Seasonal Series: Interview with Bjarke Nielsen, EEB/HMEI

Headshot of Dr. Bjarke Frost Nielsen standing in front of a bush.
Bjarke Frost Nielsen, from Denmark, received his PhD in Physics from the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen and is currently a Carlsberg Foundation Research Fellow Postdoctoral Researcher at Princeton in the High Meadows Environmental Institute (HMEI) within the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB) department. He currently works on using mathematical and computational tools to solve problems in pathogen evolution and infectious disease epidemiology.

Following the seasonal series theme of “Niche vs. Expansive Research Topics”, I interviewed Dr. Bjarke Frost Nielsen on his journey going from a Physics PhD to working in our EEB department and all of the different topics he’s worked on along the way.

Dr. Nielsen shares, “In general, I have a very broad notion of what physics is. I don’t think for something to qualify as physics it has to, you know, involve Newton’s 2nd Law, be describable in terms of the Schrödinger Equation, or something like that. I think that physics is essentially the science that tries to mathematically tackle the aspects of our physical world that can be attacked mathematically. That’s more or less what physics is, right? It’s choosing the areas where you think that a mathematical description can really capture the problem. … It’s a very broad science in that way.”

Read on to learn more about Dr. Nielsen’s reflections on his research background in Physics and current work in EEB.

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Research Courses at Princeton

Eight students and a lab engineer are wearing white coverall suits while working in a cleanroom.
Group Photo of the AST251 students with Precision Assembly Specialist John Teifert all geared up in the cleanroom!

The structure of a “standard” Princeton course usually includes a mix of lectures, precepts, or seminars which likely have a midterm and final. While some of these courses may have “lab” components where you spend a couple hours once a week doing a hands-on assignment, there exist many courses at Princeton which are instead entirely focused on conducting hands-on, lab-based research with a small team that works closely with professors who provide mentorship as you work on an original research project. If you’ve ever wanted to take a class that is far different from anything else at Princeton by teaching you hands-on skills and giving the opportunity for a new project, these types of courses might be for you!

Some of these courses are year-long sequences like AST250 Space Physics Lab I and AST251 Space Physics Lab II, which I took during the 2022-2023 academic year. This was one of my favorite course experiences at Princeton and was certainly the most engaging. The skills we learned were invaluable, and as we worked closely with the professors and each other, our year-long project became an unforgettable experience.

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Paid Part-Time Research Jobs At Princeton

Two researchers sitting at a lab desk in the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, looking at MRI brain scans on a computer.
The research you do could be remotely on a computer, in-person working in a lab, or both, as we see here with brain imaging research at the Princeton Neuroscience Institute!

Princeton undergraduate students usually gain most of their research experience from things like independent work, theses, research-based courses, or summer research. However, you might not know that there are more options to do research during the school year: working a part-time job! Some of the most common part-time campus jobs you may think of might be working in a dining hall or at library reception, but you can actually do academic research and get paid for it. This isn’t limited to just STEM majors either; part-time research jobs exist across the humanities and social sciences and are offered by a wide range of departments. You could earn money and get work experience while analyzing literature, writing code, processing data, or working hands-on in a lab!

Here’s a quick guide on how to search for these jobs:

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Applying to Summer Programs

Quincy Monday ‘23 sitting in a chair working on his laptop in the lobby of New College West
Fortunately, if you’re stressed out trying to write all of these summer program applications, Princeton has plenty of comfortable study spaces to be working, like Quincy Monday ’23 in the lobby of NCW. Photo Credits: Dan Komoda (2023)

Applying to summer programs can seem like a daunting task when you may not even know what you want to do next summer. The busyness of the semester certainly hasn’t created a ton of time to be thinking about these things! Fortunately, winter break is a great time to work on applications to summer programs, as many of the earlier applications are often due early in the year. Having prepared them beforehand can ease a lot of stress, since the middle of the spring semester isn’t the most convenient time to be starting these applications. These timelines can vary by field, so it could be a bit different based on the type of program you are applying to—the career center has a great timeline of internship recruitment that is sorted by field so you can see the differences. Regardless, it’s great to work on these during the break when you don’t have courses.

You may be looking for something far away, here in Princeton, an industry internship at a company, or a research program at a university. Regardless of if you know exactly what you want to do or still aren’t sure, here are some tips to help you sort through this process.

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Doing Summer Research Abroad (Princeton IIP)

Photo collage with selfies of student Xander Jenkin at Welsch Castles, Big Ben, and the National Astronomy Meeting 2023 conference
Some photos from writer Xander Jenkin’s International Internship in Wales, UK. Photo credits: Xander Jenkin (2023)

Last summer, I went abroad on a fully-funded internship doing astrophysics research at Cardiff University, in Cardiff, Wales, UK. This experience not only solidified my career decision to pursue astrophysics research, but also gave me a unique immersion into Wales and Welsh culture as well as the broader United Kingdom. If you are curious about research abroad, read on!

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How to Tackle Research Topics “Beyond Your Depth” as an Undergraduate

Civil and Environmental Engineering graduate student Meiqi Yang working on lithium extraction in a lab.
You may not feel as confident as CEE department graduate student Meiqi Yang looks here working on lithium extraction, but as you do more research over time, you’ll feel much more comfortable as you progress. Photo Credit: Bumper DeJesus (2023)

When doing research as an undergraduate, sometimes the work you are doing and topics you study may be very familiar to you, other times you may be totally unfamiliar with what is going on. Maybe you even have some previous experience but the topic of the project is way above anything you’ve done before—you might be working with a physics professor on something really advanced like quantum field theory or condensed matter, which you have never taken a class on and are expected to now work on and understand what’s going on during your project. This can happen a lot in any field, not just STEM, where your professor may have spent years studying something that you are expected to contribute to after having taken maybe a few classes in it, if that. Some professors may work more often with graduate students, so they may assume that you know “basic” things about your field that you as an undergrad have just encountered for the first time: you could be working with an Art History professor who focuses on Late Antiquity, and they start throwing around terms and common symbols that you aren’t able to easily recognize. 

Regardless of the circumstances, this situation comes up a lot in undergraduate research. The fortunate thing is that tons of professors are willing to work with students who have no prior experience in the subject, but you still have to wrestle with “catching up” as you try to somewhat understand anything that you’re actually doing. Here are some tips to try to get acclimated with difficult, unfamiliar topics that may be well above your current depth as an undergraduate.

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Doing Summer Astrophysics Research at Princeton (Astro USRP)

2023 Astrophysics USRP Students Group Photo standing on steps.
2023 Astrophysics USRP Students Group Photo. Photo Credits: Stephanie N. Reif (2023)

My first summer research experience convinced me to declare my major as Astrophysics and solidified my plan to pursue research as a career after graduation. In 10 weeks, our Astrophysics department taught me how to start and complete a research project culminating in a presentation and paper write-up, with no prior research experience required! It was a particularly good experience to get to focus on research full-time without having to juggle courses, extracurriculars, and more, and it made me feel prepared and hungry to do even more research in the future.

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How to Prepare for a Research Presentation

Students sitting in chairs face a man in a grey suit standing and speaking to them
Students in the Freshman Scholars Institute were invited to the 3rd Annual Summer Research Colloquium Conference in Prospect House. They listened to research presentations by current Princeton students both graduate and undergraduate. Photo Credits: Danielle Alio (2018)

Imagine that you’ve been working on a research project for months. Now you’re standing in front of a crowd of professors, some of which probably know more about your topic than you do. If you do research working in an academic department, it can be a stressful experience if you have to eventually present your work to that department. Trying to talk about what you’ve done with your own adviser can be enough sometimes, and showing work that you may not be 100% comfortable with for a whole crowd of professors is a whole new level of daunting. They all have years of experience and may know more about aspects of your presentation than you do, so trying to seem like you know what you’re talking about while possibly being asked questions far out of your depth may seem impossible for an undergraduate to do.

Nonetheless, whether it’s theses, JPs, internships, or summer projects, all undergraduates here are going to find themselves in this position. So how do you do it?

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