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Theses from Afar

A dozen books, a stack of photocopies, a Firestone carrel and several months of toil — does this a thesis make?

Absolutely not say more than 100 students each year. Only if you throw in a bit of travel, a series of interviews, on-site data collection and several weeks of intense field research — and perhaps an exotic locale — do you have the right mix for a thesis, according to the sizable minority of juniors who will likely spend this summer conducting field research on their proposed thesis topics.


"It's really necessary that I travel [to Cuba]," said Catherine O'Connor '01, an art history major, "because the sources [I need] aren't available in the U.S." O'Connor hopes to study the state of artistic expression in modern Cuba since the revolution.

Abby Neeley '01, a history major, agreed. "For the focus that I'm trying to get — which is centered in Missoula [Mont.] — I think it's pretty essential that I get there," she said, explaining that she plans to examine the relationship between culture and forest-fire policy in the American West.

"It is absolutely necessary to travel [to South Africa]," said Yasmine Chubin '01 — a Wilson School student looking to evaluate the South African educational system and education policy from 1990 to the present — "both to see the schools and get an idea of the physical setting, and to access some of the data that I need."

The University provides a variety of funding sources for students who, — like O'Connor, Neely and Chubin — feel strongly that on-location research is essential to their theses.

The only caveat is that by March of their junior year, these students must have formulated their topics, conducted preliminary research and have the support — if not advising — of a University professor.


Some departments — including economics, history and politics — offer funding for summer thesis research to departmental majors. The Wilson School offers funding to majors and non-majors as do the Latin American studies program and the Princeton Environmental Institute.

In addition, the Dean of the College awards money from its general fund and from the Shultz fund, which can be used for public-policy topics only. Most students who apply for funding from other sources also apply to these funds.

Because they must decide on a thesis topic so early, many of the students who apply for summer funding have had a longstanding interest in their topic.

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Junior Taryn Wayne's topic, for instance, is intensely personal. A dancer since age 11, Wayne took two years off before college to dance with a ballet company. At the University, she has put aside her serious dance training but has performed with BodyHype since freshman year. She has also taken several dance classes, including a dance atelier with the American Ballet Theater.

For her thesis, the anthropology major hopes to study the Hawaiian hula kahiko — an ancient form of dance that residents used to keep historical records before European settlement.

"Ancient hula is very different from the touristy hula," which is called hula 'auana, she explained.

Wayne said she "had always wanted to do something of this nature" for her thesis. After comparing two dance ethnographies for her junior independent work, Wayne decided to conduct her own dance ethnography for her senior thesis. "My advisor really encouraged me to do something with dance," she said. "Anthropology of dance is very underdeveloped."

For Neely, who hopes to study fire history in Montana, the idea to conduct field research on her thesis came from her father, John Neely '67. During the summer before his senior year, the elder Neely researched his thesis topic — the evacuation of Japanese-Americans from the Pacific Coast during World War II — at the University of California at Berkeley, and said it was an "awesome opportunity," his daughter recalled.

He told Neely to "go to a place that's special to whatever your topic is and do some research," she added.

Neely wants to spend eight weeks this summer working on her proposed thesis topic, including three weeks in Missoula, Mont. — the center for forest fire-fighting in the geographic region she wishes to study — and one week in Yellowstone National Park.

"I'm really interested in the environment and in forest fires, and in all the research that's being done," Neely said. She added that she has a particular interest in smoke jumpers — the special fire fighters that jump from airplanes into strategic locations in the heart of the burning region — and even mentioned a desire to try smoke jumping. Jumpers will be a central focus of her research.

"Smoke jumpers are emblematic of the turn-of-the-century firefighting," Neely explained. "They're kind of like the hometown heroes in Missoula."

Erika Schielke '01 is also interested in flying creatures, but not ones that jump into burning wilderness areas. Schielke, a molecular biology major, is hoping to examine populations of vinegar flies in the Caribbean.

More specifically, she wants to study a particular genetic marker called a microsatellite. This marker is one way scientists can distinguish between species and subspecies that have been divided geographically.

Schielke said that use of the microsatellite instead of more conventional population markers may have important ecological implications.

"If you . . . [use] a conventional marker, the species and sub-species [can] look the same," Schielke explained. "If you make conservation decisions based on these type of markers, you will miss certain subspecies and species."

The Caribbean islands are perfect for this research, Schielke explained, because scientists have already identified species and subspecies of the drosophila fly living on the island, and because they know that the flies have evolved recently. Moreover, "the Caribbean is one of the global conservation hot spots," she said.

Schielke became involved in Caribbean biological research through her work in the lab of ecology and evolutionary biology professor Hope Hollocher.

Schielke said her thesis will "take the work I was doing in the lab and put it in a broader context . . . with applications for conservation biology."

Neither Chubin nor O'Connor ventured near a biology lab in preparing for her thesis. But, like Schielke, they both found that their previous research experiences — particularly their junior independent work — led directly to their proposed thesis topics.

For Chubin, her freshman seminar on education policy solidified an interest in the topic, and her second-semester junior paper on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's work in South Africa gave her a new geographic focus.

"Apartheid had a huge effect on education policy in South Africa," she said. "There have been big policy reforms to fix that, but little progress has been made." To help contribute to the ongoing policy debate, Chubin will look at geographical disparities in exam results and consider the overall quality of the nation's education system.

In O'Connor's spring junior paper, she compared the "artwork of an artist that stayed in Cuba and continued to produce art that was pro-revolutionary and one who was exiled" — in particular examining "how their visions of Cuban nationalism differ."

Though O'Connor has always been interested in Cuba, she said her thesis topic developed from her independent work.

"So many people have been questioning what's going to happen once Castro dies," she said, explaining why the topic is particularly relevant.

Vinod Aravind '01, a Wilson School major who has applied for funding to travel to India this summer to study the possibility of using micro-finance to ameliorate the nation's rural poverty, said, "I've always had an abiding cultural interest in India."

"My family's from India, and traveling to India every couple of years has kept me grounded to the place," Aravind added. "I knew by the beginning of my junior year that I wanted to focus on India in most of my independent work."

When Aravind discusses India, a place that he says he considers a part of who he is, it becomes apparent that in making his thesis plans he has heeded a slight variation of the advice that Neely's father gave her — go to a place that is special to you and do some research.