CEHD Congratulates PhD candidates Samantha Hacherl and James Kearney on Being Selected for the Provost’s Dissertation Completion Grant

December 14, 2023

Two students in the College of Education and Human Development (CEHD) who are George Mason University alums now pursuing their doctorate degrees at Mason, have been named recipients of the Provost’s Dissertation Completion Grant for the Spring 2024 semester. The dissertation completion grants were awarded to Samantha Hacherl and James Kearney, candidates for the PhD in Education with a Concentration in Kinesiology degree. The selection of these students for the grants is a reflection that their research is deemed worthy of provost level funding. Dissertation Completion Grants are awarded to doctoral students in the final semester of their dissertation. The grants enable students to focus full time on research and writing, improving quality of the work, and shortening the time to complete their degree. Applicants must be full-time students who have advanced to candidacy and are on track to graduate by summer 2024.

Samantha Hacherl’s research focuses on sex differences in sports-related concussions among middle school athletes.

Samantha Hacherl

Samantha Hacherl’s Mason roots can be traced back to 2014 when she graduated from the university with a Bachelor of Science in Athletic Training. Because of the transitions then taking place within the athletic training profession, Hacherl was encouraged by faculty to pursue a master’s degree to make herself more competitive in the job market. Hacherl decided to continue her education at Mason in the Master of Exercise, Fitness, and Health Promotion program (now the Master of Science in Kinesiology) and was given the opportunity to work as a middle school athletic trainer through the Advancing Healthcare Initiatives for Underserved Students (ACHIEVES) project at Mason. While earning her master’s degree, she engaged in research under the direction of Shane Caswell, professor in the Athletic Training Education and Kinesiology programs in Mason’s School of Kinesiology, who continues to mentor Hacherl as she works on her doctorate.

Hacherl is focusing her dissertation on an investigation of sex differences in sports-related concussions among middle school athletes—a topic of interest stemming from her clinical experience as a middle school athletic trainer within the ACHIEVES project. She explained, “I have been involved with the ACHIEVES project since my master’s program. The decision to explore sex differences in sports-related concussions was driven by the need to address a critical gap in the existing literature.”

“Last fall,” she continued, “Dr. Caswell and I were able to present some of our research from the ACHIEVES project at the 6th International Symposium on Concussion in Sport where they highlighted that studies including the 8 to 13-year-old age group were severely lacking and provided a call to research to explore sports-related concussions within this population.”

Hacherl observed, “The ACHIEVES project, with its focus on middle school athletes, provides a unique context for my research. Middle school is a crucial developmental stage, marked by significant physical and cognitive changes, and understanding the sex-specific factors influencing concussion occurrence and recovery is critical. Through this research, I hope to help to close the gap between clinical practice and academic knowledge, ultimately fostering a safer sports environment for young athletes.”

When asked about what motivated her to pursue a doctoral degree at Mason and what she enjoys most about her program, Hacherl remarked, “I had always wanted to give back to the athletic training profession through teaching and with my interest in research I was encouraged by Drs. Shane Caswell and Amanda Caswell to consider continuing my education with a PhD. What really drew me to pursue a PhD in Education with a Concentration in Kinesiology was the teaching-focused classes and the ability to teach throughout the program. The faculty go out of their way to support us in reaching our goals no matter if it is research or teaching focused.”

Hacherl’s long-term goal after she graduates is to become a faculty member in an athletic training program. “Over the past four years, I've had the opportunity to teach multiple athletic training classes while working clinically and it’s really helped me cultivate my teaching style and philosophy,” Hacherl stated. “I feel that completing my PhD here at Mason has provided me with the necessary skills to move forward in my career, wherever that may be, and I look forward to what comes next.”

James Kearney’s dissertation centers on the role solo status and stereotype threat have in effecting the professional outcomes of racial minorities.

James Kearney

Before arriving at Mason, James Kearney’s background included his work as an athletic trainer in upstate New York and his time as an undergraduate student at Marist College where he completed his bachelor’s degree in 2018 while also serving as a member of the Air Force Reserves. Given the changes taking place in the athletic training field as he was finishing his undergraduate degree, Kearney determined that he needed to obtain a master’s to further enhance his qualifications. After applying to several programs, he landed at Mason to pursue a Master of Exercise, Fitness, and Health Promotion (now the Master of Science in Kinesiology) opting for the Advanced Practitioner track that was then offered.

Kearney cited the support and opportunities available to him through the ACHIEVES initiative as key factors in his decision to attend Mason for his master’s program. “As a member of the ACHIEVES project, I was the head athletic trainer at a local middle school which is a good opportunity for a recent graduate,” Kearney explained. “With that came the management responsibilities of that role. However, it also allowed us to collaborate with other athletic trainers that are at different schools,” he stated. “My work in that program helped me see a variety of perspectives and allowed me space to work on how to communicate ideas to a wide variety of audiences.”

Throughout the time that Kearney worked on his master's degree, Mason faculty took notice of him, recognizing that he had a great deal of potential, and so they encouraged him to continue his studies in a PhD program. This came as something of a surprise to Kearney. “As a student who struggled with learning disabilities and who was unsure about even pursuing a bachelor’s degree, this suggestion shocked me,” he commented. Still, Kearney considered the suggestions offered by faculty and with what he describes as a little “push” from the COVID-19 lockdowns, made the decision to pursue a PhD at Mason.

For his dissertation, Kearney is examining the role that solo status and stereotype threat have in effecting the professional outcomes of racial minorities. “I fortunately, and unfortunately, am interested in almost everything,” he admits. “As such, I gravitate towards topics that can pull from multiple domains. Additionally, I do not like seeing others struggling due to factors outside of their control and due to social biases. This general proclivity was heightened as I dug into the literature until I arrived at my dissertation topic.”

In describing what he enjoys most about his program at Mason, Kearney emphasized, “I touched on it before, but it was the faculty and the support I receive...On top of the faculty, I also like the emphasis on understanding statistics and analyses, as well as the ability to dig into your interests.”

Reflecting on what he plans to do professionally after receiving his doctorate, Kearney shared, “My long-term goals are vague and specific. I want to be able to make meaningful changes about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. At the heart of it, I want us all to understand each other a little better. Mason pushed me to follow that goal and has been supportive of the general mission of DEI.”

Kearney expressed his deep appreciation for being chosen to receive the Provost Dissertation Completion Grant stating, “I am extremely grateful for the opportunity the grant is providing me. I did not come from much and the opportunities Mason has provided me cannot be understated.”

The Mason community at CEHD extends its warm congratulations to Samantha Hacherl and James Kearney for their outstanding work and accomplishments as demonstrated by their well-deserved selection for the provost level funding provided by these grants.