College senior Hannah Marcus knew she had something when she stumbled across 2,200 pages of a medieval manuscript in Bologna, Italy, that nobody had ever really written about or even read. So she decided to.
The history major and religious studies minor turned the 16th century manuscript about the cross of Christ by Renaissance scientist Ulisse Aldrovandi into her senior thesis project - and now has 111 pages of her own on the topic.
THESES: ASK US WHY
As the year comes to a close, many seniors are wrapping up - or watching others scramble to wrap up - months of work on final research projects, from analyzing Middle Eastern conflict or building the next "toast Zamboni."
In contrast to schools like Princeton University, where every senior is required to undertake a thesis or significant independent project, each academic program or department at Penn determines the thesis requirement. Some require all students to complete a research project, others use it for an honors program and others make it completely optional.
The ultimate goal is creating an original body of work that contributes to or spurs additional research in the field. "Penn's attitude toward it is probably more liberal," said College Dean Dennis DeTurck, " as opposed to the traditional write-me-a-half-inch-margin-essay."
For students who are passionate about a topic, a thesis can be an excellent chance to explore it more in depth. "It's one thing to sit in classroom with 15 or 150 other students, but when it's you and your faculty advisor, that's when you learn things and do things that will change your outlook on life," DeTurck said.
Rob Nelson, director of Undergraduate Education in the Provost's Office, said it is better that Penn provide students with research opportunities than create a schoolwide requirement.
But, he added, students without a finely honed interest may benefit from an additional course or two. "There's a bad habit, especially among highly motivated students who think, well, in order to get into law school or med school, I have to do a thesis," he said.
NOSE TO THE GRINDSTONE
For most students, the scale of the project is the biggest challenge - especially when combined with procrastination. The hardest parts are often narrowing down a topic, jumpstarting the writing process and sticking to a time schedule.
After taking six classes last semester, College senior Zach Schapira, a politics, philosophy and economics major, took a leave of absence this semester to focus on his thesis - but didn't quite get there until recently.
"The grind came [three] weeks ago, and I've been working nonstop since then," said Schapira, who is still pinpointing his thesis's argument, which uses current events to describe Saudi Arabia's role in the Arab world.
"A 75-page paper is not just five times longer than a 15-page paper - it's exponentially more complicated," said History professor Michael Zuckerman, who each year advises eight to 12 students on their theses.
He added that "cramming is a natural human rhythm" and he expects students to work on their theses until the last minute. "We have various policing mechanisms that are called midterms and response papers and class discussions and they work to some degree, but it's perfectly expected that students will cram for their theses," he said.
According to Andrea Loigman, head of Circulations at Van Pelt library, book borrowing and inter-library loans among undergraduates are low in September and January and go up as each semester progresses, though there is no significant difference between the fall and spring terms.
Ancil George, an Africana Studies bibliographer at Van Pelt, said the reference desk sees an increase in questions around this time of year from "all panicking students."
"Sometimes they're seniors who've never done a research paper and this is their first time to the library-I confess I've seen that more than I like," said George, who added that such a scenario is more common among Engineering and Wharton students who aren't required to engage in as much research during their time at Penn.
For Marcus, who did most of her research in Italy, the logistics of physically going through archives was tricky.
And that was before she realized a significant part of what she was reading was in Latin.
"Either you're thinking about it because you're working on it or you're thinking about it because you're stressing out about the fact that you should be working on it," said Marcus, who added that she didn't feel her thesis came together until a week before she handed it in.
Marcus spent about 100 hours analyzing archives in Bologna last June before returning to Penn, where she spent one entire week and all of spring break building her argument. "You can't live your wild sophomore life," she said. "Cancun wasn't happening this year."
To ease that process and provide social support, departments such as history offers a three-semester seminar sequence as part of its honors program for students starting spring of junior year.
"It's a lonely process. Nobody can do your research or writing for you," said Zuckerman, who taught the course several times. Students can share "collective suffering" and get feedback.
"Sometimes kids come with really interesting questions, sometimes they just want my signature at the bottom," he said.
While watching senior friends rush to complete their theses, Wharton and College junior Serge Morrell is already working on his. Morrell, who will focus on the Soviet economy, started research while studying abroad last year in Moscow.
College student and science, technology and society major Eileen McKeown recently submitted her thesis - but she's only a junior. McKeown, who explored the role of information systems in fundraising and advertising for community service groups, said her passion for community service - not a desire to be done - drove her to finish early.
Morrell also stressed picking a topic of interest. "I think of this not as a college requirement but as something I'm really passionate about," he said.
LIBRARIES OR LABS
On the other end of the spectrum, College senior Katherine O'Brien's thesis centered on scientific research. A biological basis of behavior major, O'Brien collaborated with a sleep lab in Penn's School of Medicine to use fruit flies as models to analyze sleep abnormalities.
She has found "a mutant fly that barely sleeps," and is currently delving further into which genes in the fly are affected.
Though O'Brien's project was in the College, its goal of potentially curing sleeping problems fits with that of many Engineering final design projects. Associate Dean Vijay Kumar stressed the "real world" relevance of Engineering projects in which students create a method or build a product - whether a software program or a portable solar collector-to fill a societal need.
"That's one big difference between an Engineering project [versus] a thesis, which analyzes a phenomenon or trend or period in history," said Kumar.
O'Brien, who had never before done research, initially decided to do a thesis to gauge her interest in research, interact with people in the field and boost her profile for medical school.
"I thought I would hate it but [the thesis] made me realize research was something I would enjoy," said O'Brien, who plans to continue her thesis research post-graduation.
Though her 35-page paper may seem relatively light for a thesis, she said spending time in a lab is just as challenging as a more writing-heavy project. "The process is different but the experience is similar - they're both a lot of work," O'Brien said.
THE FINISH LINE
Students who have done the hard work, though, have reaped the profits as well.
Though no University-wide awards exist, each school and many departments recognize the best theses or projects during graduation. Grants are also available to fund, for example, access to historical archives or lab equipment.
When it comes to celebrations, Penn students seem to be relatively modest.
This year also holds particular significance for general manager Paul Ryan, who will watch his fourth son graduate from Penn.
And though the number of seniors who trickle through Smoke's increases as their time at Penn shortens, "unfortunately lots of them don't have jobs this year-they're usually a lot happier other years," said Ryan.
For many seniors, though, the sense of completion - and graduation - is satisfaction enough.
"I showed my bound thesis to the security guards [in Van Pelt] - who know me well enough not to make me swipe my PennCard anymore - and they were like, yeah!" said Marcus.Comments powered by Disqus
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