Choosing a topic for independent work can be a challenging task. It can be difficult to narrow down the seemingly infinite research topics to one that you find compelling (see my post here with tips on how to do that), and on top of that, you have to juggle your research with coursework that may be unrelated. It isn’t always easy to switch gears between, say, literary criticism and your STL. That said, your coursework need not be totally separate from your independent work, and need not even parallel your independent work at the exact time you are conducting it. With courses for the spring semester just released, I want to suggest ways that you can structure your selections to complement (and even supplement!) your own research. This way, next semester, your own independent work may not actually be so “independent” after all. Continue reading Coursework and Independent Work: Using One to Guide the Other
Colleges like Princeton love to brag about their high rates of student involvement in research: our admissions pamphlets are peppered with student testimonials about the accessibility of professors and the university’s commitment to undergraduate research. But although Princeton does provide incredible resources, doing research with professors doesn’t always feel accessible. Especially as a first-year or sophomore student, it can be challenging to find research opportunities outside of classes (except during the summer).
As a first-year student, I definitely felt this pressure in the fall semester. I knew I wanted to be a part of research on campus as soon as possible, but I worried that no professor would want to work with me. After all, I was less experienced than many older students, and as a CBE major, I knew that quantitative and technical skills were of paramount importance in my field. Though I was afraid of being ignored (or worse, rejected!) by professors, I decided to reach out anyway. I emailed my MOL214 professor (who runs a lab in CBE) hoping that he would help give me an introduction to the department. When I went to his office for a simple discussion, he ended up offering me a position, and I’ve been working in his lab ever since! Continue reading Research on Campus: Not Just for Juniors and Seniors!
When beginning a new lab project, whether it is a summer internship, independent work, or a senior thesis, your mentors will likely present you with academic papers relevant to your topic. This will help you begin to frame your experiments and the overarching goals of your research.
But once you understand enough background to begin, staying up to date with recent papers can be difficult, especially when you are balancing course work, extracurriculars, and other commitments in addition to planning and conducting experiments. In my experience, I found it difficult to sit down and do broad scholarly searches on a research topic as I first did when starting a new project. However, strategies such as using library resources and speaking with others in the department facilitated this process. In this post, I will give tips on how to stay current with laboratory news and advances, specifically with STEM research.
As I have written for the PCUR blog before, choosing a topic for an open-ended research project can be challenging. Even once you have narrowed your search and settled on an idea you would like to pursue, you may find that other scholars have already written about it. There is indeed a finite number of possible research subjects (even if it seems, as I suggested in my earlier post, that there is infinite possibility), and as undergraduates many of us have yet to find our research niche. This by no means should discourage you! Just because there is existing literature does not disqualify you from making your own contribution. Of course, we are told this in our first-year writing seminars, where we discuss the different “scholarly moves” one can make (“piggybacking” on another scholar’s work, “picking a fight” with a scholar, and many others, as helpfully delineated in this paper).
In this post, however, I do not merely want to rehash what these “moves” are, but rather suggest how one goes about making any intervention, especially in determining what kind of intervention one wants to make. The following are some methods I have found useful in my research: Continue reading Finding Your Space in the “Scholarly Conversation”
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?
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!
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:
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!
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.
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.