GEO/WRI 201: The Best Course on Scientific Research and Writing Offered at Princeton

“Any science major should consider this course…it is basically independent work guided by two top notch professors and supported by an entire seminar class.” – Anonymous Student Review

Every undergraduate studying the natural sciences at Princeton undertakes significant independent research projects in their Junior and Senior years. GEO/WRI 201: Methods in Data Analysis & Scientific Writing is a unique course designed specifically to teach students how to write an independent scientific paper. If you are a Sophomore or Junior looking to attain the concrete skills and confidence to tackle independent research, there is no better class to take.

In 201, you will learn how to design, research, write, and present original scientific research, all through the lens of measuring changing landscapes using satellite and drone-derived aerial imagery. Under the mentorship of Adam Maloof (GEO) and Amanda Irwin Wilkins (WRI), and with the support of your peers, you will: develop an original, well motivated scientific question; design effective field methods to test a specific hypothesis; quantitatively analyze data and imagery; and learn how to effectively communicate the results in a scientific paper and slideshow presentation. The highlight of the class is a nine day field trip across Utah, where students work collaboratively to implement their own field methods, piloting drones and collecting climatological data.

Will Atkinson ‘18 misses a beautiful sunset over Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, Utah while taking notes on a geology lecture given by professor Adam Maloof during the class field trip. (Fall break, 2016)

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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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Looking Back on Undergraduate Research: A Conversation with Adrian Tasistro-Hart ’17

In a continuation of last year’s seasonal series, this winter, 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, Alec shares his interview.

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Adrian Tasistro-Hart ’17

Adrian Tasistro-Hart graduated in 2017 with a degree in Geosciences. A PEI Environmental Scholar, Adrian focused on one independent research project spanning his Junior Papers and Senior Thesis, which he plans on submitting for publication. Adrian is currently working towards a masters degree in Geophysics at ETH in Zürich, continuing his research journey which began at Princeton. Here is what Adrian had to say about his experience with undergraduate research and the impact of his independent research experience:

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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

A Reading Course with Local Impact: Analyzing Ecology on Campus

In my last post, I wrote about finding meaning in my academics through a research oriented class with local impact. This week, I am focusing on how another student is using research to make a positive local impact–not through taking a pre-existing course–but by creating a reading course that fit her specific academic goals. (If you are interested in reading courses, you can learn more about them here!)

This fall, Geosciences major Artemis Eyster ’19 is leading GEO 90_F2017 “Analyzing Ecological Integrity: An Assessment of Princeton’s Natural Areas,” a course she designed that centers around geological and ecological field research on Princeton’s campus. The eight students enrolled in Analyzing Ecological Integrity (AEI) are tackling field research projects such as measuring the bathymetry of Lake Carnegie to assess the rate of erosion on campus lands, gauging water-quality in campus streams, and surveying invasive plant species in campus woodlands. Artemis leads weekly class meetings to discuss course goals, review progress, and plan ahead, with the assistance of course advisers GEO Professor Adam Maloof and WRI Professor Amanda Irwin-Wilkins. I interviewed Artemis to better understand her motivation for creating the course and her experience taking charge of her academic work to make a positive impact on our campus.

What do you consider to be the purpose of this reading course?

AEI is about better understanding Princeton’s natural areas through rigorous scientific research and using our findings to articulate relevant land-use recommendations to the University. I believe that, as students going here, we should take responsibility for the land and environment around us. If we have the ability, we should use our scientific skills to help the University make decisions that protect our campus’s ecology. Another priority of the class is to record baseline measurements and design methodologies so that future student researchers have a strong framework they can expand upon either in classes or independent work.

“It is empowering to be able to identify something that I think is important and then go make it happen.”

How did you develop the idea for this reading course?

[GEO Professor] Adam [Maloof] saw a natural resource assessment report provided to the University by a professional consultant and thought that students could advance such assessments with high quality scientific measurements and greatly expand upon the work currently being done by the University. I love fieldwork, and I thought other students would also be excited to do impactful research on campus. Creating the class was a way to harness that excitement into commitment so that we would be able to get research done over the course of the semester.

One of the perks of AEI is that field work is a major component of the course. Here, shrouded by leaves, Artemis records notes during a vegetation survey of campus lands.

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Research with Local Impact: Analyzing Lead in Trenton, NJ

At least once a week, without fail, I will stop in the middle of the p-set I am working on, or the paper I am writing, and think “what is the point of this?” Sure, the pursuit of knowledge may be a reward unto itself, but I don’t want my academic goals to be purely selfish–I want my course work at Princeton to benefit others. To this end, I have sought engaging research-based courses that can have a positive impact on people’s lives. These classes combine my academic interests with my desire for meaning, and provide a concrete ‘point’ to my course work.

Sure, the pursuit of knowledge may be a reward unto itself, but I don’t want my academic goals to be purely selfish–I want my course work at Princeton to benefit others.

Last Spring, I participated in GEO 360, Geochemistry of the Human Environment, a course focused on providing chemical analyses of tap-water, paint, and soil for low-income residents of Trenton, NJ. Only 11 miles south of our orange-bubble along the towpath, Trenton is one of the poorest cities in the state and has a serious and systemic lead problem. Lead exposure is caused by the deterioration of lead paint into dust and the leaching of lead from pipes into drinking water. While lead paint was banned in 1978 and installation of lead piping was discontinued in the mid 1980’s, lead is still ubiquitous in Trenton where 90% of homes and buildings were constructed prior to 1978. As homes in the city age, the lead within them becomes mobilized and hazardous, and residents often do not have the financial means to keep their homes safe.

This map shows our measurements of lead concentration in parts-per-billion for water samples from homes around the city. Although most homes do not have high water-lead concentrations, there is no ‘safe’ amount of lead. (Map grid is UTM N zone 18)

Our class worked alongside Isles, a non-profit Trenton organization that has tested over 2,000 homes for lead and provided remediation work–all free of charge–over the past three decades. We assisted Isles with field work by collecting samples, and measuring paint and soil lead in urban residences. We then analyzed hundreds of tap-water samples, measuring elemental concentrations with a mass spectrometer and conducting multivariate analyses to quantify the correlations between metals within samples. Our work helped Isles identify at-risk homes in order to provide them with lead paint remediation and/or water filters.

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All Roads Lead to Gandhara: Integrating Science and the Classics

Around this time last fall, I was spending consistent hours in the basement of Fine Hall, gathering data from the Map Library and struggling with ArcGIS and Matlab to make sense of it. My goal? To explain the success of Gandhara, a little-known ancient civilization in northwest Pakistan.

I first learned about the region during an independent research project in my last semester of high school Latin. Gandhara started as an outpost for Alexander the Great’s generals but grew into an incredible region of diffusion between Greek and Indian cultures. Greek and Buddhist influences merged freely in philosophy, religion, and art, and not much research existed on the area.

Gandhara slipped from my mind until I resumed school in my first semester at Princeton. I was enrolled in FRS 187: Earth’s Environments and Ancient Civilizations, a geoscience seminar that traveled to Cyprus over fall break. In Cyprus, we used geophysics to examine unexcavated areas near a Princeton archeological dig house. As part of the course, we were responsible for writing three scientific papers explaining why a civilization succeeded or failed using topographical, mineral, and climate-based evidence. My mind turned naturally to Gandhara. I wanted to create one comprehensive paper examining its success, but I wasn’t sure that I could find sufficient evidence from three different angles.

This is a map that I created to provide an overview of Alexander’s route into Gandhara and major cities along his way.

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