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.


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.

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

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.”

Continue reading Break It Down Before Breaking Down

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.

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

Confused in Two Languages: Getting Thrown into the Deep End of Research

During tenth grade, I began working as a research assistant at a Chemical and Biological Engineering lab at Princeton—a project I continued until we published a paper early this year. This lab performed computational research using extremely complicated algorithms. As a tenth grader, I had none of the basic knowledge I needed: no chemistry, biology, or coding.

The 3D folding structures I generated for HIV-1 receptor proteins and their ligands–one of the projects I worked on.

Continue reading Confused in Two Languages: Getting Thrown into the Deep End of Research

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.

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Why I Want to Remember Some Painful Memories at Princeton, Too

Seniors have been forcibly reminded of graduation by senior checkout, where we’ve had to pick up our cap and gown among a long list of other things. 

I’ve handed in my thesis and my lab notebooks to my advisor. I’ve cleaned up the equipment I’ve piled in the corner of the methane sensor cabinet in the lab. I’ve explained my system, with all its lingering imperfections, to my group members. I’ve told them to give my lab screwdriver a new home.

That was how my time in the Princeton University Laser Sensing Lab came to a close. Graduation seems to be a time to celebrate all our successes, and to (already!) feel nostalgic for the good times we’ve had at Princeton. That’s natural. But after such a long and difficult journey, only remembering where I’ve gone right seems oddly one-sided. I wouldn’t be capturing some of the most important takeaways from Princeton if I only remembered the happy times.

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What’s Life Like in the Engineering Lab?

The lab is also very dark — because we don’t want any reflected light on our newly hooked-up detector!

On the surface, the products of engineering seem incredible. You can make iPhones, self-driving cars, and robots that swim inside your bloodstream. But what makes engineering incredible is also what makes it hard. You’re manipulating the very rules of nature to work in your favor, and nature doesn’t always want to do what you tell it to.

Still, sometimes the magic of the end product conceals the hours of drudgery in the lab. I used to think of it almost as a given: You spend long hours in the lab, and with enough time, something always pops out from the other end.

Unfortunately, that idea doesn’t take into account the endless frustrations of engineering. They’re a very real and very unavoidable part of lab research. With a week to go before my thesis deadline, everyday problems in the lab have become even more agonizing. Here are a few quotes I picked up in lab that sum up what’s going on this week. Continue reading What’s Life Like in the Engineering Lab?

Mentorship in Research: Advisers vs. Mentors

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, Jalisha shares her story.


While mentors and advisers may seem similar, they can actually play very different roles in helping you succeed!
While mentors and advisers may seem similar, they can actually play very different roles in helping you succeed!

For the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking about advisers and mentors, trying to determine whether a distinct difference exists between the two. From my personal musings, I’ve concluded that the two are very different — It seems mentors invest more time and energy into learning your strengths, weaknesses, interests, and passions so that they can help you succeed. I decided to ask around campus to see what other students had to say about the topic, and found that many others had similar opinions:

  • Sophomore Malachi Byrd said that advisers push you academically while mentors tend to meet you where you’re at.
  • Junior Kushal Dalal remarked that mentors take you under their wing and go beyond the role of an adviser.
  • Senior Dennisse Calle stated that, unlike advisers, mentors take every part of your life into account

These conversations made me question the relationships I’ve formed with Princeton professors. While I’ve had many wonderful advisers who have helped shaped me academically (and who I’m extremely grateful for), very few of these relationships felt personal enough to call them “mentors”.

“How could this be?” I thought to myself after coming to this realization. “Did I miss out on the opportunity to be mentored by some of the greatest academics in the world?” Continue reading Mentorship in Research: Advisers vs. Mentors