For this year’s Spring Seasonal Series, entitled Post-Princeton Life: The Experiences of PCUR Alumni, each correspondent has selected a PCUR alum to interview about what they have been up to. We hope that these interviews will provide helpful insight into the many different paths Princeton students take after graduation. Here, Nanako shares her interview.
In my last post, I wrote about how to get the most out of your short-term research internship. In this post, I provide some more insight I got about how to get the most out of my summer internship— this time from a more credible source: a Princeton alumnus. I interviewed Bennett McIntosh ’16, who used to write for PCUR, about his Princeton research experience.
Here’s a bit about Bennett:
Bennett McIntosh is a freelance science writer and reporter living in Boston, covering the intersections of scientific research, technological change, and social welfare. He is currently helping to relaunch Science for the People, a magazine of science and politics whose first iteration grew out of the 1960s anti-war movement. While studying chemistry at Princeton, he wrote opinion columns for the Daily Princetonian, science stories for Innovation, and lousy jokes for the Princeton University Band.
What did you want to do when you came to Princeton?
When I came to Princeton, I was pretty committed to the sciences; I planned on majoring in CHM or MOL and going to a Ph.D. program immediately afterward. I liked writing, but I didn’t really consider it to be a potential profession.
What made you change your mind?
I ended up majoring in chemistry, and in my senior year, while I worked on my thesis, I realized that I enjoyed learning about new ideas and developments in the scientific field, and sharing them, more than I loved doing the act of research itself.
I had a lot of different research experiences before making this decision. Starting the summer after my first year, I had worked on yeast genomics, chemical synthesis, and protein structure projects under Megan McClean (now at the University of Wisconsin), Andrew Bocarsly, and Jannette Carey respectively. I also did an internship through the International Internship Program (IIP) in the Czech Republic and did my spring Junior Paper research abroad at Sussex University in the UK. This gave me a lot of experience joining different lab environments and learning about different research methods.
So when I started in Michael Hecht’s lab, I knew that I loved the experience of diving into a new field. I decided that I wanted to pursue that feeling of learning something completely new instead of intensive, hyper-focused research that I would be doing if I decided to pursue a Ph.D. So instead of applying to a Ph.D. program, I applied to a number of different jobs and a couple of fellowships, and I learned about a program at MIT for a Master’s Degree in science writing about three weeks from the deadline. When my offers were all laid out, MIT looked like the next best step.
It’s clear that you have had many, many short-term research experiences. Do you have any advice for students preparing to participate in short-term research internships during the summer?
Make sure you understand how the work you’re doing fits into the broader work experience in the lab and the field that you’re working in. Why is this research question interesting or important? The most fulfilling research experiences I had were those where I felt like I was making a contribution to a much larger and meaningful project. It’s important to see where you fit in the wider understanding of the field and the system you’re studying.
You’re going to learn technical skills and a lot about the system you’re studying, but you’re also going to be working side by side with people who have more experience than you. Talk to them about what you can do to pursue the field, and what other interesting research questions there are out there. Some of them might become collaborators in the future; I found the lab I worked in in the UK because the PI there was a collaborator of someone who visited the lab I worked at in the Czech Republic.
Ask yourself: now that I have this research experience, what else is out there to experience and discover? What should I be thinking about? How can I keep learning in a way that helps me answer the questions that are out there?
Even though your current profession isn’t strictly research-based, what was your biggest takeaway from doing undergraduate research?
Sometimes, especially for these short projects and even during your senior thesis, research just doesn’t work. My thesis was designing a library of proteins which were supposed to fold in a particular way ⎯ but I never found out whether they folded in the way I designed them to because they killed the bacteria we were growing them in. So a lot of my thesis was trying to figure out why the proteins were killing the bacteria. It turned into a very different research question from when I started the project. But it was important for me to realize ⎯ “wait, this is also research.” Sometimes stuff just doesn’t work. Especially in short-term projects, you shouldn’t take your results as a verdict on your skill as a researcher. Realizing that you’re always learning can make a difference there.
When scientists are really good at framing research questions, even when the answer to a research question is no, the research is still interesting. You should be learning no matter what the outcome of your experiment is.
What are some opportunities at Princeton that you’re glad you took advantage of?
I’d mention two things.
One, doing an internship through the International Internship Program (IIP). I was able to really see a different part of the world. When people go to the Czech Republic, people go to Prague. I was at a lab in a very rural area right on the Austrian border, so it was a part of the world that I would have never just happened to visit otherwise. I lived there for two and half months and I really got to know the people there and learn the history of this little town, which was amazing, above and beyond the research I got to do. Getting some sort of international experience is an incredibly valuable experience.
Two, making use of the fellowship advising system at Princeton since this guidance is among the biggest privileges of being at a university like Princeton. People can go into applying for a fellowship like the Gates or the Fulbright really blind and not end up knowing what they’re doing but the folks at the Office of Fellowship Advising can really help you figure out what it is you want to do, how to approach the process, how to write a strong application, and get something out of your postgraduate experience.
As someone who’s interested in writing, talking to Bennett about his transition from a science researcher to a science writer made me reflect on how I want to continue writing as I pursue a career in medicine. While I’m not quite sure how that’ll work out, it’s comforting to know that your research experience here in your undergraduate years at Princeton makes an impact — whatever profession you end up pursuing. Personally, I feel a lot more inspired and excited about the independent work that I’m going to be doing next year after this interview!
— Nanako Shirai, Natural Sciences Correspondent