Beginning my senior thesis… AKA reading, reading, reading

I’ve always been interested in books. When I was young, my dad would read to me and my sister every day as we ate breakfast before school. A Separate Peace, Lord of the Flies, Tom Sawyer… Later, my stack of books turned to John Grisham and Michael Crichton, as my best friends and I swapped books and discussed our favorite authors. Now, my table is filled with something different. It’s filled with Differentiating Normal and Abnormal Personality, Smoking: Individual Difference, Psychopathology, and Emotion, On the Psychobiology of Personality…

I’m not sure about the specific focus of my senior thesis, but I know that I am going to do an experimental study on nicotine dependence and personality. For my project, I will be working with my research mentor, Dr. Kasey Creswell. I have worked in Dr. Creswell’s behavioral health lab for over two years, and the first population I worked with was heavy smokers. This initial experience is one of the key reasons that I am interested in working with heavy smokers. I am also interested in mental health and personality disorders. Right now, I am planning on looking at the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th Ed.) Section III trait model of personality pathology and how this is related to nicotine dependence. Previous research has shown that nicotine dependence and smoking severity are related to personality disorders as defined by the DSM-4 and DSM-3, but little research exists on the new DSM-5 Section III categorization of personality disorders.

I am still doing my background research to make sure that this is a viable research topic. I know, armed with my pile of books, that I’ll be able to design a great research project and run participants in the fall!

And so it begins…

“Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another:
What! You too? I thought I was the only one.”
– C.S. Lewis

Breathing Words

In the wake of the Me Too and Times Up movements, the film industry has been forced to come to grips with the fact that it is not as diverse or egalitarian as it would like to believe. Currently, in all aspects of production, there is a lack of female representation, as women make up less than twenty-five percent of the entertainment industry and fewer than thirty-five percent of speaking characters on screen are female. Further, in the low number of films that feature female protagonists, happiness and satisfaction are often correlated with external validation in the form of male approval, and deep connection is only possible with the direct involvement of male characters. While strides have been made in the twenty seven years since the iconic Thelma and Louise, friendship, particularly in films with young female protagonists, is oftentimes relegated the periphery, focused on people from the same background, and centered around a heteronormative romantic arc. My Senior Honor’s Thesis, Breathing Words, will address these issues, both by being female produced, as well as by centering around the deep and career driven friendship between two female protagonists from opposite ends of the globe, who despite having lived entirely disparate lives, find an unexpected understanding and acceptance in each other. Breathing Words is a short film that explores the reciprocal relationship between language and culture, the desire for deep connection, and the universal nature of human emotions. It is a cultural analysis, a personal confessional, a snapshot of life, and a love letter to friendship itself.


Scripts used to generally begin with the words FADE IN, transitioning the screen from darkness into technicolor as the world comes into focus. Though it was a standard of screenwriting textbooks for a long time, films now don’t always begin with this cue, as sharp cutting has become more popular. A teacher once described this technique to me as blinking, arguing that viewers find jump cuts more realistic because that is how we see the world. Though I am a frequent user of such quick and crisp cutting, I am not sure if I agree with her analysis. FADE IN, to me, seems like one of the most realistic things in film.

Change isn’t often sudden, even if feels that way at the time. New phases in life are born from a culmination of decisions, infinitesimal moments that lead us to something new. Yet, I sometimes define my life in terms of before and after. Before and after I rode a bike, moved to the dessert, got a dog, started CMU. I had defined the friendship that inspired this project in the same way, separating my live into segments: before I read a brilliant book and after that book brought me a rare friend. But recently, it has become more clear to me that the sudden understanding one feels with a new companion is only the beginning of a slow transition. Friendship grows and shifts and changes as you get to know one another, the image gradually becoming more clear. You cannot jump cut from a chance encounter into a deep connection. This is the undercurrent of my film: For a friendship to mean something, you need to take the time and effort to fade in.

Project Update

So Far:

  • Returned from my semester in Copenhagen (5 Days Ago)
  • Completed a rough outline and plot breakdown
  • Started the first draft of the script

In the Next Few Weeks:

  • Meetings with advisors and script draft review
  • Consultations with production team
  • First rounds of casting

About the Project   ♥     About the Studio


Day 1

“Revenge is a dish best served cold.”
– Old Klingon Proverb –

Bloody, sanctimonious, and macabrely farcical; there are seldom few literary genres as distinct as revenge drama.  Francis Bacon characterized revenge as “a kind of wild justice,” the mission of an avenger who must operate outside the law to achieve redress for inflicted wrongs.  Because they reflect the failure of human institutions to respond to human crises, revenge stories have always flourished in societies quick to condemn evil but slow to correct it, outwardly righteous but inwardly corrupt.  Which is to say, always.

Dramatists in early modern England took this ancient form and challenged all its conventions. Where Aeschylus and Seneca wrote about gods and semi-divine heroes, Shakespeare and Webster portrayed the suffering of mortal innocents and had the audacity to laugh at their misfortunes.  Lurid acts of violence, once relegated to the imagination, were depicted, sensationalized, exaggerated to the point of absurdity.  Protagonists in classical revenge stories were men and women seeking to balance divine justice and personal honor.  Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists forever shifted the balance towards the individual and the nihilistic.

This trend was echoed in the New Hollywood movement of the 1970s.  Free from the Hays Code and the influence of film studios, filmmakers had more latitude to explore material theretofore considered verboten.  Writers and directors had drawn inspiration from revenge drama for decades; they were now free to depict the violence that had long lingered on the periphery of American cinema.  Independent filmmakers in the 1980s and 1990s brought a necessary lens of introspection to the revenge film genre, especially to its often troubling depictions of violence against women.

The history of revenge drama is long and complex, intersecting at various points with legal theory, gender theory, comedy, politics, religion, and myth.  My aim this summer is to immerse myself in this world, one I have encountered as a playwright and screenwriter, but one with which I am ultimately unfamiliar.  In doing so I will prepare myself to engage more fully in the deeper questions revenge drama poses and be better able to turn my own thoughts on the nature of vengeance into a tightly-scripted work of cinema.

Hello, Pittsburgh!

I am excited to immerse myself in the city this summer, and to meet and experience the Pittsburgh that lies outside the Carnegie Mellon campus-bubble. Invested in storytelling as a medium that can connect audiences of different backgrounds to distinct realities, I am passionate about cultural exchange and the arts and am eager to combine my interests as I undertake my summer research.

My research seeks to explore how the combination of artistic expression and translation can diminish social and linguistic barriers to promote cultural inclusion, interaction, and exchange. As part of my research, I am currently learning about cultural theory, translation methods, and artistic practices across the performing, visual, and literary arts.

My research findings will be used to develop “Project -LOGUE,” a platform in which Pittsburgh-based storytellers who speak languages other than English will work with artists and translators to develop art showcasing their cultural narratives. These artworks will be developed through a series of workshops (Fall semester), and will be showcased at a multilingual exhibition (Spring semester).

So far, I have met so many incredible people, organizations and communities along with my collaborator Abigail Salmon. As Pittsburgh is home to more than 40 different languages, I look forward to continuing to meet more amazing people along the way.

Ideas for an Honors Thesis

Originally, I knew I wanted to an honors thesis—I just wasn’t sure what on. I knew that I wanted to do it on something I was passionate about and I knew it had to be on a political issue. I spent the spring semester of my junior year in Washington, D.C.  working for the office of Senator Bob Casey where I was exposed to the news daily. This further influenced my need to have a political influence in my thesis. I also wanted to have something that would be relevant to Pennsylvania. At my internship, learning about the different state issues made me more knowledgeable and more interested in the political environment in Pennsylvania.

Even so, I was uncertain on the topic. Because of this and the honors thesis deadline approaching, I met with Dr. Jay Devine and had an honest and open discussion with what I was interested in, my future plans, and what I wanted to accomplish with my thesis. I brought up two issues that I was very passionate about: immigration and the application of the U.S. Constitution.  While the former was interesting to me, I did not want to create a research project that was too personal to me, as I felt that it might generate more emotions than research. In the scope of my latter interests, Dr. Devine suggested the redistricting case going to the Supreme Court of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. As I was already in a Pennsylvania government office, I had heard of the issue and followed it closely. After the court handed down the ruling and gave the state a period of time to establish fair districts under the condition that should the state not enact new lines. Because Pennsylvania officials did not change the district lines within the deadline, the Supreme Court established them for the state with the help of redistricting experts. This was interesting to me as that had never happened before and was the effect of the state attempting to create a timely and effective solution for its voters.

I continued to follow the Supreme Court cases and found out that a redistricting case from Texas, Abbott v. Perez, was on this year’s docket. This case was particularly different because it focused on race rather than partisanship. I was confused as to why the Supreme Court chose to take this case but did follow through with the case in Pennsylvania. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 protects against racial discrimination but does not specifically protect discrimination against minority parties. This difference helped me figure out what I wanted to research. It also helped that both of these places take part in areas that I have lived and continue to call home. Being able to research and contribute to these two places makes me more motivated to continue this process and see this research through.

Third Time’s the Charm!

When people talk about Pittsburgh’s humidity, I can’t help but laugh internally because clearly these Yinzers have never traveled down south. I’m originally from Georgia, so the “humidity” that everyone seems to be stressing about doesn’t faze me in the slightest. I’ve stayed in Pittsburgh for the summer since enrolling at CMU and the city never disappoints. As a result, I couldn’t be more excited to begin working on my Dietrich senior honors thesis and have the opportunity to spend my summer in Pittsburgh once again.

I study Neuroscience and Psychology on the pre-med track, but my typical introduction just focuses on my interests in gender, personality, and health so I often just skip over the formal degree titles. I prefer focusing on my research (compared to my majors) because I can always feel my eyes light up when I talk about communal coping, unmitigated communion, and gender’s impact on health. As a freshman, I never expected to be heavily involved in research—in hindsight, as a pre-med student, that’s such a rookie mistake—but I’ve really become involved in Dr. Vicki Helgeson’s lab where my interest in research has flourished.

Generally, my Dietrich honors thesis focuses on unmitigated communion (UC), a personality trait that results in individual’s having an excessive need to help others with their problems, often to the detriment of their own problems. Individuals high in UC experience distress—whether that be anger, anxiety, or depression—when they are unable to help their network members. Additionally, they may also experience distress when receiving support, rather than giving support to others; however, the development of distress in this case is more ambiguous. Therefore, one goal of my summer research is developing further knowledge on the development of psychological distress in UC individuals.

My research will also delve into the importance of intimate relationships, such as relationships with family members, close friends, and romantic partners. Intimate relationships (or the lack thereof) may demonstrate a moderating effect on the development of distress, possibly increasing feelings of happiness during scenarios in which UC individuals can help, but also increase negative emotions when receiving help because the UC individual feels burdensome or helpless.

In a word, I’m excited. Excited for the summer, excited for the upcoming year of thesis work, and excited for senior year that’s been rapidly approaching since the Fall 2015 semester.

Hello from South Korea!

I am currently sitting in a nice hotel writing this blog post, jet lagged but amazingly excited. There hasn’t been a lot of progress on my thesis project since my last post, but this is the post that I have been most excited about all summer. After 24 hours of traveling and 19 total hours sitting on a plane, I am in Seoul, South Korea, and enjoying the exploration time before the semester starts.

Regarding my thesis project, I finished and submitted the IRB form a few days before I left. I also put the finishing touches on the games, namely collecting the objects for the Objects on a Table game, with some plastic vehicles and wooden animals. All the games made it safely to Korea with me, and I have been told that my project has gotten approved by the department in the school I contacted to do the study. Now I am focusing on working out my course schedule for the semester so that I will have time to go to the school and spend time playing the games with children. Basically, I am nearly ready to start running the study with children, and I soon will be sitting in cafes drinking tea and typing parts of the thesis paper.

Between working out the details of the semester, I have visited quite a few places in just the past two days. We went on a palace and garden tour and visited a traditional village as well as several more trendy neighborhoods for shopping and eating. I tried on traditional clothing (which I have been wanting to do since I first saw them), and even though I almost melted in the humidity, it was worth the pictures I managed to take. There are many more adventures to come, and as much as I want to focus on them instead of school, the impending workload for the semester makes me that much more grateful that this fellowship prepared me so well for my thesis project. It’s been a great and productive summer leading up to an amazing semester.

Learn more about my project.

Communicating a Technical Topic

Last week I learned a very crucial lesson: know your audience. While I have given several neuroscience presentations during my college career, until last week I had never given one to an audience of students and faculty without background in the field. Speaking to a group of historians, statisticians, political scientists and writers, I learned firsthand the challenges involved in communicating highly technical neuroscience concepts to non-neuroscientists.

Going into this presentation, I was conscious of the complexity of my project. Most of the words I had to say were at least four syllables long. I had several slides with diagrams of overlapping neural pathways – some represented with blue lines, others with red, some with solid lines, others with dashed ones. It was a lot for me to explain, so I figured that it would be hard for someone unfamiliar with the concepts to follow. However, I underestimated just how challenging it would be for them to understand, and although I worked with my advisors to make the presentation more clear, it was still far too technical.

Looking back at this presentation and the feedback I received afterward, I have come to the conclusion that there were three main mistakes I made in communicating my thesis to this particular audience. My first mistake was failing to do a quick review of basic neuroscience principles at the beginning of the talk. Such a review would have contextualized my project and helped to catch my audience up to a level at which they could better understand my work. My rationale for not including this introduction was time; I wanted to maximize the time I spent talking about topics directly pertaining to my project. Therefore, I was hesitant to waste precious time on more foundational ideas. In reality, however, the time I saved by excluding this introduction was then wasted anyway by adding in other superfluous information elsewhere – my second mistake. I went on tangents thinking that extra information would help complete the picture of the issue I was addressing with my project. Because these tangents were also highly technical, however, all they did was confuse my audience further by distracting them from the more pertinent information. The final mistake I made was in the language I used. While I would argue that there were times when I could not get around using technical language to describe my project (e.g. the first time I introduced a key concept), I certainly did not need to rely on this technical language to the extent that I did. For example, rather than saying “temporal hemifield advantage” ten different times, I could have just said it once to define it and then subsequently referred to it as “a faster response to temporal stimuli.” Another, more simple alternative could have also been “the effect we are looking for.” In hindsight, using less technical language would have kept my audience more engaged with the result that they would have gotten more out of the talk overall.

If I had not made these three mistakes, my audience may have been able to follow my talk more easily. However, I do not regret making these mistakes. Although my audience may not have learned as much from this talk as I initially hoped, it was certainly a learning experience for me. Going forward, I know now that I will be more conscientious of the expertise of the people I am speaking to; I will choose to include specific information and language that will meet my audience’s need, with the hope of keeping them engaged throughout the whole lecture regardless of how technical the subject matter actually is.

Learn more about my project here.

Goodbye Summer

This summer has provided me much insight into the type of researcher that I am and has eliminated a lot of anxiety that completing such a project would have produced. Regarding my work ethic, I like to begin my day early in case I become distracted during my work. I must work in quiet settings so that I can fully concentrate. Lastly, I do not work well at home so I must complete most of my work while I am at the library. Although these may be little, trivial tidbits that I realized throughout the course of my summer, I know that this information will be important during the rest of the thesis process in the fall and spring semesters.

Now that the school year is about to start, I am glad that I took time out this summer to begin my thesis. As I have mentioned in previous blog posts, the first part of my project required dedicated research into the beginnings of the American government. This meant that my days were filled with reading several different texts on the Constitution, American presidencies, and Supreme Court cases. Completing this sort of extensive research would be difficult to complete during the school year when I would have other coursework to complete. This summer also removed much stress that I anticipated this project would bring since I have a large chunk of my project done. Waiting until the end of August to begin my work would have been a recipe for disaster.

Overall, this was a very productive summer. I have completed an ample amount of research for the first part of my thesis and I have learned more about the type of worker that I am. However, the progress I have made would not have been possible if I did not have a great support system, like my mentor, to encourage and help me throughout the summer. I am extremely grateful for these individuals and all they have done for me.

Learn more about my project here.

From Then To Now

Over the past 6 weeks I have been able to gain a large start on my project. Coming into the summer I was sure of one thing: My project would have something to do with the connection between communications and nonprofits in the field of global health.

I’ve spent the summer so far researching sustainability, how nonprofits in this field typically work and the research questions I would like to pose. It has been an interested summer figuring out each of those, but I didn’t realize how many times I would change my mind about the direction of my project and the questions I wanted to ask. So far this summer, I have interviewed well-educated professors who have studied education and cultural anthropology, information systems, and nonprofit communications. Through these interviews while also conducting independent research and connecting with international nonprofits, I have been able to realize the direction I want to take beginning this fall semester.

I will look at the connection between communications and nonprofits by asking:

  1. What means and methods of communications do nonprofits use to educate the public about sustainability (or how they at least define it) by analyzing the layout and rhetoric of their websites? I will explore their use of logos, pathos, and ethos as well.
  2. What is the connection between communication methods/strategies and financial gains? How have they developed over time? Audience analysis and social media will also be assessed.
  3. What communication networks are involved in the sustainability of global health projects? This will explore intercultural communications and communications between nonprofits that work together on global health projects.
  4. Understanding communications resilience when nonprofits lose funding.

Of course these questions might change later on, but they’re the questions I currently want to answer with my thesis.

While trying to compose these questions, I not only learned so much about the preliminary process of research, but I also learned so much about myself. My ideas, methods, and direction of my project changed to the point where they looked nothing like I originally planned them to be. I also learned that I love to work on my own research topic. I can answer questions I have about the world and my interests instead of questions others want me to answer. This freedom of my intellectual curiosity makes me more passionate about the research I am doing. I can only hope that I have the opportunity to do something like this in the future.

Learn more about my project.