The Answer Is Always Another Question
By Eric Goldscheider
If there is a common theme running through the work of this year’s crop of senior thesis writers, it is this: lessons rarely arise suddenly from any kind of research. Without constant critical inquiry, knowledge remains stagnant and begins to atrophy.
Whether a scholar is investigating the intent and meaning of a 16th-century painting, analyzing the relationship between two 20th-century dictators or researching the role a particular protein plays in the formation or prevention of eye disease, hard-and-fast answers are elusive if not beside the point.
Again and again, members of the Class of 2013 learned that the best answers always lead to more questions. Furthering human knowledge is a collective process, especially in the information-soaked environment of a digitally interconnected world. Eureka moments may still be out there, but they are not what define progress in the 21st century. In choosing and executing their capstone projects, Amherst students strove for conclusions they invariably found to be both exhilarating and humbling.
As Danielle Amodeo ’13 said of her research on two Titian paintings, “The answer is always another question, and a conclusion is never a conclusion; it’s just trying to close the door on one so you can move on to another.”
While still under deadline pressure to analyze data, do final edits and come up with titles, 17 of these students took time out to explain their work. Their efforts, seen in aggregate, offer a taste of the senior thesis experience that a generalist can appreciate. Individually, their projects allow us to glean nuggets of information about history, art, neuroscience, psychology and environmental studies, among other fields. These researchers would likely agree that their inquiries are better seen as points of departure than as endpoints in their quests to better understand the world around us.
Fish and your ear
If you’ve ever wondered why that annoying fan you hear when you walk into a room soon fades from your consciousness so you can focus on other things, you’re not alone. Neuroscience major Jenna Browning-Kamins studied “sensory adaptation” by looking at cells on the skin of zebra fish. As it happens, these cells have properties similar to those of some cells found in our inner ears. Through a process called optogenetics—whereby scientists introduce genes that cause proteins in cellular systems to become excited by light—she worked to tease out the mechanisms associated with how organisms tune out background stimuli (think fan) so as to be prepared for what really matters (think predators). The answers are elusive, but the basic science moves us closer to understanding what Browning-Kamins terms “our incredibly well-designed auditory system.”
If the federal government takes the lead in changing unemployment insurance during a recession, will the states follow? That is the question Zach Bleemer, a triple major in economics, philosophy and mathematics, set out to answer. He evaluated a $4.4 billion incentive the Obama administration dangled in front of states to get them to increase or extend benefits to certain groups, including those in training programs or with dependents. After creating a model that compensated for variations among existing policies in different states, Bleemer concluded that the incentive worked. His evidence: during the period he examined, states paid out $3.6 billion in unemployment benefits that they otherwise wouldn’t have covered.
We have a food system “gone rogue,” argues Risalat Khan, citing the health and environmental costs of agriculture based on a factory model of maximizing outputs. He sees organic farming as a solution, and so he developed a mathematical model to better understand why some farmers decide to switch from conventional to organic practices. “Right now,” says the environmental studies and geology major, “organic and sustainable farming is developing despite the government rather than because of it.” By studying variables in leadership, community attitudes and farmers’ personal experiences, he concluded that, among other things, peer influence is a frequent reason why farmers switch from conventional to organic. Among his other takeaways: the government should subsidize small and medium-sized farms that want to try organic practices.
In her study of Pablo Picasso’s use of the bull as a recurring image, art history major Leslie Quiroz perceives an emblem of the self-destructive drive that Picasso saw in both Spain and himself. “You can see it in how he deals with art in creating something and destroying it, and then creating something new and destroying it,” she says. The bull appears in Guernica, for example, the mural Picasso painted at the height of the Spanish Civil War, reinforcing Quiroz’s thesis that it is a symbol of “brutality and darkness.” She says, “I think he recognizes violence in himself and in human nature, and he uses the bull as a manifestation of that.”
Among the lesser-known works of Titian, the 16th-century Venetian Renaissance artist, are a pair of paintings in which a nude figure of Venus is entwined with a clothed male counterpart. In one of the paintings, her partner is Mars; in the other, Adonis. European studies major Danielle Amodeo went to Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum to examine what she thought was a reproduction of the Mars painting. But in the midst of Amodeo’s project, an art historian wrote a paper arguing that the Vienna painting is actually the original. “I learned to question the relationship between authenticity, attribution and materiality,” she says. What of the original Adonis? According to Amodeo, it was destroyed and exists only in reproductions. Her thesis compares the relationship between the two paintings to those of separated fraternal twins.
How to beat cataracts
As people age, proteins in the lenses of our eyes have a tendency to clump together into aggregates that scatter light and cause cataracts. Alex Pearlman, a biochemistry and biophysics major, is interested in a specific protein—alpha-crystallin—that is thought to bind to other proteins, sequester them and thereby inhibit clumping. A better understanding of alpha-crystallin may help scientists devise ways of preventing cataracts, says Pearlman, but that is a long way off. His contribution was to measure binding between individual alpha-crystallin proteins as a step in better understanding how and why they themselves deteriorate. “This is very preliminary research,” he says. Nonetheless, it allowed him to plug into the vexing question of how exactly the proteins work—a question that scientists are incrementally honing in on.
The data made her panic
Studying synapses—the sites where neurons communicate to create an interconnected nervous system—is daunting because of their sheer complexity. Neuroscience major Haneui Bae looked at two proteins, Rab3 and Rab3-GEF, which were recently found to play a role in organizing the “presynaptic” proteins where the nerves meet the muscles that control the wings of a fruit fly. She found evidence that Rab3-GEF functions at more sites than just the one she’d expected. “It opens the door to many more questions than it answers,” Bae says of her research. When she first looked at her data she panicked, thinking she’d done something wrong. Her professor assured her that the unexpected is what leads to real discovery.
Debunking a groovy theory
In the last year and a half, a debate has arisen among scientists who study the pathways that a specific family of membrane proteins—the P4 ATPases—use to move molecules. Essentially, the debate boils down to whether the molecules move within the protein or along external grooves. Biochemistry and biophysics major Will Biche went to the bench to investigate the controversy and came up with what he terms “pretty conclusive” evidence that disproves the external-groove theory. Might his findings become accepted wisdom? Time will tell, but if his data are correct, he posits, it would be “unbelievable” for the external-groove theory to hold up much longer.
When immigrants thrive
Because language is often central to U.S. debates on Latin American immigration, Emily Corwin, a political science and interdisciplinary major, thought it would be instructive to study Spanish-speaking immigrants to Spanish-speaking countries. She learned that poor immigrants to Argentina (where she did her research) from Bolivia, Paraguay and Peru face enormous cultural hurdles even though they speak Argentina’s dominant language. She concluded that support in acquiring knowledge about the new culture while also instilling pride in their heritage creates conditions in which immigrant children and families can potentially thrive.
Empathetic or impartial
LJST and Spanish major Heather Richard used the hearings and hoopla leading up to Sonia Sotomayor’s U.S. Supreme Court confirmation as a lens through which to examine the public’s rejection of empathy as a judicial value. She determined that the Blind Lady of Justice, an icon associated with righteous fairness, was originally conceived not as a monument to impartiality but as a “satirical reproach in the face of judicial corruption.” The irony is that what was once meant as an instrument of ridicule is now exalted as a hedge against a judicial system that most people don’t trust. Richard thinks the justice system should aim to understand both sides equally, rather than to adjudicate people’s fates based on what she characterizes as formulaic and inherently flawed notions of impartiality.
Oklahoma City, 1995
Matt Hartzler was a toddler when his father prosecuted Timothy McVeigh for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. As part of his film and media studies thesis, Hartzler made the documentary OKBOMB: A Story of Many. It combines archival material and interviews, including with his father, Joseph Hartzler ’72. The project was an attempt to understand not only national history but also a family history that the son was too young to comprehend in real time: “Trying to figure out who I am and where I came from is an important project for someone in his 20s coming to terms with life.”
A clue in the building
The Villa of Maxentius, which bears the name of the last Roman emperor before Constantine, is the archeological site that inspired Ginny Wheeler’s thesis. The European studies major wondered if the building might offer lessons about the transition between the pagan and Christian empires—a shift that historians have pegged to Maxentius’ defeat in 312 CE. Wheeler discovered that Maxentius favored architectural forms similar to those of early Christian churches. Her work contributes to current scholarship that sees continuity within the Roman imperial tradition rather than a stark break starting with Constantine’s rise to power.
Poets and Chávez
While comparing Venezuelan poetry from before the Hugo Chávez era with that published during the late president’s 14 years in office, Federico Sucre concluded that Chávez’s polarizing effect on politics was reflected in the cultural scene. “Politics was influencing everything that was happening in the intellectual world,” says the French, political science and interdisciplinary major. Poets who’d been friends could suddenly hardly talk to each other, depending on which side of the divide they fell.
Migrant labor’s surprising yield
Derek Garcia wrote an ethnography that cast a light not only on a slice of the American economy but also on his own family. Garcia recorded interviews with his 75-year-old Mexican-American grandfather—a one-time migrant farmer—at the older man’s trucking operation in Texas. At age 8, the grandfather traversed climates and cultures with 20 migrant workers on a circuit through Texas, Colorado, Montana, Indiana and Michigan to harvest fruits and vegetables. For migrants, “home resides with the people you travel with,” concluded Garcia. He learned that his grandfather derives power from the cross-cultural proficiency his life of hardship has yielded. “He switches codes and languages,” says the double major in religion and Spanish, to “demonstrate agency and dominion” over contrasting cultures.
When Hitler met Franco
During a semester in Spain, Sandy Shepherd was surprised to see public displays of support for Francisco Franco, who unilaterally ruled the country from 1936 until his death in 1975. She began to wonder about the relationship between Franco and Adolf Hitler, who’d actively abetted the Spanish leader’s rise to power. She learned they had a lively correspondence, at times exchanging several letters a month. By studying these missives, Shepherd—a Spanish and history major—concluded that Franco manipulated the press, the Allied powers and the Spanish people in order to preserve his own dictatorship. “Franco created a myth,” she says, that he “saved” Spain by resisting Hitler’s pressure to actively fight alongside the Axis powers. Her thesis debunks that myth, concluding that Franco actually stayed out of the Axis because he realized an Allied win was inevitable and because Hitler refused to make territorial concessions.
Life and death intertwined
The beauty of the language first attracted Jeffrey Moro to Noh, a Japanese form of theater originating in the 14th century. He wrote and directed his own play, No Wind Blows Against the Pines, based on the combined adaptations of two works first produced more than 700 years ago. “These plays are proposing that we are not walled off from the dead,” says the double major in theater and English. “Those who went before are living with us and living through us in our memories and our actions. … I wanted to stage these moments in which the worlds of the living and the dead are intertwined and mixing.”
Throw a punch or spread a rumor
French and psychology double major Adaora Achufusi analyzed survey data in which third- through sixth-grade children assessed their own “social competence”—how well they function in a group. She then looked at how their teachers viewed each student’s competence. Her goal: to understand why some students become aggressive, either physically or “relationally” (by spreading rumors and the like). One of her findings is that children who either overestimate or underestimate their social competence and who are rejected or bullied by their peers are prone to physical aggression. Another is that overestimating—but not underestimating—their own social competence makes children inclined to relational aggression. “This suggests,” she says, “that a certain degree of confidence and self-esteem may be necessary” for a child to spread a rumor—but not to throw a punch.
Eric Goldscheider is a freelance writer based in Amherst. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Boston Globe, New York Times and other publications.
Photos by Cole Morgan ’13