Scholarly Exploration

By Micah Buis '02

When the VQ asked Vassar professors to recommend a student working on an interesting or independent project that they are supervising, the results were in true Vassar style, as varied as our students themselves. The projects spanned nearly every academic discipline and every possible approach to scholarly exploration. From a hand-drawn animated feature in Yiddish to a consideration of U.S. and U.K punk culture, from a translation of some of Vassar’s own archival material in the library’s special collections to unique costume design for the theater, from an original scientific experiment to bold, new choreography, from a careful reading of traditional texts to a paradigm-shifting economic dataset, the projects reminded us of just how easily Vassar students can amaze.

Following the overwhelming response—professors recommended nearly 60 students—and after much difficulty in narrowing the field, we fixed on this sampling from across campus. While we could effortlessly praise these students and their work as innovative, creative, discerning, and insightful, we decided to let the students describe the projects in their own words, here’s what they had to say…

seated, left to right: seniors Peter Alfaro, Scott Fleming, Amy Knight, Michael Weintraub, Talia Vestri; standing, left to right: seniors Katrina Jones, Jessica Heckman, Shawnee Canjura, Shweta Kamdar, Alex Stein, Laura Kasson
seated, left to right: seniors Peter Alfaro, Scott Fleming, Amy Knight, Michael Weintraub, Talia Vestri; standing, left to right: seniors Katrina Jones, Jessica Heckman, Shawnee Canjura, Shweta Kamdar, Alex Stein, Laura Kasson

Seated, left to right: seniors Peter Alfaro, Scott Fleming, Amy Knight, Michael Weintraub, Talia Vestri; standing, left to right: seniors Katrina Jones, Jessica Heckman, Shawnee Canjura, Shweta Kamdar, Alex Stein, Laura Kasson

Laura Kasson ’05
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Majors English and Music
Project Title “Oh why am I moody and sad”: Melodrama, Society, Character, and Agency in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore

“I have been interested in Gilbert and Sullivan since I first saw The Mikado at age five. I had never considered them in a scholarly framework, however, until my sophomore year at Vassar. I found that most of the literature on Gilbert and Sullivan is either confined to biography or directed at an amateur audience. Few scholars examine the libretti as literature or the score as ‘serious’ music, and very few if any focus on the relationship between the two. As an English and music double major, I tried to bring this sort of scholarly consideration to both the words and the music, composing not only my English thesis on Ruddigore, but also crafting an independent study essay in the music department, titled ‘This particularly rapid, unintelligible patter’: Patter Songs in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore.

“The music department awarded me the Kate Chittenden Memorial Scholarship for Summer Study—a grant usually awarded to performers—to fund a research trip to England, where I also attended a Gilbert and Sullivan festival and connected with scholars. I am distributing copies of my Vassar essays to the British scholars I met there; and copies also will be added to the archives of the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society. I feel as though this project is the beginning of my career as a scholar.”

Peter Alfaro ’05
Mahwah, New Jersey
Major Cognitive Science
Project Title Approaching Religious Narratives: Memory, Emotion, and Supernatural Concepts

“Although there is a movement dedicated to studying religious phenomena from the perspectives offered by cognitive science, it is still new and relatively small. I believe that my research gets at some important issues that have been relatively overlooked by the recent literature in this area.

“My project is an empirical investigation examining how emotional content may affect memory for supernatural concepts. Recent research into supernatural concepts has shown that they tend to adhere to a certain common template, such that they are unusual enough to be memorable, but not so bizarre as to be automatically ignored or discarded as irrelevant. Likewise, a separate branch of literature has shown that emotional context and valence (whether something is seen as good or bad) can significantly enhance memory for concepts and events. The religious narrative aspect comes from the fact that many religious scriptures appear to combine these different elements. My hypothesis is that these different types of memory effects may build off of one another to create extremely memorable concepts, partly explaining the success of these narratives. This could help explain why events such as the serpent’s verbal temptation of Eve are so memorable.

“Because my project definitely has roots in a lot of my course work here at Vassar, in both cognitive science and religion, I hope that I am contributing usefully to new interdisciplinary dialogue.”

Shawnee Canjura ’05
Berkeley, California
Major Anthropology
Project Title Iktomi’s Web: Life in Pine Ridge, South Dakota; and Eagle Dreaming

“My first project is a book I hope to publish, which details the history of the American Indians and the history of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and illustrates the lives of some of the people I met and lived with during my seven months on the reservation. I wrote it in a style that I hope is accessible to a wide range of educational levels. So while it deals with complex anthropological, sociological, and political concepts, I am trying to convey them to a large readership, because I believe academia has to learn to reach outside of itself in order to begin to change the world in positive ways—instead of locking knowledge up tight behind complex and segregational jargon.

“The second project is a documentary I am working on, in which I will feature interviews I taped between myself and approximately nine people from the reservation and seven from Western Australia, where I attended the University of Western Australia during my second semester of junior year.

“The aim of both of these pieces is to bring to light what many Americans have long forgotten: there are still ‘Indians’ in the world—in our world—and that the issues they have faced since colonization have not ceased. These issues must be acknowledged and addressed before any improvement is possible, and before our country could ever hope to enter other foreign cultures and alter social structures in the attempt to ‘help.’”

Michael Weintraub ’05
New York, New York
Major Philosophy
Project Title The Politics of Humanitarian Intervention: The Role of the Westphalian Conception of Sovereignty in Determining Security Council Action in Darfur, Sudan

“I have spent the past nine months or so working with CARE International’s United Nations office, monitoring developments in Darfur, Sudan, and elsewhere in Africa, and serving as a liaison between CARE’s country offices and the U.N. Security Council. The essay that I wrote was an attempt to fuse my philosophical training with my more recently acquired passion for humanitarian advocacy. I wanted to understand the continued sanctity assigned to state sovereignty—which I see as the legacy or hangover from the Peace of Westphalia in 1648—even in the face of grievous violations of international humanitarian law, in this case perpetrated by the Sudanese government and its proxy militia.

“The incorporation of my own anecdotal, first-hand experience with CARE into this written work has made the project particularly meaningful for me, shifting the focus from a heady, philosophical consideration of the ‘concept of sovereignty’ and a political appraisal of competing international visions to my own subjective encounters with these issues as they were being debated.”

Jessica Heckman ’05
Lincoln, Nebraska
Major German
Project Title Action at a Distance: Einstein as Activist

“I began my project this summer by translating approximately 30 letters from the Morris and Adele Bergreen Albert Einstein Collection in the Vassar Library’s Archives and Special Collections. I used biographical and autobiographical texts to enhance my translations and to help interpret Einstein’s social role as an activist. The essay I produced through my research is featured in a booklet accompanying the exhibition of the Bergreen Einstein Collection.

“I became acquainted specifically with the letters through a German class that I was taking at Vassar, but I had always had an interest in Einstein. It was only through Vassar that I was given an outlet to explore this interest. It is rare that an undergraduate is afforded such an opportunity. I also knew that few schools are as fortunate as Vassar in having such expansive archives and special collections.

“Although I am planning to go to medical school, I do hope to continue independently researching Einstein, especially the relationship between him and his cousin, Hertha Einstein Nathorff, who was a female refugee-doctor. Her strides to regain her position as a physician will always be a source of inspiration for me.”

Scott Fleming ’05
Feeding Hills, Massachusetts
Majors Physics and astronomy
Project Title Detecting “Temperate Jupiters”: Searching for Transiting Gas Giants in the Habitability Zone of Solar-like Stars

“Many groups are now searching for transiting extrasolar planets, and much research has been done on the subject. However, all known transiting planets are Hot Jupiters. No one has discovered a transiting planet that would be like a ‘Temperate Jupiter,’ and not much is written about the chances of detecting such a planet because it is challenging enough to detect even a Hot Jupiter.

“I am investigating the chances of detecting gas giant planets, like Jupiter, orbiting stars outside the solar system by measuring the very small decrease in the star’s brightness as the planet crosses in front of it. Specifically, I am investigating the chances of detecting such a planet orbiting in the Habitability Zone of its parent star. The Habitability Zone is the region around the star where, if a rocky planet existed, liquid water could exist on its surface.

“Ever since I was in junior high school I’ve wanted to discover what other worlds existed out there. My course work, research experience, and amazing professors here at Vassar not only gave me the opportunity to work as an intern at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, but also further inspired me to dedicate my life toward this goal.”

Photo credit: Will Faller

Read about other exciting student projects in the online additions department of this issue.