In my junior year of high school, through my conversations with more and more teachers and scholars, I thought I had come to understand the importance of one inevitable piece of the scientific process (or really any academic discipline):
Until recently, I hadn’t reflected on the fact that what we read for class is carefully curated. As we all know, our professors dedicate immense amounts of time to selecting and refining the list of readings for our courses. Ideally, these readings reflect the essential sources on a particular subject. However, as with any selection process, the developing syllabus is filtered through certain ideological and methodological biases, not to mention the practical constraints of the course.
In my experience, professors tend to be transparent with their students about this curatorial process. In class, we often discuss why certain scholars were selected over others, and receive recommendations for further reading. Yet, I don’t often reflect on these selected works of scholarship in the context of their authors’ personal intellectual evolution.
When selecting secondary sources, professors typically choose a scholar’s most established works and arguments. With such limited time to cover material, our semesters only have space for “greatest hits.” These works tend to articulate coherent ideas, argue something new and critically important, and reflect a consistent methodology. Often, they’re masterpieces of scholarship.
Last February I wrote a post about reconciling my love for STEM with my humanities major. The summer before my junior year, I made a compromise with myself: take at least one quantitative course a semester. I thought this to be the most realistic plan to stay on track with my French major while keeping a promise to cultivate my inner Neil DeGrasse Tyson. I’m kicking off this plan with taking Intro to Data Science this fall.
This compromise is useful on an academic level, given my new interest in Digital Humanities, a field that combines both humanities and technology. I am hoping to prime my quantitative side to explore this field, potentially for my senior thesis.
I enrolled in GEO/WRI 201, Measuring Climate Change: Methods in Data Analysis & Scientific Writing, last Fall to challenge myself and learn how to integrate field work, scientific analysis, and writing. Although I already had cursory experience in these areas thanks to a Freshman Seminar on Biogeochemistry in the Everglades and a summer of assisting ecological fieldwork in Mozambique, I had never created and executed my own field project from start to finish. In my naiveté, I presumed that although the course would be difficult, I would conduct research that had a clear and established “finish-line”—and that I would reach it.
My project centered around quantifying changes in vegetation cover in Utah over the past twenty years using satellite imagery. The first couple months of the class were frustrating and I floundered across the deadlines. Most of the science courses I had taken offered a framework: a set of given questions with specific, correct answers. In real research, I found, you must create the questions—and they don’t necessarily have “correct” answers.
Successful research is based on convincing motive that builds off of key literature to contextualize and explain the broader importance of a specific research question.
Despite my struggles, the project seemed to be coming along. Using images from multiple Landsat satellites, I created a beautiful figure showing a steep decline in vegetation tightly correlated with rising temperatures and decreasing rainfall. Genuine results linking changing climate to remotely sensed vegetation! I was thrilled.
However, after weeks of writing and data analysis, I discovered that the seemingly important trends I was writing about were–to put it bluntly–garbage. In a peer review session, another student in the class hypothesized that the apparent decline in vegetation might be simply an artifact of comparing imagery from different Landsat satellites. I scoffed–but I also started to worry.
While listening to an astrophysics podcast, I stumbled into an epiphany about my course of study at Princeton. It was Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s StarTalk, and two female astrophysicists had been invited on the show to discuss women in the field. About halfway through the episode, I asked myself why I wasn’t pursuing astronomy as a major, especially since I’ve had a fascination with space since childhood. I circled back to high school for an explanation. I had gotten an A- in pre-calculus for the year, and since I was immersed in the high school mindset of perfectionism, I convinced myself I wasn’t good enough at math to pursue anything in the STEM fields. My fellow PCUR blogger Vidushi wrote about how this same feeling I had of lacking “innate brilliance” creates gender gaps in fields like astrophysics. She writes, “Women who don’t see themselves as innately brilliant mathematicians, musicians, or philosophers often do not give themselves the chance to pursue these disciplines.”
When it came time to apply to Princeton, I looked for things I thought I’d be “better” at, and that’s when I started looking into social sciences. I was attracted to the interdisciplinary nature of politics and had always enjoyed French in high school, so I decided to pursue these once I got to college. This course of study has not been easy by any means; however, I sometimes felt like I had settled into these fields because I wasn’t confident enough to pursue other ones. Complaints from my peers about the difficulty of the math and physics courses necessary to study astrophysics overwhelmed me, so I denied myself the opportunity to explore them. I also had this realization at the end of sophomore fall–right before having to declare a concentration in the spring. If you’re struggling with what you want to study at Princeton, hopefully I can give you some encouragement!
Staring at my computer screen, I blink. The black cursor, a vertical slit of a pupil, blinks back.
Uh-oh. I am trying to write the first essay for my environmental nonfiction class. But, sitting down to write, I can already feel the despondent haze of writer’s block descending. I swivel in my chair. I check my email but have no new messages. I type fdsajkl; on the first line of the page, and then delete it. What’s wrong with me? I think. Am I a writer or not?
I came to Princeton because I planned on being a research scientist, probably in academia. I knew what came next, and it was exciting: four years of undergrad, five years of PhD, and a two-year post-doc, so I could have a real job by the time I was 30. That meant I needed research experience, and boy oh boy did Princeton provide research experience.
Research is about exploring the unknown, and from the beginning I did just that. As a student in the Integrated Sciences Curriculum (ISC), I had to learn MATLAB, LaTeX, ImageJ, JAVA, and countless other acronyms and jargon. And I had to learn them fast, using them to solve problems and write about them, in an ordeal I described as “drinking the nectar of Olympus—from a fire hose.”
Over the past few weeks, Princeton professor Johannes Haushofer has received a lot of attention for his CV of Failures, in which he chronicles his lack of success in various academic pursuits. Many have called Professor Haushofer’s CV inspiring — because most of us rarely hear about the trials and tribulations of acclaimed individuals.
We also rarely hear about the trials and tribulations of graduating seniors. Our default is to view graduating seniors as 100% successful in all their endeavors, especially those who receive prestigious awards and fellowships. I thought it would be great to sit down with some award-winning members of the class of 2016 to hear their thoughts on the topic of failure.
Big thanks to seniors Andrew Nelson, Jack Mazzulo, and Cameron Bell for contributing to this conversation. But the conversation around failure doesn’t have to stop here! Consider reaching out to RCA’s, Peer Advisors, and friends to have meaningful conversations about success and failure.
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.