This semester, I am doing junior independent work in the Arnold lab group at Princeton, which is based in the MAE department but also focuses on materials science, which is what I am interested in. My project investigates creating graphene aerogels from protein precursors, which basically means that I get to select different proteins of interest, freeze-dry them, pyrolyze them, and then see if they create graphene by examining them under a scanning electron microscope (SEM). These graphene aerogels are interesting materials because of their high porosity and conductivity, making them promising for applications to energy storage, which is why we are interested in researching them.
I thought it might be interesting to highlight a week in my life (well, actually two weeks) to give some insight on what lab-based independent work can look like during the school year. I want to note that this is only my experience as a CBE major, and independent work can look very different for other majors. If you’re an underclassman interested in doing junior independent work or just curious about what that could entail, I hope that this post can provide some insight.
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.
When writing a research manuscript or a lab report, I have been conditioned to complete all of my experiments first and then start by writing the results section. My mentors have always encouraged me to start with the section that ‘writes itself’, given that when you obtain your experimental results, you cannot alter them. I started the school year thinking I would use this approach for my thesis – focus strictly on experiments during the fall and the start of spring semester and transition into the written portion of the thesis during late spring semester. However, while I was at home and outside of the lab between Thanksgiving break and early February, I knew I could not spend more than 2 months without thesis progress. Although I did not have my results nearly ready by that point, I began to brainstorm different ways in which I could work on my lab-based thesis without access to the lab. In this post, I will highlight ideas and resources that can help you make progress on your thesis, even while you are outside of the lab.
Last spring semester, I was completing my junior independent work in a bioengineering lab on campus. My project was lab-heavy, as I was investigating the extent of DNA damage (measured as type and frequency of breaks occurring in the DNA) that occurs in persister subpopulations (cell populations with non-inherited tolerance to antibiotics) of E.Coli cells when treated with antibiotics and other DNA damaging agents. I had prepared a series of experiments to test these conditions, most of which would be performed after returning from spring break. However, those plans changed in March, when students were sent home due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Like many other lab researchers, I was left with incomplete experiments and an upcoming deadline to present my work. Independent research for the chemical and biological engineering (CBE ) department is only one semester long, and I spent most of the first half of the semester doing literature review, planning experiments and learning lab techniques. With only eight weeks left before my final paper and presentation deadline, I worried about the possibility of having to change my entire research topic into something that could be completed remotely. However, along with the lead researcher of the lab, or principal investigator (PI), and graduate student mentor, we developed a plan to easily transition the project I had already been working on into a remote project. In this post, I will give tips on how to conduct laboratory research remotely.
As I began choosing my courses for next semester, I knew I had to take CBE core lab, as this is a requirement for the concentration during the spring semester of junior year. In addition, I was really excited about conducting independent work in a new bioengineering lab, which I am hoping will be the lab that I stay in for my senior thesis. With both 7 hours of core lab per week and an expectation of 20 hours of independent work per week, I know I will be spending a lot of time in the lab next semester, so I have started to prepare for that. If you are also taking core lab while doing independent work, or if you are enrolled in multiple lab-courses, such as chemistry, molecular biology and physics at the same time, you will likely need to plan ahead. In this post, I will offer tips on how to prepare for a lab-heavy semester:
As a sophomore planning on declaring in neuroscience, I’ve been wondering a lot about the types of research projects neuroscience majors do for their independent work and senior thesis. To get a better feel for these projects, I’ve been reaching out to neuroscience faculty, sometimes via cold emails – a task made easier with the help of this post. However, I recently wanted to reach out to one of my current neuroscience professors in particular, both to hear more about his undergraduates’ research projects and to develop a better relationship with him.
Building positive relationships with your professors is important and rewarding. It’s easy to regard getting to know professors as a purely professional opportunity: that is, for the purposes of soliciting a recommendation or finding a lab position. However, this process is rewarding in other equally important ways: for example, I enjoy when professors explain the trajectory of their own careers, since it has helped me clarify my own academic and extracurricular interests. Often times my meetings with professors have developed into personally meaningful friendships that I hope will extend beyond my time at Princeton.
Although most of us would agree its important to build relationships with professors, it can be more difficult to know how to accomplish that. How do you approach a professor? Where and when do you meet? And what do you actually say to them? All of these questions ran through my head as I wondered how I would go about meeting the neuroscience professor I mentioned above. Meeting professors can be nerve-wracking – that’s why I’ve put together the eight tips I used that streamlined the process.