Looking Back on Undergraduate Research: Dumpster Diving with Alex V. Barnard ’09

This semester, each PCUR will interview a Princeton alumnus from their home department about his/her experience writing a senior thesis. In Looking Back on Undergraduate Research: Alumni Perspectives, the alumni reveal how conducting independent research at Princeton influenced them academically, professionally and personally. Here, Taylor shares her interview.

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Alex V. Barnard, Class of 2009

Alex V. Barnard ‘09 was a Sociology Major during his time at Princeton. Now a graduate student in Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, he studies the comparative politics of mental health in Europe and the U.S. In addition to attending graduate school, Alex continued to work on his thesis after completing his undergraduate education. He recently published all of his hard work in his new book, Freegans: Diving into the Wealth of Food Waste in America.What is a “freegan,” you may ask? Luckily, I had the opportunity to speak with the author himself. Here’s what Alex had to say in his interview with PCUR about how his thesis impacted his life: 

Continue reading Looking Back on Undergraduate Research: Dumpster Diving with Alex V. Barnard ’09

Why Independent Work is Different

And what is classroom learning good for, anyways?

It is Tuesday morning. From the back of the classroom, I squint at the pictures of fish being projected on the board, and scribble in a spiral notebook. Queen angelfish: yellow ring on head, I write as the instructor describes the species’ habitat. She flips to the next slide. Townsend angelfish, I write, less common.

A school of doctorfish (Acanthurus chirurgus) near one of the reefs I studied last summer. Doctorfish can be identified by the dark vertical bars lining the middle of their bodies.

Slipping into the room, with its rows of desks, overhead projector, and professorial monologue – had felt like donning my own old, well-worn clothes. Sixteen years of traditional education have made this role as a student a familiar one.

Yet this time, the circumstances are unusual, and entering the room as a pupil feels suddenly bizarre. It is mid-June, my third week on the island of Bermuda. Just down the hill from this classroom, the turquoise ocean plays against the research station dock. I am at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences to conduct a field research project assessing how polluted groundwater affects the chemistry and ecology of near-shore coral reefs. Over breakfast, someone had mentioned that a summer course instructor would be lecturing her class on fish identification today. I have been planning to conduct fish surveys on the coral reefs I am studying, but (rather critically) first need to learn to identify all the fish. The timing of the lecture couldn’t be more perfect, so here I am: hunched over a table in the very back of the classroom, listening and scribbling notes like my thesis depends on it.

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Looking Back on Undergraduate Research: A Conversation with Shayla Reid ‘15

This semester, each PCUR will interview a Princeton alumnus from their home department about his/her experience writing a senior thesis. In Looking Back on Undergraduate Research: Alumni Perspectives, the alumni reveal how conducting independent research at Princeton influenced them academically, professionally and personally. Here, Dylan shares his interview.

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When I learned that Shayla Reid ’15 was in New Jersey for her winter break, I jumped on the opportunity to interview her for this blog. She currently works as a Fellow through Princeton in Africa at Young 1ove, an organization in Gaborone, Botswana that implements health and education programming for youth. A Spanish and Portuguese concentrator at Princeton, she was one of the people who convinced me to major in the department. And now, as I began to write my own thesis, I was excited to get her insights.

Shayla, back left, shares a fun moment with coworkers from Young 1ove in Botswana

Shayla’s thesis — “Mulher como protagonista”: Women’s Experiences with Parto Humanizado in São Paulo, Brazil — dealt with childbirth in Brazil, particularly the country’s high C-section rate. Though surgical intervention is only necessary when complications arise, in Brazil nearly 60-70% of all births in public hospitals are C-sections, and upwards of 90% in private ones. Though she was interested in the cultural reasons behind the high C-section rates, she also sought more personal experiences. Thus, as a Princeton Brazil Global Fellow, she spent the summer of 2014 in São Paulo. Paired with an adviser at the local university, she began to visit women’s health groups, interviewing women to see how they navigated the health care system in order to achieve fulfilling childbirth experiences.

Continue reading Looking Back on Undergraduate Research: A Conversation with Shayla Reid ‘15

How to Ace Your Final Draft

I recently got back a midterm essay and, as it turns out, I didn’t do so well. I didn’t give myself enough time to fully flesh out my arguments, and ended up with lots of logic gaps as a result. I was pretty disappointed, but I realized that I could turn this setback into a learning opportunity. So for the final essay, I chose to develop the ideas from this paper, working through its problems and retooling arguments. With the process of rewriting in mind, I’ve compiled a few tips to help you revise drafts and papers.

  1. If your first draft wasn't great, you have an opportunity to reinvent your old ideas!
    If your first draft wasn’t great, you have an opportunity to reinvent your old ideas!

    Talk to your professor. This might be intuitive, but don’t revise your paper using only your professor’s notes in the margins. Ask in person what worked and what didn’t so you can get a better sense of where to go. Then continue from there.

  1. Start thinking about your thesis. Be honest with yourself, do you agree with it? Is it logical? My thesis was a huge part of what detracted from my essay, because I didn’t properly outline my ideas or prove the argument I had made. Think about how you could tweak your main argument relative to the evidence you already have so you avoid writing an entirely new paper.

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Graduate Seminars: Why Not?

A winter view of the philosophy department in 1879 Hall.
A winter view of the philosophy department in 1879 Hall. 

This semester, I took my first graduate seminar in philosophy–Rationality & Irrationality with Professor Thomas Kelly. I went into the class without any knowledge of epistemology and some apprehension about my meager philosophical background compared to other students.

At the same time, I wanted the challenge and growth opportunities of an environment where students were fully invested in the material and subject matter covered. As a senior, I also wanted to see if I would want to pursue graduate work in philosophy. So, I swallowed my hesitations and enrolled.

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Frankensteining my Thesis: Writing Without an Outline

In middle school, I remember being told that the best way to write an essay is with an outline. We would receive five-paragraph-essay worksheets, complete with a thesis statement, sub-arguments, and important supporting information. It was direct, simple, and structured.

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Remember these outlines? Things were so easy back then. And, yes, your teacher probably used Comic Sans!

In this post, I hope to advocate for a different sort of writing. Outlines are certainly helpful organizational tools. But as I delve into my thesis, I find myself taking a more free-form approach. As I have previously written, I am writing on the legacy of pioneer Brazilian art therapist Nise da Silveira. Based on two months of ethnographic research, my thesis is about how da Silveira’s image is evoked and utilized by people who continue similar work. I have lots of interesting ideas, but no single, unifying argument. While writing an outline might be useful down the road, right now it would impose a limiting structure on my thought process.

Instead, I have decided to do what my friend Lily calls “Frankensteining.” To her, writing an essay is like creating Frankenstein’s monster: you have to find all the parts before you can sew them together and create a body. Lily explains:

“I think you need to Frankenstein when you’re developing any kind of complex argument because you can’t know what you’re going to say until you start figuring it out and seeing how different insights fit together. It’s writing as a nonlinear process — you don’t brainstorm and then write. They happen at the same time.”

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Need to Keep Track of Sources? Create a Reference Guide

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My stack of sources keeps getting bigger!

It’s officially December, which means it’s one month closer to Dean’s Date. This also means that the time you have to gather your secondary sources, otherwise known as the preexisting literature on your research topic, is quickly dwindling down. I’m sure I speak for myself and several other independent researchers when I say that juggling multiple sources can be not only overwhelming, but also confusing. With so many articles focused on similar topics, how can one keep up with all of the new information?

Based on my professor’s advice, I created a handy-dandy excel spreadsheet to keep track of my secondary sources. Here are the important points I made note of for each author in my secondary source reference guide: Continue reading Need to Keep Track of Sources? Create a Reference Guide

Princeton Underground: A researcher’s guide to lesser-known resources

Princeton’s resource network, like Firestone Library under construction, is so big and complex you could spend hours inside it but only see a small part, never knowing what you’re missing. Here are 3½ of campus’ most under-the-radar resources, and a guide to using them.

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The DSS Lab in Firestone: literally underground.

1a. Data and Statistical Services: Lab edition
What: The original inspiration for this post, the DSS Lab is literally underground. A well-lit room of big-screen PC’s, the lab is run by two incredibly friendly statistical consultants who can help you download, format, reshape, or analyze data.
Where: The A floor of Firestone – see this map.
How: The lab consultants’ schedule is available here. Walk-in hours are available from 2-5 p.m. on weekdays through December 16.
Underground tip: For brief, specific questions, send an email to the consultants at data@princeton.edu. Continue reading Princeton Underground: A researcher’s guide to lesser-known resources

“The People Make It”: How My Peers Have Shaped My Princeton Experience

Recently ranked the best university in the country by US News and World Report, Princeton has a lot to gloat about. Yet on the list of resources and opportunities that make Princeton exceptional, rarely are the students themselves mentioned. While my classes here have been enlightening, my relationships with classmates have had the greatest impact on me.

Every day, Princeton students take in a wealth of knowledge, and it’s only natural that we share it with each other. I have a friend interning at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab down the road who discussed her project with me over dinner. She’s looking at data from four different satellites orbiting Earth to study magnetic reconnection events, or in other words, when solar winds (streams of high-energy charged particles from the sun) disrupt the magnetic field around Earth. I had never been exposed to this field, but in just a few minutes was able to understand several technical terms from a field of study completely different from mine.

Magnetic reconnection is responsible for the Aurora Borealis. Things you learn over dinner!
Magnetic reconnection is responsible for the Aurora Borealis. Things you learn over dinner!

And yet, most of my conversations aren’t outright academic. Amongst friends, there’s no pressure to turn conversations into precept. I’ve found that this balance between casual and academic actually aids my studies.

Continue reading “The People Make It”: How My Peers Have Shaped My Princeton Experience

SUBMIT to Tortoise, Princeton’s Journal of Writing Pedagogy!

Tortoise is an annual journal that publishes excerpts from Princeton undergraduate and graduate student research, featuring interdisciplinary work that emphasizes the writing process. With Tortoise’s “early action*” deadline coming up on December 16th at 5 PM, I sat down with senior editor Sahand Keshavarz Rahbar to learn what the journal is about.

The Tortoise staff! L-R: Harrison Blackman, Myrial Holbrook, Ron Martin Wilson, Sahand Keshavarz Rahbar, Ryan Vinh, Regina Zeng, Natalie Berkman,
The Tortoise staff! L-R: Harrison Blackman, Myrial Holbrook, Ron Martin Wilson, Sahand Keshavarz Rahbar, Ryan Vinh, Regina Zeng, Natalie Berkman.

Continue reading SUBMIT to Tortoise, Princeton’s Journal of Writing Pedagogy!