2009 University Co-op / George H. Mitchell Undergraduate Awards For Academic Excellence

Recipient of $20,000 Award:

Yuxuan Wang
Major: Biochemistry (Honors) and Plan II
Faculty Nominator: Andrew Ellington
Project: Aptamer Antagonists of Myelin Promote Axon Growth

Yuxuan was nominated by Professor Andy Ellington for a publication resulting from her honors thesis, a work that breaks new ground in the area of central nervous system repair. During her sophomore year, Yuxuan worked on a project in Ellington’s lab that used aptamers, small pieces of RNA that bind with high specificity, to detect drug-resistant forms of HIV. The results were published in an article in the journal Nucleic Acids Research (Yuxuan is second author). During this time, while also taking a neurobiology course, Yuxuan saw promise in a merger between the usefulness of aptamers and the pathways that inhibit regeneration of nerve cells after injury. Unlike the peripheral nervous system, axons in the central nervous system do not regenerate simultaneously. In fact, previous work has shown that myelin, a natural component of the axon system, actually inhibits new growth when it begins to break down after injury. Because of the importance of myelin to the system when it is not injured, drugs that target myelin to remove the inhibition must be very specific, and traditional antibody-based drugs are costly and difficult to produce. Yuxuan's project focused on a relatively new strategy, using aptamers that have the potential to bind to the proteins that normally inhibit this repair. This new strategy has the very high specificity of the antibody systems currently in use, but aptamers can be produced inexpensively, can be mass produced, and can be easily modified. Aptamers are also non-toxic and rarely induce an immune response. Yuxuan's study has shown that aptamers can reverse the effects of the repair inhibitors, and future work will involve further validation and experimentation toward drug trials in humans. This project has such potential for impact, that Yuxuan wrote and was awarded a $100,000 research grant from TI-3D (Texas Institute for Drug and Diagnostics Development) to pursue it. She has been recognized both locally and nationally, winning the prestigious Barry M. Goldwater Award as a sophomore. In the fall, Yuxuan will begin an MD/PhD program, after choosing between full fellowships at Johns Hopkins University and Washington University at St. Louis.

Recipients of $5,000 Awards:

Matthew Montry
Major: Architecture
Faculty Nominator: Jason Sowell
Project: The LBJ Grasslands Dynamic Shelters

Matthew Lee Montry, currently a student in the UT School of Architecture, will graduate with a Bachelor of Architecture in May 2010. He is currently participating in his residency as an Architectural Intern at Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects in New York, where he has been working since January 2009. Matthew's project is a deviation from typical architectural design processes, whereby a pre-selected site and pre-determined program drives a project’s conceptual and material development. Instead, this project integrates problem identification and problem resolution. Generated from mappings of natural and cultural systems unique to Wise County, the resulting project establishes spaces sensitive to human and environmental concerns. The design approach emphasizes the landscape’s visual qualities and dynamic processes, with the architecture reacting to the various sites as an intentionally mute object. The architecture's simple formal language serves as a datum by which site-specific characteristics, such as flow of topography and vegetation of each site are measured. Repeated throughout the grasslands, the shelters act as way finding elements and instruments of environmental change. Jason Sowell comments, “From material selection and mechanical operation, to construction assembly and site placement, the shelters reflect Matthew’s uncompromising design process, keen proportional sensibilities, and address concern for delimiting unsustainable practices.”

Michael Collins
Major: Asian Studies and Plan II
Faculty Nominator: Martha Ann Selby
Project: Deconstructing ‘Dravidianism’: Contemporary Dalit Politics in Tamil Nadu, India

In his path breaking study of popular politics in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, Michael Collins explores the intersections of history, sociology, culture, ideology, literature, and myth. His focus is the VCK, the main political party of the Dalits (“Untouchables”), and his primary interest is how the VCK has employed historical memories and cultural politics to challenge the dominance of traditional elites in India. Collins learned Tamil and traveled to Tamil Nadu, where he conducted interviews in Tamil and English with leaders of the VCK, who explained their goals and strategies. He supplemented the interviews with a wide array of published materials: memoirs, newspaper articles, academic journals, scholarly monographs. The result of this exemplary combination of field work and book work is a fascinating account—clearly and compellingly written, with a nice balance of sympathy and skepticism—of the evolution of a movement that is shaking Indian politics, with ramifications for democratic societies around the world.

Robbie Earle
Major: Government and Spanish
Faculty Nominator: Ken Greene
Project: African Voices and Policy Effort: Why Public Opinion Matters in the Fight Against Aids

Robbie Earle's Government Honors Thesis is an impressive study of the impact of public opinion on a country's commitment to HIV/AIDS programs. He conducts a large-N study of AIDS policy effort in sub-Saharan Africa from 2000-2006. He illuminates his quantitative results with a case study of South Africa, where the political leadership on AIDS has been if not disastrous, certainly wanting. He finds that public opinion is critical in determining AIDS programming. Finding a link between the people and government policy, while the norm in Western democracies, gives hope to democratic progress in Africa. Not only is the finding important, but Earle's commitment to and execution of both quantitative and qualitative data analyses is exemplary.

Recipients of $2,000 Awards:

Ari Schulman
Major: English and Computer Science (Honors)
Faculty Nominator: James Garrison
Project: Recovering the Creature: Mythmaking and Existential Despair in Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer

Ari Schulman’s thesis “Recovering the Creature: Mythmaking and Existential Despair in Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer” is a brilliant interpretation of a modern novel. Using the insights of philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, Schulman shows us, with an impressive display of lucid analytical writing, what distinguishes Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer from previous existentialist novels, how it importantly expands on the genre, and what essential role movies play in the lives of his main character, and by extension in our modern lives. In this sense, this is much more than an analytical essay. It is, as former English Department Chairman Jim Garrison writes, “a meditation on narrative as a vehicle of moral understanding, a reflection on the ways in which the ethical realities of our world are discovered through fiction. As such, Ari’s thesis is superlative in its design and range of reference, in its hard thinking about issues of enduring importance, and in its clarity—even elegance—of expression.” Schulman, then, not only illuminates for us the technical genius of Walker Percy, but convincingly suggests an answer to the existential question: How can we find meaning in a meaningless world? And the answer is the realm of the aesthetic, the world of art that offers a kind of mercy, giving us a sense of legitimacy to life that only art, in this case movies, can provide. And he, indirectly, makes it clear the aesthetic experience that Percy gives the reader through his storytelling is a sense of meaning in its own right—perhaps a momentary stay against the world’s confusion. This is one impressive essay—thorough, perceptive, lucid, graceful, and hopeful.

Allison Bullock
Major: Geography (Honors) and Biology
Faculty Nominator: Brian King (Penn State - Dept. of Geography)
Project: Evaluating China’s Slope Land Conversion Program as Sustainable Management in Tianquan and Wuqi Counties

Finding ways to reconcile ecologically sustainable land-use with farmers’ need for a stable livelihood poses one of the most important challenges the world currently confronts. Allison Bullock has written an extremely timely honors thesis that looks at efforts to address this problem through a well-crafted research project she carried out during two research summers in rural China. Taking as her focus the Chinese Government’s plan to return all land with a 25 degree slope or greater to forest, and to ban logging on such land, as well, she compares the results of that plan as it has been implemented in two regions. She demonstrates the varying impact the program has had on farming families’ incomes, according to the degree of degradation the land had already suffered, the amount of land still permitted to be farmed, and, most importantly, the availability of off-farm labor near the affected villages. Her well-written thesis, while modestly stated, has clear policy implications not only for the particular project she studied in China but also for all initiatives intended to alter long-standing patterns of land use in rural areas anywhere in the world. In each case, farmers’ alternative options must be considered, and if necessary, augmented, if their efforts to make a living are to be radically revised—and the planet saved.

Charles Beaman
Major: Mechanical Engineering (Honors)
Faculty Nominator: Richard Neptune
Project: Differences in Self-Selected and Fastest Comfortable Walking in Post-stroke Hemiparetic Persons

Professor Richard R. Neptune in Mechanical Engineering nominated Charles for his honors thesis research focusing on the development of rehabilitation strategies for stroke patients who suffer from post-stroke hemiparesis, i.e. paralysis on one side of the body that gives rise to an asymmetric gait. Charles formulated and tested the hypothesis that challenging hemiparetic subjects to walk at their fastest–comfortable speeds provides a better assessment methodology because it exacerbates the subject’s neuromotor impairments, making them easier to identify as compared to those identifiable by allowing subjects to walk at their own self––selected speed. Using clinical treadmill data, he compared step-length asymmetry and paretic leg propulsion for 30 chronic hemiparetic subjects walking at these two speeds, but found that these two metrics alone were insufficient to describe the kinetic mechanisms patients utilize in hemiparetic walking. He concluded that leg angle and double–support time might better describe the compensatory mechanisms stroke patients use to ambulate. The results of his research will ultimately help guide and improve clinical rehabilitation strategies for survivors of stroke, the leading cause of long–term disability. On his initial project in the lab, Charles created several prosthetic ankle prototypes using selective laser sintering technology that are currently being tested with transtibial amputees in collaboration with a research team at the VA Medical Center in Seattle, WA.

Jesse Cordes Selbin
Major: Humanities (Honors) and English
Faculty Nominator: Alexandra Wettlaufer
Project: Sous Contrainte ou Sans Contrainte: Competing Literary Visions of Oulipo and Hélene Cixous

Bringing together interviews, literature, history, and original work in two languages, “Competing Literary Visions of Oulipo and Héléne Cixious” performs an impressive critical intervention in our understating of two major writers and a literary movement. Selbin puts to use her work at the Sorbonne, an impressive command of French, interviews with several members of the Oulipo group, and insights gained from seminars on her subject to provide a first-rate comparative study that evinces her “longstanding appetite for writers whose work probes the boundaries of convention.” By placing Italo Calvino’s work alongside the understudied, one could even say lesser known, writings of French feminist Héléne Cixious, the author provides important insights into both of these authors while at the same time reshaping our understanding of the Oulipo group. The depth of the research, particularly the rich literary history that the author provides, reflects critical engagement with both the subject and the original materials. Notably, the author’s passion for the subject matter, as well as her depth of knowledge, is reflected not only in breadth of material, but also in the nuanced, close critical reading of the texts. She is always mindful to orient the reader as to where we are historically and critically, as she carries us deeply into the intellectual territory where her passion clearly lies. As her recommender, professor Wettlaufer states: “This would be considered a first-rate MA thesis; for an undergraduate to have produced a study of this caliber is truly stunning.”

Amanda Cayo
Major: Theatre and Dance and Plan II
Faculty Nominator: Stephen Gerald
Project: Writing a Letter to Fidel

Nominated by Professor of Theatre and Dance Stephen Gerald, Amanda's project began as a collection of recorded interviews of several individuals of Cuban descent now living in the United States. Originally these oral histories were envisioned as making up the core material for Amanda's Plan II honors thesis. However, Amanda continued to work with the material, transforming the interviews into monologues and dialogues which she scripted into a play, Writing a Letter to Fidel, which was produced and performed by seven actors as part of The University Co-op/Cohen New Works Festival March 30-April 4, 2009. Amanda’s script uses the actual words of her interviewees to explore what it means to them to identify themselves as Cuban, Cuban-American, American of Cuban descent, or “half” Cuban. Amanda’s theatrical work, sometimes playfully, sometimes poignantly -- but always thoughtfully -- examines important issues of race, ethnicity, culture, language, religion, Communism, community and personal identity. Amanda is not only the playwright of Writing a Letter to Fidel, but served as well as its casting agent, director and publicist during the recent festival. In Amanda’s own words, “I am happy to give the Cuban community a voice, and I hope that small acts of solidarity such as this ... affect U.S. policy and open the pathway for Cuban-American interchange.”

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