Seniors Compete in Three-Minute Thesis Competition

The college held its annual Three-Minute Thesis Competition on May 4. Topics ranged from the role of zinc in space travel-related aging to the unfulfilled promises of America's founding, and awards were given for first place, runner-up, and people’s choice.

With topics ranging from the unfulfilled promises of America’s founding (Mollie Hartenstein ’23) to the role of zinc in space travel-related aging (Aditi Nyak ’23), a select group of 10 Amherst seniors presented their theses at the college’s annual Three Minute Thesis Competition on May 4 in Stirn Auditorium.

The competition was presided over by a panel of three judges, all of whom are unaffiliated with the college. Jarice Hanson is a professor emerita of communications at UMass Amherst; Andrew Grant-Thomas is the co-founder and co-director of EmbraceRace, a nonprofit dedicated to raising children who and thoughtful and informed about race; and Peter Sokolowski is editor-at-large at Merriam-Webster. These three judges decided who would win the First Place and Runner-up awards, and the audience voted at the end of the event for the winner of the People’s Choice award.

The First Place and Runner-up awards were assigned using two criteria: the first was comprehension and content, which assessed how well the audience was able to understand the thesis and whether its significance was communicated well to a non-specialist audience. The second criterion was engagement and communication, which evaluated oratory style and delivery. The People’s Choice award was determined by audience ballot, and attendees were simply instructed to “choose one speaker as [their] favorite presenter.”

Clara Page ’23 won First Place for her statistics thesis, “The Clock is Ticking: How Much Time is Left?” “When do you think you’ll die?” she began. Her thesis explores one solution to the problem of missing data in the field of survival analysis. Survival analysis is a field in statistics that was originally used to predict death, but is now used to model all binary events.

Although, as Page pointed out, there is more data in the world than ever before, the problem of missing data has long-reaching implications. “Imagine a hospital tracking patients through cancer treatments, but patients switch hospitals,” Page said. “We don’t know when they died then,” and final estimates may be “biased and inaccurate.” When a future patient visits a doctor, their prognosis may also be inaccurate because it is informed by bad statistics, she explained.

Page’s thesis tests the boundaries of a statistical technique called IPCW, which is used to address the problem of missing data. The technique entails using repeated data to account for missing subjects. For example, if two research subjects have similar characteristics, but one subject’s outcome is missing and one is present, then the subject with the present outcome would be counted twice in order to account for the missing subject. Page tests the assumptions that underlie IPCW.

“I pushed IPCW past the limits, and I found this technique can be much more widely used than we presently know,” explained Page. “It can change the way we think about life, death, and everything in between,” she added.

Reflecting on the experience, Page wrote to The Student, “Competing with so many amazing students made this experience all the more enriching.” She added, “I learned a lot about communication by distilling a semester of technical details into three minutes and I was honored to win!”

Tessa Levenstein ’23 presented her history thesis, “The Future Depends on the Type of History Taught Today,” won the Runner-up award. Levenstein’s addresses truth and honesty in the classroom by looking into the life and impact of Ray Fadden, a member of the Mohawk nation who was a public school teacher on the Akwesasne Reservation in the late 1930s. Having witnessed the effects of a curriculum intended to erase the Native American identity of his students, Fadden implemented his own curriculum outside the classroom.

Fadden’s students went on to be some of the most influential leaders in the Red Power Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. “One started an influential traveling college, another a seminal underground newspaper, and a third went on to lead the two-year occupation of Alcatraz Island,” explained Levenstein.

Connecting Fadden’s impact to the present, Levenstein discussed modern-day attempts to censor history in the classroom.

“We have Florida, where lawmakers want to teach the civil rights movement without mentioning race,” she said. “In Texas, the mythologized Battle of the Alamo is all that many students will learn about the U.S.’ land-grab of Mexico.”

“Ray Fadden shows us that only when we teach our children about the past that they have inherited can we finally create a nation that belongs to us all,” she concluded.

Cailin Plunkett ’23 won the People’s Choice award for her thesis, “Look Up to Look In.” Plunkett’s thesis seeks to correct bias in taking pictures of exoplanets, or planets outside of Earth’s solar system. This bias occurs because “stars are very bright and planets are very dim,” she explained. Plunkett added, “Taking a picture of a planet around another star is like taking a picture of a firefly next to a lighthouse from across the continental United States.”

Plunkett uses images of protoplanets (“baby planets,” as she refers to them in her presentation) to simulate all of the possible appearances of a growing planet. She compared models for how baby planets are formed with images of fully-formed planets. “My simulations tell us what we could have found under each model,” Plunkett said. Discussing the application of the simulations, Plunkett said, “Say we found a bunch of planets that one model says we definitely could not have seen. That tells us they weren’t formed in that way … I’m starting to rule out some combinations of planetary evolution theories.”

“We study others to understand ourselves,” reasoned Plunkett, explaining that her thesis brings scientists closer to answering the ultimate question: “Are we alone in the universe?”