Academic Stories

Class of 2018 Completes Senior Theses

For many members of the Class of 2018, the road to graduation involved the hard work of completing a BA thesis. This project, a requirement for some majors, takes a unique form for each student and represents the culmination of their courses, passions, and goals, often cultivated over multiple years. The final product is a piece of original research that serves as an impressive reminder of the challenge undertaken every year by the graduating class. Three students shared their projects and discussed the difficulties and rewards of this process:

Elizabeth Dia, History, “Motherhood en Acción: Gender, Latinidad, and Community Action in Pilsen, 1973-1987”

As Elizabeth Dia found a home in Chicago for four years, she also found her BA topic. Dia’s thesis explores the history of the women’s community organization Mujeres Latina en Accion of Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. 

Elizabeth Dia poses in the Stuart Reading Room.

“From the beginning, I knew I wanted to write about Chicago,” said Dia. “I had taken ‘Introduction to Black Chicago’ with Professor Green and participated in the Chicago Studies Quarter, so I was really passionate about studying the city I had come to call my home. I am also really interested in gender studies, ethnic studies, and immigration. Studying a Latina women’s organization in Chicago which primarily served immigrants allowed me to easily combine all of these interests.”

Dia’s thesis explores the typical understanding of gender norms and ethnic identity in Pilsen during the early 1970s and charts the development of Mujeres. Dia argues that the organization used the notion of motherhood “to express values which resonated with traditional ideas of gender and ethnicity, while also engaging in sometimes radical practices within Pilsen.” Dia also details the ways in which Mujeres extended its work outside of Pilsen and projected a “unified view of the Latina/o community, which de-emphasized disagreements within Pilsen and the Latina/o community about gender and ethnic identity.” 

Exploring three Chicago-area archives proved to be a huge undertaking during Dia’s research. “The sheer number of documents made it challenging to determine what was important,” said Dia. “I knew I couldn’t include everything in my thesis so I spent a long time thinking about what was essential to the story I was telling and what information should be included to do justice to the history of an amazing organization.” Dia’s thesis was selected as a finalist for the Chicago Studies Research Prize and Colloquium. After graduation, she plans to stay in Chicago and aims to pursue work with organizations that serve women and immigrants. She hopes her historical knowledge of Chicago and the organization will help guide her on  this career path.

Marianna Zhang, Psychology (Major) & Philosophy (Minor), “Perspective-Taking in Mental Imagery of the Actions of Others”

“The diversity of human experience constantly amazes and fascinates me,” said Marianna Zhang, a psychology student who has spent her undergraduate years researching the ways in which our personal experiences drive different ways of thinking. In her thesis, Zhang investigated one driving question: how do we imagine the actions of others?

Marianna Zhang poses in the Stuart Reading Room.

Zhang posed two possibilities for how people picture the physical actions of others. “One…is that we imagine other people performing actions as we ourselves would perform those actions. Right-handers would imagine others performing right-handed actions, and left-handers would imagine others performing left-handed actions. Another possibility is that we imagine other people performing actions as we know other people, [most of whom are] right-handers, would typically perform those actions,” she said.

To conduct her study, Zhang used a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technique in which, she said, “you literally send someone through a giant magnet to observe activity in their brain,” a process that she said was “challenging and frustrating, but rewarding.” After scanning the brain activity of right- and left-handed participants while they envisioned scenarios, she found in both groups activation of the left premotor cortex, indicating a tendency among both groups to imagine right-handed actions.    

“This project represents the culmination of my undergraduate research with Professor Daniel Casasanto, whose lab I joined as a first-year,” said Zhang. “Four years later, I can say that psychology is definitely right for me, and the flexibility of people's cognitive representations is a line of research that I hope to continue as a PhD student in developmental psychology at Stanford University.” 

Julia Siegel, Political Science, “Live From New York: Understanding How Presidential Candidates Leverage Late-Night Satire for Political Gain”

Julia Siegel took inspiration from political satire to discover her topic. In her thesis, she investigates Seasons 41 and 42 of Saturday Night Live to judge the role of satire in the presidential election campaigns of 2016. 

“When I was studying abroad, I found myself watching late-night television on YouTube for quick soundbites on the news as an easy way to try and stay up-to-date,” said the political science major. “Since I was abroad just after the 2016 presidential election, I started wondering whether late-night comedy and satire really was a legitimate news source. I realized the influence our modern media can have on my age group's political perceptions and wanted to study it further in an academically rigorous way.”

Julia Siegel poses in the Stuart Reading Room.

When it came to finding out more about the candidates’ platforms, late-night comedy proved to be a poor source of information.

“After watching the episodes, I found that the candidates spoke more to the strengths and weaknesses of their personalities than of their policies,” said Siegel. ”Thus, I concluded that presidential candidates use guest appearances on satirical late-night shows like Saturday Night Live to carefully control and curate the narrative concerning their personality.”

When asked about the challenges of her topic, Siegel said that removing her personal bias and aiming for maximum objectivity was difficult. “For my data collection, I coded 42 episodes of Saturday Night Live,” she said, describing the long process of identifying and marking specific words and topics throughout the transcripts of the episodes. “Coding the episodes in an objective manner was a labor-intensive process, but well worth it for the results.”

Like many students, Siegel gained a more comprehensive understanding of her field through her research. “I now have a more complex understanding of the world around me. I hope my thesis helps me and those around me to more responsibly consume media, the news, and late-night satire.”