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Researcher of the Month

March 2023

Nicholas SmithNicholas Smith

Major: Human Evolutionary Biology, Class of 2023

Research Mentor:  Dr. Paul Kelton, History Department

Nicholas Smith (class of 2023) is a first-generation college student in the Honors College majoring in Human Evolutionary Biology, an interdisciplinary program offered by the Departments of Anthropology and Ecology & Evolution. A self-described “history nerd,” Nicholas chose a topic for his honors thesis that draws on his love of history as well as his strong science background; and is currently working under the direction of Dr. Paul Kelton (History) to research the origins of the 1918 influenza pandemic.

A year ago, when he was uncertain of what he would be doing for his required Honors College senior project, Nicholas recalls feeling daunted by the prospect of doing a thesis. His advice now is: “…. if you have it a topic, and you're interested in it, you’ll be able to find a professor out there who is also interested in it.  It can be scary to be emailing professors but most professors are more than willing to talk to you. So I think if you're thinking about it, just do it, and you'll be surprised how not scary it is, once you just get the ball rolling.”

On campus, Nicholas has mentored students through the Honors College Big Sibling program, is a Commuter Assistant/Freshman Mentor, and has served as a Teaching Assistant for organic chemistry and human anatomy classes. Currently, he is a student representative on the University Senate's Environment Committee and advocates for the protection of the Ashley Schiff Preserve. During the academic year, he works an average of 20-24 hours a week at the Long Island Community Hospital as an ER Phlebotomist; and also volunteers at Long Island State Veterans Home. His goal following graduation is to become a Physician Assistant.

Nicholas is a five-time recipient the Outstanding Academic Achievement, recognizing students who achieved multiple semesters with a 4.0 semester GPA. Nicholas is a graduate of Sachem High School East in Long Island. In his spare time, he likes to watch hockey and soccer; and also enjoys Star Wars and Pokemon. Below are excerpts of his interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director. 

The Interview:

Karen: What are you working on for your senior thesis?

Nicholas: My thesis is about the origins and the discovery of the actual virus that caused the 1918 pandemic. What's unique about that pandemic was that it was the deadliest pandemic in history, and scientists for years have been trying to figure out why was that particular strain of influenza so unique and so deadly. In 1918, they didn't even know viruses existed or have the technology to sequence the genome. But over the years, scientists have been digging into the genome of it, which was sequenced in 2005, and trying to figure out what it was about this particular virus that was so unique, and so much more deadly than other pandemics. There is a lot that is still unknown. So I’ve been delving into some of the discussions in journals where scientists try to pinpoint specific points on the viral genome where the H1N1 virus is the most active … and digging into the scientific discussions about where the 1918 influenza virus came from, both geographically and evolutionarily. What were the discoveries along the way that led to the hypotheses about its origins?

Is there consensus about what caused that pandemic? Wasn’t it also called the Spanish Flu?

Well, it definitely didn't come from Spain. But there are a couple of different hypotheses about where it came from, geographically, and also what kind of what kind of species it came from. Did it come from a pig? Did it, or did it come from a bird? There's still a kind of debate among some of these hypotheses.

How much did the war contribute to its being so deadly?

It definitely enhanced the spread of it. One major hypothesis is that the virus originated from the Central United States, somewhere around Kansas. Some of the first cases were in US military camps. A probable scenario is that as troops from the United States boarded on ships and shipped off to Europe, they took the disease with them, and it spread to Europe, and then from there it spread all over the world: you had troops from India and troops from Asia and from Africa, and as they left the battlefield in 1918 and went home, they took this deadly pandemic with them. If it did indeed start in America, it makes a lot of sense that it would have coincided with America's entry into the war in early 1918, because that's when you start to see a lot of the first cases, and the war facilitated its spread about the whole world.

How did you initially come up with this topic for your thesis?

Yes, I know it is a little unusual as an EBH Major to be doing a project in history. But I've always really loved history. So, when I was going through the process of figuring out what to do for my senior thesis, the idea came to me one day to look at the differences between Covid and the 1918 flu. Last spring, I was taking microbiology (BIO315). Viruses were definitely on my mind, and I thought there were some good possibilities for a thesis topic. I initially reached out to another professor in history, who pointed me towards Dr. Kelton. When I then reached out to Dr. Kelton last March, and told him my initial idea, he gave me some background texts to read, including Spinney’s Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World. And after I read those, we sat down, and brainstormed a bunch of ideas, and we came up with this one, which I really like it because it's history, but also because it is very much science based. A lot of my research has so far has been focused on the scientific journals, looking into the virology and bacteriology to help us understand the properties of this virus. So, I really enjoyed the synthesis between the history and my science background.

Did you find much documentation about what people did to control the spread of the disease back in 1918?

They did mask. They did try to do social distancing. But they also did a lot of crazy things … I remember one particular case of a doctor who noticed that his patients who worked in mercury mines didn't get the flu. So he started injecting his patients with mercury to protect from the flu. I also saw a stat that a significant percentage of the people who actually died from the pandemic died from an aspirin overdose, just because doctors prescribed so much aspirin as a preventative.

 You must be coming across many fascinating historical accounts.

Yes, the background on the first initial report on the genome of this virus is a really interesting story in itselfThere is a man called Johan Hultin who was a medical student from the University of Iowa, who got the idea to go and try and find live virus — back in the 1950sHe went to this mass grave in Alaska where they buried bodies underneath the permafrost hoping to harvest some of the specimens from those people, and actually got some lung specimens but wasn’t able to do anything with them because the genome sequencing technology wasn’t available. It wasn't until the late nineteen-nineties that someone from the National Institutes of Health, Jeffery Taubenberger, also had the idea to search for tissue samples from 1918. Hultin contacted him and went to back to Alaska to look for more samples of lung tissue and this time, the technology had advanced so much, that he was actually able to use those specimens, along with other ones that they had from the military, and they were able to compile the first initial report on the genome.

What has been valuable for you about doing a senior capstone thesis project?

I’ve learned a lot, but I’d say it's particularly useful to be able to practice this kind of academic writing. No matter what your field is going to be, from medicine to law, it really does help to put everything we learned in our classes about writing and communication into this one project. I also think that it’s also going to be rewarding to have the chance to share what I’ve been spending so much time working on. And looking back, I can see how doing this project has kind of built up my confidence as I’ve gone along. Just getting started was the biggest hurdle.I remember thinking, “oh, my God! What am I going to do?” Even though I had written research papers for classes, it seemed overwhelming to come up with a topic where I would be expected to write 20 to 25 pages on one thesis topic.

What advice would you give to other students facing a similar challenge?

I would say if you've never done research before, and you're starting out to do this kind of project for the first time, it will seem really overwhelming in the beginning. But when you actually get down to it, I promise it is not the kind of thing that's is going to overwhelm your life. First of all, if you find something that you enjoy or are curious about, it shouldn't really be an issue. But I wish someone had told me that when I was starting out, that it would be manageable, because knowing that would have been pretty helpful. Yes, it is time consuming. It’s going to take a lot of energy. But it's not going to consume your entire life for the next year, which was what really worried me when I thought about it last year and was concerned about how to balance school, work, etc.

To anybody who's thinking about doing a senior thesis, and feeling like it’s going to be such a daunting task, I’d say: Just do it. I think if you have it a topic, and you're interested in it, you’ll be able to find a professor out there who is also interested in it.  It can be scary to be emailing professors but most professors are more than willing to talk to you. So, I think if you're thinking about it, just do it, and you'll be surprised how not, scary it is once you just get the ball rolling.

How has Professor Kelton helped you or guided you in this project?

He's been excellent— really, really excellent. I never had done history research before, or even written a history paper for a class. So, in that regard, he’s shown me what it is like to think like a historian, and also how to go about writing a paper like this. He's also really, really knowledgeable about the topic!  Even though a lot of my research has been focused on scientific papers, I also did some background reading, looking for newspaper articles from a certain time period. And Dr. Kelton was able to point me in the right direction and show me how to do that. He introduced me to Chris Filstrup, the historian from the library, who was able to teach me how to look at newspaper databases from the twenties and thirties.

Do you see a lot of parallels between our understanding of what happened in 1918, vs. the recent covid pandemic?

The main difference is how deadly it was. In 1918, they estimate that 50 million people died from the flu just in 2 years alone, whereas covid hasn't had anywhere near those numbers. Plus because of the advances in our technology, scientists understood what was happening with covid so much faster. With the 1918 flu virus, it took 87 years to figure out its genome.

I feel like the 1918 flu is one of those topics that just gets briefly mentioned in history class, and gets brushed over …. but we never really get into the details and a lot of people don’t really know that much about it. That’s why I think it’s been really cool for me to be able to research it, and dive deeper into a topic I've always kind of been interested in, by doing this senior thesis project. It's such an important part of history, and I look forward to having the chance to talk about it in May, at the Honors College symposium. I want to get others interested in talking about how it started or where it came from, and convey some of my excitement about the science and history of how they were able to discover it, and what questions are still being debated about the virus.

I’m sure the Honors College symposium will be a good experience!

I am really looking forward to it. I remember going to the symposium last year, and it was really interesting seeing what  research projects were being presented. Remembering the uncertainty that I had last year of what I would be doing this year, I’m really glad I chose this topic. I'm happy I was able to find something I really like.