The American West, voting and office hours: Three seniors capstone undergraduate years with innovative theses

<p>The Reuben-Cooke Building, located on Duke's West Campus, is named after Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke. She was one of the first five African American undergraduates to attend Duke.&nbsp;</p>

The Reuben-Cooke Building, located on Duke's West Campus, is named after Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke. She was one of the first five African American undergraduates to attend Duke. 

Writing a thesis is no easy task, but Duke’s seniors are always up for the challenge.

Topics vary across departments, from dolphin cranial endocasts in Biology, to merger and acquisition premiums in Economics, to the Billboard Hot 100 in Statistical Science. Students work with their professors to choose a topic that fits both their interests and degree.

During their last year at the University, students can elect to research a topic in-depth and write a senior thesis. They then might have to defend this thesis to a panel of professors, earning themselves graduation with honors or distinction. Generally consisting of an abstract, introduction, methods, results, discussion, a conclusion and references, undergraduate theses often take months of preparation.

Taylor Plett

Taylor Plett, Trinity ’22 and an English graduate, wrote her thesis about how Protestant Christians living in early America viewed the land and how agriculture fit into their sense of responsibility to the land before and after the settlement of the American West.

She concluded that “American settlers are basically using religion to justify their own economic ends,” Plett said. “Ultimately, they're sort of forcing their own ideals onto a territory.”

Before the settlement of the American West, according to Plett, the frontier was viewed like a Garden of Eden, with settlers having the strong belief that it was their job and God’s intention to cultivate the land for economic gain. However, after its settlement, Plett said there was a shift away from cultivation and economic interaction and towards the idea of a “pristine wilderness.” 

The new idea brought about the creation of national parks and preservationism, she said, but also inequality, violence and the genocide of thousands of indigenous peoples. Plett cited the example of the United States government forcibly removing indigenous people to create a “pristine” Yellowstone National Park. 

However, she was not always set on her final topic. Originally, she had planned to write a thesis about the TV show Twin Peaks with a focus on gender studies. A gap year spent living on farms and ranches in the Great Plains region threw this plan awry.

While in western United States, Plett spent her time performing documentary research on food systems. Many of the people she talked to based their analysis of modern food systems in colonial history and American literature. Around the same time, she also took a Milton class along with a class on the relationship of early American historical documents to land and agriculture. These endeavors all culminated in Plett’s interest for the final topic she settled on. 

One positive aspect of the English major is that it provides freedom in the direction that students can take their theses, Plett said. Her thesis not only discussed how the idea of the “pristine wilderness” is passed through popular literature but also included pieces of history, economics and sociology.

Plett went on to win the English department’s Award for Most Original Honors Thesis. 

Lucy Callard, At Home or On Campus? How Duke Students Decide Where to Register to Vote

While Plett looked out west, some students focused their topics more locally. 

Lucy Callard, Trinity ’22 and a Public Policy graduate, based her thesis on the question: What factors are most important to Duke students’ decisions on where to register to vote? 

College students are a unique demographic of the American voter because they can choose to register at their university or at their home address, Callard wrote. However, despite this uniqueness, she found minimal existing research on the factors driving students to vote in one location over the other.

“The topic originated in a broad observation I had of friends who elected to register in North Carolina for the 2020 election because they felt the state would be more competitive and ‘their vote would count more,’” Callard wrote.

In order to collect data for her thesis, Callard created an online survey where students answered questions about their voting decisions. She compared where they registered to vote with their evaluation of the competitiveness of both their home state and North Carolina. 

The magnitude and length of the project were what Callard found most difficult in writing her thesis. If she could repeat the process, she would do more work over the summer and early on in the fall to prevent feeling rushed in the winter. However, she thinks that regardless, she would have worked up until the very end.

Amidst the challenges, Callard enjoyed working with the other public policy seniors as they were writing their own theses. 

“Nothing builds a bond more than late nights in the library or when you all are getting confused on what a particular statistic is telling you,” Callard wrote.

On the night she finished, Callard threw a pizza party for her teammates on the Duke Swimming & Diving team, who supported her through the stressful deadlines. 

“After a crazy week leading up to the deadline, I wanted to be with the people I love the most at Duke,” Callard wrote. 

What Callard found most interesting from her results was that, ultimately, the competitiveness of a state’s elections does influence where a Duke student registers to vote, regardless of their area of study. 

Callard wrote that she would love to see if this phenomenon is consistent with students at other universities. 

“If political parties could leverage students’ interests in competitiveness when conducting ad campaigns or get-out-the-vote efforts, students’ votes could be the difference between a state voting Democratic or Republican,” Callard wrote.

Sona Suryadevara, Analyzing Office Hours Through the Lens of Gender and the Problem-Solving Process

Sona Suryadevara, Trinity ’22, chose to hone in on a specific aspect of Duke's academic life for her senior thesis: office hours. 

Her thesis used office hours data from various semesters of Computer Science 101, Introduction to Computer Science and Computer Science 216, Everything Data courses. Because the data set she used for her study contained information from five semesters, there were a lot of factors that Suryadevara could have chosen to analyze. But she knew she wanted to incorporate gender and a problem-solving process aspect. 

Suryadevara was not always set on computer science research. However, after taking CS101 and Computer Science 201, Data Structures and Algorithms in her first year, she realized that she enjoyed computer science. 

“I definitely did not think in my freshman year that I would be doing my senior year thesis in computer science—that's just where my academic career took me,” Suryadevara wrote. “I think this thesis reflects my time trying new subjects at Duke and really pursuing what calls to me.”

Suryadevara wrote that the most interesting piece of information she learned in her research was that the introduction of the autograder might have shifted the questions asked during office hours towards implementation and debugging of the code.

She wrote that while she enjoyed the coding and data science part of the analysis, she faced difficulties reasoning through the results and trends in the data. When she found herself stuck in the small details, her thesis advisor, Kristin Stephens-Martinez, assistant professor of the practice in the computer science department, helped her visualize the bigger picture.

In the end, Suryadevara’s dedication paid off and she graduated with distinction. Her family was on the Zoom call watching her presentation. It felt like all the hard work and late nights were finally worth it, she added.

“I was pretty nervous before my presentation, so upon hearing the news of the distinction I was just so happy and was on cloud nine the whole day,” she wrote. “I was in such a daze that I accidentally missed the CS216 team meeting later that day! Luckily, [Stephens-Martinez] was the professor for that class, so she was very understanding.”


Alison Korn

Alison Korn is a Pratt junior and enterprise editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.

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