Water Whispering: Memoir of a Winter in the Lab

February 28. I’m sitting in the basement of Guyot Hall, grinding dried algae with a mortar and pestle.

Vials of algae in the freeze-drier – the first stage of analysis.

At this stage, Caulerpa racemosa, the Green Grape Alga, no longer looks its name. In its natural habitat, Caulerpa’s short stalks bob in the water like clumps of balloons. Its round “leaves” are clustered around the stalks just like green grapes, if grapes were the size of pinheads. But by now I’ve freeze-dried these samples so they are shriveled and stiff, and once I’m done grinding them, the plants are reduced to a uniformly fine olive-green powder.

This is what science looks like for me this winter. It’s not simmering test tubes or even statistics: just the incremental alchemy of water samples and crusty Caulerpa into numbers with the potential to tell a reef’s story.

At a recent job interview, I was asked to talk about the lessons I’ve taken away from my research. One image that came to mind was that of my water samples: the hundred or so bottles that I filled in the ocean in Bermuda, carried back to Princeton in a cumbersome cooler, and spent much of this winter analyzing in the lab. Lined up in the freezer, the bottles are identical but for their labels. These bottles contain the most important data I have – and, for months, they’ve looked exactly like identical bottles of water.

But identical they are not. After many a long lab day, I have numbers to crunch – each bottle associated with nutrient concentrations and nitrogen isotope data that begin to tell the reef’s secrets.  These nutrient data represent the raw materials available to plants and animals on the reef. The isotope data help determine where those raw materials have come from, and what organisms are using them. In my thesis, I am studying how nutrient pollution coming from human sewage changes the geochemistry of Bermuda’s reefs, affecting reef organisms, like Caulerpa, that use those nutrients. This has the potential to shift the ecosystem’s balance: nutrient enrichment puts reef-building corals at a disadvantage, threatening the intricate, biodiverse communities – of anemones and angelfish and everything in between – that corals support.

A set of water samples mid-way through vial injections for isotopic analysis.

Continue reading Water Whispering: Memoir of a Winter in the Lab

Lessons from Princeton’s Day of Action

Over the past few months, students and academics across the Princeton campus community have been reckoning with the new reality of America under the Trump presidency. To encourage productive post-election dialogue, the Princeton Citizen Scientists sponsored a Day of Action last Monday, March 6th. The Day of Action brought together hundreds of students, faculty, and community members for dialogue with teach-ins on topics ranging from Intersectional Activism to Science in the Public Sphere. Local organizations like the Citizens Climate Lobby and the Coalition for Peace Action also tabled for the event.

My involvement with the Day of Action began early in the morning, as I was walking to class when I noticed a woman carrying a large basket of books and pamphlets near my room. We chatted on our way to Frist, where she was tabling with Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), a national network that organizes white people to fight with multi-racial minorities for social change. After I showed her to the campus center, I cocooned myself in a library to prepare for my own teach-in at the Day of Action, “Making Political Disagreement Productive: Mitigating Confirmation Bias.”

Participants at my teach-in during the Day of Action. Photo by Jonathan Balkind.

My teach-in was the first time I had presented my thesis to a public group. The motivation? Partisan antipathy and political polarization has doubled among both Democrats and Republicans, with about forty percent of members of each party reporting “very unfavorable” opinions of the other. Polarization exacerbates unproductive political disagreement, as partisans succumb to confirmation bias and immediately discount positions counter to their own. I presented lessons from psychology and philosophy to explore the causes of, and possible mitigants to self-serving political bias.

Sharing space on the Day of Action program with names like Cornel West and Max Weiss, I expected only a handful of people at most to attend my teach-in. I was stunned–and happy– when I entered the room to find a full audience of students, professors, and community members. During my ~20 minute presentation, I was interrupted often by questions. When I couldn’t come up with answers, I found new angles to examine my own work from.

The discussion flowed freely after my talk. People from Tennessee and Missouri shared personal stories and advice about engaging with their family members about politics. A conservative student and a liberal professor of Religion had a wonderful exchange about the need to reach across the aisle to those from the other side who are willing to listen. A Princeton resident alerted me about a political discussion project in the town library, and another student pointed me to a book that I’ve since found helpful in my work. My experience at the teach-in embodied the collective knowledge-sharing that the organizers of the Day of Action were aiming for.

I left the room buzzing with energy and thankful that I had decided, on a whim, to participate in the event.  I had spent so long discussing my thesis only with a few professors and friends that I had not realized how valuable publicly presenting it could be for my thought process and motivation. Seeing my academic research received with such enthusiasm in a collaborative environment reaffirmed my desire to continue pursuing the offshoots of my thesis work after graduation. Consider presenting or participating in a future Day of Action or finding other ways to showcase your academic work on campus too, like the annual Princeton Research Day each spring.
— Vidushi Sharma, Humanities Correspondent

Self-Management: Strategies for Staying On Top of Your Independent Work

Making time for my independent work! (click on the image to see how I’ve planned my schedule)

It’s halfway through the semester now and the deadline for junior papers and theses is quickly approaching. Since we’ve just had midterms and are now facing another six weeks of hard work, it’s no wonder campus-wide motivation is at an all-time low. You may even be starting to fall behind on your independent work (like me!). But if you’re worried about how to keep holding yourself accountable, there’s still hope! Out of the several options available, I’ve come up with three simple steps for a quick solution. Here’s how taking 20-30 minutes today will help set you up for the rest of your independent project this spring:

Continue reading Self-Management: Strategies for Staying On Top of Your Independent Work

Bursting the Orange Bubble: Tips for Keeping Up With the News

We all acknowledge a need to look beyond the Orange Bubble. Particularly since the election, I’ve felt it even more necessary to keep up with the world. At the start, I found myself engrossed by news stories on Facebook, Google, and iNews. Quickly, though, I realized I was in another sort of bubble, as these are all limited by your friend networks, political leanings, and past searches. Hearing others express similar concern, I reached out to a number of friends to see what strategies they use to look outside the bubble while also balancing a busy work schedule. The following tips are some ideas I got from them.

  1. Listen to short news stories when walking places. Lots of people listen to music while walking to class. Why not plug in your headphones and listen to the news? One friend uses the NPR app to listen to 3-8 minute long stories while on the way to class: a simple means of following current events.
  1. Listen to podcasts. For longer news stories, it’s easy to download podcasts from NPR or other major news outlets. One friend told me about “Pod Save America,” maintained by former Obama speechwriters. Podcasts are ideal for lengthier activities: listen while you exercise, as you get ready in the morning, or when you’re on a long train ride.

    Of course, you could always do it the old-fashioned way and get a physical copy of the newspaper!

Continue reading Bursting the Orange Bubble: Tips for Keeping Up With the News

March Forward

Robertson Hall, the home of the Woodrow Wilson School.

In the Woodrow Wilson School, theses are always due the first week of April. Many other departments have deadlines in late April or May. Depending on who you ask, having an early thesis deadline is either the best or worst thing. But everyone agrees that it is a real thing – and it makes March pretty hectic for WWS majors like me.

I’ve noticed, however, that March seems to be pretty hectic for all Princeton students. Freshmen, sophomores, and juniors are looking for summer internships. Seniors are figuring out their post-grad plans. And everyone is gearing up for midterms… which seem to arrive faster in the spring than they do in the fall.

With all this in mind, March is a good time for tips on dealing with hectic moments. Continue reading March Forward

Mount Illusion: Finding My Research Question…While Doing Research

Since the day I learned how to write a research paper, I always assumed I needed to use the same research question throughout my project. To me, the question seemed to be the metaphorical guiding light in the darkness of independent work, the go-to reference for determining what information is relevant or what can be put aside. It wasn’t until I started conducting my own study that I realized my initial assumption was wrong. It turned out that the more I learned about my topic, the more I learned about what I actually wanted to figure out. In hindsight, I now see that my search for a research question followed the path of Mount Stupid, or as I’ve renamed it, Mount Illusion.

My journey over Mount Illusion to find my research question!

For those who are unfamiliar with this comic, Mount Stupid is a graphic that originally appeared on Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal. The comic is an illustration of a chart in which the x axis measures one’s knowledge of a topic and the y axis measures one’s willingness to give his or her opinion on it. The small hump in the middle of the graph is called Mount Stupid, otherwise known as the place where people who think they know a lot about a topic are actually not that knowledgeable on the subject. 

In my case, I’ve repurposed Mount Stupid so that the y axis measures how close I was to finding my research question and the hump, Mount Illusion, measures when I believed I finally found it (needless to say, I was wrong). As the illustration above shows, I didn’t actually find my question until I was well into the research process. Here’s how I finally figured it out:

Continue reading Mount Illusion: Finding My Research Question…While Doing Research

Making Your Citations Cite Themselves: A Step-By-Step Guide to Automated Bibliographies

I’ve always struggled with citations: remembering where I should put commas, how to format journal names, how many authors I should list before writing et al (or was it et. al.?). Last year, my roommate caught me using my freshman year copy of A Pocket Style Manual as I complained my way through the tedious formatting of my junior paper citations.

Nothing personal on Hacker & Sommers (2012), but at some point efficiency has to beat out habit. And what kind of pocket does that book fit in, really?

“You don’t use Mendeley?” she asked me. “Oh, wow. Let me help you.”

After saving many tedious hours with the help of a citation manager, I’m passing my roommate’s wisdom on, by way of a 12-minute guide that can get you started using Mendeley. If your experience is anything like mine, you’ll never go back!

Mendeley and Zotero, the two most popular free citation management programs, store sources and create formatted in-text citations, footnotes, and bibliographies. I use Mendeley, which has the benefit of allowing you to highlight and annotate PDFs within its desktop app. But I also have friends who swear by Zotero, which is better with non-PDF sources. (If you’re torn, you can check out this helpful comparison.)

Both programs are extremely easy to use once you’ve started – it’s making the switch that takes some effort. But fear not! In (approximately) 12 minutes you can be on your way. (For Zotero instead, you can try the online guide here, or attend a free training session in Firestone.) Continue reading Making Your Citations Cite Themselves: A Step-By-Step Guide to Automated Bibliographies

Keeping Calm Before the Storm

I’m not overly stressed right now … and it feels weird. Last semester, I got used to the combo of my procrastination and taking three seminars, so I was always drowning in last minute readings and response papers. But this semester, things changed: I’m deliberately managing my time better because I don’t want to experience the frenzy I went through in the fall.

A very accurate photo of me maintaining my cool during the semester

It feels odd not to be under crushing stress. It’s almost as if I fear things will get gradually harder and I won’t be able to keep up. That said, I discovered I really like this calm state I’m in. I’m more focused and engaged, probably because I’m making an effort not to put myself in the same procrastination- stress-burning out cycle. My work is getting more demanding each week, but I’m still maintaining an equilibrium.

I realized I’d like to maintain this mentality as long as possible, especially when midterms and finals weeks hit. Here are some tips I have–whether you feel crushing pressure or just feel like you’re coasting through–on how to stay relaxed and optimistic even as your work becomes more demanding.

Continue reading Keeping Calm Before the Storm

Back to Where It All Began

At one point or another, we’ve all logged into TigerHub more than we should have in a 24-hour period.

Reasons for this vary. Perhaps you were checking grades. Perhaps you were trying to switch classes. Or perhaps you were checking to see what room your classes were in — something that has surprising power over where and when you’ll grab lunch during the semester. It’s amazing how “Location: TBA” is suspenseful enough to justify repeated trips through the Central Authentication Service.

I can’t say I’m immune to the suspense. As Intersession faded away, and neither of my two classes had room assignments, I kept checking to see if they’d been posted.

The first finally appeared: HIS 361: The United States Since 1974 — McCosh 50

Then the second: SOC 223: Hustles and Hustlers – McCosh 50

Who among us hasn’t waited for all 400 students to leave McCosh 50 so they could take a picture?

And just like that, I became a second semester senior with two classes in the same room, two hours apart. I found this to be an amusing coincidence. But it was also a nostalgic coincidence, because my last two Princeton classes would be in the same room as one of my first –I’d taken Econ 101 in McCosh 50 during my freshman fall.

Continue reading Back to Where It All Began

Research Mythbusters: Do we work best under pressure?

 

“We can all remember a time we procrastinated and it really paid off. We hang onto that like gold.”

My ears perked up. I was driving home from the supermarket when Dr. Tim Pychyl, director of Carleton College’s Procrastination Research Group in Canada, appeared on NPR to discuss “Why We Procrastinate.” My thesis, never far from my thoughts, immediately came to mind. I listened closely as Pychyl explained procrastination: what it is, why we do it, and whether it gives us what we want.

Update on my thesis stack: 18 books in my room (and another ten in my locker in Firestone)!

Pychyl highlights a common misconception: that we work best under pressure. I know graduates who wrote the bulk of their theses in the final two weeks, justified by the notion that productivity and creativity are most accessible when facing a tight time constraint. Stress, however, according to Pschyl, doesn’t produce the best work — it just forces us to complete tasks. He discusses an experiment where students were made to text in their feelings about work throughout the school week. Earlier on, students justified their procrastination with the common myth of last-minute creativity. However, as deadlines approached, nearly all wished they had started earlier.

So why is procrastination such a common practice? Pychyl says it has to do with rewards processing. If we do well on a task that we complete last minute, that behavior is reinforced. Success remains fresh in our mind, while stress fades in our memories. It masks the fact that we might have done even better — and slept a whole lot more — had we allowed ourselves more time.

Continue reading Research Mythbusters: Do we work best under pressure?