Research is about (retrospectives)

It’s been one h*** of a ride.

I came to Princeton because I planned on being a research scientist, probably in academia. I knew what came next, and it was exciting: four years of undergrad, five years of PhD, and a two-year post-doc, so I could have a real job by the time I was 30That meant I needed research experience, and boy oh boy did Princeton provide research experience.

Icahn, where my research journey at Princeton began

Research is about exploring the unknown, and from the beginning I did just that. As a student in the Integrated Sciences Curriculum (ISC), I had to learn MATLAB, LaTeX, ImageJ, JAVA, and countless other acronyms and jargon. And I had to learn them fast, using them to solve problems and write about them, in an ordeal I described as “drinking the nectar of Olympus—from a fire hose.”

Research is about lab work, and oh boy did I ever do that. I didn’t have a single semester without a lab class or independent lab work. From Lewis Thomas to Frick, I pipetted like I’d never pipetted before, worshipped at the altar of replicability, went on quests for the perfect control, spent nights and weekends shepherding yeast and bacteria and proteins, until lab felt more familiar than my own home.

Research is about reading, and watching, and learning from others. I learned humanistic research from bioethicists and religious scholars. I dug through primary sources in the bowels of Firestone. I talked to bioethics advisers from two different presidents’ administrations and read and watched enough literature about and by Al Qaeda to put me on every watch list ever. I learned what I thought was right and wrong, and what others thought, and why those don’t always line up.

Research is about going places you’ve never gone before, and I never thought I’d do that as much as I did. Through a summer internship in the Czech Republic and a term abroad in England, I visited more countries in a 12-month period than I thought I’d ever see. I worked with scientists from five continents and I learned what they thought was right and wrong, too.

Perhaps the most unexpected place chemistry research brought me was the lab in the basement of this 200-year-old Czech chateau.

Research is about writing, and it turns out I loved that. Writing course papers that I expected to hate, but fell in love with. Teasing apart Princeton’s internal workings writing for the Prince. Teasing apart Science’s internal workings writing for Innovation. Figuring out what it all meant for me, for us, at PCUR.

Research is about being wrong, and though I hated that, it taught me so much. I thought I could design nano-fibers from scratch within the time it took to complete a senior thesis. I was wrong. I thought my molecular dynamics simulations would help me find the structure of that protein. I thought those worms would avoid the poison on their plate (why do these worms have a death wish!?). I thought one millimolar IPTG was the right concentration. Wrong, wrong, wrong. As you’ll recall, I also thought I would go straight to a PhD program. Wrong again.

Research is about taking new directions, and so I did. Earlier this year, I had lunch with Pulin Sanghvi, the director of Career Services, and he said something that’s stuck with me in the months since. College, he said, is just a laboratory for life. And I realized that all the little research projects I’d done here were also one big project to figure out what I wanted to do. So when the results were in, I dropped my 10-year plan, and pick up a one-year plan: go to school for science writing, and figure it out from there. I’ll still be doing research, digging into stories about science and the people who do it. And maybe I’ll find something I want to dig into so much I’ll go back to grad school. But I don’t know what comes next, and that’s exciting.

Frick yeah
Another unexpected place (feat. unexpected gargoyle and unexpected thesis)

Research is about collaboration, and the biggest research project of all is no different. I wouldn’t be here without classmates, lab partners, editors, mentors, and friends. I’ll especially miss PCUR, and everything I’ve learned from my fellow correspondents, about science and life. Because, forget your thesis — life is the most exciting research project you’ll ever do, and we’ll all do it without exception.

Ever onward, in search of more data, more stories, more research.

Bennett out.

~Bennett McIntosh, Natural Sciences Correspondent