Senior Symposium '08 Students

Posted: April 10, 2008

Abigail AvoryieAbigail Avoryie '08
International Relations and Anthropology
Hometown: Worcester, Massachusetts
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The moment Abigail Avoryie '08 saw the program for Mount Holyoke's Senior Symposium the spring of her sophomore year, she set her sights on her own senior project. "It's always been in the back of my mind as something I really wanted to do," she said. A double major in international relations and anthropology, Avoryie has also earned a Five College Certificate in African Studies. She spent her junior year studying economics and politics at the University of Hong Kong.

Her thesis topic, Sino-African relations, allowed her to combine her interests in Asia and Africa. "I'm a big-picture person. It's important to brings lots of elements together--history, economics, anthropology--to understand the world." Her advisor, geography professor Girma Kebbede, expressed admiration for her achievement: "Abigail has a sharp mind and is a hardworking, self-directed, and self-motivated student. The depth of analysis and clarity of her research project demonstrates her ability to research topics perspicuously and critically as well as to pursue her ideas independently."

Avoryie has been raised as a global citizen. She was born in West Africa and has lived in many parts of the world with her missionary parents. She arrived at Hong Kong University last year knowing no one. "It's a huge university," she explained. "There are 50,000 students." She soon made friends with other exchange students, and she traveled with some of them to Seoul, the Philippines, Thailand, and Beijing. "Beijing was fantastic. Eye-opening. It's like ten New York Cities," she said.

Avoryie serves on the student advisory board of the McCulloch Center for Global Initiatives, where one of her primary responsibilities is to promote study abroad. "We want students to be inspired by their study abroad so that they will bring back projects and continue their research here," she said. "We hope students will see that study abroad is not only a fun time, but also an opportunity to get academically relevant experience." After graduation, she hopes to continue her studies, either in law school or graduate school.

Sonia DantasSonia Dantas '08
Biological Sciences and Chemistry
Hometown: Northbridge, Massachusetts
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When Sonia Dantas '08 was applying to college, she planned to be a chemistry major with a biology minor. During her search for a college that could offer her a strong background in science and prepare her for a career in veterinary medicine, she discovered MHC. "It offered everything I was looking for," she said.

What Dantas hadn't anticipated was the chance to work with Amy Springer, visiting assistant professor of biological sciences, on research examining the parasites that cause African sleeping sickness. At Springer's recommendation, Dantas read a thesis written by Julie Hare '07 who had examined a gene called CMF63 and studied a region at the end of a protein to see if it might be involved in calcium binding. "Professor Springer asked me if I would like to look at regions outside the predicted calcium-binding region and use mutagenesis to try to learn more about how the CMF63 gene functioned. I thought it would be a fun challenge and decided to adopt the project," Dantas said.

The result is a thesis titled "Mutational Analysis of a Gene Required for Flagellar Motility in the African Sleeping Sickness Parasite." While her work is still in progress, Dantas reports that the overall process of generating three different mutant CMF63 genes has been successful. She feels privileged to have Springer as an advisor; "her guidance and support have helped me considerably," she said.

Springer, in turn, describes Dantas as "a very driven student who is careful and thorough in the lab. Studies such as hers promote our understanding of how these parasites grow and move around, and may lead to better approaches to disease treatment."

As for her next project, Dantas does have a significant one lined up. Come August she'll be starting veterinary school at Michigan State University.

Alexandra de RiveraAlexandra de Rivera '08
Minor: Economics
Hometown: Los Angeles, California
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For Alexandra de Rivera '08, her senior thesis on the criminalization of infanticide in seventeenth-century England was the scholarly culmination of her interests in law, women's rights, and history. But she admits that her precise choice of her research topic was a matter of coincidence. During her junior year studying British history at St. Anne's College at Oxford University, she happened to visit Oxford Castle. When she returned to Mount Holyoke last fall, she discovered that a historical figure she'd been studying, Anne Green, who was convicted for murdering her newborn son in seventeenth-century England, had been hanged in front of Oxford Castle. "I knew I had to write my thesis about this issue," she said.

Since coming to Mount Holyoke four years ago, de Rivera has decided to become a lawyer. "Before I came to Mount Holyoke, I always thought there was such a thing as truth in the courtroom," she said. "I've learned that justice is a social concept that changes over time, particularly for women."

"I have enormously enjoyed watching Ali's skill in research and analysis grow along with her historical curiosity since we worked together in an introductory course on early modern Europe," said her advisor Harold Garrett-Goodyear, history professor and chair of medieval studies. "It has been especially exciting to see her interest in law merge with an inquiry into gender and social change during the transition from a medieval world to one we call 'modern.' "

Like a skillful lawyer getting ready to appear in court, de Rivera prepared her presentation keeping in mind that she would be speaking to an audience who knew little or nothing about her subject matter. "I asked myself, 'How can I make this topic interesting to a geology major who has never been to England?' It's easy to just write narrative, but history has to be relevant. I believe in living history."

This summer she will work as an intern in the Los Angeles city attorney's office. After that she plans to apply to law school.

Angela DiCiccioAngela DiCiccio '08
Hometown:Leominster, Massachusetts
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When Angela DiCiccio arrived at Mount Holyoke in the fall of 2004 as a first-generation college student, she planned to become a nurse, like her mother. During her first year she decided to pursue premed studies instead, and it was then that she got her first serious taste of biology and chemistry. "I didn't have much science in high school, so when I got into it here at Mount Holyoke it was new and exciting. I'm really fascinated by how the body uses different molecules to regulate each other. I knew I wanted to be a biochemist."

In 2007, DiCiccio was one of 317 college sophomores and juniors nationwide to receive the prestigious Goldwater Scholarship. For her senior research project, she investigated the chemical dynamics of protein adsorption. This process is biomedically significant because it is critical to the human body's ability to accept synthetic organs and other body parts.

DiCiccio enjoys the camaraderie of the lab of her advisor, Wei Chen, associate professor and chair of chemistry, where she has worked with fellow chemistry students for the past three years. "They're such a great group of people. We all came together from different backgrounds," she said. "We have a group meeting every week where one person presents her research. It's such a friendly environment. It's easy to just walk in and ask a question."

Chen has great admiration for DiCiccio. "Angela is the most dynamic and well-rounded student who I have had in my research group," Chen said. "Her enthusiasm in life and genuine interest in others bring the best out of people around her."

DiCiccio plans to pursue postgraduate education for a Ph.D. in chemistry. She hopes to become a professor and do research on projects that highlight the interface of chemistry and biology. Her interests include biocompatible materials that can be applied to the medical field and biodegradable materials that will be environmentally friendly.

Anita EckertAnita Eckert '08
Minor: Biological Sciences
Hometown: Seattle, Washington
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Anita Eckert '08 knew she wanted to conduct some kind of research before graduating, but the English major and biology minor never envisioned doing it in the psychology department. That changed when she took a developmental psychology course taught by Diana Leyva, visiting assistant professor of psychology and education.

"I was introduced to Professor Leyva's research on emergent literacy, the study of what children know about reading and writing before entering school. Researchers have found that parents' use of open-ended questions, known as elaborative speech, when talking about the past is linked with increased literacy skills. One of Professor Leyva's studies found that Latina mothers who spoke English as a second language used less elaborative speech when talking to their children about past misconduct," Eckert said.

With Leyva's encouragement, Eckert conducted a similar experiment, but in the Dominican Republic and in Spanish. She'd grown up there and still had a large familial network. "I knew the location and the subjects," she explained. "I just needed a great research idea, which my wonderful advisor supplied."

In turn, Leyva credits Eckert with being "very enthusiastic and passionate…. That made my job easy and enjoyable."

As for that research, Eckert found the data collection most exciting because she got to work with children and learned so much about parenting techniques in the Dominican Republic. "It was amazing to see what a large vocabulary these kids had even though little reading occurs at home. But my study was done in the back country, so the results are not necessarily indicative of the whole country."

Eckert is hoping to enter a nurse practitioner program in May 2009. In fact, the reason she enrolled in Leyva's course was because developmental psychology is a required prerequisite. She added, "I never expected it would lead to research that would encourage me to pursue my goal of becoming a pediatric nurse practitioner. Knowing different techniques for conversing with children will come in handy."

Katherine HeaslipKatherine Heaslip '08
Minor: Politics
Hometown: Barnstable, Massachusetts
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In high school, Kate Heaslip '08 did a lot of work in the sciences but also enjoyed her French language studies and had a love of politics. "I really became interested in French politics when France was debating whether or not to adopt the European Union Constitution," she said. "Then, I took a class my second semester at MHC on French culture and media. That's when I understood, with the help of my advisor, that I could do research combining two primary interests."

As a sophomore, Heaslip embarked upon an independent study on language politics. A year later, she found herself in France during an election year while studying abroad in Montpellier. That experience led to a thesis titled, "The French Presidential Election of 2007: Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité?," which examined the strengths and weaknesses of Ségolène Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy's presidential campaigns.

"My goal is to show how this French presidential election was the first election of individuals," she explained. "What I mean is 2007 became the first real democratic election in that both candidates had different approaches and the people really got to have a say about the kind of policies they wanted to see. This was such a departure from the defining Gaullist tradition, which is a combination of socialism and a stern national patriotism that emphasizes the collective over the individual."

Her advisor, Elissa Gelfand, Dorothy Rooke McCulloch Professor of French, calls Heaslip's analyses "incisive…. To say she educated me during our weekly conversations is a huge understatement. I have rarely met a student so passionate about contemporary French politics and the intersections of politics, philosophy, and literature in modern France."

That passion is propelling Heaslip on to graduate school at New York University's Institute for French Studies. "When I came here, I could string together a few sentences in French. To go from that to being able to converse with people about the election was amazing," she says. "I am truly grateful for the support of the French department, especially Professor Gelfand, whose tremendous energy and enthusiasm have inspired me from the very beginning."

Elizabeth PetcuElizabeth J. Petcu '08
Art History
Minor: Philosophy
Hometown:Longmeadow, Massachusetts
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Elizabeth J. Petcu '08 has fond childhood memories of family trips to art museums, which sparked an early and deep-seated passion for art and art history. She made up her mind to study art history at Mount Holyoke the summer after her sophomore year in high school, when she worked as an intern in the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum. Museum curator Wendy Watson was highly impressed by her work that summer. "Liz turned out to be one of the very best summer interns we've ever had--of any age and academic standing," Watson said. "Although she was only a rising junior in high school, she worked beautifully with both the museum staff and the other college-age assistants. She was confident, open to new experiences, willing to take on all kinds of challenges, and very creative in solving problems."

Since coming to Mount Holyoke, Petcu has worked as a curatorial assistant at the museum every opportunity she's had, both during the school year and summers. She has worked most intensively with the Egyptian collection and with ancient Greek and Roman coins. "I do whatever most needs to be done," she said. "The need for such flexibility has kept the work exciting, and I've enjoyed the exposure to a broad range of artistic traditions."

Watson's regard for Petcu has continued to grow. "I have had the good fortune not only to have her assistance, but also to observe at close hand her academic and personal development," she said. "I have rarely seen a student with such a level of commitment and enthusiasm for learning."

Since first year, Petcu has been an active member of the College's Society of Art Goddesses, a group that acts as liaisons between the student body and the Art Museum, hosts events in the galleries such as the popular Spa Night, and sponsors free outings to a variety of regional museums. Serving as the organization's secretary for three years and chair this year, she has helped the fledgling group become one of the liveliest on campus.

Petcu's primary interest is in the Baroque art of German-speaking countries. In the fall she will start in the Ph.D. program at Princeton University. She is excited to be working under Thomas Da Costa Kaufmann, whose work on court culture and artistic exchanges between diverse geographical areas she described as "cutting-edge." Ultimately she hopes for a career doing the kinds of research she got a taste of at Mount Holyoke.

Charisse PickronCharisse Pickron '08
Minor: Race and Racial Identity Development
Hometown: Amherst, Massachusetts
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Growing up in a biracial family, Charisse Pickron '08 has often wondered whether the biracial experience is the same for others as it has been for her. "I know being biracial has had an impact on my own life," she said. Pickron began looking at this question last spring, in a project involving the multiracial experience and self-esteem. This work evolved into her senior research project, a mixed-methods study examining the salience of ethnic and racial identities of monoracial majority, monoracial minority, and multiracial college students.

Throughout her research, Pickron has received valuable support and encouragement from her advisor, Amber Douglas, assistant professor of psychology and education. "Writing a thesis is definitely a cyclical process," she said. "There were moments when I was really excited to be able to connect my research with the literature. There were other times when I wondered if I could really do this." She recalls a breakthrough moment when she and Douglas sat down at the computer together to look over the results of her research. "Amber is really excited about statistics, so when the results came in, she said, 'This is awesome.' And I thought to myself, this is my work. I have ownership of it. It was a great feeling."

Pickron is a member of the varsity track team, and her support system also includes members of the athletic department. "Charisse is the epitome of the scholar-athlete in Division III," said Laurie Priest, director of athletics. "The leadership and confidence she shows as a runner on the track carries over into her success in the classroom. Her research presentation was an example of how far self-assured, smart women can go."

Jessica ReamJessica Ream '08
Hometown: Litchfield, Connecticut
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As a first year student, Jessica Ream '08 expected to write a senior thesis. But by junior year, she found herself sometimes doubting whether she'd be able to complete one. "I had many friends who were doing them, and I saw how demanding it was. Still, after I started working on an independent study, I figured I had to at least try it," she said. "Then, the farther in I got, the more I gained confidence. I realized not only that I could do it, but that I was doing it."

And that's not all. According to her advisor, professor of geology Steve Dunn, Ream's research has implications dating back 1.1 billion years. Titled "Calcite-graphite Isotope Thermometry in Southeastern Adirondack Marble, Grenville Province, New York," her thesis uses geothermometer readings of rock samples from the southeastern Adirondacks to show that the collision of continents must have extended further east than geologists previously concluded.

"Thanks to Jess's work, we now know that peak metamorphic temperatures were uniformly high from the center of the dome all the way to the exposed edge in the southeastern part of the Adirondacks," Dunn said.

Though Ream had done previous research in climatology she says she never envisioned herself "getting into the 'harder' sciences' " that played a role in the project. She credits Dunn's patience and encouragement with inspiring her "not to limit my opportunities simply because they involve chemistry, physics, and math."

As for what's ahead, Ream is seeking a position at an environmental consulting firm. In addition to having the chance to apply her learning, she'd like to experience the industrial side of geology. "I have always been able to envision myself teaching, but this research opportunity has given me the ability to think about more career options," she said.

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