Doctor of Philosophy in Social Policy

PhD Careers

Ilhom Akobirshoev, PhD'15, Senior Scientist

Ilhom Akobirshoev, PhD’15

Scientist, Lurie Institute for Disability Policy, The Heller School

Ilhom Akobirshoev, PhD’15, is dedicated to revealing the health disparities faced by the most vulnerable people in the world. In spring 2020, Akobirshoev received Heller’s Early Career Investigator Award, honoring his work on pregnancy and birth outcomes for women with disabilities, and his collaborations with Heller researchers in global and behavioral health.

Learn more about Akobirshoev's work.

Anne Douglass, PhD’09

Associate Professor and Executive Director, the Institute for Early Education Leadership and Innovation at the University of Massachusetts Boston

“I went into Heller to pursue what I was most passionate about and learned things I knew nothing about before, like organizational theory with Jody Hoffer Gittell. The immersion in organizational science research and theories of leadership have proved to be most influential in shaping my ideas and bringing them to fruition.”

Read more about Douglass' work. 

Brenda Bond-Fortier, PhD'06

Brenda Bond-Fortier, PhD’06

Professor, Suffolk University’s Institute for Public Service

“When you look at the research around reforming policing and criminal justice, it is usually focused on what works to reduce crime. What I see in the current debate around reform is it really is laser-focused on the institution and how it’s constructed in a way that creates conflict and tension between communities of color and police agencies,” says Bond-Fortier, who consults for police departments across the country, working to redefine public safety. 

Read more about Bond-Fortier's work.

La Verne Reid, PhD’99

Professor, College of Behavioral and Social Sciences at North Carolina Central University

In addition to teaching and mentoring students, Reid partners with North Carolina state health agencies to design training programs to increase the cultural competency of healthcare providers working with HIV patients.

“I talk about my experience at the Heller School a lot with my students because we are very interested in health inequities. Heller exposed me to the language that policymakers use, and it's totally different from that of health inequality. I learned to speak that language and examine those differences. After receiving my PhD from Heller I worked with the North Carolina legislature, helping them understand how using data could inform their decision-making. Heller gave me access to that world. I learned the way policy is decided upon, and I understand that now. Heller opens doors.”

Read more about Reid's work.

Antoinette Hays, PhD'90

Antoinette Hays, PhD’90

President, Regis College

Whether it’s strengthening Regis College’s bottom line and academic excellence during an era of upheaval in higher education, earning a doctorate while working and raising children, or innovating nursing education in Haiti, Hays approaches her life’s work by focusing on forward movement and making sure she gets a seat at the table.

The American Nurses Association (ANA) recognized Hays’ contributions to nursing with a Living Legends in Massachusetts Nursing Award in spring 2019. 

“My education at Heller, including a deeper understanding of economic, political and sociological theories, coupled with skills in statistics and research methods, has given me a distinct advantage.”

Read more about Hays' work. 

Barbara Nobles Crawford, PhD’84

Barbara Nobles Crawford, PhD’84

Director of Executive and Leadership Coaching for MBA Working Professional Programs at the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School

Nobles Crawford serves as a member of the Heller School Board of Advisors and in March 2021, moderated a panel with Dr. Eddie Moore, creator of the 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge©. “The Heller School was a trailblazer in presenting this opportunity to the community in January. Just as I feel proud to have been part of movements to improve policies, best practices, and laws that ameliorate injustices for underrepresented, and brown and Black people, I’m proud to be a part of helping teach equity, diversity, and inclusion to my fellow Brandeisians.”

Learn more about Nobles Crawford's work.

Bryna Sanger, PhD'76

Bryna Sanger, PhD’76

Deputy Provost and Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs, The New School

As a Board of Advisors member, Sanger regularly returns to Heller to offer her expertise and insights to students, faculty and the administration.

“I’m grateful to have had a Heller education. My career prospered as a consequence, and my Heller friends are still some of my best friends. That’s why I give back and serve on the board. I want to help the next generation. Especially in these challenging times, a Heller education is needed more than ever.”

Learn more about Sanger's work.

Fernando Torres-Gil, MSW’72, PhD’76,

Fernando Torres-Gil, MSW’72, PhD’76

Director, Center for Policy Research on Aging; Professor of Social Welfare and Public Policy, UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs

Fernando Torres-Gil, MSW’72, PhD’76, is one of 15 alumni to receive a 2020 Florence G. Heller Alumni Award. He is the director of the Center for Policy Research on Aging at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he also serves as professor of social welfare and public policy at the Luskin School of Public Affairs. An internationally renowned expert on the politics of aging, Torres-Gil’s research also encompasses health and long-term care, disability and entitlement reform. He has served presidents from Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama, in addition to appointments to various state and city advisory committees, and he is currently advising President-elect Biden.

Learn more about Torres-Gil's work.


Brooke Evans, MA, MSW, LCSW, CSAC, PhD Student studying health and behavioral health policy

Brooke Evans, PhD’19

Director for Behavioral Health and Opioid Stewardship, Washington State Hospital Association

As the director for behavioral health and opioid stewardship on the safety and quality team, Evans provides member hospitals across Washington state with the big data sets and training they need to improve the quality of health care for patients. It's an opportunity to combine her years of experience in clinical social work with the policy, data analysis and implementation skills she gained in Heller’s PhD program. 

“The Heller PhD experience is truly unique. There were so many different paths I could have taken, but I’m so grateful for my experience at Heller, and excited to see where my degree takes me.”

Read more about Evans' work. 

Rajan Sonik, PhD'17

Rajan Sonik, PhD’17

Director of Research, Institute for Health Equity, AltaMed Health Services

At AltaMed Health Services, Sonik is taking on a critical research question: How can addressing social factors like food and housing insecurity affect the healthcare outcomes of low-income populations and the healthcare systems designed to serve them?

Sonik credits Heller with equipping him with the technical tools and creative problem-solving skills necessary to conduct health services research in the context of social policy. “Having the ability to run a regression or pick which econometric model you're going to use is critical, but it's not enough. Social issues are complex and messy and require creative thinking—Heller prepared me for that.”

Learn more about Sonik's work.

Jessica Santos, PhD'15

Jessica Santos, PhD'15

Director, Leah Zallman Center for Immigrant Health Research

“I’ve always been interested in the idea that when immigrants and newcomers arrive, they invest in their new community. How do we build thriving communities that are inclusive and equitable for long-standing residents as well as newcomers?”

Marianne McPherson, PhD’09

Director of Implementation, 100 Million Healthier Lives

McPherson is a key leader of a small team charged with keeping the massive movement on track. She does a bit of everything, from coordinating resources for members, to developing the website and a measurement platform and providing leadership to the wide network of participants. “I really enjoy helping to connect the dots across a variety of issues. I love being able to support the diverse collection of members who together are transforming health and wellbeing with a core focus on equity.”

Read more about McPherson's work. 

Alexandra Piñeros Shields, PhD’07

Alexandra Piñeros-Shields, PhD’07

Executive Director, Essex County Community Organization; Adjunct Senior Lecturer, the Heller School

ECCO is an interfaith, interracial and interclass network of 40 faith congregations whose mission is racial and economic justice.

“I am who I am today because of the education I received at the Heller School, there’s no doubt about that. I learned to think critically [at Heller], and in particular, I learned the rigor of interrogating a problem and understanding it at various levels of analysis.”

Learn more about Piñeros-Shields' work.

Joseph Wronka, PhD’92

Representative to the United Nations, People’s Decade for Human Rights Education

As a representative to the United Nations in Geneva for the International Association of Schools of Social Work for roughly a decade and professor of social work at Springfield College for 25 years, Wronka has spent his career advocating for underrepresented populations and researching and advancing human rights policy around the world. Wronka was initially inspired by his father to develop a humanistic way of thinking and acting in his life and was encouraged by Heller Professor David Gil to undertake the task of reading and comparing federal and state constitutions to the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights which then motivated his dissertation topic.

Read more about Wronka's work.

Constance Fairweather Kane, PhD’85

Constance Fairweather Kane, PhD’85

Founder, Empowered to Educate; Chair, Heller Board of Advisors

Heller holds a special place for Kane, not just for the technical and academic education she received, but because it’s a community of people who are committed to social change and to supporting one another. “You have the strength, leadership, and skills to do whatever you want to do, but don’t try to go it alone. Don’t forget your friends and your network from Heller. And don’t be afraid to ask for help; nine out of ten people will say ‘yes.’ And after they have helped, don’t forget to say ‘thank you!’”

Learn more about Kane's work.

Michael Levine, PhD’85

Chief Knowledge Officer, Sesame Workshop

Over the decades, Michael Levine, PhD’85, has rubbed elbows with civil rights activists, politicians, philanthropists, Hollywood celebrities and the most prominent child development researchers of his generation, all in a quest to improve child policy at every possible turn. From his office at Sesame Workshop in Lincoln Square in Manhattan, where he serves as chief knowledge officer, he looks back on a career that spans countries, sectors and disciplines.

“I made a choice to go to the Heller School because the school had heart and soul,” he says. “At Heller, social justice was in the DNA. The folks who walked the halls of Heller in the mid-1980s were mentors, activists and scholars who had been present at the very beginning of social justice policymaking. My upbringing was steeped in the civil rights movement and the War on Poverty, and Heller was a logical extension of that.”

Read more about Levine's work.

Freada Kapor Klein, PhD’84

Partner, Kapor Capital; Co-founder, Project Include

For decades, venture capitalist Kapor Klein has worked to reduce bias, harassment and discrimination in work environments through both for-profit and nonprofit organizations. “I wouldn’t be doing this work for this many decades if I weren’t fundamentally an optimist. I have been and remain an advocate for social and racial justice, and therefore I am an optimist.”

Read more about Kapor Klein's work. 

Susan Windham-Bannister, PhD’77

Susan Windham-Bannister, PhD’77

President, The National Governing Board of the Association for Women in Science (AWIS)

To say Susan Windham-Bannister, PhD’77, has been a trailblazer in the field of life sciences innovation would be more than a bit of an understatement.  In her nearly four-decade career, she has played a central role in making Massachusetts a global leader in the life sciences; helped companies like Pfizer, Merck and Novartis bring dozens of lifesaving products and therapies to health care providers and patients around the world; helmed several companies; and been named one of the “10 Most Influential Women in Biotech.”

At Heller, Windham-Bannister found the support and challenge she needed to thrive. She recalls fondly how Norman Kurtz, now professor emeritus, made statistics come alive for her. “He really just made it fun and interesting,” she says. “He went a long way in bringing out for me more of a love for math and science. … I just had a great experience at Heller. The faculty, the students — the community was fantastic.”

Read more about Windham-Bannister's work. 


Sara Chaganti, PhD'18

Sara Chaganti, PhD’18

Deputy Director, Regional & Community Outreach, Federal Reserve Bank of Boston

Chaganti conducts both qualitative and quantitative research on issues ranging from racial inequality to COVID-19. Her findings are used to inform public policy at the state and regional level, and have been cited in the media.

“Heller was an environment where I was able to develop as a researcher, to do the kind of work that I wanted to do. I was lucky to find a place where people were supporting each other and really aligned with the mission. The first time I visited, I heard the message about social justice everywhere in the building. It signaled to me that this was a place I would want to be.”

Learn more about Chaganti's work.

Barbara Ferrer

Barbara Ferrer, PhD’94

Director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health

“It’s so hard fighting a pandemic with a new virus because the evidence about what we need to do to protect ourselves has changed since we began. When we started, the guidance was that people didn’t need to wear masks. We were convinced that there was little asymptomatic transmission. None of that is true anymore. That’s our reality: being flexible, being able to move quickly as we learn more about the virus.”

Read more about Ferrer's work.

Otis Johnson, PhD’80

Former Savannah Mayor

“I have been a warrior in the civil rights movement and in the so-called war on poverty. I've been involved with issues of poverty and injustice my entire career. What Brandeis gave me was a foundation to look at implications and to approach social change from the system level. I was always a policy person. I wasn't ever a direct service person because I believed that you had to make changes at the policy level. You can provide services until the cows come home, but it won’t change the structure of things. It is the system that perpetuates the inequality and unless you can challenge that, you can't get lasting change.”

Learn more about Johnson's work.