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Harvard Radcliffe Institute Awards 2023 Fay Prize for Outstanding Theses

Photo by Kevin Grady
Caleb King, Sílvia Casacuberta Puig, Harvard Radcliffe Institute Dean Tomiko Brown-Nagin, and Leo Saenger at the 2023 Fay Prize ceremony. Photo by Kevin Grady

Reconstructing sound association in biblical poetics; a study at the intersection of algorithmic fairness, computational complexity, and combinatorics; and an interdisciplinary examination of societal attitudes toward elders represent this year’s exceptional undergraduate scholarship

CAMBRIDGE, MA (May 18, 2023)—Harvard Radcliffe Institute today honored the Harvard seniors Sílvia Casacuberta Puig, Caleb King, and Leo Saenger with the prestigious Captain Jonathan Fay Prize, the annual award for the top three best theses of Harvard College’s graduating class.

This year’s Fay Prize recipients are recognized for their exceptional undergraduate work in the humanities, natural sciences, and social science. Their work was selected from among that of 74 Harvard College seniors, each of whom received the Thomas Temple 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 and groundbreaking pieces of original research in any field this academic year.

Sílvia Casacuberta Puig, “Finding Simple Models of Complex Objects: From Regularity Lemmas to Algorithmic Fairness”

In her thesis, Casacuberta Puig studies connections between recent literature on multigroup fairness for prediction algorithms and previous results in graph theory, computational complexity, additive combinatorics, information theory, and cryptography.

Her advisor, Salil P. Vadhan, Vicky Joseph Professor of Computer Science and Applied Mathematics, wrote that Casacuberta Puig’s thesis “sits at the nexus of three distinct areas of research: algorithmic fairness, computational complexity, and combinatorics. It surveys recently discovered connections between these areas and establishes new, illuminating ones, which I expect will garner significant interest from experts in these areas. (Indeed, she has already been invited to give a talk about her results at an upcoming workshop with a number of leaders in the field.)”

“I am bowled over by the volume and depth of the background material eloquently presented in the first three chapters,” wrote one of Casacuberta Puig’s reviewers. “These by themselves could be a reasonable thesis, and they provide a nearly perfect-pitch springboard for the subsequent three chapters, all of original work.”

“Even as an expert on regularity in computational complexity, the findings have surprised me and given me a new way of thinking of the underlying phenomena,” wrote Vadhan.

Caleb King, “What Sounding Alike Sounded Like: Understanding Sound Similarity as Seen through Close Consonance in Biblical Hebrew Poetics”

King is a concentrator in Near Eastern languages and civilizations whose senior thesis “poses a question of deceptive simplicity: how can we know what sounded alike to native speakers of Biblical Hebrew? At first one might wonder if we can ever hope to answer such a question–and what difference would it even make to know such a thing,” wrote Julia Rhyder, King’s advisor and an assistant professor of Near Eastern language and civilizations.

But in tackling this subject, Rhyder wrote that King “quickly shows that grappling with such a question is not only essential to ensuring philological rigor in the academic study of the Hebrew Bible, but also to ensuring academic honesty in our reconstructions of the dynamics of biblical poetry. He shows how our attempts to ‘hear across time’ are often compromised by the uncritical assumption that ancient audiences would have heard consonants exactly as we do.”

“Yet if we are to truly engage with the ‘historical other,’ to borrow King’s phrase, and avoid simply hearing the echoes of our own voices when we read ancient texts, we need to move beyond such essentialist and anachronistic reconstructions to reconsider how we would ‘reconstruct perceptual similarities of sounds’ at the time the ancient texts were produced,” Rhyder wrote.

Taking an interdisciplinary approach, King used phonological typology, medieval Arabic grammatical works, 2000s hip-hop lyrics, and Hebrew lexicography. His work creates “a new model for alliterating consonants and phonetic feature hierarchy for Biblical Hebrew that offers by far the most rigorous resource for identifying close consonance in the Hebrew Bible ever to be produced,” Rhyder wrote. This new model “thus opens the door to a thorough reassessment of many previous exegetical arguments based on close consonance, which would have implications for future scholarship on almost every book of the Bible.”

Leo Saenger, “Respect Your Elders? The Economic Origins and Political Consequences of Attitudes toward the Aged”

Attitudes toward and treatment of the elderly vary around the world, and Saenger’s thesis set out to understand the causes and consequences of these varied attitudes using a unique, interdisciplinary approach—including studying historical attitudes toward elders based on 400 folklore motifs drawn from the oral histories of 1,200 different societies and using centuries of environmental data on climate stability and subsistence complexity to show how environmental factors can explain differences in societal attitudes toward elders.

“He combines data from a range of innovative sources, including folktales, ethnographic sources, paleoclimatic data, contemporary survey data, census data, and political measures, to examine the causes and consequences of respect for the elderly. An important finding of the paper is to connect a tradition of gerontocracy to more support for autocracy and less support for democracy, both historically and today,” wrote his advisor, Nathan Nunn, former Frederic E. Abbe Professor of Economics at Harvard who now teaches at the Vancouver School of Economics at the University of British Columbia.

“These projects reflect the Institute’s mission to foster advanced work across disciplines, professions, and the creative arts, so it’s fitting that Radcliffe carries on this 90-plus-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. Harvard 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 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.

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