The University of Iowa

Emma Rifai

Emma Rifai


Emma Rifai loves conducting research, but teaching is her passion.

Rifai, a Ph.D. student in religious studies at the University of Iowa, researches the relationship between Protestantism and the weight loss culture in the United States. While her research is important, she considers her role as an educator to be her biggest contribution to higher education.

Rifai’s ability to engage her students with new ideas was enhanced by earning a graduate certificate in College Teaching. She hopes to combine her teaching and research experience to become a professor at a liberal arts college.

Q: Why did you pursue graduate school/become a researcher?

A: Students often enter religious studies classes having critically reflected very little on the ways in which religion intersects with nearly every aspect of life today, including politics and economics. This is why religious studies classrooms can be so influential in student development—both academically and personally. I am pursuing my Ph.D. in religious studies—with the goal of becoming a professor after graduation—so that I can embrace my passion for teaching as a lifelong vocation. 

Q: Describe your research in non-expert language?

A: I am at the beginning stages of writing my dissertation. I find that while our obsession with body size appears secular today, there are connections to earlier Protestant ideas and values. At least 75 percent of American women experience unhealthy thoughts, concerns, feelings, or behaviors related to food or their bodies and over 90 percent of women in college have dieted. Over 40 percent of first- through third-graders want to be thinner and over 80 percent of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat. By understanding the connection between Protestantism and weight loss culture, we might be able to develop more comprehensive ways of combating the pervasive self-loathing many women feel towards their bodies. 

Q: What impact has your work had on the field/world? What impact do you hope to have on your field/world?

A: I like to think that every student in my classroom leaves our time together having engaged with new ideas and having grown in some way. I’ve also found it rewarding to engage with local community organizations giving talks and workshops related to my research. This work is, perhaps, local in nature but I think the impacts of a good education radiate outward.   

Q: What programs or resources (on or off campus) have influenced or supported your academic goals?

A: Academically, I am so grateful for the support I’ve received from my home department of religious studies. Additionally, I’ve earned the graduate certificate in Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies and the graduate certificate in College Teaching. These supplemental programs have been immensely helpful to my research and training. Additionally, I enjoy leading a monthly critical theory reading group that brings together graduate students and faculty from multiple departments—the opportunity to read with others from outside my field is invaluable. I also have a wonderful pair of advisers and a generous dissertation committee. And our administrative staff—Maureen Walterhouse and Robin Burns—in the Religious Studies Department make it possible for me to navigate my program with ease and efficiency. Finally, I’ve appreciated and benefited from the work COGS has done to advocate for graduate student workers.

Q: Do you have role models, mentors, or inspirational people who have encouraged you to pursue your work?

A: I’m so grateful for the support of my advisors (Jenna Supp-Montgomerie and Kristy Nabhan-Warren) as well as the rest of my dissertation committee (Ray Mentzer, Natalie Fixmer-Oraiz, and Naomi Greyser). I couldn’t have asked for better role models. As an undergraduate student and master’s student, I was fortunate to work with great mentors at Concordia College, MSUM, and the University of Washington (especially Michelle Lelwica and Michael Hughey). And I wouldn’t be where I am today without the support of my family, my husband, and my two kitties, Mulder and Scully.

Q: How has your graduate experience shaped your career goals?

A: I would say that while my graduate experience hasn’t changed my career goals it certainly has affirmed and solidified them. More than ever, I’m committed to and excited for a career in academia. Ideally, I hope to land a tenure-track position at a small liberal arts college, where I can balance my research interests with a fulfilling teaching load.  

Q: If you could go back to a time at the beginning of your graduate career, what advice would you give yourself?

A: Keep up the good work! Keep reading widely. Go down the rabbit hole when you come across something interesting. Don’t confine studying religion to studying churches and texts. Keeping asking questions. Ask LOTS of questions. 

Religious Studies