Lessons from Junior Independent Work in MAE

In the fall of 2021, I worked in the Computational Turbulent Reacting Flow Laboratory under the guidance of Professor Michael Mueller. In the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (MAE) department, junior independent research is optional. I enrolled in MAE339: Junior Independent Work in the fall and am currently continuing my research this spring semester. Research was an integral part of my high school experience, and I was excited to start working on independent research in my junior year of college in a different setting. Now, I want to share a few of the lessons I learned from this past semester with you:

Logo of the Computational Turbulent Reacting Flow Laboratory.
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Lessons from My First Major Research Essay

As I dive into my second junior paper, I’ve begun to realize how much more serious this paper is than the first one. Gone are the safety rails once provided by Princeton’s History department; instead of a course with concrete deadlines, I am now in the metaphorical Wild West, negotiating with my advisor on a whole bunch of elements: deadlines, research content, framing, among others. Even though it is only February when I write this, the April deadline eyes me ominously. With four classes and an array of extracurricular activities, whatever will I do to survive my second JP? How can I even anticipate the thesis?

At PCUR, we’ve done plenty of reflections on our prior research experiences. The more I think about it, the best thing to do is to reflect on my first JP. In that paper, I explored the attitudes and ideologies of consumption that post-war consumers held, particularly in relation to an acute shortage of nylon stockings. Sifting through dozens of articles in local newspapers, I identified many letters to the editor that female consumers sent in to voice their opinion about how nylons should be distributed, who deserves them, and how the shortage was affecting their everyday lives. 

Although I am undoubtedly proud of the final product, there were many things I could improve about it. From the way I kept sources and my reading schedule to my writing method and the final editing process, I could enumerate an endless list. For now, I will highlight two of the biggest takeaways from my first JP, which will be particularly useful given the abbreviated timeline of the second paper. 

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Being in the Archive: Navigating the Space and Etiquette

Ricardo Barros, PAW
The Reading Room on the C-level of Firestone, where one can read and view items from Princeton’s Special Collections.

In the first article of this archival tour, I talked about the process of identifying the proper archives to further your research. But what happens next, once you have the archive, the collection, or the item you want? How do you proceed from there? For the purposes of this article, I will assume you are physically at the archive because we already have some great articles about requesting items from archives that you cannot physically be in. Here, then, I’ll talk about navigating the spaces of the archive and their uses, as well as some facts about archive etiquette.

Instead of dallying around, let’s jump back into the archive!

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Lost in the Archive? Here’s How to Find Your Way!

Detre Library & Archives, Catelyn Cocuzzi
The reading room of the Detre Library and Archives, located on the sixth floor of the Senator John H. Heinz History Center.

Fall break – a time for rest and relaxation. While I certainly used the time to collect myself after the whirlwind of a more normal semester, I also had to make progress on my junior paper for the History department ahead of its first draft in November. Exploring a consumer’s perspective on post-war nylon riots (1945-46), I had toiled through various online newspaper archives to rack up an impressive number of sources; however, something was missing. I felt like I wasn’t going deep enough. I wanted to find someone’s thoughts on the riot outside of the newspaper databases I had used, which I knew would be a challenging (if not impossible) process that could only be achieved by looking at the archive.

An important tool in the historian’s kit is the archive, which is a trove of various historical documents, materials, and items that can transport you to another time. Given that the archive is a physical location, the pandemic had interrupted much of the on-the-ground work historians do in libraries across the country, much of which was overcome through technology. Thankfully, I was able to access wonderful archives in-person in my hometown of Pittsburgh, PA: the University of Pittsburgh Archives and Special Collections as well as the Senator John H. Heinz History Center Detre Library and Archives. Covering a vast array of local and regional history, I was set on taking advantage of these archives’ resources to further my research.

I wanted to use this space, then, to share a bit about (in-person) archival research and what I learned. Regardless of your academic studies or research, archives offer a window into the past that could helpfully contextualize your topic, explore an unknown tangent that can offer up a new perspective, or even just lose yourself in the archive looking at random things. In this article, I will specifically cover the process of identifying an archive and then finding items within that archive.

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How to Get Involved with Lab-Based Research at Princeton

As a first-year B.S.E student with little to no previous research experience, the idea of writing an eighty-page senior thesis based on my own lab-based research seemed like an extremely daunting task. Now, into the first semester of my junior year, the thought of having to write a thesis next year still seems like a challenge, although a lot less intimidating than two years ago. The main reason for this is because I have participated in multiple research-based summer internships through Princeton, which have helped me feel better prepared to do lab-based junior independent work and a senior thesis in the coming semesters.

You may also be wondering how early you can get involved with lab-based research at Princeton. Although there is certainly no pressure to do research as a first-year or sophomore if you do not want to, Princeton does make sure that opportunities are available for those who do want to be involved early. Here’s a timeline of some of the different lab-based opportunities available, and when you can start getting involved.

The scanning electron microscope in Princeton’s Imaging and Analysis Center, where I am doing research with a material science lab on campus.
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On “Choosing Sides” in an Academic Debate: The More Precise, the Better

An amusing remark on academics, itself attributed to several different academics, goes something like this: In academia, disputes take on such huge proportions precisely because the stakes of them are so small. Whether this observation is or is not true, I have found that its general sentiment is passed down to undergraduates, if inadvertently so. Of course, there are pedagogical reasons for instilling this impression; when we are learning about debates on a given subject within a discipline, it can help to read the most absolute positions on either side, if only to distill the terms of argument.

But the impression that such debate must necessarily be black and white, and must be of great intensity, can be daunting to accept as an undergraduate writer. Who am I, I wonder to myself, to so totally challenge the work of an established academic researcher? Even if I might disagree with their broader argument, have they not done far more research than I have? Relatedly, what if their research offers some quite usable background information– am I not just a little hypocritical to use it while arguing against the position it was intended to support? Or, what if I agree with smaller asides or observations by the researcher, but not the thrust of their whole argument? In a word, need the division be so absolute within the scholarly conversation? 

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Research: Have Fun With It!

The second time I met with my independent Junior Paper adviser this semester, I was nervous. I had decided following our first meeting that I wanted this JP to be the continuation of research I had, at that point, started nearly two years before (that project on the 1848 revolutions that keeps popping up in my posts), and I was apprehensive to present ideas that I felt might be stale; at the time, I struggled to think of ways to expand the project to something more mature than what I had begun as a first year student. Plus, I was feeling reluctant to be finishing up a project I had been working on for most of my college career.

My adviser and I discussed some of these concerns of mine, and right before I left, he smiled and said, “Alec, have fun with it.” He repeated this phrase at many of our weekly meetings, especially if I came feeling overwhelmed by often self-imposed worries. It was usually paired with a reassuring statement: “You know more than you think you know.” I knew more than I think I knew, and I was going to have fun. 

Me “having fun” with my research, back in the summer of 2018!
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Connecting with Scholars beyond Princeton

It’s been almost four years, and the generosity of Princeton faculty continues to surprise me. So many professors here are not just accessible to students, but deeply invested in supporting us in and outside of the classroom. It typically isn’t too hard to find at least one research mentor among our 950 full-time faculty.

Nevertheless, one institution’s faculty cannot possibly cover every sub-field or research topic. This has become especially apparent as I’ve moved towards the specificity required of a thesis project. In my case, no professor on campus studies Vilna, the Eastern European city at the center of my thesis.

A newsboy in Vilna in the early twentieth century. Without guidance from professors at other institutions, I probably wouldn’t have selected this fascinating city as my thesis topic!

Of course, there are ways around this. For one, there is probably a professor on campus whose area of expertise has something in common with your project. My thesis adviser does not work on Eastern Europe, for example, but she is an expert in writing urban histories. So even though Vilna is new to her, she has been invaluable in guiding my methodology and argumentation.

She has also encouraged me to reach out to faculty and graduate students in other departments and at other institutions who might be more familiar with Vilna itself. Connecting with these scholars has turned out to be one of the most valuable aspects of my thesis process thus far. I’ve compiled some tips for accessing the rich academic network beyond your particular department or university.

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Training for the Thesis Marathon

A long-term project like a thesis is a marathon, not a sprint. This has been a difficult adjustment for me. In almost every other research project I’ve done at Princeton, I’ve chosen the last-minute sprint model, rather than a more organized long-term approach. Sprinting hasn’t worked well in the past, but it won’t work at all for a thesis. There’s simply too much involved in a thesis to cram it into the few weeks before the deadline.

My thesis buddy and me cheesing at the finish line of a 5K last spring. It’s never too early to start training for the thesis marathon!

The marathon approach is new to me, so I looked up some tips for how to train for an actual marathon. I was surprised how many were relevant for a long-term project like a thesis or a final paper. I’ve collected my ten favorites here:

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Research Refreshment: Changing Your Topic at a Dead End

For quite a few months now, I have been sharing my experience on PCUR about a project I began last summer on New York City press reporting on a June 1848 workers’ rebellion in Paris, which I am now turning into my second Junior Paper (see my posts here, here, and here). Typing that descriptive phrase of my research indeed feels all too familiar. It seems, however, that this post may be the last time that I repeat it. As of last week, I am changing the focus of my JP: I am now moving on from New York newspapers, and instead examining the broader national antislavery movement’s response to the very same rebellion. Though this seemingly small change is pretty specific to both my discipline and my project, research in any field can benefit from critical examination and reframing. Continue reading Research Refreshment: Changing Your Topic at a Dead End