Thesis Day 2016


Please join us on Friday May 13 for Science Writing Thesis Day!

Sit back and be educated as the class of 2016 presents their theses to the public, followed by their video and radio documentaries.  Can’t make it in person?  Watch the live stream from our Youtube channel!  (

Location: W20-491 (MIT Student Center)

Welcome, coffee and pastries: 9:00-10:00
Morning Session: 10:00 am

Conor Gearin
Evolution in the Cornbelt: How a Few Special Species Are Adapting to Industrial Agriculture
Over the last 150 years, humans have wrought sweeping changes to the Great Plains. What was once the prairie is now the Corn Belt—row crops planted from fencerow to fencerow. What does this mean for the native wildlife, which evolved for millions of years to live only on the prairie? Here are the stories of three species—cliff swallows, western corn rootworms, and prairie deer mice—that natural selection has reshaped to thrive in the new agricultural landscape. With his finches, Charles Darwin read the record of evolution in the past. In the Corn Belt, today’s scientists can see evolution in real time.
Catherine Caruso
Subconcussive Blows: Putting Young Brains at Risk
In 2009, three researchers studying concussions at Purdue University uncovered something shocking. Players’ brains were significantly changing even in the absence of concussions, due to an accumulation of smaller impacts called subconcussive blows. Years of subsequent research confirmed their initial finding—subconcussive blows are causing brain changes in high school athletes. But most people have never heard of them. Now, while the Purdue researchers are at the end of their funding, some 1.1 million high school football players continue to be at risk. This is the story of that research and its disturbing implications.

Margaux Phares
Your Brain On 9 Volts: The Specter and Hype of Electrical Brain Stimulation
People have done some pretty questionable things to their bodies with electricity. Over hundreds of years, we’ve tried everything from shocking away headaches with live torpedo fish, to bombarding patients’ brains with so much current that their bodies convulse. A more innocuous technology has since emerged: tDCS, or transcranial direct current stimulation. All it takes to build is a small battery, a couple of wires, some electrodes, and salt water. And it’s showing up in more places than you think—homemade laboratories, ski slopes, even the halls of Harvard Medical School. But, does it deliver?

Lunch Break 12:00 PM
Afternoon Session: 1:00 PM

Claudia Geib
Swimming Sentinels: Climate Clues from Stranded Marine Mammals
Marine mammals are the canaries in the coal mine of our warming planet, and they’ve stopped singing. From skinny sea lions on beaches in California, to hundreds of enormous dead whales in the fjords of Chile, scientists have been recently puzzled by a spate of dead and dying marine mammals. These events are so complicated that their cause can appear impossible to untangle. Yet a growing body of evidence strongly suggests that climate change has a hand in them all. As waters get warmer and normal ecosystems are scrambled, the very factors that cause marine mammals to strand have become more and more common. By paying attention to whales and dolphins, seals and sea otters, we may be able to learn something about our planet, and how its changes will impact its most abundant mammal: us.

Kendra Pierre-Louis
Geographies of Nowhere: Smeltertown and the Rising Wave of Environmental Refugees
We don’t often think of modern American communities as places that disappear. But lead pollution erased the tiny Texas community of Smeltertown from the map. And Smeltertown isn’t alone. Across America we’ve scraped communities from the landscape, smudged them from our memories. Pollution made these places unfit for human habitation. It turned the residents of these communities into environmental refugees. Another kind of pollution – climate change – threatens to push even more people from their homes. That these communities are gone is tragic. That there are billions of climate change refugees poised to join these environmental refugees is terrifying. What can we do to stop this tide? What can lessons can we learn from the towns that have already disappeared? What lessons can we learn from Smeltertown?

Eben Bein
Nudging Against Climate Change: Psychological Tools to Fix a Warming Planet
What if, during your next luxuriously long shower, a small device on the showerhead catches your eye? It counts gallons like a stopwatch. As the numbers grow, a cartoon polar bear despairingly watches the iceberg beneath him slowly melt. Small psychological nudges like this have profoundly shaped people’s choices in countless fields, from medicine to economics to policy. But can these tiny nudges help us take on the largest problems? Before the Goliath climate change, here stand the pioneers in psychology, economics and energy management, with a behavioral slingshot in hand.

Second Afternoon Session 2:30 PM

Eben Bein, Claudia Geib, Margaux Phares, and Libby Xhang
In January 2016 President Obama announced a “moonshot” to cure cancer, hearkening back to a unique success in American history. We got to the moon. But will this metaphor get us to a cure?

Conor Gearin, Sasha Chapman, and Allan Adams
A tiny single-celled bacteria species produces 1/10th of the world’s oxygen every year as it drifts in the ocean. Until 30 years ago, we didn’t know it existed.

No Second Chances
Kendra Pierre-Louis
The United States is diverse. Science journalism is not. This audio documentary explores the reasons behind and the impacts of science journalism’s diversity problem.

Language and Thought
Catherine Caruso, Alicia Chang and Christin Gilmer
Thinking is something we do every day, but how does it actually work? And can we think without language?

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