In our spring series, Senior Theses: A Celebration, we take a moment in the interlude between thesis deadlines and graduation to appreciate the diverse, personal, and impactful work of seniors’ capstone research projects.
Xuewei Ouyang is a senior in the Computer Science Department. For her thesis, she combined her passion for dance and her knowledge of coding to create an app called, ChoreoSpot. Here’s what she had to say about her work:
What is your thesis about?
In short, my thesis is about creating an app that takes a rehearsal video and, within various frames of the video, spots errors on the dancers’ bodies in comparison to the choreographer’s.
Last year, I was invited to be a judge for Princeton Research Day (PRD) as a veteran of the Mary W. George Freshman Research Conference. If there was one thing I loved about this conference, it was hearing my peers’ interesting research conclusions. I was excited to see this happen on an even larger scale at PRD, but I was also nervous; I felt that I had little authority to judge the work of upperclassmen (and graduate students!) with only a semester’s worth of experience under my belt. However, the event organizers were incredibly encouraging in this respect, valuing our nonspecialist input.
Before PRD, the judges held a brief meeting to go over logistics and judging criteria. I felt that, rather than encouraging harsh criticism, the criteria really emphasized the purpose of PRD as a celebration and opportunity to share the hard work done by Princeton researchers. Scores were mostly based on how well people could relay information, translate their complex findings (no chart goes unexplained!), and engage an audience that has no experience in their field. This criteria eased a lot of my apprehension: I might not be able to judge the correctness of a data set, or rebut conclusions about culture in Georgian England, but I can judge how well these were communicated to me.
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, Dylanshares 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’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.
In middle school, I remember being told that the best way to write an essay is with an outline. We would receive five-paragraph-essay worksheets, complete with a thesis statement, sub-arguments, and important supporting information. It was direct, simple, and structured.
In this post, I hope to advocate for a different sort of writing. Outlines are certainly helpful organizational tools. But as I delve into my thesis, I find myself taking a more free-form approach. As I have previously written, I am writing on the legacy of pioneer Brazilian art therapist Nise da Silveira. Based on two months of ethnographic research, my thesis is about how da Silveira’s image is evoked and utilized by people who continue similar work. I have lots of interesting ideas, but no single, unifying argument. While writing an outline might be useful down the road, right now it would impose a limiting structure on my thought process.
Instead, I have decided to do what my friend Lily calls “Frankensteining.” To her, writing an essay is like creating Frankenstein’s monster: you have to find all the parts before you can sew them together and create a body. Lily explains:
“I think you need to Frankenstein when you’re developing any kind of complex argument because you can’t know what you’re going to say until you start figuring it out and seeing how different insights fit together. It’s writing as a nonlinear process — you don’t brainstorm and then write. They happen at the same time.”
The more I do theater, the more I understand its parallels to academic research.
Recently, I attended a workshop with John Doyle, the renowned theater director and Princeton professor. He shared two details of how he begins a creative process. First, he reads the script only a few times before beginning rehearsals. Rather than getting mired in the script’s details, he likes to let ideas brew and leave space for his collaborators’ input. Second, he stresses the importance of entering rehearsals with unanswered questions — because if you already know the answers, your questions aren’t rich enough, and there’s little point in bringing people together.
Approaching my first thesis meeting, I’ve been thinking about this advice.
As I have written (both here and here), I spent this summer in Rio de Janeiro, researching the legacy of art-therapy pioneer Nise da Silveira. During that time, I conducted over 15 interviews, attended numerous workshops, and collected various books and documents. Recorded on audio files and scribbled in notebooks, these constitute — in a sense — my “script.” It is a body of research so juicy, varied, and detailed, that it tempts me to dive right in and begin working my way through problems.
Yet, as I prepare for my first meeting, the most helpful thing I can do is not read over all this material. Delving in right away, I would get lost in details before I have a sense of what interests me. For the moment, it is more valuable to step away from my “script” and reflect. To think critically about my two months in Brazil. To ponder what confused me and what seemed contradictory. To come up with questions that I cannot yet answer.
This strategy has worked for me in theater. Last year, in Elektra, I acted in the two-person Greek Chorus. Following our first read-through, we developed some big questions about the Chorus: Who are we? Why are we here? What makes us otherworldly? What grounds us in the physical world?
These questions, for the most part, went unanswered. But asking them from the start gave us time to test out answers every day, playing with different kinds of movement, costume, intonation — and, of course, finding new details in the script.
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
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.
There are some things that department websites just don’t tell you.
For example: The History Department holds its mandatory senior thesis planning meeting one hour after spring junior papers are due. (“People hadn’t slept for days!” a friend told me recently.) The Spanish Department, on the other hand, hosts monthly department-wide dinners.
I am amazed — unfortunate scheduling and free food aside — by how much I didn’t know when I chose my major. Talking to other upperclassmen, I get the feeling that I’m not the only one. We all seem to have bumbled through the process, some better-informed than others. When April rolled around, we all picked something and moved on.
Princeton’s Dance Department and Robotics Program might seem like polar opposites to the average student: The former attracts the most creative and artistically inclined of the student body while the latter is deeply math-science oriented. Over the past three weeks, however, I have seen one student challenge these assumptions by bridging the arts-science divide.
Dana Fesjian ’17 is an undergraduate in the Electrical Engineering (ELE) Department, who is participating in a Lewis Center for the Arts initiative called Performance Lab. Known informally as P-Lab, this initiative allows dancers to explore independent work that connects dance with a different field. The culmination of this exploration is a performance in early March where the participants showcase their choreography and explain their independent work. Dana—whom I dance with in Princeton University Ballet—is using sound-sensitive robots to create dance movements and patterns that will eventually be performed by humans. She asked me to be one of the dancers in her project and I happily agreed to do so.
Throughout our rehearsals over the past three weeks, I have had the chance to learn more about Dana’s independent work, and decided to cover her experience for my post this week.
This is how I respond to a non-senior who asks about my senior thesis:
“I love my topic and my adviser is amazing; I can’t wait to start my research!”
& THIS is how I respond when a fellow senior asks about my thesis:
” OMG I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I’M DOING; WHY DO I FEEL SO LOST??!”
Despite the great deal of resources departments provide to help seniors with their independent work, feeling overwhelmed appears to be inevitable at the start of senior year. This seems to hold true no matter how many times you emailed your adviser over the summer or how much time you spent writing (and rewriting) your IRB proposal. If you’re anything like me, your natural reaction to stress is to seek seclusion; you’ve probably thought to yourself, “Senior year, I’m going into isolation in order to finish this thesis- it’s the only way it can be done!”
The name “independent work” promotes this same idea, that your thesis must be your own work and therefore requires you to independently figure everything out. However, it’s possible that by reframing the way we think about independent work, we can actually succeed in completing our senior theses and save ourselves a lot of stress along the way.