Spotlight on Senior Theses

This year, thirty-three Honors seniors wrote theses in pursuit of an Honors Degree. The flexibility of the Honors Program and its promotion of academic integration across colleges and majors allow these students to pursue research topics that are related to their collegiate degrees. The students work with professors who advise and mentor them, both from within the Honors Program and from within their respective academic departments, as they design and research an original topic of their choosing. All thesis writers also take a Thesis Seminar, which was taught this fall by Dr. Allison Payne, the Associate Director of the Honors Program. The goal of the thesis is to provide an outlet for students to pursue an academically challenging and rewarding project in a topic that sparks their interests and that they wish to explore in a more in-depth way. Honors students who do decide to pursue the Honors Degree, and subsequently the Honors Thesis, have described it as an incredibly enriching experience that is preparing them for their respective careers and an enlightening challenge that has rewarded them in endless ways.

This year’s Honors Thesis Defenses were held during the weeks of April 14 and April 21. Learn more about some of this year's senior theses, below.

michelle velez

Michelle Velez

Bachelor of Science, Environmental Science
Bachelor of Arts, Spanish
Minor, Business
Honors Concentration

Post-Graduate Plans:
Coro Fellows Program in Public Affairs Finalist/Princeton in Latin America Fellowship Finalist

Thesis Topic: 
Uptake of heavy metal contaminants by vegetables in urban gardens, Dr. Nathaniel Weston (Tutor) and Dr. Lisa Rodrigues (Reader) 

Summary / Description of Thesis: 
Community gardens are at risk of growing contaminated food. Studies have shown across the world that urban ground soil is contaminated with heavy metals that pose a danger to human health, and that vegetables grown in such soils are at risk of absorbing such toxins. This thesis conducted a controlled experiment in which different vegetable plants (lettuce, spinach, turnips, radishes, and peas) were grown in a greenhouse from seeds in potting soil contaminated with lead, copper, and zinc. The edible plant material was then tested for heavy metal contamination after 8 – 11 weeks of growing. Heavy metal contamination in soil samples from three community gardens, one in central Philadelphia and one in the suburb of Radnor Township, were also measured to assess local levels of contamination. This study seeks to help educate urban gardeners of the types of vegetables best suited to grow in potentially contaminated urban soil. 

What motivated you to select this as your research topic?
I have seen the benefits of community gardens for individuals and communities by volunteering with local gardens as the founder of the Villanova Community Garden student group and supporting urban gardeners as a community garden outreach intern for the NYC Parks Department's GreenThumb Division last summer. While these revitalized garden spaces empowered community members and provided access to hard-to-find produce in urban areas, I noticed that many gardeners were unaware of potential soil contamination or struggled to address soil contamination on their garden plots. I hope to shed some light on what vegetables would be optimal to plant in potentially contaminated soil that would uptake the least amount of contaminants. 

What is the most interesting thing you discovered while researching/writing your thesis?
It was interesting to see that little research has been done to track the uptake of heavy metal contaminants by plants in urban gardens specifically, and I hope to add to and support the findings of the few other studies that have been done in the past. 

What is the most surprising and unexpected thing you discovered while researching/writing your thesis?
It was surprising to discover that there is a potential for even raised beds in urban gardens to be contaminated with heavy metals that settle into the soils from air pollution. I had not previously considered this and I am interested to analyze my soil samples from local gardens to see if even their raised beds show evidence of heavy metal contamination. If there is contamination in raised beds, it will be even more important for urban gardeners to be aware of what vegetables uptake the least amount of contaminants in their edible parts. 

How do you plan on using the information your research/writing has uncovered, and/or, what kind of change or attention do you hope that your research/writing triggers?
I aim to present my research in pamphlet geared towards community gardeners for easy distribution of information about soil testing and vegetables that are best to plant when soil is potentially contaminated. In this way I hope to continue to support the gardeners' efforts to become self-sufficient in their food production and beautify their neighborhoods while also ensuring that they are not unintentionally ingesting harmful contaminants.

jennifer kelly

Jenn Kelly

Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Spanish, Honors

Post-Graduate Plans:
Compliance Analyst for Barclays in New York City

Thesis Topic: Understanding the Common Core: What does it mean for Pennsylvania students?, Dr. Colleen Sheehan (Tutor) and Dr. Jerusha Conner (Reader) 

Summary / Description of Thesis
One of the greatest problems facing the nation today is the failure of its education system to properly prepare students for postsecondary success.  Developed during the 1990s accountability movement, in direct response to increasing numbers of students entering college and the workforce ill-equipped to either succeed in introductory level college courses or perform basic entry-level tasks, the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSS or Common Core) represents an effort to set more rigorous college- and career-readiness standards.  At this time, forty-five state legislatures have adopted the Common Core, as well as the District of Columbia and four United States territories overseas.  For many states, the Common Core was adopted in haste in response to the incentives offered by the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top grant competition.  As implementation of the Common Core begins this year in Pennsylvania, it is time to step back and evaluate what this will mean for our students.  At the conclusion of this evaluation, a policy recommendation will be provided to: 

1. Recommend that Pennsylvania abandon its commitment to the Common Core and revert back to its previous state standards;
2. Recommend that Pennsylvania continue with its full implementation of the Common Core; or,
3. Recommend that Pennsylvania delay or defund its implementation of the Common Core for a few years until more data comes in from other states. 

What motivated you to select this as your research topic?
As a product of the Pennsylvania public education system, I have always taken an interest in the quality of both our state and national education system.  I really became interested in the differences between school districts and state education systems when I enrolled in Villanova and met other students who had attended public schools, private schools, parochial schools, charter schools, magnet schools, and the like.  The Common Core is so interesting to me because it is a really noble attempt at trying to level the educational playing field so that it does not matter where or what type of school you attend: you are still getting the same basic level of education.  It is fascinating to think that in the future, children across the country, no matter what state they live in, will be learning more or less the same thing.  

What is the most interesting thing you discovered while researching/writing your thesis?
The most interesting thing that I discovered while researching is that education statistics, when presented in the media, are often very misleading.  For example, people bemoaning the state of the public education system often bring up our nation's standardized test scores to show how poorly we compete with other nations.  It is interesting, however, that when taken as individual states, we actually perform quite well on these international tests.  The state of Massachusetts recently made headlines by outperforming many of the 65 participant groups who take the Program of International Student Assessment (PISA); for example, in reading the state was only outperformed by 3 participant groups: Hong Kong, Singapore, and Shanghai.   

What is the most surprising and unexpected thing you discovered while researching/writing your thesis?
The most surprising thing I have come across while researching is how little people know about the Common Core.  I can understand the general public not being aware of this relatively new educational policy issue, but teachers and administrators in Pennsylvania, a state where the Common Core has already been adopted, should really be better informed.  Many people I have talked to were not even aware that Pennsylvania is following the Common Core State Standards.  

How do you plan on using the information your research/writing has uncovered, and/or, what kind of change or attention do you hope that your research/writing triggers?
The primary purpose of writing my thesis is to get the word out about the Common Core.  There needs to be a public debate about this educational policy, and I really hope that my work will spark conversations both in school board meetings and around dinner tables.  

Kristen Adorno

Kristen Adorno

Bachelor of Science, Biology, Honors

Post-Graduate Plans:
Medical school

Thesis Topic: Unreported drug usage and negative drug interactions in non-English speaking emergency department patients, Dr. Bernard Lopez (Tutor) and Dr. Russell Gardner (Reader) 

Summary / Description of Thesis: 
My research aims to examine the prevalence of unreported medication use by non-English-speaking emergency department (ED) patients, with an emphasis on complementary and alternative medicines. As a research associate in Thomas Jefferson University Hospital I have been meeting with non-English speaking patients in the  ED and interviewing them about their medication usage by use of a translator phone. After collecting the data, I then evaluate the likelihood of negative drug interactions between unreported medicines and prescribed medicines, as well as numerous other drug interactions, for each of these patients. 

What motivated you to select this as your research topic? 
As an aspiring emergency physician, emergency medicine as always been of interest to me. After spending two years conducting research in the ED at Thomas Jefferson, I knew that I wanted to conduct my thesis research there. I then decided that I wanted to focus my research on non-English speaking patients since I have a deep interest in foreign languages and cultures. I also feel that they are a vulnerable population in the US and work needs to be done in order to ensure that they receive excellent care. This field of research was of particular interest to me since I am graduating with a minor in Chinese and have recently studied abroad in China. 

What is the most interesting thing you discovered while researching/writing your thesis? 
It has been extremely interesting to see that so many things that a person consumes daily can have such a potent affect on one's health. Many people are not aware of the potency of many "alternative" drugs, such as herbal creams, teas and even vitamins. Even some foods, such as grapefruit, have potential for negative interactions with many medications! 

What is the most surprising and unexpected thing you discovered while researching/writing your thesis?
Although I have not yet finished combing through all of my data, I have been very surprised to find that a great deal of patients who take multiple medications regularly suffer from numerous negative drug interactions, many of which are considered moderate or even severe. Through meeting with patients, both English-speaking and non-English-speaking alike,  I have found that many people are not even aware of what medications they take and sometimes have no idea that they interact negatively. 

How do you plan on using the information your research/writing has uncovered, and/or, what kind of change or attention do you hope that your research/writing triggers? 
I plan to hopefully continue my research and look further at the reasons why patients are prescribed such conflicting medications and how that can be remedied in the future. I also hope that my research will change emergency department practices, showing that more detailed questions need to be asked about medication history (i.e. specifically asking about vitamins, herbal teas, etc.) Regardless of where my research takes me, I know that the information I have gained and the stories I have learned while meeting with patients will help me become an excellent physician in the future.

Jacob Black

Jacob Black

Bachelor of Science, Chemistry, Honors

Post-Graduate Plans:
Pursuing a PhD in Chemistry at Yale

Thesis Topic: TMEDA-derived biscationic amphiphiles: An economical preparation of potent antibacterial agents, Dr. Kevin Minibole (Tutor) and Dr. Thomas Umile (Reader) 

Summary / Description of Thesis:
My thesis focuses on the development of new antimicrobial agents to combat the growing threat of antibiotic resistant bacteria such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) infections. Our lab synthesizes molecules similar to Lysol in hopes of improving their antimicrobial potency and understanding what structural features contribute to increased activity. Keeping the synthetic cost down is also important on this project, so that up-scale and production remain feasible. 

What motivated you to select this as your research topic?
I am interested in the construction of complex molecular architectures and also the chemical underpinnings of biological systems. This project enabled me to get my feet wet in the field of synthetic chemistry, while still working with a biologically and socially relevant topic. 

What is the most interesting thing you discovered while researching/writing your thesis?
Over the course of two years and about 70 compounds, we have really begun to develop an understanding for which structural features affect antimicrobial activity and which ones do not. This has led us to simpler and more efficient architectures. 

What is the most surprising and unexpected thing you discovered while researching/writing your thesis?
From a practical standpoint, long hours in the lab have taught me that all those reactions that are straight forward on paper and in class are rarely as simple in practice. When billions of individual molecules are interacting in solution, the expected outcome is simply not guaranteed. 

How do you plan on using the information your research/writing has uncovered, and/or, what kind of change or attention do you hope that your research/writing triggers?
I hope this research elucidates what features are important for potent yet affordable antimicrobial compounds. This would enable the production of new products to prevent the spread of increasingly dangerous bacterial infections. I am also excited with the prospect of permanently attaching some of our compounds to surfaces, possibly creating antimicrobial coatings to prevent bacterial colonization on hospital or household equipment in the first place.

Interviews conducted by Newsletter Co-Edior, Nina Rizk, LAS '14. Nina is receiving a degree in Comprehensive Science and Psychology, with a Concentration in Ethics of Healthcare and a Minor in Honors.

Thrive. Transform. Succeed.

Honors Program Brochure

Click the image to access our latest brochure and learn more about the program.

Contact Us

Villanova University
Garey Hall 106
800 Lancaster Ave.
Villanova, PA 19085
Phone: 610.519.4650
Fax: 610.519.5405