In a continuation of last year’s seasonal series, this winter, each PCUR will interview a Princeton alumnus from their home department about his/her experience writing a senior thesis. In Looking Back on Undergraduate Research: Alumni Perspectives, the alumni reveal how conducting independent research at Princeton influenced them academically, professionally and personally. Here, Alec shares his interview.
Adrian Tasistro-Hart graduated in 2017 with a degree in Geosciences. A PEI Environmental Scholar, Adrian focused on one independent research project spanning his Junior Papers and Senior Thesis, which he plans on submitting for publication. Adrian is currently working towards a masters degree in Geophysics at ETH in Zürich, continuing his research journey which began at Princeton. Here is what Adrian had to say about his experience with undergraduate research and the impact of his independent research experience:
The summer after my first year, I worked for the Pringle Lab as an ecological research assistant in Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique. I have always loved the natural world, and my internship in Gorongosa allowed me to combine that love with my passion for scientific research. Camping for eight weeks amongst vervet monkeys, warthogs and baboons, and working with researchers in the savanna amidst antelopes, elephants, and lions made the internship a dream come true. That dream was made possible by the Princeton Environmental Institute.
Each year, PEI offers numerous established internships in locations around the world. These opportunities cover a range of environmental topics that address complex global issues related to energy and climate, sustainable development, health, conservation, and sustainability. All the internships last at least 8 weeks, are funded by PEI, and are mentored by a professional organization or Princeton professor. In addition to established internships, PEI also offers an opportunity to design your own internship with a professor if you are interested in a specific research topic.
My PEI internship provided me with real world experience in topics I was learning in classes and taught me how research works in the field.
My PEI internship provided me with real world experience in topics I was learning in classes and taught me how research works in the field. I worked alongside three Princeton Ph.D. students, studying the diet of large mammalian herbivores, identifying trees on termite mounds, and surveying floodplain vegetation protected from herbivory with enclosures. Working with the small community of researchers in the park, I developed research skills such as how to plan field projects and take thorough field notes, while also strengthening my interpersonal skills. Much of our work related to the restoration of Gorongosa’s ecosystem following the ecologically catastrophic civil war in Mozambique, and I witnessed first-hand many of the issues that impact modern conservation and humanitarian efforts in developing countries.
If you likewise have a passion for environmentally related research, you can find detailed internship descriptions and application information on the PEI website. The final deadline for established internships is March 27th, but applications are considered on a rolling basis until positions are filled–so apply as soon as possible!
While it takes a little more effort to make a non-established internship happen, it really is all about taking initiative. My internship in Gorongosa was student-initiated and began simply with a couple of students asking Professor Pringle after class if we could intern with his lab. So if you are interested in creating a student-initiated internship, don’t be afraid to ask–talk to a professor or graduate student about creating an internship and get the ball rolling, and read about past internship projects to get ideas and understand what type of project will succeed. For advice on connecting with faculty members, see this recent PCUR post.
For students who are interested in summer research opportunities in non-environmental fields, the office of undergraduate research offers a student-initiated internship program over the summer called OURSIP. The priority deadline is March 1st, then applications are accepted on a rolling basis until April 1st.
This past July, Joe ‘Stringbean’ McConaughy set out to break the speed record for hiking the Appalachian Trail. Carrying a 25 pound backpack and eating 8,000 calories a day, Stringbean initially planned to average 50 miles per day and finish the 2,181-mile trek from Georgia to Maine in only 43 days. Twenty two days in and halfway to Maine, he felt confident that he was on track to break the record of 46 days. However, his pace slowed dramatically in the mountains of New Hampshire, and when day 43 came, Stringbean still had 151.5 miles to go and under 70 hours to beat the record.
As my third Fall semester comes to a close, I find myself in a place similar to McConaughy’s. I started working on my Junior Paper in September with a well-defined research path and have worked consistently for the past three months, meeting with my adviser every week. Yet, with a full draft of my JP due in only four days, I have fallen far behind my planned timetable.
There will be a time for reflecting back on why I fell behind my JP plans this semester and how to adjust my study habits and work strategies to get a better start in the Spring–but that time is not now. It is now day 43 and we have 70 hours and 151 miles left to go. If you have fallen behind in your independent work like me, now is the time for the final push. So here is my strategy for beating my JP draft deadline in four days:Continue reading Behind on Independent Work? Tips for the Final Push
In my last post, I wrote about finding meaning in my academics through a research oriented class with local impact. This week, I am focusing on how another student is using research to make a positive local impact–not through taking a pre-existing course–but by creating a reading course that fit her specific academic goals. (If you are interested in reading courses, you can learn more about them here!)
This fall, Geosciences major Artemis Eyster ’19 is leading GEO 90_F2017 “Analyzing Ecological Integrity: An Assessment of Princeton’s Natural Areas,” a course she designed that centers around geological and ecological field research on Princeton’s campus. The eight students enrolled in Analyzing Ecological Integrity (AEI) are tackling field research projects such as measuring the bathymetry of Lake Carnegie to assess the rate of erosion on campus lands, gauging water-quality in campus streams, and surveying invasive plant species in campus woodlands. Artemis leads weekly class meetings to discuss course goals, review progress, and plan ahead, with the assistance of course advisers GEO Professor Adam Maloof and WRI Professor Amanda Irwin-Wilkins. I interviewed Artemis to better understand her motivation for creating the course and her experience taking charge of her academic work to make a positive impact on our campus.
What do you consider to be the purpose of this reading course?
AEI is about better understanding Princeton’s natural areas through rigorous scientific research and using our findings to articulate relevant land-use recommendations to the University. I believe that, as students going here, we should take responsibility for the land and environment around us. If we have the ability, we should use our scientific skills to help the University make decisions that protect our campus’s ecology. Another priority of the class is to record baseline measurements and design methodologies so that future student researchers have a strong framework they can expand upon either in classes or independent work.
“It is empowering to be able to identify something that I think is important and then go make it happen.”
How did you develop the idea for this reading course?
[GEO Professor] Adam [Maloof] saw a natural resource assessment report provided to the University by a professional consultant and thought that students could advance such assessments with high quality scientific measurements and greatly expand upon the work currently being done by the University. I love fieldwork, and I thought other students would also be excited to do impactful research on campus. Creating the class was a way to harness that excitement into commitment so that we would be able to get research done over the course of the semester.
At least once a week, without fail, I will stop in the middle of the p-set I am working on, or the paper I am writing, and think “what is the point of this?” Sure, the pursuit of knowledge may be a reward unto itself, but I don’t want my academic goals to be purely selfish–I want my course work at Princeton to benefit others. To this end, I have sought engaging research-based courses that can have a positive impact on people’s lives. These classes combine my academic interests with my desire for meaning, and provide a concrete ‘point’ to my course work.
Sure, the pursuit of knowledge may be a reward unto itself, but I don’t want my academic goals to be purely selfish–I want my course work at Princeton to benefit others.
Last Spring, I participated in GEO 360, Geochemistry of the Human Environment, a course focused on providing chemical analyses of tap-water, paint, and soil for low-income residents of Trenton, NJ. Only 11 miles south of our orange-bubble along the towpath, Trenton is one of the poorest cities in the state and has a serious and systemic lead problem. Lead exposure is caused by the deterioration of lead paint into dust and the leaching of lead from pipes into drinking water. While lead paint was banned in 1978 and installation of lead piping was discontinued in the mid 1980’s, lead is still ubiquitous in Trenton where 90% of homes and buildings were constructed prior to 1978. As homes in the city age, the lead within them becomes mobilized and hazardous, and residents often do not have the financial means to keep their homes safe.
Our class worked alongside Isles, a non-profit Trenton organization that has tested over 2,000 homes for lead and provided remediation work–all free of charge–over the past three decades. We assisted Isles with field work by collecting samples, and measuring paint and soil lead in urban residences. We then analyzed hundreds of tap-water samples, measuring elemental concentrations with a mass spectrometer and conducting multivariate analyses to quantify the correlations between metals within samples. Our work helped Isles identify at-risk homes in order to provide them with lead paint remediation and/or water filters.
At some point in your Princeton career, you will likely have to write a long paper replete with a table of contents and extensive bibliography, possibly containing complex mathematical equations, and/or multiple figures and tables. For many students, especially those in the social sciences or humanities, writing a research paper using word processing software like Microsoft Word will be the fastest and most intuitive method (especially with the help of automated citation tools). However, for other students, formatting all of these features using regular word processors will be inefficient, or worse, create unsatisfactory results.
For these types of projects, you may benefit from a typesetting system capable of consistent structural layout, superior typographical quality, support for scientific equations, internally referencing figures and tables, and automatically compiling large bibliographies. Enter: LaTeX.
LaTeX is a free open-source typesetting system that uses code and text to generate a PDF document. It allows you to explicitly define formatting options so that document structure remains consistent. Although the workflow is completely inefficient for writing short documents, when it comes to large and complex papers, LaTeX can make life a lot easier. For projects like Senior Theses, many departments at Princeton even have LaTeX templates with correct formatting built-in. While struggling to get a handle on LaTeX last year, I learned some useful strategies that will help you vault over the learning curve:
I enrolled in GEO/WRI 201, Measuring Climate Change: Methods in Data Analysis & Scientific Writing, last Fall to challenge myself and learn how to integrate field work, scientific analysis, and writing. Although I already had cursory experience in these areas thanks to a Freshman Seminar on Biogeochemistry in the Everglades and a summer of assisting ecological fieldwork in Mozambique, I had never created and executed my own field project from start to finish. In my naiveté, I presumed that although the course would be difficult, I would conduct research that had a clear and established “finish-line”—and that I would reach it.
My project centered around quantifying changes in vegetation cover in Utah over the past twenty years using satellite imagery. The first couple months of the class were frustrating and I floundered across the deadlines. Most of the science courses I had taken offered a framework: a set of given questions with specific, correct answers. In real research, I found, you must create the questions—and they don’t necessarily have “correct” answers.
Successful research is based on convincing motive that builds off of key literature to contextualize and explain the broader importance of a specific research question.
Despite my struggles, the project seemed to be coming along. Using images from multiple Landsat satellites, I created a beautiful figure showing a steep decline in vegetation tightly correlated with rising temperatures and decreasing rainfall. Genuine results linking changing climate to remotely sensed vegetation! I was thrilled.
However, after weeks of writing and data analysis, I discovered that the seemingly important trends I was writing about were–to put it bluntly–garbage. In a peer review session, another student in the class hypothesized that the apparent decline in vegetation might be simply an artifact of comparing imagery from different Landsat satellites. I scoffed–but I also started to worry.