A Quick Crash Course in Statistics: Part 1

In PSY/NEU 338, From Animal Learning to Changing People’s Minds, my group recently presented our capstone project for the course: we researched irrationality, trying to understand when humans make irrational decisions, how that is implemented in the brain, and if certain things might actually be incorrectly labeled as ‘irrational’. Our emotions are a leading example: although some call them irrational, in practice, they play a key role in fine-tuning our decision-making and reasoning abilities. When you’re happy, for example, everything might be going more positively than expected. Your mood is thus encouraging you to continue the behaviors that led to those rewards, since that positive trend might continue (for a neuroscientific discussion of this topic, see this paper).

To demonstrate this phenomenon first-hand, we had students in the class play what is known as the Ultimatum Game:

You are the proposer. You have been given $100. You are tasked with splitting your money with a stranger, the responder. If the responder accepts the split that you propose, you both keep the money after the game ends. If the responder does not accept, no one keeps the money.

The question: how much money do you decide to offer the responder?

After reading this, students had five seconds to provide their answer. They were then asked to report their mood. The question we wanted to answer was simple:

Is the amount of money people offered statistically different between those who reported “positive” versus “negative” moods?

In this post, I’ll explain some of the basic statistics I used to formally answer this question, bolding some key terms in the field along the way. In my next post, I’ll walk through the programming aspect for visualizing those statistics. 

In Google Spreadsheet, I calculated the mean dollar amount for the “positive” and “negative” categories, equaling $32.2 and $66 respectively. The “equals” sign indicates a function, and D51:D55 corresponds to the cells containing the data for the “positive” category.
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Lost and Confused? Create a Map!

It’s said that a picture tells a thousand words; a map, however, can tell you a million.

To me, maps are not just tools for navigation. They have a variety of uses, enabling their creators to visualize a vast array of data efficiently and quickly. From questionable election forecasts to the location of monuments in a city, anything of your choosing can be mappable. Maps, in my experience, can be one of the most powerful tools in your research toolbox. Thus, I want to show you how you can use maps in your research, and the power they hold!

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How to Prepare for an In-Class Zoom Presentation

Presenting on Zoom can be difficult, as you must now learn how to keep a virtual audience engaged. Last spring semester, after returning home due to COVID-19, I had to quickly learn how to make this transition, as I was enrolled in CBE346: Chemical Engineering Laboratory (core lab). This course was laboratory based, and it consisted of 4 different lab rotations, after which all students had to complete a written report and a presentation. Due to the pandemic, 3 of those were completed over Zoom. 

In this post, I will give tips on how to prepare for a Zoom presentation, using the insights I gained from my core lab presentations.

Screenshot of the recorded video of my core lab presentation.
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A Freshman’s Guide to Writing a Research Policy Memo

The freshman seminars are one of the unique experiences at Princeton. While they may seem intimidating at first, they made me think of the process of research in my very first year in college. Not everyone might become a full-time researcher – I, for example, want to become a policy analyst – but many of our jobs will involve research, and the structure of the freshman seminar is very conducive to the research process. In the Economics of Immigration seminar that I took with Professor Leah Boustan during Fall 2019, we discussed aspects of the economic effects of immigration both on the receiving country and on the migrants themselves. Our final deliverable was a research policy memo – a document that describes a policy intervention by the government, by first arguing the need for it, then describing its advantages, and finally proposing a way by which it might be implemented. In order to write an effective memo, I had to research an issue that necessitated looking at it from diverse points of view. The process made me appreciate several principles of writing a policy memo.

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4 Tips to Organize Your Lost Folders and Misplaced Files

While I was working to finalize my research this summer, I realized something: I couldn’t find one of my sources central to my argument. Pouring through my various folders on my computer, I could not find this source. Between Excel sheets with undescriptive names and misplaced images, it wasn’t just that my source was missing; I lacked an entirely well-formulated, well-maintained organizational structure to keep track of my work.

If anything, organization should be easier in the digital space. Besides bytes, we’re not necessarily concerned with finding the space to store our papers, books, and other materials; in fact, we can create folders upon folders, meticulously grouping related works together to keep track of them.

But this is the trap. While I’ll see the mess before me on my desk, I don’t necessarily see that all of my folders are disorganized until I need to find something. I don’t see that I stored images for my essay on my Google Drive rather than in that class’s folder. In my experience, computer storage may facilitate organization, but it also hides potential messes from you until you need to find that one file for your assignment or research. And even if you’re the type of person where all of your work is spilled out onto your home screen, sifting through the documents at times is surely a nightmare.

So, I wanted to outline some of the steps that I’ve taken this school year to make sure that everything remains organized in this weird digital setting:

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Archival Research in the Age of COVID-19: Requesting Document Scans from Libraries

When I first applied for departmental senior thesis funding early this spring, everyone was still uncertain about how long the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic would last. It seemed departmental administrators were optimistic: funding requests could still be made for summer travel. In my application, I detailed my intent to travel to university and state archives throughout the U.S. south for a thesis examining how antebellum Mississippi Valley planters conceptualized the idea of labor. But before I even heard back about whether I was to receive support, the department updated its funding parameters to prohibit summer travel and I had to redo my application in turn. My summer plans, of course, were not the first academic casualty of the strange 2020 world; nor would they be the last. Fortunately, though, there were ways to work around my newfound limitations: all of the archives that I wanted to visit offered services for resident librarians to scan and send materials from their collection, so I updated my application to ask for funds to pay for associated fees. Here, I’ll be sharing some tips for requesting archival materials to be scanned, which I hope will be helpful to any researcher unable to travel (pandemic or not).

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Five Tips for a Regret-Free Thesis Summer

I remember feeling blindsided by thesis talk my junior spring. I was in the middle of my second JP—I didn’t have a topic, an adviser, or any idea where to start. But I knew I needed to start my research in the summer before senior year. If I had learned anything from my JPs, it was that I would need all the time I could get to complete a research project of this scale.  

Juniors: whether you’ve already applied for thesis funding or haven’t yet thought about your thesis at all, now is the time to make a summer thesis plan. Remember: every hour you invest over the summer is an hour saved during the semester, when you’ll be back to balancing coursework, job/grad school applications, and extracurricular obligations. 

This summer, I was doing an internship in São Paulo, but I spent my evenings and weekends at a local library, reading sources for my thesis. It wasn’t fun, but I’ve thanked myself for it every day this year.

As I prepare to submit my thesis this month, I’ve thought back to my own junior spring and collected five things I wish I’d known before my thesis summer: 

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No Argument? Return to Your Research Question

Last semester, I fell in love with a cemetery. I had been interested in the processes of death and dying during the height of the AIDS epidemic in New York City and hoped to write one (or more) of my final papers about the topic. A quick series of Google searches led me to Hart Island, a public cemetery where nearly a million unclaimed or indigent people are buried, including many victims of AIDS. I was fascinated. I read everything I could find about Hart Island, watched over a dozen YouTube videos, and even scheduled a visit to the cemetery with a friend.

By the time reading period came along, I had over forty pages of notes about this cemetery. But I had no idea how to write a paper about it. When I met with one of my professors to ask for help, I started to share all of the data I had collected about this site—its history, its design, its present-day controversies. After a few minutes of this, she intervened: “Great, but what’s your question?” I looked at her blankly. “Do you have a question about this site?”

Photograph of burials at Hart Island, ca. 1890.

Developing a research question is hardly a new idea. It’s emphasized in the Writing Seminar curriculum, and professors often require us to articulate questions at the early stages of our projects. But once we get buried in the work itself—collecting data, writing, meeting deadlines and assignment requirements—it can be easy to forget why we’re writing at all.

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Preparing for a Lab-Heavy Semester

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: 

Princeton University, Office of Communications, Denise Applewhite (2013)
Lab hours can quickly add up, especially if you are not organized with your time. Begin planning your schedule for a lab-heavy semester early in order to set your own expectations for you project.
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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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