The Project That Made Me a Researcher: Engineer or researcher—why not both?

Over the course of the semester, PCURs will explain how they found their place in research. We present these to you as a series called The Project That Made Me a Researcher. As any undergraduate knows, the transition from ‘doing a research project’ to thinking of yourself as a researcher is an exciting and highly individualized phenomenon. Here, Stacey shares her story.


Engineers don’t really do research, right? They just build systems.

A messy first draft of a circuit I was building the summer of my sophomore year.
A messy first draft of a circuit I was building the summer of my sophomore year.

Those were my thoughts when, in my high school years, I pondered my future career path as an engineer. I had always believed research was only about discovering new information on how the world works. To me, it was a pursuit limited to natural and social science PhDs (who, more often than not in my mind, were clad in white lab coats). Even coming to Princeton, I found it difficult to believe that as an aspiring engineer I would need to conduct much research. As I slowly became more involved in research, I realized it was something I was interested in pursuing further. However, my limited knowledge of technical fields combined with my relative lack of experience made me a little hesitant about my ability to follow that goal. It wasn’t until a project I worked on in Germany (during my sophomore summer) that I first felt like a true researcher.

The placard that hung in the institute I worked at which I worked in Goslar, Germany.
The placard that hung in the institute at which I worked in Goslar, Germany.

That summer, I was working in Fraunhofer Heinrich Hertz Institute at the Technical University of Clausthal with a generous grant from Princeton Environmental Institute. The large research institution collaborates closely with companies on a large number of projects to produce a wide variety of sensors. This includes ensuring the structural integrity of Germany’s wind turbines with fiber-optic sensors to motivating safer battery designs in hybrid cars by measuring the gases from battery meltdowns. Because the lab was extremely busy, I ended up splitting my time between four projects. The project I was most involved in was one to develop, build, and test circuits for a handheld version of an existing methane sensor.

I was very excited. This would be the first time I could apply my academic knowledge to a real engineering problem. My supervisor had a clear idea of our end goal, but because he did not have much experience in circuits, it was up to me to figure out the detail of its implementation. As a result, I needed to rely on the academic and hands-on experience I had gained from my sophomore year as an electrical engineer. To fill in the gaps in my knowledge, Google and scholarly articles would be my greatest friends.

This project was entirely different from any project I had done before. It was even different from the research experiences I had taken on previously, in that if I went to my supervisor with a question, he more often than not had a good idea of what I was doing wrong and could point me unequivocally in the right direction. This experience was much more like working on an open-ended team project where there was no answer key for the solution, and indeed, no one solution at all. My supervisor would send me Google links of circuits he thought could be useful and have me try building and testing them with the system. I would report back to him the results of what I had built, and we would discuss how the system might be further improved.

I was struck by what I was able to learn through the project, not only about circuit design itself, but about resonant tuning forks and electronic components such as transistors. Building these circuits required absolute comprehension of how the entire system functioned, and I was motivated to learn not by impending problem sets or exams, but by a much more compelling desire to create a functioning system.

That project made me realize I was a researcher. I realized that research is not limited to natural and social science PhDs in their white lab coats—it is the process of forging a new path through learning and discovery that is applicable to any discipline. During this project, I was able to leverage my skills and experience, augmented with extensive Google searching and literature review, to build a part of a methane sensor. There’s no doubting the task was arduous, but it was in overcoming these challenges that I found great satisfaction. I left with the confidence that I could build on what I was learning in the classroom to develop useful systems. That sentiment will continue to drive me forward on my eternal journey as both an engineer and a researcher.

-Stacey Huang, Engineering Correspondent