2011 University Co-op / George H. Mitchell Undergraduate Awards For Academic Excellence
Recipient of $20,000 Award:
Dylan Thomas Bumford
Graduated December 2010, Math / Linguistics / Psychology / Plan II
Nominator: Johan Kamp, Philosophy
Dylan Bumford’s work is astonishing in its breadth, its clarity, and its mastery. His thesis begins with a description of synaesthesia – the way in which perception experiences originating in one of the physical senses can trigger perceptions in another of the senses. He then links synaesthetic perceptions with the linguistic and discursive phenomenon of metaphor, focusing his attention specifically on synaesthetic metaphors. Some examples are “a cold stare” or “a granular sound” or “a juicy red.”
The question Dylan finally arrives at is: Why do synaesthetic metaphors work this way? Why do adjective-noun metaphors ultimately reduce visual and auditory perceptions to tactile and gustatory ones? Why do our verbs for voluntary, focused perception draw on our experiences of seeing and hearing, but our verbs for involuntary perception draw on our experiences of feeling and tasting? His answer lies in discovering a deeper, yet more basic level of perception, one that underlies the perceptions of the senses. This is the perception of pleasure and pain. In other words, when we say that we have seen a “loud color,” he argues, we are actually not making a statement either about sound or about the brightness of the color, but rather about the way that something we see causes us discomfort, which is a feeling. Synaesthetic metaphors are a means by which we can convey anticipated experiences distally. Meanwhile, because the distal senses of sight and hearing are far more useful means for recognizing objects and navigating our world than are taste and touch, verbs pertaining to sight and hearing become the foundational perception verbs across languages.
Dylan is a double major in Mathematics and the Plan II honors program. Next year he will enter the Linguistics Ph.D. program at Stanford University, where he plans to continue his work in logic, linguistics and psychology, in an effort to formulate more holistic and comprehensive principles of cognitive science.
Recipients of $5,000 Awards:
Category: Artistic and Creative
Nominator: Judith Birdsong, Architecture
Augustin Cepeda asked a dusty bald spot atop a forested cliff at the border of Austin and Rollingwood, “Who are you?” He developed a relationship with this site as he created his Zilker Park Summit project, a radical revisioning of the Zilker Park Clubhouse. Believing architecture must be sustainable, open to light, breathable, functional and responsive to the needs of the people it serves, Cepeda created an ecologically sound, usable, beautiful space. He chose to site his building underground and shepherd party and wedding guests through a sequence of spaces lit only by skylights cut into the ground above before emerging in a dramatic outdoor space with views of downtown Austin. The roof of the subterranean building would be used as a public park. His nominator, Professor Judith Birdsong, writes, “There are few precedents for underground structures of the kind Agustin proposed and much of the work he did had to be done without reference to real world work.” Augustin’s Zilker Park Summit project is a visionary architectural celebration of what he has called “the dignified solitude” and the “tranquil soul” of a unique Austin location.
Senior, Plan II Honors / French
Nominator: Hina Azam, Middle Eastern Studies
Emily’s work brings a new voice and fresh perspective to what is typically a highly charged cultural, ethical and political issue – the interface between the American, European and Muslim cultures. She examines this interface through the lens of the particular practice of Islamic animal slaughter, or "halal," which is akin to the concept of "kosher" in Judaism. By deeply exploring the halal food industry in France, Emily has identified factors that have contributed to a further marginalization of Muslim culture in France through the way halal food s are marketed and halal vendors and producers are perceived. Emily then proposes a road map for a different path in the US; her work proposes a mechanism by which two emergent trends- 1) the growth of the Halal food industry in the US , and 2) American consumers’ growing demand for ethical, green and “eco” food products, can be used to benefit a cultural integration around a common cause.
Her advisor writes: “Emily has brought to her analysis concepts and categories from a variety of disciplines, including food anthropology, religious studies, Islamic studies, business ethics and marketing. She has conducted her research in three languages – English, French and Arabic – and has traveled both to France (twice) and within the U.S. She has garnered support for her travel through special application to the Plan II program. In both countries, and using all languages, she has interviewed individuals at multiple levels of the halal food industry, from those who conduct slaughters to those who certify their Islamic legitimacy, from product manufacturers to the grocers who sell those products, from outdoor butchers in Paris to the creators of online halal guides in the U.S.”
Emily will begin a full year of study in the Middle East beginning this June, and will return to UT the following Fall to begin her MA in Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures, having been accepted via nomination by the Department of Middle Eastern Studies for the Graduate School Select Admission Program.
Category: Science and Technology
Senior, Plan II / Dean’s Scholars Biology
Nominator: William Winslade, Philosophy
Could patients in a persistent vegetative state still be conscious? That is the question – in all of it’s profound scientific and ethical dimensions – that Mauro Caffarelli tackles in his thesis, “Brain Imagining and the Quest for Consciousness: Why Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Falls Short.” Responding to claims by some medical professionals that it is possible to detect conscious awareness in vegetative patients, Caffarelli explores the use of fMRIs on such patients and considers the role of doctors in working with family members of those in a persistent vegetative state. After a thorough scientific review of how fMRIs work and what they measure, Caffarelli concludes that indications of brain activity do not imply cognitive functionality. Then, turning to the philosophical debate over human consciousness, Caffarelli contends that the complex interplay of thought and emotion that we connect to human consciousness cannot be represented through electromagnetic measures of brain activity. Subjective self-awareness cannot be measured this way and to suggest otherwise, Caffarelli concludes, is unethical. Reflecting on his achievement, Caffarelli’s advisor, Dr. William Winsdale writes that it is Caffarelli’s “deep understanding of the proper use and limits of functional resonance imaging [that] enables him to effectively rebut the overstated claims of highly regarded scientists.” Winsdale concludes that this is the best undergraduate thesis he has read among the many excellent senior theses he has supervised over the past decade.
Recipients of $2,000 Awards:
Senior, English / Classics
Nominator: Jeffrey Walker, Rhetoric & Writing
With an impressive display of learning in a number of fields—linguistics, literary analysis, and classics—Ramirez reveals structural patterns in both tragedy and comedy, indeed in narratives of all types. Greek tragedy, Shakespearean comedy, and video games all come in for insightful analysis in his thesis, as Ramirez makes both surprising and surprisingly persuasive intellectual leaps. Propp, Lévi-Strauss, and Girard opened this path before him, but Ramirez, while acknowledging his debts, proceeds further to formulate a “physiological” understanding of plots, one that enables him to name the rules for generating drama, fiction, or games. The result is a thesis of astonishing originality, a singular contribution to the scholarly literature on the theory of drama in its comic and tragic forms.
Category: Science and Technology
Junior, Physics / Mechanical Engineering
Nominator: Richard Matzner, Physics
Darius Bunandar tackled the challenging problem of accurately and reliably determining an object's space-time coordinates in deep space in an ever-expanding universe. The solution uses information of arrival times of specific pulses from four different pulsars, and one has to consider the influence of gravitational fields that deflect and delay these pulsar signals. He devised a robust numerical method capable of measuring the emission coordinates in any arbitrary space-time geometry using continuous families of level set solutions of the eikonal equation.
His nominator, Prof. Richard Matzner (Physics) says that he is "consistently surprised by Mr. Bunandar's initiative and skill in manipulating the mathematics and computation of this problem", a remarkable feat for such a young scholar.
Category: Social Science
Nominator: Mark Lawrence, History
American Intervention in Iran and the Formation of the Pahlavi Dictatorship, 1953-1971
Drawing on many recently-released documents, Cuyler recounts the complicated, ever-shifting and often paradoxical relations between the Shah of Iran and American policy-makers. Appreciating why relations between the U.S. and Iran are so fraught requires looking back at the period before the Iranian Revolution of 1979 to see how deeply the U.S. involved itself in Iranian affairs. Cuyler writes an elegant, dispassionate account of the twists and turns in the American government’s treatment of the Shah and his rivals, and the Shah’s responses to that treatment. In the process, he makes the Shah’s behavior—often dismissed as paranoid and irrational—appear to be a reasoned response to treacherous circumstances. By tracing the actual consequences of high-stakes, if often clandestine, U.S.-Iranian interaction, Cuyler makes an original, remarkably sophisticated contribution to the writing of international history, a contribution that won him the History Department’s annual prize for best honors essay.
Category: Social Science
Nominator: David Buss, Psychology
Annia Raja’s thesis examines the effects of the potentially competing factors of physical attractiveness and perceived resource acquisition potential on women’s sexual arousal. Drawing on a theoretical basis anchored in evolutionary psychology, she hypothesizes that sexual arousal mechanisms in women show evidence of adaptive design. Her results showed that the perceived resource acquisition potential of pictured males played a greater role in female arousal than did their physical attractiveness. Her findings highlight the importance of contextual cues for sexual arousal and specifically suggest that stressors such as financial strain and job loss may negatively influence female sexual arousal.
Category: Social Science
Nominator: Brad Love, Psychology
In Margaret Sanders’s thesis, she brings cognitive psychology to bear on how we perceive beauty. Specifically, she pits two competing approaches – similarity-based and theory-based - against one another in an attempt to understand how we decide what is beautiful. The two theories are quite different, with similarity theory predicting that our perception of beauty arises from how well something adheres to a prototypical example of that category, and a theory-based approach positing that prior knowledge and intuitions are the driving force in our perceptions. Results from three experiments indicate that beauty is not simply a reflection of existing categories, but rather is an organizing force and is influenced by prior beliefs, supporting a theory-based explanation.