Nearing the end of the semester, seniors have been making great progress on their capstone projects. On Oct. 28, several students presented their theses as part of a Parents’ Weekend Open House.
Nick Morgan ’17, an Economics major, spoke about his project to prove that privatized prisons have a financial incentive to increase incarceration levels.
“There wasn’t very much work that proved that privatization had that incentive,” Morgan said. “There was very logical work in the theoretical sense, but very little that proved it empirically, so that’s what I wanted to find out.”
Morgan became interested in prison privatization after taking a class in government with his current advisor Yamil Velez.
“I wrote a paper on the prison industrial complex my junior fall, and my professor basically said ‘This could be published,’” Morgan said.
From that point, Morgan developed the methodology to find empirical evidence of elevated incarceration rates between states with and without private prisons. Using synthetic control analysis, Morgan will compare the incarceration rates of states with private prisons with their synthetic counterpart, a composite of equivalent crime rates, population statistics and other relevant factors, but without private prisons.
“The difference between the real state and the synthetic state, accounted for by ‘artificial incarceration,’ will show the impact privatization makes,” Morgan said.
Morgan submitted his analysis in junior spring and is still awaiting data from the U.S. government before he can draw his conclusions.
Carolyn Dundes ’17, working with advisor Laura Grabel from the Biology department, has been researching stem cell replacement therapy’s role in suppressing the seizures caused by temporal lobe epilepsy. Rather than performing her experiment en vivo, Dundes will be using a slice culture harvested from a mouse. With this slice culture, she can model the activity and control the variables more easily under a microscope.
“Although I’ve been working on this lab for a while, it was the moments this year when I actually started to be successful that I got very proud, like, ‘Yes, I did that!’” Dundes said, who has been pursuing this lab as early as sophomore year.
Dundes has left her stem cells to grow and mature for an undisclosed amount of time, monitoring them periodically.
While some students choose to stay within their area of expertise, College of Letters major Jake Lahut ’17 has embraced interdisciplinary exploration with his senior thesis. Lahut will be examining the changing vocabulary surrounding mental illness in the 20th century, specifically through memoirs.
His advisor Charlie Barber has written several books on mental illness and the pharmaceutical industry, and specializes in nonfiction. Barber’s memoir, “Songs From The Black Chair” deals with his work in New York halfway houses and his discovery of his own mental illness, OCD. Because Lahut has no formal background in Psychology or Neuroscience save for a semester in Social Psychology, Barber will help lead him into such unchartered territory.
“Nowadays, many authors of memoirs tend to glamorize or exaggerate mental illness, especially celebrity memoirs that sensationalize for career gain,” Lahut said.
Lahut plans to emphasize chronic mental illnesses such as depression, bipolar disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans.
“We’re really looking for a compelling PTSD memoir, and something may get cut to make room for that since we’re hoping to incorporate the role of wartime with mental illness, especially with Vietnam being a sort of failure of the government in handling mental health,” Lahut said.
World War II played a considerable role in expanding vocabulary surrounding mental health, with the very first record of PTSD being described as “shellshock.” Lahut will also explain the Diagnostic Manual’s research on soldiers in the 20th century, developing most modern-day terms using data from veterans.
Works incorporated into Lahut’s thesis include F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Crack-Up,” a first-person account of alcoholism and depression written in non-medicalized existential terms, “A Beautiful Mind,” and the Netflix series “Bojack Horseman.” Lahut’s favorite work is William Styron’s “Darkness Visible,” which illustrates the Pulitzer Prize-winning author’s depression and subsequent suicide attempt. Yet perhaps the best memoir he’s read is Andrew Soloman’s “Noonday Demon.”
“‘Noonday Demon’ is very nuanced in that it synthesizes the scientific aspect of psychiatry with a very interesting narrative structure and a lot of insight and self-awareness,” Lahut said. “It’s also just a lot better written than a lot of the works I’m using.”
In more recent writing, celebrity memoirs recounting mental illness have brought mental health into a new light, but not always for the better.
“A destigmatization of mental illness for well-off white people suddenly opened it up to a more angsty, existential approach,” Lahut said. “A lot of artists use their mental health for an exclusive with ‘Access Hollywood,’ often talking about how they do yoga but never about how they talk to a therapist three times a week.”
May Treuhaft-Ali ’17 is also approaching her thesis work from multiple angles, combining the work of Ulysses and Wesleyan daily life into a theater production. Treuhaft-Ali found the idea to perform Ulysses after visiting Dublin.
“I felt very connected to the people and the text, and there was something very magical about reading together in a shared place,” Treuhaft-Ali said. “It reminded me of theater and I wanted to explore why the way we enjoy this text is so performative.”
Treuhaft-Ali encouraged her actors to think of places where they felt at home and where they felt isolated, and will be using Wesleyan culture and the original text to inform each other.
“I believe that Ulysses is a book that is much harder to read alone and much easier to read with other people. I’ve read it in two different class settings, and each time I’ve had a group of people to talk about it,” Treuhaft-Ali said. “I’ve found there’s a whole community that’s always willing to talk about Ulysses and help me because I wouldn’t have been able to understand it in a meaningful way on my own.”
The performance of Ulysses will be from April 13 through 15.