The Office of Communications spoke with a number of graduating seniors about the intensity of experience that is the honors thesis. Whether they wrote a radio play, studied zebra fish, analyzed voice changes or tested how jurors respond to attorneys, these seniors agree that their honors theses represent their most challenging and rewarding experiences at Amherst. Watch the students discuss their projects.
How do far-right politicians win votes in Europe? They appeal to liberals, argues Alex Hurst. His political science thesis examines why right-wing nationalists have found electoral support in present-day France and the Netherlands but not in the United Kingdom. In pushing anti-immigrant policies, Hurst says, the Dutch Freedom Party and France’s National Front have each positioned themselves as defenders of a “defining national characteristic” that is also a left-wing cause—in France, it’s the separation of church and state, and in the Netherlands, civil liberty. “A radical right-wing party,” Hurst says, “has the greatest chance of succeeding in a country that is facing questions surrounding its national identity and its place in the world.”
Growing up in rock-free Florida, Michael Hudak had no particular interest in geology—until he came to Amherst and took an introductory course in the department. For his thesis he conducted field research in southwest Montana with Professor of Geology Tekla Harms and three other students. Together, they worked to trace the mountain-forming events that occurred “as early microcontinents assembled to form the core of the North American Plate.” Hudak studied various igneous rocks—rocks that form when molten materials cool down—“to deduce what melted and when, which should say something about the nature of the collision between the two converging plates.”
Richard Galluzzi’s thesis is a work of fiction, Séance with Crying Man. “In my novella,” says the English major, “a father’s only son is murdered—or so he thinks.” After the child appears at the father’s door and says he escaped death, the pair embark on a hunt for the attacker. “Complications arise,” Galluzzi says, “when others challenge the father’s sanity and he himself is suspected of involvement in the child’s murder.”
“Colorism is the tendency to privilege lighter-skinned individuals over darker-skinned individuals within an ethnic group,” says Shanika Audige. “It’s a symptom of racism. I studied it from a black feminist perspective.” The sociology and black studies major conducted and analyzed interviews with 12 Amherst students—all African-American women who identify as having dark skin. “Colorism does exist within the black community here,” she concluded. “It may not manifest itself academically, but it’s manifesting itself socially. The dark-skinned females I interviewed find that their lighter-skinned counterparts are a lot more active in the school’s social life.”
Brian Kim’s math thesis uses baseball statistics to pinpoint, among other things, where exactly a pitcher should throw the ball. “I’m trying to boil it down to only the pitcher, to isolate it to just what the pitcher can control.” He analyzed data on pitch speeds and locations to conclude that curveballs should go “down and away.” A right-handed pitcher, therefore, “should try to throw it to the bottom left-hand corner.”
For his art thesis, Todd Lavine photographed high school students in the Pioneer Valley. He looked at the students as individuals while also trying to capture “the relationship between the classroom and the physical environment, and the way the students are operating in that environment.” As Lavine says, “The great thing about art is allows you to appropriate and transform and modify anything.”
Grace Li ’12 and Fabiana Kreines ’12
Biology majors Grace Li and Fabiana Kreines studied the lateral line—a system of sensory organs—in zebra fish. Explains Kreines, “Standing here right now, we have clothes on, but we don’t feel them all the time, because that would be really distracting. Our bodies have developed a mechanism by which we can weed out this unimportant information. This occurs in every sensory system, including the lateral line of zebra fish. They tune out the normal currents and only pick up on important things, like predators approaching or their school moving.” Kreines examined how this happens, while Li studied the organization of clusters of neurons that project from the lateral line to the brain.
Gregory Barrett ’12
Gregory Barrett wrote a radio play, Chimps, that tells the backstory of the 1925 “Scopes Monkey Trial.” In Barrett’s words, “Dayton, Tenn., was something of a dying town” when locals saw a way “to get their town on the map again, which was to take up a test case against the newly passed Butler Act in Tennessee, which banned the teaching of evolution.” Directed by Senior Resident Artist Peter Lobdell ’68, Chimps was recorded live in Cole Assembly Room. Why not a stage play? For one, the story required a mine explosion. “We decided,” says Barrett, a double major in theater and dance and American studies, “that sound might be an easier format.” He also wrote an American studies thesis about the trial.
Rebecca Ojserkis ’12
It was psychology professor Saaid Mendoza’s “Stereotypes and Prejudice” course that got psychology major Rebecca Ojserkis thinking about how prosecutors and defenders conduct themselves during trials. Her thesis explores how aggressive and passive presentation styles affect the impressions people have of male versus female lawyers—and how those impressions affect verdicts, career potential and raise and promotion recommendations, among other things. “It seems to me that how an attorney speaks and whether the attorney is a man or a woman has a large effect on jury results and how the attorneys are perceived by everyone in the courtroom,” she says, adding that she hopes her findings will be of use in any setting. “In my personal interactions as a woman, I’ve definitely found that I’m treated differently depending on whether I’m speaking in a more passive style with questioning forms or speaking more competently, asserting myself and not wavering in what I’m saying.”
Lilia Kilburn ’12
What are the consequences of having a voice that is at odds with one’s body? Lilia Kilburn’s anthropology thesis documents the experiences of transgender women (those transitioning from male to female) who’ve used speech therapy, books and videos to achieve feminine voices. “I became interested in this topic because of my own vocal transformation,” Kilburn says. “I used to be quite shy. Despite my fear of public speaking, I joined the debate team [at Amherst] and saw my voice utterly transformed by that process. In most film and literature, though, the voice is portrayed as an immutable part of someone’s personality.”
UPDATE: Kilburn's thesis went on to win a 2012 Sylvia Forman Prize from the Association for Feminist Anthropology.