Summer Experiences: Gaining Perspective Through Interdisciplinary Research

I’ve known that I wanted to do science research since the age of sixteen, when I spent my first summer in a neuroscience lab. My time in the lab taught me many new skills and enabled me to immediately apply them to unsolved problems–what other summer job could be more interesting than that? Though my specific interests have shifted slightly (I’m now a chemical and biological engineer rather than a neuroscientist), I’ve devoted every summer since to benchwork of some sort.

Consequently, when I started to look for laboratory opportunities last year, I immediately gravitated towards biology research. I had loved the past three summers–why not experience another? In the winter, I applied to internships through Princeton’s International Internship Program (IIP), and I was lucky enough to receive an offer to study the mechanisms of Shigella (a bacterium that causes dysentery) infection at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, France. I accepted immediately, thrilled that I’d be spending my summer abroad–and on Princeton’s dime!

But as the year wore on, I started to consider what the added value of another summer of wet-lab research would be, especially since time constraints would limit my contribution. I felt like was narrowing in on my chosen field too early. Wouldn’t I be bored?

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Going on a Research-Intensive Study Abroad: Oxford-Princeton Biochemistry Exchange

As a sophomore, I’ve finally started to get better at navigating Princeton, and there are many perks that come with that. But at the same time, this is when things can start to feel monotonous. During the winter, I started to look for ways to rid myself of this feeling, and one of the ways that I thought of was to study abroad. This week, I decided to interview Leslie Chan, a junior in the molecular biology department, about her experience going abroad to Oxford University in her junior fall.

The Oxford-Princeton Biochemistry Exchange is a program where selected juniors from the molecular biology department exchange places with an Oxford student for a semester and do research in a laboratory setting — it’s distinctive in that the students don’t take classes at Oxford, but rather become full-time lab members at a Biochemistry laboratory at Oxford. You still get transfer credit though, so you get to graduate on time!

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So Many Sources: How to Manage the Seemingly Unmanageable

Last week, a librarian at the University of Cape Town emailed me some scanned items from their archives which I requested for my Junior Paper research. I’ve looked through them, and I can see that they will be quite useful for my work.

While I am glad that I have access to these sources now, they also add to a problem I had before I received them: in the research work I have been doing, I have what seems like too many materials to work with. During my time over spring break at the New York Public Library and Center for Jewish History, I amassed literally hundreds of newspaper and journal articles as primary sources.

At first, I was unsure of what to do with all of them. It simply seemed an overwhelming task to sift through them to figure out what was needed for my work (this is where having a clear yet flexible research question comes in handy; see my post here on that). A similar thing had happened to me this summer when I was working on a research project likewise involving hundreds of newspaper articles, and I do not think I dealt with it as well as I could have then. So, reflecting on these mistakes, I worked out some strategies to make things more manageable this time around. I hope these to be helpful for any student researcher who feels like they’re buried under a mound of potential sources:

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Stumped for Sources at Firestone? No Worries!

At Princeton, we are lucky to have access to an incredible collection of research resources. Between our libraries’ collections on campus, online databases, ReCap storage, and Borrow Direct, almost all your research needs are right at your fingertips. And, for most of the papers you will write while here, this is probably the case. But, especially with independent work, you may need sources so niche or rare that Princeton just can’t provide them. I have found myself in this situation this semester, as I write my junior paper for my HIS 400 seminar. Here, I’ll share my experience navigating the search for niche sources, with tips for getting creative when searching for material at Firestone and beyond.

My paper focuses on the political thought of Henry Katzew (a Jewish South African journalist and writer), situating it in relation to other Jewish South African responses to apartheid, Zionism, and a diplomatic crisis which occurred between the Israeli and South African governments in 1961. Given how specific my topic has become, it was difficult finding sources, especially primary sources, at Princeton right off the bat. Still, with some time to think and the help of quite a few librarians (more on that below— they are truly research superheroes), I have managed to find the sources I need to complete the work. Continue reading Stumped for Sources at Firestone? No Worries!

Class Trip to Japan: Immersive Experiences, Changing Topics, and the Importance of Reflection

This year, I spent my spring break traveling around Japan with my art history seminar course, ART 429 Visual Japan: Past and Present. It was an absolutely transformative experience, both academically and personally. I’m here to share a little bit about how I learned to use experiences to inspire research and find answers through reflection.

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Open-Ended Assignments: Tips Towards Narrowing Your Research

When a professor assigns a research paper with no specific prompt, it sometimes can be hard to know exactly what kind of work is expected. Assignments like these may provide a suggested page count and an injunction to stay within the bounds of the course theme, but little else. In this case, the possibilities for paper topics seem infinite. Once you get past this hurdle and settle on a general idea you would like to explore, you still may feel compelled to answer some big questions; questions that might cover a long time frame, seek to identify general trends with a large sample size, or tackle broad theoretical questions. So much of the academic material we are exposed to seems to deal with these “big questions”: survey lectures, assigned readings with titles of sweeping breadth, and the prospect of the senior thesis.

The impulse you may have to ask big questions is natural, then— and it’s a good impulse, too! It is a great way to jumpstart your research, beginning the process of narrowing down by going from infinite potential topics to many potential topics. But, with a looming due date (unfortunately) limiting your research time, keeping your question broad can become overwhelming, and hinder your ability to meaningfully answer it.

During my experience this summer working on an independent research project as an intern with the Office of Undergraduate Research’s ReMatch+ program, I came to learn the importance of narrowing your question early in the research process. Though through the wonderful advice of my ReMatch+ graduate student mentor, my research was pretty specific by midsummer (focusing on the language of “othering” in New York City press reports of a June 1848 Paris workers’ rebellion), it took me several weeks to get to there— necessary time in retrospect, but time I would have rather been developing my topic rather than figuring out what it was. I definitely could have benefited from some guidance at the beginning of my work. So, with that in mind, I hope the tips below will help you narrow your research questions early on, so you don’t have to learn the hard way like I did.

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Professorship and Mentorship: An Interview with Molecular Biology Professor Zemer Gitai

This winter, for our seasonal series entitled “Professorship and Mentorship,” PCURs interview a professor from their home department. In these interviews, professors shed light on the role that mentorship has played in their academic trajectory, including their previous experiences as undergraduate and graduate students as well as their current involvement with mentorship as independent work advisers for current Princeton undergraduates. Here, Nanako shares her interview.

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As one can see from the many PCUR posts on Junior Papers

Professor Gitai wants students to be open minded about doing independent work. 

and Senior Theses, independent work is a huge part of the junior and senior experience here at Princeton. However, everyone has different views on why this process is important, and different departments have different requirements. For this Winter Seasonal Series, I decided to interview Professor Gitai, who I met when I took MOL214: Introduction to Molecular and Cellular Biology in the fall of my first year at Princeton. Read on to learn more about the thesis writing process for concentrators in molecular biology, and how to make sure you get the most out of this process!

 

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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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Finding a JP Topic (On Your Own)

Personally examining the items around a book you’ve found is a great way to find related works on a given subject.

For many first year and sophomore students, fall break is a true respite from the academic demands of college life. For many juniors and seniors, however, it is a time of simultaneous relief and moderated despair as Princeton’s independent work requirements loom large. This is the position I find myself in. So gather round, friends, it’s time to talk independent work—specifically, how I found a general research area for my first JP. New to the JP game as I am, I feel rather unqualified to offer advice on how to “conquer” it or plan a totally coherent project right from the start. This will not be that kind of post. Rather, I’ll share some thoughts on beginning my own JP research process, which should illuminate some of the methods I used to cut down the uncertainty around my project and to find something like a workable topic. While I hope this is a useful guide for anyone facing the JP, I should note that it will probably be the most applicable to those in departments where fall independent work is not structured around a research seminar.

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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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