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Senior honors defenses mark end of intensive research projects

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Posted on Wednesday, April 7, 2021

This spring, several Westminster College senior honors scholars will publicly defend their capstone research—a culmination of nearly two years’ worth of high-level academic exploration.

“While every student at Westminster experiences capstone, students in the All-College Honors Program begin working on their capstone research early in the junior year, developing and proposing a project to their honors board of three faculty,” said Dr. Kristianne Kalata, director of the All-College Honors Program and associate professor of English.

Each honors scholar conducts research under the mentorship of three faculty mentors—two experts in the major field of study and one faculty member from another department. After a project has been approved, students work closely with their lead honors board faculty adviser to conduct innovative, rigorous hands-on research.

During the final semester of study, each student submits a final thesis to the honors board and holds a public defense—which includes a presentation followed by a question-and-answer session with faculty and attendees—of their honors research.

“Participating in an honors capstone project was extremely beneficial because it gave me the ability to investigate my project on a much deeper level than I would have otherwise,” said Elaina Chapnell, a senior mathematics major from New Castle. “I was able to explore different directions my project could have taken and ultimately decide on something I am passionate about while still having time to fully explore the topic.”
“Honors research has taught me to be resilient and I am a better student, and person, because of it,” said Lexi Koslosky, a senior biochemistry major from Dunbar, Pennsylvania.

This year’s senior honors scholars span eight academic departments across six schools of study. In many cases, Kalata said, these scholars’ research questions developed from major coursework and were expanded to achieve breadth, depth and interdisciplinarity. In other cases, students used honors research as an opportunity to explore ideas and topics not available to them in existing classes.

Such work prepares honors scholars well for job and graduate school interviews.

“Honors research has challenged me in ways that I never would have expected and I truly believe that this process, and the honors program, has prepared me for the academic rigor of a graduate education,” said Kaley Costabile, a business administration major from Pittsburgh who plans to pursue a master’s degree in student affairs in higher education. “I used to dread the idea of research because it felt daunting and overwhelming, but now having conducted it, I do not think I’ll ever want to stop.”

This year’s honors scholars and their honors defenses, presented via Zoom, include:

•    Jessica Booher, mathematics major from Ravenna, Ohio, will present “Recommender Systems in Python” at 3:35 p.m. Monday, April 12. Lead adviser: Dr. Natacha Fontes-Merz, associate professor of mathematics.

•    Elaina Chapnell, mathematics major from New Castle, will present “Using Machine Learning to Identify Diabetic Retinopathy” at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, April 15. Lead adviser: Dr. Natacha Fontes-Merz, associate professor of mathematics.

•    Emily Cornman, a biology and sociology double major from Templeton, Pennsylvania, will present her biology defense “Evaluating Wine to Water Ceramic Silver-Impregnated Pot and Candle Filters as a Sustainable Solution for the Global Water Crisis” at 5 p.m. Monday, April 19. Lead adviser: Dr. Joseph Balczon, associate professor of biology. Cornman offered her sociology defense “The Unique Experiences of the Sandwich Generation” in December 2020 under lead adviser Dr. Jamie Chapman, assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice.

•    Kailey Costabile, business administration major from New Castle, presented “Developing a Strategic Planning Model for Faculty/Staff Mental Health Awareness Training at Westminster College” on April 6. Lead adviser: Dr. Robert Badowski, assistant professor of business administration.

•    Timothy Hering, English and music double major from New Galilee, Pennsylvania, presented “Jammin’ with Langston Hughes: A Symphony of Truth in Black America” on March 17. Lead adviser: Dr. Deborah Mitchell, professor of English.

•    Nyna Hess, English major from Columbus, Ohio, will present “Miracle Writers: Evolution, Influence, and Purpose of Magical Realism” at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 14. Lead adviser: Dr. Trisha Cowen, assistant professor of English.

•    Hannah Hunter, biochemistry major from Fredonia, Pennsylvania, will present “Purification of Alpha-Synuclein for Membrane Binding Studies” at 6 p.m. Wednesday, April 14. Lead adviser: Dr. Jessica Sarver, assistant professor of chemistry.

•    Lexi Koslosky, biochemistry major from Dunbar, Pennsylvania, will present “Combining Slippery Liquid Infused Porous Surfaces and Quorum Sensing Inhibition to Reduce Biofilm Formation of Pseudomonas Aeruginosa” at 5:15 p.m. Wednesday, April 7. Lead adviser: Dr. Erin Wilson, associate professor of chemistry.

•    Jessica Nelson, physics and mathematics major from New Castle, will present her physics project “Exploring Track Trigger Parameters for Exotic and Long Lived Particle Searches” at 12:15 p.m. Thursday, April 8, followed by her mathematics project “Modeling Uncontrolled and Controlled Covid-19 Spread Using Graph Theory” at 1 p.m. Lead adviser for both: Dr. Natacha Fontes-Merz, associate professor of mathematics.

•    Morgan Shine, biochemistry major from Greenville, will present “Uridylation of the Histone mRNA Stem-Loop and Dephosphorylation of the Stem-Loop Binding Protein Maintain the Cytoplasmic Histone mRNA-Protein Complex” at 5 p.m. Monday, April 12. Lead adviser: Dr. Patrick Lackey, assistant professor of chemistry.

•    Julia Strobel, molecular biology major from New Castle, will present “PCID2 Regulates Nuclear Export of BARD1 mRNA” at 5:15 p.m. Tuesday, April 13. Lead adviser: Dr. Karen Resendes, associate professor of biology.

•    Brandon Williams, biochemistry major from Sandy Lake, presented “Distinguishing Different Conformations of Membrane-Bound Alpha-Synuclein through Computational and Biochemical Methods” on April 5. Lead adviser: Dr. Jessica Sarver, assistant professor of chemistry.

For more information about Westminster College’s Honors Program, please visit or contact Dr. Kristianne Kalata at

Pictured top from left, Morgan Shine, Elaina Chapnell, Brandon Williams; middle from left, Timothy Hering, Kailey Costabile, Jessica Booher; bottom from left, Lexi Koslosky, Emily Cornman, Nyna Hess. (Not pictured are Hannah Hunter, Jessica Nelson and Julia Strobel)