Trust the Qualitative: An interview with Sheila Pontis about Field Research

When we think of academic research, we often think of libraries or labs. We might imagine flipping through books, reading articles, or running lab experiments, but there is a branch of research that looks much different than this. In fact, it looks like the real world.

This branch is field research. Researchers from various fields apply this method of research, but in this post, I’ll be focusing on field research in design. Design is a big field with a wild range of applications. Design spans from information design (think infographics, instructions, maps) all the way to User Interface design (think apps and websites), but what’s at the root of design is a need to communicate effectively with people and facilitate understanding. The goal in design is to create systems that are effective–ones that work for their users. Accordingly, when designers conduct field research, they go out in the world and record qualitative data on people’s needs and experiences: What information are they searching for? What do they want out of a product? What parts of the current product are helpful? Which are frustrating and confusing?

In this interview, Sheila Pontis, a lecturer in the Keller Center, talks about her work and encourages designers and student researchers to embrace field research and trust qualitative data.

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Learning from Summer Experiences – Redefining Research

Since many of you (including myself) have probably started thinking about your upcoming summer plans, in this post, I wanted to do a reflection on my past summer and how my perception of research changed through that experience.

At the Kyoto Symposium, scholars from the University of Tokyo and Kyoto University met up for a poster presentation. This is at the Nijo Castle.

This past summer, I spent 11 weeks in Japan, which was something that was only possible thanks to Princeton’s incredibly long summer. (For readers unfamiliar with Princeton’s schedule — this happens because Princeton starts the fall semester later than most schools.)

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What To Do When You’re Rejected From Both PICS and IIP

We’re done with half the academic year and you’ve probably started to think about what you’re going to do this upcoming summer. Many of you have probably taken advantage of two of the largest summer internship programs sponsored by Princeton: Princeton Internships in Civic Service (PICS) and International Internship Program (IIP). Some of you may be lucky enough to have gotten a positive response. However, some of you, like me as a first year, were probably told that your application “unfortunately did not work out this year.”

One of the locations I interned at was the Center for iPS Cell Research and Application at Kyoto University in Kyoto, Japan.

But have no fear! While I was rejected from both PICS and IIP as a first year, I still managed to participate in two great internships (one eight weeks and the other four weeks) that led to a spectacular summer — in this post, I’d like to share how. (For another great post about Princeton summer opportunities, look at this post by fellow correspondent Raya!)

Continue reading What To Do When You’re Rejected From Both PICS and IIP

Summer 2019 Cheat Sheet

Princeton is full of opportunities–it should be easy to plan a cool summer, right?

Sure it should. But in reality, just thinking of summer 2019 is overwhelming.

You just finished fall midterms and already everyone is talking about what they want to do next summer. Your inbox is swamped with emails that mention dozens of programs. Campus is littered with posters throwing deadlines around, but it’s nearly impossible to make any sense of it all, especially while managing a Princeton course load!

If you haven’ t thought about summer yet do not stress. This time last year,  I was still undecided about my major, and trying to simply decide what extra-curriculars to be a part of. And yet, I had a great summer:

Summer after my first year at Princeton,  through the International Internship Program, I interned in Kathmandu, Nepal at a contemporary art gallery. This was my first time abroad, and I had a phenomenal experience. During my internship, I designed a catalogue, shadowed the gallery’s director,  and even designed/installed my own exhibition. Though the internship was unpaid, my summer was fully funded by Princeton.

Summer after my first year, I interned at an art gallery in Kathmandu, Nepal through the International Internship Program (IIP).

The point is, I think its completely unnecessary to start stressing for May in October. So, to calm any nerves and make planning a rocking summer a bit easier, here’s a brief overview of some popular summer ideas for underclass students. Included are deadlines, brief descriptions and testimonials from past students.

Disclaimer: This is NOT a complete list. Just a list of popular options and those that my friends have explored. Also, these opportunities are not limited to first-year and sophomore students.  Juniors and seniors may also take advantage of some of the programs mentioned below. 

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Looking for an Impactful Summer Research Internship? PEI Delivers

The summer after my first year, I worked for the Pringle Lab as an ecological research assistant in Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique. I have always loved the natural world, and my internship in Gorongosa allowed me to combine that love with my passion for scientific research. Camping for eight weeks amongst vervet monkeys, warthogs and baboons, and working with researchers in the savanna amidst antelopes, elephants, and lions made the internship a dream come true. That dream was made possible by the Princeton Environmental Institute.

The author, knee-deep in a seasonal waterhole in Gorongosa National Park, dredging the water in search of a downside to his internship… he still hasn’t found any!

Each year, PEI offers numerous established internships in locations around the world. These opportunities cover a range of environmental topics that address complex global issues related to energy and climate, sustainable development, health, conservation, and sustainability. All the internships last at least 8 weeks, are funded by PEI, and are mentored by a professional organization or Princeton professor. In addition to established internships, PEI also offers an opportunity to design your own internship with a professor if you are interested in a specific research topic.

My PEI internship provided me with real world experience in topics I was learning in classes and taught me how research works in the field.

My PEI internship provided me with real world experience in topics I was learning in classes and taught me how research works in the field. I worked alongside three Princeton Ph.D. students, studying the diet of large mammalian herbivores, identifying trees on termite mounds, and surveying floodplain vegetation protected from herbivory with enclosures. Working with the small community of researchers in the park, I developed research skills such as how to plan field projects and take thorough field notes, while also strengthening my interpersonal skills. Much of our work related to the restoration of Gorongosa’s ecosystem following the ecologically catastrophic civil war in Mozambique, and I witnessed first-hand many of the issues that impact modern conservation and humanitarian efforts in developing countries.

If you likewise have a passion for environmentally related research, you can find detailed internship descriptions and application information on the PEI website. The final deadline for established internships is March 27th, but applications are considered on a rolling basis until positions are filled–so apply as soon as possible!

While it takes a little more effort to make a non-established internship happen, it really is all about taking initiative. My internship in Gorongosa was student-initiated and began simply with a couple of students asking Professor Pringle after class if we could intern with his lab. So if you are interested in creating a student-initiated internship, don’t be afraid to ask–talk to a professor or graduate student about creating an internship and get the ball rolling, and read about past internship projects to get ideas and understand what type of project will succeed. For advice on connecting with faculty members, see this recent PCUR post.

For students who are interested in summer research opportunities in non-environmental fields, the office of undergraduate research offers a student-initiated internship program over the summer called OURSIP. The priority deadline is March 1st, then applications are accepted on a rolling basis until April 1st.

— Alec Getraer, Natural Sciences Correspondent

Yoga and Research

The 2017-2018 Yoga and Meditation Fellows at the Divine Life Society Ashram, Rishikesh, India.

Greetings from Maharashtra, India! It’s just a few hours into 2018 here, and I’m on a bus bound for Mumbai with 15 other Princetonians as part of the 2017-18 Princeton University Yoga and Meditation Fellowship. As our time in the country comes to a close, I’d like to share some of my reflections from this immersive experience.

At first glance, it might not seem like there could be any possible overlap between yoga and research, or even academics. After all, yoga is just a bunch of exercise postures for hippies or suburban moms, right?

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Exploring Mayan Hieroglyphs in Chiapas, Mexico

This spring break, I took my seventh Princeton sponsored trip abroad, with my classmates in ART 468: The Art and Politics of Maya Courts. After spending half a semester learning about the basics of Mayan architecture, society, and hieroglyphic decipherment, we packed our bags and traveled to Chiapas, Mexico to visit Mayan sites and modern descendent communities.

The trip was as an immersive experience where we learned about new aspects of Mayan epigraphic and archaeological work and unexpected aspects of topics we had already studied. We started our week in the quiet town of Palenque, looking at Mayan inscriptions on-site. Throughout the week, we visited other Mayan sites, ranging from the impressively excavated steps of Tonina to ruins that were barely visible under plant growth in the jungles and the countryside.

Standing in front of the excavated Mayan site of Palenque in Chiapas!

In class, I had read scholarly work about Mayan inscriptions and even decoded (and written!) my own. I found a unique sense of wonder, however, in being face-to-face with the stories Mayan hands had carved into stone hundreds of years ago. With the guidance of Professor Bryan Just, I was able to recognize common narratives about royal accession, court captives, and religious ceremonies in the stones. Continue reading Exploring Mayan Hieroglyphs in Chiapas, Mexico

Looking Back on Undergraduate Research: A Conversation with Kristin Schwab ’09

This semester, each PCUR will interview a Princeton alumnus from their home department about his/her experience writing a senior thesis. In Looking Back on Undergraduate Research: Alumni Perspectives, the alumni reveal how conducting independent research at Princeton influenced them academically, professionally and personally. Here, Zoe shares her interview.

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Kristin with her hosts at a church service in Accra, Ghana, in 2008.

At Princeton, Kristin Schwab ‘09 was a year-round student-athlete: a striker on the field hockey team, a midfielder on the lacrosse team, and an Ecology and Evolutionary Biology major with interests in medicine and global health. Her independent work on Ghanaian vaccine policy took her halfway around the world, and ignited a passion that continues to shape her work and career.

I relate to Kristin’s path: I also compete year-round (on the cross-country and track teams), and I’ve also done fieldwork abroad for my senior thesis in EEB. Listening to Kristin reflect, I heard some familiar themes – the role of athletics in shaping her Princeton experience, the challenge and meaning she found in fieldwork. Yet Kristin also shared a refreshing perspective on how research has continued to shape her career and personal growth, even now, 8 years after handing in her thesis. Continue reading Looking Back on Undergraduate Research: A Conversation with Kristin Schwab ’09

Live Uncertainty- Learning Abroad in Brazil

I spent my fall break last week in São Paulo, Brazil, visiting a variety of art museums and community spaces with a focus on the 32nd São Paulo Bienal, themed Incerteza Viva—live uncertainty. The trip was part of my art history seminar, Contemporary Art: The World Picture. University-sponsored travel, whether through classes, workshops, or independent work, has been the highlight of my Princeton experience, and my time in Brazil was no exception.

A view of the São Paulo Bienal from above!
A view of the São Paulo Bienal from above!

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On Fieldwork

In conversation with Alice Frederick ‘17

I sat down last week over tea with Yun-Yun Li and Alice Frederick, who each did fieldwork last summer in foreign cultures and outside of their mother tongues. Last week, I shared Yun-Yun’s insights on finding a meaningful research question and working through self-doubt. This week, Alice takes us to another continent and another research topic. Here, she reflects on conducting fieldwork in a new language, and finding her feet as an autonomous researcher. 

Alice (left) with her roommate at an Esperanto congress in Japan.
Alice (left) with her roommate at an Esperanto congress in Japan.

Alice is an Anthropology concentrator investigating the past and present of the international community of Esperanto speakers. She spent portions of her summer at – among other places – the central office of the Universal Esperanto Association in the Netherlands, and the Austrian National Library’s Department of Planned Languages in Vienna. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.

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