When President Martha E. Pollack sent an email in March detailing Cornell’s transition to online learning, many seniors began to wonder what the fate of their honors theses would be.
Katie Lee ’20 and Abby Bezrutcyzk ’20, environmental and sustainability majors, were lucky to have already completed the majority of their projects by this point and could continue at home.
“The stress of classes canceled and moving out of my apartment definitely put me behind on my thesis progress — but luckily the Environmental and Sustainability Sciences honors program gave me a two-week extension for submitting my thesis,” Bezrutcyzk said.
Both students are completing their honors thesis in Prof. Bernd Blossey’s, natural resources, invasive species lab on topics they are highly passionate about.
Bezrutcyzk’s research question focuses on the interactions between invasive plants and the surrounding environment — specifically how a specific species of grass negatively impacts soil. She decided to pursue her thesis on soil and plant interactions after taking a social ecology class in her junior year.
“We tend to think of soil as just a thing plants grow in, but it’s dynamic actually enough to potentially influence the plants we see in our landscapes,” Bezrutcyzk said “I’ve always loved plants, so combining plants and soil for my project just made sense.”
Lee’s project is exploring whether herbivory — the act of eating plants — of the Galerucella nymphaeae aquatic beetle impacts invasive and noninvasive plant species and how amphibian larvae thrive in freshwater ecosystems.
“Our results showed that the impacts of herbivory on both native and introduced plant species were inconsistent, which suggests that interactions between top-down and bottom-up effects of herbivory are context and trait dependent,” Lee said. Top-down refers to when certain predators control the population dynamics of an ecosystem, while bottom-up describes when resources have a greater influence.
Lee chose her particular topic because there are very few studies that have examined the effects of insect herbivory on live macrophytes, aquatic plants and their interactions with larger species higher up on the food chain.
“Past studies have mostly focused on the effects of leaf litter composition on terrestrial food webs, so I wanted to study these effects on live aquatic macrophytes,” Lee said.
Luckily, all of the research needed for these scientifically ambitious projects were completed before Cornell’s mandate to finish up courses online from home.
“Right now, I’m in the fortunate position to have all the data collected and, in my laptop, making the whole project portable. As long as I don’t lose my laptop, I should be okay,” Bezrutcyzk said.
Similarly, Lee finished completing her nutrient tests in February and has been writing her thesis ever since.
“All of my interactions with professors, lab members and statistical consulting staff are now via Zoom meetings and telephone calls. However, this has been effective so far with minimal challenges,” Lee said.
The Blossey Lab is dedicated to conserving species and landscapes by understanding the ecological effects of introduced plant species. Both Lee and Bezrutcyzk worked with Blossey and postdoctoral student, Stacy Endriss, grad.
For underclassmen that are considering pursuing an honors thesis, Lee advises them to go for it.
“Honors theses truly allow you to develop practical skills that you are unlikely to get from academic coursework,” she said.
“If you do want to pursue one, pick a topic that really excites you,” Bezrutcyzk added. “And don’t be afraid to ask for help, because you’ll need it, and it’s supposed to be a learning process.”