Why Independent Work is Different

And what is classroom learning good for, anyways?

It is Tuesday morning. From the back of the classroom, I squint at the pictures of fish being projected on the board, and scribble in a spiral notebook. Queen angelfish: yellow ring on head, I write as the instructor describes the species’ habitat. She flips to the next slide. Townsend angelfish, I write, less common.

A school of doctorfish (Acanthurus chirurgus) near one of the reefs I studied last summer. Doctorfish can be identified by the dark vertical bars lining the middle of their bodies.

Slipping into the room, with its rows of desks, overhead projector, and professorial monologue – had felt like donning my own old, well-worn clothes. Sixteen years of traditional education have made this role as a student a familiar one.

Yet this time, the circumstances are unusual, and entering the room as a pupil feels suddenly bizarre. It is mid-June, my third week on the island of Bermuda. Just down the hill from this classroom, the turquoise ocean plays against the research station dock. I am at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences to conduct a field research project assessing how polluted groundwater affects the chemistry and ecology of near-shore coral reefs. Over breakfast, someone had mentioned that a summer course instructor would be lecturing her class on fish identification today. I have been planning to conduct fish surveys on the coral reefs I am studying, but (rather critically) first need to learn to identify all the fish. The timing of the lecture couldn’t be more perfect, so here I am: hunched over a table in the very back of the classroom, listening and scribbling notes like my thesis depends on it.

Continue reading Why Independent Work is Different

Looking Back on Undergraduate Research: A Conversation with Shayla Reid ‘15

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, Dylan shares his interview.

~~~~~~

When I learned that Shayla Reid ’15 was in New Jersey for her winter break, I jumped on the opportunity to interview her for this blog. She currently works as a Fellow through Princeton in Africa at Young 1ove, an organization in Gaborone, Botswana that implements health and education programming for youth. A Spanish and Portuguese concentrator at Princeton, she was one of the people who convinced me to major in the department. And now, as I began to write my own thesis, I was excited to get her insights.

Shayla, back left, shares a fun moment with coworkers from Young 1ove in Botswana

Shayla’s thesis — “Mulher como protagonista”: Women’s Experiences with Parto Humanizado in São Paulo, Brazil — dealt with childbirth in Brazil, particularly the country’s high C-section rate. Though surgical intervention is only necessary when complications arise, in Brazil nearly 60-70% of all births in public hospitals are C-sections, and upwards of 90% in private ones. Though she was interested in the cultural reasons behind the high C-section rates, she also sought more personal experiences. Thus, as a Princeton Brazil Global Fellow, she spent the summer of 2014 in São Paulo. Paired with an adviser at the local university, she began to visit women’s health groups, interviewing women to see how they navigated the health care system in order to achieve fulfilling childbirth experiences.

Continue reading Looking Back on Undergraduate Research: A Conversation with Shayla Reid ‘15

Summer Never Dies! Tips on Keeping Your Summer Abroad Relevant

It’s a few weeks into the semester, yet your summer abroad feels like it was eons away. The good news is your international experiences will fit right in on campus.

img_1317
Les Baux-de-Provence, a medieval era outcrop

I spent four weeks this summer taking French 207 in Aix-en-Provence, France. Since this was a Princeton course, it was rigorous, but also enlightening. I wanted to bring that same immersive and novel environment back to campus and build upon it. Here are the four ways that I’ve found to be most helpful.

Language Classes

Take a course through one of Princeton’s several language departments to maintain or further develop your language skills. I’m currently enrolled in two French courses this semester. Not quite France, but it keeps my skills in practice.

Language courses are opportunities for you to form relationships with peers interested in the same foreign subjects as you. Form a study group to practice, share your international experiences, and get some meaningful discussions out of the process.

Didn’t enroll in a language class? Take a seat at a language table at dinner—they’re welcoming of any level! And of course enroll in a class in the spring!

Continue reading Summer Never Dies! Tips on Keeping Your Summer Abroad Relevant

Where do thesis topics come from, anyway?

Last May, when I finished the last assignment of my junior year, only one thing was on my mind — and it wasn’t summer. I couldn’t help thinking ahead to the assignment that would dominate my next and final year: my senior thesis. But intense brainstorming sessions and frequent “what should I study?” conversations did little to help me find a topic. After all, when you’re looking for a thesis topic, where do you even start?

I’d heard that a fruitful strategy was to start with your recreational interests, and build them into academic pursuits. I’d also heard that it’s best to decide your topic and adviser before summer break so that you can begin research over the summer. These are probably valuable pieces of advice. However, most professors felt I’d taken such advice too seriously when I proposed an early topic about professional sports, Twitter, and President Obama.

img_1894
Guess where?

As you might imagine, that topic wasn’t a viable option for a public policy thesis (although it was a legitimately academic question, with heavy roots in sociology). Nevertheless, I resigned the idea to my iPhone notes and left campus with no idea of what my thesis would be about.

Then I started a summer internship in a really cool place.

Continue reading Where do thesis topics come from, anyway?

Finding Sources for Uncommon Topics…Like Mannequins

King of Prussia’s Athleta features muscular mannequin legs!
King of Prussia’s Athleta features muscular mannequin legs!

It took only a second for the topic of mannequins to pique my interest. I happened to be browsing at an Athleta store when I noticed the waist-down plastic legs in the window sporting colorful leggings. At first, I thought nothing of the typical figurines. But when I paused and looked again, I noticed that the mannequins weren’t composed of the slender limbs one usually sees in stores, but rather of muscular thighs and toned calves. My first reaction was one of elation—there was finally a window display with shapely thighs! But then, following my moment of internal celebration, a research question popped into my head: Do differently-shaped mannequins influence how women feel about their bodies?

Upon looking into the matter, I discovered that there weren’t many articles relating to this topic. After searching several combinations of terms that included the word “mannequin,” I found only one article that pertained to mannequins in the fashion industry. The source turned out to be a good find, however, for it explained the history of mannequins and how their purpose evolved from being used to fit clothes to displaying the latest trends in store windows. But now I was stuck with an exhausted list of search terms and only one article on which to base my findings. My research had left me with yet another problem: How do I go about researching mannequins? More importantly, how do I go about researching any uncommon topic? With some time and patience, I was able to come up with these three strategies to locate new sources. Continue reading Finding Sources for Uncommon Topics…Like Mannequins

My Lesson in Research Rehearsal

After eight amazing weeks in Europe, I’m back in the U.S. and just starting to process my time abroad. Interning at the European Roma Rights Centre taught me so much about Roma people and the systematic racism many of them face. I also learned about efforts to combat this racism through litigation and advocacy. I greatly value the knowledge I gained through this experience — and now, as I prepare for another year of research at Princeton, I’m also thinking about the process behind the knowledge. Some of the most useful and thought-provoking lessons from my time abroad concerned how to effectively prepare for field research.

Here I am in Belgrade, Serbia with the other conference participants, all of whom work with organizations that research statelessness in Central and Eastern Europe.

During my second-to-last week in Budapest, I went with four colleagues to a conference in Belgrade, Serbia. The three-day conference functioned as a training workshop to prepare seven organizations to conduct field research on stateless Roma (Roma individuals who aren’t legally affiliated with any nation.) These organizations were based in countries all throughout Eastern Europe and the West Balkans, where statelessness is a particularly significant issue among Roma populations. The ERRC led the workshop — and I got to play a role in the research trainings. Continue reading My Lesson in Research Rehearsal

Science, the Absurd

It was Wednesday, the final round of my second day of water sampling, when I hit a bump in the road with the rolling cooler I was pulling behind me. The second cooler of water samples, which had been stacked on top, toppled to the asphalt. Eight ice packs and 54 water sample bottles careened out of the cooler and across the road.

I’m using a PVC stick to photograph the reef from a fixed height, in order to take standardized photos of the reef for ecological analysis. This procedure is otherwise known as The Aquatic Gandalf.

This, I thought to myself, throwing my hands up in the air like a cartoon character, is absurd. I scooped the samples up from the pavement, picking a few out from the grassy verge where they’d fallen, and shoved them back into the cooler (carefully packing ice back over the top). I reminded myself, as I have often these past six weeks: This is science.

I’m in Bermuda for two months this summer, studying how polluted groundwater discharge is affecting near-shore coral reefs. The field season has been exciting, fulfilling, challenging, and full of slightly ridiculous situations. I’ve gone swimming along the reef like an aquatic Gandalf, carrying a camera mounted on a PVC stick. I’ve attached equipment to the reef by looping zip-ties through holes in the rocks, and so have spent hours poking these zip-ties into crevasses and attempting to pull them through on the opposite side. Continue reading Science, the Absurd

Post-Fieldwork Blues

The end of fieldwork evokes strange sensations of both pride and loss.

Returning to New York after two months in Rio de Janeiro (studying psychiatrist Nise da Silveira’s life and legacy), I know I accomplished a lot. But I can’t get rid of the nagging feeling that there was so much more I could have done, and so much that I left behind. Just as I was acquiring an understanding of the nature of da Silveira’s impact, just as I was beginning to map the important people and projects she influenced, just as my interviews were becoming particularly poignant — it was time to pack my bags.

At the colorful Casa das Palmeiras, pictured above, I attended a Jungian study group, founded by da Silveira to bring intellectuals together across fields.
At the colorful Casa das Palmeiras, pictured above, I attended a Jungian study group that Nise da Silveira founded to bring together intellectuals from across fields.

It’s one of the most bizarre parts of learning. The more you know, the more you realize you don’t. That idea became clearer the more I conducted my research, as da Silveira’s work spanned many fields. She collaborated not just with psychiatrists, but also with painters, philosophers, writers, astrologers, actors, and people from many other fields. Her influence is wide-reaching. And while I never expected to reach everyone, I sometimes felt inadequate knowing there were so many more interesting people I hadn’t interviewed.

Continue reading Post-Fieldwork Blues

On Action and Optimism: Notes from the 13th International Coral Reef Symposium

In the summer of 2016, it is difficult to find optimism in the field of environmental science.

Yet last month, I gathered with a throng of 2,500 coral reef scientists for the International Coral Reef Symposium (ICRS) in Honolulu. Knowing the extent of the tragic coral bleaching and death that has unfolded on coral reefs this year, I expected a week of doom and gloom. But, to my surprise, the conference gave me more cause for hope than for pessimism.

A wasteland of dead coral on Lizard Island, the Great Barrier Reef, this June. High temperatures have caused record bleaching and coral death this year.
A wasteland of dead coral on Lizard Island, the Great Barrier Reef, this May. High temperatures have caused record coral bleaching and death this year.

This is not because the situation facing coral reefs is any better than I’d thought – if anything, it’s worse. Rising greenhouse gas concentrations, warming waters, and stagnant politics have put the biodiversity of coral reefs, along with many other ecosystems, into a sharp decline. On the Great Barrier Reef – a vibrant ecosystem so structurally significant that, unlike the Great Wall of China, it can be seen from space – nearly 25% of coral is dead, from this year’s bleaching alone. At one panel at ICRS, researchers shared photographs and time-lapse footage of coral bleaching and subsequent death around the world. As they flicked through photo after photo, the conference hall adopted the atmosphere of a funeral.

No, things are not looking good for coral reefs, or for many other ecosystems struggling to keep up with the whirlwind of environmental change that stems from human overpopulation, consumption, and industrialization. One scientist, Peter Sale, called coral reefs a “canary” in the proverbial coal mine that is our changing earth. “There are a whole bunch of canaries that are at risk,” Dr. Sale said. “And when the canaries go, our civilization goes.” Continue reading On Action and Optimism: Notes from the 13th International Coral Reef Symposium

Zooming In and Stepping Back: A Two-Sided Approach to Research

As I head into the second half of my internship at the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) in Budapest, I find myself equipped with a more focused understanding of my research— and, curiously, a wider understanding of my research. This may sound strange at first. How can my perspective become narrower and broader simultaneously? It might seem paradoxical, but I’ve realized that digging deeper into a research project often entails zooming in and stepping back.

Here I am standing on Liberty Bridge and looking at Budapest from across the Danube River–a zoomed out view if you will.

Continue reading Zooming In and Stepping Back: A Two-Sided Approach to Research