many more people who would not have been able to be there otherwise. It was a really great experience, honestly.”
“I’ve never done a dissertation defense where you have [so many] people online, and it was amazing in the sense that technology has enabled something that we would never have been able to do a few years ago,” said Michèle Lamont, Gheihman’s adviser and professor of sociology and African and African American studies, Robert I. Goldman Professor of European Studies, and director of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs.
Besides it being online, much of the defense proceeded as if in person. A major part of it involved Gheihman presenting her work to her committee. To help her practice she enlisted her sister, Galina Gheihman, M.D. ’19, and her best friend, Lauren Valentino, an incoming Ohio State University sociology professor, to watch and give her feedback over Zoom.
Taking questions from the audience, a typical part of the event, wouldn’t be possible. But Gheihman was intent on ensuring that one important aspect would be: having committee members ceremonially leave the room to deliberate.
In the Harvard Sociology Department, “There is some pomp and circumstance where the committee leaves at the end, and it’s very dramatic,” she said. “In this case, I had to figure out how to use breakout rooms on Zoom and show my committee how to use it.”
On the day of the event, friends and family from her hometown of Toronto, around the East Coast, and from her fieldwork in the Middle East, Europe, and California joined the session to offer support, including a doctor friend working at a hospital in New York, who signed on wearing a mask and gloves.
“This crisis opens up opportunities that people would not have expected,” said Lamont. “It’s not that there are silver linings, but this is an experience we would not have been able to have otherwise.”
“When I saw everyone on video, it made me feel like I wasn’t alone,” said Gheihman. “It was just nice to be able to share the culmination of a seven-year journey with all these people who were a part of it in some way.”