The basement of the Lewis Library Fine Hall Wing is quiet.
There aren’t many books down here, and the ones that are here don’t seem to have many readers. There are dim-lit shelves of dusty periodicals, and tomes with titles like Essential Entomology: An Order-by-Order Introduction (a book I actually borrowed for a project last semester).
And then there are the theses, and these are something else. For sophomores looking at concentration selection, theses give a true sense of what it means to be part of a given department at Princeton. Even simply flipping through titles can give a distilled, unbiased sense of the type – and diversity – of work that students in each department undertake.
As a junior, I went to the archives this week under the pressure of an impending deadline for my EEB thesis funding application. In the black-bound books, I felt optimism and excitement, a sense of both broad possibility inspired by all my peers have done, and realistic scope that comes from the recognition that these books are finite, and that writing one is possible.
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, Zoe shares her story.
It was my first full day in Costa Rica. The dawn chorus of howler monkeys and quavering calls of Great Tinamou awakened us to a morning of intermittent showers, but no thunder — a good start, by rainforest standards.
Shouldering our backpacks, Cleo (my summer mentor) and I headed to the field, biking along the forest trail until a fallen tree forced us to leave our bikes and walk to the mud-slick path where some of Cleo’s study saplings grew. She had been tracking these trees for a year and half as part of her Ph. D.
Everything that morning felt strange and new: my heavy snakeproof boots, the dripping forest canopy, the squish of mud and fallen leaves beneath my feet. This was not my first time in a forest, nor my first time doing research. But it was my first time doing research like this – research that I lived from dawn until I fell asleep. Continue reading The Project That Made Me a Researcher: Rain in the rainforest
2015 shattered temperature records worldwide. This year’s El Niño has been making headlines in the coral reef community since early this summer, as record-high temperatures hit coral reefs more severely than scientists have ever seen before. Yet even knowing these facts, I was not prepared for the devastation I saw at home in Hawaii over winter break.
The population of Pocillopora meandrina, the cauliflower coral that once dotted the coastline of Kailua-Kona, my hometown, has been decimated. The reef is left with the feel of an evacuated city: the coral heads are like abandoned buildings, their skeletons lifeless and vacant. Lacking the organisms that sustained them, they slowly begin to crumble.
In a few days, I’ll be home in sunny Kona, Hawaii. I haven’t been back since June, and by now I’m hankering to feel the warm Pacific on my skin. I’m going to eat homemade chocolate truffles, free-dive with my dad, catch up with old friends…and also write an entire junior paper, and review a semester’s worth of organic chemistry. Gulp.
Last Friday, hoping to figure out how to juggle it all, I attended a workshop at the McGraw Center: Balancing Work and Play During Winter Break. Here are five essential take-aways:
“My friends, family, and classmates sometimes ask me why I do the things I do,” muses Ph.D. student Cara Brook in a recent NatGeo blog post. “Why do I spend so much time in remote corners of the world, tracking lethal viruses in enormous bats?”
In its broader form, this is a question all researchers can relate to: not just why she is so passionate, but how she found such passion for her particular research. How can we ever choose one question, of all the world’s exciting unknowns, for a thesis, or Ph.D., or career?
Cara and I met up in a campus coffee shop – each of us, like good ecologists, bringing a reusable mug – and I asked Cara how she came to her research. Over the past four years, Cara has spent more time in Madagascar than in Princeton. In the field, she camps in the remote wilderness, traps fruit bats, and collects samples of their blood, hair, and (sometimes) teeth, to trace the paths of pathogens through populations. Cara has sacrificed much – warm showers, wi-fi, and uninterrupted sleep, to start – for her research. How did she find a question that drives her so deeply? Continue reading The Search for Life Work: Netting Bats in Madagascar
Fall midterms creep up on me every year. Like the steady accumulation of unfolded laundry in my closet, and the growing pile of readings on my desk, midterms approach incrementally – and then they pounce.
I’m trying to practice honesty, which is sometimes harder than it sounds. So, here’s some real talk: this week is a struggle.
On top of the commotion of midterm exams and assignments, I have other, more long-term responsibilities that need attention: beginning background reading for a final project; meeting with my adviser to discuss future research plans; and tackling the freezer full of summer samples that sit on my conscience, unanalyzed. During weeks like this one, staying on top of such tasks overwhelms me more than anything. They incur the deep, gnawing fear that perhaps, this time, I’ve really bit off more than I can chew.
I said I was practicing honesty, right?
I don’t have encouragement, tips, or success stories to offer this week. But I do have honesty and some reassurance: if balancing school, research, extracurriculars, and sanity seems, this week and others, near impossible – I agree.
Last summer, as I’ve mentioned, I researched the interactions between Bermuda’s groundwater and coral reefs. I entered the metaphorical woods: the ambiguity and self-doubt of immersion in data and details.
I came to the field with a set of expectations for my project: a conceptual forest, if you will. But in the field, I zoomed in, rebuilding this conceptual forest from the ground up. Surrounded by trees, details, and noise, I lost faith that I could find significant results – any conceptual forest at all.
On Day One of my project, I had an abrupt reality check. The groundwater discharge I was studying was nowhere to be found. I swam along the rocky coastline of Bermuda’s Tynes Continue reading Welcome to the Woods
The water was so clear I could see the coral colonies on the reef below the boat. From dark clouds in the south, I heard a rumble of thunder. Dylan, our boat captain, eyed the horizon. “It’s okay for now,” he said.
I had come to Bermuda for two weeks of fieldwork: collecting water samples showing the effects of groundwater discharge on the reef, and assessing its impact on coral colonies nearby. I had two weeks to bring together the essence of my summer research project. Sun or storm, out we went.
On this particular day, I was collecting water samples with Tori, a Princeton grad student, and assisting two divers as they sampled the coral colonies.
Donning my snorkel and fins, I swam over to check on the divers. I was underwater, watching them carefully extract a coral sample, when it started raining. From below, I watched the water’s vast expanse erupt in a textured tessellation, repeated as far as I could see. Those first moments of that day’s downpour are one of my summer’s most transcendent memories.
Perhaps I also remember that moment so vividly because of the chaos that followed.