UC Berkeley students’ theses find themselves squarely on the cutting edge

Xinyu Li/Staff

To decide to embark upon the journey of a senior thesis is to test one’s commitment, determination, fortitude and patience.

These journeys take various paths along the way: different departments have differing requirements for theses. Some are honors classes, some require independent faculty and/or research sponsors and many require all of these factors. Students may spend anywhere from a semester to multiple years on this ultimate project, and the final page counts of the finished products range from around 20 to more than 100.

Check out a very cursory survey of the processes that our very own UC Berkeley undergrads went through in the creation of their theses, in their own words. Their projects, motivations, and post-submission feelings are detailed below.

Allison Place, media studies, “A Counter-Hegemonic Force on Public Discourse: an Analysis on Black Twitter”

The Daily Californian: How did you decide what to study?

AP: Initially, I wanted to study memes as a cultural tool to share humor. I thought the Daquan meme, which made the rounds on Black Twitter and /r/BlackPeopleTwitter on Reddit, would be a good place to start.

DC: What did you find?

AP: A pattern quickly revealed itself in my research [of the Daquan meme], and it struck me that the Daquan meme had not only been appropriated from its original intention (to make fun of white males) to instead make fun of black males, but that Daquan’s appropriation now held the hegemonic interpretation. The Daquan memes on /r/BlackPeopleTwitter almost always posited Daquan rather than white men as the butt of the joke.” I wanted to know who was responsible for these newly purposed Daquan memes, but because Reddit is a unique social media site in that a user can be completely anonymous if they want to be, anyone can post content anywhere. If I wanted to know, or at least take my best guess, at who was subverting the original purpose of Daquan, I decided I needed to study actual Black Twitter as a point of comparing and contrasting it with /r/BlackPeopleTwitter.

DC: How did you feel after it was submitted?

AP: [After submission] I still don’t feel anything. I turned it in and have been waiting to feel a sense of accomplishment or some pride or something but so far, nothing. I think it’s too fresh to feel anything still — maybe I’ll be proud of myself in a year, but right now I’m still catching up on the sleep that I missed out on because of my thesis. GO BEARS.

Benjy Mailings, rhetoric, “How School Choice Became a Civil Right”

DC: How did you decide what to write about?

BM: I wrote a thesis about school choice policies and desegregation in American public schools because I was really interested in how education reform narratives were being adopted by both the right and the left in a similar manner.

DC: What exactly did you study?

BM: I focused specifically on Supreme Court cases and how the legal field influences the way we think about equality and civil rights. I took this angle partially because my advisor in the Rhetoric department works a lot in the field of legal theory, and I wanted to get as much guidance from her as possible. I spent an entire summer reading Supreme Court cases and related historical texts, alongside some works of theory.

DC: How did you feel at the end of your project?

BM: The scope of my project and the questions I was most concerned with changed around a lot the more that I read — I was trying as much as possible to just see where the evidence and the readings took me.

What I ended up with was something I was really proud of, although I definitely feel like I could keep editing and adding to this project for years to come.

Suraiya Luecke, molecular and cell biology with neurobiology focus, “The Drosophila Neuromuscular Junction: Glutamate Receptor-Mediated Homeostasis in vivo”

DC: How did you decide what to write about for your thesis?

SL: The culmination of my 2.5 year independent neurobiology research became my MCB honors thesis project. I originally chose to join a lab because at the time, I thought I would go from undergrad straight into a Neurobiology PhD program.

DC: What was your project about?

SL: My research focused on the genetics, molecular, and systems neurobiology of locomotion in fruit fly larvae. These projects aim to elucidate the molecular mechanisms in animal models of nervous system function, with the long-term goal of creating new targets and treatments for human neurological and psychiatric diseases such as Autism Spectrum Disorder, Schizophrenia, and mental retardation.

DC: How did you feel about your project upon completion?

SL: While these long-term goals fascinate me, I realized through my thesis project that I’m not actually invested in researching the small-scale, molecular level functions of animal model nervous systems; I’m more interested in higher systems and behavioral level human neurobiological function. I am happy with my completed molecular-level thesis project, not because it led me toward a passion, but rather because it led me away from a false passion. My thesis was thus a valuable exercise not only in teaching me current research methods, data analysis, and scientific writing practices, but also in helping to shape my long-term goals and plans for the future.

Michael Dohn, linguistics, “Directionals and Aspect in Matsigenka”

DC: What is your thesis about?

MD: My thesis was about time and motion in Matsigenka, a language spoken in the Peruvian Amazon. In it, I described a set of suffixes that can be used to mark both temporal and directional meanings, and drew out parallels between these two seemingly unrelated semantic domains.

DC: How did you choose the topic?

MD: I came to write about this topic, and got into research more generally, by accident. I got started by taking a class with Professor Lev Michael, whose class I had been in before, and it turned out to be a class on Matsigenka. From there I continued to work with Professor Michael on the language, and after about two and a half years, this work culminated in an honors thesis.

DC: What did you learn from your experience completing a thesis?

MD: Looking back now I am very grateful that I got involved in research, and writing an honors thesis is something I would definitely do again. I got to participate in amazing programs such as URAP and SURF, met so many great people, and learned so much. Even the hard parts, including the many sleepless nights spent writing, were well-worth it the end!

Alessandra Silveira, peace and conflict studies, “Determining Why Students from Developing Countries Have Lower Retention Rates in MOOCs”

DC: What was your project about?

AS: My project investigated why students from developing countries have lower retention rates in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). These courses strive to democratize education, making classes hosted by elite institutions of education freely accessible online but have proven problematic in implementation and design.

DC: Why did you feel this project important?

AS: For one reason or another, students from developing countries have higher rates of dropping out than those from developed countries. This fact is especially boggling when it is also true that students from developing countries report better career benefits (either a raise or promotion) after the completion of a course than those students from North America and Europe. Past studies have tried to establish if there are psychological barriers that impede students from developing countries from feeling truly welcomed or engaged in a course or if the course design caters to a Western representation of knowledge, dissuading students from completing the course.

DC: How did you feel about the thesis upon completion?

AS: This topic seemed like a perfect blend of my academic interests in PACS and education, and while I didn’t come to any conclusions yet due to my lack of understanding pandas dataframes, it has motivated me to continue doing research on this topic for the next couple years in grad school.

Jonathan Quartin, applied mathematics, “A Topological Approach to the Inverse Galois Problem”

DC: How did your project come about?

JQ: This past semester, I completed an honors thesis in mathematics. It is an expository paper, discussing material at the intersection of Topology, Complex Analysis, and Galois Theory. The central focus is the long-standing unsolved Inverse Galois Problem, which asks whether all “finite groups” can arise as “Galois groups.” In the special case of Galois groups over the field of complex polynomials, the statement has been proven to be true. This is the result that I wish to bring recognition through my paper. The journey toward working on this thesis started a year ago, after I took a course in Galois Theory. I asked my professor for some summer reading, and he recommended a book on Riemann surfaces, which I knew absolutely nothing about. My background in Complex Analysis helped me to chip away at concepts in the book, but I wanted to be able to discuss the material with a faculty member who could mentor me. Unfortunately, my Galois Theory professor left the country, so I decided to email some other professors and post-docs in the math department. A topologist in the department told me that they wanted to advise me, but didn’t know much about Riemann surfaces either. Still, they told me that topology might be useful to know, and could provide me with a valuable perspective. He had me check out Algebraic Topology by Allen Hatcher, and after reading a section about the utility of Galois Theory in the study of topological covering spaces, I knew that this was the direction that I wanted to continue pursuing. Only then, did I learn that there was a connection to the Inverse Galois Problem, which I had pondered previously.

DC: What did you learn upon completion of your thesis?

JQ: The experience taught me how to read math without the aid of a class. It was very difficult at times, and sometimes I would be stuck on the same two pages of a text for a week straight. It was my main source of stress this semester, but also strangely the closest thing to an artistic outlet, because it was a personal endeavor that I grew very attached to. I’m relieved that it is over, but might re-visit the material in the near future.

Contact Holly Secon at [email protected].