Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 10
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

From thesis to beyond

The senior thesis, required by most majors, is an arduous culmination of the Whitman education — one final push towards the commencement cap and gown. Some might hand in their theses and never think about them again. But for other seniors, the thesis becomes more than just a space-filler in the Allen Reading Room.

Senior Jeffrey Steritt has a personal connection with his thesis topic, which involved researching the interactions between neuron and glial cells as they develop. Steritt grew the brain cells of embryonic rats on cover slips, using Whitman’s recently acquired scanning electron microscope and confocal microscope to obtain detailed images of the developing cells.

“I was interested in development personally because I was born premature,” said Steritt, who is majoring in biophysics, biochemistry and molecular biology.

Though Steritt was born nine to 10 weeks early and suffered from around three hours of oxygen deprivation after the pressure from a breathing tube imploded his right lung, he suffered none of the complications predicted by both doctors and statistics.

Illustration Credit: Binta Loos-Diallo

“I was given a five percent chance of living. Because I had so much oxygen damage they told me that I was going to have a variety of mental deficits including cerebral palsy, that I’d be blind and potentially deaf, too,” Steritt said. Twenty-two years later, Steritt doesn’t even need reading glasses.

“I never suffered from any of these complications, so for some reason my brain/neural systems were able to develop correctly … They don’t really know exactly why,” Steritt said. The mystery of his own brain’s development guided Steritt’s choice of thesis topic and shapes his future plans.

“Eventually in my life, I’m trying to pursue an area where we’re looking at that developmental impact of suffering brain damage at birth and seeing just the ways that we can improve the long-term development,” Steritt said.

In the short-term future, Steritt has secured a course-assistant position at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass. Eventually, he hopes to complete a PhD or PhD/MD program.

Senior music history major Rachel Wishkoski prepared a critical edition of an unpublished piano quintet by Marguerite Melville Liszniewska for her thesis. The talented Liszniewska was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. in 1879, educated as a composer and concert pianist in Europe and headed the piano faculty at the University of Cincinnati. The Piano Quintet in E minor, Op. 8 was the last substantial work that Liszniewska composed.

“It was very well-received. She was talented not only as a performer, but as a composer as well,” Wishkoski said.

The project was a suggestion of Wishkoski’s advisor, Susan Pickett, Catharine Gould Chism Chair of Music.

“There’s so much music — as I’ve learned from taking [Pickett’s] class Women as Composers — there’s so much music out there composed by women that has kind of fallen by the wayside; it doesn’t garner as much attention as the names of male composers that everyone knows,” Wishkoski said.

In the process of preparing her thesis, Wishkoski dealt not only with Liszniewska’s music, but became a researcher of her life as well. Wishkoski traveled to Cincinnati and worked with primary source materials from Liszniewska’ life.

“She and her husband collected scrapbooks throughout the course of her career. I got to go and visit the historical society and check them out. They’re full of concert reviews, newspaper clippings, personal correspondences, letters, photos … that’s given a really neat flavor to this project,” Wishkoski said.

Wishkoski felt passionate enough about her topic to continue her work into the summer; she plans to compile her research into a biographical document that she will give to the University of Cincinnati, the historical society and Liszniewska’s family. She will also submit her critical edition of Liszniewska’s Piano Quintet in E minor for publication. Though she doesn’t plan to continue this particular project at Ohio State University, where she will be completing a doctorate degree in ethnomusicology, Wishkoski stressed that the experience of creating her thesis was valuable in itself.

“This was definitely a major learning experience for me; learning how to go about doing this type of research, how to prepare a critical edition, gather resources, interact with a university, contact the family of this composer … I’ll definitely use the tools that I gained in this process in further academic research,” Wishkoski said.

Davey Friedman was one of the few history majors to write a thesis; it is a requirement only for students pursuing honors in the major. For his thesis, Friedman researched Harry Truman’s recognition of Israel in 1948.

“My thesis is the story of his recognition and it is through the lens of one of his lesser-known advisors, David Niles,” he said.

Friedman investigated the influence of Niles, a ¬†Jew and a Zionist, on Truman’s decisions regarding the creation of an Israeli state in Palestine.

“He is a figure who has not been discussed very much by historians; he has been ignored by many. But he actually had a very interesting and important impact on Truman,” Friedman said.

The choice to pursue an honors thesis was motivated by Friedman’s interest in the American foreign policy classes taught by his advisor David Schmitz, ¬†Robert Allen Skotheim Chair of History, as well as his personal passion for an issue that is is still relevant.

“Being Jewish, and being a big supporter of Israel, I have always been interested in Middle East history … I wanted to study the story of Israel’s birth through the lens of America’s role in the creation of the state. American support for the State of Israel is as complex and controversial today as it was in 1948, so I was fascinated to see the beginning of the arguments on both sides,” Friedman said.

Friedman is considering graduate studies in the future, but his most immediate plans involve a move to Israel; this was a decision that solidified in the process of writing his thesis.

“The place to study Israeli history is Israel. I’ve always been passionate about this region, about this country, about its history, about America’s relationship to it … My thesis was the diving board in all of that. It gave me a profound historical perspective, it got me very much excited, and it was one of the things that led me to decide that I wanted to live in Israel for a while,” Friedman said. “I realized that I had to go, absolutely had to be there.”

Like Wishkoski, Friedman felt that completing his thesis increased his confidence in what he can achieve academically.

“I feel so confident that if I am passionate about a historical topic, if I have a question that I want answered, I know how to go about it … I can contribute to people’s discussions and understanding. I have that foundation because of writing this,” Friedman said.

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