Happy Thesis Season!! Every year we post a series of interviews with seniors who have been working long and hard on their penultimate projects. Kicking off our 2020 ThesisCrazy Series is Wesleying‘s very own Melisa Olgun! Read after the drop to see what Melisa’s been up to in quarantine, academia, and beyond.
Melisa Olgun ‘20, NS&B and SISP double major, Certificate in Social, Cultural, and Critical Theory, Thesis in NS&B and SISP, Carrel #359
Where she is now:
“I am in New York, at my house, my parents’ house, on Long Island.”
“I just changed it the other day! Definitely still a working title, but ‘Whose Schizophrenia is It? An Intersectional Approach to how Race, Class, and Gender Co-produce Schizophrenia with Psychiatric Knowledge-Making.’ It’s a long boi.”
On her topic:
“The easiest way to explain what my thesis is about is to say that I examine, question, and problematize traditional notions of psychiatric knowledge-making. In its basic sense, I question the scientific method and aim to reconceptualize what research, the DSM, and psychiatric practice and diagnosis, and how they create a schizophrenia that isn’t just biological. The thesis essentially looks at the intersection between race, class, and gender and how it coproduces a schizophrenia, with medicine, that specifically targets poor black men. That’s because of racism, that’s because of classism, that’s because of the patriarchy, and how those things work together to specifically disenfranchise poor black men.
With that, what’s unique about this thesis is that not only does it have this sociological and science in tech lense, and theory on how neuroscience, psychology, psychiatry, and the medical institution are flawed, it also presents research from my lab, the schizophrenia and cognition lab on campus, with that lense. I’m not only talking about how things are flawed, I’m also putting those analyses and those criticisms into practice with my own research.”
On how she thought of the topic:
“I’ve been in Professor Kurtz’s lab since my junior year, and I love the lab because it’s this really great place to do clinical research. I get to work directly with people with schizophrenia, I administer the testing, I evaluate their symptoms. I felt this really strange feeling that like, who am I as an undergraduate to assess how someone is getting better? Who am I to reduce their experience with schizophrenia to statistical data and report on that? The second semester of my junior year, right when the idea for this thesis was coming to fruition, I was in two specific SISP classes, The Anthropology of Science with Professor Thakor, and Biofeminisms with Professor Pitts-Taylor. They were classes that questioned epistemology and ontology and I started really listening and thinking about it. I already was thinking about the flaws in the medical system, being at Wesleyan you end up talking about these things, and the classes really made me think about my positionality in research.
Throughout the semester I realized that if I were to write just a Neuro thesis I would be discrediting the amount of work that I had done at Wes. I ended up playing around with what I wanted it to look like, first it was going to be a manifesto about where psychiatry went wrong, but it ended up condensing down to this critical question of how race, class, and gender work in tandem with medicine to create the problems we have in psychiatry. In theory the topic isn’t difficult but in practice it is. I had to play around with a bunch of theories to get where I am now.
On her progress:
“So my progress with this thesis has been interesting. Basically I had been in talks with Professor Kurtz about this thesis, and he told me that Professor Hatch would be a great advisor. He was on sabbatical, I had met him before, but had never taken a class with him. So I sent him an email and he didn’t respond for a little while and I started freaking out like, damn, am I not actually going to be able to do this project? But then we had an initial meeting where I went in and had to sell my thesis to him. It was a very cool moment where I came in with my ideas and he was sold.
Over the summer the original plan was to get an outline ready, and I ended up with this crazy four page outline that probably would’ve ended up with a thesis the size of a book. When we met back up in the fall, Professor Hatch essentially said that in order for this thesis to be strong, it needed to be short, like 60 pages. I had to be precise and concise. We started meeting on a biweekly basis and my first chapter was due at the end of the first semester, my second chapter was due at the beginning of spring break, and my third chapter is due Monday. Progress with a thesis is weird in that as soon as I got my edits back on my first chapter, I had to rewrite the entire thing. I wasn’t done with it.
But where I am right now is that my first chapter is revised, ready to go into the second round of edits, my second chapter is submitted and edits were given, and now I’m halfway through writing my third chapter-ette, because we wanted to end the thesis on a kind of shorter, more narrative account. So I’m basically done, after this weekend I’m done with the heavy lifting and I’ll just need to do editing and slimming down and making everything consistent.”
On how Coronavirus has affected her thesis:
“It’s complicated. The second chapter of my thesis was due Sunday of spring break. So my entire last week at Wesleyan (RIP) I had a bunch of assignments to do, so I wrote most of it once I was home. Really late nights, allowing my fragmented thoughts to brew in my head. I was on a roll, I had everything done and was ready to edit, and then two days later we get the announcement that Wesleyan is essentially closing campus. That week was really difficult because I had to figure out if I was going to stay on campus because of my thesis, what type of support I could be getting for my thesis, and I was also in this really deep state of despair and I felt so uncertain about the future.
So my thesis work for about two weeks was minimal. I lost quite a bit of time. The WSA approved to partially fund a new computer for me, because I essentially had written most of my thesis on the iMacs in Olin because it’s really hard to write a thesis on a 13 inch laptop. I also had to create my own workspace because I didn’t have a desk in my room, my bed was purchased from Ikea in like seventh grade and was kind of falling apart, so there were a lot of things that had to be moved around to create a kind of conducive work space for me at home. But now I’m at this point where my thesis is a really good, stable force in my life while the world is on fire. I hope that it’s going to contribute to the world in a meaningful way, and that gives me something I can wake up to.”
On her current mental state:
“Numb?!?? It’s difficult right? I’ve been home and effectively social distancing for a month now. I’ve fallen into this weird routine where every day seems the same but not really. I’m not as stressed as I should be, something I’ve been mourning is that performative stress that all thesis writers have on campus. I’m stressed but I’m also calm, I think because I’ve been removed from the physical environment that is campus. But it feels weird to not be super stressed right now.”
On her most upsetting thesis experience:
“So when I wrote my first chapter, I looked through the edits and the comments and I was like ‘oh, these aren’t too bad, I have to rewrite a bunch of things but it’s fine.’ And then I got my second chapter edits back and I got to speak to Professor Hatch about it and he was like ‘honestly after the first chapter I was kind of scared.’ But he was very happy about the second chapter and it was very positive. It was one of those things where in retrospect, I was a shit writer last semester, my thesis was a piece of trash, but I learned from that.
But also, with this thesis topic, I’ve run into so many walls trying to get the information I need. Finding a study on race, class, and gender in tandem was SO HARD and so many of them kept going about it wrong. The amount of frustration I’ve had towards academia in the past few weeks is one of those things where like, I could have that amount of frustration if I were a Phd student, but as an undergrad it’s so hard. How is psychiatry fucked up so much that we don’t have any data on this? Writing this thesis has been so enlightening about how messed up this system is.”
On her favorite form of procrastination:
“Bon Appetit! Watching the test kitchen on Youtube. I love Claire. Over the past few weeks it’s gotten bad. I also fell into this weird pit a week ago watching sorority girls from the south give tours of their sorority houses. It’s like an Animal Planet, documentary-style thing. When I was on campus, my favorite thing was pretending that I had to go to Weshop every hour. I would go from floor 3A of Olin down to Weshop and grab something, or even not grab something and just performatively walk around and then go back. It was just so stupid.”
Plans for after she turns her thesis in:
“Self care? The thing is if I were on campus, I would’ve been champagning on Foss and hanging out with friends, but obviously that’s not happening. I think honestly I need to clean my room and reorganize my life and look at all the other assignments that I’ve procrastinated on. But also I need to take a step back and be like ‘I did this.’”
Her advice for future thesis writers:
“Write about something that you truly care about. I see a lot of thesis writers kind of writing a thesis for the clout, or writing a thesis for the thesis, but honestly at this point, especially because of COVID-19, you really see how having an interest in your thesis gives you the motivation to keep working. That, and you don’t need to write a novel. Yes, there are theses that are really long, but don’t feel that pressure to do so. Every department and every thesis is different. And make sure you have some sort of schedule, but know that that schedule won’t be met, for the most part.”
On her favorite part of her thesis:
“I do a lot of narrative vignettes in my thesis, and personal stories, and that stuff makes me really happy because that never happens in a Neuroscience thesis. Like my first sentence is ‘It was 9:50am as I was quickly ascending up the subway stairs towards New York Presberyrian Hospital. Tucked in my backpack were high heels, a tattered Moleskine notebook, and a folder filled with my new PI’s most recent and famous papers.’ Like that never happens in a Neuro thesis! My voice and my self is actively embedded in this thesis. It’s not just about schizophrenia, it’s not just about all these theoretical analysis points, it’s also about me, and my own positionality, and my own impact.”
If her thesis was a song/TV show/movie:
“Oh god. I forgot that this question existed, and I’ve done so many Thesiscrazys! Maybe it’s because I just watched the show, but I think if my thesis were anything it’d be Unorthodox on Netflix. It was so good! Esty is part of a super traditionalist culture and family and she feels unhappy with it so she breaks apart and goes to Berlin, and finds her new self. I think if this thesis had stayed in Neuro, it would’ve had this super traditionalist approach that has all these rules that make no sense to the outsider, but make sense to those in the system. And those who are in the system continue to perpetuate those rules because that’s what they think is right. Scientists will continue to use the scientific method because they think it’s right, so it’s like its own cult. My thesis is like that attempt to go outside of that. I think that makes sense.”
Her most used word/phrase:
“‘; however,’ I have 38 uses of that and my thesis advisor pointed it out and told me to please fix that! Also ‘psychiatric knowledge-making.’”
A question that she wished we asked:
“I wish you had asked ‘what was the best contribution I had in my thesis carrel’ to which I would answer a space heater. They are definitely not allowed, but it was the best decision of my life.”
“I’ve been making that TikTok coffee thing, and my theses feces have not been great, and I think it’s because my instant coffee is expired.”