Science, the Absurd

It was Wednesday, the final round of my second day of water sampling, when I hit a bump in the road with the rolling cooler I was pulling behind me. The second cooler of water samples, which had been stacked on top, toppled to the asphalt. Eight ice packs and 54 water sample bottles careened out of the cooler and across the road.

I’m using a PVC stick to photograph the reef from a fixed height, in order to take standardized photos of the reef for ecological analysis. This procedure is otherwise known as The Aquatic Gandalf.

This, I thought to myself, throwing my hands up in the air like a cartoon character, is absurd. I scooped the samples up from the pavement, picking a few out from the grassy verge where they’d fallen, and shoved them back into the cooler (carefully packing ice back over the top). I reminded myself, as I have often these past six weeks: This is science.

I’m in Bermuda for two months this summer, studying how polluted groundwater discharge is affecting near-shore coral reefs. The field season has been exciting, fulfilling, challenging, and full of slightly ridiculous situations. I’ve gone swimming along the reef like an aquatic Gandalf, carrying a camera mounted on a PVC stick. I’ve attached equipment to the reef by looping zip-ties through holes in the rocks, and so have spent hours poking these zip-ties into crevasses and attempting to pull them through on the opposite side. Continue reading Science, the Absurd

Post-Fieldwork Blues

The end of fieldwork evokes strange sensations of both pride and loss.

Returning to New York after two months in Rio de Janeiro (studying psychiatrist Nise da Silveira’s life and legacy), I know I accomplished a lot. But I can’t get rid of the nagging feeling that there was so much more I could have done, and so much that I left behind. Just as I was acquiring an understanding of the nature of da Silveira’s impact, just as I was beginning to map the important people and projects she influenced, just as my interviews were becoming particularly poignant — it was time to pack my bags.

At the colorful Casa das Palmeiras, pictured above, I attended a Jungian study group, founded by da Silveira to bring intellectuals together across fields.
At the colorful Casa das Palmeiras, pictured above, I attended a Jungian study group that Nise da Silveira founded to bring together intellectuals from across fields.

It’s one of the most bizarre parts of learning. The more you know, the more you realize you don’t. That idea became clearer the more I conducted my research, as da Silveira’s work spanned many fields. She collaborated not just with psychiatrists, but also with painters, philosophers, writers, astrologers, actors, and people from many other fields. Her influence is wide-reaching. And while I never expected to reach everyone, I sometimes felt inadequate knowing there were so many more interesting people I hadn’t interviewed.

Continue reading Post-Fieldwork Blues

On Action and Optimism: Notes from the 13th International Coral Reef Symposium

In the summer of 2016, it is difficult to find optimism in the field of environmental science.

Yet last month, I gathered with a throng of 2,500 coral reef scientists for the International Coral Reef Symposium (ICRS) in Honolulu. Knowing the extent of the tragic coral bleaching and death that has unfolded on coral reefs this year, I expected a week of doom and gloom. But, to my surprise, the conference gave me more cause for hope than for pessimism.

A wasteland of dead coral on Lizard Island, the Great Barrier Reef, this June. High temperatures have caused record bleaching and coral death this year.
A wasteland of dead coral on Lizard Island, the Great Barrier Reef, this May. High temperatures have caused record coral bleaching and death this year.

This is not because the situation facing coral reefs is any better than I’d thought – if anything, it’s worse. Rising greenhouse gas concentrations, warming waters, and stagnant politics have put the biodiversity of coral reefs, along with many other ecosystems, into a sharp decline. On the Great Barrier Reef – a vibrant ecosystem so structurally significant that, unlike the Great Wall of China, it can be seen from space – nearly 25% of coral is dead, from this year’s bleaching alone. At one panel at ICRS, researchers shared photographs and time-lapse footage of coral bleaching and subsequent death around the world. As they flicked through photo after photo, the conference hall adopted the atmosphere of a funeral.

No, things are not looking good for coral reefs, or for many other ecosystems struggling to keep up with the whirlwind of environmental change that stems from human overpopulation, consumption, and industrialization. One scientist, Peter Sale, called coral reefs a “canary” in the proverbial coal mine that is our changing earth. “There are a whole bunch of canaries that are at risk,” Dr. Sale said. “And when the canaries go, our civilization goes.” Continue reading On Action and Optimism: Notes from the 13th International Coral Reef Symposium

Zooming In and Stepping Back: A Two-Sided Approach to Research

As I head into the second half of my internship at the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) in Budapest, I find myself equipped with a more focused understanding of my research— and, curiously, a wider understanding of my research. This may sound strange at first. How can my perspective become narrower and broader simultaneously? It might seem paradoxical, but I’ve realized that digging deeper into a research project often entails zooming in and stepping back.

Here I am standing on Liberty Bridge and looking at Budapest from across the Danube River–a zoomed out view if you will.

Continue reading Zooming In and Stepping Back: A Two-Sided Approach to Research

A Summer of Surprises in the Windy City

When I hopped on my flight to Chicago a few weeks ago, I was surprisingly calm and collected about spending 10 weeks as an intern in a whole new city by myself. This seemed odd to me, because I’m normally extremely nervous about leaving my house for any longer than a week. I still remember how terrified I was during my first few months at Princeton. I worried about everything — The fact that the laundry room was located six entryways away scared me. Were my awful laundry habits going to leave me perpetually clothes-less?

But going to Chicago, I felt somewhat prepared. It’s probably because I pictured Chicago as a smaller version of New York City, which I had grown comfortable with during my two years at Princeton. While several of my friends were traveling to exotic, exciting places around the globe, Chicago seemed comparatively boring to me.

Now, I think back to my pre-Chicago mindset and can’t believe how terribly wrong I was.

My first view of Chicago’s skyline which I captured 5 minutes before I landed.

Continue reading A Summer of Surprises in the Windy City

Four Tips for Summer Research

Greetings from Rio de Janeiro!

Back in April, I shared some tips about how to prepare for summer research. Now we’re well into summer, and I’m on the ground in Brazil — conducting my thesis research on psychiatrist Nise da Silveira (1905-1999) and her legacy in Rio. I have made several trips to da Silveira’s psychiatric institute, particularly to visit the Hotel da Loucura — a creative space where artists and the institute’s clients come together to make theater. With two weeks of research completed, I thought I would share some summer research tips that have helped me so far.

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Mural of Nise da Silveira in the Hotel da Loucura

1 – Plan in increments. For me, the most daunting — and most exciting — part of tackling a long-term project is the need for flexible and evolving goals. Especially for an ethnographic and interview-based project like mine, I cannot predict what will come up. So far, I have found it most useful to take things a week at a time. I make weekly objectives: attend one theater workshop, conduct two interviews, make a visit to da Silveira’s archives, etc. This allows me to break down the immensity of a two month long research project into smaller, reachable goals.

2 – Write something everyday. I am discovering something new everyday: about Rio, about the people I meet, about art’s ability to heal — and, of course, about Nise da Silveira. I keep a notebook with me everywhere I go, jotting down notes, observations, and questions as I sit on my daily bus home from the psychiatric institute. Back in my apartment, I use these notes to write a short journal entry on my computer: a 15-minute exercise that not only gets me thinking critically about my research experiences, but also produces material that may be used months down the road in my thesis.

Continue reading Four Tips for Summer Research

Researching Abroad? Here’s some advice!

Most Princeton students have been done with school for a while, but I just wrapped things up in New Zealand.  Two weeks ago, I was packing up to leave my flat in Dunedin. I finished my last final on that Tuesday, submitted my JP on Thursday, and then flew out of Dunedin on Saturday.  This week, I’ve been spending time with family before I start my job at PRINCO, Princeton’s endowment fund. At PRINCO, I’ll shadow and help different teams that manage Princeton’s endowment investments in different areas, like fixed income/cash, private equity, real assets, etc.

My favorite hike in NZ-- French Ridge Hut in Mt. Aspiring National Park!
My favorite hike in NZ– French Ridge Hut in Mt. Aspiring National Park!

Since my summer job hasn’t yet started, I thought I’d write about my experience doing JP research abroad.  My advice here is relevant and easily applicable to any student researching abroad. Many of my thoughts in this earlier post have held true throughout the research process, but my topic and experiences changed significantly throughout the semester. As a bit of background, I focused most of my JP on the following asymmetry between aesthetic and moral admiration:

Aesthetic: Henry knows nothing about Velazquez’s Las Meninas. Jill tells him that Las Meninas is an aesthetically praiseworthy painting and lists its qualities, providing evidence for by citing its physical characteristics. Henry comes to admire Las Meninas.

Moral: Henry knows nothing about Mahatma Gandhi. Jill tells him that Gandhi was a morally praiseworthy man and lists his qualities, providing evidence by citing stories about his deeds. Henry comes to admire Gandhi.

My intuition dictated that, in the above example, Henry’s moral admiration seems warranted — but his aesthetic admiration based on testimony does not. The moral qualities relevant to admirability seem communicable by testimony, whereas the aesthetic qualities relevant to admirability do not. Why?

In tackling my research on this topic in New Zealand, I found the following tips useful: Continue reading Researching Abroad? Here’s some advice!

Stage 1 of my Summer Internship Abroad: Exploring Budapest’s Present and Past

The Chain Bridge spans the Danube River, connecting the Buda and Pest sides of the city.

Hello (Szia) from Budapest, Hungary! In a few days, I will start my internship with the European Roma Rights Centre, where I will be working with the legal team and doing research on anti-Roma discrimination. But for now, I am busy exploring the city and getting acclimated to my temporary home. As I wrote in April (and as Princeton’s IIP program suggested), interning abroad can be thought of as a comprehensive research experience — a time to collect “data” on our surrounding environments. Fellow PCUR blogger Vidushi gave similar advice during her study abroad experience in New Zealand, where she talked about taking courses relevant to New Zealand culture. Following everyone’s “immerse-yourself-in-the-culture” suggestion, I used my first few days in Budapest to do some informal “research” on the city. Continue reading Stage 1 of my Summer Internship Abroad: Exploring Budapest’s Present and Past

The Year in PCUR

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This is Space Mountain, an indoor roller coaster at Disney World. The ride is basically in complete darkness — so those twists and turns reeeeally blur together.

The 2015-2016 school year is finally over, and it’s been quite a ride. You might even call it a roller coaster. Think about it: The year had highs. It had lows. It probably had loops where you weren’t sure what was going on. But you were buckled up for the long haul, and you finished with an excited smile (and/or a sigh of relief). The whole thing was so dizzyingly fast that, in retrospect, all its twists and turns seem like one indistinguishable blur.

PCUR was on that roller coaster with you. We also see the past eight months as kind of a blur. But, we wrote about the twists and turns of research as they were happening – creating a lasting record of our paths, and how they intersect with yours.

You’ll remember feeling like we did in key moments throughout the year:

Posts like these remind us how research can be frustrating and confusing, but also exciting and impactful. That’s a pretty neat summary of PCUR’s message. And, starting this summer, it’s no longer confined to the academic year. Because many undergraduates tackle research experiences during the summer, we’ve decided to post occasional updates from our summer internships, fieldwork, and research-related activities. There will be twists and turns, for sure – but there will also be written records of how we work through them.

We hope you’ll follow along with our first ever summer series. And, we hope it’s okay that summer posts will be less frequent than posts from the academic year. It’s only because we need some time to do fun vacation things, like go to amusement parks – and ride roller coasters.

— Melissa Parnagian, Chief Correspondent

(P.S. Best of luck to our graduating seniors Bennett, Jalisha, and Stacey. We can’t wait to hear about all the amazing things you’ll do!)

Mentorship in Research: An ode to the grad student (and one grad student in particular)

Over the course of the semester, PCURs will reflect on the professors, advisers, and friends who shaped their research experiences. We present these to you as a series called Mentorship in Research. Most undergraduates have met, or will meet, an individual who motivates and supports their independent work. Here, Zoe shares her story.

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Cleo and I liked this display at the turtle museum of Tortuguero National Park in Costa Rica.

The mentorship series asks us to examine the role of mentors in our lives as undergraduate researchers. Earlier this semester, Jalisha discussed the challenges and value of professors’ mentorship, and Emma reflected on peers as mentors. This post is an ode to the graduate student – actually, an ode to my favorite grad student, Cleo Chou.

I met Cleo the summer after my freshman year, when I was an intern through the Princeton Environmental Institute. Cleo’s Ph.D project is a field study of rainforest trees and how they respond to nutrient enrichment and limitation. This question has crucial implications for how we predict tropical rainforests’ responses to climate change.

I spent a month working with Cleo in Princeton, and then six weeks at her field site in Costa Rica, hiking through the rainforest and surveying the saplings in her study. Cleo and I were together 23 hours a day, every day, with my daily hour-long run our only substantial time apart. In the long hours of rainforest hiking, tree-finding, leaf-counting, and trunk-measuring, we talked about everything from our career aspirations to food to our families and friendships. Continue reading Mentorship in Research: An ode to the grad student (and one grad student in particular)