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Researchers of the Month
History & Political Science majors, Honors College, Class of 2010
Political Science major, Honors College, Class of 2010
Research Mentor: Dr. Helmut Norpoth, Political Science
Research Collaborator [A. Nagler /Twitter project] - Drs. Steven Skiena & Charles Ward, Computer Science
No need to consult Twitter for this week’s best activities on campus. In well under 140 characters, our advice is:
“GO TO THE HONORS COLLEGE SYMPOSIUM, May 4 - 5 - 6!
You’ll have the opportunity to hear seniors engaged in research, scholarly & creative activities share the work comprised in their senior capstone thesis — a requirement of all the Honors College graduates.
Two of the multi-talented students who’ve learned much from the process of doing the
research, analyzing the data, and writing and presenting the results, are Mark Geraci, and Alex Nagler, two SB students who have made substantial contributions to the life of the campus
during the past four years. Both are political science majors (Mark is also double
majoring in history). Both work under the direction of Professor Helmut Norpoth. And
both were strongly influenced by the Poli Sci 317-318 courses they took with Prof.
Norpoth on “American Election Campaigns”/”Voters & Elections” during sophomore year,
and by the required course reading for the class, The American Voter Revisited.
Mark Geraci has a long-time familiarity with Stony Brook University, having grown up in the surrounding Stony Brook environs. He attended the nearby Ward Melville High School in East Setauket. At SB, Mark has served as President of Golden Key International Honour Society; is a Student Ambassador; served for 4 years as a Catholic Campus Ministry Peer Minister; is a member of Phi Beta Kappa; and has won a number of awards for excellence in community service and leadership. He was appointed to the New York State Commission on National and Community Service by Governor Patterson. Recently, Mark Geraci was one of 14 SB graduating seniors whose integration of academic excellence with other aspects of their lives was recognized by the SUNY Chancellor's Award for Student Excellence. Mark also is a recipient of the Provost Award for Academic Excellence, and the Joseph N. Campolo Award for Legal Studies. Mark Geraci will be going to Fordham Law School in the fall.
Alex Nagler, born and raised in Brooklyn, attended Fort Hamilton High School. At SB, he is a member of PiSigma Alpha and Phi Beta Kappa, an editor of SBU Press, a NYPIRG voter registrant, an oboist, and the founder and president of SBU College Democrats. Alex received the Michael Gramer PoliSci award (2009), and the Ambassador F. Secchia Voyage of Discovery grant by the National American Italian Foundation (2008). After graduation, Alex plans to take one year off before applying to graduate programs, and to work on publishing his research on Twitter. Alex presented a poster on his project at the recent URECA Celebration.
Below are excerpts of their interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.
Karen: Tell me about your research project: what is the central question or issue you’re exploring? What led you to your thesis topic?
Alex. Originally I was going to work on the importance of cell phones in the 2008 election.
But then, June 13th happened. Iran basically blew up into a sea of green after the
election. And then for me, cell phones in American politics were small potatoes compared
to use of cell phones in Iran and the use of Twitter. Messages were getting out; and
people were receiving and sending messages on their phone, and this information managed
to get out of the country—to spread where people were protesting, where people could
go for medical help, where to avoid the Basij. Then on the 20th, the Neda Agha-Soltan video
came out, a video of the last moments of this 22 year old girl who was protesting…and
suddenly she’s shot in the chest. We’ve never had as full and powerful an image in
video like the death of this girl — which became the most watched on the internet…
I was paying close, close attention to what was happening in the country and it was just fascinating to me, the use of the social media networking throughout these events. So I chose the use of Twitter as the topic of my senior thesis. It’s ironic, I guess, doing 50-page paper on messages transcribed in 140 characters or less! …
Karen: And you, Mark?
Mark. Basically the honors thesis for me developed out of an interest from one of Prof Norpoth’s classes. When Prof. Norpoth started talking about the "Bradley effect," whereby voters report that they’ll vote for a black candidate but they don’t, it really caught my attention. I knew that this would be a great topic to look into. I even thought at the time that the Bradley effect might kick in during the 2008 election in the US — and later on, when what I thought might happen didn’t happen, and Obama didn’t lose, I almost abandoned my original topic. But Prof. Norpoth advised me not to ditch my topic so quickly. …He showed me an MS-NBC table, an exit poll in which 60% of white democrats in Louisiana voted for McCain. And that’s when my focus on racial politics in the presidential election of 2008 just kind of took off as an interest that I pursued in more and more depth. My honors thesis started to develop into a comprehensive analysis of exit poll and survey data, and a look at voting behaviors on a state by state basis. Discovering these things, finding out how certain states vote in certain ways, and why certain people choose certain candidates over others really captured my attention. I love the topic.
Karen. For some students, an honors thesis project can be the longest, and most challenging, paper they’ve ever had to write. What helped you focus your project? Did you find it to be an overwhelming task when you first got started?
Alex. Prof. Norpoth , he’s been a tremendous help.
Mark. He’s the best!
Alex. Yes, he really is the best! But he’s not about to give you any quick answers. He wants you to find it out on your own.
Mark. First of all, the most crucial help was that he gave me the start…He showed me that poll. He showed me where to look. That’s where it started out. He was crucial in helping me focus on things that I should be looking for. He sent me papers to read, to analyze…I recently gave him a draft , and when he sent it back, he noted: “This number’s a little off. You should check this number.” And this is enormously helpful too. He basically knows how these things work, in and out. He knows if something seems off. He’s on top of every number you put down in your thesis!
Alex. For me he was incredibly helpful too. He got me to the right people. He got me to this professor in Iowa. He got me connected with about Prof. Skiena, here in Computer Science. And from there it hit the ground running. . . . I have a database of 400,000 tweets. I’d say one third in Farsi, 2/3 in English, from the dates of June 18th to June 27th. I was able to find that database, thanks to another researcher, who had used a program called “The Archivist,” with the hashtag “iran” and “iran election” and download them into xml format. (This was a third party. He was just looking to see who the most common tweeters during that period were.) I took that database, and after several false starts, Prof. Norpoth and I gave it to Prof. Skiena and one of his post docs, Charles Ward, in Computer Science. And using the text map system, they created this usable database for me where now I can search who was saying what, what was being said, what were the trends, etc. I can get a day by day breakdown of what was coming out of Twitter. And from that, I was able to compare to the actual events on the ground and see how they linked up. Was Twitter a real time use of technology? …
Karen. Tell me more about the Computer Science connection.
Alex. Had I not found Prof. Skiena, I would have had to have learned Python, R And this Readme program. I would have my geek quotient up a lot! But Steve Skiena and Charles Ward, they were great. We’ve actually had only one physical meeting… but the fact that Charles was able to get this database done for me (I gave it to him before spring break) with such a quick turn-over time….well, that shows how they’ve been the most helpful things in the world! The interesting thing too is that you can get a sense of what large and small databases are in different departments. For us, this 400,000 entry database was huge. For Prof. Skiena, this was a relatively small database.
Karen. Mark, you must have had lots of data as well?
Mark. My topic is very popular: the election of 2008. There are so many different factors to analyze from age to income… The part I underestimated was just how much would be encompassed within my topic. For me, the most frustrating part was starting out with this SPSS program which has thousands and thousands of pieces of data, surveys of exit polls. Statistical analysis can be difficult when you’re starting out because you don’t know what to look for. Eventually you kind of get the hang of it and you can do cross tabulations and regressions…
Karen. Sounds as if you’ve both gained quite a bit of expertise from working on your senior project!
Mark. Definitely. I’m now TA-ing the PoliSci class that I took that gave me this idea
two years ago. I understand these topics so much more now now - all the different
aspects of the election that relate to race. I know how to direct students who doing
papers. In some ways, I don’t think you really understand what’s going on until you
start doing the research yourself, that’s key. Once you start discovering things on
your own…you realize it’s a lot different than when you just sit through lectures.
It’s a different sort of learning. It’s really great to be exposed to that. . .
Basically you really are like a detective in a sense, looking for clues. And you get taken up into certain topics that you didn’t initially think you would be taken into…. I looked at race, at how democratic identification is dropping…a lot of intersecting topics. When you think about the sheer magnitude of what’s going on in the American electorate, in one particularly election, and how it’s drastically different than 4 years ago…it’s very exciting.
Alex. For me, it is exciting there’s still much work to be done in this area. There wasn’t
really a lot of literature out there on the topic. There’s one professor I’m consulting
with at University of Iowa, he put it to me point blank, “Don’t spend your time looking
for papers or articles, you’re going to be the one writing them.” That's an aspect
I really like - that we’re going to have to write the articles. There’s not going
to be a lot written for us on this. There’s much work to be done. There are more areas
to be explored. This is hopefully only the beginning of my research on Twitter and Middle Eastern politics. Who knows? I could end up
with a PhD in contemporary Islamic affairs.
Karen. Both of you, from your freshman year in the Honors College, knew that the time to do a thesis would come eventually, senior year. Was it something you looked forward to?
Alex. It’s definitely part of the appeal - the fact you have to walk out with a physical thesis, and say, “this is what I’ve learned.” And everyone used to joke –“don’t put your thesis off to the last minute.” You think, “Yeah, yeah, yeah I’ll be fine…” Now I’m the one telling sophomores and juniors, “For the love of God, do NOT put your thesis off to the last minute!” I admit too, I like it that there’s no capstone length. Sometimes when you’re doing smaller projects, you’re limited to 10 or 15 pages maximum. When I took Supreme Court decision making, there was a page cutoff, nothing over 15 pages. But with the Honors College thesis, there’s no constraint. I’m able to write 20 pages on what happened in 9 days.
Karen. It’s great that you can really immerse yourself in the topic.
Mark. In a class, you will get research topics and you will discover things on your own. For a thesis, you don’t have any background. You really have to discover it on your own. It’s powerful thing; it gives you insight into how academia works. Basically when you’re in class, you’re reading books, and you can take what you're learning for granted. Now I realize, how did these books get written? What things did these people use to get this data? On a smaller scale, I understand how it works and it gives you a different perspective on your field of study, your discipline.
Karen. What advice would you impart to freshman honors college students as far as doing a thesis?
Alex. Don’t wait until spring term!
Mark. Don’t get discouraged if you think your initial vector of attack is thwarted. It if doesn’t work out, Try again, alter your thesis, don’t be afraid to do that. Be perceptive to things you’re interested in, thing you hear in class – and look into it.
Alex. They always advertise that some kid did a dance thesis. Somebody should do a dance thesis again in the Honors College!. . . But my advice more broadly is: Feel free to think outside the box. Based on what I’ve taken and TA’d in, I should have done my thesis in Constitutional Law. That would have been the safe, logical choice …but I decided to think outside the box and focus on what I spend a good deal of time tweeting over this summer. If you like something and you think you want to research it, that’s a sure sign that you should!