2010 Senior Symposium Profiles

Posted: April 27, 2010

mayesha alamMayesha Alam '10
Major: International Relations
Minor: Biology
Hometown: Dhaka/Jakarta/Vancouver
Title: Fulfilling the Promise of "Never Again": American Leadership in Building Capacity for Genocide Prevention (See abstract.)

As a junior, Mayesha Alam '10 enrolled in a seminar called “U.S. Promotion of Democracy and Human Rights” that was taught by Jon Western, Five College Associate Professor of International Relations. That spring, she also studied the Rwandan genocide in a seminar with Catharine Newbury, Five College Professor of Government and African Studies. Then, during the summer, Alam went to Yale for the SURF (Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships) program and worked with a professor on the UN response to the genocide in Darfur. “It was a very intensive intellectual and academic exercise that helped me find the subject for my thesis,” she said. “But there's also a personal tie. My parents lived through the Bangladesh liberation war in 1971, and I grew up in Indonesia during the end of the East Timorese secessionist movement. Both of these were largely ignored genocides.”

Now Alam is finishing up a thesis examining the role of the United States in building capacity for genocide prevention; it includes an analysis of American foreign policy during genocides in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur. “It was important to compare multiple cases so I could trace patterns that have emerged and also reinforce my argument. My real interest is not just figuring out `How do you end it?' but also `How do you prevent it?,' and `How does the international community play a role in that?' ”

Alam credits her “amazing” advisors, Newbury and Western, with “taking a lot of time” to guide her. She traveled regularly to Smith College to meet with Newbury and also met at least once a week—and sometimes twice—with Western. “I have such respect for them. Catharine is one of the foremost scholars on Rwanda. And Jon not only is an expert in his field but an inspiration for me to follow.”

Come September, Alam will start at Georgetown University pursuing a master's degree in conflict resolution. “It's an interdisciplinary program that attracts people studying conflict between individuals, within organizations, and, as is my interest, on the international, political scale. It's really exciting to find a place to build on my academic experience at Mount Holyoke as well as my work experiences at the UN,” Alam said. “In fact, while I was writing the conclusion for my senior thesis, the idea for my master's thesis was born. I'm still interested in American foreign policy but in the future I want to look at how counterterrorism efforts relate to genocide prevention efforts. Think about it, are the two really so mutually exclusive?”

yan lin fu
Yan Lin Fu '10
History and Music
Singapore, Hong Kong
Ethnic Violence on the Frontier during the Cultural Revolution (See abstract.)

Though Yan Lin Fu '10 was fascinated by ethnic minority policy in China during the Cultural Revolution, she knew she didn't want to do an independent study that focused solely on policy issues. Then her advisor, Jonathan Lipman, the Felicia Gressitt Bock Professor of Asian Studies, introduced her to the “Shadian Incident”—a massacre that occurred in 1975 in Southwest Yunnan during the China's Cultural Revolution.

“I started reading about this little-known historical event and was fascinated,” Fu said. “Then, I began researching other instances of violence towards ethnic minorities during the decade of the Cultural Revolution and my project took shape.”

Eventually, Fu decided to focus on three incidents of violence toward national minorities. The challenge, she soon discovered, was finding sources about events that have been censored from history books. “These are highly controversial events that few scholars have written extensively on. As for primary sources, I have found only one account by a witness, but it was heavily censored.”

Despite the gravity of the topic, Fu says she has loved her research. She gives Lipman the highest praise for offering every kind of support—from helping her find source materials to keeping her motivated. The two previously worked together when Fu conducted an independent study on piracy in China during the Ming Dynasty. “We've journeyed from maritime history during 1368-1644 to the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976. I can't thank Jon enough for helping throughout the ups and downs of each project.”

Fu currently is applying to graduate schools in the United Kingdom to study international relations and hopes to continue on with this research as part of a master's degree program. “I want to draw more attention to these events affecting ethnic minorities during the Cultural Revolution,” she said. “All people should have the right to study their own histories without chapters essentially being erased.”

abigail galvin

Abigail Galvin ’10
Major: Sociology
Minor: Art History
Hometown: West Dundee, Illinois
Project: Law and Moral Panic: Yellow Peril, Cocaine Fiends, and Reefer Madness (See abstract.)

As an intern last summer at the McHenry County (Illinois) State’s Attorney’s Office, Abigail Galvin learned about a disturbing pattern in the criminal justice system. “There was a case involving a man who had been sentenced to eight years in prison for abusing his wife,” she said. “He was discharged after just three months because of prison overcrowding. They wanted to make room for people convicted of drug possession offenses and illegal immigrants.”

To Galvin, this result seemed “ludicrous.” She was struck by the severity with which drug offenders are treated by the criminal justice system, and set about exploring the history of drug prohibition in the U.S. and its disproportionate impact on minority populations. Based on a model defining “moral panic” as a scare about a threat from people who engage in evil practices that might endanger a society’s moral values, Galvin identified three waves of moral panic arising from drug use. Each wave involved a specific minority group: the Chinese, who were associated with opium; blacks, who were associated with cocaine; and Mexicans, who were associated with marijuana. “In each case, one group was unfairly targeted by drug policy,” Galvin said.

Galvin found that the racialized legacy of these moral panics continues to inform drug enforcement policy and practice. “Blacks charged with drug offenses are treated more harshly at all stages of the criminal justice process than whites,” she said. She concluded that as long as the “war on drugs” is racially skewed, it will continue to have “perverse effects such as prison overcrowding and wasteful spending.”

After graduation, Galvin plans to work and gain experience by interning at a law office or clerking for a judge, and then go to law school. Ultimately, she hopes to work toward a more equitable and effective drug enforcement policy.

symone new
Symone New ’10
Major: Politics
Minor: Gender Studies
Hometown: New York, New York
Thesis: From State to Self: (Re)Claiming Black Female Bodies (See abstract.)

When Symone New read an article last year titled “Bad Black Mothers,” which examined the historical trend of framing black mothers in popular culture as abusive, neglectful, domineering, incompetent, and a general danger to both their children and society at large, many questions arose in her mind. The article, by Yale political scientist Melissa Harris-Lacewell, led to her senior project, an exploration of the myth’s origins and its impact on social policy. New has concluded that “many of these myths were largely manufactured to alter social policies that were benefiting lower-class black mothers.”

New’s interest in reproductive freedom is longstanding. At age 17, she worked as an intern for the Third Wave Foundation in New York City administering its abortion fund. In that capacity, she helped women seeking abortions, including a 12-year-old incest victim. But, she said, “reproductive justice is much wider than abortion. I’m interested in state control of reproduction as well as other forms of cultural control” exerted on black women.

When New first came to Mount Holyoke, she was not certain whether she would be happy outside New York, but she has found a wealth of resources and channels for her political development. “Mount Holyoke has given me so many opportunities. I have been so engaged in so many organizations. It’s like one-stop shopping.”

Among her many activities, New is a member of Body Politic, a Five College performance group for women of color. She also works as student assistant in the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program at Hampshire College, which organizes publications, conferences, and workshops aimed at bringing new leaders into the social justice system. She also participated last year in “Inside-Out,” a Community-Based Learning course working with women inmates in the Chicopee county jail.

New is considering applying to the London School of Economics program in gender and social policy. Ultimately, she wants a career in which she can “have a tangible impact on society and at the same time be involved in scholarly research.”

sarah stenard
Sara Stenard ’10
Major: Environmental Studies
Minor: Sociology
Hometown: Ross, California
Project: Consuming Comestibles: What We Can Learn From a Gastronomic Journey Through the Pioneer Valley and Beyond (See abstract.)

Ever since Sara Stenard can remember, food has been a big part of her life. "I've always been a foodie,” she said. “My family has always celebrated and spent time together around food." So when she became fascinated with environmental studies her first year, she discovered a perfect fit for her twin interests: “I realized that food and environmental studies come together in this beautiful meeting point."

Stenard learned about sustainable agriculture several years ago from a friend who worked for a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm and invited her and her family to buy a CSA farm share. "Every week we'd receive a delivery of the most delicious fresh vegetables and produce. I fell in love with this and wanted to be an advocate for sustainable, local food."

Stenard grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, where locally produced organic food became popular in the 1970s, thanks to culinary pioneers like Alice Waters, founder of Chez Panisse Restaurant in Berkeley. But she emphasizes that locally produced organic food “should not be reserved for ‘foodies.’ ” She believes that basic, sustainably produced food “can benefit the consumer, the producer, and the land, while at the same time being delicious.”

After graduation, Stenard plans to work at a CSA farm “so I can learn to grow food myself.” Eventually she hopes to go to culinary school. “It's not so that I can be a five-star restaurant owner. I want to defend the integrity of food and the land it comes from. I want to show people that food is more than a block of energy on our plate that our taste buds desire. I want everyone to have honest, safe, and healthy food, and this is not the reality for many people in the world. If we want this to happen we can get it done. I mean, we all have to eat.”

doris tabassumDoris Tabassum `10
Major: Biochemistry
Hometown: Dhaka, Bangladesh
Title: Promoter Escape by E. coli RNA Polymerase: Its Dependence on Upstream Rewinding Potential of the -10/discriminator (DIS) Region (See abstract.)

Doris Tabassum '10 is accustomed to having people ask her to explain the topic of her senior thesis in simple terms. In fact, Tabassum even had to translate it for scientists during some interviews for graduate school. “That's because what I am working on is so specific,” she said. “But I've learned to present it to all kinds of audiences.”

Tabassum's research examines a step called promoter escape that must occur if genetic information encoded in the DNA is to be successfully transcribed in the form of RNA. As she explains, there are three stages in the process of transcription: initiation, elongation, and termination. “The whole process begins when RNA polymerase, an enzyme, binds to recognition regions within the DNA. But then, in order to move into elongation, the RNA polymerase has to release the DNA and move forward through a series of highly coordinated steps. This is promoter escape, which my advisor, Professor Lilian Hsu, has been studying for many years.”

According to Tabassum, the importance of the research is its potential to shed light on how gene expression is regulated in prokaryotes (evolutionarily ancient cells that lack a membrane-bound nucleus). This, in turn, could be used to learn about gene regulation in eukaryotes (more complex cells that possess a membrane-bound nucleus), including humans. Though her research has been conducted with an E. coli enzyme, she notes the commonalities between the system and RNA polymerase II, which is found in humans. “The more we understand how transcription initiation is happening in E. coli, the better we can understand it in our cells.”

Tabassum joined Hsu's lab last summer. She'd spent her sophomore year conducting research with Megan Nunez, associate professor of chemistry, and her junior year with Kimberlee Mix, a visiting professor now on the faculty of Loyola University in New Orleans. She says that having the chance to conduct research as an undergraduate was what drew her to attend college in the United States—and to Mount Holyoke, in particular.

“The resources aren't available to undergraduates in Bangladesh. Still, the opportunity to work on three distinctive research projects with accomplished and dedicated faculty mentors has surpassed my expectations of what Mount Holyoke would offer me.”

After graduation, Tabassum will be enrolling in Harvard University's doctoral program in biological and biomedical sciences. “My broad interest is cancer research and, specifically, the use of immune therapy to treat the disease. I'm grateful to be entering graduate school having done extensive research and written about it.”

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