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The Senior Project

Many Vassar seniors cap their college careers with a bang, creating projects or writing theses demonstrating what they’ve learned over the past four years. Some, like English major Nicholas Hoffman, write comprehensive research papers on a topic drawn from earlier courses of study. Hoffman is examining how Satan has been depicted in the Bible and other ecclesiastical texts. Others, like drama majors Ethan Slater and Evan Schlaich, create original works of art or literature. Slater and Schlaich co-wrote and produced a full-length musical that was performed on campus in February.

Neuroscience major Eunice Chou used her senior project to continue her groundbreaking research establishing a possible link between certain fungicides and Parkinson’s disease. And urban studies major Carlos Hernandez is creating what he hopes will be an enduring resource for residents of Poughkeepsie. Hernandez is designing a food hub to be located in a building being renovated by a local not-for-profit agency.

Nicholas Hoffman, English

If the Old Testament of the Bible was written as a moral guide for Christians and Jews, what role does the devil play in instructing readers about good and evil? That’s one of the questions Hoffman is exploring as he analyzes The Caedmon Manuscript, a version of the Book of Genesis written in Old English more than 10 centuries ago.

“The story of Lucifer is a story about his fall from grace, but it’s more about his fall into shame,” Hoffman says. His thesis examines many of the sexually suggestive images of Satan in hell that accompany the manuscript, as well as the writings themselves. He calls the text “an instructional manual on what not to do, a lesson for man on what happens when your pride defies or challenges God.”

The text has been studied by numerous scholars over the last 1,000 years, but Hoffman says he has not seen an analysis that focuses specifically on the sexual imagery attached to the devil. “The text blurs the lines between man and Satan,” Hoffman says, “and sexuality is the subtext of their shame.”

Hoffman said he learned to read Old English, which is closer to German than to modern English, in a course taught by English professor Mark Amodio, who is acting as his thesis adviser.

In writing his thesis, Hoffman says he’s drawing on many of the skills and resources he has accumulated during his four years at Vassar. “Doing this project is reinforcing for me just how much I’ve learned, to be able to deconstruct a text like this one,” he says.

Ethan Slater and Evan Schlaich, Drama

Evan Schlaich, giving direction

During their sophomore year, Slater and Schlaich first began to talk about collaborating on a full-length musical, complete with costumes, sets and original songs. Over the next 18 months, they created HubCrawl, a story about a video game competition that Schlaich says “explores addiction, communication, and connection through the blurred lines of the virtual and real worlds.”

Slater, who wrote 15 songs for the 90-minute show, says the idea for the plot began to take shape after he wrote a song that contained the lines, “If I died on a boat while killing a zombie in Bombay, Would you care even though I’m far away?”

Ethan Slater working with members of the cast of HubCrawl

Schlaich says the lyrics reminded him of a video game, “and the story just took off from there.” It opens with an announcement that a game manufacturer is offering a large cash prize for the player who can create the best new level for the game – and a fierce competition begins. While Slater was writing the songs, Schlaich wrote most of the dialog last fall, and casting and rehearsals began after winter break.

Schlaich, who admits to playing video games “as a full-time job” when he was younger, says he and Slater chose them as the theme of the play “because they’re a generation marker, something everyone our age can relate to.”

The musical debuted Feb. 13 for a three-night run at the Powerhouse Theater, but Slater and Schlaich say they’d like to continue to develop it and eventually produce it in New York City, where both will be working in the theater industry after they graduate.

Eunice Chou, Neuroscience, and Hayley Lemoine, Biology

Eunice Chou and Hayley Lemoine working in the lab

Earlier in her college career, Chou conducted research demonstrating the ingredients of a common fungicide adversely affected the neurons controlling the central nervous system of nematodes, tiny worms often used in scientific experiments. For her senior project, Chou is collaborating with biology major Hayley Lemoine ’14 to determine exactly how and why the chemicals in the fungicide cause this damage.

Chou and Lemoine exposed the nematodes to the fungicide for various periods of time up to 24 hours. Then they used a microscope to observe how the worms’ behavior changed. Those exposed to the chemicals were no longer able to move as efficiently as those that were not, they discovered.

Chou says she was able to show that the zinc and manganese in the fungicide limits the ability of the neurons in the worms’ nervous systems to send clear signals to their muscles.

Chou and her advisor, professor Kate Susman, credit cognitive science professor John Long with developing a methodology that enabled her to trace the damage being done to the neurons in the nematodes’ nervous system. Such collaboration between students and the faculty is commonplace in Vassar science programs, Chou says.

“Maybe we don’t always have the vast resources of a large university,” she says, “but we have access to our professors, and we all communicate with each other about our research, and that enables us to answer the questions we’re asking just as readily.”

Carlos Hernandez, Urban Studies

Carlos Hernandez with collaborator Elizabeth Celaya ’02, a director at Hudson River Housing

A native of Venezuela who has also lived in Hong Kong and Denmark, Hernandez has long been interested in how food is produced and distributed. He’s been a member of the Poughkeepsie Farm Project, a not-for-profit group that grows food at Vassar Farm, since his sophomore year.

“I’ve been involved in the Poughkeepsie Farm Project for a long time, and my concentrations in urban studies are geography and architecture, so the idea for the food hub sort of all came together as a result of all those interests,” he says.

With the help of New York City urban planner  and assistant professor of art Tobias Armborst, Hernandez is working with Hudson River Housing Inc. to design the interior of a vacant, 150-year-old building in downtown Poughkeepsie that is being renovated by the agency. Vassar alumna Elizabeth Celaya ’02, director of organizational development at Hudson River Housing, is overseeing the project.

Hernandez envisions a portion of the space inside the building to be used for food storage, preparation, and distribution, another portion for community events, and the rest for apartments for low-income families. He has also begun designing some of the landscaping outside the building to make it suitable for community gatherings.

Hernandez says he’s convinced those who live in downtown Poughkeepsie would benefit from the creation of the food hub. “One of the goals of the Poughkeepsie Farm Project is to provide affordable and nutritious fruits and vegetables to the poor, and this project would give many of them access to that food,” he says.

Hernandez says he views the project as “the perfect vehicle to finish my time at Vassar. It intersects so many of my interests, and it’s a way of giving back to the community where I’ve lived for the past four years.”

--Larry Hertz

Photos by Carlisle Stockton and Imrul Islam

Posted by Office of Communications Monday, February 24, 2014