Radcliffe Institute Recognizes Top Three Harvard Theses

Awards Captain Jonathan Fay Prize
Dean Lizabeth Cohen awarded the Captain Jonathan Fay Prize to Ashok Cutkosky, Benjamin Naddaff-Hafrey, and Laura Savarese at Radcliffe's annual Strawberry Tea. Photo by Heather LathamDean Lizabeth Cohen awarded the Captain Jonathan Fay Prize to Ashok Cutkosky, Benjamin Naddaff-Hafrey, and Laura Savarese at Radcliffe's annual Strawberry Tea. Photo by Heather Latham
@ The Radcliffe Institute
May 20, 2013

Today the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study awarded the Captain Jonathan Fay Prize to the graduating seniors whose theses set forth the most imaginative work and original research.

This year three Fay Prize recipients were chosen from 81 Thomas Hoopes Prize winners for outstanding scholarly work or research: mathematics concentrator Ashok Cutkosky for his thesis Polymer Simulations and DNA Topology; history and literature concentrator Benjamin Naddaff-Hafrey for his thesis The “Electrified Fable”: Radio Experimentation, Interwar Social Psychology, and Imagined Invasion in the War of the Worlds; and history concentrator Laura Savarese for her thesis Slavery’s Battleground: Contesting the Status of Enslaved and Free Blacks in St. Louis, from Statehood to the Civil War.

“The work of the 2013 Fay Prize winners demonstrates the original thinking that Harvard encourages and that the Radcliffe Institute is dedicated to supporting,” said Radcliffe Institute Dean Cohen, when presenting the awards to the three Fay Prize winners. “We are honoring the distinguished work of these young minds and predict this is just the first of many remarkable achievements.”

Ashok Cutkosky, Polymer Simulations and DNA Topology

The Fay Prize selection committee named Ashok Cutkosky a winner of the 2013 Fay Prize for his original results and the impact of his thesis, Polymer Simulations and DNA Topology, on our understanding of “the folding of DNA and its relation to disease.”

His advisor, Erez Aiden of Harvard’s applied math department in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, underscored the impact of Cutkosky’s work: “Cutkosky contributes a novel and fundamental hypothesis to our understanding of how tumors might form—an area which, despite years of research, remains deeply mysterious.”

Polymer Simulations and DNA Topology investigates the properties of DNA and the dynamics of the folded DNA structure in the cell through the use of computer simulations. “Mathematical models are always useful in studying any aspect of the real world,” said Cutkosky. “The model describing the folding of DNA in the cell I used is called the fractal globule, and it draws upon many aspects of mathematics.” 

Many diseases, notably cancer, are caused when cells fail to carry out the DNA’s instructions. “The mathematical model in my thesis suggests an alternate explanation for this breakdown,” Cutkosky said. His research shows that problems may occur because of “the way the DNA is stored in the cells, rather than the actual information in the DNA.”

Benjamin Naddaff-HafreyThe “Electrified Fable”: Radio Experimentation, Interwar Social Psychology, and Imagined Invasion in the War of the Worlds

The “Electrified Fable” reconstructs and interprets Orson Welles’s famous War of the Worlds 1938 radio broadcast. The Fay Prize selection committee lauded Naddaff-Hafrey for the “extraordinary writing” and “originality of source materials” in his thesis, which examines the dramatic radio broadcast and the psychological and popular understanding of the panic it created. Many listeners believed that an alien invasion was under way.

“The stunning quality of Naddaff-Hafrey’s work is the result of his incredibly resourceful archival research in New York and Cambridge, his subtle and persuasive close readings of 1930s radio drama, and his extraordinary mix of erudition and grace in the writing of an evocative and original thesis,” said Jill Lepore, Naddaff-Hafrey’s advisor and the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History, Harvard College Professor, and chair of the History and Literature Program at Harvard University.

Through his extensive research and analysis—which draws on archival collections of institutions and individual scholars, primary documents of radio drama and social psychology, and newspaper and magazine articles—Nadaff-Hafrey said his thesis shows that the popular understanding of radio was “a strange convergence of broader conversations about perception, the potential for objective science, and the nature of a democratic mind.” Today this examination helps us contextualize “ongoing conversations about mass media and network technologies, considering such questions as What does media do to the mind? and What can technology do to further, or undermine, democracy?”

Laura SavareseSlavery’s Battleground: Contesting the Status of Enslaved and Free Blacks in St. Louis, from Statehood to the Civil War

Savarese’s thesis was selected by the Fay Prize committee for its new and unprecedented exploration of the “legal, social, and cultural history” of slavery and freedom in antebellum Missouri.

Savarese chose the scholarship of slavery in St. Louis “not simply because of Missouri’s significance in the history of the political conflict over slavery, but also for the sheer number of freedom suits—including the infamous Dred Scott case—that originated in St. Louis and whose records are preserved at the Missouri State Archives.” 

In her far-reaching historiography of slavery, Savarese researched the “case records of more than 300 freedom suits that were brought in the St. Louis Circuit Court between 1814 and 1860.” In addition to these local trial court records, Savarese said, “my research focused on appellate court decisions and Missouri statutory law and drew on the personal papers of lawyers, judges, and slave owners.”

“Savarese’s thesis is the best history of slavery in the 19th-century Midwest that I have seen. She has uncovered the everyday social, cultural, and intellectual history of one of the most important cases ever to come before the US Supreme Court,” said Walter Johnson, the Winthrop Professor of History, and a professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard, former Radcliffe Institute fellow, and Savarese’s advisor. 

Dean Lizabeth Cohen awarded the Captain Jonathan Fay Prize to Ashok Cutkosky, Benjamin Naddaff-Hafrey, and Laura Savarese at Radcliffe’s annual Strawberry Tea, at which a crowd of distinguished Harvard faculty, graduating Hoopes Prize winners, friends, and family gathered to celebrate.

About the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University


The Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University is dedicated to creating and sharing transformative ideas across the arts, humanities, sciences, and social sciences. The Fellowship Program annually supports the work of 50 leading artists and scholars. Academic Ventures fosters collaborative research projects and sponsors lectures and conferences that engage scholars with the public. The Schlesinger Library documents the lives of American women of the past and present for the future, furthering the Institute’s commitment to women, gender, and society. Learn more about the people and programs of the Radcliffe Institute at www.radcliffe.harvard.edu

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