Thesis Student Partners with the Cleveland Zoo

Senior Honors Thesis Student Completes a Self-Directed Behavioral Analysis of a Gorilla at the Cleveland Zoo

Sierra Duncan wearing a mask in Massillon, Ohio.
Sierra Duncan has been passionate about conservation since she first began volunteering at the Akron Zoo when she was fifteen years old. Now, a junior Honors College student with double-majors in psychology and environmental studies, as well as double-minors in anthropology and park management, Sierra’s passion for conservation is central to her Senior Honors Thesis. Sierra is currently in her thesis preparation semester, collecting research with the goal of submitting a formal thesis proposal and research question by the end of the semester. Though in the thesis preparation semester, Sierra already has a plan for the thesis experiment, which she will complete in the fall of 2021: she hopes to perform a behavioral analysis on a female gorilla at the Cleveland zoo, who will be taken off of her contraceptive medication, to see how the change might affect the gorilla.

Though Sierra first became passionate about conservation when she began volunteering at the Akron Zoo, she notes that her courses at Kent State helped her focus her general interest in conservation on more specific areas of study. For example, in Primate Ecology and Conservation, Sierra learned how the problems animals face in the wild can promote better understanding of human social structures and behavior. With her growing understanding of specific conservation issues, a number of Sierra’s instructors encouraged her to pursue her conservation interests further through independent studies. David Kaplan, a professor in the Department of Geography, first made Sierra aware of the honors thesis program. Later, after Sierra had begun to think of all the topics she could study in an honors thesis, Morgan Chaney, Sierra’s Human Evolution instructor, helped Sierra narrow down her ideas.

After deciding to complete a thesis and shortening her list of topics, Sierra enrolled in the thesis program and asked Dr. Mary Ann Raghanti, the chair of the Department of Anthropology, to be her thesis advisor. Sierra says Dr. Raghanti has been an asset to her thesis project, adding that Dr. Raghanti’s connections within the Cleveland Zoo allowed Sierra access to the gorilla she is studying for her thesis. Reflecting on the faculty support she has received, Sierra encourages her fellow honors students not to be daunted by the prospect of an honors thesis. “When you see everything listed out that you have to do, it seems like a lot,” she explains, “but the key is finding someone in the faculty who shares your passion because the right advisor can help you break everything down.”

Sierra also mentions how beneficial her honors thesis work has already proven. She says she is gaining important research skills, able to quickly evaluate resources and write literature reviews on publications she could reference in her thesis. She also notes that, in the course of her preparatory research, Sierra has become better equipped “to understand what different statistics mean and how seemingly small numbers can have big impact.”

Both of these skills, as well as her independent behavioral analysis of the gorilla in the fall, will set Sierra apart as a graduate school applicant. Hoping to study behavioral science with zoo animals as a graduate student, Sierra’s thesis will showcase her ability to perform graduate-level work with zoo animals. In fact, Lori Michael, the Thesis Coordinator, adds that, not only will an honors thesis “make a student’s application to graduate school stand out,” but “a number of our alumni [also] credit the thesis as the start of their careers!” As such, with her independent research and her bright prospects for graduate school, Sierra hopes to continue following her passion for conservation in her future studies and career.

Sierra is excited to begin her formal thesis hours in the fall of 2021 and is grateful for all the faculty who helped her along the way.

For more information on the Senior Honors Thesis/Project, please contact Thesis Coordinator Lori Michael.


PHOTO CAPTION 1: Sierra Duncan staning indoors in Massillon, Ohio.

PHOTO CAPTION 2: Sierra wearing a mask in Massillon, Ohio.

Media Contact: Stephanie Moskal,, 330-672-2312

POSTED: Friday, March 19, 2021 01:38 PM
UPDATED: Saturday, April 20, 2024 06:30 AM
Olivia Wachtel, Honors College Writing Intern