Exploring Mayan Hieroglyphs in Chiapas, Mexico

This spring break, I took my seventh Princeton sponsored trip abroad, with my classmates in ART 468: The Art and Politics of Maya Courts. After spending half a semester learning about the basics of Mayan architecture, society, and hieroglyphic decipherment, we packed our bags and traveled to Chiapas, Mexico to visit Mayan sites and modern descendent communities.

The trip was as an immersive experience where we learned about new aspects of Mayan epigraphic and archaeological work and unexpected aspects of topics we had already studied. We started our week in the quiet town of Palenque, looking at Mayan inscriptions on-site. Throughout the week, we visited other Mayan sites, ranging from the impressively excavated steps of Tonina to ruins that were barely visible under plant growth in the jungles and the countryside.

Standing in front of the excavated Mayan site of Palenque in Chiapas!

In class, I had read scholarly work about Mayan inscriptions and even decoded (and written!) my own. I found a unique sense of wonder, however, in being face-to-face with the stories Mayan hands had carved into stone hundreds of years ago. With the guidance of Professor Bryan Just, I was able to recognize common narratives about royal accession, court captives, and religious ceremonies in the stones. Continue reading Exploring Mayan Hieroglyphs in Chiapas, Mexico

Celebrating Senior Theses: An interview with Aubree Andres ’17

In our spring series, Senior Theses: A Celebration, we take a moment in the interlude between thesis deadlines and graduation to appreciate the diverse, personal, and impactful work of seniors’ capstone research projects.

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Aubree Andres ’17 is an Anthropology concentrator with a certificate in visual arts. Here, she shares the story behind her visual arts thesis, an installation that transformed a room in the Lewis Center into a kaleidoscope of color and collage. The installation is titled after Aubree’s favorite non-word: &Thunk.

Aubree, a senior from Cambridge, Massachusetts, stands with one of the completed walls in her thesis exhibition. The panels are a collage of strips she cut from fashion magazines, interweaving images and words. 

What is your thesis about?
The intersection between chaos and control, the complications with human memory and fragmented narrative, and giving the viewer a lot to get lost in.

Tell me about the space where you created your thesis.
I share a studio in Lewis with two other girls in the program. It’s facing Nassau Street, so we get tons of natural light. The heater’s broken, so it’s always really cold. But it’s just – it’s a mess, in the best way. The floors have been splattered with paint for years before you’ve been there. You know, each year, every studio is made to reflect the humans that are living and working there. It’s like moving into a dorm room, with the history of all the people who have lived there before you – except it’s a dorm room with no repercussions for throwing paint everywhere. You can tell it’s a space to get chaotic and messy.

What are the things you can’t thesis without?
Mod Podge [a collaging glue]. Scissors. Lots of magazines. I mostly used fashion magazines – Vogue, and a bunch of old Oprah magazines from my mom. I spent hours and hours in the studio, often with friends, flipping through magazines…putting the show together was very different from the normal kind of stress I feel at Princeton. Oh, and I listened to a lot of music. Music is the real MVP.

What’s the soundtrack of your thesis?
A lot of Hamilton, relaxing folky music, and long, random mixtapes. The three albums I listened to the most were Always this Late by Odesza, Malibu by Anderson Paak, and In Colour by Jamie xx.

“My mom is probably the most influential creative force in my life. She and I had done mosaics in the past – not on this scale or style – but I took a lot of my pieces home over winter break, and we laid down the papers and talked about it. That’s when a lot of the work started to come together.”

Did you have an Aha! moment in your artistic process?
The weekend I installed the project, my parents had come down to help out, and it was an exhausting two days. My “Aha! moment” came just after I’d installed both of my bigger walls in the space, and then brought my beanbags in and sat down. My mom has a picture of me passed out there in a beanbag chair. When I woke up there, in that space, I realized: wow – I’ve done it. I’ve created something that I could look at forever.

“When I woke up there, in that space, I realized: wow – I’ve done it. I’ve created something that I could look at forever.”

What’s one thing you would do differently if you were to start again from the beginning?
I was way too nervous at the beginning about what I was ultimately going to do. With a thesis and a whole installation it’s hard to see the endpoint from the very beginning, and I put way too much pressure on myself to perform – all with Mod Podge and paper, these most basic materials! I learned that not knowing where you’re going to end up is totally fine.

— Interview by Zoe Sims, Natural Sciences Correspondent

In Between the Lines: A Guide to Reading Critically

 

A good example of how I mark up my readings as I go

I often find that Princeton professors assume that we all know how to “read critically.” It’s a phrase often included in essay prompts, and a skill necessary to academic writing. Maybe we’re familiar with its definition: close examination of a text’s logic, arguments, style, and other content in order to better understand the author’s intent. Reading non-critically would be identifying a metaphor in a passage, whereas the critical reader would question why the author used that specific metaphor in the first place. Now that the terminology is clarified, what does critical reading look like in practice? I’ve put together a short guide on how I approach my readings to help demystify the process.

  1. Put on your scholar hat. Critical reading starts before the first page. You should assume that the reading in front of you was the product of several choices made by the author, and that each of these choices is subject to analysis. This is a critical mindset, but importantly, not a negative one. Not taking a reading at face value doesn’t mean approaching the reading hoping to find everything that’s wrong, but rather what could be improved. Continue reading In Between the Lines: A Guide to Reading Critically

Field Notes from a Grad School Visit

What’s the first thing you should do after your thesis is done?

More research, of course! The best kind of research. Fun research.

For me, that meant investigating the place where I’ll spend the next two years: Harvard Kennedy School. At HKS, I’ll study policy and political communications as a Master of Public Policy student. I’ll also develop leadership skills as a Sheila C. Johnson Leadership Fellow.

Fact: Signs like this exist for pictures like these.

I’m unbelievably excited about these things. I’m also eager to learn who my classmates are, where my classes will be, and what Boston is like. Thus, I figured it was time for some research — at HKS’ New Admit Day, which took place on April 7.

Here are some field notes from my journey there and back:

Continue reading Field Notes from a Grad School Visit

Effective Study Habits for Independent Work

Taking a study break to color!

April has finally arrived, which means that the deadlines for theses and junior papers are quickly approaching (cue the dramatic music)! While teachers and advisers may be reminding you to pace yourselves and to still find time to relax, this post is for those who are grinding through their work and may even be (dare I say it) binge writing. Whether you fall into this category or not, brushing up on some effective work habits can be helpful in all parts of academic life. With that said, here are a few strategies that I have found make my writing sessions as efficient as possible: Continue reading Effective Study Habits for Independent Work

Me, Myself and I: My Favorite Study Buddies

Me studying with all of my friends! 

Recently I have been thinking a lot about the environments in which I work best, and I have made some important self discoveries that have allowed me to be more focused and productive in my work. A couple months ago I wrote a post about how my peers have shaped my Princeton experience. I’m someone who values social interaction, and I think dialogue and exchange of ideas are absolute necessities within an academic environment. Conversations with my friends can be a saving grace when I’m in an especially tough spot. However, this semester I’ve given myself a lot more time to be alone, and that has contributed positively to my Princeton experience.

Continue reading Me, Myself and I: My Favorite Study Buddies

Structuring Senior Year: Choosing Courses

The registrar will soon be releasing fall course offerings. Even as spring semester continues full speed ahead, many juniors are beginning to think about the coming year. Especially for A.B. seniors, who take only six classes, the questions of which to take, how many to take, and how to balance them with a thesis and post-graduation plans, all loom. Remembering how I, as a second semester junior, relied on advice from outgoing seniors, I decided to compile some of my own reflections on approaching coursework in senior year.

Three-three or four-two? For most A.B. students, senior year is the only time we take six courses, rather than eight or nine, to make more time for independent research. We may divide these courses in two ways: three each semester; or four in the first, two in the second. This decision may come down to a number of factors, including: your ability to plan ahead and pace your work, your spring extracurricular conflicts, and your research requirements (for some, scheduling lab work is an important consideration). Personally, I am so grateful for my decision to take four and then two. Especially since I have two theses — one for the Spanish and Portuguese concentration, and a thesis play for the theater certificate — I appreciate the lighter course load.

Final requirements? As you select final courses, narrowing down the choices can seem impossible. Before you make any decisions, first consult your departmental, certificate, and distribution requirements. Many departments have advising tools and calendars to help keep you on track. If you have any prerequisites left, check if these courses are only offered one semester. Senior fall, for instance, was my last opportunity to take ANT 300, a requirement for the Ethnography certificate. Having this in my schedule helped me limit my other choices.

One tool that might help with course selection is recal.io, which allows you to develop a potential class schedule. Here is the schedule I developed last year at this time for my senior fall.

Continue reading Structuring Senior Year: Choosing Courses

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