Solar Cells, Warbler Birds and Medieval Manuscripts: 14 Thesis Projects to Cap (and Gown) Senior Year

A boy with lab equipement, a yellow bird and the Morgan Crusader bible in the background

It’s crunch time for many Pomona College seniors as they put the finishing touches on their final course assignments and their capstone project: the senior thesis. For some, the project started as early as last summer with research; for others, the project began this spring semester. Regardless, for those who are required to complete a thesis for their major or opt to do one, it is the final project—and maybe the longest and most intense— they will ever submit to their Pomona College professors.

Below is a sampling of 14 senior thesis projects [in no particular order] from across various majors to give you a sense of what our seniors have been working on for the several past months. Some students received research grants this past summer from the Remote Alternative Independent Summer Experience Program (RAISE), from their departments or external sources to conduct their research.

The Actor as Adaptor: Adapting Amy in Little Women the Broadway Musical

As a theatre major and media studies minor, Vanessa Dalpiaz ’21 did a performance-based senior project. She played Amy March in the Theatre Department’s virtual production of “Little Women: The Broadway Musical” and wrote about musical theatre adaptations of classic novels and how the actor functions as an adaptor.

Dalpiaz says her abilities as both an actor and a researcher have grown enormously as a result of her thesis. “I also became extremely invested in this exploring these kinds of adaptations; I am now working on transforming elements of my thesis into a video essay series I am producing for YouTube exploring a variety of other musical adaptions of famous novels, such as ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ and ‘Les Misérables.’”

This summer, Dalpiaz will be performing her first professional theatre production in the Bay Area. She will also be playing Antonio in a local Shakespeare-in-the-park production of “The Tempest.”

Rings of Humanity: Sacred Trees and Their Stories of Survival

Paul Mailhot-Singer ’21 is a religious studies major who is also completing a creative writing emphasis. His thesis project began as “an effort to write the stories of trees”—stories that he says are countless and imperiled. “I explored how indigenous worldviews, and particularly notions of the sacred, inform forest management practices around the world. The preservation of sacred groves by indigenous groups is a perpetual exercise to which many of our oldest forests, incidentally our most important carbon sinks, owe their survival.”

Mailhot-Singer identified every tree on North College Avenue from First Street to Foothill, he says. “I then returned the trees, who hail from all over the globe, to their endemic environments. Many are sacred in their homelands. Various cultural histories connect Claremont’s non-native trees and weave a web—of root and branch—beneath, down and above the avenue,” he says. “I placed my exploration of non-native trees within the context of Tongvan land dispossession. Their plight is emblematic of the challenges faced by indigenous groups who know the land most intimately and suffer most from the consequences of its razing.”

After graduation, Mailhot-Singer plans to do environmental justice work for a few years before pursuing a graduate degree in forestry to one day become a leading voice in the name of forest preservation.

Transcriptomic Analysis of the Sulfur-Reducing Pathway of the Halophilic Archaeon Haloferax Sulfurifontis

Faith Mbadugha ’21, a molecular biology major, focused her senior thesis on understanding the sulfur-reducing pathway of the archaebacteria Haloferax sulfurifontis. She was first introduced to this archaebacteria during a previous student’s final presentation a few years back. She joined Professor of Biology E.J. Crane’s lab as a result. Mbadugha spent summer 2019 researching H. sulfurifontis thanks to a Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP) grant.

Mbadugha says she learned some practicality from this experience. “Scientific research isn't a perfect ‘one and done’ type of ordeal. There will be more questions. Sometimes if you're lucky, you might get an answer or two, but it's best to approach science (or any experience) with a more open and attentive mindset and to try to enjoy the process more than the end result.”  

After Pomona, Mbadugha plans to continue working in a lab followed by graduate school. Her ultimate goal is to be a biomedical researcher.

Educational Inequity Utilizing Chicago as a Microcosm: High School Enrollment and Pipelining in Respective Matriculations

Julian Villaseñor ’21, a Chicana/o-Latina/o studies major with a minor in French, examines inequities in education as they affect low-income students of color in Chicago. Villaseñor looked at the selective enrollment educative reform project and its effect on the community. “It is not just how students are separated or tracked, but the ways our communities internalize and perpetuate these cycles,” he explains.

Villaseñor looked at historical texts on educational inequity focused on pipelining, tracking and inequitable distribution of resources and conducted interviews or platicas with 16 first-generation, low-income students of color.

Villaseñor plans to return to Chicago to the University of Chicago for his master’s in teaching through the Urban Teacher Education Program (UTEP). His longer-term goals are to go to graduate school to further his impact by becoming an administrator, teach at the college level or create and promote legislation to benefit marginalized students. Eventually, he says, he wants to become CEO of Chicago Public Schools.

The Morgan Crusader Bible: Kingship Narratives and Political Agendas

Art history major Grace Sartin ’21 found the inspiration for her senior thesis during a class she took during her sophomore year. In Crusades: Cross-Cultural History offered by the Pomona College Art History Department, Sartin was first introduced to the Morgan Crusader Bible, an illuminated manuscript created in 1244 CE in France. “[I] was absolutely fascinated by it,” she says.

Sartin examines how the manuscript’s Old Testament tales focus on divine rulership inspired by both King Louis IX (who originally commissioned the copy of the Bible) and Shah Abbas, a ruler of Persia. She also investigates how the Morgan Crusader Bible became a political tool for both domestic purposes and foreign policy. “I love the multicultural aspect of the Crusader Bible and its ability to inspire people from completely different religions, empires and time periods,” says Sartin.

After Pomona, Sartin is planning to work in museums or in marketing and advertising. “Both require critical thinking skills and a dash of creativity.”

Fabrication and Characterization of Screen-Printed Perovskite Solar Cells

Adam Dvorak ’21, a physics major, wants to make a difference in the world by improving solar technology. After spending three summers conducting Pomona-funded research—two SURPs and one RAISE—Dvorak says the logical next step was to complete his thesis on this topic.  

“My thesis project is on the fabrication and characterization of perovskite solar cells, which is a relatively new type of solar technology that has the potential to dramatically change the renewable energy landscape due to its low cost and high performance,” says Dvorak. “Specifically, we work on screen-printing the cells, which is a fabrication method that has the benefit of scalability. Dr. David Tanenbaum [associate dean and professor of physics] is my advisor, and I owe him a lot for his mentorship over the course of the project.”

After graduation, Dvorak plans to use a Fulbright award to do research in Denmark on renewable energy systems modeling. Eventually, he plans to pursue a Ph.D. in physics or materials sciences.

Constraining the Degree of Dike Emplacement Using Strain at Giant Radially Fractured Centers on Venus

Gigi Voss ’21 has always been fascinated by space, thanks to a love for science fiction. A double major in geology and mathematics, Voss devoted an entire year to her thesis research—studying something called radially fractured centers (RFCs) on the planet Venus and the mechanisms that formed them by studying the imagery of RFCs and through mathematical modeling.

“The lineaments we see at RFCs could have formed due to uplift, from sheets of magma known as dikes cutting through the subsurface, or from a combination of dikes and uplift,” says Voss. “I found that a combination of both mechanisms was likely necessary, and that future work may require viscoelastic models or two-part magma systems.”

Next fall, Voss will be attending the University of Minnesota to pursue a Ph.D. in hydrogeology. She plans to one day work as a hydrogeologist in the civil service sector or work in science education.

Using a Browser Extension to Increase User Engagement with CCPA Data Rights Mechanisms

A computer science major and politics minor, Aden Siebel ’21 focused his senior thesis on the use of a browser extension to protect data privacy for users on the internet through a new California law. The California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) requires websites that sell users’ personal data to provide a link on their homepage that allows users to opt out of this sale.

Siebel, who is passionate about ethics and data privacy in tech, explains that many users are not aware of this right. “Websites often hide or obscure the required link, meaning that these mechanisms often go unused,” he says. “For my thesis, I developed an extension for Google Chrome that notifies users when this link is present and gives them additional tools to assist with protecting their data.” That extension will soon be available to download on the Google Chrome Store and it’s called “Who’s Selling My Info?”

Siebel will continue working with Professor Eleanor Birrell this summer to pursue further research and possibly publish their findings. Afterward, he will start a job at Microsoft as a software engineer and eventually plans to pursue a Ph.D. in computer science.

Examining the Link Between Isolation, Personal Growth Initiative and Loneliness During the COVID-19 Pandemic/How Are People Coping During COVID

A double major in psychological science and anthropology, Jessica Orvis ’21 worked on two theses. For her psychological science project, Orvis studied the protective factors that people developed to cope with the stress and symptoms of depression caused by isolation during the pandemic. She found that “the more isolated people were, the less likely they were to participate in personal growth initiatives, but those that did practice personal growth initiatives were significantly less lonely.”  

For her anthropology thesis, Orvis conducted an ethnographic study looking at how young adults’ lives changed as a result of the pandemic. Conducting 12 interviews with people ages 18-24, Orvis found that her participants were using the pandemic period to reevaluate their lives. “All participants ended up changing their future goals. Not because of the restrictions but because they had time to think about what they valued. I had participants who had their heads in books all the time and were workhorses. But over the course of the pandemic, they realized this does not fulfill them.”

Orvis plans to further her research experience working in a lab in Portland where she will be assessing how maternal coping behaviors during the pandemic influence child development. Long term, Orvis wants to become a therapist for children.  

Organic Ontology: A Queer, Crip, Anti-Racist and Decolonial Re-Interpretation of Organic Chemistry

Bita Tristani-Firouzi ’21 is a gender & women’s studies major who is also a prehealth student. For her senior thesis, she conducted a theoretical inquiry into the intersections of queer theory and organic chemistry. “I connect queer theory concepts to molecular happenings to argue that molecules themselves have agency and ask how it might change our relationship to the world if we build a kind of solidarity to beings like electrons.”

Tristani-Firouzi says she usually enrolled in two queer theory and two science courses. “Once I came to notice the number of similarities in the nomenclature that the two disciplines used, I couldn't stop thinking about how in conversation the two fields are. Organic chemistry in particularly struck me as a queer subject, and I was fascinated by the instability in identity of chemical compounds and the queer interplay of electrons,” she says. “I also noticed how many of the metaphors that my science courses and textbooks used reinforced certain harmful stereotypes or ideologies and wanted to bring light to how science is not an objective field, but we can do better to promote inclusion and justice in science if we are intentional.”

After Pomona, Tristani-Firouzi will be working as a research assistant for the NeuroGenderings Network, and she plans to apply to medical school this summer.

Molecular Spectroscopy for Innovative Physics: AlCl & BaF

Alex Preston ’21 is a physics major on the astrophysics track with a minor in mathematics. His project uses techniques in microwave spectroscopy analysis to develop a numerical model of the rotational, vibrational and nuclear properties of the diatomic molecules aluminum chloride (AlCl) and barium fluoride (BaF). “By resolving the parameters defining these characteristics to greater precision, my work assists innovative research conducted on these molecules.”

Preston has worked closely Professor Richard Mawhorter over the years and on this project. “The scientific and life experiences I have accumulated as a member of his research group have shaped my career at Pomona College and have paved a path for my future that I could never have imagined upon arrival on campus as a first-year,” he says.

After his sophomore year, Preston had participated in a Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP) with Mawhorter in Germany with other students. After graduation, Preston—a standout on the Pomona-Pitzer men’s basketball team before the pandemic—will pursue a professional basketball career overseas and is looking at opportunities in Germany.

Little Women of Past and Present: Examining Alcott's Story and the Broadway Musical Adaptation Through Feminist Perspectives and Historical Frameworks

A theatre major with minors in music and history, Lucy Geller ’21 took on the role of Marmee in the Theatre Department’s production of “Little Women” and she also wrote a critical exploration on first and second wave feminism and the status of women in the late 19th century to shed light on the novel for her senior project.

Geller’s senior thesis was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. “Instead of rehearsals taking place in Seaver Theatre, they were in my parents’ basement. We filmed the show instead of performing it live, which required setting up an entire studio with a green screen, lights and a camera,” she says. “The role of Marmee, the matriarch of the March family, was also a good challenge for me, as I often play children and more comedic roles.”

After graduation, Geller is going to pursue a career in the entertainment industry. She also plans to continue writing, composing music and performing.

How Climate Change Could Affect Warbler Migration and Habitat Quality

Biology major Cody Pham ’21 says it was Professor of Biology Nina Karnovsky’s class on avian ecology that made his love for the outdoors turn into a passion for wildlife conservation and led him to stumble upon his “inner bird nerd.” For his senior thesis project, Pham worked on predicting how changes in where birds from the warbler family can live in the future might affect their ability to survive.

“Specifically, I’ve been figuring out how these birds’ new habitats might not be as great as their old ones in terms of the new species of birds they’re going to live with, how different the overall landscape will be and how far they’re going to have travel to get to those places,” he says. “As ecosystems get hotter and drier with climate change, not all plants and animals are going to be able to live where they used to. This harsh reality has led to one of the biggest mysteries of climate change: how are species going to adjust to their new homes as they search for better weather?”

Next year, Pham will be starting a Ph.D. program in ecology at UC Davis and says he is thinking of becoming a professor of ecology and conservation biology one day.

When Disparities Become Deadly: Spatial Differences in PM2.5 Levels in the City of Pomona

As an environmental analysis major with a minor in Spanish, Pauline Bekkers ’21 traveled next door to the city of Pomona for her senior thesis. “I explore how some communities within the city are exposed to higher levels of PM2.5 [particulate matter] and discuss the historical, social and political factors that produce these injustices,” she says.

She found that the neighborhoods south of the I-10 freeway, which tend to be predominantly lower-income and Latino, are exposed to significantly higher levels of PM2.5 than wealthier, non-Latino white communities north of the freeway.

“I argue that historically undemocratic urban planning practices and racist housing policies have created disproportionate exposure patterns that continue to impact the well-being of low-income Latino communities in Pomona to this day,” she says.

Bekkers says she considers her thesis a pilot study and hopes to continue her research on air pollution, public health and the urban environment. She is planning to pursue a master’s in urban and regional planning.