William & Mary

2009-2010 Distinguished Thesis and Dissertation Awardees Apply Scholarship Outside the Classroom

Although a formula for academic excellence cannot be pinpointed, the recipients of the 2009-10 Distinguished Thesis and Dissertation Awards share at least one characteristic in common: the desire to take their scholarship outside the classroom. The accomplishments of these four students in Arts & Sciences (A&S) at the College of William & Mary – each hailing from a different department – suggest that the most successful work results from a combination of experiences, within and outside of formal academic settings.  The A&S Graduate Studies Advisory Board encourages this pursuit of excellence in original research by sponsoring the annual Distinguished Thesis and Dissertation Awards. 

Ella Diaz, who received the 2009-10 doctoral dissertation award in the humanities and social sciences, completed her degree in American Studies by researching The Royal Chicano Air Force, an arts collective responsible for public murals in and around Sacramento. After tracing the group’s origins in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and 70s, Ella analyzes its work through lenses of geography, nationalism, and gender. Her project, she explains, grew out of a course on “narrative” that she took in her first semester at William & Mary. Her interest in the group continued well beyond that first encounter; indeed, her inquiry into the Royal Chicano Air Force bookended Ella’s graduate study at William & Mary. She is currently a Visiting Lecturer at the San Francisco Art Institute and is pursuing several postdoctoral opportunities.

Across the disciplinary aisle, Steven Gianvecchio completed his doctoral studies in Computer Science with a project rooted in his own experiences in internet chat rooms. Curious about the process of distinguishing between human users and “bots”, Steven turned to methods based on entropy, a measure of complexity. His dissertation built upon the notion of covert communication, which Steven encountered in his graduate coursework and also used for his master’s research. The detection of potentially harmful bots is key for maintaining security in today’s networked environment. After graduation, Steven joined MITRE, a federally-funded think tank that specializes in technical security.

Elizabeth Cook, recipient of the 2009-10 Distinguished Thesis Award in the Humanities, presented her research at the fall 2010 meeting of the Graduate Studies Advisory Board.Elizabeth Cook was granted the distinguished thesis award in the humanities for her study of local architecture. “Of all the goods consumed in eighteenth-century Virginia,” she writes, “only one kind had to be produced in the local market: buildings.” While working at Colonial Williamsburg’s archaeology lab, Elizabeth was introduced to the recently-conserved Wray collection, which inspired her to research the business practices and everyday lives of carpenters in Colonial Virginia. She plans to publish portions of this research, and is currently at work studying for her doctoral comprehensive examination in the W&M History Department.

Chemist Sara Kampfe approached her master’s research from a professional perspective. As a researcher at Applied Process Technology International (APTI), she learned about the Chesapeake Algae Project, which provided an invaluable opportunity to study the potential of different strains of algae to produce ethanol fuel. Sara compared naturally-occurring algae from the York River to specimens grown in controlled environments, to determine which would serve as the more efficient energy source. Her findings indicated that while both sets of algae generated energy, additional work will be needed to result in viable biofuels. Sara continues to work at APTI, and is currently designing culture and fermentation procedures.

Whether they remain at William & Mary or have moved into other professional realms, the work of these exceptional students stands todocument their important accomplishments as master’s and doctoral students in Arts & Sciences. The continuing support of alumni and friends of the College enables this innovative research and the real-world applications and insights that result.