A Not-So-Foolproof Guide To Navigating Junior Independent Work

At the beginning of the year, in most seminars or precepts, professors will have students introduce themselves with their name, year, and major. It felt so weird to say “Hi, my name is Melissa, a junior majoring in psychology and minoring in Latino Studies”. Time at Princeton truly flies by and I couldn’t believe that I was already halfway through my time here. Junior year definitely comes with its own sets of challenges, it is the year all A.B. majors begin their junior independent work. For psychology majors, it is recommended that students find their own advisor that aligns with their research interests. So I began the search for an advisor and lab.

I instantly fell in love with the Adversity and Relationships in Context (ARC) Lab. The research topics were fascinating and thought-provoking and I immediately knew I wanted to be part of it. Even during my interview which is usually meant to be nerve-wracking, the lab manager and graduate student interviewing me opened up with a silly question: pancakes, waffles or french toast? (I obviously answered french toast.) This immediately told me everything I needed to know about the environment of this lab and made me very comfortable for the rest of the interview. When I received the email inviting me to be part of the ARC lab, I couldn’t have been happier. I was both excited and nervous about starting the work that so many upperclassmen talk about. 

We are now halfway through the semester and I’ve just completed my midpoint presentation for my junior paper. Psychology majors have two junior papers, one in the fall and one in the spring. The fall paper I’m working on is a literature review where I look through various articles on my research topic and it's meant to be around 10-20 pages in length. To check on the progress of our research, the psychology department conducts a presentation with a group of four to six psychology majors and a faculty member. While not intended to be a stressful check-in, I couldn’t help but be nervous leading up to the presentation. I had done an extensive review of the literature but I also remained undecided of what I really wanted to focus my research on. My friends who are also majoring in psychology were so helpful during this process. They were able to listen in and help me brainstorm ideas while also providing some insight into explaining my topic to an audience that may have never heard of it before. 

Alongside the support from my friends, being part of a lab is one of the best things about working on my junior paper. While I love the cozy and familiar nature of working with everyone in the ARC lab, I also value the experience and knowledge they’re able to use to help orient my research. Before my official presentation, my lab had all juniors present as a practice round to get some constructive feedback. I think this was one of the most useful aspects of my lab experience because they were able to provide me with specific advice about my research and gave me useful pointers that I can use as I continue to work on my first junior paper. After we had those practice presentations, my lab hosted a lab social! We made pizzas, decorated cookies and some people even painted mini pumpkins. 

Even though balancing my coursework, extracurriculars, and independent research can be difficult, I'm grateful for my support systems. They remind me to take breaks and enjoy life in between. I would love to say that independent work is simple or easy but instead, I’d rather say it presents a challenge that forms my academic career at Princeton. Everyone here is working on such innovative research, we’re learning how to be independent and creative while also having guidance from some of the leading researchers in our fields. I just know that these experiences will be markers of my future success in the field of psychology and also form an integral part of who I am.

The 10 Steps to My First Solar Energy Conference

I just came back from Puerto Rico, where I gave a talk on my junior paper at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Photovoltaic Specialists Conference. It was an incredible experience, and I learned a lot about both the field of solar photovoltaics and the history and culture of Puerto Rico. Here are the steps I took to arrange the trip, as well as the wonderful Princeton people who made it possible (a special thank you to Dr. Barry Rand, Dr. Sigurd Wagner, and Moira Selinka of Princeton's Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment).

Step 1: Find the right conference

How do you choose a suitable conference for your work? The best person to ask is usually your advisor, who is familiar with the scope of different conferences. I asked Drs. Rand and Wagner, my project advisors, and the one that immediately came to mind for them was the IEEE Photovoltaic Specialists Conference. Given that my project is about the adoption of rooftop solar panels in the U.S., this sounded like a perfect fit.

Step 2: Write and submit your abstract

To submit to a conference, you usually have to write an abstract or extended abstract on your findings. For this conference, they asked for a 3-page extended abstract. Be aware of deadlines, as they are usually far in advance of the conference itself. For PVSC, the abstract was due in January while the conference was in June.

Step 3: Find funding and make travel arrangements

I heard back that my abstract was accepted for a poster presentation in mid-March, and I applied through for funding through the Student Activities Funding Engine (SAFE) to head to Puerto Rico.

Step 4: Create and print your poster

I designed my poster, and I sent an email to Print Services to have it printed. (I found out later, though, that students can print two free posters per month in the Engineering Library. Now I know.)

Step 5: Learn that you won't actually need your poster

Two weeks before the conference, I found out that my abstract was selected for an oral presentation instead! I put together a set of Powerpoint slides, which I presented to Professors Rand and Wagner. They helped me revise and refine my presentation so that I felt well-prepared to deliver my talk.

Step 6: Travel, arrive, and check-in

Come mid-June, it was time to fly to Puerto Rico! I arrived late Monday night, and Tuesday morning I went to the convention center to familiarize myself with the presentation room and equipment before my session.

White stone and glass exterior of the Puerto Rico Convention Center
The Puerto Rico Convention Center in San Juan

Step 7: Present!

My presentation was the last one scheduled for my session, so I listened to several other presentations before it was time for mine. It was interesting to hear about related solar research. I was slightly nervous before my talk, but I think it went well. The audience seemed engaged, and they asked questions that showed that had followed along and absorbed the key points.

Step 8: Explore the surrounding area

After the conference, I explored the island. I visited the citadel, Castillo San Felipe del Morro, and the only tropical rainforest in the U.S., El Yunque. I also saw incredible flora and fauna, like a three-foot iguana that crossed the sidewalk while I was out for a run.

Parking lot with broken school bus and low-rise building in the El Yunque rainfores
A view of the parking lot before entering the El Yunque rainforest

Step 9: Submit receipts 

When I got back home, I submitted the receipts of my various expenses for the conference (flight, airport taxi, registration fee) in order to be reimbursed.

Step 10: Reflect

Stepping outside the Orange Bubble and contiguous U.S. immersed me in a completely different culture. I learned about solar research from scholars in other states and countries, and I explored the landscape and history of a place to which I had never been, which gave me a more global perspective on both research and lifestyle culture. The experience was truly amazing, and I'm so grateful to have had the opportunity.

Lions and Tigers: My Study Abroad Experience

This semester, I had the incredible opportunity to spend seven weeks in Kenya with the Ecology & Evolutionary Biology department’s Semester in the Field program. 

The program involves taking four courses, each for three weeks, in subjects ranging from Biology of African Animals and Ecosystems to Terrestrial Paleoecology (basically trying to understand what ancient ecosystems looked like). Since I went abroad as a senior (most EEB students go abroad during their junior spring), I was there for the first two classes and returned to campus after spring break to finish my thesis. 

three students and a professor in a classroom
Bone taphonomy lecture with Professor Kevin Uno. This was one of only a handful of classroom lectures during the program –– the rest were outside, in the field! 

Nothing I could have imagined compared to the feeling of waking up to the sound of birds chirping and monkeys calling to one another right outside my tent every morning. To be so immersed in nature was indescribable. We saw endangered Grevy’s zebras and African wild dogs, of which there are only a few thousand remaining in the world, as well as lions, hyenas, rhinos, and elephants. In the first week alone, we saw 35 different species of mammals! 

The classes I took provided amazing opportunities for hands-on fieldwork. During the first course, we planned, executed, and analyzed data for four complete research projects — in just three weeks! It was definitely fast-paced, but I came out of it with a much greater understanding of the scientific process, and I’m so grateful for the experience. 

group photo of 13 smiling people in a savannah landscape
The 11 of us, on a hike with the professor and TA of our first course. 

One of the best parts of going to Kenya was the people - the 10 fellow Princeton and Columbia students I traveled with, our professors and TAs, and the Kenyan researchers, staff, and community members we got to know during our stay there. We bonded over trips to overlooks to watch the sunset after a game drive, games of soccer and darts at the research center (which we often lost), and most of all, our climb of Mount Kenya during spring break (I credit the bond between us as the reason we somehow all made it to the summit!). 

Going to Kenya was the best experience of my life so far, and I can’t recommend studying abroad enough. As sad as I was to leave Princeton’s beautiful campus and all my friends there, it was so worth it to get the chance to experience new places, cultures, and ecosystems with such an amazing group of people. If I had one piece of advice for anyone considering studying abroad, it would be to just go! You never know where it can take you. 


Taking a Ride in the Mobile Lab

On a recent Tuesday, the usual lecture for the course CEE311, Global Air Pollution, was replaced with an atypical data collection session. Each student signed up for a different time slot throughout the day, and small groups met at the parking lot by the E-Quad in order to be driven by Professor Zondlo in the Princeton Atmospheric Chemistry Experiment Mobile Lab.

body of white car with metal measurement instruments on top
The Princeton Atmospheric Chemistry Experiment Mobile Lab

This car is equipped with various sensors for measuring wind speed, methane, and other greenhouse gasses in the ambient air. It's fully electric, so there are no emissions from the car that could influence the measurements. Inside the car, there's a GPS sensor so that we can pair the measurements to their exact latitude and longitude coordinates. 

Professor Zondlo drove us by a nearby wastewater treatment plant, and we recorded the methane levels coming from the plant. Gas plume measurements are highly variable, so to get a better estimate, we drove past the plant ten times (making U-turns in a nearby parking lot) in order to get more data. Once we had this data, we analyzed it and were able to use the Gaussian plume model we'd learned about in class to get an estimate of the methane emission rate from the plant. 

Plot of the methane data measurements with the Gaussian plume model overlaid
Fitting the Gaussian plume model to the data

This experience was both a welcome change of pace to the usual routine (How often do you get to be driven around by your professor in a decked-out electric car?) and an opportunity to see how an atmospheric chemistry scientist collects and analyzes data. Professor Zondlo uses the mobile lab in his own research, and his group recently published a paper where they performed a similar exercise at a variety of wastewater treatment plants throughout the United States. In being exposed to the real-world methods my professors use in their own research, I've been able to experience what working in different areas of environmental engineering would be like. This has made me feel more prepared to choose my own niche field (water, air, soil, etc.) for graduate school and my future career. I've been consistently impressed with how dedicated my professors are to creating courses that allow me experience what working as an environmental engineer will truly be like. 

If you see a car with some strange metal instruments on top driving by, and then see it turn around and drive by you again, don't be alarmed. You might be witnessing the mobile lab in action, collecting data to help understand and combat climate change.

Ecology is Everywhere: An Adventure in Summer Thesis Research

You might have heard that seniors at Princeton have to write a (dundundunnn!) thesis before we graduate, and to some that can seem like an overwhelming prospect; crafting a culminating piece of original work is no small feat! But I’m here to tell you that, thanks to Princeton’s incredible support, it’s really not as scary as it sounds. And the process can even be – dare I say it – fun! 

This summer, I spent seven weeks in Irvine, California studying the impact of wildfire on large mammal community ecology for my thesis in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB). Due to the COVID pandemic, I hadn’t yet been able to do ecological field work, so diving into it for the first time was exciting. I loved being able to apply the theoretical concepts I had learned in my EEB classes on campus to the dynamic, real-world landscape I found myself in. Being out in the field was incomparable – everywhere I looked there was something new to see and learn about. 

Seniors at Princeton can apply for funding to cover research (on- or off-campus) during the summer before their senior year. I received funding from the Office of Undergraduate Research, EEB Department, and High Meadows Environmental Institute. Thanks to their generosity, I was able to travel across the country to study something I’m interested in for my thesis, and didn’t have to worry about whether I could afford it. 

Living on my own far from the Orange Bubble was at first a bit overwhelming, but I was grateful for the support I found once I got there. Each senior at Princeton is matched with a faculty advisor before beginning their thesis work, and my advisor, one of the leading experts on wildlife conservation, connected me with the director of the Irvine Ranch Conservancy, a nonprofit land management organization in Southern California where I did my research. Having that network of support was helpful and I knew that if I ever had a question on aspects of my research I had several people I could turn to. 

Image of a mountain lion walking towards the left
A mountain lion, one of several species of mammals I studied for my thesis

As with any research project, I encountered obstacles while out in the field; malfunctioning cameras, waking up at 5am every day, and even an encounter with a rattlesnake! But it was all worth it when my data collection started and I began seeing footage of mountain lions and other elusive mammals, getting to think more deeply about their interactions and how human influences are changing the way that they relate with their habitat. It’s exciting to me that my research could possibly have larger implications for land management and wildlife protection as the climate changes, and this motivated me to continue despite the setbacks I faced. This is one of the reasons that, in my mind, the Princeton thesis is so special; you get the chance to take a topic that’s excited you academically during your time here and bring it to the next level, contributing your own original research to the field. 

My experience this summer was one I won’t forget, and I’ll take with me everything I learned as I venture into the field of ecology going forward. Though being back on campus this fall had me missing the sunny California weather, I’m (actually) excited to dive into analyzing my data and finishing writing my thesis. The senior thesis truly is the capstone of your college experience here, and I’m grateful that Princeton has given me this opportunity for learning and discovery. 

Image of the ocean with a sunset and two birds flying overhead
Though this summer was a busy one, I still had time to enjoy some beautiful California sunsets.

Possible with Princeton: Finding Funding

Princeton professors are incredibly willing to take the seed of a research idea and help make it into a full project. Near the end of last summer, I proposed an independent study project to Professor Barry Rand, whose lab I'd been working in during the summer. I wanted to do some type of analysis about the potential for rooftop solar energy in the U.S., but I didn't have a fully formed idea. When I asked to speak with him, I wasn't sure if he would think my idea had any merit, and I wasn't confident he'd take me on as an independent study student for the fall. When I proposed my idea, though, he was enthusiastic and encouraged me to pursue it. He pointed me towards the Google Project Sunroof database, which became the main dataset upon which I based my analysis.

Throughout the summer and fall, I carried out my project as an Independent Study course, with input from Professor Rand and Professor Wagner to guide me. As my project took shape, I asked Professor Rand if he thought I could present my work at an academic conference. I was looking to share my work to others, and I wanted to see what other types of solar research were happening. He suggested the IEEE Photovoltaic Specialists Conference. I checked out the website and saw that last year's conference was held in Philadelphia, and that the 2023 conference would be in... Puerto Rico. A bit farther away! This conference looked like the right fit for my research, but who would pay for me to go?

Fortunately, when students have a vision of an independent project they'd like to pursue, Princeton will truly make the funding for it available. I logged into the Student Activities Funding Engine (SAFE) to see what I could find. After inputting some information about my project, several options popped up. One of them seemed ideal: the Undergraduate Fund for Academic Conferences. (Who knew there was a fund specifically for undergraduates going to academic conferences?) I filled out a short application form detailing my project and planned itinerary. Several days later, I heard back—I'd been awarded a grant! The grant would cover half of my travel expenses. I then returned to SAFE to search for funding for the other half. I decided to apply for independent project funding from the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment. Again, after a short wait, I received notification that I would be awarded the funding that would cover the other half of my expenses. After I return from Puerto Rico, I'll submit a short report about my trip to each office telling them what I learned and gained from the experience.

Princeton ascribes a high value to undergraduate original research, so they really make funds available to students to pursue their research and the experiences that will enrich it, like conferences. I was surprised and pleased at how straightforward the process was to secure funding for the opportunity to present my work, and I'm really looking forward to it. I'm incredibly grateful that Princeton sees the value in making it possible for students to travel and gain greater context and insight about their research fields. Look out for a blog post this summer about the solar conference!

My Independent Archival Research Experience: The Senior Thesis

If you’re a prospective student, you may have heard of the (in)famous senior thesis—a year-long independent project that incorporates original research, relating to your field of study. In my department, that often means a research paper on a form of literature, but there is a lot of freedom and seniors often choose creative and fun themes. 

I still have several months to go on my own thesis, but I’ve just returned from my research trip and would like to share my experience. I went to Czech Republic, visited the central depository for the National Literary Archives, and viewed original manuscripts and other writings.  

A large building with letters of the Czech alphabet on the side -- the central depository of the Czech National Literary Archives.
The central depository.

The first step in the process was to find an adviser—and a topic. From the beginning, I knew I wanted to focus on an author from Eastern Europe. Back in high school, I had applied to Princeton specifically because the Slavic Languages & Literatures department here offered more than just Russian language. During my time here, I’ve taken three different Slavic languages (Russian, Czech and Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian). With the help of my adviser, I decided on Czech author Ladislav Fuks.  

Next, I had to apply for funding for my research. Using the University’s funding engine, I described my topic and proposed research. The University granted me the money to pay for my plane tickets, lodging, local transportation and meals. 

Several boxes of archival materials labeled "Fuks Ladislav" on tables.
The research room, with my boxes.

Then, of course, came the trip! I flew from Denver International Airport in my home state of Colorado to Prague. I then traveled to the city of Litoměřice in north Czechia, where the central depository was located. I stayed in a small apartment I rented over Airbnb that was close enough to walk to my work site. Each day, I walked to the depository and signed in. The amazing director of the Litoměřice archives spoke with me about my research and brought me boxes of material from the depository. In the research room, I sorted through hundreds of folios in the boxes to find papers and writings that would be useful to my research. I scanned and saved those that I could use, and repeated the process over the two weeks of my stay until I had gone through all of the material. 

I’m now back on campus, and am excited to start writing my thesis. I feel lucky to have a real, independent archival research experience as an undergrad. The senior thesis might seem scary, but when you hit upon a topic you’re passionate about, the process can actually be a lot of fun!

My Favorite Aisle in Firestone ... and Other Discoveries

Deep within the C floor (one of three below-ground levels) of Firestone Library, you’ll find my favorite aisle, QL. This aisle is home to books on some of my favorite subjects: zoology, wildlife conservation and natural history. Sometimes I’ll find myself wandering down there to check out a book or two, just because. 

I like to think that there is an aisle in Firestone for everyone, regardless of your academic or personal interests, whether it be French cinema or feminism, cellular immunology or ancient Chinese texts. With over 70 miles of bookshelves –– if you laid them end to end they’d reach from Princeton to New York City –– you can always find something to spark your curiosity here. 

exterior view of a library
Firestone Library in fall

Aside from the extensive variety of genres held within Firestone’s walls, there are several other aspects of the library that I think make it really special. As a Firestone Tour Guide, I give tours of the library to prospective students, and I like to share some of these lesser-known discoveries with my tour groups whenever I can. 

  • Personal librarians: Every undergrad at Princeton is matched with a personal librarian. This is someone you can go to with any questions regarding your research or book-finding needs at Princeton, whether for writing a paper for a class or compiling sources for your thesis. I’ve gotten personalized emails from my librarian every semester checking in on how I’m doing, which always puts a smile on my face.
  • ReCAP / IvyPlus: Princeton students have access to ReCAP, a storage facility located near campus that holds 17 million volumes. If there is ever a book, manuscript or journal that Firestone doesn't have, chances are it can be found at ReCAP. Requests submitted to ReCAP are often fulfilled within the same day. Princeton is also part of the IvyPlus network, which allows students to have materials sent from Columbia, Duke, Harvard, Stanford and other universities in the event that Princeton does not have them. 
  • Data and statistical services center: This center can help with any data processing or visualization needs you might have in any research you do at Princeton. They have specialists on staff you can meet with about any and all questions you have relating to data. 
students studying in a library
The Trustee Reading Room, one of my favorite study spots in Firestone
  • Collaboration Hub: This space on the first floor of the library has Apple TVs, soundproof collaboration rooms with floor-to-ceiling whiteboards and more. I think that this space really reflects the attitude of collaboration over competition at Princeton; working on projects or studying together is common here. 
  • Dixon Collection: Something that I think is fairly little-known on campus is that Princeton students have access to thousands of e-books and audiobooks of pretty much any genre for free. Whether you’re looking for a good beach read or the next crime thriller, you can find it here! 
  • Special Collections: This is definitely one of my favorite parts of Firestone. The special collections is home to Princeton’s rarest and most valuable books and manuscripts. Through a student tour of the Scheide Library within special collections, I've seen a Gutenberg Bible, an original Bach manuscript, and a recipe in Emily Dickinson's handwriting. Many rare items are available for Princeton students to request, handle, and research, which I think is pretty amazing.

I hope I’ve convinced you that there really is something for everyone in Firestone (or, one of Princeton’s eight other libraries!). Who knows, with enough exploration you just might find a favorite aisle of your own.


Where to Begin: Starting Junior Independent Work

One of the facets of the Bachelor of Arts (A.B.) degree at Princeton is that you are required to complete junior independent work (in addition to the famous senior thesis). Some departments require two, one for each semester, while others only require one for the academic year. As an East Asian Studies concentrator, I have to write two junior research papers, the first of which is written in conjunction with the mandatory junior seminar (EAS 300) and under the guidance of the designated faculty adviser –– the Director of Undergraduate Studies for the department –– while the second is written with any available adviser of the student’s choosing. 

For East Asian Studies, there are no set parameters for our projects for either semester, meaning that we are genuinely allowed to write about anything that interests us. The freedom is both liberating and daunting, especially since I now had to consider my certificate requirements in my independent work. Two of my certificates: Gender & Sexuality Studies and Translation & Intercultural Communication, require me to write about a topic related to my certificate for at least one of my two junior papers. I remember walking into my classroom on the first week of the semester and sitting in a semicircle with the rest of my classmates when one of the first questions our professor asked us was, “Why don’t we go around in a circle and talk about what your junior paper topic is?” My mind went completely blank. I had a vague subject matter I wanted to research, but one that was nowhere near the stage in which I could share it with other people. I blurted out that I wanted to write something about the feminist movement in Korea and then sat around nervously as my peers described (what seemed to be) well thought out ideas for their independent work. 

However, as the weeks passed, my favorite part of the seminar soon became seeing how other people’s junior paper topics changed and evolved –– and how mine did as well. Now, I am writing my junior paper about the historical legacy of the patriarchy in South Korea, comparing the government response to the Gangnam Murder Case of 2016 with that of the general public, namely women. 

Although my junior independent work is far from finished, here are a few tips I have gathered from the past semester:

  • Brainstorm, brainstorm, brainstorm! 
    • The more you brainstorm and think about your project, the easier the writing itself will become. 
  • Work a little every day, whether it be 5 minutes or 5 hours. 
    • You will have accomplished more than you think by the end of a few weeks. 
  • Ask questions, and ask for feedback.
    • Find a few people to bounce ideas off of and tell them to ask you questions to test gaps in your logic. 
  • Don’t be scared!
    • I spent weeks putting off working on my Junior Paper (JP) because I was overwhelmed, but once I started that it really is an enriching experience once you take it one day at a time. 

Fall Break in Greece

During fall break, I had the opportunity to travel to Greece with the Humanities Sequence. After dedicating much time and energy during our first year at Princeton to the rigorous reading schedule and thought-provoking discussions of the HUM Sequence, my peers and I were ecstatic to pursue our individual research questions during our sequence sponsored fall break trip to Athens.

Upon arriving in Greece, I was struck by the extraordinary view of the Acropolis from my hotel room balcony. Our days were filled with guided tours, museum trips and excursions. While we spent most of the break in Athens, we were lucky enough to venture out to visit the Archeological Site of Delphi and to swim in the Aegean Sea at Nafplio.

Two girls sitting on the shore of the Aegean Sea

During my research day in Greece, I visited the Parthenon and the Acropolis Museum. I came to Greece hoping to study the Parthenon Marbles and to get a sense of Greek opinion on the marbles’ ownership debate. I cannot fully describe the sense of awe that flooded me when I finally arrived at the Parthenon. As a Classics student studying Greek, I found myself trying to translate every ruin I saw. This trip held extreme significance for me, and I was moved by the museums, ruins, sites and the homes of the authors whom I have dedicated myself to studying at Princeton.

Girl in a selfie in front of The Parthenon

On the flight back to campus, I remember reflecting on the entire experience. I was overwhelmed by an extreme sense of gratitude––for the opportunity to travel to Greece, for the hospitality of the Greek people and mostly for the community fostered by the HUM sequence. The HUM sequence has been a defining element of my experience at Princeton, and I highly recommend that anyone who has an interest in the humanities or literature consider it. While abroad, I grew closer to my classmates and professors. Later this week we will all come together and present our projects from the trip.