Mellon Forums

What is a Mellon Forum?

Mellon Senior Forums at Branford College seek to foster in our Seniors the sense of belonging to the community of scholars. Organized in the form of dinner meetings to which both Seniors and their advisers are invited, they provide some of our most talented students the opportunity to present the results of their independent research projects. The Forums also offer the possibility of especially close interaction between the Head of the College, the Dean, and Branford Seniors in comfortable and intimate surroundings. Branford holds a number of Senior Forums in the Spring semester. After dinner is served, two students deliver research papers, usually fifteen minutes in length, to an audience of fellow Seniors. Attempts are made to cover a wide range of topics in various branches of the Humanities, the Social Sciences, and the Natural Sciences. Each paper is immediately followed by a lively and intense question and answer period which permits the Senior to clarify (and perhaps modify) his/her critical stance.

Branford’s Mellon Forum coordinators are HOC De La Cruz, Dean Galindo, and resident fellow Steve Blum. Each senior participating in the Forums are matched with one of our Graduate Affiliates who mentor them. An info session is held in the Fall semester for those seniors interested in participating. 

What is the Mellon Forum schedule for Spring 2024?

January 23rd

David Donnan
“The Iconic Stage: Pop Culture in Performance”

As part of my senior thesis in Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies, I’ve undertaken embodied research through the creation and production of a performance piece. The working title of this production is Facework. Facework is a tribute to pop culture, and the power it has to help people see themselves. Through a devising process that marries performance art, theater, and pop culture, Facework explores the multifaceted and embodied emotions of gayness and genderqueerness in the 21st century. By marrying the narrative framing of solo performance with the affective spectacle of pop-based performance art, I hope to create a piece that allows audience members unfamiliar with that experience to gain a new and visceral understanding of it and for audience members who already relate to that experience to feel recognized. This production process serves as the research basis of my thesis paper in TDPS, which integrates performance theory with Erving Goffman’s theory of facework to understand how the curation and reproduction of pop culture on the stage can facilitate the performance of identity.

Isabella Marin Quintero
“The Preservation of Military Power after Democratic Transitions through the Presidential Cabinet in Latin America”

One of the main reasons that many countries in Latin America continue to fall short of democratic consolidation is the strong presence of the military, even after transitions to democracy. A strong indicator of successful democratic transitions is military autonomy from civilian authorities, but in Latin America, many channels keep the relationship between the military and the democratically elected government alive. One such channel is the Presidential Cabinet because of the Chief Executive’s complete influence over this institution in the pure Presidential systems of Latin America. For my Senior Thesis, I investigate the degree to which the institution of the Presidential Cabinet has been used to prolong the influence of the military over the executive branch after the dissolution of military governments in Latin America and empirically test the relationship between coup risk and the involvement of the military in a Presidential Cabinet. For this Mellon Forum presentation, I give an overview of my major theoretical findings so far and evaluate my hypothesis for the case of Brazil.

Hamera Shabbir
Fire and Funding: A Temporal Analysis of the Evolution of Community Wildfire Protection Plans

The Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003 produced a new paradigm of forest management, including the creation of community wildfire protection plans (CWPPs). Communities across the country continue to adopt and update these plans as tools for locally managing wildfire mitigation and adaptation. Little research has been done to understand the financial motivations and consequences for communities to adopt a CWPP. This thesis aims to answer the question of how communities have leveraged CWPPs across time to access state or federal government resources. This thesis rests on evidence gathered in a literature review and interviews of local leaders affiliated with signatory agencies of CWPPs in two distinct communities in the Sierra Nevada Foothills of California. Respondents discussed themes of state assistance with CWPPs, engagement across agencies, and overall changes in wildfire planning at the state level. While community officials disagreed over the effect of CWPPs in influencing the allocation of state or federal funds, many respondents noted that CWPPs are necessary to apply for some grants. Respondents indicated that CWPPs and the associated planning process assisted communities in seeking funding sources for projects. Further research should be conducted to understand the changing landscape of wildfire planning and funding.

January 30th

Alessa Kim-Panero
“Battle for the Hudson: Lessons on Public Space from Westway to the Hudson River Park (1973-2023)”

The last fifty years on Manhattan’s west side have provided some of the richest debates on public space, real estate development, urban renewal, and social activism. Westway, a lofty, short-lived plan to revamp the West Side Highway and make space for both private and public development, brought to light bitter tensions over whether politicians, city planners, or urban dwellers should control the physical future of the city. Today, the 550-acre Hudson River Park boasts rec sports leagues, science classes for children, free kayaking, and awaits the opening of a new beach. This public programming has grown in tandem with rising rent prices and a growing corporate presence in the neighborhoods beside the waterfront. The result is a careful ecosystem, balancing the interests of local families alongside Google and Goldman Sachs. By exploring this fifty-year history of the Hudson and West Side Highway, we can analyze the role of greenspace in the lives of urban citizens. 

Victoria Chung
How Discriminatory Intent Becomes Discriminatory Reality: The Disparate Impact of a Post-Shelby Law on Black Voters in North Carolina” 

In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down one of the fundamental enforcement mechanisms of the historic Voting Rights Act. Preclearance required that certain historically discriminatory jurisdictions could not change their election laws without first obtaining approval from the federal government. In the immediate aftermath of the decision, state legislatures moved to pass restrictive voting laws that had previously failed to obtain preclearance. One of the most glaring cases of this is North Carolina, where the Republican-dominated General Assembly enacted a bill that targeted Black voters with almost “surgical precision.” Though the voter ID part of this bill never saw the light of day, its myriad other restrictions did—namely in the 2014 midterm. This paper examines whether affected elections in North Carolina demonstrated disparate changes in voter turnout between majority Black and majority white precincts. In turn, this research hopes to present the full story of voter suppression in North Carolina and how the gutting of preclearance can and did in fact have a detrimental effect on Black voters. 

February 6th

Katie Taylor
“A Distinguished Opponent”: Edwin Borchard and the Evolution of International Law in the Interwar Period

As a professor at Yale Law School, Edwin Borchard argued for what he understood to be traditional neutrality as established by centuries of international law. The peculiarity of Borchard’s convictions was a product of an earlier era when few assumptions about U.S. involvement in the world were settled. He was appointed a member of the Yale Law faculty in 1917, the year the United States entered World War I.  By the time of his death in 1951, the modern post-war order had emerged, defined by the principles he had opposed his entire career.  While most other academics and political leaders around him evolved to meet the new crises of a new century, Borchard remained firmly fixed in his late-nineteenth-century paradigm of international law. Borchard’s archives act as a historical meter stick against which to measure the change that occurred around him. As the United States and its allies implemented new and evolving international legal approaches—from outlawing war in the Kellogg-Briand Pact to using sanctions to punish aggressor nations—Borchard became more isolated and extreme by comparison. Borchard’s correspondence and his publications reveal how he saw (and opposed) the world changing. Beyond the particulars of his opposition, his archives reveal the questions of his era and how certain answers came to dominate the pre- and post-war world. Borchard’s writings provide an early sketch of today’s arguments about U.S. intervention, sanctions, and the purpose of international institutions.

Trevor Schutes
“Maximilian I through Muralism and Architecture: Foreign Imposed Tyrant or Symbol of Mexican Heritage?”

This presentation explores the complex relationship between the second emperor of Mexico, the Austrian Maximilian I, and Mexican history through Diego Rivera’s murals and the Castillo de Chapultepec in Mexico City. Moreover, the difference between fact and symbol will be analyzed, and the audience will be able to see the “imperial paradox” that formed after Maximilian I was executed by the Mexican people and the collective memory of the monarch shifted in the 20th and 21st century. 

Melina Joseph
“E-cigarette and Menthol Cigarette Use Among Adults”

Combustible cigarette use is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States. Research suggests that e-cigarettes may be an effective harm reduction tool for adults who smoke cigarettes. What flavors are available in these e-cigarette and cigarette products may influence the potential for individuals to switch from cigarettes to e-cigarettes. While previous studies have examined factors associated with e-cigarette flavor preference in the context of smoking cessation, little research has focused specifically on e-cigarette flavor preference and menthol cigarette status. Using data from a cross-sectional survey and an ongoing clinical trial study, the present studies investigate characteristics and behaviors associated with menthol cigarette use and e-cigarette use among adults. 

February 13th

Hilary Griggs
“Does a man’s word or a nation’s word ever become obsolete?”: Fighting the Floodwaters on the Fort Berthold Reservation 

Renowned Lakota scholar Vine Deloria Jr. called the Pick-Sloan Plan the “single most destructive act ever perpetrated on any tribe by the United States.” A collaboration between the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation, the flood-control plan was authorized by Congress in 1944 and provided for the construction of five main-stem dams on the Missouri River in North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska. Large dams create large reservoirs, and over half of the land flooded by these dams belonged to Native American tribes whose reservations lie along the river. For the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Fort Berthold Reservation (Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara), the Pick-Sloan Plan authorized the taking of over 150,000 acres of their land behind the Garrison Dam. The dam displaced over 80% of the reservation’s residents, and entirely submerged the fertile Missouri River bottomlands, essential for the tribes’ spiritual, economic, and physical well-being. For historians, activists, and tribal members alike, the Garrison Dam is a clear example of the federal government’s dismissal of Native American treaty rights and tribal sovereignty well into the twentieth century, and what historian Nick Estes calls “slow violence,” a clandestine continuation of the Indian Wars of the nineteenth century. Despite its tragedy and injustice, however, the story of the Garrison Dam is also one of tribal leadership, activism, and resistance. This project centers the Three Affiliated Tribes’ fight against the dam, and situates it within the long history of Native American activism and the evolution of Federal Indian law and politics.

Zenaida Aguirre-Gutierrez
Sin Papeles: Struggles and Strives in the Intimate Lives of Undocumented Americans” 

From the historic roots in the 1790 Naturalization Act to the recent Immigration and Reform and Control Act of 1986, the country’s legal landscape has been shaped to criminalize immigrants and prioritize deportations. This is especially true for people without legal status whose experience is shaped by perpetual illegality, the inability to adjust status, resulting in legal and political inexistence. This project voices the experience of the undocumented population through ethnographic research with undocumented family members in Los Angeles. While plenty of scholarship about the undocumented populations’ struggles exist, I explore the conversation of undocumented resistance guided by the question: How do undocumented Americans resist the limitations of their status? Pláticas with family members echo that undocumented Americans have negotiated illegality by fostering a social identity, networks of belonging, avenues for healthcare, and altermobilities. While all of these forms of resistance are rooted in necessity, they defy the manifestations of structural illegality—exploitation, social exclusion and isolation, and a lack of health resources. It is through this micro-level lens that the reality of undocumented Americans is disclosed and challenged.

Jennifer Melo
“From the School-to-Prison Pipeline and Back: An Analysis of School Reentry and Radical Education for Justice-Involved Youth”

This paper looks at the phenomenon of the school-to-prison pipeline in reverse, examining the prison-to-school pipeline and focusing on the challenges faced by youth seeking reentry into the educational system post-detention. Drawing upon a comprehensive review of existing literature, it explores the perspectives of juveniles navigating the complexities of schooling after incarceration and identifies barriers to successful school reintegration. The paper highlights examples of school systems as supportive environments that facilitate students’ reentry and institutional practices that perpetuate exclusion. Central to the discussion is the finding that while integration into traditional educational settings is often promoted as an ideal outcome, the needs of justice-involved youth extend beyond mere assimilation. Instead, the paper argues for the need for specialized education that diverges from state-determined curriculums, emphasizing a non-conformist and radical approach. A re-imagining of education to equip students with essential tools for their academic and societal advancement would transcend the limitations of “normal” schooling and foster genuine empowerment.

In conclusion, the paper advocates for a paradigm shift in educational practices to better meet the unique needs of juvenile offenders reentering schools. By embracing non-traditional pedagogies, centering impacted voices, and prioritizing holistic support systems, educational institutions can play a pivotal role in promoting the belonging and long-term success of justice-involved youth in society– particularly in their transition from detention to the classroom.

February 20th

Cameron Janssens
“Brownell & Dirksen, Surrogates & Supporters: Understanding the Effects of McCarthyism on the Grand Old Party in the Eisenhower Years”

From battles over executive privilege and treaty-making powers to the question of internal security and anti-communism, the early 1950s witnessed a Republican Party divided from within. This senior essay in the History Department focuses on the roles played by Eisenhower’s Attorney General Herbert Brownell Jr. and conservative Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen in the fragile—and often contentious—relationship between the disparate factions of the GOP. More specifically, these two men reveal how Senate and administration Republicans addressed the problem of Joseph McCarthy. While Brownell Jr. saw himself as the White House’s first line of defense against the Wisconsin Senator, Dirksen, though not always supportive of McCarthy’s specific tactics, supported him through his censure in 1954.

Theo Haaks
“Incomers, Incumbents, and Urban Electoral Outcomes: An Analysis of Gentrification’s Impact on Local Representation in Five Connecticut Cities”

How does local political representation change in response to gentrification? U.S. local governments fulfill a variety of critical functions, from shaping housing development to establishing public spaces to managing law enforcement and providing public utilities. Despite the significant impacts of local institutions, empirical studies point to low overall levels of descriptive representation among both public officials and participants in local politics. There is also a growing body of research on the ways that gentrification— commonly defined as the process where comparatively wealthy populations move into low-income urban areas, displacing locals and spurring demand for housing and amenities— affects political participation among incumbent city residents. I add to this existing scholarship by constructing two novel datasets tracking the composition of local representative bodies and gentrification indicators in five Connecticut cities over the past decade. My ongoing analysis investigates whether descriptive representation among elected local governments shifts in response to neighborhood-level gentrification.

February 27th

Noel Sims
“Paul Weyrich: The Architect of Christian Nationalist Political Power in 1980s America”

The 1970s and 1980s were a period of growth for the religious right in America. Major denominations took rightward turns. Christian media empires flourished. The political power of the religious right grew as evangelical fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson forged alliances with mainstream politicians. Taking liberals and the media by surprise in the early 1980s, the religious right seemed to have gained access to powerful politicians, wealthy donors, and a massive corps of volunteers overnight. In reality, the political infrastructure of the religious right was built over the whole of the decade before and stood on the shoulders of many conservative and religious movements that had come before. One of the key architects of the rise of the religious right was Paul Weyrich — a Wisconsin Catholic who is often relegated to the backseat in histories of a largely Protestant movement. My senior essay in history looks at the role Weyrich played in the religious right of the 70s and 80s through the lens of his own archive. Specifically, I examine the Christian nationalist worldview that Weyrich shared with many other movement leaders and how he helped translate those values into a political movement allied with secular conservatism by creating a series of institutions that granted the religious right a seat at the mainstream political table.

Jimmy Carter
“‘The Other Me’: A psychological thriller where idyllic vacation turns sinister, unveiling a plot twist that challenges the very fabric of identity.”

When the line between ally and adversary blurs, who do you turn to in a house that knows no peace?  Quintin and his family are excited to spend their vacation in a rental house, alongside another family he barely knows. As the days unfold, the idyllic setting and the charming host hide an unsettling truth. Beneath the veneer of somewhat friendly interactions, Quintin senses an unnerving strangeness from the other family and the property’s host. His unease turns to horror when he uncovers a chilling secret: the house isn’t just a vacation spot.

Starring Lazarus Tate (protagonist), Cooper Roth (Netflix’s ‘Never Have I Ever’), Erica Green (Netflix’s ‘Perfect Find’), Mickaëlle Bizet (ABC’s ‘American Crime’), scored by Henrik Åström (‘Star Trek: Picard’), and shot in Los Angeles, CA, my film draws inspiration from the unsettling undercurrents of ‘Get Out’, the folk horror of ‘Midsommar’, and the moral complexity of ‘Doubt: A Parable’. With a commitment to sparking global conversations around the themes of identity, self-determination as well as bullying, the film weaves a tale of hidden truths and the questioning of societal norms. 

March 5th

Manas Sharma
“’Inflammaging’ in HIV Populations: Analyzing Expression of the IL-7 Receptor in Monocytes”

With the advent of treatments such as Active Retroviral Therapies, HIV+ individuals are living longer and longer lives. However, this is often accompanied by a lifetime of chronic immune dysregulation due to a myriad of under-researched factors. The effect of HIV on the adaptive immune system, which includes T and B cells, is rather well-understood when compared to the monocytes of the innate immune system. The Zapata Lab aims to enhance this understanding and, recently, published findings that showed decreased DNA transcription of the IL-7R gene in monocytes of elderly HIV+ patients when compared to all other cohorts, highlighting a relationship between aging and HIV infection. This project seeks to uncover the role of the IL-7R gene in monocytes by analyzing its protein expression in healthy cells under various conditions. With this background, we can move on to understanding how IL-7R expression is altered in monocytes affected by HIV infection and aging and shed light on mechanisms driving chronic immune dysregulation in HIV+ individuals.

Maya Khurana
“Cold and Heat Denaturation of Yfh1 are Oppositely Affected in Cells”

Climate change is causing large swings in the Earth’s temperature. To survive, the cellular environment must rapidly sense and adapt to these changing environmental conditions. To understand the effects of thermal stress on protein homeostasis, I have investigated protein folding in live cells using Yfh1, a yeast ortholog of frataxin with the unique ability to cold and heat denature within normal environmental temperatures. For my thesis, I aim to quantify the effects of the in-cell environment on Yfh1 folding by comparing temperature dependence and folding behavior of the protein in vitro and in E. Coli cells. I hypothesize that the cellular environment will differently modulate cold and heat denaturation of Yfh1 due to differences in their sensitivities to macromolecular crowding and chemical interactions. To assess the behavior of Yfh1 in cellulo, I compare the stability of Förster Resonance Energy Transfer (FRET)-labeled Yfh1 in B-strain E. Coli and in vitro. I have found that in E. Coli, cold and heat denaturation temperatures of Yfh1 are increased compared to in vitro denaturation temperatures, suggesting that Yfh1 is destabilized at low temperatures and stabilized at high temperatures. Additionally, I am investigating the effects of salt type and concentration on the temperature dependence and folding behavior of Yfh1 in vitro, using crowding and lysis buffers to mimic the cellular environment. This work highlights the importance of considering both heat- and cold-denatured protein states, especially marginally stable proteins that unfold at normal environmental temperatures.

March 26th

Alicia Alonso
“A Doctor on Every Block: The Origins of the Family Doctor and Nurse Program in Cuba in the 1980s”

Cuba, a small country in the Caribbean with a struggling economy, has long astounded global policymakers and scholars with its strong health care system and exceptional health achievements. After Cuba’s 1959 revolution, the new leader, Fidel Castro, transformed the health care system. Despite the nation’s many challenges, Cuba’s health services became free and funded by the state, with primary care and public health at the system’s center. Interestingly, Cuba’s new focus on prevention and successful primary care began in 1984 with the introduction of the Family Doctor and Nurse Program (MEF). This program worked to place a primary health care doctor and nurse team on every block that cared for several families – situating doctors in the bio-physical-social realities of their patients. Using primary source research I conducted in Havana, Cuba, my essay explores the origins of the MEF program and why the Cuban government invested the country’s limited resources into developing an integrated, robust primary health care system in 1984. Many U.S. scholars have framed MEF as a political attempt to increase the Cuban government’s surveillance, generate symbolic capital among a new generation of post-revolutionary citizens, and establish Cuba as a global medical power. This paper expands the prevailing narrative; I argue that MEF resulted from Cuba’s revolutionary ideals and a drive for worldwide Cuban medical preeminence, but the program also emerged as a response to Cuba’s changing epidemiological landscape and to address popular discontent with the prevailing health care system.

Forrest LaPrade
“Abu Nuwas and the Unspeakable”

Throughout all of 8th century Baghdad, one of the most flourishing literary environments the world has ever known, there was no rival to Abu Nuwas’s lyric ability and no peer to his brazen passion. What happened when this unfailingly and unashamedly articulate poet encountered the unspeakable?  I will present some of my translations of Abu Nuwas’s love poetry, especially poems concerning the caliph al-Amin, and discuss the virtue and peril of speech.

April 2nd

Hanna Adamski
“The Signature of Planet Nine in Earth’s Orbital Elements”

An outstanding mystery in the outer solar system is the origin of the unexpected orbital clustering of extreme trans-Neptunian objects observed with semi-major axes in excess of 250 AU. One proposed hypothesis for this alignment is the gravitational influence of a distant, as-yet undiscovered solar system body known as Planet Nine. In this work, we use a collection of integrators within the N-body integration package REBOUND to quantify the gravitational effect of Planet Nine on Earth’s orbital evolution. More precisely, we demonstrate the effects of a ninth planet as compared to that of analogous perturbations induced by relativistic effects, potential stellar flybys, and measurement uncertainties in the Earth’s orbital ephemerides. To properly verify the robustness and authenticity of each algorithm’s reproduction of the N-body system, we differentiate the fluctuations existent in each integrator’s relative energy and angular momentum errors and find that IAS15 (Implicit Integrator with Adaptive Time Stepping) best preserves the conservation properties of the system. We also perform frequency decomposition on each deviation’s signal in order to characterize noticeable signs of periodicity in Earth’s orbital element evolution representative of systematic phase shifts induced by Planet Nine. The statistical significance of each peak was highlighted through active comparisons to the false alarm probability generated by an analogous dataset composed of non-periodic Gaussian noise. Peaks above the 0.01% threshold were deemed significant and were utilized as our primary observables in the pursuit of defining the magnitude of perturbation induced by the presence of Planet Nine. 

Zeren Toksoy
“The Role of AMPK in Metabolic Homeostasis of the Heart Atria”

Atrial fibrillation (AF) is the most common cardiac arrhythmia and is a significant risk factor for stroke, heart failure, and other cardiovascular complications. A metabolic basis of AF has been suggested based on its increased incidence in patients with aging, diabetes mellitus, and obesity, but the effects of perturbations in atrial substrate metabolism in AF are less well understood. A critical regulator of metabolism in the heart and other tissues is the AMPK.  AMPK is a serine-threonine kinase that is highly sensitive to the cellular energy status due to its activation in response to small decrements in ATP that increase the AMP/ATP and ADP/ATP ratios. In a novel study of AMPK in the atria, my lab demonstrated that loss of atrial AMPK expression induced AF and atrial structural remodeling in mice. In a follow-up study (a manuscript we are hoping to submit soon!), I focused on defining the effects of AMPK deletion on atrial metabolism. I helped demonstrate that deletion of atrial AMPK in a mouse model shifts mitochondrial atrial metabolism away from fatty acid oxidation and towards glucose oxidation prior to the onset of AF. Consistent with this, atrial AMPK deficient mice demonstrated reduced expression of proteins regulating fatty acid metabolism and decreased tissue content of metabolites involved in fatty acid utilization. In contrast, atrial glucose uptake and glucose transporter expression were increased by AMPK deletion. Thus, loss of atrial AMPK leads to a metabolic shift, predisposing to the development of atrial remodeling and arrhythmia.

Anya van Hoogstraten
“No Pain, No Gain: A Review of the IUD, Women’s Pain, and Navigating Contraceptive Choice”

The intrauterine device (IUD), is accepted as one of the safest and most-effective forms of long-acting reversible contraception (LARC). However, the device is historically tied to the eugenics movement and socially and culturally associated with pain and negative side effects, leading many women to choose alternate forms of contraception. In this essay, I review literature on the history of contraception, the dismissal of women’s pain, doctor-patient interactions, and social networks in order to discuss how women navigate the decision of whether or not to choose an IUD as their form of contraception. The literature highlights how the historical and social dismissal of women’s pain and preferences impact current doctor-patient interactions, the influence of social networks on women’s contraceptive decision making, and the importance of patient-centered care in contraceptive counseling. 

April 9th

Jacqueline Kaskel
“Art Songs by Female Composers: A Disruption to the Musical Canon”

In the musical canon, female composers are routinely overlooked, their works falling through the cracks of education and performance. I am currently enrolled in a course, taught by Professor Richard Lalli, which seeks to address this prejudice by surveying six well-respected and brilliant female composers: Margaret Bonds, Florence Price, Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel, Clara Schumann, Poldowski, and Rebecca Clarke. I will first sing “What lips my lips have kissed” by Bonds with text by Edna St. Vincent Millay. The second piece will be “Schwanenlied” by Mendelssohn-Hensel with text by Heinrich Heine. The third piece will be “L’heure exquise” by Poldowski with text by Paul Verlaine. Through this homage of performances, I hope to bring greater awareness to and deeper appreciation for these women, whose music is no less brilliant than that of contemporaneous composers Aaron Copland, Robert Schumann, and Felix Mendelssohn.

Alyssa Michel
“Knowledge Trumps Exposure: The Implications of Critical Black History on Interracial Relations”

Black women, as compared to White women, are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Research has shown that this healthcare disparity is not due to biological differences in race, but rather medical racism. My research tests the impact of learning Critical Black History, histories of injustice in healthcare, as opposed to Celebratory Black History, histories of achievement, or Control Black History on perspective-taking and pain rating in order to elucidate the effects of education and interracial contact on Black-White relations. My findings will have potential implications for the future of racial equity in healthcare. 

Caroline Parker
“A Tightwire Act: Considering Soviet Circus, the Socialist City, and State Influence During the Stalinist Era”

When we consider tools of propaganda, we typically think of pamphlets, posters, and films. However, during the Stalinist era, the circus served as a potent form of state influence for the Soviet government. Soviet officials viewed the circus as an anti-bourgeois form of entertainment, and they focused on it as an important ideological tool. Thus, Soviet officials became deeply involved in the planning and administration of circuses. They implemented changes which shifted the content of performances to include fundamental nationalist and socialist ideas — imparted by clowns, trapeze artists, and dancing bears. Circuses infused with these Soviet ideas were opened across the country, and they became an important part of city-planning in rapidly industrializing areas. The Soviet Union strove to create cities that would spatialize their ideology, and I will demonstrate that the circus was an important tool within that process. This illustrates the importance of the circus as an ideological tool in the early years of the Soviet Union and one important way this tool was used.

April 16th

Lily Perez
“I think you can feel the truth of that underneath everything… humming. Right?”

Coming after a statistic stating the magnitude of American women murdered by their male partners since 2000, this line from Heidi Schreck’s quasi-one-woman memory play hit me the hardest during the four performances I did in the play’s central role. My thesis explores how this piece works as a form of feminist political activism, reflecting on the rehearsal process and sharing it with a broader audience in the Schwarzman Dome. Performing as herself in the original production, Schreck leveraged her own experiences, her personality, and her audience’s cultural and political readings of her presence onstage – what Dr. Charlotte Canning calls the “historical weight of the body” – to generate empathy as she built towards a political argument. By developing the Heidi role in my own body, I hoped to better understand how What the Constitution Means to Me translates when performed by someone with a distinct background, age, and experience with the constitutional problems posed in the piece – in other words, whose body holds a distinct “historical weight” – and how that connects to theories of affective performance and constitutional interpretation.

April 23rd

William An
“The Pruning of a Peril / Readership and the Sensibilities of Feeling in Victorian and Contemporary Poetry”

On May 10th, 2022, two months before Ada Limón was appointed the 24th U.S. Poet Laureate, The New York Times published a review of her book The Hurting Kind (2022). Although it praised Limón’s “powerfully observant eye,” it also noted, “There are a few poems that don’t quite fly, landing too soon on a sentimental or overly hopeful conclusion or overreaching for emotional heft.” Today, it is widely accepted that sentimentality and “excessive” emotional feeling are bad. To read and write good poetry, one must avoid them. Through a comparative study of Victorian and contemporary poetics, my project investigates how this subjective principle has become so dominant. I trace how twentieth-century literary movements’ (i.e. Modernism and New Criticism’s) attacks against Victorian poetry’s “sentimentality” have influenced our present reading, writing, and understanding of poetry. And by foregrounding and celebrating the intimate and vital poetic sensibilities of feeling in the works of Adelaide Anne Procter (1825 – 1864), Ada Limón (1976 – ), and Mary Oliver (1935 – 2019), I read against these metrics of merit that have long been embedded in our contemporary consciousness. In turn, my project contends that literary critics have helped create, for many, the view that poetry is inaccessible due to their attacks against these qualities that are important transhistorically to how people engage with poetry. As Limón implores, “I am asking you to touch me.”

Kelly Li
“Contention with California’s Three Strikes Law”

California’s Three Strikes law, passed through referendum by impassioned voters in the wake of a ghastly murder case, aimed to punish repeat felony offenders by mandating 25 years to life imprisonment for a third felony. While other states have imposed similar three-strike laws for repeat offenders, California’s law represents some of the strictest sentencing guidelines in the country and has left devastating effects in its three-decade-long path. This research will present catalyzing factors of the law’s passage before analyzing the Supreme Court’s ambiguous and inconsistent treatment of the Eighth Amendment’s proportionality principle in Rummel v. Estelle, Solem v. Helm, and Ewing v. California as it applies to Three Strikes and ultimately provide an avenue for future remedy. 

Ananya Rajagopalan
“Predicting PsychENCODE Gene Expression Levels Using Machine Learning Models”

Neuropsychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, and Autism Spectrum Disorder, have a large global prevalence, which has motivated significant progress towards understanding the genetic bases of these diseases (Pan American Health Organization, 2021). When it comes to elucidating the underlying regulatory mechanisms of disease-associated variants, expression quantitative trait loci (eQTLs) and single-cell genomics can provide a high-resolution picture of how variants may manifest across different cell types, which is valuable to understanding disease progression within heterogeneous brain tissue. To investigate the impact of genetic variation on cell type-level gene expression, a recent study by Emani et al. (2024, Preprint) identified over 1.4 million single-cell eQTLs from the postmortem prefrontal cortex tissue from an aggregate of 388 adult individuals. These brain tissue eQTLs identified through linear models reflect strong statistical associations, but these linear models alone offer limited performance in terms of prediction. In this project, I develop various machine learning models to accurately predict gene expression levels given variant and covariate data as input. These models could be readily extended for (1) early diagnosis or prognosis of neuropsychiatric disorders, (2) applications to additional disease contexts, and (3) added inferential power. After selecting and optimizing a subset of these models, I investigate the variable importance of these models to understand which genomic variants and covariates are most influential in the model’s predictions. I use these findings to conduct a GWAS analysis that provides clinical validation of these models and justification for their prognostic value.