by Erica Erwin ’02
Unique, rigorous, innovative—all adjectives used to describe not only Allegheny College but also the capstone of the Allegheny College educational experience: the Senior Comprehensive Project.
After three years of late nights to write research papers and cram for next-day exams, the Senior Project is a chance for students to dive into research of their own choosing. The result is often work that is pioneering and novel.
Aided by professors, the voluminous stacks of books and journals at Pelletier Library, and the nonexistent boundaries of the Internet, students immerse themselves in what many describe as the most enlightening, interesting work of their college career.
That said, the Senior Comprehensive Project is also a serious commitment of time, energy, and, for those late nights spent in front of a computer monitor, money for coffee. Students express a variety of emotions when it is finally finished: Relief. Joy. Separation anxiety. Pride.
The commitment pays off, determining for many students the path of their career or, for students doing research work, their focus. Whatever else it does, the Senior Comprehensive Project is a chance for students to showcase their academic interests and much of what they have learned during their time at Allegheny.
Comping by the Numbers
Fabrizio Polo isn’t a history buff. But the math major did look to the past—more than three hundred years in the past, in fact—for inspiration when designing his Senior Comprehensive Project.
Polo studied the work of Leonhard Euler, a famous mathematician who in the 1700s studied the probability of winning a lottery offered in Genoa, Italy. Through the magic of mathematics Euler figured out, given an arbitrary number of tickets in the lottery and an arbitrary number of tickets picked by any player, how likely it was that any two tickets picked would contain consecutive numbers.
Euler relied on a method called induction. Polo, home-schooled until the eleventh grade, devised a much more direct method. “I did it in a one-page proof,” Polo says, not without a note of pride in his voice.Math, Polo says, has always come easy to him. He taught himself algebra and geometry by poring over books.
“I used to do a lot of computer programming, and I realized I liked abstract problem solving,” he says. “You could figure out the process that would produce an answer. But I just didn’t like the particulars of computers. I got tired of dealing with the machine and its problems and just focused on the math.”
“Mostly I like math because it has a strong quality,” he adds. “It seems more true than the other stuff you know. Science you can always argue with, because good theories are being replaced by better ones. Math is a little more solid.”
Working with his advisor, Professor of Mathematics Anthony Lo Bello, Polo says that, at just over five pages long, his comp may be the shortest Senior Comprehensive Project In Allegheny College history.
That didn’t make it any easier, though, he is quick to point out.
“I spent a couple of days thinking about it,” Polo says. “It becomes an obsession when you have one question on your mind for twelve straight hours. Then it dawns on you that you know exactly what the answer is and you just have to write it down. I had fun working on it, but now I’m onto other problems.”
Polo says he hopes to find a job teaching a small group of students and continue research in combinatronics, the study of combinations.
“ Really it’s just glorified counting,” he says with a laugh.
It’s no surprise that everyone can and does get run down, burnt out, or just plain tired. The question of why that happens and to whom is, as one senior found out, more enlightening.
After reading a book about community service for one of her psychology classes, Kristie Seelman began thinking. How is it that long-time activists, those people truly and deeply committed to a cause, prevent burnout? Often working tirelessly for long hours, frequently with no pay, these people are a special breed who might seem, on the face of it, especially prone to burnout.
Seelman, a psychology major, investigated, talking with ten people whom she defined as “deeply committed” to their cause, whether it be environmental protection, political action, literacy, or other social issues.
“ These are people who have been deeply involved in activism for some time, and I just wanted to know how they do it,” Seelman says.
What she found was that activists see their involvement as central to their identity.
“ They stay committed because it’s so important to who they are,” says Seelman, the daughter of Lori and Bob Seelman of Pittsburgh.
“ Stopping would be a threat to themselves,” she continues. “They see their activism as so vital to their lives that it’s out of the question to give it up. They all have visions that motivate what they do. Many just see that the work they are doing benefits humanity.”
And that, Seelman says, is what prevents burn-out. She hopes her research—which she conducted under her comp advisors, Associate Professor of Psychology Elizabeth Ozorak and Assistant Professor of Psychology Deborah Dickey—can be used by nonprofit organizations to help stave off burnout within their ranks and better understand the mindset of volunteers and activists.
Once a part of the AmeriCorps Bonner Leader program, Seelman says she considers herself an activist. She plans to search for a job with a nonprofit organization that handles human rights issues.
“ Activists have this view, this vision of creating a world where people can be what they want to be, where they can reach their potential,” Seelman says. “That inspires me. It’s idealistic in a way, but people too often dismiss that kind of thinking as impossible.”
Not an overly serious type, Kyle O’Connor is nonetheless all business when he talks about his Senior Comprehensive Project.
An economics major, O’Connor studied how strictly the U.S. government monitors mergers to see if the mergers will cause anti-competitive behavior. More specifically, O’Connor asks the question “What really drives merger enforcement? Economic theory or plain old politics?”
“ Mergers and acquisitions always interested me,” O’Connor says, pointing to the recent amalgamation of pharmaceutical companies in the past fifteen years. “I’m interested in the ability of one firm to take over another.”
For his comp, O’Connor pored over reams and reams of documents from the Federal Trade Commission and the U.S. Department of Justice outlining 218 mergers investigated between 1992 and 2003. The companies are perennial Fortune 500 powerhouses, the big boys of the business world: Pfizer Pharmaceutical. Microsoft. CBS. O’Connor says the importance of his Senior Comprehensive Project lies in two basic principles: trust in government and consumer choice.
“ Without active merger enforcement, some industries would become monopolized and consumer choice would be limited,” O’Connor says. “These laws are in place basically to thwart collusive behavior.”
Under the direction of his comp advisors, Associate Professors of Economics Donald Goldstein and A. Behrooz Afrasiabi, O’Connor reached a conclusion after months of research and statistical analysis: Government is doing good, relying on solid economic theory rather than political and industrial influence in enforcing anti-monopoly laws.
“ I was really interested in how these companies could come together and be successful in this economy,” he says. “I’m glad my comp is over, but it really was insightful. Putting all that information into one coherent paper is a challenge.”
The Pittsburgh native, son of Diane and Thomas O’Connor, hopes to find a job in corporate finance.
“ My mom is convinced my work is totally incomprehensible,” O’Connor says, laughing. “I was frustrated at first, but I guess it’s like if I came home and my mom wanted to teach me cross-stitch. I’d be confused, too.”
Bucking the Food Chain
Environmental science major Deserae Pegg was set to study the effects of wastewater on the endocrine system of frogs for her Senior Comprehensive Project when a tiny girl with a big question changed her course.
Pegg, an environmental science major, was picking vegetables in the CEED organic garden when the girl asked her what she was doing. “She asked me why I was picking the vegetables,” Pegg recalls with a laugh. “I told her, ‘Because I take them to people who eat them.’ The girl said, ‘You can eat those?’” From that moment, Pegg knew she wanted to work on a project that would show the connection between where food comes from and where it ends up—on our plates.
The daughter of Linda and Michael Pegg of Danville, Pennsylvania, she spent the year researching how local food, grown in the Crawford County region, could be incorporated into Allegheny’s dining halls. In the process she found dozens of schools with similar programs and began a program of her own.
“ Most people don’t know where their food comes from,” says Pegg, who hopes to volunteer with the Peace Corps in Kenya. “I’m trying to show them.” Pegg’s comp advisors were Professor of Environmental Science Eric Pallant and Associate Professor of Environmental Science and Biology James Palmer.
Incorporating local food into Allegheny’s dining halls would support the community and struggling local farmers, provide healthier food to students, and be environmentally sound, Pegg says, adding that local farmers contribute to biodiversity and use fewer chemicals to preserve food.
“ One of the things we strive to do is to have the most environmentally friendly campus possible,” she says. “This project can help accomplish that and help local farmers. Under the current system, local farmers don’t get much benefit.”
As part of the project, Pegg is working with several local farmers, and in September they hope to host a community dinner featuring locally grown food. The next step? Convincing the College’s food provider to bite.
The Language of Art
Most of us use our mouths to form the words that we speak. Some of us use our hands to sign them. All of us use our bodies to relay, unspoken, our thoughts and feelings in the language of movement and motion.
Another language, perhaps the most universally known, is the language of music and art. That language, as ancient as the primitive languages of peoples and lands now long forgotten, is what David Rodriguez chose to study for his Senior Comprehensive Project.
Rodriguez, a studio art major whose comp advisor was Associate Professor of Art Sue Buck, spent the year designing an interactive installation, a project that explores how people communicate and relate to one another through music and imagery.
The interactive art piece Rodriguez designed is composed of three keyboards and a large projection screen. Unlike the off-limits, pristine displays in most museums, the idea is for people to actually touch the display—visitors are invited to walk up to the keyboards, three at a time, to play a game.
Each time a person hits a key on the keyboard, an abstract image pops up on the screen and a small piece of music plays. Seven different images, or layers, are associated with different keys; the idea is for each of the three people at the different keyboards to work with one another to put all seven layers on the screen at the same time. This is difficult, because there are two different keys—an “on” and an “off” key—for each image. Without communication, someone at one keyboard can unwittingly turn off an image another has put on the screen.
“ I wanted to remind people that they have to interact with others,” Rodriguez says of his project. “It’s a metaphor for how we live our lives, full of confusion. But if you see all the interactions you have with others, you make more sense out of it all.”
Rodriguez is the son of Iris and Davy Rodriguez, a homemaker and steel factory worker who live and work in Avondale, Pennsylvania, the blue-collar town he grew up in. Rodriguez says he tries to make his art accessible to everyone.
“Art can be this really elitist thing,” he says. “A lot of times you have to know Greek mythology or history to enjoy it. I’m trying to make my art for anyone.”
The Poetry of Discovery
They say write what you know. So Emily Facci, an English major, decided to write a creative Senior Comprehensive Project composed of twenty-five of her poems. The collection is varied—the themes of the poems are diverse, ranging from nature to social commentary.
“ Poetry just spoke to me more than any other kind of writing,” Facci says. “And it actually sounded a lot easier. It’s proven to be extremely difficult, though, but also really rewarding.”
Facci, a native of Rochester, New York, says it was difficult to be creative on a deadline. “I had to sit myself down and say I’m going to write every day, and I had to grab inspiration anywhere I could find it,” she says. “If you freak out and get anxious, you’re not going to be able to write. You have to tell yourself you can do it. And then you do it.”
Facci says her advisor, Assistant Professor of English Christopher Bakken, helped her focus, as did reading the poems of three of her favorite poets: Susan Mitchell, Shamus Heaney, and May Swenson.
Poetry is important as a means of expressing culture, she says. “It’s impossible to describe the experience of creating something that when you’re finished shocks you,” Facci says. “It feels like it doesn’t even come from you. It’s like a lightning bolt. That’s the experience I think all of us poets live for. It’s the poem taking on a life of its own and saying, ‘Look at me. Write me.’”
The title of her project is “Digging Down to the Bone.”
“ Poetry is a process of exploring and answering questions,” says Facci, the daughter of Joanne and John Facci. “I used digging as a metaphor for discovering. I discovered a better dedication to poetry. I knew at the end of last semester that this is what I wanted to do and, for the first time, I thought I could actually do it.”
By Emily Facci
Ears sore with nightlong cicadas, I do not sleep.
Brown limbs tangle beneath my static-prickled
Sheets. I try to follow the breathing curtains,
but the tide is too slow. A palm of heat presses the room.
This the summer I’m ten, about to give birth
to something. The air is dark as a druid’s robe,
the moon swollen behind the window screen.
Something is gathering, certain as a wave,
all the pieces of the room fit tight together.
The air is soft with coming rain and down
the hall my parents have disappeared.
No one else in the world. This moon is mine,
and this meadow, blinking with silver light.
It is all rushing into me with the cool scent
of clouds. I am full and secret, when the moon
goes blank, and almost before the air is finished
being still, thunder tears into my spine.
If I lick my skin now it will taste like sugar.
When the next crack comes I ride it
like a leaping horse, my arms ribboned with power.
I strain to break the sky again, tense as a bolt
in my narrow bed. Nails flash white in little fists,
and water hits the open ground like hooves.
This article was featured in the Summer 2003 Issue of Allegheny College Magazine.