Oravetz remembers telling a friend in high school that her mother knew everything, and that "it would be amazing if I ever knew a quarter of the things she knew, if I would ever be able to do a New York Times crossword puzzle as fast as she could."

Oravetz's intense pursuit of knowledge is tempered by a sense of humor, which she also credits to her mother. Oravetz's father died when she was six, so Meg Oravetz was alone when she raised her daughter and two sons, Tim and Pete, in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania. Meg points out that the ratio--three kids to one adult--created a lively household where humor was crucial.

"The only way to get through the dreadful bits of life is with humor," says Meg Oravetz. "We do a lot of laughing."

Through the thesis process Oravetz has learned that she thrives when she is engaged in a demanding process: "I feel I was happier this year because I was working so hard."

With that hard work came a new confidence and a profound sense of purpose. "It matters to me that I get along with people, that I have contact with people, that my relationships are right," says Oravetz. "At the same time, I know that it is impossible for all that to be good unless I'm being pretty selfish, spending time just with my books."

It is this dichotomy, perhaps, that suits Oravetz so well for the blend demanded of a scholar of religion: sensitivity for people's personal, religious beliefs balanced with skepticism. "You can't question [a religious idea] in a disrespectful way, but at the same time, because it's academic, you can't just accept any truth claim," she explains. "That is the line we walk."

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