Molly Adams and Elizabeth Merrill Awarded Faculty Senior Thesis Prizes

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Left side of the “Spectrum of Life” exhibit in the Hall of Biodiversity at
the American Museum of Natural History Source: Image taken by Molly H. Adams
September 2011
At the end of the semester, the faculty of the Department of Social Science and Cultural Studies recognized two of our seniors for their outstanding thesis work.  This year, we were pleased to give the Senior Thesis Award to Molly H. Adams for her thesis Communicating Interdependence: Ecological Thinking and the Natural History Museum.  

View of the Old Field, pond and trails from the deck on the East side of the South Fork Natural History Museum
Source: Image taken by the Molly H. Adams, March 2012.
Comparing the American Museum of Natural History, particularly its Hall of Biodiversity, with the smaller and more recent South Fork Natural History Museum and Nature Center on eastern Long Island, Adams examines the techniques used to by each museum to communicate its understanding of ecology and Nature.  She moves from there to a discussion of the politics and aesthetics of Mark Dion’s Neukom Vivarium (2006).

 Mark Dion’s Neukom Vivarium (2006) at the Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle, Washington
 Source: Image taken by Janine Robinson <>

“Dzanga-Sangha Rainforest Diorama” in the Hall of Biodiversity and the American Museum of Natural History
Source: (c) AMNH / Denis Finnin <
 In addition to the award for her thesis, Adams also won Academic Achievement Honors at Convocation for her outstanding academic work throughout her undergraduate studies (See:  

Here is a brief excerpt from Communicating Interdependence: Ecological Thinking and the Natural History Museum:  

"The Hall of Biodiversity’s installation labeled the “Spectrum of Life” uses
more than 1,500 specimens and models, organized into 28 living groups to show over 3.5 billion years of evolution and to display the awe-inspiring diversity of life.  The Linnaean taxonomical approach of categorization, which is used in this display, groups all life into three kingdoms that are divided into classes, and then into orders, families, genera and species.  It helps viewers to see an extremely wide variety of different types of organisms by separating microorganisms from mammals and bacteria from birds.  This technique of organization emphasizes the quantitative aspects of biodiversity rather than qualitative ones. Because of this, the visual display of replicas and specimen fails to communicate the importance of each organism in the ecosystem of which they are a part.  In other words, somewhat ironically, the roles of ecosystems themselves are neglected, and rather the emphasis is placed on the range of different species and the diversity of their visual characteristics.  For example, several organisms are shown either in a linear fashion according to size, ranging from smallest to largest, or collected in naturalist boxes, neglecting to visually represent any ecological relationships that add biological meaning and context.  These organisms have been dissected from the communities and ecosystems in which they actually reside in nature, making it impossible to realize the greater context that they are pulled out of."

Elizabeth G. Merrill was recognized for her thesis But Hallucinations Are Also Facts: Althusser, Philosophical Autobiography, and the Narration of Mental Illness.  Her thesis traces the interconnections and contradiction, the breaks and continuities, between and behind Althusser's long battle with depression, his famous mental break-down (during which he strangled his wife in his sleep) and his philosophical readings of Marx and Lacan, among others.  Merrill uses Althusser's own autobiography, written as a kind of Confession upon his release from psychiatric care to discuss the relation of self and narratives of self to confessional autobiography and of philosophical work to mental illness.

 "My goal is not to judge the merit of the philosophical concepts credited to Althusser, or to place those concepts in relation to those developed by other philosophers.  Rather, I will discuss these concepts, and their revision in light of personal revelations, as they present themselves in Althusser’s memoir. The ways in which Althusser’s reflection on his experiences leads him to revise his theories of repressive and ideological state apparatuses shed light on the relationship between philosopher and philosophy, particularly when something as powerfully disruptive as mental illness is at work. Any claims made about Althusser’s mental illness will be derived solely from his own commentary on it, though I also hope to investigate the place of the creative and mentally ill in society generally. In presenting the life and work of Althusser as representative of the complicated relationship between the often private, lifelong project of Merrill handling mental illness and the individual’s public creative output, I hope to understand how these two factors can exist together and inform one another."


Note: It was an exceptionally difficult decision this year, as the faculty was very impressed by the work and dedication of our students.  The suggestion was made to give everyone an award for if nothing else getting through the thesis process.  Given this year, that sounds like a very good idea!  Congratulations to Molly, Lilly, and to all of our thesis students! 

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