Four Tips for Summer Research

Greetings from Rio de Janeiro!

Back in April, I shared some tips about how to prepare for summer research. Now we’re well into summer, and I’m on the ground in Brazil — conducting my thesis research on psychiatrist Nise da Silveira (1905-1999) and her legacy in Rio. I have made several trips to da Silveira’s psychiatric institute, particularly to visit the Hotel da Loucura — a creative space where artists and the institute’s clients come together to make theater. With two weeks of research completed, I thought I would share some summer research tips that have helped me so far.

Mural of Nise da Silveira in the Hotel da Loucura

1 – Plan in increments. For me, the most daunting — and most exciting — part of tackling a long-term project is the need for flexible and evolving goals. Especially for an ethnographic and interview-based project like mine, I cannot predict what will come up. So far, I have found it most useful to take things a week at a time. I make weekly objectives: attend one theater workshop, conduct two interviews, make a visit to da Silveira’s archives, etc. This allows me to break down the immensity of a two month long research project into smaller, reachable goals.

2 – Write something everyday. I am discovering something new everyday: about Rio, about the people I meet, about art’s ability to heal — and, of course, about Nise da Silveira. I keep a notebook with me everywhere I go, jotting down notes, observations, and questions as I sit on my daily bus home from the psychiatric institute. Back in my apartment, I use these notes to write a short journal entry on my computer: a 15-minute exercise that not only gets me thinking critically about my research experiences, but also produces material that may be used months down the road in my thesis.

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Princeton Research Day: Something for Everyone

Looking through the recently released program for Princeton Research Day, I am reminded that research is not just conducted by people in lab coats. It is conducted by everyone.

The 162 projects represent over 50 departments and programs. Nearly 200 dfr_pfd_newsletter_masthead_4x6undergrads, grad students, and postdocs will present — everyone from artists to biologists to computer scientists to sociologists to policy makers. And that’s not to mention all the interdisciplinary overlap!

I know that we are all busy this Reading Period, writing papers and studying for exams. But give Research Day a chance! There is such value in stepping away from our own work to appreciate the passion and dedication that these students are putting into theirs. I’m not going to push any one project on you. But, why not take a look for yourself? Skim the program and see if any presentations spark your interest. Come see a few of them as a well-deserved study break on May 5th. Who knows? Maybe you’ll discover a topic you never knew you liked. I can promise you that, at the very least, you’ll learn something new by attending #PRD16.

— Dylan Blau Edelstein, Humanities Correspondent

Mentorship in Research: Overcoming Originality

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, Dylan shares his story.


“Everything you might write has been written before,” said Professor Pedro Meira Monteiro, my adviser, leaning back into his chair.

I was in a JP meeting in his cozy, naturally lit East Pyne office. The paper had me in high-stress mode, but I was in good hands. Somehow, hearing that all work is derivative and unoriginal did wonders to immediately calm me down.

Let me explain.

I first met my advisor when he co-taught the Princeton in Brazil program in June 2013.
I met Professor Meira Monteiro when he co-taught Princeton in Brazil in June 2013.

I am writing my JP about Nise da Silveira, a Brazilian psychoanalyst who taught painting and sculpture to schizophrenic patients as a means of treatment. This paper is meant to prepare me for my summer research in Rio de Janeiro, where I’ll look at current artists who use da Silveira’s teachings as creative inspiration. My JP is, to a certain degree, an appetizer — the background knowledge I need to enrich my summer work.

And yet, the deeper I got into my topic, the more I faced the sinking feeling that I couldn’t contribute much to the scholarly discussion — at least not until I got to Brazil and did my interviews.

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Five Steps to Prepare for Summer Research

I know it’s hard to believe, but it’s spring again, and we only have a month to go before finals. As summer approaches, many Princetonians are getting ready for jobs, internships, and — if they’re lucky — vacation. Others, like me, are prepping to do research.

This has been on my mind a lot recently. I am a PIIRS Undergraduate Fellow, which means I am receiving funding and guidance to conduct my thesis research abroad this summer. Recently, I submitted my final proposal. I hope to explore Brazilian psychoanalyst Nise da Silveira’s legacy outside of the realm of psychology. Known for using artistic expression as a means of treatment for schizophrenic patients, da Silveira’s teachings serve as a source of inspiration for some artists in Brazil. Finishing my proposal forced me to prepare for my time in Rio. Here, I thought I would share the five steps I found most helpful.

A plus about doing my summer research in Rio? Seeing this view from the plane!

1) Think about your personal goals and interests. Reflect a little. What do you want to get out of your independent work? For me, I know I want to become a better ethnographer, improve my fluency in Portuguese, and immerse myself in Rio’s art world. My project is designed to address these goals by placing me in constant contact with artists. Locating your areas of interest and desired growth is important if you haven’t picked a topic yet, too; find something that excites you! After all, independent work is more than a torturous graduation requirement—it’s your time to grow intellectually and hone in on something enthralling!

2) Talk to professors. I know this is something we write about a lot on PCUR, but that’s because professors are such valuable resources. Once I had my initial ideas to explore art and mental stigma, I spoke to two professors about the topic. I left these meetings not only with ten books to take out of the library and myriad themes to begin exploring, but also with the confidence that this project was a good one. Continue reading Five Steps to Prepare for Summer Research

Dredging the River: Why We Enter the Field

This spring break, I remembered why I love going to the field.

I am currently taking Latino Global Cities, a Spanish class about how Puerto Ricans — both on the island and in diaspora communities — form and maintain identity in an increasingly globalized world. Over Spring Break we travelled to Puerto Rico to begin to understand the Caribbean island beyond the palm trees and hotels. We visited communities and attended discussions about the lived complexities of an American colony in a “post-colonial” age. These issues can only be fully understood with first-hand experience that can both complicate and concretize concepts that seem so distant in books.

Practicing what my professor calls “anti-tourism” — a more critical kind of travel — we visited Fanguito, a conglomerate of eight poor urban communities in San Turce, outside of San Juan. There, Melba, a local activist, guided us around the community with her 6-week old baby in tow, who represents the 5th generation in her family to live in the community.

Photo taken on a boat ride on a nearby, navegable waterway that feeds into Fanguito’s river.

Melba told us about her community’s most severe problem: water. Located on the Caño Martín Peña, far from the island’s tourist-filled beaches, Fanguito sits on one of Puerto Rico’s most important, and most polluted, waterways. Melba took us to the river to see the bags and water bottles strewn everywhere. It reeked of sewage, and she explained how toilets and sinks run directly into the water. This is a health hazard for everyone — plants, animals, and humans. Furthermore, the pollution has caused parts of the river to dry up, so that it is no longer navigable by boat.

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A Major Decision: Choosing Your Concentration

If you’re a sophomore at Princeton, this is an important semester. In April, you will finally declare your concentration, which may seem like one of the most daunting decisions you’ve had to make here. Will you lose out on opportunities by choosing one major over another? Will one department make you happier? Will another stimulate you more intellectually?

Today, I’m a junior happily enrolled in Spanish and Portuguese (SPO). But last year at this time, I was struggling with these same questions, and almost declared myself a Sociology (SOC) major. Ultimately, making the choice came down to seeking out advice and reflecting on what was best for me.

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One great part of being a Spanish and Portuguese concentrator is how much time you spend in the most beautiful building on campus, East Pyne!

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Sorcery or Science? The Value of Subjective Research

In an ideal world, research is pretty straightforward. Evidence is collected, synthesized, and analyzed. Meaning emerges. Results point to objective truth.

But if there’s anything I’ve learned from the first two weeks of ANT 301 (The Ethnographer’s Craft), it’s that research is often far from this ideal. Ethnography, at its core, is a subjective science. But that does not discount its intellectual value.


We recently read Harry G. West’s Ethnographic Sorcery, an account of West’s research in Mueda, Mozambique, where he studied sorcery as a prominent belief system. In short, Muedans believe that there are sorcerers among them who turn into lions and claim innocent lives. Early in the book, West recounts a conference he held to bounce his ideas off of community members. There, he presented a theory: we may understand these lion-people as metaphors for power play in society. An awkward hush took over the room before a schoolteacher spoke up. “I think you misunderstand,” he said. “These lions that you talk about … they aren’t symbols — they’re real.”

The case of the lion-people as metaphors reveals a problem of subjectivity: interpretations are often based on vastly distinct epistemologies, or ways of understanding the world. West acknowledges that calling lion-people metaphors is a fallacy because it dismisses local belief systems. In other words, viewing aspects of other cultures as metaphors rather than truth is a way of holding Western values above others.

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The Eternal Struggle Between Academics and Extracurriculars

It’s the beginning of a new semester, and I’m sure many students are asking themselves the same question I ask myself time and time again: How much can I realistically take on? Balancing academics and extracurricular activities is always delicate. And even though it feels particularly strained right now as I prepare to write my spring JP, I know how important it is to find time for what I love to do. The purpose of this post is not to provide some cure-all for your scheduling woes — because everyone works differently — but rather to talk about what has worked for me.

Snapshot from PUP’s Fall ’14 production of Little Shop of Horrors, in which I played Seymour — a botanist who must murder to feed his man-eating plant.

Most of my time outside of class is dedicated to theater. I have performed in many productions on campus and serve as the Princeton University Players’ Vice President. Beyond the immense joys I find in making theater, it has taught me how to effectively manage my time: an invaluable skill for big research projects. Since rehearsals often run late, I’ve had to learn to speed-read during 10-minute breaks and work productively during time off. Luckily, there is support in the struggle to get everything done. McGraw has resources to help us develop more effective time management strategies and to make our time more productive.

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The Post-JP Slump: When Dean’s Date Feels Wrong

On Tuesday, I turned in my JP, a 34-page labor of love that was half a year in the workings. And now some real talk: After that experience, writing Dean’s Date papers feels wrong.

My JP was, perhaps, my single biggest academic accomplishment at Princeton. Submitting it was the culmination of six months of work that began this summer in Juchitán de Zaragoza, a rural city in Oaxaca, Mexico. Juchitán, as I’ve written about before, is widely known for the indigenous Zapotec culture’s acceptance of a third gender option, muxe (pronounced “moo-shay”), and for the myth that it is a “matriarchal” society.

There, I conducted a series of in-depth interviews with activists and NGO workers, seeking to understand their work, how they define their communities, and what they believe to be the greatest issues facing women and LGBTQ+ people in the region. These interviews were the basis of my JP: ethnographic non-fiction, in which I told my story — the process of getting to know a culture so distant from my own — while telling others’.

In Juchitán's center, just outside of an office where I performed an interview
In Juchitán’s center, just outside of a government office where I conducted an interview.

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The Project That Made Me a Researcher… Sort Of

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, Dylan shares his story.


The Project That Made Me a Researcher. Hmm. It’s a loaded topic for me because it makes a big assumption: Am I a researcher? It feels awkward to ascribe the word to myself, like a shirt that doesn’t quite fit right.

I definitely do research. And I definitely love doing it. But a researcher? Something about it seems so … prestigious, perhaps? Important? World-changing? Where do I fit in all this?

Located in Lincoln Center in New York City, the NYPL for the Performing Arts is an excellent resource for anyone researching theater, dance, or other forms of live performance.

The project that comes to mind is my freshman writing sem paper. I looked at how La Cage Aux Folles — the first Broadway musical to portray a gay couple at its center — tamed its queerness for a commercial 1983 audience. It was the first time I’d discovered that my niche interests could be considered academic, and I felt compelled to go out of my way to learn more than I might otherwise have. My ambition pushed me out of Princeton — twice — to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, where an extensive archive of video recordings of theatre is maintained. There, wedged into a small cubicle with an archaic looking TV screen, I watched the original 1983 production and, on a second trip, the 2004 revival. Sitting there, surrounded by a smorgasbord of theater junkies fixated on their own little screens, I had an epiphany: research is fun.

Continue reading The Project That Made Me a Researcher… Sort Of