Senior sendoff: Honors theses and independent projects

Nicole Yeager, Special Feature Editor

For the Class of 2021, these last few months of the spring semester also mark the last few months of their college and academic career. Many seniors are starting to work on their last few papers and projects or getting ready for their last exams. Some seniors are further encapsulating their college education through honors theses and independent projects. These all fall under the Honors Program at the University that is “designed to encourage intellectual independence and to recognize academic excellence.” According to the Honors Program page on the University’s website, the program begins for each student in the year before they intend to graduate. 

This Year’s Honors 

This year, seniors from various departments — including biology, French, Arabic, women’s and gender studies, English and many more — worked hard to formulate their honors theses as a way to take everything they’ve learned throughout their college career and epitomize it through a specialized, insightful topic they are passionate about. 

The Bucknellian interviewed a few of these seniors, as well as their advisers, to learn about their experience and their projects. 

Claire Martin ’21: Nordin Noir

1) What is your thesis/project topic? What are some key takeaways you want people to know about?

In this research project, I aim to use the genre of Nordic Noir as a framework for understanding the pervasive rape and domestic violence culture that is present in Scandinavia, despite praise for being some of the most gender-equal countries worldwide. In my research, I found a lot of similarities between the rape culture in Scandinavia and the depiction of women in these novels and TV shows. Since the study of literature and culture has been a topic of scholarly discussion for quite a while, I used this idea to try to highlight the underlying gender norms within Scandinavian culture that allow for policies geared towards creating a gender equal society to exist while still having cultural norms and values that perpetuate a problematic rape culture. 

2) What inspired you to select your topic? 

During my time studying abroad in Southern Denmark during my junior year, I got really close to Danish families, became super familiar with the culture, and learned to speak Danish. I also gained a love for Nordic noir crime fiction, which is Scandinavia’s most well-known and celebrated genre of entertainment. As a women’s and gender studies major, I was also drawn to the Nordic model of government where Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Norway are consistently rated highly for their gender equality efforts. However, I was completely unaware of the pressing issue of rape and sexual assault that is present within Scandinavia as a whole. It wasn’t until my mom sent me an article on the subject that I really started to look into the problem. What then hit me as I read more and more on the matter were the stark similarities between cultural norms and values that create a culture that has issues with rape and sexual assault and common themes within Nordic noir literature. 

3) What was the best part of completing this? What was the most challenging part? Could you describe the process a bit?

I really enjoyed working on this project! Not only did I get to reread some of my favorite Nordic noir crime fiction novels, but I also got the chance to study a culture that I have become so familiar with. For me, the most challenging part of this project was trying to figure out how the emergence of something deemed “femi-krimi” Nordic noir (feminist crime Nordic noir) was not actually feminist, despite the praise that is garnered for finally having strong female leads. After reading a bit of feminist literature on masculinity and the ways in which it can be imposed on the female body, I was able to navigate this confusing part of my research findings. 

4) What department was your thesis/project for? Who are the faculty members (or anyone else) who supported you?

This project was for my women’s and gender studies senior culminating experience seminar. Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies Erica Delsandro was the professor for this class. Professor Delsandro really helped me to hone in on my topic, edited my writing, and gave me great recommendations for readings and sources that could potentially help me along the way. She was so supportive throughout the entire process and believed in me and my project even when I was unsure and just straight up confused. 

5) How do you feel about this thesis/project in relation to the rest of your college education/experience?

I think this project is really the direct result of the interdisciplinary nature of the women’s and gender studies department here at Bucknell, where I have had the privilege of learning about issues with an intersectional and feminist lens. I’ve been taught to take the frameworks and theories that have been crucial to our class discussions, outside of the women’s and gender studies department, and into my other classes and outside life. Without this new mindset for understanding the way we as a society interact with social identities such as race, gender, socioeconomic class and sexual orientation, I would never have even thought to do this research project. 

Delia Hughes ’21 also presented her Women’s and Gender Studies honors thesis last week. Her project was on the Impact of Language and Sex Education on the Mental Health of LGBTQ+ Youth, and her advisor was also Delsandro. Hughes shared that “this project was an awesome to finish out my WMST major and college career because we got to pick the topic, and I learned a ton throughout the writing and researching process.” This being said, she also shared that the project was challenging and emotionally taxing at times. “Learning so much about queer youth mental health can be overwhelming, especially because I relate to the topic and feel so passionately about it,” Hughes said. 

Jon Hayes ’21: “Genetic diversity & connectivity” 

1) What is your thesis/project topic? What are some key takeaways you want people to know about?

This project uses genomic analyses to better understand the population dynamics of a rare native plant in Pennsylvania to better inform conservation. This species, Chasmanthium latifolium, is commonly referred to as River Oats because it is found along rivers and steam. My research found that all populations appear to be genetically healthy; however, conservation efforts should focus more on eastern populations, as these populations appear to be genetically isolated, which places them under greater concern.

2) What inspired you to select your topic? 

I am a biology major and have always been interested in research.  I had the opportunity to join David Burpee Professor in Plant Genetics & Research Chris Martine’s lab, which did botany research in the Summer of 2019, and pursue this project shortly after joining.  This project gave me a chance to conduct research and gain experience in laboratory procedures, while also having an impact on conservation, which has always been a big part of my life.

3) What was the best part of completing this? What was the most challenging part? Could you describe the process a bit?

It was really rewarding to finish up this project, as it will have an impact on the conservation of this native grass. The thesis was a great way to finalize everything from my research project before leaving Bucknell.  While this was time-consuming work, the most challenging part was dealing with time constraints that delays from COVID-19 caused.  My work on this project was to extract and purify DNA from collected plant samples, assess quality and prepare for sequencing.  I sent samples out for DNA sequencing at an external facility, which was delayed several weeks during the pandemic. Following DNA sequencing, I worked to analyze the dataset to figure out the population genetics of the species.  Through the thesis process, I’ve created a manuscript to submit for peer review in the coming months after more revisions.  This project has also given me the chance to apply to several research grants and I ended up being awarded three different grants!

4) What department was your thesis/project for? Who are the faculty members (or anyone else) who supported you?

My thesis was in the biology department, and my faculty advisors were Dr. Chris Martine & Dr. Tanisha Williams.

5) How do you feel about this thesis/project in relation to the rest of your college education/experience?

This was an amazing opportunity to culminate the things I’ve learned from previous coursework by conducting research on a project I am passionate about.  This work has given me the opportunity to learn a lot about the scientific process, gain experience in laboratory methods, improve my scientific writing through the thesis as well as writing several grant proposals.  I feel like research is a great way to apply the things you learn in class, with a meaningful outcome while still being a student.

Gari Eberly ’21: “Synthesis”

1)  What is your thesis/project topic? What are some key takeaways you want people to know about?

Synthesis is a scientifically-aware collection of poetry that explores how gender relations and race amalgamate to impact the maturation of an individual. Employing both sonnet and computer code, I reflect on my experiences as a mixed-raced girl growing up in central Pennsylvania, my growth through several romantic relationships and how I currently navigate male-dominated spaces as a woman.

2) What inspired you to select your topic? 

As someone who is passionate about both poetry and science, I was interested in how I could bridge these topics in a collection of scientifically-aware poetry. My collection, Synthesis, is my attempt to bridge the gap between poetry and science. 

3) What was the best part of completing this? What was the most challenging part? Could you describe the process a bit?

The best part of completing my project was writing and reading poetry! I loved that I had a project that allowed me the time and space to focus seriously on my poetry. The most challenging part for me was writing the Honors Thesis proposal! Essentially, I had to persuade the Honors Council that my thesis project was worth pursuing and that I could produce a significant body of work. After my proposal was accepted, I felt immense relief, because at that point I could just focus on my poetry. 

4) What department was your thesis/project for? Who are the faculty members (or anyone else) who supported you?

My department was English – Creative Writing. My thesis advisor was Assistant Professor of English Katie Hays. Associate Professor of English Chris Camuto, Associate Professor of Spanish Fernando Blanco and Professor of Biomedical Engineering Jim Baish served on my defense committee. 

5) How do you feel about this thesis/project in relation to the rest of your college education/experience?

This thesis feels like the culmination of my education both in creative writing and biomedical engineering. I couldn’t have completed this project as only a creative writing major, or only a biomedical engineering major. Now that I have a thesis collection, I hope to spend some time in the future submitting my poetry to literary journals and hopefully get published! I’m also participating in the Bucknell Seminar for Undergraduate Poets this June. 

Senior Art Projects

Each year, senior art students put together individual projects to be presented at an exhibit in the Samek art gallery. This year, the exhibit revolved around the idea of field notes and how artists have “integrated this methodology into[their] creative practices, producing art inspired by [their] own life experiences that attempts to bring understanding to a complex and quickly evolving world.” 

Chris Urun ’21 shared a bit about his project. “My project was specifically about my relationship with traditional masculinity and femininity and how I respond to each,” he said. “There’s one part that is photography based that I made which specifically addresses the pain that comes with a rejection of nonconformity as well as a video that displays the exact opposite. Basically how acceptance and open expression of one’s gender non-conformity can and should be fun and accepting.” Urun went on to describe the most challenging parts of his project as being “the planning and execution” because both of his works are “performance based which means I can’t just redo parts of it I don’t like. I have to create these works in mostly one go and that is a big issue when shots don’t go exactly as planned.” Urun’s two mentors were Assistant Professor of Art & Art History Jonathan Frey and Professor of Art Tulu Bayar. 

All senior art projects are done through the art department. They are intended to be a culmination of all the small aspects students have been learning and working on throughout their college careers. Urun ended by saying, “a lot of the senior art majors have been working super hard so I’d recommend everyone take a look at the Samek Gallery.”

Advisors’ Perspective

One of Eberly’s advisors, Hays, says that she “tried most of all to ask helpful questions that would lead Gari forward with her project, which she worked on independently and out of her own initiative.” During the past semester, Eberly and Hays conferred on her timeline, on the order and structure she thought would work best for her poetry collection, on her introductory paper and on revisions to individual drafts. “The process of advising this thesis was, for me, invigorating, because Gari’s work, intellect and work ethic are all brilliant, and because Gari is so self-motivated and mature,” Hays said. “It’s been a great pleasure to support her work in this, from start to finish.”

Most professors, like Hays, are thrilled to advise students in their senior honors theses. They help students refine their topic, serve as a sounding board as they develop ideas, offer them resources and theories that strengthen their thesis and, most importantly, support them. 

Delsandro served as the adviser for many WSG students this past year. “Being an advisor to students working on senior projects and honors theses is one of the most rewarding aspects of my job. First of all, it is a terrific way to get to know students and cultivate a multifaceted relationship,” Delsandro said. Delsandro explained how “the roles shift with honors theses in that instead of the professor being the ‘expert,’ both professor and student are learning together.” 

Although a senior project or honors thesis isn’t for everyone, it can be a wonderful example of the benefits of a liberal arts education. Furthermore, projects in engineering or physics or economics, which may seem like self-contained fields, demonstrate interdisciplinarity and the interconnectedness of knowledge. “Students doing senior projects or honors theses simultaneously become experts in a particular issue while also gaining intellectual breadth. That is pretty cool if you ask me!” Delsandro said. 

For all students and faculty, be sure to check out the last few senior theses presentations throughout the remainder of April. Information can be found through the Bucknell Message Center emails. For sophomores and juniors, it’s time to start thinking about proposing a senior thesis to the honors program. 

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