Doing Research in a Pandemic, an Interview with Professor of History Alison Isenberg

For this Spring Seasonal Series, entitled Doing Research in a Pandemic, each correspondent has selected a researcher to interview about the impact of the pandemic on their research. We hope that these interviews document the nuanced ways the pandemic has affected research experiences, and serve as a resource for students and other researchers. Here, Austin shares his interview.

Alison Isenberg, Professor of History; Co-Director, Princeton-Mellon Initiative in Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities. Taken Feb 6, 2017.
Professor History and Co-Director of the Princeton-Mellon Initiative in Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities Alison Isenberg plans to finish a draft of her upcoming book, Uprisings, soon.

As part of our seasonal series, I interviewed Professor of History and Co-Director of the Princeton-Mellon Initiative in Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities, Alison Isenberg. A scholar of the American city and its contested history, Professor Isenberg is currently wrapping up her next book, Uprisings, which she sat down with me to discuss. Professor Isenberg, who took a sabbatical this year to drill down on the draft for Uprisings, details the contents of her book, how the pandemic changed the way she researches, and the implications of her book in our tense political moment.

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Interview with Tiger Gao, host of Policy Punchline

This week I had the opportunity to interview Tiger Gao, currently a senior in the Economics Department at Princeton and the founder and host of Policy Punchline, a student-run podcast that focuses on conducting interviews with well-known public figures on current policy issues. I am a researcher for the podcast. In this interview, I had the chance to ask him about Policy Punchline and about entering the field of economic research and public policy in general.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tiger interviewing former US Trade Representative Michael Froman for Policy Punchline

M.B.: What inspired you to start Policy Punchline?

T.G.: At Policy Punchline, we interview people involved in policy. It’s fully student-run and nonpartisan. What we really care about is to promote long-form dialogues on urgent issues and frontier ideas, whether you are a postdoc who’s doing some interesting research or the NFL’s data chief discussing the response to the Covid-19 crisis.

As a freshman/sophomore at Princeton, I was kind of lost. I didn’t know what to do. I hadn’t gotten into any major clubs at Princeton, I didn’t feel like I’d fit in. I had run for class president and lost. But what I’ve always loved is to go to the guest lectures after class – and once the lecture ended, I would ask questions. I soon realized that hardly anyone talks to these fascinating people with such interesting ideas. And the idea of Policy Punchline was born.

So far, it has worked quite well: tomorrow we will drop our 99th interview and I personally have done more than 100 interviews.

M.B.: Quite the milestone.

T.G.: Yes, in the past two years our team has grown to more than 50 students. I’m incredibly proud of the team and its intellectual capacities and I expect great things going forward.

M.B.: You talked about students who are sometimes shy to talk to these guest lecturers – or even to their own professors, and I can relate to that. What would you like to tell them?

T.G.: My very first interview was with Dr. Christopher Marks, the Head of Emerging Markets for Mitsubishi Financial Group. I remember spending three hours with him in a studio in Wilson and I didn’t really know what was going on. I felt nervous. I had to re-record my questions. My question list was very naive but he was very supportive and patient. And he said two things to me afterward that I think are quite profound and which had a lasting impact on me. 

The first thing he said was, “Don’t be afraid to talk to people that are smarter or more experienced at something than you. You’re going to look stupid, but that’s fine. You ask the questions and you improve and that’s what matters.” 

And the second: “You have to feel happy about bad mistakes.” He’s not referring to a getting-a-bad-grade type of mistake, but mistakes that might even point to some fundamental flaws in you. And he said that you have to be happy with them. These two pieces of advice really gave me confidence and laid quite a powerful foundation for Policy Punchline. You are going to run into difficulties. A lot of the people we email don’t get back to us and some others might and subsequently ghost us. Some interviews don’t go well and you wish you had done better. But that’s fine! Just go for it. And when you do, you’ll realize that the people you end up interviewing actually want to talk to you.

M.B.: If anyone reading this was interested in joining Policy Punchline or interested in this type of work in general, how would they go about it?

T.G.: Just send me an email! The way you joined was so incredibly informal. Princeton is already a difficult enough place and I don’t ever want people to feel excluded. I know what it feels like to polish your CV and go through the cover letter and prepare for the interview for a club and then never hear back. We ask people to prepare a research portfolio and based on what they tell us, we decide on how and where they fit in the team. If it’s not a good fit or if they are not passionate about it, they’ll leave soon. But if this is what they’re passionate about, then there are no barriers to how far they can go and how much they can do.

For anyone, who is interested in joining Policy Punchline, Tiger can be reached at miaokuan@princeton.edu.

Joining a podcasting team can be an unconventional, but rewarding, way to try to explore a field, especially at an interview-focused podcast like Policy Punchline, where there are opportunities to engage in dialogue with experts, ask questions and learn further about a subject. As a result, they can be an incredibly rewarding experience for anyone – regardless of their prior level of knowledge. For anyone who is interested to go in-depth about the policy issues, I would recommend reaching out to Tiger about joining Policy Punchline. Every week you get to learn about the many issues that affect us – from reimagining capitalism to the energy sources of the future to the current elections – in different ways.

– Abhimanyu Banerjee, Social Sciences Correspondent

Senior Thesis Spotlight: An Interview with Sam Arnesen ’20

During finals season, it’s even harder than usual to make time for independent work. So this reading period, I decided to ask a senior, computer science major Sam Arnesen, about the state of his thesis and his plans for spring semester. For his senior thesis, Sam is developing artificial intelligence software that can solve text-based computer games.

Sam, hard at work on his thesis.

What is your thesis about?
My thesis is on text-based games–games like Zork where at every step of the game, you’re given a text description of the scene you’re in and you have to enter some text about what the next move is, like “pick up sword” or “open door.” You can imagine that we often teach computers to play games, but there are a few unique challenges associated with text-based games. Part of it is that it is partially observed: you can see what’s around you, but you can’t see the entire state of the game. The other thing is that it’s very difficult to parse the text and translate it into something meaningful, especially when it comes to actions. There’s stuff out there on various methods to do text-based games and be able to play simple versions of them, but they have a couple issues. First, most of the games are quite simple, and more importantly, the kinds of strategies that it would learn translate very poorly between games unless the games are extremely similar, which is bad because you would expect that certain skills (like having a key and a locked door, or remembering orientations) would be understood. The whole reason why we care about text-based games isn’t because it means anything to play the game, but because we want to be able to learn something about language through these games. So it’s bad if the agents are specific to one particular game, because it suggests that they’re learning idiosyncrasies of the game instead of actual language skills.

I’m specifically working on ways to have more transfer of learning between different kinds of text-based games. I am working on building an agent that’s able to parse walk-throughs of games. A walk-through happens in any kind of game, it’s a set of instructions that tell you what you should do at every step. That’s a non-trivial task: you have to parse that text, translate a paragraph into an action, figure out whether the action you took was the correct action, and be able to use the strategies you learn through parsing the walk-through to learn some general strategy.

Continue reading Senior Thesis Spotlight: An Interview with Sam Arnesen ’20

Why You Should Join a Research Journal: An Interview with PURJ Co-Editor-in-Chief Jasper Lee ’21

Since coming to Princeton, I’ve become involved in diverse publishing and editing opportunities. One of the first undergraduate publications I joined was PURJ, the Princeton Undergraduate Research Journal. As a member of the Peer Review Board for PURJ, I learned more about the peer review process in academic research publications and had the opportunity to review manuscript pieces spanning incredibly diverse disciplines from the undergraduate body. In contrast to some other more specialized journals I’m involved in, such as Unfound, Princeton’s Journal of Asian American Studies, PURJ is a truly multidisciplinary publication that showcases work from the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, engineering, and arts. 

To learn more about the perks of being involved in a research journal, I interviewed Jasper Lee ’21, the current Co-Editor in Chief of PURJ. A molecular biology major, he first joined PURJ as a member of the Peer Review Board and then took on the role of Managing Editor of Peer Review. Here’s what Jasper shared about his experience with PURJ: 

Continue reading Why You Should Join a Research Journal: An Interview with PURJ Co-Editor-in-Chief Jasper Lee ’21

Working as a Latino History Research Assistant: An Interview with Emily Sanchez ’22

While students usually choose to seek research internships over the summer, some research opportunities are also available during the semester, such as working under a professor or graduate student to aid with their academic research. However, among these choices, it may often feel like there are especially limited research opportunities available for students pursuing majors in the humanities or social sciences. We often imagine research assistants as collecting and analyzing statistical data, examining Petri dishes in a lab, developing computer programs, and so forth, and so we may be more skeptical as to what kind of research non-STEM majors could possibly partake in. 

To learn more about research opportunities during the semester in the humanities and social sciences, I interviewed Emily Sanchez ’22, who is currently working as a research assistant under Professor Rosina Lozano. Professor Lozano, an Associate Professor of History at Princeton, specializes in Latino history and the study of Latino cities in the U.S. As a research assistant, Emily has been examining 19th-century Spanish newspapers from the Southwest to understand more about the historical ties between ethnic Mexicans and indigenous communities in the region. 

Here’s what Emily shared about her experience as a research assistant: 

Continue reading Working as a Latino History Research Assistant: An Interview with Emily Sanchez ’22

How to balance Princeton with the LSAT

As my time as a Princeton student quickly comes to a close (it’s scary just thinking about it), it becomes imperative to look ahead to what the future holds for me. I’ve known that I want to go to law school for a while now (see this post for an interview with a current law school student). In high school, I wrote a paper about the practice of child marriage in certain areas of the world, and I began longing to take part in a system that would correct such injustices. Since then, I’ve educated myself on a wider variety of injustices and have come to focus on the American prison system while expanding my interest in the law.

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Post Princeton Life: Interview with Isabelle Laurenzi ’15

For this year’s Spring Seasonal Series, entitled Post-Princeton Life: The Experiences of PCUR Alumni, each correspondent has selected a PCUR alum to interview about what they have been up to. We hope that these interviews will provide helpful insight into the many different paths Princeton students take after graduation. Here, Raya shares her interview.

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Teaching, travel, Congress, the Writing Center, political theory, Yale! Former PCUR chief correspondent Isabelle Laurenzi graduated from Princeton in 2015 with a degree in Religion. She has since gone on to pursue an array of adventures and projects. Most recently, Isabelle completed her first year of a Ph.D. program at Yale in political theory. For our seasonal spring series, I caught up with Isabelle to learn more about her time at Princeton and explorations after. In our conversation, Isabelle and I connected over our shared interest in interdisciplinary studies and the joy of pursuing one’s interests through varied avenues.

Continue reading Post Princeton Life: Interview with Isabelle Laurenzi ’15

Post-Princeton Life: An Interview With Nicholas Wu ‘18

For this year’s Spring Seasonal Series, entitled Post-Princeton Life: The Experiences of PCUR Alumni, each correspondent has selected a PCUR alum to interview about what they have been up to. We hope that these interviews will provide helpful insight into the many different paths Princeton students take after graduation. Here, Shanon shares his interview.

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Nicholas Wu ’18 currently covers politics for USA Today.

As part of our Spring Seasonal Series, I interviewed Nicholas Wu ’18. I first met Nick in the fall of my first year, in a class called American Politics. For the remainder of Nick’s Princeton career, he and I shared the occasional class, and eventually, both became PCUR correspondents. I’ve long admired Nick’s curiosity and talent for critically evaluating contemporary politics, so I’m thrilled that he’s now making a career out of that interest. As you’ll see below, Nick has actually just accepted a job as a politics reporter for USA Today! So, I encourage you to read on to learn more about Nick’s early career experience and his advice for those of us still on “this side of paradise.” Continue reading Post-Princeton Life: An Interview With Nicholas Wu ‘18

Writing for Fun? (Part 2): Journalism and Academic Writing

In my last post, I started an exploration of writing on campus to understand how students approach the writing process outside the classroom in their own work and in extracurriculars. In that post, I considered creative writing and the ways academic writing can present a similar opportunity for expression and creativity.

Sam Shapiro, Class of 2021

In this post, I interview Sam Shapiro ’21 who is a Features Editor and writer for the Daily Princetonian. In my interview with Sam, we discussed the differences and similarities between journalism and academic writing and how to bring the thrill one feels when chasing a story for a publication to a term paper in class. Continue reading Writing for Fun? (Part 2): Journalism and Academic Writing

Professorship and Mentorship: An Interview With Professor of Religion Anne Marie Luijendijk

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, Shanon shares his interview.

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Professor Luijendijk holds several appointments at Princeton, including Professor of Religion, Chair of the Committee on the Study of Late Antiquity, and Head of Wilson College.

As part of our seasonal series on faculty research, I sat down with Professor of Religion Anne Marie Luijendijk to discuss her work in Early Christian History through the study of papyrus manuscripts. Having taken a course with Professor Luijendijk before, I must say that she is one of the most enthusiastic educators I’ve ever met. As such, it was definitely a privilege to speak with her about her own research. You can read our conversation below. If you’re interested in advice for working with a faculty adviser, the importance of taking walks, or the historical study of ancient religious manuscripts, then read on! Continue reading Professorship and Mentorship: An Interview With Professor of Religion Anne Marie Luijendijk