A TALE OF THREE SENIORS: We’re not saying that your senior thesis will take you to exotic places, bring you fortune or fame, or even win you a prize. But we will say you’re sure to have some amazing experiences and rare opportunities to explore whatever field of study you choose. Read on to learn about three graduates of Vassar’s class of 2010 and their senior projects.
Senior Thesis: Created an award winning documentary film, Still Here.
When Alex Camilleri started writing the proposal for his senior film project, he had no idea it would take him across the Atlantic to Cannes, France, where he would participate in the world’s most prestigious film festival. Even farther from his mind was the notion that he would win the student documentary competition, which he did.
“I’m a whole bunch of emotions right now without enough perspective to know exactly how I feel,” said Camilleri, of Rochester, MN, when he returned from the three-day whirlwind trip that was financed in part with a grant from Vassar. “Winning the award was, of course, a great honor. It is continually gratifying to experience new audiences having such a positive emotional reaction to the film.”
Camilleri’s film Still Here tells the true story of Randy Baron, a man with a rare genetic mutation who has lived with HIV for 30 years. Working with classmates Kyle Porter, David Viste, and Amrita Kundu and meeting with his faculty advisor twice a week about the project, Camilleri created this 21-minute profile of Baron. Although the final product looks seamless, there were learning experiences every step of the way.
“We put in a lot of hours, and there was a lot of frustration. We really pushed ourselves,” says Camilleri. “About halfway through we realized something important was missing. Beauty comes in unexpected moments in life, and we didn’t have any of those moments. So, we had to retool our whole approach at that point. It’s when you make mistakes, and you realize your mistakes — that’s when you really start learning.”
Still Here will be screeened on campus on December 1, World AIDS Day.
Senior Thesis: Translated a manuscript of his family's genealogy from 1265.
Standing outside of a restaurant in Toisan, China, Kyle Chea didn’t expect to be so easily recognized by his grandfather’s cousin, whom he’d never before met. “You look like family,” the man said to him, and according to Chea, it transformed for him the way he understood what the word “family” really means.
Chea was given a second incredible gift during that journey: a manuscript of his family’s genealogy dating back to 1265. This type of genealogy record is common in Asia, but English translations of such manuscripts are quite rare. Filled with essays, poems, and descriptions of important events, all written in traditional Chinese characters, the manuscript turned out to be an ideal object for translation that would satisfy his senior project requirements.
Working two or three hours a day, Chea translated the bulk of the 85 handwritten pages in about two months. The work was even more rewarding than he had anticipated. “To get credit for a project like this, and to have this support in the translating process, it’s been an unbelievable experience,” says Chea. “Vassar was a place where I could explore my identity, find out what it means to be part-Chinese and part of a diaspora, and find out what it means to go back home.”
Senior Thesis: Developed award winning research on the process of phagocytosis.
Understanding phagocytosis isn’t a requirement of graduation at Vassar, but for Tripta Kaur, it turned out to be a subject of fascination. After dabbling in drama, psychology, and Asian studies, she finally found her passion in the biochemistry labs. “What drew me in was being able to experiment and be adventurous,” she says. “My professors gave me the space to figure out problems on my own and also gave me the support that I needed. It enabled me to do the type of research I was doing.”
Kaur’s research on phagocytosis, a little-knownabout process by which cell membranes acquire nutrients and remove infectants, garnered the notice of the American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. Kaur presented her findings at the organization’s annual conference in the format of a poster that detailed the collaborative research she engaged in with biology professor Bill Straus and chemistry professor Jay Carreon since her freshman year. “The whole experience was just great. Getting prepared, learning about what the other presenters are doing — it was a magical week.” And it seems as though Kaur made an equally outstanding impression on the conference’s judges— she walked away with first prize in her research category.
The Senior Thesis
How can we encourage students to focus more intensely on the subjects that interest them most, without having them feel overburdened by the requirements of the curriculum? This question (or one at least sort of like it) was pondered by Vassar’s Curriculum Committee in 1934. The solution they arrived at: lower the per-semester course load from five classes to four, and introduce the senior thesis. Required today by most departments and recommended by almost all of the others, the senior thesis also serves another valuable purpose: it’s an impressive body of scholarship graduates can bring with them as they continue their education or enter the workforce.