Scientists aren’t termites: New thoughts on meaningful research

I’m reading The Lives of a Cell, by Lewis Thomas – a biologist who did his undergraduate degree at Princeton before becoming a renowned science writer and getting Lewis Thomas Labs named after him. It’s a beautifully philosophical piece of writing, as Thomas draws parallels between the miniscule cellular networks which give us life and the massive, invisible human networks which give that life meaning. But what jumped out at me wasn’t one of the many scientific tidbits with which Thomas peppers his writing, but a quote Thomas uses from an essay by physicist John Ziman: “A typical scientific paper has never pretended to be more than another little piece in a larger jigsaw—not significant in itself, but an element in a grander scheme. This technique, of soliciting many modest contributions to the store of human knowledge, has been the secret of Western science since the seventeenth century, for it achieves a corporate, collective power that is far greater than any one individual can exert.”

Ew
Termites: conceptually beautiful, but physically rather gross

Thomas, ever the biologist, goes on to compare the collective effort of scientists to the collective effort of termites building a nest. And indeed, if you’re okay with being compared to translucent-brown grubby insects, that’s an apt comparison. For this is how the scientific enterprise moves forward: incrementally with millions and millions of individual papers (and now, in the age of big data, individual genetic sequences, chemical structures, geological maps, or other data points). But, especially early on in your research career, it’s important to remember that, however wonderful the collective efforts of termites are, research is much more than that.

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“Women aren’t meant for research” ? Reflections of my path through Electrical Engineering

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Electrical Engineering has been an arduous road, but I wouldn’t have chosen another major.

“Women aren’t meant for research. Get out of the research field while you still can.”

I heard those two sentences during the summer of my freshman year. I was at a summer research program, and the woman who told me this was the last person I would’ve have expected to discourage me from pursuing research. She was an associate professor from China working in the lab for a year and seemed very successful. But as it turned out, she had many buried regrets and concerns about her choice of profession and had come to question her own abilities as a woman researcher. Continue reading “Women aren’t meant for research” ? Reflections of my path through Electrical Engineering

The Project That Made Me a Researcher: 8 Things Infancy Teaches Us About Research

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 a researcher is an exciting and highly individualized phenomenon. Here, Bennett shares his story.

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This is hardly the conventional idea of a research project: for one thing, I don’t remember it, and it’s hardly a lab or an archive project. But, unlike the writing seminar paper I wrote on Osama bin Laden, or my first lab experience with yeast genetics, this is a project every PCUR reader has gone through. So here’s baby Bennett, to take you through the first and most exciting research project any of us has participated in: discovering the world as an infant.

1. Bury Yourself In The Literature

I don’t mean that literally, silly.

You can’t start a research project without a deep background on the question you’re asking in the first place. That’s pretty difficult for an illiterate baby: the best I could do was crawl into the papers in my Dad’s briefcase, and hope some knowledge rubbed off, or that I would at least get a better understanding of how the world around me was shaped. If you’re literate, then you’ve got a huge advantage: read everything you can (even if you don’t understand it all at first – we’ll get to that later).

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Research Resolutions

Happy New Year! In the January spirit of new-year-new-you, PCURs are sharing their Research Resolutions – things we plan to do, or do differently, in 2016. Take a look at what we hope to have in store:

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What are your research resolutions? Let us know here, and keep us posted on your progress!

— Melissa Parnagian, Chief Correspondent 

The Importance of Being Vocal: Student Feedback at Princeton

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Suggestions and feedback are an extremely important part of the University’s growth! Have you ever noticed this suggestions box by the Welcome Desk in Frist? 

With Princeton ranked as the No. 1 school in America, it’s easy to assume that everything here is the best that it can be: We have great professors, amazing resources, and will graduate with a degree that is highly esteemed around the world. Surrounded by all of the University’s accolades, we oftentimes forget how important the student voice is to the University’s growth and development. Over these past few weeks, however, I’ve discovered how integral students are to improving academic and social life here on campus.

Continue reading The Importance of Being Vocal: Student Feedback at Princeton

Five (and a half) steps to choosing a lab

It’s that time of year again – you’ve (sort of) got the hang of your classes, you have (a short) break coming up before finals, and you (kind of) feel free to think about your future in research. Your department office, OIP, PEI, and Princeton offices you’ve never heard of are sending out long lists of opportunities to do research in fantastic, far-off places – China! France! San Francisco! The E-Quad!

Even without leaving Frick, there are all-too-many labs to choose from.

How do you choose? A few weeks ago, Stacey wrote an excellent post detailing a few of the clearinghouses researchers have for finding opportunities, and my fellow correspondents are working on a Resources for Researchers list of opportunities and support systems for researchers on-campus (watch this space). But with so many opportunities out there, it’s hard to be sure that you’re choosing the best one. Whether choosing a summer internship, a JP, or a thesis advisor, here are a few things you can think about as you pick what to apply to and listen to. Continue reading Five (and a half) steps to choosing a lab

The Museum of Blind Alleys

The Museum of Jurassic Technology
The Museum of Jurassic Technology

In the Palms District of LA, across from an In-and-Out Burger and a vegan cafe by the peculiarly Californian name of “Native Foods,” is a quaint red-and-green façade. Inside the deceptively small storefront is a museum, but one without the monumental wonder of the Smithsonian or the Met, and certainly not the modern crispness of the Getty or the Whitney. The Museum of Jurassic Technology is a curio cabinet, in the tradition of the Alchemists and Philosophes of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. Its dark and twisted exhibit halls explore forgotten chapters of humanity from “Dogs of the Soviet Space Program” to “Collections from Los Angeles Area Mobile Home Parks.” Like Hollywood to the north, the Museum exists in a world parallel to, but separate from, the surrounding sun-bleached modernity – and I owe much to that odd world. Continue reading The Museum of Blind Alleys

Correspondent Convos: What is your best research advice?

Correspondent_Convos_IconJust because it’s called “independent work” doesn’t mean that you’re alone. PCUR knows we’ve reached a very research-heavy time of the semester, and we have some words of wisdom for anyone tackling a new project – whether it’s your first or fifteenth at the college level. Watch below to hear our advice; and remember, if you have a specific question, we’re never more than a contact us form away.

— Melissa Parnagian, Chief Correspondent

The Project That Made Me a Researcher: (No?) Lab Coat Required

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 a researcher is an exciting and highly individualized phenomenon. Here, Jalisha shares her story.

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Tons of research is conducted in the Psychology/Neuroscience building, but you seldomly see anyone wearing a lab coat!
Tons of research is conducted in the Psychology/Neuroscience building, but you seldom see anyone wearing a lab coat!

White lab coats. As a freshman in high school, I believed these to be the quintessential markings of a true researcher. My transition into the world of research, then, occurred during the summer after my first year of high school, when I wore my very own lab coat for the first time.

That summer, I participated in the Research and Engineering Apprenticeship Program, a program charged with the mission of encouraging young minorities to pursue careers in STEM fields. I was assigned to work with a microbiology professor in her lab, where I would assist with research on the presence of harmful bacteria in store-bought lunchmeat. I had nothing more than my high school biology experience for credentials, but with my white lab coat on, I felt prepared for anything. Continue reading The Project That Made Me a Researcher: (No?) Lab Coat Required

A Guide to Summer Research Opportunities

Princeton Environmental Institute (PEI) graciously provided me funding one summer to conduct research in Germany.
Princeton Environmental Institute (PEI) graciously provided me funding one summer to conduct research in Germany.

Now that the year is in full swing and you’ve settled in with academic life, you might be starting to think about the next step (after you’ve tackled your midterms, of course). With fall break behind us, it’s a great time to start thinking about and applying for summer opportunities. It can be simultaneously exciting and overwhelming to think about starting your search, but happily enough (and perhaps equally overwhelming), Princeton itself offers a vast array of summer opportunities, which are a good place to start.

Below is a non-exhaustive guide to summer research and abroad experiences offered through Princeton that I’m aware of, designed to help make the process a little easier. Due to my background, the list is probably more relevant to science and engineering majors, but either way, I hope you’ll find some information that is valuable for your internship search. I’ve grouped them loosely according to domestic and abroad opportunities.

Continue reading A Guide to Summer Research Opportunities