Spotlight on Senior Theses

This year, twenty-seven 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 Track, 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 13 and April 20. Learn more about some of this year's senior theses, below.

Nicholas Ader

Nicholas Ader

Thesis: Novel Activators of the Nrf2 Pathway: A quinone alone?
Majors: Biology, Biochemistry
Minor:
History

What are your post-graduate plans?
As a recipient of an NIH-Marshall, I will be enrolled in a 4-year co-mentored PhD program. I will begin the program with two years in a lab at Cambridge and finish with two years in a lab at the NIH in Bethesda, MD.

Provide a summary/description of your thesis:
Working in the biochemistry lab of Dr. Aimee Eggler, I investigate how natural products can improve human health. Our bodies are constantly besieged by stresses, both internal and external, that target our cells and can impede our overall health. One of the principle ways our bodies mediate this stress is through a protein called Nrf2.

Certain compounds, including many natural products, activate the Nrf2 protein and have the potential to positively affect human health. Sulforaphane, a chemical found in broccoli sprouts, is already in Phase II clinical trials for use as a health supplement.

I am investigating a relatively unexplored type of Nrf2 activators, chemicals called quinones. One quinone in particular, made by a sea sponge found in the South China Sea, shows particularly high activation of the Nrf2 pathway at relatively low concentrations. My thesis work has focused on characterizing this compound and understanding how it can be used to benefit human health.

What motivated you to select this as your research topic?
I have worked in Dr. Eggler’s lab for two academic years and have benefited greatly from her incredible mentorship. This specific project emerged after we screened many compounds from our collaborator in China. We feel that this compound’s high activation could be beneficial for directing the search for new activators of Nrf2 and the development of novel treatments for human health.

What is the most interesting thing you discovered while researching/writing your thesis?
Discovering the high levels of Nrf2 activation in this particular quinone was quite exciting, as previous quinones were not known to activate this protein at such high levels.

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?
Dr. Eggler and I hope to submit a manuscript based on my research detailing our findings on this quinone activator of Nrf2.

Alyssa Nazar

Alyssa Nazar

Thesis: Intersectionality of Race and Gender and its Impact on the Digital Divide
Majors:
Psychology
Minors:
Business, Management Information Systems, Criminology

What are your post-graduate plans?
I will be working for Bloomberg as a Technical Operations Analyst, specializing in Human-Computer Interaction and providing user-experience analyses for interface optimization.

Provide a summary/description of your thesis
The Digital Divide is a gap in access to technology among different groups of people. Traditionally, gaps in access have been studied for different components of identity, including race, gender, and socioeconomic status. My thesis intends to contribute to this literature by studying the intersectionality of different components of identity and how this can uniquely contribute to access to technology. Intersectionality looks at unique opportunities or disadvantages that may exist when components of identity are looked at together, instead of in isolation of each other. For example, instead of looking at just race or gender alone, my thesis looks at the intersectionality of race and gender and how it is related to access to technology and the Digital Divide. This research could possibly contribute to new solutions for the Digital Divide and to creating a more equitable society, in regards to technology access.

What motivated you to select this as your research topic?
I have been interested in working in technology for a few years now. As a woman working in technology, I became interested in the Digital Divide when I learned about the patterns of statistically lower access to technology for females. My research was initially focused on gender, because I saw how that impacted me personally, but then expanded to the other demographic groups when I uncovered research about how other groups of people were also negatively impacted by the Digital Divide.

Additionally, my specific field of work in technology is user experience and one of its main goals is to build interfaces that are inclusive of all people and demographics. My passion for creating effective and accessible interfaces influenced my interest in selecting the Digital Divide as my research topic.

What is the most interesting thing you discovered while researching/writing your thesis?
One of the more interesting things that I found while researching my thesis was a pattern in the interview responses. I interviewed participants of different identities to determine the impact of race and gender on access to technology. What was interesting was when I asked the participants if they have noticed the impact of race or gender stereotypes on their interest or involvement with technology, participants who were in the non-dominant identity categories and received negative feedback from stereotypes more frequently acknowledged its influence. Participants who received positive support from their dominant identity categories commonly did not commonly acknowledge the influence of stereotypes on their success in involvement or interest in technology. After the interviews, many participants expressed thanks for being exposed how stereotypes can influence one’s access or involvement with technology, for the better or for the worse.

What is the most surprising and unexpected thing you discovered while researching/writing your thesis?
One of the most interesting things that I learned was that multiple countries, including Costa Rica, Finland, France, and Spain, have passed laws to ensure basic Internet access to their citizens and to prohibit unreasonable restrictions to information communication technologies. These countries consider information communication technologies to be a “basic human right.” Although this was surprising for me to discover, I think that it is a very strong government stance that emphasizes the importance of technology access.

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 that this research helps individuals realize how the intersectionality of race and gender and their social identity contributes to patterns of technology access. By acknowledging that not everyone receives equal access, we can start taking steps forward to effectively resolve this inequality. Society will benefit from having a greater range of diverse individuals working in the technology field. My Honors thesis research will hopefully offer specific policy implications, through a focus on the individual.

John Szot

John Szot

Thesis: Song recognition in black-capped and Carolina chickadee hybrids: An experimental approach
Majors: Biology and English

What are your post-graduate plans?
I'll be working for Bank of America Merrill Lynch in New York City, on their FX Trading desk.

Provide a summary/description of your thesis
In Dr. Curry's (my mentor) lab, we study what's called a parapatric (narrowly overlapping) hybrid zone between two species of chickadee -- a bird I'm sure many folks are familiar with -- about an hour north of Villanova's campus. Basically, while two distinct species, these black-capped and Carolina chickadees interbreed in an area about 30 km north-to-south that stretches from New Jersey to Kansas. To further complicate matters, this zone is slowly moving northward.

Naturally, our lab asks a variety of different questions about the hybrid zone, but my particular project focuses on song. The two chickadee species, in their isolated ranges, have distinct song repertoires that differ by species. However, in the hybrid zone, these repertoires mix and mingle, provoking a variety of questions about the role of these vocalizations. Which species can learn what song? What roles do these songs play -- are there advantages or disadvantages conferred? What is the interface between the movement of genetic and behavioral fronts?

My work involved both a field component -- using speakers, playback tracks, and recorders to establish the repertoire of breeding birds -- and a lab component, where I am using diagnostic SNP loci to assign each bird a "hybrid index" based on the DNA extracted from blood samples taken in the field. I'm currently finishing work in the lab to complete my data set.

What motivated you to select this as your research topic?
Coming to Villanova, I knew I wanted to get involved in research in some capacity, but didn't yet know exactly where my passion would lie. After reviewing the various labs in the Biology department, I was drawn to Dr. Curry's lab based on the diversity of experience it offered -- there was room to experience research both in the field and in the lab. It seemed like a great way to get a wide range of exposure. Furthermore, I loved that Dr. Curry allowed me the autonomy to pursue my own project and really take ownership over my work. Through the past three years, I've come to really enjoy the topic, and haven't looked back.

What is the most interesting thing you discovered while researching/writing your thesis?
One of the things the data seem to show (so far) is a lag between the movement of the genetic hybrid zone and the behavioral hybrid zone. Essentially, the birds at my site look to be almost entirely "Carolina" from a genetic perspective, but are still singing some Black-capped songs.

What is the most surprising and unexpected thing you discovered while researching/writing your thesis?
We're using SNP loci to characterize our chickadee individuals, and initially I expected to see a fair amount of heterozygote individuals -- birds that possessed both black-capped and Carolina genetic material. However, at this point most of my individuals are actually homozygotes -- entirely one species or the other -- so that's been a bit of a surprise.

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?
For me, the immediate goal would be to write and publish a paper in a peer-reviewed journal. Overall, though, I'm also very happy just to add another piece to Dr. Curry's lab. Our work in the hybrid zone has been ongoing for over 15 years, and the collective body of knowledge has led to many publications and conclusions. My work was part of a new focus in the lab on animal personality -- consistency in behavior across contexts -- so I'd love for my work to have some interesting insight in that regard.

Other Senior Thesis Topics

Kaitlyn Barney: Mutations in the yaiV, ydcl, and STM1266 genes: can we use these mutations to improve the Salmonella Typhimurium vaccine?

Kayla Cooke: Identity and Difference: (Re)Creating the Self at Villanova University

Mary Finnegan: Bad Men and Other Women: A Riveting Case Study on the Sordid Cocktail of Sex, Alcohol, and the Dorm Room

Michael Fuery: The effect of the endocrine disrupting compound genistein on estrogen responsive tissues in the mouse

Andrew Garber: Bush v Gore: What Should the Supreme Court Have Done?

Christopher Gelardi: Where Do We Go from Here? Millennial Politics and the High Noon of Neoliberalism

Megan Hopkins: An Analogical Approach to Revelation of the Word: Finding Echoes of Real Presence in the Qur'an

Matthew Huber: Making Disney Magic: The Math behind Alan Menken's Music

Darby McDermott: Examination of the Attitudes Towards the environment from the 19th Century to Today

Joseph More: Judo as a Proposed Solution to the Common Problems

Janine Perri: “Damn the Five-Paragraph Format to Hell”: Villanova Student and Faculty Perspectives of Writing

Cristina Rocca: Microfinance and Women's Empowerment in Latin America

Elaine Roghanian: Hungry like the Woolf: Consumption as Feminist Action in Virginia Woolf's Novels

Jessica Swoboda: Woolf and Waugh: Blurring the Distinction between the Religious and the Secular

Julie Tentler: Does an "Economics" of Marriage Exist: If so, what are the Implications and Societal Perspective?

Thomas Trainer: Strangled: The Republican Machine's Hold on Philadelphia's Neck and Italian Immigrants at the Turn of the 20th Century

Trevor White: China Using Aid to Establish an Informal Empire

 

Introduction written, and interviews conducted, by Newsletter Co-Editor, Richelle Hurley, LAS '17. Richelle is receiving a degree in Communication, with minors in Classical Studies and Peace and Justice. 

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