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Class Of 2019: It's Time For The Senior Thesis Showcase

With Jane Clayson

It’s that time of year when tired college seniors across the country turn in their theses. We’ve got a great group sharing their labors of love.


Hannah Newcombe, senior geology major at Salem State University. Her thesis is titled “Late Pleistocene to Middle Holocene Paleolimnological Variability Preserved in the Sediments at Walden Pond.”

Matt Hoisch, senior environmental science and policy major at Harvard University. His thesis is titled “The Parts and the Whole: A Co-Productionist Analysis of Urban Carbon Neutrality.”

August Dichter, senior political science major at Eckerd College. His thesis is titled “The Political Effectiveness of the Satirical News Desk.”

Sophia Vilensky, senior English major at the University of Minnesota. Her thesis is titled “‘Sexy Unique’ Reality: A Close Reading of ‘Vanderpump Rules.’ ”

Brittany Brown, senior journalism major at the University of Mississippi. Her thesis is titled “The Latino South: Race and Racialization.”

Katharine Hubert, senior music and biology major at Allegheny College. Her thesis is titled “MuSpeak: American Music Language.”

Tim Grieve, veteran journalist who recently ran the news division for McClatchy Newspapers. He’s now working on a new publication about technology, business and politics. (@timgrieve)

Seniors: Congrats! And Thanks For Your Submissions

After putting out the call for senior thesis submissions, we heard from students across the country, studying songbirds to segregation to schools. The seniors we talked to conducted research that may have been inconceivable when some of our staffers wrote their own theses however many years ago — from 3D-printing devices to measure brain activity, to watching a lot of reality television.

Their research will inform health care, education and the way we understand ourselves and our world. In addition to those you can listen to on the show, here are some other research topics that fascinated us.

Dan Pollak, studying neuroscience and psychology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, recorded the neurons of awake songbirds to understand how their auditory cortex works. To do so, he had to find a device that would tip over the delicate zebra finch.

Davis Straske, a psychology major at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, found that when young boys played with baby dolls, they developed a stronger sense of empathy.

Emma Johansen, studying photography and graphic design at Bridgewater State University in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, created a body of work titled “Revision” that explores the themes of memory and memory failure with photos printed on materials like silk and vine china. Many of the images will fade over time.

Dylanne Twitty, studying psychology at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, looked at how Eurocentric beauty students have impacted the mental health of undergraduate women of color.

Theodora Winter, studying cell and molecular biology at Texas Tech University, contributed research to a lab striving to make antibiotics derived from cotton that can combat antibiotic resistance. “We hope to set a new precedent in using sustainable drugs and chemicals for industrial and medicinal applications,” she told On Point.

On Point Producers And Staff Share Their Theses

Brian Hardzinski, associate producer:

I earned bachelor’s degrees in both journalism and history during my four years at the University of Oklahoma, so it’s only natural I would combine the two concentrations and passions for my history degree’s senior thesis. My capstone focused on the Cold War from 1945-1955, I was also a broadcasting major, and George Clooney’s biopic Good Night, and Good Luck had just come out, so (perhaps predictably) the stars aligned and I spent my penultimate semester researching and writing “Good Night for Ed, Bad Luck for Joe: Edward R. Murrow and Television’s Role in Bringing Down Joseph McCarthy.” I traced the Wisconsin Republican Senator’s rise to prominence, his targeting of purported communists in the State Department and the Army, and veteran broadcaster Murrow’s responsible and appropriate use of the burgeoning medium to call McCarthy out for leading the mid-20th century “Red Scare.” Murrow’s reputation, accuracy, and fair-handedness earned him a great deal of autonomy from both his network — CBS — and his program See It Now’s chief advertiser — ALCOA — and modern journalists would do themselves a great service taking their cues from Murrow’s values and ethos. I suppose my efforts were successful — I aced the course, won a $300 prize presenting it at OU’s Undergraduate Research Day, and used that money to buy a Nintendo Wii. #priorities

Karen Shiffman, executive producer:

If you want to graduate from Barnard College, you need to write a senior thesis. Mine was titled, “The Three Melville Revivals: A Study of a Literary Reputation.” My research focused on three books: “Typee,” “Moby Dick,” and “Pierre, or the Ambiguities.” I did a deep dive into the social and political forces at work when each book was popular. I read captains’ logs, some Freud and scoured the New Testament. I read about modernization in America and the country’s seafaring past. Late into the night, I wondered — What changed when settlers branded this part of our continent “America”? Or when Melville called the white whale Moby Dick? Was crazy Pierre, with all his ambiguities, a treasure trove for a country deep into psychoanalysis? These were the questions that filled my head. My parents only had one question: What was my plan after college? For that, I had no answer. In early-May, I handed in my thesis, all 75 pages, neatly typed on erasable paper, bound in a faux-letter black binder. I was proud. The only long-term value of this thesis is that I briefly had a dog named Typee, and I’ve had several goldfish named Moby Dick.

Eileen Imada, director:

My undergraduate school, The College of Wooster, required all students to complete a senior Independent Study (I.S.). Mine was on cyanobacteria (aka pond scum). Cyanobacteria can float to the surface of freshwater bodies and is sometimes toxic, poisoning livestock and humans. Fluorescent labeling can be used to detect the toxins, which was the focus of research I did while in Scotland. Since my interest was in science journalism, my thesis was a compilation of that research and interviews with top experts on cyanobacteria in Dayton, Ohio and Dundee, Scotland. The end result was a series of articles written for a range of audiences: the college’s alumni publication, a student publication of the American Chemical Society, a chemistry trade publication, and a popular science magazine.

Allison Pohle, associate producer/director:

I spent the last semester of my senior year at the University of Missouri planning not just one wedding, but a whole magazine full of them. As a magazine journalism major, my capstone project was to create a brand new magazine, one that could fill a void in the market. Gay marriage wasn’t yet legalized nationwide, but my team and I watched an increasing number of courts and voters across the country shatter laws prohibiting gay people from legally recognizing their marriages.

That’s where UNION came in. We created what was, to our knowledge, the first print magazine for gay men planning their weddings. We surveyed gay men across the country about what they wanted to see in a wedding magazine, and, using their input, planned our editorial content. We covered everything from how to pick the right suit to changing your name to places that are safe for gay men to honeymoon. We also developed an advertising strategy and business plan, which taught us firsthand just how difficult it is to run a profitable publication.

At the end of the semester, we presented our magazine prototype and business plan to executives from Meredith Corporation in Des Moines, Iowa. The executives ended up voting our prototype as the best developed magazine, and we came in first place. Of course, that was thrilling. But, forgive my corniness, in a last semester filled with stresses about final projects, deadlines and graduation, what we enjoyed most was celebrating love.

Grace Tatter, associate producer

For my history thesis, I examined two historical “snapshots,” each demonstrating the language of racism in the local public schools. The first chapter looked at the limited fulfillment of Brown v. Board of Education in the period of desegregation, during which the local African American schools were closed, African American teachers and principals were demoted and students were sent to often unwelcoming, majority-White schools. In the second snapshot, I explored the 1990s and 2000s, as leaders of the school system reckoned with the unfinished work of desegregation, even as the national conversation moved away from it.

Between the snapshots, the way people talked about race changed. Racism was often less explicit, and there was a new emphasis on “colorblindness.” But racial disparities in schools persisted. Merely desegregating schools was not sufficient to create truly integrated schools, where students and teachers of all races shared ownership of the school community. Although I ended up going into journalism, rather than studying history, my first job was as an education reporter. The historical background I gained by conducting oral histories and poring over decades of old newspaper articles and school board minutes provided a foundation for reporting on the educational issues of the day. It also reinforced to me how journalism is truly the first draft of history. What we do today informs the senior theses of tomorrow!

Grace Tatter produced this hour for broadcast.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Students walk through the Class of 1875 Gate outside Harvard Yard. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Students walk through the Class of 1875 Gate outside Harvard Yard. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)