Celebrating Senior Theses: An Interview with Claire Ashmead ‘17

In our spring series, Senior Theses: A Celebration, we take a moment in the interlude between thesis deadlines and graduation to appreciate the diverse, personal, and impactful work of seniors’ capstone research projects.


Claire Ashmead completed two theses this spring: for her History concentration, a comparative study of McCarthyism and the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and, for her Creative Writing certificate, a novella entitled The Camel-Hair Coat. Here she reflects on writing and revising, family and loss, and the completion of her first book.  

“Any creative product is more bound up with your soul than an academic product. My creative writing thesis is about my relationship with the women in my family, my relationship with space itself.”

What is your novella, The Camel-Hair Coat, about?
It follows a girl, Daphne, who, four years ago, under mysterious circumstances, lost her mother in a terrible accident. Her intense grief over her mother’s death and profound yearning to know why her mother was taken away from her summons the ghost of her mother back from the dead. Daphne is faced with this choice: she can bring her mother back to reality, which she has wanted more desperately than she’s ever wanted anything before, but with terrible consequences for the rest of her family – her sister and grandmother. The price of bringing somebody back might be the exchange of other people you love, and even yourself. But if you really miss somebody – what wouldn’t you do?

How would you distill the book’s themes into a few words?
Grief, wishes, and growing up.

What was the hardest part of writing the book?
How much I had to revise. The book underwent a dramatic transformation, in part because I had two advisers: Joyce Carol Oates in the fall and then Jeffrey Eugenides in the spring. They’re completely different writers, which for me I think ended up being great: Joyce Carol Oates really tries to pull your creativity out of you, and she encouraged me to envision an alternative reality that ended up being a little confusing. Jeffrey Eugenides, on the other hand, is a very linear storyteller. When I gave him my draft, he told me he didn’t really understand what was going on, and that I needed to rewrite.

It was February, and I was hearing from my adviser that the 140 pages I’d generated needed to go. But in another sense that actually felt great.

At first that was very scary. It was February, and I was hearing from my adviser that the 140 pages I’d generated needed to go. But in another sense that actually felt great. I’d had the sneaking suspicion that the story needed a major change, and I wasn’t sure in what way. So I decided to structure it like a four-act play, where each act takes place in one day of one season. Once I had that structure, it was like, bingo! I know how this is going to develop.

In the second writing, I only kept maybe 3% of the words I’d previously written. But because I’d already created the spaces and characters in my head, writing the story the second time around actually took almost no effort, and required much less editing.

How did you juggle writing two separate theses?
It was all about time management. I also really believe that just getting words on a page is so crucial. Often people feel like writing needs to be perfect when it comes out onto the page. My experience writing for Princeton Triangle Club has taught me that actually the hardest part is just starting, and as soon as you begin to write, your thoughts become clearer.

Also, the processes of the two theses were very different, which was helpful – if they were the same it probably would’ve been much more difficult for me to do the two. For my creative thesis, I wrote almost every day. With creative writing, I want to explore characters and change dialogue, so the earlier I get it out, the better. In history, it’s a very different beast: I like getting all of my secondary source reading and research done, getting it all into my head, and then putting it out onto the page. I would research for months and months, and then sit down and write a chapter in a day or two.

Describe your happy place as a writer.
I have a two-room single in Edwards, so I have a room with my bed, and then another with a desk, facing the window. I wake up early, at 6 or 7 a.m., and would either go for a run or just go get coffee at Rojo’s, and then come to my desk in my little monastic sanctuary and write.

Claire in the “monastic sanctuary” where she drafted her thesis by hand. “I don’t like writing on lined paper,” she told me. “It’s art – I mean, you wouldn’t draw on lined paper, right? You might want to go off in any direction!”

The first time I write something, I write in pen, by hand, on blank sheets of unlined paper. The great thing about writing by hand is that it’s physically exhausting, so you only say what you need to say, and the words you pick are more exact and intentional.

I’d sit down and write for about an hour and a half every morning, which would be about five double-spaced typed pages, sometimes more. The first sentence can sometimes be difficult, but as you start writing, you reenter the world. It’s like learning to ride a bike: you remember it, and you just push forward on the momentum of describing the scene.

The first sentence can sometimes be difficult, but as you start writing, you reenter the world. It’s like learning to ride a bike: you remember it, and you just push forward on the momentum of describing the scene.

Do you have a favorite section of the book?
A lot of the book was plot that I just had to get through, and then there were a few scenes that made me feel that they were exactly why I wrote the book. Here are two paragraphs, after Daphne’s mother has come back and she is able to speak with her mother again.

Her mother took her hands. “At least you’ll have your father to walk you down the aisle. Mine was gone by the time I was your age. I missed him so much.”

“What’s it like?” Daphne asked. “Missing somebody?”

“You know, I’ve never thought about it.” Her mother frowned. “I’d say missing somebody is like remembering to pick up milk at the grocery store. Most of the time, you don’t think about it at all. And then all of a sudden the thought will just occur to you. I’ve got to pick up milk at the grocery store. And the thought will occur to you once a week, every month, every year, for forever. I’ve got to pick up milk at the grocery store. There, that’s it. I think about my father every day.”

If you’d like to read more of The Camel-Hair Coat, you can find it archived – with all senior theses – on the senior thesis digital archive, where it will be available starting after graduation on June 6th, 2017.

— Zoe Sims, Natural Sciences Correspondent

Tackling Big Projects: The Power of the Done List

This week, I’m finishing my thesis. It feels like a small miracle (or maybe a big one) to be putting the final touches on this project — the longest one I’ve ever started, let alone finished. But I should tell you that I sort of lied in the title of this post: there has been no tackling involved.

How I’d like to take on my thesis.

After many valiant efforts, the situation has come to remind me of childhood wrestling matches with my older brother. The harder I’d throw my tiny, indignant fists, the harder he’d laugh at me. Sometimes, I imagine my thesis doing the same. I sit down determined to blast out a full section, but instead find some trivial inconsistency in my figure formatting, and tumble into a coding wormhole trying to fix it. I reemerge hours later, much as my 6-year-old self did after every sibling tussle: frustrated, exhausted, and confused about how this has happened to me again. It feels like the hours have been stolen from me, along with my dreams of a completed Chapter 3. It’s easy to get lost in the project, which leaves me feeling like my hours of focused work are worthless.

Thesis to my tackling attempts: “nice try.”

Enter the Done List.

The McGraw Center teaches the “salami method” of to-do-list management: break each task into small, specific, salami-thin slices. Splitting items that may take many, many hours (“Write rough draft”) into those that take 30 minutes or less (“Write thesis statement,” “Fix axis on Figure 4”) makes progress seem more achievable.

This is great advice, but I’ve recently run into problems using the salami method on my thesis. One issue is that the number of slices I need is simply overwhelming. And then there’s the lunchmeat that flies in out of left field: new papers I come across, bugs in my code, figure formatting that ends up taking ages. Because I’m doing a lot of things for the first time, it’s hard to know how long it all will take – and easy to overlook tasks that end up being very time-consuming.

So, on a friend’s recommendation, I’ve started keeping a “Done List” – a catalogue of the things I’ve done, alongside the list of things I need to do. My Done List is the sworn enemy of data wormholes and literature vacuums. Instead of getting discouraged that I haven’t checked “finish discussion” off my to-do list yet, the Done List reminds me to recognize that I have downloaded three papers on phosphate limitation. One step towards understanding the literature. Check!

I now write a Done List and To-Do list in parallel, and I’ve found this approach useful for small and large projects alike. The two lists are important for different reasons: my to-do list keeps me looking ahead, while my Done List reminds me to appreciate my progress so far. Even when the steps are small, recognizing the “done” keeps me thinking positively, which helps motivate the next step, and the next. Maybe that’s not how to take down a world-class wrestler (or an older brother). But, fortunately, I don’t have to tackle anything; I just have to write a thesis. And I can do that, one little “done” at a time.

— Zoe Sims, Natural Sciences Correspondent

Celebrating Senior Theses: An interview with Aubree Andres ’17

In our spring series, Senior Theses: A Celebration, we take a moment in the interlude between thesis deadlines and graduation to appreciate the diverse, personal, and impactful work of seniors’ capstone research projects.


Aubree Andres ’17 is an Anthropology concentrator with a certificate in visual arts. Here, she shares the story behind her visual arts thesis, an installation that transformed a room in the Lewis Center into a kaleidoscope of color and collage. The installation is titled after Aubree’s favorite non-word: &Thunk.

Aubree, a senior from Cambridge, Massachusetts, stands with one of the completed walls in her thesis exhibition. The panels are a collage of strips she cut from fashion magazines, interweaving images and words. 

What is your thesis about?
The intersection between chaos and control, the complications with human memory and fragmented narrative, and giving the viewer a lot to get lost in.

Tell me about the space where you created your thesis.
I share a studio in Lewis with two other girls in the program. It’s facing Nassau Street, so we get tons of natural light. The heater’s broken, so it’s always really cold. But it’s just – it’s a mess, in the best way. The floors have been splattered with paint for years before you’ve been there. You know, each year, every studio is made to reflect the humans that are living and working there. It’s like moving into a dorm room, with the history of all the people who have lived there before you – except it’s a dorm room with no repercussions for throwing paint everywhere. You can tell it’s a space to get chaotic and messy.

What are the things you can’t thesis without?
Mod Podge [a collaging glue]. Scissors. Lots of magazines. I mostly used fashion magazines – Vogue, and a bunch of old Oprah magazines from my mom. I spent hours and hours in the studio, often with friends, flipping through magazines…putting the show together was very different from the normal kind of stress I feel at Princeton. Oh, and I listened to a lot of music. Music is the real MVP.

What’s the soundtrack of your thesis?
A lot of Hamilton, relaxing folky music, and long, random mixtapes. The three albums I listened to the most were Always this Late by Odesza, Malibu by Anderson Paak, and In Colour by Jamie xx.

“My mom is probably the most influential creative force in my life. She and I had done mosaics in the past – not on this scale or style – but I took a lot of my pieces home over winter break, and we laid down the papers and talked about it. That’s when a lot of the work started to come together.”

Did you have an Aha! moment in your artistic process?
The weekend I installed the project, my parents had come down to help out, and it was an exhausting two days. My “Aha! moment” came just after I’d installed both of my bigger walls in the space, and then brought my beanbags in and sat down. My mom has a picture of me passed out there in a beanbag chair. When I woke up there, in that space, I realized: wow – I’ve done it. I’ve created something that I could look at forever.

“When I woke up there, in that space, I realized: wow – I’ve done it. I’ve created something that I could look at forever.”

What’s one thing you would do differently if you were to start again from the beginning?
I was way too nervous at the beginning about what I was ultimately going to do. With a thesis and a whole installation it’s hard to see the endpoint from the very beginning, and I put way too much pressure on myself to perform – all with Mod Podge and paper, these most basic materials! I learned that not knowing where you’re going to end up is totally fine.

— Interview by Zoe Sims, Natural Sciences Correspondent

Water Whispering: Memoir of a Winter in the Lab

February 28. I’m sitting in the basement of Guyot Hall, grinding dried algae with a mortar and pestle.

Vials of algae in the freeze-drier – the first stage of analysis.

At this stage, Caulerpa racemosa, the Green Grape Alga, no longer looks its name. In its natural habitat, Caulerpa’s short stalks bob in the water like clumps of balloons. Its round “leaves” are clustered around the stalks just like green grapes, if grapes were the size of pinheads. But by now I’ve freeze-dried these samples so they are shriveled and stiff, and once I’m done grinding them, the plants are reduced to a uniformly fine olive-green powder.

This is what science looks like for me this winter. It’s not simmering test tubes or even statistics: just the incremental alchemy of water samples and crusty Caulerpa into numbers with the potential to tell a reef’s story.

At a recent job interview, I was asked to talk about the lessons I’ve taken away from my research. One image that came to mind was that of my water samples: the hundred or so bottles that I filled in the ocean in Bermuda, carried back to Princeton in a cumbersome cooler, and spent much of this winter analyzing in the lab. Lined up in the freezer, the bottles are identical but for their labels. These bottles contain the most important data I have – and, for months, they’ve looked exactly like identical bottles of water.

But identical they are not. After many a long lab day, I have numbers to crunch – each bottle associated with nutrient concentrations and nitrogen isotope data that begin to tell the reef’s secrets.  These nutrient data represent the raw materials available to plants and animals on the reef. The isotope data help determine where those raw materials have come from, and what organisms are using them. In my thesis, I am studying how nutrient pollution coming from human sewage changes the geochemistry of Bermuda’s reefs, affecting reef organisms, like Caulerpa, that use those nutrients. This has the potential to shift the ecosystem’s balance: nutrient enrichment puts reef-building corals at a disadvantage, threatening the intricate, biodiverse communities – of anemones and angelfish and everything in between – that corals support.

A set of water samples mid-way through vial injections for isotopic analysis.

Continue reading Water Whispering: Memoir of a Winter in the Lab

Making Your Citations Cite Themselves: A Step-By-Step Guide to Automated Bibliographies

I’ve always struggled with citations: remembering where I should put commas, how to format journal names, how many authors I should list before writing et al (or was it et. al.?). Last year, my roommate caught me using my freshman year copy of A Pocket Style Manual as I complained my way through the tedious formatting of my junior paper citations.

Nothing personal on Hacker & Sommers (2012), but at some point efficiency has to beat out habit. And what kind of pocket does that book fit in, really?

“You don’t use Mendeley?” she asked me. “Oh, wow. Let me help you.”

After saving many tedious hours with the help of a citation manager, I’m passing my roommate’s wisdom on, by way of a 12-minute guide that can get you started using Mendeley. If your experience is anything like mine, you’ll never go back!

Mendeley and Zotero, the two most popular free citation management programs, store sources and create formatted in-text citations, footnotes, and bibliographies. I use Mendeley, which has the benefit of allowing you to highlight and annotate PDFs within its desktop app. But I also have friends who swear by Zotero, which is better with non-PDF sources. (If you’re torn, you can check out this helpful comparison.)

Both programs are extremely easy to use once you’ve started – it’s making the switch that takes some effort. But fear not! In (approximately) 12 minutes you can be on your way. (For Zotero instead, you can try the online guide here, or attend a free training session in Firestone.) Continue reading Making Your Citations Cite Themselves: A Step-By-Step Guide to Automated Bibliographies

Looking Back on Undergraduate Research: A Conversation with Kristin Schwab ’09

This semester, each PCUR will interview a Princeton alumnus from their home department about his/her experience writing a senior thesis. In Looking Back on Undergraduate Research: Alumni Perspectives, the alumni reveal how conducting independent research at Princeton influenced them academically, professionally and personally. Here, Zoe shares her interview.


Kristin with her hosts at a church service in Accra, Ghana, in 2008.

At Princeton, Kristin Schwab ‘09 was a year-round student-athlete: a striker on the field hockey team, a midfielder on the lacrosse team, and an Ecology and Evolutionary Biology major with interests in medicine and global health. Her independent work on Ghanaian vaccine policy took her halfway around the world, and ignited a passion that continues to shape her work and career.

I relate to Kristin’s path: I also compete year-round (on the cross-country and track teams), and I’ve also done fieldwork abroad for my senior thesis in EEB. Listening to Kristin reflect, I heard some familiar themes – the role of athletics in shaping her Princeton experience, the challenge and meaning she found in fieldwork. Yet Kristin also shared a refreshing perspective on how research has continued to shape her career and personal growth, even now, 8 years after handing in her thesis. Continue reading Looking Back on Undergraduate Research: A Conversation with Kristin Schwab ’09

Why Independent Work is Different

And what is classroom learning good for, anyways?

It is Tuesday morning. From the back of the classroom, I squint at the pictures of fish being projected on the board, and scribble in a spiral notebook. Queen angelfish: yellow ring on head, I write as the instructor describes the species’ habitat. She flips to the next slide. Townsend angelfish, I write, less common.

A school of doctorfish (Acanthurus chirurgus) near one of the reefs I studied last summer. Doctorfish can be identified by the dark vertical bars lining the middle of their bodies.

Slipping into the room, with its rows of desks, overhead projector, and professorial monologue – had felt like donning my own old, well-worn clothes. Sixteen years of traditional education have made this role as a student a familiar one.

Yet this time, the circumstances are unusual, and entering the room as a pupil feels suddenly bizarre. It is mid-June, my third week on the island of Bermuda. Just down the hill from this classroom, the turquoise ocean plays against the research station dock. I am at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences to conduct a field research project assessing how polluted groundwater affects the chemistry and ecology of near-shore coral reefs. Over breakfast, someone had mentioned that a summer course instructor would be lecturing her class on fish identification today. I have been planning to conduct fish surveys on the coral reefs I am studying, but (rather critically) first need to learn to identify all the fish. The timing of the lecture couldn’t be more perfect, so here I am: hunched over a table in the very back of the classroom, listening and scribbling notes like my thesis depends on it.

Continue reading Why Independent Work is Different

Princeton Underground: A researcher’s guide to lesser-known resources

Princeton’s resource network, like Firestone Library under construction, is so big and complex you could spend hours inside it but only see a small part, never knowing what you’re missing. Here are 3½ of campus’ most under-the-radar resources, and a guide to using them.

The DSS Lab in Firestone: literally underground.

1a. Data and Statistical Services: Lab edition
What: The original inspiration for this post, the DSS Lab is literally underground. A well-lit room of big-screen PC’s, the lab is run by two incredibly friendly statistical consultants who can help you download, format, reshape, or analyze data.
Where: The A floor of Firestone – see this map.
How: The lab consultants’ schedule is available here. Walk-in hours are available from 2-5 p.m. on weekdays through December 16.
Underground tip: For brief, specific questions, send an email to the consultants at data@princeton.edu. Continue reading Princeton Underground: A researcher’s guide to lesser-known resources

Building Friendly Teeth: A Three-Fanged Guide to Procrastination-Busting

We all need friendly teeth.

Friendliness debatable, those are some great choppers.
Friendliness aside, those are some great choppers.

This is what Amanda Wilkins, director of the Writing Program, told me at the beginning of this fall: not the kind of teeth that draw blood, but certainly the kind that instill a little fear.

When immediate priorities are vying for our attention and long-term project deadlines are in the faraway future – perhaps a final paper that is weeks away, a JP not due until Reading Period, or a full thesis not due before April of next year, for crying out loud – it’s easy to push the long-term tasks off to another day, and then another.

Friendly teeth: progress deadlines with bite.

Insert friendly teeth: the intermediate accountability standards, made and enforced to keep us on track between now and the distant future. Also known as progress deadlines with bite.

I have a year to write my thesis – I don’t want to be just getting started in March. Heck, I want to be done by March, and spend the last month before my deadline deciding between fonts.

Kidding. The only acceptable font for a thesis is Times New Roman, size 12.

And one other problem: I am almost never early.

Fun fact: tusks are actually specially-adapted canines! These teeth mean business.

Call me a chronic time optimist – I consistently underestimate how long it will take to get from outline to paper, or to walk across campus to meet a friend, or to shower, brush my teeth, do my readings, and teleport to class. Chronic time optimism runs in my family, and was reinforced growing up in Hawaii, home of “island time.”

But I’m working on it. And I’m here to report that so far, progress – on my thesis, at least – is going better than expected, thanks to the snapping jaws of three types of friendly teeth. Continue reading Building Friendly Teeth: A Three-Fanged Guide to Procrastination-Busting

On Fieldwork

In conversation with Alice Frederick ‘17

I sat down last week over tea with Yun-Yun Li and Alice Frederick, who each did fieldwork last summer in foreign cultures and outside of their mother tongues. Last week, I shared Yun-Yun’s insights on finding a meaningful research question and working through self-doubt. This week, Alice takes us to another continent and another research topic. Here, she reflects on conducting fieldwork in a new language, and finding her feet as an autonomous researcher. 

Alice (left) with her roommate at an Esperanto congress in Japan.
Alice (left) with her roommate at an Esperanto congress in Japan.

Alice is an Anthropology concentrator investigating the past and present of the international community of Esperanto speakers. She spent portions of her summer at – among other places – the central office of the Universal Esperanto Association in the Netherlands, and the Austrian National Library’s Department of Planned Languages in Vienna. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.

Continue reading On Fieldwork