Skip to main content

Resurrecting Arizona's 'ghost towns'

ASU honors student among 170 to showcase exceptional thesis projects

April 11, 2016

When she was a child, Nicole Lemme’s father would take her to see an old mining town in northern Arizona that he used to visit when he was young.

Now an Arizona State University student, Lemme thought about that town and the other dusty old Western towns as she was searching for a thesis topic.

“It was personal nostalgia and also state-history nostalgia,” said Lemme, who is from Phoenix and has a double major in English literature and communications.

“I took a class in mythology and it got me thinking about whether we have an equivalent in American mythology, and I thought about these Western narratives,” she said.

Like all students in Barrett, the Honors College, Lemme completed a research project and defended a thesis. Hers is an 84-page work of creative nonfictionHere is an excerpt from her paper: “I was born and raised here. Born in the Copper Queen Community Hospital. I was born in the same room as my siblings, and my first two children were born in the same room as I was,” Bennie says with a smile. As we sit in the Queen Mine Tour lobby, Bennie, his head covered by his blue and white striped miner’s hat, tells me about his long history with the town. Bennie also was a miner in his youth. He went underground for the first time in 1959, against his mother’s wishes, because the dangerous work meant higher bonuses. titled “Copper, Cowboys and Converts: Resurrecting Arizona ‘Ghost’ Towns.”

On Tuesday, Lemme will be among 170 Barrett students who are presenting their work at the Celebrating Honors Symposium at the Barrett complex on the Tempe campus. The honors work is one of the opportunities that ASU offers for undergraduate research.

There is a huge range of projects this year. One student created an interactive booklet for parents to test whether their toddlers are color-blind. Another performed a statistical analysis of stem-cell clinics in Arizona. Other theses tackled immunization rates in Arizona, the neurobiology of American Sign Language learners and pediatric hospice-care design.

Barrett students can pick any thesis topic they want, and most have at least a vague idea of what they want to study but need help zeroing in on it, according to Aviva Dove-Viebahn, an Honors Faculty Fellow at Barrett.

Dove-Viebahn, who advised eight students on their projects this year, said she also helps students set the thesis format, whether it’s a straightforward research paper or something creative, such as a piece of music, a film or a performance.

“I see my role as one of which I’m not dictating the terms of what they have to write. I’m here to help them figure out where to go,” she said. “I want them to come away from the project feeling like it’s their project and they conceived and executed it and I’m there to help facilitate and guide.”

Although Lemme knew what she wanted to research, it took her awhile to decide she wanted to write creative nonfiction, using people’s own voices to tell the story.

Last fall, she visited Tombstone, Bisbee and Jerome and interviewed visitors and people who live there. She walked up to strangers and asked them to talk about the towns. Some were eager to share, and others rebuffed her. Many were ardent in their enthusiasm.

“I found people who were steadfastly devoted to Tombstone, in particular. Some people came all the way from England every year to visit,” she said.

The projects require students to dig deep. Lemme’s research went beyond the interviewing. She connected the discussions of the past to the towns’ current lives.

“The metaphor I used was a kaleidoscope. Everything is being re-created continuously so how people think of the past is how they act in the town, and that shapes how people present the town and that shapes how people who visit think about the history and what is a cowboy town.”

Students also learn to overcome obstacles in their projects. Brady Falk has always been interested in healthy lifestyles and wearable technology. He wanted to develop a workout shirt that integrated sensors to measure performance, such as heart rate.

Until he discovered that the Ralph Lauren company had just put that product on the market.

“I was disappointed because I had wanted to use this project as a starter to maybe start my own company,” he said.

So he pivoted.

“I want to see how far I could push the technology,” said Falk, who is a biomedical engineering major.

“A lot of people use this technology for everyday activity, but nobody had done it for military. I’m trying to predict fatigue in military personnel in the field.”

Falk is testing the shirt on real people, but he said that most of his work involved researching the research long before he put any subjects on a treadmill.

Many of the Barrett students must work with ASU’s Institutional Review Board, which must approve all research involving people. That process, and making revisions to research methods, can take weeks and disrupt deadlines.

“They wanted to make sure the facility I would be using would be well kept with trainers there,” Falk said. “They're very thorough, as they should be.”

Sierra Morris sent out an anonymous, online survey as part of her project and said the IRB approval took nearly three weeks. Her project is titled “Sex Trafficking Victim Identification in the Medical Setting.”

Morris interned at Obesity Solutions, an ASU initiative in partnership with the Mayor Clinic. She was asked to create a curriculum about healthy lifestyle choices for girls who are at risk for becoming sex-trafficking victims. That piqued her interest in the topic, so she worked with Dominque Roe-Sepowitz, an associate professor at ASU’s School of Social Work in the Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research. Morris created a 17-question survey for health-care providers about identifying and helping patients who might be victims.

“We wanted to find out whether they knew how to identify if someone presented with similar symptoms of a sex-trafficking symptoms and whether they had any rules in place for handling it if they identified if somebody might be trafficked,” said Morris, a global health major.

She found a lack of awareness.

“And for the people that knew how to identify if someone was being trafficked, it seemed like there was no policy in place for reporting, and a lot of people didn’t know where to refer out in the community for resources.”

Her project will fulfill a need for the School of Social Work, which could use the results to develop a training module for health-care providers.

Morris saw a unique perspective as she researched sex trafficking.

“In other countries, sex trafficking is often when someone is held against their will, but here, the individual who is trafficked thinks they are in a relationship with the trafficker. There’s a lot of coercion.”