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LEWISBURG, Pa. — Growing up in a small town in northwestern Pennsylvania, Bucknell University senior Dan Dillon spent a lot of time traversing rural highways to visit his father's native Bloomsburg and other places across the state.
Later, during trips from home to Bucknell, Dillon began to consider the merits of the speed limit on Interstate 80 and how safe it would be to allow drivers to accelerate beyond 65 mph. During an econometrics class with Associate Professor of Economics Chris Magee last year, Dillon set out to examine the relationship between increased speed limits and fatalities in three states. This year, he expanded the study on a national level for an honor thesis project.
"My thesis explores the effect of rural speed limit increases on rural interstates and roads off of those rural interstates," Dillon said. "In Professor Magee's class, I looked at data from Pennsylvania, Maryland and New York and the effects on fatality rates in those states. For my honors thesis, I extended that to nationwide data."
Dillon, an interdisciplinary studies in economics and mathematics major, was among a 40 seniors who conducted in-depth research for honors theses this year. Students delved into topics ranging from media coverage of sports scandals and the effect of candidates' appearances in elections to the intricacies of a virus affecting the health of honeybees and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster's influence on health and culture.
The Honors Program is designed to encourage intellectual independence and to recognize academic excellence. Typically, students in the program complete an independent study with a faculty adviser, an honors thesis or a creative project, and an oral examination, said Erin Jablonski, associate professor of chemical engineering and honors council chair.
Dillon, who will work for Liberty Mutual in Boston as an actuary after graduation, analyzed fatality rates between 1981 and 2009, in all the United States except Hawaii and Delaware. (The maximum speed limit in Hawaii is 60 mph, and Delaware has no rural interstates.) He examined the effects of "speed spillover" on roads off rural highways — or the phenomenon of drivers continuing at a higher rate of speed when they get off interstates. He also looked at traffic diversion, the tendency for drivers to choose roads with higher speed limits.
"Most studies find that when speed limits go up, fatalities rise," Dillon said. "We found the same effect on rural interstates, but I differentiate between increases from 55 mph to 70 mph and to 75 mph and above. From the results, it seems that increasing from 55 mph to 70 mph is especially dangerous."
Dillon proved himself as a strong researcher during the econometrics class, Magee said. Expanding the project through an honors thesis allowed him to dig deeper, preparing him for graduate school research or his future career.
Media coverage of sports scandals
Stuart Dezenhall, a history and psychology double major from Bethesda, Md., analyzed media coverage of three major sports scandals: the 1919 World Series, where the favored Chicago White Sox accepted bribes to intentionally lose to the Cincinnati Reds; the debate over American participation in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin during the reign of Hitler; and boxer Mohammad Ali's conscientious objection to the Vietnam War and his conversion to Islam.
After Dezenhall's initial research, Associate Professor of History John Enyeart suggested he explore deeper issues of racial bias in media coverage. "I found that media coverage of these events adhered directly to the cultural guidelines of the time," said Dezenhall, who plans to pursue a career in sports public relations.
"The senior thesis gave me the ability to combine my history major with an interest outside of academia," Dezenhall said. "It also tested my ability to police myself, because I was not going in to talk to the professor every week about my progress. I did almost all my first round of research in the summer and then had to make an argument for a proposal."
A closer look at honeybees
Sarah Findeis, a cell biology/biochemistry major from State College, Pa., sought to explore questions about colony collapse disorder, a mysterious phenomenon where worker bees abandon their hives. Colony collapse has been blamed on everything from mites and viruses to environmental conditions.
"We were looking at the specific mechanism behind how proteins are made in Deformed Wing Virus," said Findeis, who worked with Associate Professor of Biology Marie Pizzorno. The only way to improve the health of the bees, Pizzorno said, is "to study the agents that cause the disease."
Findeis, who plans to attend Penn State Medical College after graduation, grew as a researcher through her honors thesis, Pizzorno said.
"By the end of the project, she was coming up with solutions to problems that would arise," Pizzorno said. "It was great to see her become a real independent thinker."
In the mountains of Alaska
Geology major Erin Donaghy of Colts Neck, N.J., focused her honors thesis on how the southwestern Talkeetna Mountains of Alaska were formed and evolved over time. She traveled last summer with Associate Professor of Geology Jeff Trop and another student to collect samples from Alaska's Willow Creek and determine the age and origin of rocks in the Eastern Susitna Basin. Donaghy, who plans to pursue a master's in geology from Northern Arizona University after graduation, said the experience was among the most rewarding she has had.
"I dove into it, and it was worth every minute," she said. "What's great about Bucknell is you have all this opportunity to do research with faculty. It is an invaluable experience."
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