One of the hallmarks of a Princeton education continues to be, as President Tilghman said in her Commencement address last month, “the most rigorous test of all”: the writing of a thesis or completion of a major independent research project. PAW asked four members of the Class of 2007 to describe their thesis projects and one of this year’s Ph.D. recipients to discuss his dissertation.

Here are their responses:

Zach Berta, astrophysics

Summary: Galaxies in space occasionally are clustered together by the force of gravity. Weighing up to one quadrillion times the mass of our Sun, these galaxy clusters are the biggest “things” in the universe. For my thesis, using two-dimensional images of the sky from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, I developed a new way to map out their three-dimensional locations in space from their apparent size and the brightness and color of their member galaxies — just as, for example, you might tell the distance to an oncoming car by the look of its headlights or the sound of its engine. Some of the clusters found with this new method never have been seen before.

Adviser: Professor David Spergel ’82

Reason for selecting the topic: My adviser is one of the best teachers I’ve ever met, the project was really interesting, and it gave me the chance to travel to South Africa for a month to do research with some collaborators there.

Toughest obstacle: It took me a while to overcome my shyness — asking questions when I didn’t understand, speaking up when I disagreed with something, talking to other scientists about our research.

Plans after graduation: After turning my thesis into a publishable paper over the summer, I’m heading to Barcelona for more astrophysics research and eventually to the Center for Astro-physics at Harvard to start working toward my Ph.D.

Max Jan, molecular biology

Summary: Our bodies don’t age like cars, passively breaking down as parts wear out. Instead, aging may be traced to just a handful of important genes that can shorten or lengthen life span. These genes — and thus the aging process as a whole — are influenced by how much we eat, by insulin levels, and by health-protective agents such as resveratrol, a compound celebrated for its abundance in red wine. For my senior thesis, under the supervision of Dr. Coleen Murphy, I used cutting-edge genomics techniques to identify novel longevity genes that are elicited by these stimuli in our model organism, the small roundworm C. elegans. As these mechanisms are remarkably similar in C. elegans and more complex animals, this field of research holds exciting prospects for understanding the human body’s defenses against cancer, degeneration of the brain, and other unsolved age-related diseases.

Adviser: Assistant professor Coleen Murphy

Reason for selecting the topic: The Murphy Lab asks how and why we age. These are questions fundamental to what life and humanity are all about that science may illuminate within our lifetime. Also, Dr. Murphy is a dynamic personality, a great leader, and attentive mentor, and she gave me the opportunity to work independently on a project that reported directly to her. I truly enjoyed the creative license to design experiments and interpret results.

Toughest obstacle: Early and repeated failure. My project depended upon an extremely powerful technology called the DNA microarray. For every imaginable reason, I could not get this difficult and elaborate technique to work. It took a full year to troubleshoot this problem; every meaningful result that I reported in my thesis has come in the past seven months.

Plans after graduation: I will hang out with my family in June, backpack through North Africa and the Middle East in July, and experience the great American road trip from New Jersey to San Francisco in August. In the fall I will become a Stanford Graduate Fellow at the Stanford Medical School’s Cancer Biology Program.

Julia Harman Cain, comparative literature

Summary: My first project was a joint senior thesis in comparative literature and the Program in Theater & Dance. I co-authored (with Joshua Williams ’07) and directed an original play, Four Rooms Waking, which premiered in January at the Matthews Acting Studio. Spanning 20 years and several countries, the play captured one day in the lives of four sets of characters, raising questions about race, disability, religion, sexuality, and gender — and examining the role of private people in public wars. For the analytical aspect of the project, I wrote about fractured narrative in contemporary theater and its reflection of post-structural philosophy, particularly the work of French theorist Jacques Derrida. My second project, for the Creative Writing Program, was a collection of poems called “Assumed Intimacy,” which explored how closeness is created and maintained between two people — husband and wife, brother and sister, and sometimes artist and subject.

Advisers: Theater and dance lecturers Robert Sandberg and Timothy Vasen, comparative literature professor Sandra Bermann, creative writing assistant professor Tracy K. Smith.

Reason for selecting the topics: Annie Preis ’07 and I stumbled over the idea for the theater project while we were watching a performance of August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean at McCarter Theatre. We both were interested in questions of colonialism, liberation, and social justice — and we wondered if we could address such questions in the context of a play. After a lot of debate about how to focus the project, we chose to center the play on the Algerian war for independence. We felt that that particular moment in history sparked many of the questions that we hoped to address.

Toughest obstacle: I have directed on the Princeton campus several times before, and I have always started rehearsals with a fairly clear idea of how the show eventually would look. But with Four Rooms, we continued to adjust the script and tweak the blocking until the last possible minute. For example, the four plotlines interweave throughout the play and the action jumps from Algeria to America, from Cuba to Easter Island — and as my adviser realized in the final week before opening night, the audience needed something to watch between, as well as during, the myriad scenes. So Josh and I conceptualized short pieces for the actors to perform as the sets moved behind them, only days before opening night. It was definitely a challenge constantly to reconceive and rewrite large portions of the show (both throughout the rehearsal process and in the final week), but ultimately I think that that state of constant revision is one of the most fascinating elements of a creative thesis.

Plans after graduation: Each summer, I teach in the drama and writing departments of the Charles River Creative Arts Program in Dover, Mass. For next year, I have a directing/producing internship at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, D.C., working as the assistant to the artistic director.

Jacob Dorler, architecture

Summary: The implications of a deflating city in New Jersey are drawn upon to offer up a practical solution in an age where outsourcing and job loss have left many cities losing populations and resources. Trenton, N.J., once the poster-child of the American manufacturing city, stands as a paradox with its swaths of abandonment in the most densely populated state. The ailing industrial corridor would be purged of its polluted soil using emerging agricultural techniques and replanted with gardens, orchards, and recreational fields for the citizens of Trenton, who don’t even have a large-scale grocery store in their city. Additionally, an inner-city transportation program would link the city together by converting abandoned rail lines into a tram system.  

Advisers: Assistant professor Sarah Whiting; (second reader) Dean Stanley Allen *88

Reason for selecting the topic: For this new century, outdated paradigms and images of how a city should look and function must be cast aside. New approaches that interweave the greener comforts of suburban life with the social and economic dynamism of the city must learn to reuse what past generations have left behind in order to create a sustainable future.   

Toughest obstacle: To write an inspiring, almost utopian, thesis while including all of the sociological, economic, ecological, historical, and architectural facts that supported the dream but weren’t always the most exciting or beneficial in making the content of my thesis really jump out at the reader.

Plans after graduation: After a whirlwind networking vacation all over Europe, I will be working in Newark, N.J., where two fellow graduates and I are beginning our own design firm, Agitecture, LLC. We also will be teaching about architecture for an after-school program in association with the Barat Foundation in Newark.  

Bruce Gilley, Ph.D., politics

Summary: My dissertation is an empirical study of why states are, or are not, legitimate in the minds of their citizens. This is one of the oldest questions in political science, but it has come back into focus with recent state-building and democracy-building efforts around the world. The dissertation measures and explains legitimacy and then shows how it is generated in particular conditions, with a case study of Uganda, and why it matters so much for politics and international relations.

Advisers: Professors Lynn White, Stephen Macedo *87, and Paul Sigmund (emeritus)

Reason for selecting the topic: Legitimacy is seen as mushy or naïve or both in contemporary political science, where self-interested rational-actor models dominate. I find those approaches to politics unsatisfactory and unable to explain most of what we see in politics, so I asked whether legitimacy could be studied empirically and shown to be important.

Toughest obstacle: Finding advisers who would support the project. Even though I had a contract to publish it with Columbia University Press, I found it hard to get support, especially from younger faculty more schooled in trendy rationality models of politics. Lynn was a supporter all along. I found Steve and Paul very late in the game. Paul is one of the last generation of political scientists who does both empirical and normative work, and I am hoping he will not be the last. Steve is a philosopher who is really engaged with the empirical side. So I found my dream team at last, but not without great difficulty.

Plans after receiving degree: I am now assistant professor of political studies at Queen’s University in Canada.