Why I Want to Remember Some Painful Memories at Princeton, Too

Seniors have been forcibly reminded of graduation by senior checkout, where we’ve had to pick up our cap and gown among a long list of other things. 

I’ve handed in my thesis and my lab notebooks to my advisor. I’ve cleaned up the equipment I’ve piled in the corner of the methane sensor cabinet in the lab. I’ve explained my system, with all its lingering imperfections, to my group members. I’ve told them to give my lab screwdriver a new home.

That was how my time in the Princeton University Laser Sensing Lab came to a close. Graduation seems to be a time to celebrate all our successes, and to (already!) feel nostalgic for the good times we’ve had at Princeton. That’s natural. But after such a long and difficult journey, only remembering where I’ve gone right seems oddly one-sided. I wouldn’t be capturing some of the most important takeaways from Princeton if I only remembered the happy times.

Gauss, my lab screwdriver. About a year ago, following a rash of screwdriver disappearances, we were all given our own to look after. Gauss will need a new home now.
Gauss, my lab screwdriver. About a year ago, following a rash of screwdriver disappearances, we were all given our own screwdriver to look after. Gauss will need a new home now.

During the Electrical Engineering senior banquet, we were asked to share our fondest memories of the department. Many of my classmates shared memories from car lab, a required class for all juniors in Electrical Engineering, which is notorious for completely eating up every last second of everyone’s free time. The memory I shared was also from this lab. I talked about the one time I shorted a battery to ground—the battery started smoking and emitting an incredibly foul smell. If I had delayed any longer, it would have set on fire. With the help of a TA, the battery ended up in the hazardous waste bin of a professor’s lab. We had some serious rewiring to do when we got back to our car.

It’s probably not surprising that I don’t actually miss the smoking battery incident. It ranks as one of my least favorite memories in electrical engineering — right alongside the night me and a lab partner tried until 3am to get a simple computer to work (we failed). And despite our long hours (and several in-depth sessions of troubleshooting with the TAs), we never figured out why it didn’t work.

These painful memories are important to me precisely because they taught me to put things in perspective. They show how some things are more important and rewarding than staying in the lab and getting something to work. They confirm that, when I do spend time in the lab, it should be because I’m driven by what really interests me: a thirst for knowledge; not the sinking feeling that I would fall behind if I don’t spend all my free time in the lab.

My time in lab and research isn’t over, of course. My life took an unexpected (but hopefully, good!) turn toward many more years of higher education. When I start my doctorate in the fall, I will be entering at least another 5 years of research. But I’ll take my experiences in lab, both good in bad, in stride. Because of the successes and difficulties of my undergraduate years, I have a much better idea of what I do and don’t want. A lot of uncertainties still lie ahead, but if Princeton has taught me anything, it’s that I shouldn’t be afraid of difficult roads—and that the things we celebrate aren’t the only things worth remembering.

–Stacey Huang, Engineering Correspondent