Seniors showcase studies at annual symposium.

Lauren Sohn's independent project showed that exposing crayfish to a common insecticide, even in small doses, rendered them immobile and unresponsive to simulated threats.

By Sasha Nyary

Mount Holyoke College senior Venky Feng stood in the front of the lecture hall to present her research on magnetic nanoparticles.

This was the culmination of two years of hard work. Feng spoke conversationally and authoritatively about how she synthesized crystalline magnetic particles, coated them with a fatty acid, stabilized them in a solvent, and displayed them in homogeneous, monodispersed, and stable thin films. The result was a significant contribution toward the practical use of magnetic nanoparticles in drug delivery, data storage, and magnetic imaging.

The audience of about 30 faculty, staff members, and students sat rapt, laughing at the jokes, gasping at images, and cheering at the end.

“The presentation was like this mystery story, this narrative of unfolding discovery,” Susanne Mrozik, a religion professor who taught Feng in several classes on Buddhism, said to Feng after the presentation. “Even for a nonchemistry person, it was so exciting! You did a really great job.” 

Feng’s talk was part of Mount Holyoke’s Senior Symposium, a daylong intellectual showcase now in its tenth year. The event is an opportunity for seniors from a wide variety of academic disciplines to discuss in depth—and publicly present on—the topics they’ve been researching for a year or more.

This year, 154 seniors in 37 majors presented their original research, theses, and independent projects to appreciative audiences of students, faculty, families, friends, staff, and alumnae. Several hundred people attended. The research covered topics in the arts, humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, math, computer science, and languages.

“I was nervous,” Feng said afterward. “Even though we have been practicing this for two weeks in our group meeting, and even though our lab recently presented at an American Chemical Society conference. This is a big deal.”

Feng, who came to Mount Holyoke intending to go to divinity school after graduation, will be starting a doctoral program in material science at the University of Oxford in the fall.

“A deeply impressive showcase”

The annual event is a testament to the intellectual training Mount Holyoke students experience during their time at the College, said Darren Hamilton, chemistry professor and acting director of the Weissman Center for Leadership, which oversees the event.

“This year’s symposium was a deeply impressive showcase of student engagement with their fields and emerging specialties, their departments and programs, their advisors and mentors, and their fellow students, where collaboration or teamwork was involved,” Hamilton said. “The level of intellectual engagement on display was terrific, as was the camaraderie shared by the presenters as this significant moment in their college careers passed.”

The presentations were both practical and topical. Senior Nana Konadu Cann offered suggestions for helping first-generation students adjust to living and studying at college. A history project by Kira Arnott documented the changing ways class and race influenced the opinions of Mount Holyoke students about women’s suffrage, which resonates with similar discussions today. Sarah Read ’16 implemented algorithms to help fish go up and down the nearby Deerfield River.

Barbara Lerner, chair of the Department of Computer Science, said she is always struck by the variety of topics addressed at Senior Symposium.

“You see from the talks there’s a lot of breadth across the College,” she said. “And when you are familiar with an area, you get to hear the depth of knowledge students are developing when they do one of these research projects. It’s really impressive.”

Among those who attended the computer science talks was Jean Sammet ’48, who was on the team that developed COBOL, the first widely-used programming language designed for business use. She described the presentations as “thrilling.”

“The students had a good knowledge of applications,” she said. “There was a lot of good computing work underlying the applications they were describing.”

As a math major at Mount Holyoke, Sammet noted, she completed an independent study. But at the time, the College did not offer a venue like Senior Symposium for her to present her work.

“It was between my professor and me,” she said. “I don’t know if anyone would have been interested, or understood it, but there was no mechanism. I was thinking, ‘Gee, who else could I tell about this besides my friends in the department?’ ”

Stephanie Gant ’88 came with her daughter, a high school senior.

“I wanted to attend this particular day because I get to see the undergraduates’ work come to fruition,” Gant said. “I like to see their work in action, especially the scientists. Mount Holyoke changed my life. I’m delighted to be here.”

Inspiring presentations

English major Lydia Beller-McKenna, a junior, said she looks forward to Senior Symposium all semester. She attended with her parents, who live in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

“I like hearing about things outside of my department,” Beller-McKenna said. “And I like learning about the projects in my department that I’ve been hearing about all year.”

Beller-McKenna found Senior Symposium both engaging and practical, she said. She especially enjoyed the talk by Geena Molinaro on trauma as a contagion in young adult novels, she said.

“As someone who is going to pursue a thesis, I was impressed that Geena’s was so polished,” Beller-McKenna said. “She inspired me and got me excited. It was a comfort to see how well done hers was.”

The atmosphere was festive and celebratory as the audience members wandered from presentation to presentation, talking about what they had seen and where they were going next. In classrooms and lecture halls, seniors waited anxiously for their 15 minutes at the lectern. Friends roared their congratulations while parents and grandparents clutched bouquets of flowers and small children bounded through the halls.

Among the faculty members who attended were Wei Chen, a chemistry professor who taught the introduction to material science and engineering class that was foundational to Feng’s work, and Feng’s advisor, Himali Jayathilake, a chemistry instructor.

“It’s one of the best days of the year,” Jayathilake said of Senior Symposium. “You see all the research and all their hard work come to reality. We are so proud of them.”

View a video of Senior Symposium 2016.

Research your future. Learn more.