It’s that time of year: freshmen get their first taste of research at Princeton through their third Writing Seminar assignment, quite unaffectionately known as D3. D3 defined my life in the last few months of 2014. My entire daily schedule was built around it. But at the end of the day, it was probably one of the most rewarding experiences in my life.
Through D3, I discovered a simple formula to find engaging research or project topics that would enhance my academic experience at Princeton. To this day, I still use that same formula, which I call the method of missing links, to stay engaged with my research.
Flashback to December of last year. I sat in my room utterly puzzled. I was supposed to write a paper that actively engaged with 10-12 scholarly sources in order to create an original argument. The last scholarly source I had read took me over five hours to fully understand. Now I was being asked to take 12 of these sources and use them in the framework of a larger self-created idea. And I wasn’t even given an end goal – I had no idea what I was supposed to prove.
Alas, fall break is over; but it’s not too soon to reminisce. During our time off, the semester finally began to decelerate (at least until finals come around). For the first time in over 6 weeks, I had time to catch up with friends whom midterms shielded me from. I was able to relax and watch Sunday Night Football without the stack of problem sets on my desk reminding me of my academic responsibilities. And perhaps most importantly, fall break presented an opportunity for me to take on a new kind of research project, as I reflect on yet another quarter at Princeton.
So far, these mid-year “introspective research” projects have really helped me improve my overall experience here. While classes are in session, I usually can’t afford to take a few days off to reflect on life, but when I get the opportunity, I take it immediately. Just as scientific researchers go through several trials to improve their projects, I find it immensely helpful to periodically sit back and think about how I can continuously improve my quality of life in the Orange Bubble. After all, the subject of this ‘project’ is me – I’m the experiment that can be infinitely refined. But unlike laboratory research where finding novel ideas is difficult, it’s really quite simple to give oneself effective advice going forward. All it takes is a little bit of self-reflection and time spent towards developing a plan for the future.
I remember it like it was just yesterday. The steps to the scientific method: Question. Research. Hypothesis. Experiment. Analysis. Conclusion. I can actually still hear the monotonous voices of my classmates reciting the six steps to the content of the middle school science fair judges.
For our middle school science fair, I had created a web-based calculator that could output the carbon footprint of an individual based on a variety of overlooked environmental factors like food consumption and public transportation usage. Having worked on the project for several months, I was quite content when I walked into our gym and stood proudly next to my display board. Moments later the first judge approached my table. Without even introducing himself, he glanced at my board and asked me, Where’s your hypothesis? Given the fact that my project involved creating a new tool rather than exploring a scientific cause-effect relationship, I told him that I didn’t think a hypothesis would make sense for my project. To my dismay, he told me that a lack of hypothesis was a clear violation of the scientific method, and consequently my project would not be considered.
This was quite disheartening to me, especially because I was a sixth grader taking on my very first attempt at scientific research. But at the same time, I was confident that the scientific method wasn’t this unadaptable set of principles that all of scientific research aligned to. A few years later, my suspicions were justified when my dad recommended I read a book called Design Thinking by Peter Rowe. While the novel pertains primarily to building design, the ideas presented in the book are very applicable in the field of engineering research, where researchers don’t necessarily have hypotheses but rather have envisioned final products. Formally, design thinking is a 5-7 step process:
Creativity is something I’ve struggled with my entire life. Being the son of two architects, I was always expected to develop some sort of creative talent – even at a young age. Sadly, this talent never manifested itself, especially not in building design (I figured that out when my 2nd grade classmates labeled my gingerbread house as the ‘ugliest’ at a holiday party).
I learned very early in my life that I was more of an analytical and methodological person. While I wasn’t creative, I could follow a set of clear-cut instructions. I liked classes like math where everything had definitive answers. I enjoyed playing sports like tennis where mastery of a specific set of techniques defines what it means to be a good player. But when given the freedom to be creative, I used to panic. The music I composed for my piano class sounded awful. My dancing skills were subpar let alone my ability to choreograph. And I couldn’t write creatively no matter how hard I tried.
“Sorry Kavi, I don’t think they’re a fit for our fellowship. Their proposals are not system-changing”.
I received this disappointing message countless times this summer while interning at Ashoka, a global non-profit organization committed to the spread of social entrepreneurship. Working out of the India office in the beautiful city of Bangalore, I was responsible for interviewing recently-nominated social entrepreneurs interested in Ashoka’s fellowship program. The program helps connect these select individuals with other fellows, resources, and tools to help further their work in the social space.
Every candidate I had championed was rejected on the basis of this lack of “system change” in their envisioned work. This confused me because each of these candidates was immensely successful in their field. Furthermore, their repeated denial was personally frustrating because when I talked to these candidates, I became personally tied to their work. One particular instance stands out to me. About a month into my internship, I had to reject a candidate who was educating adolescent village girls on gender equality issues through group-based discussions she secretly held in their college dorms. A day after I sent my report to my supervisors, I was unnerved to see the “not a fit” email in my inbox.