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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Guide to the Rare Books and Special Collections

On Friday morning, I encountered a manuscript no historian had studied before. I was on the C Floor of Firestone in the Rare Books and Special Collections Reading Room, finding it hard to believe my luck. I had asked Gabriel Swift, the Reference Librarian for Special Collections, if he knew of any interesting primary sources connected to my Junior Paper topic, an 1805 Lenape religious revival led by a woman named Beate. In response, he connected me with this new acquisition, a handwritten journal from 1774. Just this year, he explained, the University had purchased it at auction in Paris. And because it was from a private collection, the source was previously unknown to academics.

“‘Journal of the Expedition down the River Ohio Under the Command of his Excellency John Earl of Dunmore Lieutenant and Governor General of his Majesty’s Colony and Dominion of Virginia 1774.”

This is just one example of the magic of Princeton’s Department of Rare Books and Special Collections (RBSC).

According to the RBSC website, “its holdings span five millennia and five continents, and include around 300,000 rare or significant printed works.”

With just a few simple steps, you can see one of the first “Wanted” posters for John Wilkes Booth, Beethoven’s music manuscripts, or Woodrow Wilson’s love letters. It is one of the most fabulous and underutilized research resources on campus – especially for historians. As undergraduates, we have nearly complete access to the collections. Continue reading Guide to the Rare Books and Special Collections

Dealing with Stress

At Princeton I often find myself overwhelmed by my workload, behind on assignments and readings, and struggling to prepare for exams. When work piles up, it is necessary to work as efficiently as possible to meet deadlines, but it can be really challenging to work productively when you are feeling overworked. Princeton’s heavy workloads are often a source of stress–here are a few strategies that help me when I am struggling:

Conducting good research requires many skills which we learn throughout our Princeton careers. Self care is one of the most important skills, but it is easy to overlook with so many other academic demands.

Go outside and exercise:

If you can’t concentrate on your work or feel low energy, taking a half hour break from working to go for a walk or a jog can help clear your head while also jump-starting your blood flow. Being outside gets me back in contact with the rest of the world and helps me escape coursework induced myopia. I like to go to Mountain Lakes nature preserve, which has a small network of hiking trails and a few picturesque ponds. The ponds are great for a (very) cold swim, and the forest has beautiful foliage in the fall.

I first visited Mountain Lakes preserve my freshman fall, while doing a field project in EEB 321 Ecology: Species interactions, biodiversity, and society. Now it is my go-to place to get off  campus, go for a run or a swim, and check out beautiful fall foliage.

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Demystifying the “Black Box” Part I: Holy Moly I Have to Write a Thesis

This is it. After an R3, two JPs, and the countless research papers in between, I’m expected to craft the 15,000 to 20,000-word magnum opus of my Princeton career. And I have to say, I still don’t really know how it’s all going to go down.

There’s something I like to call the “black box” of every Princeton student’s research career. You’re given a massive independent research project to undertake, then some wizardry happens in Firestone, a lab, or studio, and voilà everything is complete! This second “magical” step is the black box: no one from the outside can see what goes into the project’s actual assembly. We only see stress as a side effect of this mystical process, and then a final product. Throughout the year, I hope to demystify this black box by revealing my own thesis-writing process: the highs, lows, brainstorming, writing, and of course, the research.


The “black box” metaphor is actually computing jargon for a system only understood in terms of inputs and outputs, with its inner workings remaining mysterious. To paraphrase one of my favorite movies Se7en, “What’s in the [thesis] box?” We’ll find out together!
So what does writing my thesis look like in its initial stages? Right now I’m still brainstorming and narrowing down my thesis topic, which will be about how Public Service Announcements (PSAs) subvert the capitalist practices within traditional commercial advertising, using some French theory as a lens (shout out to the Department of French and Italian!). Fortunately and unfortunately that’s a broad topic with nearly infinite directions, so I’m working on figuring out more specific direction.

I’m beginning this process by looking at my JPs, which also dealt with my thesis topic, but used a small number of specific examples. Both papers were divided into sections where I argued different points, and while re-reading them, I’m treating each section as if it were its own paper related to my thesis. I’m asking myself questions like: Assuming I had ten more pages to write for each section, which other theories could I incorporate to corroborate the arguments I was making? How can I specifically incorporate the topic of capitalism? How would different theorists critique my arguments, and how can this inform a strong rebuttal?

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Amanda Blanco ’18: Reflections on Independent Research

Amanda Blanco, Class of 2018, Sociology Department

Amanda Blanco is a senior in the Sociology Department. Having taken several journalism courses and being an avid news reader, she was inspired by current events to write a thesis pertaining to the effects of today’s political climate on college campuses. Amanda recently finished her thesis and is in the midst of preparing for her defense. This process of reviewing her research in order to share it with a larger audience has led her to reflect on what the senior thesis experience has been like and what she has learned from the process. Luckily, Amanda had time in her busy schedule to share some of her end-of-year reflections:

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Post-Thesis Life: An Insight into the Thesis Defense Process

Now that my thesis has been turned in, I’m starting to prepare for my oral thesis defense to complete my graduation requirements for the Woodrow Wilson School (WWS). It’s certainly going to be a challenge to fit everything from my nearly 100-page thesis into that ten-minute-long presentation, but the WWS Program Office is very helpful in assisting students prepare for the defense. So, with this post, I hope to help demystify the whole thesis defense process for the PCUR audience.

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Independent Work Checklist: What to Review Before Submitting Your Thesis/Junior Paper

Seniors posing with their thesis before celebrating their Post-Thesis Lives!

I think many would agree with me when I say that the spring semester is one of the hardest parts of the academic year. Not only are there fewer breaks to help space out assignments, but keeping up with back-to-back papers, problem sets, and assessments can really wear on students. Moreover, April and May can be particularly stressful due to the numerous independent work deadlines they contain. While some upperclassmen have already handed in their Theses and Junior Papers, several others are still working hard to the finish line. By the time the due date comes, many will be tempted to submit their work without a second glance. But the last thing anyone wants is to finally send in their results only to later realize that they forgot to [insert independent work requirement here]. So before you anxiously hit the “submit” button, here’s an independent work checklist you might want to quickly run through:

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Tips for Formatting Long Documents in Microsoft Word

Everyone knows that writing a Senior Thesis is an exceptionally time intensive process. I expected that conducting the research necessary for a 75+ page paper and actually writing it would take months of work. However, what I did not expect was how time consuming other aspects of my thesis would be. As I was finishing up my thesis, I realized (the hard way) that one of these aspects is formatting. While exact requirements vary by department, most theses must include document elements, such as chapter headings, page numbers, and table of contents. Adding elements like page numbers may not seem particularly challenging, but, when you’re working in a very long document, it can be quite tedious.

In an attempt to save you all some time and stress, I have compiled a short list of tips on formatting long documents in Microsoft Word that I learned mostly through Google searches and trial and error.  Many seniors format their theses in programs other than Word, such as LaTeX (Alec has provided some helpful advice on how to use LaTeX in a past post). But if you are like me and are relying on Word, here are a few things to keep in mind:

Using the page break function in between sections allows you to vary the document elements you include in each chapter. In order to create a page break, select “Next Page” from the “Break” dropdown menu under “Layout.

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Stick to What You Know: Relying on Past Experience to Tackle your Senior Thesis

As we head into April, many Senior Thesis deadlines (including my own!) are fast approaching, so I naturally thought it would be fitting to reflect on my thesis experience. Over the years, many PCUR posts have been written about theses and rightly so given that they are such a significant component of the undergraduate research experience. Many of these posts and much of the discourse surrounding the Senior Thesis emphasize what makes this project exceptional, framing it as the capstone of our college careers, an unprecedented challenge, and quite possibly the longest paper we will ever write.

While I by no means disagree with these characterizations, I want to present a slightly different perspective in this post. Instead of focusing on how theses are exceptional feats, I reflect on the ways in which I have found my thesis to be similar to past academic work that I have done at Princeton.

It’s a Woodrow Wilson School department tradition that all of the seniors jump in the Robertson Hall fountain after they hand in their theses.

I’m writing my thesis on state-to-state differences in the provision of maternal health care for pregnant and postpartum women in U.S. state prisons. I wrote one of my Junior Papers (JPs) on this general topic, so my thesis wasn’t entirely uncharted territory. But the content was not the only part of my thesis that felt relatively familiar—I found that my past research experiences at Princeton had appropriately prepared me to collect data, structure my thesis, and address broader research implications as well.

To gather data for my thesis, I primarily relied on state correctional reports, a legal research database, and information from the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau. While I had not used all of these sources before, I had experience using similar datasets and research databases either for my JPs or for other research assignments. For instance, as I mentioned in my most recent post, I had met with a subject librarian to learn how to find and use data and reports from Senegalese governmental agencies for one of my JPs. When I embarked on data collection for my thesis, I relied heavily on the past guidance I had received on these types of searches. Continue reading Stick to What You Know: Relying on Past Experience to Tackle your Senior Thesis

The Unexpected Concentration: Why I Declared Geosciences

Few students enter Princeton planning to study Geosciences–I certainly didn’t.

Fascinated by the natural world and enticed by the prospect of a field semester in Kenya, I confidently chose “Ecology and Evolutionary Biology” as my intended concentration every semester on Tigerhub’s Academic Planning Form. My backup plan, if the sciences weren’t the right fit, was to study History and get a certificate in American Studies.

So why, when it came time to declare my concentration, did I end up choosing Geosciences? There were three factors that I felt set GEO apart from the other departments I considered:

Community

When I was considering which department to join, it was important to me that the department had a strong community with a space for undergraduate participation.

GEO has a vibrant department community that places a high value on undergraduates. Undergraduate participation is encouraged in weekly department wide events such as lunchtime lectures and snack breaks, as well as celebratory events such as annual department picnics. Even before I declared my concentration, faculty and staff in the department made it clear that there was a place for me in GEO.

Graduate student Akshay Mehra (far right) laughs as Professor Adam Maloof (second from right) chastises the author (far left) for “cheating” during a game of foosball on a class field-trip to Utah in Fall 2016. Informal social interaction with faculty and graduate students abounds in the GEO department, creating a warm and welcoming atmosphere for undergraduates.

The department even has its own undergraduate society, Princeton University Geosciences Society (PUGS), run entirely by students, which plans regular social events and field trips centered around building a close-knit community of engaged undergraduates. PUGS organized a department field trip to Iceland in 2015 and is planning a weeklong trip to the United Kingdom this year.

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