Honors theses offer challenges, enrichment for students

June 4, 2013, 11:54 p.m.

Each year, some seniors from departments across the University spend their final year as undergraduates working on an honors thesis project that acts as an academic capstone for their time at Stanford. Some students write reports about the research they have done in labs since their freshman or sophomore year, others write about their fieldwork in a foreign country and still others take on a more creative stance with artistic final projects.

For most, the honors thesis journey accounts for one of the most challenging—and enriching—experiences of their academic careers.

From research to thesis

Cody Aros ’13, a biology major, wrote his thesis on long non-coding RNAs and their role in coetaneous squamous cell carcinoma, the most common form of skin cancer. The goal of Aros’ project was to identify, from a clinical standpoint, the novel therapies of this skin cancer through a genomic characterization of the disease and by looking for RNA species that are important in regulating epidermal homeostasis.

“It’s quite a mouthful,” he said. “I joined the lab at the end of my freshman year and the [post-doctoral student] that I worked closely with had the foundations for the project,” he said. “After we performed the sequencing on patient samples we had, I studied one candidate RNA that was interesting to us.”

Aros spent about 9-10 hours per week in the lab during his freshmen year and continued into his sophomore year. During his summers he worked for 40-50 hours a week and then spent closer to 20 hours a week in the lab his junior and senior years. As a junior, he realized that what began as a research assistant position could turn into something more integral to his academic experience.

For Aros, the entire process—as opposed to simply the end product—was enjoyable.

“Having done the research beforehand…the process of writing all of what I had done throughout my undergraduate experience was rewarding,” he said. “It was both reflective and I felt that I was learning how to best convey my results…I felt like everything came full circle—everything came together and there was a finality to it.

Despite his gratification, Aros’ process, like that of many other students, was not without difficulties.

“I started working on this one project during my sophomore year, and I could kind of see it turning into a thesis project, but I’d say by the end of my sophomore year, beginning of junior year, the project kind of failed,” he said. “It was part of the process and I used the skills I learned in that project to guide my next project.”

For Aros, the most challenging part was coming to the realization that one of the projects he was working on was not going to make it into his thesis.

“The thesis experience is not just the project that succeeded and what you ultimately end up writing on,” he said. “For me, it’s from the start of my research to the end of it.”

Much in the same vein as Aros, Ruby Lee ’13 was inspired to embark on her honors thesis after joining her professor’s lab.

Lee’s honors thesis focuses on a data process platform she built that allows the user to extract data from any slice of a simulation, giving a visual representation drawn in real-time with the data that is being regenerated.

“I took a class [with] my advisor, [Assistant Professor of Bioengineering] Markus Covert, who taught BIOE 101…and was compelled by him, so I talked to him more and joined his lab,” she said. “I was given flexibility in what I wanted to do, so I spent the academic year talking to people, getting a handle on the work they were doing…With the data visualization project, I felt like I had a good handle on how I could approach it and I had an idea about the end product.”

According to Lee, a goal of the project was to develop a tool that would help the lab and make it possible to communicate the data to the public.

“Originally, I was just going to do research without honors,” Lee said. “[Bioengineering] is a new major and this was the first year they offered the option…I thought it aligned really well with what I was going to be doing.”

In Lee’s opinion, the most captivating part of her experience was the multidimensionality of her finished work.

“In my case, [the honors thesis process] was interesting because the main goal is the website and the thesis is more of a way to explain how it works and the process that went into it, why we chose to implement or deny things,” she said. “It’s nice to have the thesis and the written process, with the website as a second component.”

One of the challenges facing Lee was conveying the relevancy of such conceptual—as opposed to practical—research.

“From the perspective of people in the lab, it’s clear why we’d be motived to create this,” Lee said. “It was harder to get the general public to see it…putting into words to explain the rationale of something we’d thought about very intensely but never put into writing. There are not very many other data visualization platforms…so finding similar software programs to compare to…and drawing parallels was challenging.”

Pursuing passions

For Michael Hughes ’13, a history major, one challenge presented by his thesis was time management. Hughes, who wrote his thesis on the New Deal-era Supreme Court, conceded that he was prone to procrastination.

“It’s human nature to procrastinate,” he said. “It’s about making yourself, ahead of time, get something done, and then you can circle back. In the fall [in a class for students working on honors theses], I wrote about half to a third…It wasn’t really a thesis but more of a template, heavily based on secondary sources…It was immensely helpful to write that part of it and incorporate it into a longer document. I had something I could use as a guiding post.”

Hughes used his honors project as a means of combining two of his academic interests: the Supreme Court and economics.

“I was interested in the Supreme Court and the Court’s approach to government in general history, in respect to economics,” he said. “[The Great Depression] was a pivotal time. The court wasn’t completely against governmental regulation but would defer to the legislature when it came to economic issues…I wanted to complicate things by looking at early cases that didn’t fit that narrative.”

Hughes also cited the value of an honors thesis in providing a capstone project for his undergraduate career.

Matthaeus Weinhardt ’13 M.A. ’13 decided to forego taking fewer classes as a senior to focus on his thesis, instead choosing to coterm and take 45 units of graduate level courses.

“I decided on psychology fall of my freshmen year,” Weinhardt said. “It’s a pretty small major and left me with space, so I started thinking about what else I could do…It was a nice opportunity to do something more in-depth, either with honors or a coterm. I had heard that it was possible to do a coterm in four years, so I decided to try.”

Weinhardt’s research focuses on intuitive decision-making and integration of value. He led different psychological experiments that involved gambling games played on a computer, such as choosing between different colored shapes.

“We can infer the intuitive decisions people are making…and whether intuition picks up on shapes that pay more or less,” he said.

Weinhardt began thinking about doing his own original research project early on and applied for the Chappell-Lougee research grant.

“I ended up doing four or five experiments,” he said. “Some worked and some did not, but I was fortunate that the most recent did work.”

Like Aros, the most challenging part for Weinhardt was when the first study did not work out.

“It was supposed to be a replication of another study, with some changes made to it,” Weinhardt said. “Everyone agreed they were good changes and that it would work better, and then it didn’t. The results were confusing and didn’t make sense with the possible theories we were considering. We had to go back to the drawing board and figure out why the results looked this way.”

In order to avoid a similar situation, Weinhardt recommended careful deliberation and an early start.

“If your ideas are good and you have some persistence, then you will find what you’re looking for, even if it’s not the original way you thought of it,” he added. “You will contribute to the field.”

Forging a distinct path

As a junior, Ty Olson ’14 has only just begun the research into his thesis project but has a clear idea of what he wants to do: a short narrative film that takes place in North Dakota, where Olson is from, and focuses on a Norwegian-American family.

“Where I’m from is heavily populated with Norwegian immigrants,” Olson said. “It’s ethnocentric, but not in a bad way…It perpetuates old world traditions and cultures, values and ideals…[The film] is a portrait of an overlooked part of our society.”

Olson, whose cinematic project diverges significantly from most other honors theses, is interested in studying themes of foreignness in America.

“I had an idea for a short film and American Studies was the only place that allowed me to do it,” he said. “[An honors project] gives me academic support…I can get professional and technical support elsewhere, but it’s great discussing the themes I’m talking about and having the support of an advisor and a department at Stanford.”

In addition to a 22-minute film, Olson’s project will include a 10- to 15-page reflection paper that will tie in some of the academic questions he studies in his movie, exploring his questions more and bringing in some of the other materials he has been studying in preparation.

Olson has some experience making short films and filming professional music videos for Scandinavian artists, but he hopes to gain more experience with an endeavor for which he will travel to North Dakota to conduct filming.

“It’s a short film that will be comprised of a lot of family members and locals,” he said.

The biggest challenge Olson envisions will be fundraising for the project. Although he has some leads, he concedes that recruiting community members for financial support will not be easy.

Still, Olson is hopeful that his project will succeed, citing his stalwart devotion to the inspiration—his Norwegian heritage—that encouraged him to pursue an honors thesis in the first place.

“People start to lose track of why they are interested [in their topic],” he said. “You need to hone in on it and what it is that made you interested in the first place…you’ll inject more of a personal connection to your thesis, since you live with it for a year.”

Aros echoed this perspective.

“Pick something you are interested in,” Aros said. “It’s a long road and it can be challenging. If you’re not doing something you’re interested in, it will be harder.”

Josee Smith is a senior this year, majoring in anthropology with a minor in Spanish. She is the desk editor for the student groups beat and has spent her last 3 years at The Daily as both a staff writer and contributing writer. Originally from Washington State, Josee came to California for the warm weather and stayed for the awesome reporting. To contact her, please email jsmith11 'a' stanford.edu.

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