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.”

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Write something, write something awful, write everything

Unfortunately, writing isn't just the process of typing, or stamping words on paper. How do we get the words flowing in the first place?
Unfortunately, writing isn’t just stamping words on paper like this printing press does. How do we get the words flowing in the first place?

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about writing.

I’m sure part of it is because I just turned in my thesis, the longest written work I’ve ever completed. Another part, I’m sure, is my recent decision to go to grad school for science writing. While I’ve always enjoyed writing, I still find it difficult enough that it’s strange and terrifying to think I may soon do it for a living.

But even if you’re not taking that crazy leap like me, writing is a necessary part of research (among many, many other things). And like every other skill, writing only gets better through practice. But how you practice matters, and so — while much of the advice below can be summed up as “just keep writing, all the time” — here are three particular strategies that have worked for me.

Write something

If you’re stuck, just keep writing. There’s a lot of advice out there about how to make sure you have the best outline (and writing really is easier when you’re fleshing out an outline instead of pushing ahead blindly without any guidance). But even an outline can sometimes feel like too big of a step when you’re faced with the blank page.

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Pushing forward

Last week, Zoe wrote about research in the face of despair from external factors. How can you not push forward, she asked, when in your work is hope for a better future?

Late nights in Frick – an all-to-familiar scene for me and many other thesis students.

This week, I tackle inner despair: How can you push forward when in your work you see no hope?

My thesis project holds no immediate promise of hope for the reefs, or of curing some plague, or of fantastic future technology. The motivation for basic biochemical research comes from its intrinsic beauty, and the hope of applications long in the future. I was incredibly excited about my thesis project at the beginning – I was asking fundamental questions about the origin of life; I had the potential to create something genuinely new. Inevitably, though, my project hit obstacles – both technical problems and scientific difficulties indicating misconceptions in my original idea.

So, the thesis I’m currently writing looks nothing like the thesis I imagined last spring. Continue reading Pushing forward

Mentorship in Research: What’s “networking” all about?

Over the course of the semester, PCURs will reflect on the professors, advisers, and friends who shaped their research experiences. We present these to you as a series called Mentorship in Research. Most undergraduates have met, or will meet, an individual who motivates and supports their independent work. Here, Bennett shares his story.


When I say “networking,” what do you think of?

Affluent, well-dressed extroverts? Annoying emails from the LinkedIn account you signed up for Freshman year (out of a vague sense of professional obligation)? Shallow, self-serving conversations? The old boys’ club?

There’s a lot going on at this career fair, but networking doesn’t have to be intimidating

There are a lot of negative associations that spring up around the word “networking.” And I understand that – there’s definitely something reflexively uncomfortable about conversations where the participants have ulterior motives. As someone who shuns both uncomfortable social interaction and formal wear, it would be understandable if I wrote networking off as an awkward, greedy affair.

But here’s the thing – that’s not what networking is.

One of the best ways I’ve heard it put goes as follows: what if instead of calling it “networking” we called it “learning from each other”?

Because that’s what networking is. And that’s why this post is part of the mentorship series – if you think of networking as finding and consulting mentors, it becomes a lot more approachable and a lot less uncomfortable.

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Apply to join PCUR! What Correspondents do and why YOU should become one

Spring is coming quickly, and with it, graduation –  which means Stacey, Jalisha and I will become PCUR alumni. So, PCUR is looking for new correspondents to pick up where we leave off. If you are (A) a Princeton Freshman or Sophomore, and (B) literate (I hope that’s redundant), then you should apply to blog with us!

Let’s get some questions out of the way first:

Research can happen anywhere – as my fellow correspondents know well

What’s PCUR?

You’re reading it! As you can tell from the header, it stands for Princeton Correspondents on Undergraduate Research, and that’s what we do. Our posts can vary a lot – from interviews to essays to listicles of anything from baby photos to renaissance art, but everything we do is about discussing and illuminating the life of undergraduate researchers at Princeton.

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Rocky trails: Researching what matters to you

Climbers using fixed anchors in Arches National Park

How would you like to travel to six of the country’s most famous National Parks for your senior thesis?

My friend Eve Barnett, a senior in the politics department, did just that. Eve, who also leads Outdoor Action trips and rock-climbs with the Princeton Climbing Team, found a way to combine her academic training with her love of the outdoors. Her thesis focuses on how the Park Service addresses a controversial issue within the climbing community: fixed anchors, metal bolts pushed into a cliff face for climbers to clip into. Should they be allowed in National Parks because they increase access, or banned because they’re a permanent change to the rock face? I sat down with Eve to learn more about her research journey.

How did you decide on a research topic? Was it related to your previous independent work?

It was totally unrelated! My fall JP was about international ocean conservation commissions, and my spring JP was about the different political experiences of high-income and low-income college students. I asked my thesis adviser what he thought about continuing with the college student project, but he recognized that it wasn’t really my project since it was a small portion of a professor’s ongoing research. He told me he believed my thesis topic should be something I have ownership of. So I started thinking, what do I love?

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The value of harsh editing: “Killing your children”

When you’re struggling to begin a paper, perhaps the last thing on your mind is the possibility that you might have too much to write about. But sometimes when you’re struggling to start, it’s not because you don’t have enough to write about, but because you have too much. Have you ever found yourself with so many competing ideas bouncing around in your head, each clamoring for expression, to the point that your writing has no focus?

Editing can be painful, but comparisons to prolicide are a bit exaggerated

When I find myself in such a situation, I remember an unfortunately violent piece of editing advice: Kill your children — that is, don’t let your attachment to particular sentences or ideas prevent you from cutting them.

Just do it. Don’t convince yourself that an idea that it must remain in your draft at the expense of the quality of the work as a whole. However painful it may be, there will come a time when you have to sacrifice something for the good of the piece.

This fall, I wrote a piece for my journalism class, later published in the Daily Princetonian, about Princeton’s Career Services office. In the course of researching for the article, I interviewed more than a dozen students, alumni, and career service staff. Musicians and consultants, grad students and executives – everyone had  their own story, their own advice to offer me and other students.

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Scientists aren’t termites: New thoughts on meaningful research

I’m reading The Lives of a Cell, by Lewis Thomas – a biologist who did his undergraduate degree at Princeton before becoming a renowned science writer and getting Lewis Thomas Labs named after him. It’s a beautifully philosophical piece of writing, as Thomas draws parallels between the miniscule cellular networks which give us life and the massive, invisible human networks which give that life meaning. But what jumped out at me wasn’t one of the many scientific tidbits with which Thomas peppers his writing, but a quote Thomas uses from an essay by physicist John Ziman: “A typical scientific paper has never pretended to be more than another little piece in a larger jigsaw—not significant in itself, but an element in a grander scheme. This technique, of soliciting many modest contributions to the store of human knowledge, has been the secret of Western science since the seventeenth century, for it achieves a corporate, collective power that is far greater than any one individual can exert.”

Termites: conceptually beautiful, but physically rather gross

Thomas, ever the biologist, goes on to compare the collective effort of scientists to the collective effort of termites building a nest. And indeed, if you’re okay with being compared to translucent-brown grubby insects, that’s an apt comparison. For this is how the scientific enterprise moves forward: incrementally with millions and millions of individual papers (and now, in the age of big data, individual genetic sequences, chemical structures, geological maps, or other data points). But, especially early on in your research career, it’s important to remember that, however wonderful the collective efforts of termites are, research is much more than that.

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The Project That Made Me a Researcher: 8 Things Infancy Teaches Us About Research

Over the course of the semester, PCURs will explain how they found their place in research. We present these to you as a series called The Project That Made Me a Researcher. As any undergraduate knows, the transition from ‘doing a research project’ to thinking of yourself as a researcher is an exciting and highly individualized phenomenon. Here, Bennett shares his story.


This is hardly the conventional idea of a research project: for one thing, I don’t remember it, and it’s hardly a lab or an archive project. But, unlike the writing seminar paper I wrote on Osama bin Laden, or my first lab experience with yeast genetics, this is a project every PCUR reader has gone through. So here’s baby Bennett, to take you through the first and most exciting research project any of us has participated in: discovering the world as an infant.

1. Bury Yourself In The Literature

I don’t mean that literally, silly.

You can’t start a research project without a deep background on the question you’re asking in the first place. That’s pretty difficult for an illiterate baby: the best I could do was crawl into the papers in my Dad’s briefcase, and hope some knowledge rubbed off, or that I would at least get a better understanding of how the world around me was shaped. If you’re literate, then you’ve got a huge advantage: read everything you can (even if you don’t understand it all at first – we’ll get to that later).

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Five (and a half) steps to choosing a lab

It’s that time of year again – you’ve (sort of) got the hang of your classes, you have (a short) break coming up before finals, and you (kind of) feel free to think about your future in research. Your department office, OIP, PEI, and Princeton offices you’ve never heard of are sending out long lists of opportunities to do research in fantastic, far-off places – China! France! San Francisco! The E-Quad!

Even without leaving Frick, there are all-too-many labs to choose from.

How do you choose? A few weeks ago, Stacey wrote an excellent post detailing a few of the clearinghouses researchers have for finding opportunities, and my fellow correspondents are working on a Resources for Researchers list of opportunities and support systems for researchers on-campus (watch this space). But with so many opportunities out there, it’s hard to be sure that you’re choosing the best one. Whether choosing a summer internship, a JP, or a thesis advisor, here are a few things you can think about as you pick what to apply to and listen to. Continue reading Five (and a half) steps to choosing a lab