In the fall of my first year I wanted to join a neuroscience research lab. I was hoping to contribute to meaningful research, network with helpful mentors, and develop new skills and qualifications. In retrospect I should have waited to adjust to Princeton and my new course-load before even beginning to think about labs. I didn’t, though, and as I sent a flurry of emails to lab directors, I soon ran into a barrier: I found it incredibly difficult to be accepted into a lab.
In their response to my email, one lab director told me that they preferred students with significant experience in the programming language Matlab. Although I’d used Matlab before, my trial subscription had long expired. Using the free software links available through the Office of Information Technology (OIT) website, however, I was able to download and use Matlab once more. I soon realized that a laboratory setting wasn’t necessary for me to conduct my own research. In fact, I actually felt empowered by the ability to choose my own research topic.
While listening to an astrophysics podcast, I stumbled into an epiphany about my course of study at Princeton. It was Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s StarTalk, and two female astrophysicists had been invited on the show to discuss women in the field. About halfway through the episode, I asked myself why I wasn’t pursuing astronomy as a major, especially since I’ve had a fascination with space since childhood. I circled back to high school for an explanation. I had gotten an A- in pre-calculus for the year, and since I was immersed in the high school mindset of perfectionism, I convinced myself I wasn’t good enough at math to pursue anything in the STEM fields. My fellow PCUR blogger Vidushi wrote about how this same feeling I had of lacking “innate brilliance” creates gender gaps in fields like astrophysics. She writes, “Women who don’t see themselves as innately brilliant mathematicians, musicians, or philosophers often do not give themselves the chance to pursue these disciplines.”
When it came time to apply to Princeton, I looked for things I thought I’d be “better” at, and that’s when I started looking into social sciences. I was attracted to the interdisciplinary nature of politics and had always enjoyed French in high school, so I decided to pursue these once I got to college. This course of study has not been easy by any means; however, I sometimes felt like I had settled into these fields because I wasn’t confident enough to pursue other ones. Complaints from my peers about the difficulty of the math and physics courses necessary to study astrophysics overwhelmed me, so I denied myself the opportunity to explore them. I also had this realization at the end of sophomore fall–right before having to declare a concentration in the spring. If you’re struggling with what you want to study at Princeton, hopefully I can give you some encouragement!