Research Communication and Community: Reflecting on the Princeton Correspondents for Undergraduate Research

Melissa Parnagian; Stacey Huang; Alec Getraer

Each month in the Office of Undergraduate Research newsletter, we highlight recent posts by Princeton Correspondents on Undergraduate Research (PCUR) authors. This month, we are looking back on ten years of PCUR as we celebrate the tenth anniversary of OUR.

PCUR began the same year as OUR – with the first posts published in September 2014. We invited PCUR alums to share their perspective on their time as a correspondent, including two who were part of the very first PCUR cohort. Read on to learn about how PCUR serves individual correspondents and the larger Princeton community alike, and if this all sounds like something you’d like to be a part of, Princeton first-years through juniors are encouraged to apply here to join PCUR next fall. 

Complexity, Creativity, and Authenticity

We asked PCUR alums to reflect on what attracted them to PCUR and why they found participation to benefit them while they were undergraduates. Nicholas Wu ‘18, now a congressional reporter for Politico, reflected that PCUR offered “valuable experience in writing about complex issues for a broader audience.” Melissa Parnagian ‘17, Senior Manager for Player Programs and Culture Initiatives at the National Hockey League, likewise shared, “Writing for PCUR offered a chance to appreciate the prevalence of research across Princeton’s campus.”

Melissa also noted that PCUR encourages attention to research across disciplines and “creative manifestations that expand students’ view of what research could be.” Stacey Huang ‘16, Assistant Research Scientist for the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and University of Maryland Baltimore County, notes that embracing creativity extends beyond the research itself, but also to the communicative practices PCUR encourages: “Science communication has always been very important to me, and I was excited by the opportunity to engage in another outlet that was a bit more free-form.” As correspondents are writing in the genre of blog, there is a lot of room for writers to find their authorial voice and experiment with post formatting, media use, and topics in innovative ways. 

Because correspondents often root their writing in their own experiences as researchers, PCUR is also a place to acknowledge the tough parts of research. Alec Getraer ‘19, doctoral student in earth sciences at Dartmouth University, writes that, for him, “PCUR was an exciting way to share authentic student experiences—the successes and challenges—with an audience that understood because they were navigating the same things.”

Feedback, Engagement, and Accessibility

We also asked alums to consider how the practices they developed through their participation in PCUR have affected their current work. You may have noticed above that our interviewed correspondents demonstrate the many pathways Princeton students take after graduation, from research roles in academia (like Alex at Dartmouth University and Stacey at NASA), journalism (Nicholas), and the private sector (Melissa at the NHL). Though alums occupy very different professional roles, the communication practices PCUR encourages benefit all of them. 

What stood out in correspondents’ reflections was the importance of peer feedback and revision. Alec, for example, shares, “The key to successful research communication is feedback and revision. As a writer you really don’t know if you succeeded until someone else reads your words and tells you what worked and what didn’t. PCUR’s peer editing practice helped me learn to write about science to a general audience. It also gave me a framework for giving and receiving feedback that I have taken with me and use all the time as a PhD student.”

Listening to others’ perspective is especially relevant to Melissa’s work with the NHL: “I spend a lot of time with NHL Players to learn about their stories, experiences, and perspectives as a precursor to helping them use their platforms to support off-ice causes. The process is not unlike primary research, where careful attention to the influences throughout a Player’s journey can often lead to big insights and more authentic community projects and collaborations.”

Whether they are soliciting feedback, revising with a peer, or listening to others’ stories, what always remains important is sharing such stories with a view toward engaging a broad audience. At NASA, Stacey notes, scientists “are asked to write short blurbs on our research and consistently encouraged to make sure we are able to communicate our research results in an accessible way so that we are able to update our labs, our program managers, and the general public on the work we are doing.” 

Vulnerability, Celebration, and Community

Throughout the entire process – from brainstorming ideas for posts as a group, sharing writing for feedback, and putting that work out in the world – correspondents demonstrate that research and writing is never purely individual and that it requires risk-taking and trust. 

Stacey recalls, “I still remember writing a PCUR post on imposter syndrome after listening to a talk by Professor Sarah-Jane Leslie. It was a pretty honest reflection that I had been uncertain about writing at first, but apparently it quite resonated with the community and even made it to my future parents-in-law without me realizing!” Stacey’s post, from 2016, is still in the top 15 most viewed PCUR contributions. 

PCUR co-founder Dr. Amanda Irwin Wilkins, director of the Princeton Writing Program, emphasizes the empowering collective nature of PCUR. She writes, “We especially appreciate the model of supportive peer review through which correspondents give each other feedback and refine each post before it’s published. PCUR’s focus on students writing in community and for the community is right in sync with the goals of the Writing Seminars.”

Starting with individual experience and always seeking to expand out to share why our unique experiences connect to others before and after us is core to PCUR’s values. Melissa reflected to the very first Seasonal Series (where all correspondents write on a particular topic): “As Chief Correspondent in 2015, it was special to organize our first seasonal series, “The Project That Made Me A Researcher,” because it highlighted the different ways that students can find their footing in the research world. Princeton students have so many unique experiences, but every Tiger has that one proud moment when they realize their discoveries are contributing to an academic legacy that is bigger than themselves.”

Thank you to PCUR co-founders Dr. Irwin Wilkins and Dr. Pascale Poussart, Melissa, Nicholas, Alec, and Stacey, and to all of our correspondents over the past ten years who have enriched the Princeton research community with their thoughtfulness and enthusiasm.

Caitlin Larracey, Assistant Director of Undergraduate Research