Alum Yini Zhang (PhD’20) wins Thomas E. Patterson Best Dissertation Award

At the American Political Science Association’s 2021 Annual Meeting, alum Yini Zhang (PhD’20) received the Thomas E. Patterson Best Dissertation Award from the Political Communication section for her dissertation “A Network Approach to Understanding Public Attention, Public Opinion and Communication Flows in the Digital Media System.”

The Thomas E. Patterson Best Dissertation Award recognizes the best dissertation completed in the field of political communication in the previous year. Zhang centered her dissertation around the core question of how digital media impact the U.S. political communication landscape.

“In my dissertation, I proposed a new theoretical and methodological framework to study the question of “who follows and who leads” in the US communication ecology,” Zhang said. “Specifically, the framework takes into account how actors of different backgrounds are now able to use social media to build online networks and project voices. It emphasizes the heterogeneous communication streams on social media, applies social network analysis to detect networks of actors, and explores their relationship with news media attention and coverage.”

Yini Zhang headshot
University at Buffalo Assistant Professor Yini Zhang (PhD’20)

Now an Assistant Professor in the Communication Department at the University at Buffalo, Zhang is also a UW-Madison Mass Communication Research Center (MCRC) Fellow. She credits her time in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication with giving her the tools she needed to craft her award-winning dissertation.

“I see this award as more of a collective than a personal achievement,” Zhang said. “At SJMC, there has been a strong support system and a nourishing academic environment. My advisors, colleagues, the staff members and all those who I interacted with helped me become who I am today. I feel very lucky that I get to do things that I enjoy doing and get recognized for my work.”

One such member of Zhang’s strong support system was her co-advisor SJMC Maier-Bascom Professor Dhavan Shah. Shah is also the director of the MCRC.

Dhavan Shah headshot
SJMC Professor and MCRC Director Dhavan Shah

“Yini’s dissertation and her broader program of research are incredibly innovative and impactful, integrating communication and sociology with network and computer science, She is a worthy recipient of this honor,” Shah said. “She enriched the MCRC not just with her intelligence and research acumen but by being a generous collaborator, student leader and peer mentor. We are lucky to still have her as a fellow.”

Zhang’s other co-advisor was former SJMC faculty member Chris Wells. Wells is now an Associate Professor of Emerging Media Studies in the College of Communication at Boston University and serves as a participating faculty member in the MCRC.

Chris Wells Headshot
Boston University Associate Professor Chris Wells

“This award is such a well-deserved recognition of Yini’s work,” Wells said. “While at UW-Madison, she crafted an innovative field of study for herself rooted in SJMC. But she also branched out and took courses and collaborated with professors from statistics, computer science and elsewhere. Her work is on the cutting edge of both communication theory and computational methods, and this award shows it.”