Saving Time in Lab

Last semester, I hurried out of MOL lab every week to make it to late meal. This past summer, I hurried out of lab at my summer internship to catch my train home. Now I hurry out of orgo lab to finish my reading for precept.

Whether you are working in a lab for your senior thesis or for an intro science class, every period is a race with yourself to complete your work promptly. The key to finishing early is not rushing through your procedure, but rather working efficiently in the lab.

This summer, I worked at a bioengineering lab on campus researching methods to engineer the metabolic pathways of yeast cells to produce large quantities of target biofuels. Normally, yeast cells produce ethanol during fermentation. My goal was to shift the production of ethanol to other biofuels- such as isobutanol- that have a greater potential to be alternative sources of energy. In this post, I will give tips on how to effectively use your lab time by describing a typical day in the lab at my summer internship.

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Guide to the Rare Books and Special Collections

On Friday morning, I encountered a manuscript no historian had studied before. I was on the C Floor of Firestone in the Rare Books and Special Collections Reading Room, finding it hard to believe my luck. I had asked Gabriel Swift, the Reference Librarian for Special Collections, if he knew of any interesting primary sources connected to my Junior Paper topic, an 1805 Lenape religious revival led by a woman named Beate. In response, he connected me with this new acquisition, a handwritten journal from 1774. Just this year, he explained, the University had purchased it at auction in Paris. And because it was from a private collection, the source was previously unknown to academics.

“‘Journal of the Expedition down the River Ohio Under the Command of his Excellency John Earl of Dunmore Lieutenant and Governor General of his Majesty’s Colony and Dominion of Virginia 1774.”

This is just one example of the magic of Princeton’s Department of Rare Books and Special Collections (RBSC).

According to the RBSC website, “its holdings span five millennia and five continents, and include around 300,000 rare or significant printed works.”

With just a few simple steps, you can see one of the first “Wanted” posters for John Wilkes Booth, Beethoven’s music manuscripts, or Woodrow Wilson’s love letters. It is one of the most fabulous and underutilized research resources on campus – especially for historians. As undergraduates, we have nearly complete access to the collections. Continue reading Guide to the Rare Books and Special Collections

Demystifying the “Black Box” Part I: Holy Moly I Have to Write a Thesis

This is it. After an R3, two JPs, and the countless research papers in between, I’m expected to craft the 15,000 to 20,000-word magnum opus of my Princeton career. And I have to say, I still don’t really know how it’s all going to go down.

There’s something I like to call the “black box” of every Princeton student’s research career. You’re given a massive independent research project to undertake, then some wizardry happens in Firestone, a lab, or studio, and voilà everything is complete! This second “magical” step is the black box: no one from the outside can see what goes into the project’s actual assembly. We only see stress as a side effect of this mystical process, and then a final product. Throughout the year, I hope to demystify this black box by revealing my own thesis-writing process: the highs, lows, brainstorming, writing, and of course, the research.


The “black box” metaphor is actually computing jargon for a system only understood in terms of inputs and outputs, with its inner workings remaining mysterious. To paraphrase one of my favorite movies Se7en, “What’s in the [thesis] box?” We’ll find out together!
So what does writing my thesis look like in its initial stages? Right now I’m still brainstorming and narrowing down my thesis topic, which will be about how Public Service Announcements (PSAs) subvert the capitalist practices within traditional commercial advertising, using some French theory as a lens (shout out to the Department of French and Italian!). Fortunately and unfortunately that’s a broad topic with nearly infinite directions, so I’m working on figuring out more specific direction.

I’m beginning this process by looking at my JPs, which also dealt with my thesis topic, but used a small number of specific examples. Both papers were divided into sections where I argued different points, and while re-reading them, I’m treating each section as if it were its own paper related to my thesis. I’m asking myself questions like: Assuming I had ten more pages to write for each section, which other theories could I incorporate to corroborate the arguments I was making? How can I specifically incorporate the topic of capitalism? How would different theorists critique my arguments, and how can this inform a strong rebuttal?

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The Conference that Will Prepare You for Your Final Paper in Writing Seminar

Writing seminar is a demanding and rigorous rite of passage at Princeton. The packed schedule, along with the constant writing and peer editing, makes it seem like you’re taking two courses instead of one.

The Mary W. George Freshman Research Conference is a great resource for current and future writing seminar students.

But for all you first years, I promise (as a *hopefully wiser* sophomore) that there’s a lot that you can get out of this one course that Princeton requires all first years to take. Although writing seminar is a trying class, it really is the basis of writing for all your future classes at Princeton. (I know, I know, I sound like your writing seminar professor. I’m sorry!)

I still remember the dread I felt when I first heard about the R3, or revised essay #3. For the R1 and R2, the argument was, to a certain degree, provided by the professor. The R3 asked me to develop “an original argument,” and the possibilities for the research topic seemed endless. I had no idea where to start. How was I going to write this?

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Developing Open Spaces on Campus: Spatial Analysis of Princeton Land Use

Last year, Princeton announced a plan to expand the University by 2026, adding another residential college and building new athletic facilities on the south side of Lake Carnegie. In what ways will this latest expansion transform our campus, and how does that change fit with the university’s historic land use? These are the questions that my twin brother, GEO senior Benjy Getraer, set out to answer last year in a class project for GEO 90 “Analyzing Ecological Integrity: An Assessment of Princeton’s Natural Areas.”

Research often involves a spatial dimension–you want to find out not only what is happening but also where. This is an important component in many disciplines: political scientists want to know how voting results breakdown by precinct or change over time; linguists may want to understand how dialects vary regionally; climate scientists want to know how much different parts of the globe are warming

To address these types of large-scale research objectives or answer smaller questions such as Benjy’s, you can use Geographic Information System (GIS) software to display, edit, and analyze geospatial data. Spatial analysis provides a unique way to study data and add diversity to figures and data visualization. In this post I will introduce basic concepts of geospatial data and one application of GIS analysis by walking through Benjy’s project, mapping land use change on Princeton’s campus.

Benjy Getraer ’19 analyzed historical imagery of Princeton’s campus to track land use change over the past 75+ years. The first step was to align the original overhead photography by geo-referencing the raster images.

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Starting New Research: How to Learn What You Don’t Know

“I don’t know what I don’t know.”

That is what I was thinking when my summer internship mentor asked me if I had any questions. Having only taken MOL214 and CBE245, I was uncertain about what research at a bioenginnering lab on campus would be like. After attending a lab meeting the first day of my internship, I was overwhelmed by all of the new information I was receiving and thought I would never understand metabolic engineering. By the end of my internship, however, I was working independently and designing my own experiments.

When beginning a new research project, particularly in a new field, getting up to speed can be challenging. But if you approach the project efficiently, you will find that this task is not as daunting as it sounds. These are a few strategies that helped me when I entered my summer internship.

Understanding complex mechanisms was challenging, but these strategies helped me along the way.

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Collaborating with Graduate Students

Sometimes graduate students are the older siblings you didn’t know you had.

In my Orange Key tours, I always emphasize how exciting it is to be an undergraduate student at Princeton. Unlike many other leading research institutions, Princeton maintains a strong focus on undergraduate teaching. This results in an unusual dynamic between undergraduates and graduate students on campus. In general, the two populations are pretty segregated. Aside from the preceptor-student relationship (and, of course, the ReMatch relationship), I haven’t encountered a whole lot of avenues for collaboration between undergraduates and graduate students in our research projects.

Map of Northeastern Native tribes (ca. 1710), the subjects of my JP research

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How to Research and Watch Movies at the Same Time

Until recently, I only watched TV and movies in order to decompress. There’s nothing quite like lying in bed after a long day, lulled to sleep by my favorite Netflix show. Requiring minimal effort, movies acted as a brief escape from my reading- and writing-heavy coursework.

Like many Princeton students, though, I sometimes felt guilty choosing to watch TV over, say, finishing my readings for precept the next morning. But a few weeks ago, my professor introduced me to an invaluable resource called Kanopy. Completely free for all Princeton students and faculty, this site provides over 30,000 films for streaming on any device. But Kanopy isn’t just another Netflix or Hulu: it’s specifically designed for use in research institutions.

Kanopy offers a wide range of free films, specially curated for students and professors.

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Finding Online Sources

With Dean’s date looming, it is likely that many of you (like me) are about to get a late start on your term papers. In my experience, the success of a project and the effectiveness of my thesis rests largely on my understanding of past research and the foundational theories concerning the topic. The first steps I take in a research project are to explore the literature surrounding a topic and to begin to put together a library of sources. However, when searching for online sources, it can be hard to know where to start looking, how to identify important and reputable sources, and how to keep your searches organized. Luckily, there are many tools that can help you streamline your search and get writing faster! If you are struggling, here is a basic framework you can use to search better:

Use Web of Science to Guide your Search

Web of Science is a human-curated database, which generally includes only reputable journal articles. It links every article to those that it cited and those that cited it, creating the eponymous ‘web’ that you can easily traverse in search of important or fundamental sources. Web of Science’s detailed statistics on article citations and journal impact allow you to more easily ascertain the relative importance of an article. It has highly customizable search options and even provides links to the full-text through Princeton University Library and Google Scholar.

A search for articles on ‘climate change’ turns up hundreds of thousands of entries on Web of Science. Luckily, you can narrow your search to a specific discipline using the site’s helpful customizable search tools: this visualization shows the number of articles on climate change in 12 different disciplines. To further constrain your search you can add more keywords or specify publication years, and you can sort the results by relevance, date, and citation count!

While Web of Science is a powerful tool, it has some draw-backs. You need to be connected through the Princeton network to access the site, it doesn’t include all journals from every discipline, and cannot search within the main text of articles for keywords. For that reason, I usually supplement my search with Google Scholar after forming a basis of reputable articles from Web of Science. Google Scholar allows for in-text keyword search and includes many mediums in addition to journal articles, but it is not a human-curated database, and search results will include many sources that are unreputable or low quality.

Build a Library of Sources With Google Scholar:

I have often found myself lost in a sea of open tabs or forgetting where I found a promising article. Keeping my search organized is always a struggle, but with Google Scholar’s library feature, it is extremely simple.  If you find an interesting article, simply click the star on the lower left hand side of the search result. The article link will be saved to your personal library along with its citation information. You can easily organize your library by assigning labels to different topics or projects and editing citation information. As your topic narrows and you begin to form a thesis, your library will evolve. Using Google Scholar Library is great because you can easily add, delete, and organize your library without having to download PDF documents or external apps. When you’re ready to cite your sources, Google Scholar creates citations for you and allows you to export citation files in many different formats.

With one click you can add a paper to your Google Scholar library, ensuring that your articles are organized and allowing you to keep your tabs clutter free while searching for more sources.

Using this basic framework for online source searching can help you find useful and reputable articles while saving you time and keeping your sources organized. If you are struggling to find articles for your discipline on Web of Science, Scopus is an awesome alternative which is very similar but has a different format and has a slightly different selection of articles. For even more specialized databases, you can always check out the Library’s website. In addition, for those who prefer to save their library on their computer and not store it online, applications like Mendeley or Zotero have great tools for downloading and organizing PDF sources and automating citations.

–Alec Getraer, Natural Sciences Correspondent 

Visualizing Your Argument

The blank page at the very beginning of the writing process is one of the most difficult stages for me. I struggle with how to get started and feel overwhelmed by the amount of work ahead of me.

To avoid this blank page, I open a Word Document called “Notes” early on in the research process. As I sort through the ever-accumulating pile of books and articles on my desk, I copy the relevant quotes into the document, followed by the author’s name and the page number. Typically, only a fraction of these quotes actually make it into the paper, so it can be hard to know when to stop. The metric I’ve figured out is: when the notes document is double the length of the assignment, I know it’s time to begin drafting the paper.

Film editor Walter Murch helped me rethink my editing process.

As I write, this document becomes my primary resource for information and direct quotes. Because it’s consolidated in one file, it’s easily navigable and searchable. Sometimes, I reorganize the quotes into sections to guide my paragraph structure and overall argument.

In the past, this system has worked well for me. But in the past few weeks, two of my teachers have modeled an exciting new approach to organizing research materials: visual mapping. Continue reading Visualizing Your Argument