First and foremost: Researcher completes first-ever University Honors thesis

This story was originally published in April 2015

A University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire senior with an interest in forensic science will soon graduate with a distinction not conferred on any student who has attended the institution before her.

Nikki Weiss, an anthropology and chemistry minor from Altoona, is completing and defending the first-ever senior University Honors thesis written at UW-Eau Claire in the 31-plus years of the University Honors Program.

Weiss' thesis, titled "Constructing a Narrative of the Past: The Story of Skeletal Tuberculosis," involved examining skeletal data from three different time periods in England, Hungary and Egypt. From this data she determined the proportion of individuals in each population that were affected by skeletal tuberculosis.

"I then used statistical analysis to determine if the proportion of individuals with tuberculosis changed over time," Weiss said. "Mostly I was interested in looking for trends in the virulence: Did tuberculosis appear to be evolving? In the end, I found that it was difficult to say for sure if the pathogen was evolving, though it probably was. I also found that many cultural factors may have been influencing how many people were being infected with the disease, such as the building of a canal in Egypt and a major change in lifestyle in Hungary.

"The main thing about working on this thesis is that it has prepared me for graduate school in ways that a traditional lecture-based class could not," Weiss said. "I was able to form a kind of apprenticeship with Dr. Robert Barth (associate professor of geography and anthropology and Weiss' thesis adviser). Learning how to work with a mentor in a really collaborative way was beneficial because I'll be in a similar situation in grad school.

"Also, the anthropology program at UW-Eau Claire is quite small and doesn't offer a course in paleopathology, so writing this thesis gave me a background in a field I want to pursue - a background that I wouldn't otherwise have obtained because there's no traditional course offered for it on campus."

Great honors programs enable students to engage in four years of honors work and honors experiences, starting in honors general education courses and culminating with honors work in a student's major and/or minor fields, said Dr. Jeff Vahlbusch, University Honors Program director.

"The gold standard of such honors programs is a senior honors thesis or honors project such as the one Nikki is completing," Vahlbusch said. "Such projects offer honors students the opportunity to do extensive, exciting graduate-level research and analysis; to sometimes make real contributions to their fields; and to defend their methods and conclusions before a faculty committee.

"Nikki's will be the first of what will be many such projects in the future. We are redesigning the University Honors Program to give more and more University Honors students the opportunity to conclude their studies at UW-Eau Claire with such great projects."

Weiss said she is excited about the opportunities her thesis completion creates for honors students in anthropology at UW-Eau Claire.

"I know the financial issues the university is facing, and anthropology is one of the programs that might get hit hardest because it doesn't offer a major," Weiss said. "I hope my thesis can help demonstrate that despite how small the department is, we're working on exciting and relevant projects that are preparing students for their future careers. I hope other anthropology students will start to undertake thesis work now that the road has been paved."

Weiss said the University Honors Program opened the world of research to her. As a freshman, she was in the Honors section of an introductory psychology class taught by Dr. Jennifer Muehlenkamp, who was looking for student researchers to help her on a problem-based learning project. Weiss worked on the project her sophomore year and eventually presented her work at a Dinner with Honors event as well as at the Provost's Honors Symposium. She recently learned the research will be published in the journal Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology.

She also has worked on research with another Honors instructor, Dr. Jim Phillips, professor of chemistry.

"I've been working in his lab since my junior year, and I'm just finishing up a paper on the research I've been doing," Weiss said. "We hope to submit it for publication in a physical chemistry journal."

Weiss has submitted her chemistry research manuscript for departmental honors in chemistry and also is completing a departmental honors program in geography and anthropology.

Weiss will graduated from UW-Eau Claire May 23, 2015 and has accepted a fellowship at The Ohio State University, where she'll begin work on her master's degree this fall and eventually work toward a doctorate in biological anthropology. She said she is leaning toward a career in forensic work.

"I always tell people it's the kind of stuff you see on the TV show 'Bones' because a lot of people don't know what forensic anthropology is," she said. "However, I really enjoyed my thesis work, so I might also study bioarchaeology and paleopathology. That would involve excavating older sites and, ideally, learning about the health of past peoples."