Seniors pursue final projects, theses

by Alexa Green | 5/25/16 5:32pm

Sarah Lund ’16 analyzes French constructs of history and society in a period thought of as a rejection of the country’s previous history. As an art history and government double major, Lund is writing a thesis with the art history department that focuses on a print series made during the early French revolution. While numerous seniors finish their theses this term in other departments, Lund stands out as the only student writing a thesis in the art history department, despite there being seven other students majoring in the subject.

“A senior thesis is a big project you can make your own and an opportunity to dig into details,” Lund said.

In the Class of 2015, the most popular majors were economics, government, psychological and brain sciences, history, biology, engineering sciences, English and computer science. In 2015, over 1,000 students were enrolled in independent studies, research, honors projects or senior theses. Twenty-five percent of students take part in these culminating experiences. However, only a small percentage partake in senior theses.

“It is a way students can show they have done a truly outstanding job,” said senior thesis advisor and biology professor Eric Schaller. He also explained that honors and high honors are awarded on senior thesis projects.

While many schools across the country require an honors thesis, the College does not. In 2014, over 200 Dartmouth seniors completed theses.

“I would be against a required honors thesis because if some students are double majors, they do not have the time,” chemistry department chair Dale Mierke said. “Some of our majors don’t have the inclination. You can fulfill the culminating experience through coursework or research.”

He said that he believes it is important to allow students to have flexiblity in choosing their “capstone experience.”

According to Mierke, around 80 to 90 percent of the chemistry majors carry out independent research, though fewer conduct honors theses. This year, there are 18 students majoring in chemistry, which is far less than prior classes, which have had 20 to 30 chemistry majors, Mierke said. Eight students in the Class of 2016 have pursued chemistrty senior theses projects in topics including biochemistry, synthetic chemistry and biophysics.

“As the number of chemistry majors has recently declined, the number of seniors pursuing thesis projects has followed suit,” he said.

Thesis projects this year include an x-ray crystal graphic study of proteins, syntheses of novel molecules to formulate materials or be used in drug design to inhibit protein targets, modifications of cytochrome C and studying the protein’s conformational dynamics.

“We highly encourage all of our majors to carry out independent research, usually during their junior summer and senior year,” Mierke said. “Our faculty with a diversity of interests, so that explains why the senior thesis projects in Chemistry 87 are so diverse.”

Mierke said that while some students pursue theses in other departments or at the Geisel School of Medicine, about 50 percent of chemistry majors complete theses by enrolling in Chemistry 87, the department’s “Honors” class. In the sciences, students can take the “Honors” course in their department, which covers their independent study, and are required to do 20 to 25 hours of independent research.

“Students can take the course up to two times for credit towards their degree,” Mierke said. “Many of them take it for three terms, usually during their senior year, to get a nice body of research that is written up in the thesis. More than often, it is written up as a first author or an independent publication in a professional journal.”

In the biology department, there are nine students that are defending their senior theses this year. Biology senior thesis projects involve research projects, typically lab work that spans a year because it is hard to create a complete project within a short period of time, Schaller said.

“There has been a slight decrease in the number of students [pursuing honors theses],” Schaller said. “It tends to follow majors, which is typical of trends across the country.”

Several students are focusing on targeting new treatments for different types of cancers, while others analyzed heavy metal exposure in infant formulas.

Senior theses structurally differ between the sciences and humanities. While science-based projects are primarily composed of lab work and research, Lund explained that she did not have a set research phase for her project. She focused each of her chapters on each of the different French prints and their themes to express her ideas.

“I also don’t have a formal defense, like the sciences do. I give my presentation, and I’m sure the department will ask questions, but you do not formally have to defend it,” Lund said.

Religion department chair Randall Balmer said that over the past four years, the number of students pursuing senior thesis projects in the religion department has remained fairly steady. This year, only two students pursued honors thesis projects, focusing on the study of Mormon theology and religion in incarceration respectively.

“An honors thesis is better for students that want to try their wings as independent scholars,” Balmer said. “The program allows students to be that kind of thinker and produce an original piece of scholarship. We probably don’t encourage it for everyone, but do not discourage anyone. I think it is a very worthy enterprise and anyone that wants to do it, I will advise them with their proceedings.”

Schaller added that thesis projects at Dartmouth allow students to conduct intensive research at a high level.

“A senior thesis here is a fair amount of work,” Schaller said. “It’s not something that everybody would do. It is very much like what goes on with a Ph.D. but at a slightly smaller scale at an undergraduate level.”

Or, as Lund described it, “It’s an act of luck. For me, it happened to fall into my lap. I think a lot of people are interested in pursuing a thesis but are worried about finding a topic that they will love for a year.”