If you walked into the Honors Program office in Hebert Hall during the last week of classes, you would have seen stacks of thick manila folders filling storage bins and covering desks. Over the course of a few days, nearly ninety seniors turned in their final copies of their Honors Theses, which will soon be bound and housed at Howard-Tilton Memorial Library. Before last year, this submission following the thesis defense was the sole culmination of the year-long thesis process for most students, and very few people outside their committee got a chance to hear about their research. Since last year’s inaugural Honors Thesis Forum, this is no longer the case.
The 2019 Honors Thesis Forum was held on the evenings of Tuesday, April 9th through Thursday, April 11th and all day on Sunday, April 14th. Fifty-three seniors from all five schools presented their Honors Thesis research during this time, with individual presentations on weekday evenings and thematic panels on Sunday. This provided the opportunity for the students to practice for their oral defense, to share their findings, and to showcase their hard work in front of professors, friends, and family. Over the course of the week, over 500 people attended presentations representing all of the exciting undergraduate research going on at Tulane.
Student presenters found the Forum beneficial in a number of ways. Alexandra Bookis, a Psychology student, thought it was a welcome opportunity to hear about all the work [her] friends have been doing all year. Ecology and Evolutionary Biology student Lauren Hitt similarly felt that the Forum was “a great opportunity for me to show people what I've been working towards for 16 months.” After putting so much effort into this research process, students enjoyed the opportunity to share their work with their friends and families as well as with students and faculty they had never previously met. The Forum also served as oral defense practice for some, and a “victory lap” for others who had completed it already. Thesis writer Kyu Min Huh in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology said the Forum was very helpful in practicing her presentation skills in front of an audience. Kaitlyn Tholen also said the “interdisciplinary setting” of the Forum allowed her, a Neuroscience major, to benefit from “a liberal arts major…ask[ing] a question that challenges [her] to consider different angles to [her] research methodology and questions.”
Many students felt the Forum also presented them with valuable challenges. For most, this was the first time that they discussed their field-specific research with an audience outside of their disciplines. For example, Lauren Hitt found that this was the first time she was discussing the nuts and bolts of the thesis with her mom, who was able to fly down from their Denver hometown. Neuroscience and Psychology student Samantha Perry believes that while “it was challenging to make the material accessible and comprehensible to people outside [her] field…being able to talk about research in a simpler way is crucial.” Kyu Min Huh found that her Forum experience captured some of the general challenges of research as well: she was still figuring out the statistics until the day before the presentation, and her findings led her to present on a completely different topic than she expected. Ultimately, the Forum challenged students be adaptable, from re-conceptualizing their own work to presenting on ongoing, changing research findings.
Honors students in their first, second, and third years attended to learn about what the thesis is and about the wide array of topics that students choose to write. Kyu Min Huh found that the Forum “[brought] together the current thesis writers and the future thesis writers into an intellectual community.” She saw this community in action even at her 9 AM panel on a Sunday morning, which still drew an audience large enough to fill the room despite the early time slot. Emma Hawkes, an Anthropology student, enjoyed seeing this community come together, hearing from “people [she] know[s] from classes, or friends…whose thesis [she] didn’t know much about.” Younger students enjoyed witnessing this community and getting to see students only a few years older than they conducting incredible research.
What is the importance of an event like the Honors Thesis Forum on Tulane’s campus? Lauren Hitt ties it back to Tulane’s role as a research university and the “emphasis on getting undergrads involved in research.” She believes that the Forum “is the most tangible and visible way for us to show the rest of the university community that undergraduate researchers are making substantial contributions to their fields.” Furthermore, Samantha Perry discussed how it is “extremely important that Tulane demonstrates that it appreciates and honors the hard work of its students.” Alexandra Bookis similarly highlights the value of this communal space that showcases “the range of research that is being conducted by seniors and…the advanced level of the students’ projects” and that allows the thesis writer community to “celebrate all of [their] achievements together.” At the same time, Emma Hawkes finds that an event like this “makes the idea of writing [a thesis] more accessible” to younger students, since they see what the thesis process truly looks like. Overall, Kaitlyn Tholen believes that “it’s truly remarkable what research we can accomplish when we as a student body and university support and encourage this type of research” for students of all ages.
While future students and faculty will eventually be able to see the theses in the library archives, the 2019 Honors Thesis Forum provided a living, breathing space for student researchers to interact with one another and with the Tulane community. Parents, professors, friends, and fellow thesis writers got to engage in critical discussions, witness research across the disciplines, and ultimately celebrate one another. And after working on their projects for a year (sometimes longer), these exceptional students certainly deserve to be celebrated.