Fieldwork is often – at least in my experience – a perfect storm of challenge. Our time is limited, our advisers are distant, and we are immersed in unfamiliar cultures and experiences. Fieldwork has given me some of my most dramatic and overwhelming challenges – and also my most transformative learning experiences.
I was one of many rising seniors who spent time in the field this past summer, collecting the data which will (if all goes according to plan) serve as the foundation of my senior thesis. I wanted to understand better how fieldwork shapes other seniors’ personal growth and research paths. This week, I sat down over tea with Yun-Yun Li and Alice Frederick, who each did fieldwork last summer in foreign cultures and outside of their mother tongues. We talked about the experiences and lessons we have brought back to Princeton after spending the summer in the field.
Yun-Yun is an EEB concentrator researching the social, economic, and environmental factors that affect rubber farmers in southern China. Here, we talk about how she found her research question and worked through self-doubt in the field.
Staring at my computer screen, I blink. The black cursor, a vertical slit of a pupil, blinks back.
Uh-oh. I am trying to write the first essay for my environmental nonfiction class. But, sitting down to write, I can already feel the despondent haze of writer’s block descending. I swivel in my chair. I check my email but have no new messages. I type fdsajkl; on the first line of the page, and then delete it. What’s wrong with me? I think. Am I a writer or not?
It was Wednesday, the final round of my second day of water sampling, when I hit a bump in the road with the rolling cooler I was pulling behind me. The second cooler of water samples, which had been stacked on top, toppled to the asphalt. Eight ice packs and 54 water sample bottles careened out of the cooler and across the road.
This, I thought to myself, throwing my hands up in the air like a cartoon character, is absurd. I scooped the samples up from the pavement, picking a few out from the grassy verge where they’d fallen, and shoved them back into the cooler (carefully packing ice back over the top). I reminded myself, as I have often these past six weeks: This is science.
I’m in Bermuda for two months this summer, studying how polluted groundwater discharge is affecting near-shore coral reefs. The field season has been exciting, fulfilling, challenging, and full of slightly ridiculous situations. I’ve gone swimming along the reef like an aquatic Gandalf, carrying a camera mounted on a PVC stick. I’ve attached equipment to the reef by looping zip-ties through holes in the rocks, and so have spent hours poking these zip-ties into crevasses and attempting to pull them through on the opposite side. Continue reading Science, the Absurd
In the summer of 2016, it is difficult to find optimism in the field of environmental science.
Yet last month, I gathered with a throng of 2,500 coral reef scientists for the International Coral Reef Symposium (ICRS) in Honolulu. Knowing the extent of the tragic coral bleaching and death that has unfolded on coral reefs this year, I expected a week of doom and gloom. But, to my surprise, the conference gave me more cause for hope than for pessimism.
This is not because the situation facing coral reefs is any better than I’d thought – if anything, it’s worse. Rising greenhouse gas concentrations, warming waters, and stagnant politics have put the biodiversity of coral reefs, along with many other ecosystems, into a sharp decline. On the Great Barrier Reef – a vibrant ecosystem so structurally significant that, unlike the Great Wall of China, it can be seen from space – nearly 25% of coral is dead, from this year’s bleaching alone. At one panel at ICRS, researchers shared photographs and time-lapse footage of coral bleaching and subsequent death around the world. As they flicked through photo after photo, the conference hall adopted the atmosphere of a funeral.
No, things are not looking good for coral reefs, or for many other ecosystems struggling to keep up with the whirlwind of environmental change that stems from human overpopulation, consumption, and industrialization. One scientist, Peter Sale, called coral reefs a “canary” in the proverbial coal mine that is our changing earth. “There are a whole bunch of canaries that are at risk,” Dr. Sale said. “And when the canaries go, our civilization goes.” Continue reading On Action and Optimism: Notes from the 13th International Coral Reef Symposium
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, Zoe shares her story.
The mentorship series asks us to examine the role of mentors in our lives as undergraduate researchers. Earlier this semester, Jalisha discussed the challenges and value of professors’ mentorship, and Emma reflected on peers as mentors. This post is an ode to the graduate student – actually, an ode to my favorite grad student, Cleo Chou.
I met Cleo the summer after my freshman year, when I was an intern through the Princeton Environmental Institute. Cleo’s Ph.D project is a field study of rainforest trees and how they respond to nutrient enrichment and limitation. This question has crucial implications for how we predict tropical rainforests’ responses to climate change.
I spent a month working with Cleo in Princeton, and then six weeks at her field site in Costa Rica, hiking through the rainforest and surveying the saplings in her study. Cleo and I were together 23 hours a day, every day, with my daily hour-long run our only substantial time apart. In the long hours of rainforest hiking, tree-finding, leaf-counting, and trunk-measuring, we talked about everything from our career aspirations to food to our families and friendships. Continue reading Mentorship in Research: An ode to the grad student (and one grad student in particular)
In honor of National Poetry Month, my professor, Marie Howe, suggested writing a poem every day for the month of April. “Who’s up for it?” she asked our Advanced Poetry class. “It can be just a few lines. I’ll do it if you do it.”
I was in.
I decided to write a poem right when I wake up each morning – figuring this is the only way I’d consistently get it done – and to forego my computer (and its associated, infinite distractions) in favor of a pencil and notebook. Every morning, I roll out of bed, perch myself on the wide windowsill of my ground-floor room, and write a poem.
I was shocked by how easily I could reshape my early-morning habits, and how much doing so affected the rest of my day. With this new routine has come a kind of freedom: my first thought of the day is no longer my calendar or breakfast or to-do list, but something creative and unlimited. I bring this creative lens with me through the rest of the day: watching milk gush over my cereal, stepping out into the April air, listening to a lecture about respiration across the animal kingdom. Continue reading A writer’s window: How poetry is changing how I see the world
The rapid loss of coral reefs is both heartbreaking and personal for me. I cannot visualize the future of coral reefs without feeling a tug of despair.
In January, I wrote about the heat wave that has devastated coral reefs in my home state of Hawaii since last year. Temperatures somewhat subsided in Hawaii over the winter, but summer has hit the Southern Hemisphere hard. What is now being called the 2014-2016 global bleaching event – the third and longest such event ever recorded – is taking a breathtaking toll around the world. Continue reading Confronting environmental tragedy
It’s Wednesday night, July 23, 2014. I am sitting with Cleo Chou – a Ph.D candidate and my summer mentor – on the porch of La Selva Biological Research Station in Costa Rica. We are taking slow, musing bites of leftover birthday cake and talking through a problem.
Among other things, while in the field, we’ve been taking photos of the leaves of Cleo’s study trees. The goal? To determine the leaves’ size using a jerry-rigged computer analysis. I had taken advantage of our one non-field day this week to use the lab’s leaf area meter to check the accuracy of the computer program. Unfortunately, it turns out our calculated areas aren’t very accurate at all, and we don’t know why. Does the digital camera warp the photos? Is there something wrong with how we’re scaling them in the processor? The nocturnal forest chorus of cicadas and frogs is a soothing background to a worrisome problem. Every day we work in the field, more photos accumulate. It will already be an analysis marathon, but now we are additionally pursued by the specter of inaccuracy, the fear that our fastidious, hard-won photo samples will not tell us anything meaningful at all. Continue reading Field Notes from Costa Rica: The Best and Hardest Part
There are some things that department websites just don’t tell you.
For example: The History Department holds its mandatory senior thesis planning meeting one hour after spring junior papers are due. (“People hadn’t slept for days!” a friend told me recently.) The Spanish Department, on the other hand, hosts monthly department-wide dinners.
I am amazed — unfortunate scheduling and free food aside — by how much I didn’t know when I chose my major. Talking to other upperclassmen, I get the feeling that I’m not the only one. We all seem to have bumbled through the process, some better-informed than others. When April rolled around, we all picked something and moved on.
Bermuda is built on the backs of corals. Or it would be, if corals had backs.
They don’t. Coral don’t have vertebrae, or heads, or eyes. An entire coral organism – a polyp – is one single, tentacle-ringed cavity, one cavern that is mouth, stomach, and anus combined. Yet these tiny animals are powerful: together, their colonies can grow meters tall, producing hard, rock-like skeletons that form the backbones of coral reefs.
Though perhaps better known for its pink-sand beaches and international banking, Bermuda is also home to spectacular coral reefs. And the low-lying rock island is a monument to the power of calcifying organisms and geological time.
This is how my adviser, Anne Cohen, explained it to me when I first arrived in Bermuda. It became the way I saw the island, and changed how I saw coral: I began, like Anne and many other researchers, to see my study organisms as the center of my world. Continue reading Seeing the world through its study