How to Get to Know Your Department

Every department offers wonderful opportunities. For instance, departments offer seminars, special lectures, opportunities for internships or grants, study abroad programs, amongst other things. But to take advantage of these opportunities, it is important to know your department well. As a sophomore, one of the biggest challenges for me this year has been familiarizing myself with my own department, chemical and biological engineering (CBE).

In this post, I will provide some tips on how to get to know your department by describing how I engaged with CBE.

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Highlights and Reflections from the Andlinger Center Annual Meeting

Every year, the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment organizes a conference where students, faculty, and industry professionals discuss research and innovations related to clean energy and other environmental solutions. The event features keynote speakers, faculty panels, poster presentations, amongst other sessions to introduce and highlight the work of different professionals. The purpose of this event is to educate students and professionals on new advances in energy technologyand to encourage even further research.

This year, I attended my first annual meeting, where I learned more about the clean energy research at Princeton and in New Jersey. In this article, I will reflect on some of the highlights from the event.

Phil Murphy’s Keynote Address

Along with fellow students from New Jersey, I met with Phil Murphy as he spoke about our role in energy and environmental research in the state.

This year, the keynote speaker was Phil Murphy, the Governor of New Jersey. In his speech, Murphy addressed challenges in clean energy reforms, and suggested that innovation is essential to create environmental advances. He encouraged people to work together, because at these conferences, individuals can share ideas. Others can then step in and say “we can help.”

At the address, I sat next to fellow students from New Jersey, the CEO of Public Service Enterprise Group (PSEG), Ralph Izzo, and the Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Emily Carter. Seeing individuals from different backgrounds coming together around a common goal reminded me of the importance of collaboration in research. While one lab cannot solve all of the energy problems in the state, the efforts of multiple people can. As institutional researchers, we are responsible for driving innovation and developing new technologies in our fields, thus it is important for us to collaborate in the lab and across the academic sector. 

Faculty and Industry Panels

Kris Ohleth from Orsted speaks about current work on wind energy developments in New Jersey.

Amongst the discussions, faculty in various departments spoke about their research. Representatives from other universities and companies such as Orsted and ExxonMobil were also present to speak about energy visions and advances at their companies. The topics discussed ranged from ocean wind turbines to innovative approaches to produce biofuels and even new technologies for clean transportation. These panels were useful to observe where we stand in energy research and where we plan to go.

Poster Presentations

The event concluded with poster presentations where undergraduates, graduate students, and postdocs presented their research.

 

Undergraduate students, graduate students, and postdocs from different engineering and natural science departments presented their research in a symposium-style poster session. I presented on the research I did during my summer internship with the Andlinger Center.

Throughout the event, I spoke with some of the presenters situated around me. I heard from a postdoc in the mechanical engineering department, Guang, about research in fluid dynamics to harvest energy. I also heard from a senior in the chemistry department, Gabriella, about electrochemistry reactions related to energy. In addition to learning about interesting research, I learned that Guang had been a TA for MAE305, a course which I am currently taking, and Gabriella had taken multiple courses in the Portuguese department, where I am interested in getting a certificate.

As I heard this, I thought back to what Phil Murphy had mentioned. The purpose of academic conferences is to connect people and encourage collaborations. Not only are we researchers, we are also students that continue learning from others.

The Andlinger Center Annual Meeting is designed to further conversation on research and innovation. Regardless of your academic background, these issues impact the community as a whole, and it is important to learn about the future of energy and environmental concerns.

If you could not attend (or even if you did), I hope that my reflections serve to inform you about some of the conference highlights and I encourage you to attend events at the Andlinger Center throughout the year. In addition, learning through collaboration in research is not limited to the science field. You can also look for similar events and opportunities to learn through collaborative research in other departments by visiting the Office of Undergraduate Research event calendar

–Saira Reyes, Engineering Correspondent

How To Join A Natural Sciences Laboratory As A First-year or Sophomore

Many first years who come to Princeton are interested in doing research, but are too intimidated to pursue it when they arrive on campus. Conducting research in a laboratory can seem like something only juniors and seniors do as part of their independent work. But there are definitely ways to get involved in research earlier as a first year or sophomore. This week, I decided to interview my friend, Janie Kim ‘21, about her experience working in a natural sciences lab as a sophomore, to help shed some light on the process of joining a lab early.

Janie Kim ’21 does research in the Donia Lab.

Here’s a little bit about Janie first 

Janie Kim is a sophomore at Princeton University who will be majoring in molecular biology. She is doing research on small molecules secreted by marine bacteria in the Donia Lab. On campus, she is also involved in the CONTACT Crisis Hotline, Princeton Public Health Review, and the Arch & Arrow Literature Magazine. She loves sculpting and adores sci-fi unashamedly.

 

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Saving Time in Lab

Last semester, I hurried out of MOL lab every week to make it to late meal. This past summer, I hurried out of lab at my summer internship to catch my train home. Now I hurry out of orgo lab to finish my reading for precept.

Whether you are working in a lab for your senior thesis or for an intro science class, every period is a race with yourself to complete your work promptly. The key to finishing early is not rushing through your procedure, but rather working efficiently in the lab.

This summer, I worked at a bioengineering lab on campus researching methods to engineer the metabolic pathways of yeast cells to produce large quantities of target biofuels. Normally, yeast cells produce ethanol during fermentation. My goal was to shift the production of ethanol to other biofuels- such as isobutanol- that have a greater potential to be alternative sources of energy. In this post, I will give tips on how to effectively use your lab time by describing a typical day in the lab at my summer internship.

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Starting New Research: How to Learn What You Don’t Know

“I don’t know what I don’t know.”

That is what I was thinking when my summer internship mentor asked me if I had any questions. Having only taken MOL214 and CBE245, I was uncertain about what research at a bioenginnering lab on campus would be like. After attending a lab meeting the first day of my internship, I was overwhelmed by all of the new information I was receiving and thought I would never understand metabolic engineering. By the end of my internship, however, I was working independently and designing my own experiments.

When beginning a new research project, particularly in a new field, getting up to speed can be challenging. But if you approach the project efficiently, you will find that this task is not as daunting as it sounds. These are a few strategies that helped me when I entered my summer internship.

Understanding complex mechanisms was challenging, but these strategies helped me along the way.

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Graduate Student Reflections: Nathan Li

This semester, in our spring series, PCURs will interview a graduate student from their home department who either is currently a graduate student at Princeton, or attended Princeton as an undergraduate. In Graduate Student Reflections: Life in Academia, interviews with graduate students shed light on the variety of paths one can take to get to graduate school and beyond, and the many insights gained along the way from research projects and mentors. Here, Alexandra shares her interview.

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As part of our Spring seasonal series, I interviewed Nathan Li, a first-year graduate student participating in the 5-year PhD program in Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE). He completed his undergraduate studies at Johns Hopkins University, where he majored in Chemical Engineering, completing the Environmental track.

Nathan Li, a first-year graduate student in the CEE department.

After completing his undergraduate degree in 2014, Nathan spent a year working at a startup, and the year after that working in finance. However, he felt that those jobs were not completely aligned with his values—partly, he missed the learning environment of college, but he was mostly concerned about the impact of his work: “I wanted to contribute to science and technology more directly.”

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Building a Cannon for a Class: The Unexpected Opportunity of Open-Ended Assignments

Throughout my academic life, I have always struggled to find a topic for open-ended assignments. Of course, the further along in my academic trajectory I get, the less strict the guidelines for each assignment become—and the more I struggle to find myself a topic. Coming up with research topics is, of course, critical to any researcher or student’s success—particularly when the culmination of our work as Princeton students is a nearly completely open-ended assignment: the thesis or independent project that each of us completes to graduate. So, I have learned to embrace my discomfort and use each new prompt as a way to hone my skills at successfully choosing topics.

My Thermodynamics final project: a butane combustion cannon made from PVC pipe.

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Advice on Reaching Out to Faculty

Sitting in the back of a lecture can make your professor seem distant. Reaching out via email, discussed below, can help you get to know them better.

In my last post, I ended with a suggestion: reach out to faculty members. This post is an assortment of advice on how to go about doing that. More precisely, this post is about how to get in touch with faculty for the first time. Yes, dear readers, today we discuss the joy that is the cold email.

There are several situations in which cold emailing can be in your interest. You might want to get to know the faculty member better, or to do research with them. You might also want their advice on research at other institutions, summer programs, or independent work. Whatever your individual case, however, certain general principles apply when reaching out to faculty.

If cold emails are new or intimidating to you, fear not. The advice contained below will (hopefully) make this menacing task feel much more manageable.

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Break It Down Before Breaking Down

A continuation of my last post, in which I describe my experience starting to work as a research assistant at a Chemical and Biological Engineering lab here at Princeton. My work began in 10th grade and ended early this year.

Several months in, I felt like I was finally getting my footing. I had expanded my knowledge enough that I could understand, and make meaningful contributions to, the research project. I was working on computationally modeling the 3D structure of one of the protein receptors that HIV-1 uses to infect human cells. This receptor can bind either to HIV-1 or to other proteins (ligands), and when these ligands are bound to the receptor, they block the entry of HIV-1. By modeling these structures, we hoped to design a synthetic protein that could block HIV-1 infection by binding to the receptor.

A closeup of some of the sidechains of the protein structure for a receptor and ligand.

A few days after I returned home for the rest of the summer, I opened up an email from my post-doc supervisor and felt my heart skip a beat.

“Please write the introduction for our paper on modeling the structures of HIV-blocking proteins over the next two weeks.”

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45 Days in the Life of a Researcher: An Invaluable Summer

The developmental social neuroscience lab studies how neural changes promote social, emotional, and cognitive development

As early as November of my freshman year, I remember hearing conversations around campus about summer plans. These conversations were not about the anticipation of vacation and relaxation, but rather the frantic and stressful search for the perfect summer opportunity to pad their resumes. It was safe to say that I was freaking out.

But this pressure motivated me to learn about my options, which ultimately allowed me to further explore my interests and participate in an incredibly rewarding research opportunity. After many meetings with my amazing academic advisers and career advisers at Career Services, I secured a position as a research assistant at a developmental neuroscience lab at UNC Chapel Hill.

This position consisted of nine consecutive weeks of unpaid, nine to five workdays, and the occasional shift on evenings and weekends. Sound draining? Yes, but I loved every second of it. Don’t get me wrong, it was a lot of work. But what was so enlightening about the experience was the fact that I actually enjoyed doing the work. I found something I was passionate about and I had the opportunity to engage with it every single day.

The first day was a blur—meeting everyone in the lab, getting familiar with the lab space, moving into my office (my own office!!!), and running around campus collecting my various parking permits and ID badges. After taking care of these logistical details, I hit the ground running.

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