Kaitlyn Garrett gives a poster presentation on her senior thesis during the Jepson Research Symposium on April 19.

Kaitlyn Garrett presents her senior thesis research on propaganda in 15th-century England at the Jepson Research Symposium on April 19.

A deep dive into leadership

April 30, 2024

Promoting rhetoric that reviles and delegitimizes your political rival. Creating and distributing uncomplimentary images of your opponent. Such tactics may sound like politics as usual in 21st-century America, but at the Jepson School of Leadership Studies Research Symposium on April 19, Kaitlyn Garrett instead described how these tactics figured into 15th-century English political propaganda.

“The War of the Roses, a long-running, on-off war fought on English soil, pitted two branches of the royal House of Plantagenet against each other,” said Garrett, whose senior thesis was advised by Dr. Kristin Bezio. “I compared how warring parties used rhetoric, art, the Bible, and their family trees to support their claims to the throne and villainize their opponents. We see many of these marketing strategies still in use today, including in the Israel-Hamas War and U.S. presidential campaigns.”

Standing 20 feet away from Garrett at the symposium, Shelby Mokricky shared her research on modern-day rhetoric. Her senior honors thesis, advised by Dr. Crystal Hoyt, considered the impact of public health messaging on maternal health in the United States. Specifically, she investigated how to optimize messaging to mitigate race-based inequities in maternal health.  

“Maternal mortality rates have increased steadily since the CDC started tracking them in 1987,” she said. “Women of color are two-and-a-half times more likely than white women to die in childbirth. Research shows that people typically respond better and are more likely to donate money when they hear story-based messages rather than statistical messages.”

Mokricky hopes to present her research and its implications for effective public health messaging at the annual convention of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology next February.

Meanwhile, just across Jepson Hall lobby from Mokricky at the symposium, Trevin Stevens described his senior honors thesis research into three policy failures that have contributed to the opioid epidemic.

“Direct-to-consumer marketing plays a role in the epidemic,” he said. “Patients see ads about a drug and keep requesting it until they eventually find a doctor who will give it to them, even it the drug hasn't been vetted scientifically. Secondly, drug labeling is too complicated for the average patient to process. Doctors should discuss medications with the patients.

“Then there is the problem of diversion and misuse. Patients take drugs they don’t need or take them in inappropriate ways.”

Dr. Jessica Flanigan, Stevens’ faculty advisor, said she considered his interest in politics when helping him craft his research project. “If you want to go into politics, you have to read and write a lot of policy briefs,” she said. “You must learn how to pitch complex policy ideas in an accessible way.”    

Their opposing views on the question of government regulation of medication — he favors more regulation, she less — pushed him to defend his positions clearly and persuasively, Flanigan said. This will prepare him for his next step: attending the University of Oxford in the fall as a Jepson Scholar on a full scholarship in the Master of Public Policy Program.

In all, 15 students presented their research, including six honors theses, at the symposium. One examined how faculty access and process news. Another looked at music as a force for social cooperation. Still another dug into the legacy of eugenics in Virginia. Several explored women in leadership.

“A quick survey of these posters reveals that our students’ research is broad and varied,” Dean Sandra Peart said. “And much like the Jepson School itself, the research shares a leadership focus.”