Four Wellesley Seniors Awarded Pamela Daniels ’59 Fellowships to Pursue Original Projects

Four students sit outside green hall.
November 14, 2018

The Pamela Daniels ’59 Fellowship has been awarded to four members of the Wellesley class of 2019 to fund individual projects, which they will present at the Ruhlman Conference in May. The recipients are Valentina Gardner (music and anthropology), Aubrey Simonson (media arts and sciences and political science), Rhoda Tano-Menka (chemistry), and Ruixi Zhang (psychology and English).

The fellowship, awarded every fall to a small number of seniors to pursue “dream projects” in their fields of interest, was endowed in 2000 upon the retirement of Class Dean Pamela Daniels by her friends, colleagues, and students to encourage both intellectual and artistic thinking on a new and bold level. In Working It Out (1977), an anthology of feminist essays she co-edited, Daniels wrote, “Doing what you love means knowing yourself well enough to be able to answer the question, ‘What would you love to do?’ and loving yourself enough to ask it.”

This year’s Daniels Fellows will be pursing these projects in the coming months:


Valentina Gardner (anthropology and music)

Project: Venice in Crisis: A Music Composition

My project will be to create an original music composition about Venice, to unravel the intricacies of the city, and to explore my identity both as a musician and as an Italian American. It will be in three movements, incorporating instrumentals, electronic/distortion components, and sound recordings that I gathered from Venice and the Veneto region of Italy. I would recruit performers, and we will present the work at the end of spring semester.

There is no other city in the world that has taken a toll in our globalized world quite like Venice. With the rampant tourism, rich history, immaculate architecture, and the loss of dialect/culture, Venice stands out even in Italy. I became completely fascinated with this city over the course of my time there this summer, and I can’t think of a more complex topic to explore. I normally focus on personal memories in my musical work, but with Venice being my main focus, I would be able to challenge both my musicianship, and my global perspective.

Course: MUS 250

Project advisor: Jenny Olivia Johnson


Aubrey Simonson (media arts and sciences and political science)

Project: Bird Noticing: A Virtual Reality Game About Bird Watching

Bird Noticing will be a game developed using the Unity game engine for the Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset. It will feature a view of a small, open clearing in some generic New England woods. The object of the game is to notice birds in these woods by listening carefully, and moving slowly and quietly so as not to scare them off, and to learn about them in the process. The project is designed as an exploration of virtual reality as a medium and its potential to create profoundly peaceful environments. It also explores our relationship with technology, by creating a space which is so plugged in as to be unplugged.

I’m hoping, with this project, to have some impact on the conversation around what virtual reality is for. It’s a young medium, and the content being produced for it is still a little all over the place. Conventional video games are being ported in with few changes, and they tend to not quite feel right. I’m trying to use it to take the real-world memories and experiences of one person, abstract them a little through my own translation of them into a new medium, and then allow other people to experience them… The Daniels fellowship has given me access to an enormous number of tools which I would have never been able to work with in its absence… [it] means that I can take risks, and if my tools break, or need to be supplemented by an external graphics card, I can still finish this project.

Course: ARTS 360

Project advisor: David Olsen


Rhoda Tano-Menka (chemistry)

Project: Amino Acid Significance in HIV Control

This investigation aims to elucidate the divergent clinical outcomes of HIV-infected individuals by investigating the role amino acids in the binding pockets of HLA-B molecules play in HIV control… While several other studies have found similar associations, no study has explicitly investigated the role these amino acids in HLA-B molecules have on HIV control. Therefore, for my thesis project, I will explore how mutations of these residues in the binding groove of HLA-B molecules affect HIV epitope presentation and subsequent CD8+ T-cell recognition. I hypothesize that mutations of these critical residues will substantially affect epitope binding and TCR recognition by epitope-specific CD8+ T cells.

The results from this investigation will provide concrete evidence of the role that amino acids in the binding groove of HLA molecules play in mediating HLA-epitope-T-cell interactions in HIV control. This evidence will contribute to highlighting the importance of T-cell based vaccine approaches for HIV prevention and cure.

I aspire to be a physician-scientist with a specialty in infectious diseases. My project will offer me the privilege of contributing my knowledge gained from coursework in biochemistry, organic chemistry, and molecular biology as well as my research skills, time, and effort toward finding a cure for a disease that affects millions of individuals around the world, particularly in Africa, where I am from.

Receiving the Daniels Fellowship is such a huge honor and confidence boost, but most importantly it means I have the support of Wellesley, an institution that has nurtured and produced thousands of incredible women all around the world. With that kind of support, I know I can take on anything.

Course: Honors Thesis

Project advisor: Donald Elmore


Ruixi Zhang (psychology and English)

Project: When Grief Hath Mates: Understanding Empathy in Association with Emotion Regulation and Personality Traits

This research project examines the underlying emotional experience one goes through while empathizing with others. The study also takes into account personality variables that contribute to the complexity of the relationship between empathy and emotion regulation. The process of healing a person through understanding their individuality and emotionally connecting with them seems almost miraculous to me… I am curious about empathy as a psychological concept and have been trying to dissect this construct using empirical methods. In this research project specifically, I look at empathy as an affective process in relation to emotion regulation and personality variables.

To me, receiving the Daniels Fellowship is, in a sense, an affirmation; that is, I feel like I am doing something worthwhile. Before, I was not so sure about this project since very few research studies addressed the relationship between empathy and emotion regulation… My biggest hope is that this project can actually shed some light on empathy; whether my hypotheses are supported or not, the study results may still provide insights into empathy and emotion regulation. I also hope to become a better researcher through this process.

Course: PSYC 350

Project Advisor: Julie K. Norem

Photo: The 2018 Daniels Fellows from L to R: Ruixi Zhang '19, Rhonda Tano-Menka '19, Valentina Gardner '19, Aubrey Simonson '19

With reporting from Lucy Norton ’21.