Reflections on Sophomore Year: Staying Flexible in Times of Change

The author and the 2017-2018 ORL Yoga and Meditation Fellows on the banks of the Ganges River above Rishikesh, India. Like many good things, this opportunity became a reality thanks to an attitude of flexibility. 

It’s hard to believe, but this is my last post of my sophomore year. This PCUR “ending,” however, comes at a time when I’m still in the middle of working on Dean’s Date assignments and (thinking about) preparing for final exams, so there’s something a little dissonant about writing a reflection post right now. Indeed, I suspect that only after the last exam wraps up, or after I move home and begin my summer job, will I be able to reflect more fully on my sophomore year. Nevertheless, I do have some preliminary observations, which I hope others will find useful as they take stock of their own personal and academic progress this year. Continue reading Reflections on Sophomore Year: Staying Flexible in Times of Change

Graduate Student Reflections: An Interview With Ole Agersnap

This semester, in our spring series, PCURs will interview a graduate student who either is currently a graduate student at Princeton, or attended Princeton as an undergraduate. In Graduate Student Reflections: Life in Academia, interviews with graduate students shed light on the variety of paths one can take to get to graduate school and beyond, and the many insights gained along the way from research projects and mentors. Here, Shanon shares his interview.

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Ole Agersnap, Ph.D. candidate in economics at Princeton.

As part of our seasonal series on graduate students, I decided to interview Ole Agersnap, a friend of mine in his first year of the Economics PhD program. Ole and I met at the beginning of this year in the Princeton Chapel Choir, where we both sing as baritones. Over the course of the year, we’ve chatted regularly about economics, school, and life in general. Ole is a dedicated scholar with a clear perspective on his academic journey, so I hope you enjoy reading his reflections! Continue reading Graduate Student Reflections: An Interview With Ole Agersnap

Why Do We Research?

John Witherspoon, President of the College of New Jersey from 1768-1794, played a key role in setting (what would become) Princeton on the course to become the renowned research institution it is today. Now, his statue watches over new generations of students as they journey into Firestone Library. 

If you are reading this post, you are likely involved in research. Unsurprisingly, I am too.  Yes, I’ve spent my fair share of long nights on the A floor of Firestone, reviewing sources and tightening up arguments. This week, I’m embarking on a new history research paper about the evolution of Native American spirituality from the 1830s to the 1890s, which I anticipate will take a fair amount of time. Reflecting on the work I have ahead got me thinking, why am I doing this in the first place? In fact, why do any of us research?

This question can really be broken into two parts: “What do we hope to achieve from our research?” and “What motivates us to conduct our research?” We think about the first question often, because in the academy, we have to justify what we’re doing to our professors, to funding boards, etc.  And in lots of research, one’s answer to the first question informs their answer to the second. Certain biologist friends of mine, for instance, study lab rat carcasses in the hopes of better understanding tumors, with the inspiring goal of curing cancer. In cases such as this, the aim of a project is to arrive at something with a concrete application so marvelous that it motivates the researcher to come to the lab each morning.
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The Unexpected Concentration: Why I Declared Geosciences

Few students enter Princeton planning to study Geosciences–I certainly didn’t.

Fascinated by the natural world and enticed by the prospect of a field semester in Kenya, I confidently chose “Ecology and Evolutionary Biology” as my intended concentration every semester on Tigerhub’s Academic Planning Form. My backup plan, if the sciences weren’t the right fit, was to study History and get a certificate in American Studies.

So why, when it came time to declare my concentration, did I end up choosing Geosciences? There were three factors that I felt set GEO apart from the other departments I considered:

Community

When I was considering which department to join, it was important to me that the department had a strong community with a space for undergraduate participation.

GEO has a vibrant department community that places a high value on undergraduates. Undergraduate participation is encouraged in weekly department wide events such as lunchtime lectures and snack breaks, as well as celebratory events such as annual department picnics. Even before I declared my concentration, faculty and staff in the department made it clear that there was a place for me in GEO.

Graduate student Akshay Mehra (far right) laughs as Professor Adam Maloof (second from right) chastises the author (far left) for “cheating” during a game of foosball on a class field-trip to Utah in Fall 2016. Informal social interaction with faculty and graduate students abounds in the GEO department, creating a warm and welcoming atmosphere for undergraduates.

The department even has its own undergraduate society, Princeton University Geosciences Society (PUGS), run entirely by students, which plans regular social events and field trips centered around building a close-knit community of engaged undergraduates. PUGS organized a department field trip to Iceland in 2015 and is planning a weeklong trip to the United Kingdom this year.

Continue reading The Unexpected Concentration: Why I Declared Geosciences

What I Learned from Reading Foucault’s Early Work

Until recently, I hadn’t reflected on the fact that what we read for class is carefully curated. As we all know, our professors dedicate immense amounts of time to selecting and refining the list of readings for our courses. Ideally, these readings reflect the essential sources on a particular subject. However, as with any selection process, the developing syllabus is filtered through certain ideological and methodological biases, not to mention the practical constraints of the course.

In my experience, professors tend to be transparent with their students about this curatorial process. In class, we often discuss why certain scholars were selected over others, and receive recommendations for further reading. Yet, I don’t often reflect on these selected works of scholarship in the context of their authors’ personal intellectual evolution.

A young Michel Foucault

When selecting secondary sources, professors typically choose a scholar’s most established works and arguments. With such limited time to cover material, our semesters only have space for “greatest hits.” These works tend to articulate coherent ideas, argue something new and critically important, and reflect a consistent methodology. Often, they’re masterpieces of scholarship.

Continue reading What I Learned from Reading Foucault’s Early Work

Course Selection in Anticipation of Major Declaration

Your choice of concentration will definitely impact your precept experience–another reason to make this choice carefully!

My fellow A.B. sophomores, this post is directed at you (not my already-declared B.S.E friends). Whether you feel like your time at Princeton has dragged on or flown by, we now find ourselves at a crossroads. Next semester, we commit ourselves to something in a way that we have never quite done before: we declare a concentration.

Sophomores are generally in one of several stages with regard to major declaration by this point in the year. Some are dead set on a particular concentration. Others are relatively confident about which department they’ll choose, with some degree of uncertainty. Others still are rather split between or amongst several departments. And finally, a portion of the class might have very little idea about what they’ll choose in April. I personally find myself somewhere in between the second and third groups above. I’m deciding between a concentration that is comfortable and familiar to me, and one that would present more of an academic stretch–I haven’t taken many classes in the department, and in general, know less about the subject.

Continue reading Course Selection in Anticipation of Major Declaration

A Reading Course with Local Impact: Analyzing Ecology on Campus

In my last post, I wrote about finding meaning in my academics through a research oriented class with local impact. This week, I am focusing on how another student is using research to make a positive local impact–not through taking a pre-existing course–but by creating a reading course that fit her specific academic goals. (If you are interested in reading courses, you can learn more about them here!)

This fall, Geosciences major Artemis Eyster ’19 is leading GEO 90_F2017 “Analyzing Ecological Integrity: An Assessment of Princeton’s Natural Areas,” a course she designed that centers around geological and ecological field research on Princeton’s campus. The eight students enrolled in Analyzing Ecological Integrity (AEI) are tackling field research projects such as measuring the bathymetry of Lake Carnegie to assess the rate of erosion on campus lands, gauging water-quality in campus streams, and surveying invasive plant species in campus woodlands. Artemis leads weekly class meetings to discuss course goals, review progress, and plan ahead, with the assistance of course advisers GEO Professor Adam Maloof and WRI Professor Amanda Irwin-Wilkins. I interviewed Artemis to better understand her motivation for creating the course and her experience taking charge of her academic work to make a positive impact on our campus.

What do you consider to be the purpose of this reading course?

AEI is about better understanding Princeton’s natural areas through rigorous scientific research and using our findings to articulate relevant land-use recommendations to the University. I believe that, as students going here, we should take responsibility for the land and environment around us. If we have the ability, we should use our scientific skills to help the University make decisions that protect our campus’s ecology. Another priority of the class is to record baseline measurements and design methodologies so that future student researchers have a strong framework they can expand upon either in classes or independent work.

“It is empowering to be able to identify something that I think is important and then go make it happen.”

How did you develop the idea for this reading course?

[GEO Professor] Adam [Maloof] saw a natural resource assessment report provided to the University by a professional consultant and thought that students could advance such assessments with high quality scientific measurements and greatly expand upon the work currently being done by the University. I love fieldwork, and I thought other students would also be excited to do impactful research on campus. Creating the class was a way to harness that excitement into commitment so that we would be able to get research done over the course of the semester.

One of the perks of AEI is that field work is a major component of the course. Here, shrouded by leaves, Artemis records notes during a vegetation survey of campus lands.

Continue reading A Reading Course with Local Impact: Analyzing Ecology on Campus

The Uncomfortable Truths of Home

The author’s grandparents moved into this house in Grosse Pointe Park, Michigan.

Research allows us to uncover the uncomfortable truths about our surroundings, or even our homes. I’m currently in AAS 350, an African American Studies class with Professor Keeanga Yamahatta-Taylor about the politics and policy of housing in the United States. It’s something that might seem straightforward at first — how complicated is building a house? But in reality, American housing policy and attitudes towards housing often perpetuate and preserve racist biases in the ways in which we build our communities.

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Research with Local Impact: Analyzing Lead in Trenton, NJ

At least once a week, without fail, I will stop in the middle of the p-set I am working on, or the paper I am writing, and think “what is the point of this?” Sure, the pursuit of knowledge may be a reward unto itself, but I don’t want my academic goals to be purely selfish–I want my course work at Princeton to benefit others. To this end, I have sought engaging research-based courses that can have a positive impact on people’s lives. These classes combine my academic interests with my desire for meaning, and provide a concrete ‘point’ to my course work.

Sure, the pursuit of knowledge may be a reward unto itself, but I don’t want my academic goals to be purely selfish–I want my course work at Princeton to benefit others.

Last Spring, I participated in GEO 360, Geochemistry of the Human Environment, a course focused on providing chemical analyses of tap-water, paint, and soil for low-income residents of Trenton, NJ. Only 11 miles south of our orange-bubble along the towpath, Trenton is one of the poorest cities in the state and has a serious and systemic lead problem. Lead exposure is caused by the deterioration of lead paint into dust and the leaching of lead from pipes into drinking water. While lead paint was banned in 1978 and installation of lead piping was discontinued in the mid 1980’s, lead is still ubiquitous in Trenton where 90% of homes and buildings were constructed prior to 1978. As homes in the city age, the lead within them becomes mobilized and hazardous, and residents often do not have the financial means to keep their homes safe.

This map shows our measurements of lead concentration in parts-per-billion for water samples from homes around the city. Although most homes do not have high water-lead concentrations, there is no ‘safe’ amount of lead. (Map grid is UTM N zone 18)

Our class worked alongside Isles, a non-profit Trenton organization that has tested over 2,000 homes for lead and provided remediation work–all free of charge–over the past three decades. We assisted Isles with field work by collecting samples, and measuring paint and soil lead in urban residences. We then analyzed hundreds of tap-water samples, measuring elemental concentrations with a mass spectrometer and conducting multivariate analyses to quantify the correlations between metals within samples. Our work helped Isles identify at-risk homes in order to provide them with lead paint remediation and/or water filters.

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Why Research Immigration? Recapping Previous Experiences and Moving Forward

What I’m most passionate about is immigration. How do people move? Why do they move? And what can we do to assist immigrant communities? While I’m not an immigrant myself, I’m the child of Chinese immigrants who came at a time when Chinese immigration was almost entirely restricted on a racial basis. When my grandparents came to America, only 105 Chinese immigrants per year were permitted entry into the United States. While I acknowledge that I speak from a position of natural-born citizenship, it is the struggles of modern undocumented immigrants that truly fuel my desire to research this field of policy.

The author’s grandfather came to America on this ship in 1949.

Continue reading Why Research Immigration? Recapping Previous Experiences and Moving Forward