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.
My most recent post focused on gearing up towards your senior year and finding a thesis adviser. I decided to continue this mini “preparing for your senior thesis” series by providing some tips on funding your research! The infamous senior thesis is such a daunting thing to think about as a junior because it is not always clear how early you should begin to plan for it and what steps you should take. At the beginning of the year, I attended an information session through the Woodrow Wilson School regarding thesis research funding. During that meeting, the speakers told students that they should start working on applications for funding as soon as possible if they wanted to receive money for their endeavors.
During finals season, it’s even harder than usual to make time for independent work. So this reading period, I decided to ask a senior, computer science major Sam Arnesen, about the state of his thesis and his plans for spring semester. For his senior thesis, Sam is developing artificial intelligence software that can solve text-based computer games.
What is your thesis about? My thesis is on text-based games–games like Zork where at every step of the game, you’re given a text description of the scene you’re in and you have to enter some text about what the next move is, like “pick up sword” or “open door.” You can imagine that we often teach computers to play games, but there are a few unique challenges associated with text-based games. Part of it is that it is partially observed: you can see what’s around you, but you can’t see the entire state of the game. The other thing is that it’s very difficult to parse the text and translate it into something meaningful, especially when it comes to actions. There’s stuff out there on various methods to do text-based games and be able to play simple versions of them, but they have a couple issues. First, most of the games are quite simple, and more importantly, the kinds of strategies that it would learn translate very poorly between games unless the games are extremely similar, which is bad because you would expect that certain skills (like having a key and a locked door, or remembering orientations) would be understood. The whole reason why we care about text-based games isn’t because it means anything to play the game, but because we want to be able to learn something about language through these games. So it’s bad if the agents are specific to one particular game, because it suggests that they’re learning idiosyncrasies of the game instead of actual language skills.
I’m specifically working on ways to have more transfer of learning between different kinds of text-based games. I am working on building an agent that’s able to parse walk-throughs of games. A walk-through happens in any kind of game, it’s a set of instructions that tell you what you should do at every step. That’s a non-trivial task: you have to parse that text, translate a paragraph into an action, figure out whether the action you took was the correct action, and be able to use the strategies you learn through parsing the walk-through to learn some general strategy.
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.
It can be difficult to find the perfect place to write. When I leave my afternoon classes, I often find myself standing on the sidewalk, unsure of where to go next. There are so many study spaces on this campus, but some days nothing feels right. (For some ideas, check out Nanako’s post about finding the perfect space for you)
The space where I work matters. And frustratingly, what I
need in a study space is in constant flux, depending both on my mood and the
type of work I need to get done: energetic spaces for sleepy mornings, quiet
spaces for more focused work, and so on. Over my few years at Princeton, I’ve learned
how different study spaces affect me: campus cafes are energizing, but
distracting; Firestone carrels are productive, but isolating; and my dorm room puts
me to sleep within fifteen minutes—no matter the time of day.
With larger projects like a thesis or final paper, though,
it can be even harder to find the right space to write. In my experience,
larger projects require more focus and endurance, making it hard to be
productive in a loud, busy space. On the other hand, the prospect of extended hours
in library isolation is almost always unappealing to me.
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.
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.
I’m often asked why I study religion. To those asking, my decision usually registers as vaguely interesting, if a bit niche, but certainly not as very “practical.” Often such conversations prompt inquiry into my own religious life—as if one could only study religion out of personal piety or an ascetic willingness to forego the earning potential of an economics or computer science degree. Temperamentally inclined to charitable conversation as I am, I try not to take misunderstandings or dismissals of what I do too seriously. As other humanities students likely know, being on the receiving end of such attitudes come with the disciplinary territory. Continue reading Beyond Religion: Reimagining Scholarship in the Humanities
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.
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:
Last spring, my JP adviser passed on a piece of wisdom from his graduate adviser: for a research project, you should spend one third of your time reading, one third of your time writing, and one third of your time editing.
This was new to me. Historically, I’d spent 80% of my time reading, 19% of my time writing, and 1% (at best) of my time editing. I had always told myself that it didn’t make sense to start writing until I’d read everything and figured out what I wanted to say. Also, reading almost always felt easier and safer than writing. Instead of constructing my own ideas, I could sit back and receive other people’s finished products.
The problem was: I never ran out of things to read. Most of the time, I would only start writing once the deadline was in sight and I had no more time to waste. Rarely would I have enough time to edit my work.
For my thesis, though, I’m trying to follow my JP adviser’s system, spending equal amounts of time reading, writing, and editing. It took me until this week to realize that I need to treat these three elements as parts of a cycle, rather than macro chronological steps. In other words, I realized that I shouldn’t spend the first half of my fall semester just reading, the next few months writing, and the next few months editing. I need to be doing all three simultaneously. My reading, writing, and editing should be working in tandem with each other.
As we work our way into the fall semester, my fellow seniors might find some truth in the well-worn Dickens adage, “It [is] the best of times, it [is] the worst of times.” While this sentiment assumes a different shape and quality for each of us, it does seem generally fair to say that our final fall of college brings with it many joys—such as the enjoyment of established friendships, institutional and departmental familiarity, and an overall excitement about the many possibilities ahead—as well as certain unique stressors, such as discerning what in the great wide world to do after graduation and, of course, writing that Senior Thesis. While no one blog post can assuage all of our collective life-directional angst, that needn’t stop us from thinking about how to make our present situation a little brighter. One key way in which I suggest we can do this is by reframing how we view our theses. Which is to say, if your thesis currently makes you feel stressed, bored, uneasy, or generally bad, I hope you will read on. Continue reading Reframing the Senior Thesis for Intellectual Interest and Public Service