May 18, 2018 — One of Georgetown College’s biggest strengths is the opportunity to conduct meaningful and original research as an undergraduate. Meet nine members of the Class of 2018 who have taken advantage of this opportunity, investigating fascinating intellectual questions in fields from computer science to classics.
Like many incoming first-year students, psychology major Rob Cortes came to the Hilltop with his eyes on the Hill. But after realizing that neither politics nor a law school path suited him, so he began to explore the College’s academic options. He was fascinated by the study of the mind in philosophy classes, but found that the discipline left him with more questions than answers.
Enter cognitive neuroscience.
“The summer after my sophomore year, I discovered cognitive neuroscience research and fell madly in love,” Cortes said. “I realized that it would allow me to ask the questions I was most interested in and gain evidence-based knowledge, and I couldn’t imagine anything cooler than that. I still can’t.”
Cortes dove into research as a junior, working alongside Professor Adam Green in the Lab for Relational Cognition. He became a standout researcher in the field of creative cognition, presenting work at conferences hosted by the American Psychological Association, the Cognitive Neuroscience Society, and the Society for the Neuroscience of Creativity. His thesis, “Examining the Cognitive Constituents of Conscious Augmentation of Creative State,” examines the role of attention, inhibition, and working memory in facilitating the creative process. He’ll continue researching at Georgetown, as he pursues a Ph.D. in psychology beginning next year.
“I love the research process — thinking of interesting questions, designing experiments to answer those questions, analyzing the results and gaining actual knowledge, then communicating it to the public by writing an article,” Cortes said. “It’s amazing, and there’s always more to do — the only limitation is your own curiosity.”
Camille Hankel has a double major in computer science and mathematics and a minor in French. So, naturally, she chose to conduct a major research project on invasive species.
Hankel’s project, “Long-Term Behavior of Two-Competing Subspecies on a Discrete Periodic Habitat,” uses a computer model she built simulations to model the growth of invasive species across a heterogeneous habitat. It’s a prime example of how mathematics can be applied successfully to other disciplines.
“We are interested in how the combination of demographic parameters — such as the reproductive rate of the species — and environmental parameters — such as the configuration of the habitat into alternating advantageous and disadvantageous environment types — can lead to the success or extinction of the invasive species in the long run,” Hankel said.
Working alongside Professor Judith Miller, Hankel developed a passion for academic research that has helped shape her career plans.
“It has entirely shifted my focus in all my classes to preparing myself for future research, and at times has given me a leg up in classes where the content happened to overlap with areas of my research,” she said. “Being a researcher here also solidified my plans to try to go to grad school, which I was indecisive about before.”
Xinlan Hu, a Shanghai native and double major in history and economics, wrote her thesis on relations between the U.S. and China after finding inspiration from her classes.
“The history of Chinese-American relations by itself is enough to motivate my independent research,” Hu said. “But I would probably not have actually undertaken my thesis project were it not for the seminar course offering by the history department, with Professor Katherine Benton-Cohen, and the requirements of the Carroll Fellows program, with Professor John Glavin.”
Hu’s thesis, “The Sino-U.S. Rapprochement as a Domestic Political Crisis in Both Countries,” involved primary source research from Lauinger Library to the Shanghai Municipal Archives. The ambitious research involved in completing it has helped her develop valuable and versatile skills.
“I presented a chapter of my thesis at the Phi Alpha Theta regional conference this semester, which helped me gain a better understanding of the academia beyond taking undergrad-level classes,” Hu said. “I also tutor at the Writing Center and my personal research experience allowed me to better answer the research-related questions of other students. The research experience at Georgetown trained me to quickly gather, synthesize and write about information from a variety of sources.”
A double major in linguistics and economics and minor in art history, Toby Hung has explored a wide variety of academic disciplines in his time at Georgetown. It’s in linguistics that he chose to concentrate his research, studying language structure from across the planet.
“Coming into college, I always knew that I would be interested in pursuing independent research,” Hung said. “Specifically with linguistics, my tutelage under Professor Ruth Kramer was instrumental in shaping my intellectual interests in documentation and morphosyntax.”
Hung’s thesis focuses on syntactic operations involving the left periphery in three dialects of Chinese: Chaozhou, Cantonese, and Mandarin. Working with Prof. Kramer, Hung has also created a descriptive grammar for nouns in Zaramo, a minority Bantu language spoken in eastern Tanzania.
Hung plans pursuing a graduate degree in linguistics in the future, but he hopes other students will take advantage of research opportunities even if they aren’t seeking out graduate school.
“I believe that undergraduate research should be encouraged as much as possible,” Hung said. “I have benefitted from undergraduate research both personally and professionally. I am sure that others would too.”
The study of classics has been Annee Lyons’ passion since long before she had even thought about Georgetown. Since arriving on the Hilltop, she’s lived out the dream of any classics student, traveling to archaeological sites in Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Greece while working on independent research projects.
Lyons’ work in Greece helped set the stage for her senior thesis, "Female Agency in Ancient Greek Religion: Goddesses, Heroines, Priestesses, and More in Herodotus' Histories."
“When the stories are all about the emperors and the gold, we’re missing a huge part of that history,” Lyons said. “We’re missing the slaves, the women, the illiterate. Now, we’re training ourselves to see what hasn’t been seen for centuries, and I want to be a part of that.”
But Lyons wasn’t stopping there. She had another childhood dream — to become a filmmaker — and elected to minor in film and media studies. She assisted Associate Dean Bernie Cook in production of his documentary on the 272 enslaved people Georgetown sold in the 1830s.
“The film tells the stories of certain members of the GU272 Descendants community as they grapple with the past and move into the future,” Lyons said. “Working on anything related to the GU272 changes a Georgetown student's perspective. Not only does it enrich our gratitude for our education, but also it strengthens our understanding of the sacrifices others have made for us to have it. Most importantly, however, it teaches us how much work there is still left to do moving forward.”
A history major and French minor, Simon Mairson found a perfect junction of his interests in his thesis topic: The career of Frédéric Joliot-Curie, the head of the French nuclear program from 1945-1950.
Under Prof. Kathryn Olesko, Mairson examined Joliot-Curie’s relationship with the immensely important and morally complicated work he oversaw.
“The atomic bomb forever changed the relationship between science and politics by compelling scientists to consider the moral implications of their work,” Mairson said. “Joliot-Curie wanted to use nuclear energy to give political legitimacy to France and yet fought against nuclear proliferation and pushed for scientists everywhere to consider their moral responsibilities.”
Mairson, who conducted some of the research for his thesis in Paris, hopes that more College students recognize that the idea of academic research shouldn’t be scary. He hopes professors can make it more accessible by bringing it into the classroom.
“People think that doing research is really hard, and it isn’t necessarily!” he said. “More exposure in classes would certainly help.”
For her thesis, Maydee Martinez went above and beyond the requirements for a senior project: She designed a survey and gathered original data.
Working with Professors Leslie Hinkson and Timothy Wickham-Crowley, Martinez conducted an analysis of the politics of Hispanic/Latinx millennials in her hometown of Miami for her thesis, “Civic Engagement and Partisanship.”
“The purpose of this exploratory analysis is to better understand how Hispanic/Latinx millennials engage in politics, and investigate the extent of how their political habits and attitudes are shaped by parent and family relations,” Martinez said. “The research explores several topics, including parental and familial political attitudes, issue salience, levels of participation, registration rates, and party affiliation preference.”
A sociology major and government minor, Martinez found the research project to be a valuable long-term skill-building process that was born out of a personal interest.
“My passion for understanding and helping my community sparked my interest in independent research,” she said. “I absolutely believe that my research experience will benefit me beyond my time at Georgetown. As someone who is considering going into a "data driven industry," learning how to analyze and interpret data has been worthy experience.”
American studies major Ndeye Ndiaye took a sledgehammer to the idea that academic research needs to be dull: She wrote a thesis on Beyoncé.
Advised by Professors Erika Seamon, Adam Rothman and Colva Weissenstein, Ndiaye examined themes of religion, race, and culture expressed through Beyoncé in “We Made ‘Lemonade’: Black Women, Syncretic Religion, and Voodoo Aesthetics in American Culture.”
“I used Beyonce's Lemonade as a point of reference to explore the prevalence of syncretic religion in the lives of Black Women within the United States,” Ndiaye said.
While she acknowledged that the demands of a thesis were difficult to juggle with extracurricular commitments and other classes, Ndiaye praised the experience, which allowed her to travel to New Orleans to conduct research.
“I really loved the American studies senior thesis experience,” she said.
Rebecca Rennert got involved with undergraduate research as a sophomore, when she began working in Professor Elissa Newport’s Learning and Development Lab. She focused on language acquisition in children, a specialty that has carried through to her senior year.
In her current project, housed in the Center for Brain Plasticity and Recovery and titled “Right Hemispheric Lateralization of Emotional Prosody in Adults and Children,” Rennert uses fMRI imaging and behavioral tasks to measure language recovery from children and adults who have had a stroke.
“We examined where emotional prosody, or identifying the emotion of a speaker from his or her tone of voice, is located in the brains of both healthy children and adults,” Rennert said. “We will use these results to study the recovery of this function in those who have had a stroke in early childhood.”
After graduation, Rennert won’t be going far: She’s returning to Newport’s Learning and Development Lab as a Lab Manager. She credits her research opportunities with helping her find her passion and shape her career.
“If not for undergraduate research and support from my lab and professors, I would not have been able to develop such a strong passion for research nor desire to go to graduate school,” Rennert said.
— Patrick Curran