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

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.

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

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

Pushing forward

Last week, Zoe wrote about research in the face of despair from external factors. How can you not push forward, she asked, when in your work is hope for a better future?

Late nights in Frick – an all-to-familiar scene for me and many other thesis students.

This week, I tackle inner despair: How can you push forward when in your work you see no hope?

My thesis project holds no immediate promise of hope for the reefs, or of curing some plague, or of fantastic future technology. The motivation for basic biochemical research comes from its intrinsic beauty, and the hope of applications long in the future. I was incredibly excited about my thesis project at the beginning – I was asking fundamental questions about the origin of life; I had the potential to create something genuinely new. Inevitably, though, my project hit obstacles – both technical problems and scientific difficulties indicating misconceptions in my original idea.

So, the thesis I’m currently writing looks nothing like the thesis I imagined last spring. Continue reading Pushing forward

Fighting Imposter Syndrome and Finding My Confidence at Princeton

Even though they said I belonged, I felt like I was hiding a flawed interior - that I was an imposter among the many high achievers.
Even though they said I belonged, I felt like they had only seen the veneer over a flawed interior – that I was an imposter among the many high achievers.

When I was a freshman, President Shirley Tilghman stood on the stage in McCarter Theater and told us, a crowd of alert and excited newly enrolled students: “If you’re wondering whether you belong here, you do. We don’t make mistakes.”

I wanted very hard to believe that. I was in awe of all of my classmates who seemed so talented and brilliant. I loved talking to them, but at the end of the day, I felt inadequate. I spent a lot of time wondering whether President Tilghman’s words really applied to me.

Continue reading Fighting Imposter Syndrome and Finding My Confidence at Princeton

Q&A with HackPrinceton Directors

Every year, students across the country come to campus for HackPrinceton, the biannual hackathon event that boasts thousands of visitors. While I’ve never attended a hackathon in my life, quite a few of my friends attend them regularly. They gather in small teams to work on technology and engineering projects (colloquially called “hacking”) at the event, which culminates in group presentations of the projects they’ve created. I’ve noticed that the hackers who are involved in research or entrepreneurship find the hackathon experience especially rewarding. So, this spring, I plan to try out my first hackathon at HackPrinceton. In preparation for the April 1-3 session. I decided to learn a little more about hackathons and how they relate to research in general.

Here’s a snippet of my Q&A with 2015-16 HackPrinceton Directors Zach Liu ’18 and Monica Shi ’18, who helped run the incredibly successful HackPrinceton Fall 2015.

A great perk of being a HackPrinceton competitor – lots of free swag! Swag Credit to Monica!

Me (Kavi): What exactly is a Hackathon?

Monica: Essentially it’s an event where people come together to think of and build projects. Traditionally, these projects are divided between software and hardware, but there are hackathons for other things – like design projects. It’s a great way for people to learn about programming and technology by getting together with a group of like-minded students to build a project for 24-36 hours. It’s kind of like a marathon where you have any and all the materials you need to build your project. The hackathon organizers will do their best to make sure you’re able to hack with all the resources you need – including all the food you need to keep you satisfied. At the end, teams get feedback from a panel of judges, and the top projects win awesome prizes!
Continue reading Q&A with HackPrinceton Directors

Are We Robots or Are We Dancers?

Princeton’s Dance Department and Robotics Program might seem like polar opposites to the average student: The former attracts the most creative and artistically inclined of the student body while the latter is deeply math-science oriented. Over the past three weeks, however, I have seen one student challenge these assumptions by bridging the arts-science divide.

Dana Fesjian ’17 is an undergraduate in the Electrical Engineering (ELE) Department, who is participating in a Lewis Center for the Arts initiative called Performance Lab. Known informally as P-Lab, this initiative allows dancers to explore independent work that connects dance with a different field. The culmination of this exploration is a performance in early March where the participants showcase their choreography and explain their independent work. Dana—whom I dance with in Princeton University Ballet—is using sound-sensitive robots to create dance movements and patterns that will eventually be performed by humans. She asked me to be one of the dancers in her project and I happily agreed to do so.

Dana’s robots reacted to sound signals from a jazz song to map out the pattern above. In her P-Lab piece, the dancers will trace this exact pattern and five other ones created using different songs.

Throughout our rehearsals over the past three weeks, I have had the chance to learn more about Dana’s independent work, and decided to cover her experience for my post this week.

Continue reading Are We Robots or Are We Dancers?

Mentorship in Research: Don’t go alone!

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, Stacey shares her story.


I didnt even know how to make a proper posterboard when I started conducting research.
I learned a great deal about conducting research during my first research project, even if making a proper poster was not one of those skills.

I really didn’t want to stay for the awards ceremony at the science fair that day, but Mrs. Sabherwal insisted. I told her I had to go to my clarinet lessons. No luck. I asked my mom to plead my case. No luck. She only offered, “It’s okay if you miss your lessons today”—and so, defeated, I waited at the fair.

And what an arduous wait it was. I couldn’t sit still—I just wanted to leave, and I was starting to get hungry. They kept calling names and more names. Names and more names. Were they done yet? I left and used the bathroom. But there was a flurry as I emerged, hands still damp with residual sink water—come quick, they told me, they’re calling your name! The highest award in the district science fair! Impossible. It turns out that Mrs. Sabherwal had confided in my mom about the award and expressly requested that I remain.

Mrs. Sabherwal was like that—always looking out for her students, no matter how frustratingly obstinate. She pushed me to become a researcher even when I didn’t realize I could be one. Continue reading Mentorship in Research: Don’t go alone!

A Pledge to Repay my Debt to Laboratory Research

Why aren’t lab researchers paid better?

To this date, I have asked myself this question over a hundred times, and still haven’t come up with a particularly satisfactory answer. My curiosity started in middle school when one of my teachers put into practical perspective my new ambition to become a chemist. It was my first lesson on risk and reward. The risks of pursuing a career as a chemist were plentiful and the reward was limited (in terms of both career and financial success).

But I didn’t let that sway me, and in high school, I continued to stay true to my beliefs. My closest friends and I worked in labs for nearly two years. We wrote several research papers, ran a student-led research magazine, and spent long nights in the lab working on our projects (which ranged from making new optical fiber cables to biodegradable nitrate filters).

It’s hard to believe that it’s been 4 years since my friends and I last presented our lab research projects.

Yet today it’s entirely different. Every single one of us has drifted away from the passion that bonded us. And, while it may be that our interests have evolved over time, we are all aware of the unspoken but overarching reason behind the change. We tend to blame the hours and the frustration involved in being a researcher; but in all honesty, we always loved working long hours on experiments that failed 90% of the time. We were mentally invested in our projects. It’s the financial stability of the profession that has cut our ties with the lab.

Continue reading A Pledge to Repay my Debt to Laboratory Research