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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Professorship and Mentorship: An Interview with Geosciences Professor Frederik Simons

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, Alec shares his interview.


Princeton takes great pride in its focus on undergraduate independent work, and the expectations of original research and mentorship define the academic experience of juniors and seniors. However, everyone has their own model for mentoring and their own ideas of what undergraduate research should focus on. As part of our Winter Seasonal Series, I interviewed Geosciences Professor Frederik Simons to understand the role of mentorship in his life and share his perspective on undergraduate research at Princeton. I know Frederik from our many conversations in the GEO department and I took his class GEO 422: Data Models and Uncertainty in the Natural Sciences. He is the second reader for my independent work.

Mentorship is a state of mind… You need to get into someone’s mind and understand their perspective. If you see someone who is distressed or struggling, help out a little bit.

Geoscience Professor Frederik Simons enjoys mentoring students: “It makes me feel good.”

What role has mentorship played in your career, and what role does it play in your life now?

I was blessed with mentors throughout my career, a willingness to listen to advice, and the audacity to ignore it. I experienced mentorship in the form of many people looking out for me; it’s essentially about providing opportunity. Mentorship is lifelong; you are still being taken care of by other people whatever you achieve. Now I try to teach undergraduates what I think they should know and connect graduate students with opportunities.

Mentorship is a state of mind. ‘Mentor’ is from the Latin ‘mens’ for mind. You need to get into someone’s mind and understand their perspective. If you see someone who is distressed or struggling, help out a little bit. I have always enjoyed explaining stuff and helping out; it makes me feel good.

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How to Incorporate an Interview into a Class Project

You might not have a fancy podcast studio such as this at your disposal, but don’t let that hold you back from conducting an interview! All you really need is a willing interviewee, a phone (to record), and a flexible list of thoughtful questions.

When we think of research, we tend to picture someone sitting in the library surrounded by stacks of books. While it’s true that books (and textual materials accessed via the web) remain incredibly important to the research process, not everything research-worthy comes in book form. Indeed, for certain types of research, such as ethnography, journalism, and oral history, going out into the broader world outside the library doors is essential. This was the case for me recently as I worked on a podcast for a History of Science class; an interview with a molecular biology professor about their work on the Human Genome Project was central to my endeavor. So, in light of this recent experience and in the spirit of diversifying the types of sources we use as researchers, I will share in this post some thoughts on how to incorporate an interview into a class project or research paper. Continue reading How to Incorporate an Interview into a Class Project

Qualitative Research: The Interview

If you are caught up on my latest posts, you will remember that I have had some ups and downs in my research process for my Junior Paper. I think it is safe to assume that most students experience difficulties with their JPs. However, the difficulties differ from student to student.

Interviewing experts is a great source of information, but sometimes it can be challenging!

In the Woodrow Wilson School, you choose–or, sometimes, it is chosen for you if you are enrolled in a seminar that specifically focuses on quantitative or qualitative research–whether you would like to do a quantitative or qualitative analysis of your JP topic. While most of the quantitative students are focusing on coding and analyzing existing datasets, the qualitative researchers analyze literature, conduct interviews, and gather information on their own. My biggest challenge so far has been the interviews.

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Discussing Undergraduate Research with Chloe Angyal ’09

Chloe Angyal, Class of 2009

Chloe Angyal graduated from Princeton in 2009 with a degree in Sociology. Originally from Sydney, Australia, she’s now a journalist in New York City, working as the Deputy Opinion Editor at HuffPost where she writes about politics, popular culture, and gender. But before Chloe became who she is today, she had to write a senior thesis. Lucky for us, she had some time in her busy schedule to talk about her experience with independent research:

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The Interviewee Becomes the Interviewer

Interview Essentials!

As students, we hear a lot about preparing for interviews, especially when it comes to answering questions about ourselves. But what about conducting our own interviews? For my thesis, I will be traveling soon to interview film producers about their work, and I have been wondering what I should do in order to prepare. More specifically, how do I get the most out of an interview that will be used for research? After looking up pointers and consulting with my adviser, I’ve compiled some helpful tips on how to be an interviewer:

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Looking Back on Undergraduate Research: Chris Lu ’88 on Public Service

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, Nicholas shares his interview.


 Chris Lu ’88 was a member of the Obama administration, where he served as a Deputy Secretary of Labor, White House Cabinet Secretary, and Assistant to the President. He is now a Senior Strategy Advisor at FiscalNote and an At-Large Member of the Democratic National Committee. He also served as the senior news editor for the Daily Princetonian during his time at Princeton. With a long career in public service, he has some useful insights for those seeking to pursue careers in public affairs. I had the opportunity to speak with Chris about his experience writing a senior thesis in the Woodrow Wilson School and the enduring impact that policy research has had on his career. Here’s what he had to say:
Chris Lu ’88

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Mapping the Stars: An Interview with Reilly Bova ’20

Reilly Bova ’20 is a Bachelor of Science and Engineering (B.S.E) Computer Science (COS) major with a strong interest in Physics. He spent this past summer conducting research in Princeton’s Physics department. His work included the visualization of deep universe galaxy clusters.

A snapshot from Reilly’s work of the Cosmic Microwave Background projected onto the edge of the observable universe.

Reilly took data on some of the oldest and farthest discovered galaxies (several billion light-years away) and mapped them onto a computational model of the observable universe. He also added to the visualization extremely precise maps of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), which is radiation from about 380,000 years after the Big Bang. Right after the Big Bang, the universe was so hot that nothing—not even photons—could travel unimpeded, which rendered the universe opaque. Around year 380,000, the universe had cooled enough that neutral atoms could form, rendering it transparent (i.e., photons could now travel through it) and releasing an enormous amount of energy which we now call the CMB. This Cosmic Microwave Background has been traveling through the universe for billions of years. As the universe expands, the wavelength of the CMB radiation lengthens (i.e., “redshifts”). We can generate a map of what the universe looked like very early in its life by measuring  these redshifts.

I recently had the exciting opportunity to interview Reilly and find out more about his research experience.

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Rocky trails: Researching what matters to you

Climbers using fixed anchors in Arches National Park

How would you like to travel to six of the country’s most famous National Parks for your senior thesis?

My friend Eve Barnett, a senior in the politics department, did just that. Eve, who also leads Outdoor Action trips and rock-climbs with the Princeton Climbing Team, found a way to combine her academic training with her love of the outdoors. Her thesis focuses on how the Park Service addresses a controversial issue within the climbing community: fixed anchors, metal bolts pushed into a cliff face for climbers to clip into. Should they be allowed in National Parks because they increase access, or banned because they’re a permanent change to the rock face? I sat down with Eve to learn more about her research journey.

How did you decide on a research topic? Was it related to your previous independent work?

It was totally unrelated! My fall JP was about international ocean conservation commissions, and my spring JP was about the different political experiences of high-income and low-income college students. I asked my thesis adviser what he thought about continuing with the college student project, but he recognized that it wasn’t really my project since it was a small portion of a professor’s ongoing research. He told me he believed my thesis topic should be something I have ownership of. So I started thinking, what do I love?

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