Harvard Radcliffe Institute Awards 2022 Fay Prize for Outstanding Theses
Latin translations, a celebrated new opera, and a backpack for safer biking represent this year’s exceptional undergraduate scholarship
Mac Daniel, associate director of communications
Harvard Radcliffe Institute
CAMBRIDGE, MA (May 19, 2022)—Harvard seniors Zelin Liu, Ethan Seder, and Benjamin P. Wenzelberg were today honored with the prestigious Captain Jonathan Fay Prize by Harvard Radcliffe Institute. The Fay Prize is annually awarded for the very best theses of Harvard College’s graduating class.
This year’s three Fay Prize recipients are recognized for their exceptional undergraduate work in classics, mechanical engineering, and music composition and English. Their work was selected from among that of 73 Harvard College seniors, each of whom received the Hoopes Prize for their excellent undergraduate theses. In the opinion of a selection committee made up of senior Harvard faculty members, these three works are the most outstanding imaginative pieces of original research in any field this academic year. The winning projects are wide-ranging in discipline, including translating and using archeology to reinterpret rarely translated Latin text, an air bag for bicyclists, and a joyous Joycean opera.
Zelin Liu, “‘Inter exempla erit’: Germania in Tacitus and Its Use by Early German Humanists”
Zelin Liu is a joint concentrator in classics and history whose senior thesis is “a masterful blend of both disciplines” in which he studies the Roman historian Tacitus’s discussion of Germania, first in its ancient context and then through its reception by two figures of the early Reformation period, the early modern poet Ulrich von Hutten (1488–1523) and the humanist scholar Beatus Rhenanus (1485–1547). Some of the von Hutten and Rhenanus Latin had never been translated before. Liu’s work shows how historical and personal circumstances led each author to advance a textual interpretation that suited his own conceptions of group identity in Germania, or what eventually became today’s Germany. In doing so, Liu builds on and challenges existing interpretations of these three historical figures.
Liu worked with Latin primary sources for each of his chapters. He drew on his coursework on Tacitus to offer his own translations of Tacitus’s Latin, which is difficult to translate. He also did close textual comparisons between Tacitus’s version of a speech by Claudius and a version that survives on a bronze tablet from Lyon, France, in which the speech was reported more officially, closer to the time of its delivery, and presumably more accurately. Reviewers said the integration of archeological evidence into Liu’s discussion of Tacitus was illuminating.
Ann Blair, chair of the Department of History and the Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor, and Richard F. Thomas, the Geroge Martin Lane Professor of the Classics, nominated Liu.
“The unsuspecting reader handed this thesis would soon suspect, I am sure, that they had been given a copy of a senior scholar’s work in progress,” wrote Eric Driscoll, a lecturer in Harvard’s Department of Classics. “A piece of true Wissenschaft, Liu’s hefty thesis not only closes with a 30-page bibliography but also includes a handy glossary of people mentioned in the text, page after page of translated excerpts (Liu has provided his own renderings for numerous passages taken not only from the German humanists but also from Tacitus), and maps of Germania.”
Ethan Seder, “CrashPak: Consumer Bicycle Safety Airbag”
Ethan Seder wants to make the world a safer place for cyclists. His winning thesis is CrashPak, an airbag he invented for cyclists that could revolutionize bicycle safety.
“While helmets only protect the head, Ethan’s solution, an airbag sewn into the straps of a backpack, protects the upper torso and reduces impact force by 94 percent,” wrote Conor J. Walsh, the Paul A. Maeder Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “The original, innovative design and technology has the potential to be mass-produced and would prevent hundreds of thousands of injuries and countless deaths sustained by cyclists.”
This thesis and its resulting invention was deeply personal for Seder. In August 2020, he was hit head-on by a truck and suffered broken bones in his shoulder and neck and fluid buildup in his lungs. His thesis includes some gruesome post-accident selfies. And being a true Harvard engineer, while recovering from multiple surgeries, Seder researched protective gear for cyclists, found it lacking, and began work on the large-scale airbag project.
“Ethan was incredibly driven to take on this complex project with many subsystems and independently tackled every one of them, including electronics and an algorithm used for accident detection, a mechanical gas release mechanism to inflate the airbag, and an expandable textile airbag that contours to the body,” Walsh wrote. “He leveraged lab resources to produce his own original designs and remained autonomous for the entire duration of the project. Ethan’s senior thesis project was one of the most impressive projects I have seen. It was detailed, conceived, and executed flawlessly with minimal guidance.”
“Bicycle accidents are painful and expensive,” Seder wrote in his thesis abstract. “Every year, there are over 50,000 injuries sustained by cyclists that cost the United States over $10 billion. While helmets protect the user’s head, riders lack protection for their ribs, shoulders, clavicles, and neck, which are commonly injured upon impact. CrashPak solves this unmet need by creating an airbag for cyclists that is conveniently integrated into a backpack.”
Benjamin P. Wenzelberg, “NIGHTTOWN: An Operatic Reimagining of James Joyce’s Ulysses”
Wenzelberg, who concentrated in English and received language citations in German and Spanish, graduated offcycle at the end of 2021 with highest departmental honors. His thesis work began in the spring of 2020 with an intent to put Chapter 15 of James Joyce’s Ulysses to music. Russ Rymer, an author, a journalist, and a visiting lecturer on English at Harvard, advised him.
The work premiered in March 2022 in three public performances, produced by Lowell House Opera, with a 14-piece chamber orchestra, nine singers, and Wenzelberg at the podium in Sanders Theater.
“Both thesis (which was centrally the libretto but necessarily included consideration of the score) and performances were triumphs,” Rymer wrote. “Professor Philip Fisher, a Joyce scholar and reader on the thesis, termed it ‘a summa among summas’ and ‘a work of art in its own right.’
“Boston music critic Arturo Fernandez wrote of the premiere: ‘I do not exaggerate when I say this, nor do I choose my words lightly: there is a new operatic classic in town. ... I think this opera has an immense future in the opera house.’”
Since its debut, opera companies from Atlanta to Los Angeles have asked to view the work. And Wenzelberg’s innovations aren’t limited to the story and musical scoring. Through his gender-expansive casting and character portrayal as well as the themes he explores, Wenzelberg centers the opera on the experiences of women and nonbinary characters.
Wenzelberg and Rymer met only once in person before COVID struck and stayed in 2020. The pair’s Zoom routine lasted 13 months, two hours per week, followed by more months of less frequent meetings. “The sessions comprised some of the most thrilling intellectual interactions I’ve had over the last 20 years teaching students, as Benjy used the development of his opera to probe into Joyce, into related literature, and into music,” Rymer wrote. “The byways of those discussions are embedded throughout the finished piece, which is replete with literary and musical allusions ranging from W. B. Yeats to Cardi B, to Isaac Albeniz, to Joyce’s own musical attempts.
“These projects reflect Harvard Radcliffe Institute’s mission to foster advanced work across disciplines, professions, and the creative arts, so it’s fitting that Radcliffe has awarded the Fay Prize since its founding in 1999, carrying on a 90-year Radcliffe College tradition,” said Tomiko Brown-Nagin, dean of Harvard Radcliffe Institute, Daniel P.S. Paul Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard Law School, and a professor in Harvard’s Department of History.
The Fay Prize was established in 1907 by Joseph Storey Fay in memory of his great-grandfather, Captain Jonathan Fay (1724–1800), to be awarded to the graduating Radcliffe student most deserving due to academic and personal merit: one whose “scholarship, conduct, and character has given evidence of the greatest promise among her contemporaries.” First bestowed in 1909 to Evelyn Spring, Radcliffe College administered the prize for 90 years, and the Radcliffe Institute has continued the tradition since 2001, expanding the candidate pool to Harvard graduating seniors of all genders. The honor reflects the mission of the Radcliffe Institute to foster advanced work across a wide range of disciplines.
About Harvard Radcliffe Institute
The Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University—or Harvard Radcliffe Institute—is one of the world’s leading centers for interdisciplinary exploration. We bring students, scholars, artists, and practitioners together to pursue curiosity-driven research, expand human understanding, and grapple with questions that demand insight from across disciplines.