By now, you’ve probably received one of the numerous campus-wide emails promoting Princeton Research Day, a new initiative by the University to celebrate student research right here in the Orange Bubble. I must admit that even though I spend a large amount of time talking about my own research for the PCUR blog, I was initially hesitant to apply. It’s odd to think that I feel more pressure having to present my work in layman’s terms to the larger university community compared to presenting to the professors in my department for a grade!
Still, when I stepped back and considered the number of times I’ve talked about my thesis in regular conversation, I felt reassured that I’d be prepared for Princeton Research Day. As a senior, I’ve noticed the standard ice-breaker among my classmates has become “So what are you doing for your thesis?” Even though my thesis is certainly something that’s constantly on my mind, I still have to think about the best way to describe my work in 10 seconds to make it interesting enough for a conversation. It’s hard to get into all the details and nuances of a continuously evolving project (that I’ll spend the entire academic year working on!) while highlighting what’s important and relevant about it.
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 aresearcher is an exciting and highly individualized phenomenon. Here, Stacey shares her story.
Engineers don’t really do research, right? They just build systems.
Those were my thoughts when, in my high school years, I pondered my future career path as an engineer. I had always believed research was only about discovering new information on how the world works. To me, it was a pursuit limited to natural and social science PhDs (who, more often than not in my mind, were clad in white lab coats). Even coming to Princeton, I found it difficult to believe that as an aspiring engineer I would need to conduct much research. As I slowly became more involved in research, I realized it was something I was interested in pursuing further. However, my limited knowledge of technical fields combined with my relative lack of experience made me a little hesitant about my ability to follow that goal. It wasn’t until a project I worked on in Germany (during my sophomore summer) that I first felt like a true researcher.
Now that the year is in full swing and you’ve settled in with academic life, you might be starting to think about the next step (after you’ve tackled your midterms, of course). With fall break behind us, it’s a great time to start thinking about and applying for summer opportunities. It can be simultaneously exciting and overwhelming to think about starting your search, but happily enough (and perhaps equally overwhelming), Princeton itself offers a vast array of summer opportunities, which are a good place to start.
Below is a non-exhaustive guide to summer research and abroad experiences offered through Princeton that I’m aware of, designed to help make the process a little easier. Due to my background, the list is probably more relevant to science and engineering majors, but either way, I hope you’ll find some information that is valuable for your internship search. I’ve grouped them loosely according to domestic and abroad opportunities.
When I entered Princeton as a freshman, I was skeptical that research could do anything for me. I considered myself an applied person who cared little for theory, and I hadn’t planned on continuing on to graduate school. The tides turned when I stumbled upon an optics Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program when I was looking for summer programs freshman year. At the time I felt I had few marketable technical skills in my major, so I figured it would be a good chance to build up some useful skills and decided to give it a try. And I’m really glad I did — the experience made me realize how wrong I had been about my prior assumptions regarding research.
Are you a research skeptic, too? Let me tell you a bit about my story and why I would recommend giving research a try.
I’m going to be honest: I had originally never intended to apply to graduate school. In fact, one of my many reasons for studying engineering in college was straightforward, if not overly simplistic: an engineering degree, I believed, could land me a relatively good job without having to pursue a graduate degree. I didn’t want to take another standardized test, and above all, I didn’t feel like I would enjoy research. Rather than theory, I preferred engineering and building things, and I wasn’t convinced that was what people with graduate degrees went on to do.
The summer after my freshman year was when I first started to reconsider my decision not to continue with higher education. I got the opportunity to participate in a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) at Rice University that summer, helping to develop optical sensors. I knew nothing about the field prior to that, but spending the summer surrounded by enthusiastic PhD candidates was enough to make me reconsider that a graduate degree in an engineering discipline was useless. It helped that optics is such a deep and convoluted field that requires a good deal of physics knowledge to navigate well — it convinced me that in certain cases, it certainly does make sense to obtain extra training and background even if the end goal is to engineer systems.Continue reading Why I decided to apply to grad school
Deep in the darkest depths of the E-quad, there is a lab I go to—a lab where I run all my optics experiments, run tests with the breath analyzer instrument I work with, and that I have come to know and love during the past year. The entrance to the lab actually includes a space for presentation posters, which show off the work of graduate students and past interns. Usually I’m in a rush to get in or out and don’t spare these posters a second glance. But last week, for some reason or another (perhaps because I was feeling less stressed than usual), I decided to take some time to look at them.
When I did, I was surprised. What had seemed to me before like a mass of incomprehensible jargon and tangle of convoluted science was now something more tangible—here were key words I had encountered over and over again throughout the past year, concepts I had heard about many times in group meetings. Even within a mix of phrases that were still not so familiar to me, I could at least grasp what the projects were about and start to see what was so relevant and interesting about these projects. I even found the work that described the novel technology behind the breath analyzer instrument I currently work on, and I felt good being able to understand that poster in its entirety.
Ever since I decided to reach out my audacious hand and tweak a couple things with the breath analyzer system for my research project, I dreaded hearing this question from my graduate student mentor. The tweaking had started as a simple desire to become more proactive in solving problems, but, as we know from tales like this, it did not end quite as I would have liked.
Despite having worked in my current lab for nearly two years, I still often feel like there are more things than ever that I don’t know how to do, more problems that I don’t know how to solve. As I’ve previously posted, I’ve been fighting a constant uphill struggle to get over my aversion to asking for help since coming to Princeton. Although I’ve become aware of it, I’ve recently realized there’s another factor that can get in the way of trying to rectify my aversion to asking for help: hanging onto what is often just foolish pride.
One day a couple weeks ago, I spotted some odd behavior with the breath analyzer system I currently work with for my independent work project. I wasn’t exactly sure what was wrong with it, but I had asked for help so many times before that it was starting to feel like too many times. Besides, we had done the procedure several times before. So I decided it was worth it to try fixing it by myself. Continue reading Asking for Help: A Question of Foolish Pride?
What would the world look like if you were a giant?
For their senior thesis in the Department of Electrical Engineering, Joseph Bolling and Ankush Gola are creating a system to find the answer to that question. In a way similar to how our brain stitches together two slightly offset images from each eye to create a 3D image, Bolling and Gola are using two quadcopters with mounted cameras to recreate the same effect on a much larger scale. Quadcopters, which are like helicopters but with four rotors instead of only one, have recently become popular among commercial and recreational drone operators.
“We want to not only enhance the user’s depth perception, but elevate their eyes,” said Gola.
Bolling and Gola drew inspiration for their project from a cartoon titled “Depth Perception” by the science comic XKCD, in which the character describes a way of using distantly spaced webcams to view clouds in his eyeglasses. In their system, Bolling and Gola plan to integrate the virtual reality headset Occulus Rift to allow users to view the world from any angle they wish, as if they were giants towering above. Aside from producing an interesting effect, the project could be especially helpful in surveying and modeling territory.