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My Engineering Course Recommendation: Biomechanics and Biomaterials

One of the toughest choices to make every semester as a Princeton student is course selection. This may not seem immediately apparent once you set foot on campus (especially as an engineering concentrator) as our first-year schedules are often congested with mandatory prerequisite courses. However, once you declare your concentration and move past the introductory courses, you have more availability to delve much deeper into specific interests and even explore courses outside of your comfort zone. Thus far, I have really enjoyed my classes this spring semester as a sophomore, and one in particular has changed my approach to understanding molecular biology and bioengineering -- Biomechanics and Biomaterials: From Cells to Organisms (MAE344).  While I am taking this course initially to fulfill one of my requirements for the Engineering Biology certificate, it's turning out to be an amazing class experience that I would recommend to any engineering concentrator.  

First of all, the instructor for the course, Professor Daniel Cohen, is extremely knowledgeable and is currently spearheading research in controlling group behaviors in tissues. His lectures, which never fail to spark my interest, strike a healthy balance between teaching important biology concepts and establishing mathematical intuition necessary for engineering. For example, one of the lectures dealt with one of the most groundbreaking methods employed in this field for cell imaging: atomic force microscopy (AFM). AFM relies on a tiny cantilever to detect specific features on the surface of a cell by measuring deflection forces that result from interaction with the cell. While Professor Cohen emphasized the cantilever equations that are pivotal for AFM, he also carefully explained the advantages of using different cantilever tips for certain applications. He ensured that we did not simply memorize the material, but that we were able to think critically and synthesize from the scientific techniques that we learned.

In addition to the lectures, the class also meets every other week for “journal club,” in which we read an assigned scientific journal article so that we can discuss anything we find interesting. This has been tremendously helpful because these sessions have trained me to skim through an article in order to parse through specific information. At times, academic writing can often be very dense, cluttered with jargon and indecipherable figures, and it used to take me hours to get the general gist of a paper. However, I can now take this newfound skill with me through the rest of college and even graduate school.

I’m also looking forward to the final project, where we will take all that we've learned and will individually attempt to solve a bioengineering problem by designing a biointerface, allowing us to fully embrace our creativity.

I have really enjoyed this class so far and encourage anyone interested in the physics of cells and tissues to take it!

Advisers, Independent Work and Beyond

This year, I have faced the scary reality of being a senior, and more significant still, a senior in my final semester of Princeton. In addition to all the more sentimental considerations attached to the reality of an imminent graduation, I have also had another topic on my mind — my senior thesis.

Independent research or “independent work” in Princeton slang, is one of the defining elements of the Princeton experience. Most Princeton students complete a research assignment or essay their junior year (the Junior Paper or “JP”) and then all Princeton students, with the exception of B.S.E. computer science concentrators, write a senior thesis.

The thesis requires each student to develop a unique research idea, pushing us to crystalize four years of learning into an ambitious project. Yet, the very ambitious nature of the work means that it’s not a solitary enterprise. A strong support network is a must and your thesis adviser is an essential part of that network.

I had my own fears about thesis advisers. What if mine was too busy to respond to my emails, didn't hold me to deadlines or even had rigid, unrealistic expectations? 

Yet, I know from personal experience that a good relationship with your adviser can really make the experience. While naturally shy and not typically assertive, during my time at Princeton I have learned how lucky I am to be surrounded by the world’s greatest scholars, almost all of whom are easily accessible. If such scholars are willing to meet regularly and help me make my own small contribution to an academic field, I would be remiss to ignore the opportunity to engage fully.

In the end, my experience with independent work and with professors at Princeton has shown that it pays to speak up, to ask questions, to be assertive about your needs and to admit when things are not going well. Positive relations forged with my advisers have allowed me to learn so much more via the process of my independent work and develop important skills that will prove relevant in my life after Princeton. While I have hit plenty of frustrating road blocks in my own independent work journey (and my thesis is not finished yet!!), I have learned so much from my adviser and the countless other professors and graduate students who were willing, even happy, to take the time to read over a difficult document with me or ponder an interesting historical question. 

As such, independent work, and working with advisers, is not something to fear or dread. Rather, if approached right, it has the potential to be one of the most meaningful parts of your Princeton experience.

Reflections from a Graduating Transfer Student

When I decided to transfer to Princeton, there was an air of mystery about what the next three years of my life would look like. Since Princeton’s last transfer class graduated around the early 1990s, I wasn’t sure what to expect. It honestly terrified me that there was no previous transfer student to ask about their experience, but from the moment I saw that orange tiger with the words "Congratulations" appear on my computer screen, my initial reservations subsided. I was so excited to realize that I would become a part of Princeton’s first transfer cohort since the early 1990s! Now in my final year, I am thankful for my experience as the transfer program has gone above and beyond to make sure that I felt supported.

At first, I was concerned about transferring in as a sophomore as I had already completed two years at Miami Dade College. However, without that "extra year," I wouldn't have had the opportunity to explore my academic and extracurricular interests to the extent that I've been able to. Looking back, I wish someone would have told me that I would want to spend more time at Princeton, not less. 


Daniela with three friends

Starting at Princeton as a sophomore gave me more time to explore myself and venture into new spaces. Although I came in with a strong sense of who I was and what my aspirations and academic strengths were, Princeton has taught me to never stop exploring and to pursue every opportunity that intrigues me. Though I had originally planned on pursuing a different concentration, I switched to Spanish and Portuguese when I learned I would have more flexibility to pursue coursework and independent research on immigration. Now, I am writing my senior thesis on how Mexico has become this “big jail” for migrants seeking asylum. Switching concentrations was the best decision I’ve made at Princeton as it has given me so many skills and new perspectives that have even informed my post-graduation plans. You never know where or when you might discover a new passion.


Daniela with a friend holding a sign that reads "42 YMCA of the pines, refugee & forced migration"

Every semester pushed me out of my comfort zone in different ways, but there was always a professor or resource to turn to for guidance. I would be remiss to not say that there were challenging moments, tough assignments and plenty of second-guessing, but I never felt alone. I knew I could always turn to our transfer adviser, Dr. Shaw, or a fellow transfer student for advice. The intellectual and personal growth that I've experienced is indescribable, and it's propelled me to become even more determined and energized to achieve my goals. I no longer doubt myself or question if I belong; Princeton helped me realize that I can pursue my biggest dreams. As I move on to the next chapter of my life, I'm so humbled to have been a member of this first transfer cohort, and nothing makes me happier than being a part of this unique community and seeing it grow.

SPIA Policy Task Force

One of the main reasons I chose to concentrate in the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA) is the format of the junior papers (JPs). In one semester, juniors enroll in a research seminar, in which students learn quantitative and qualitative research methods and then write a research-based JP. In the other semester, juniors have a policy task force, which involves writing a JP that makes recommendations about the best ways to address important public policy problems affecting society today. As I was deciding which department to concentrate in, the policy task force excited me because it would allow me to gain practical skills in policy research and development. I just finished my task force and greatly learned and benefited from this experience. 

My task force was called Improving Health Care for Vulnerable Populations in the U.S. During the COVID-19 Pandemic and it was taught by Heather Howard, lecturer in SPIA and former Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services. One of the coolest parts of the task force is that they are often taught by people with real-world experience in the subject being studied. Professor Howard has an amazing breadth of knowledge and I learned so much from her. Our class only had nine students, so we all had the opportunity to get to know each other and contribute to class discussions.

It was fascinating to study the pandemic as it was unfolding in front of us. Each week, we talked about a different theme, ranging from racial disparities in health outcomes to vaccination strategies to maternal mortality. I was inspired by a discussion of the disproportionate impact the virus has had on people residing in long-term care facilities such as nursing homes. I wrote my JP on the importance of home and community-based services, which ensure that senior citizens and people with disabilities can receive support and assistance at home in a way that maximizes independence and prioritizes safety. I conducted research on how other states provide home and community-based services in order to make recommendations for the state of New Jersey.

In the last week of the semester, my classmates and I presented our recommendations to a group of stakeholders who work at the New Jersey Department of Health. It was incredible to be able to discuss our research findings with the people in charge of making decisions about the state’s health care system. They listened to what we had to say and will hopefully keep our research in mind going forward.

Because of my task force, I feel more comfortable researching and evaluating the best policy proposals to solve a problem. I plan to use these skills in my senior thesis and future career in policy and advocacy. This experience confirmed to me that I made the right choice in concentrating in SPIA.

The Best Places to Study on Campus

After nearly nine months of doing all of my schoolwork in my bedroom or in my basement, I miss doing work in coffee shops, dining halls and most of all, libraries.  Princeton’s libraries are one of the most amazing parts of the University, so there’s no wonder I miss them.  

Firestone Library is probably the most well-known of the Princeton libraries.  It’s huge, with three below-ground and three above-ground floors.  It’s full of conference rooms, individual desks, couches and books, of course.  Princeton students come here to study all the time.  If I woke up early on a weekend and had a lot of studying to do, I would snag a fourth floor conference room for my friends and I to do our homework together.  If I had a problem set that needed my concentration, I would grab an empty desk on any floor.  And if I had an hour in between classes and needed a break, I would put my headphones on and take a quick nap on the second floor couches (hey, don’t judge). 

Firestone Library

Lots of people also love the Architecture Library for its central location, big windows and relative emptiness.  I spent several evenings working on essays or research at a desk in front of a window, people-watching when I could no longer stare at the screen.  When it started to get dark outside, I’d pop over to Murray-Dodge Cafe and grab a freshly-baked cookie before trekking back to my dorm room for the night.

There’s also a number of study spots on campus that are joked about as places to go when you just want to talk with your friends, but pretend you are studying.  The lower level of Frist Campus Center is one of these places; it seems that the whole student body passes through the building twice a day.  Another one is the Julian Street Library, or “J Street,” located above Wilcox Dining Hall.  Somehow, as soon as you sit down and open up your laptop, a friend you hadn’t talked to in weeks would be passing through and would stop to say hi. 

But my favorite place to study at Princeton would have to be East Pyne.  As a Slavic Languages and Literatures concentrator, my department and many of my courses are housed in this building, alongside our friends in Classics, Comparative Literature, German, Renaissance and Early Modern Studies, French and Italian, and Spanish and Portuguese.  In between classes, I often head to the East Pyne library, one of the most beautiful places on campus, to get some studying done.  It was one of the first places I saw when I visited the University for the first time, and I don’t think I’ll ever cease to be in awe when I pass by.  East Pyne reminds me of how lucky I am and how amazing the school I attend is.

East Pyne

I can’t wait until the next time I get to set up my laptop and backpack by one of the stained-glass windows of East Pyne.  Till then, I’ll settle for the regular window in my bedroom.  

Junior Paper in the Time of Virtual Learning

Independent work is a defining part of the Princeton experience. As a junior, I write a Junior Paper (JP), which, for English concentrators, is a 25-30 page paper of my original research and argument. When it was announced that the semester would be virtual, I was initially nervous about how my JP would work. Would I have access to Firestone library resources? Would I have the virtual support from my JP adviser? Where would I even begin to start thinking about my topic? 

Luckily, the Department of English was more than prepared for virtual independent work. Every junior English concentrator gets assigned to a junior seminar, where we learn to engage with scholars, formulate an argument and close-read texts. The seminar was easily moved online to Zoom. Because there is a very small number of students in the course, we get to have in-depth, interesting conversations each week, and we really get to know each other. To practice for our JP, we submit three papers that each center on a different feature of English scholarly writing, and we also lead the discussion on a text once during the semester. 

English JP advisers are there to talk through your ideas every step of the way. I met with my JP adviser early on in the semester just to share some of the topics I was interested in, and then they pointed me towards various sources that may be helpful for my research. Not only are JP advisers ready to guide you, but other professors in the English department are as well. I’ve reached out to some of my English professors to discuss their research that relates to my topic, as well as just chat during Zoom office hours about my ideas.

Firestone Library also has many resources online for research. I’ve never yet encountered an issue when I needed to access something that wasn’t online, but Princeton librarians are also there to help, should students ever need access to something that they can’t find online. 

For my JP, I’ve decided to write on the role of unnamed female protagonists in literature. I’ll be comparing Zadie Smith’s "Swing Time", which has an unnamed female narrator, to Jane Austen’s "Emma", in which the heroine’s name is both the title of the text and the first word of the opening. As I’m also pursuing a certificate in Gender & Sexuality Studies, I’m interested in the questions: how do we interpret the literary choice to have an unnamed female protagonist: is it merely an implication of a lack of identity (as was previously argued by scholars), or might we center in on the female nameless protagonist, in particular, to understand the gendered implications of this choice? 

Zadie Smith Swing Time book cover

Emma book cover

I’m looking forward to exploring my topic further and continuing to have the virtual support that Princeton offers for independent work! 

My Freshman Seminar

Princeton prides itself in offering a multitude of study abroad and travel options, and making those as accessible to everyone as possible.  While COVID-19 has suspended most travel, I find myself reminiscing about past trips, including one university-sponsored trip I took just last year.

My freshman seminar course, FRS 161, was a geosciences course taught by Frederik Simons and Adam Maloof.  Over the course of the semester, we were to work with climate data and MATLAB to explore how climate change affected Italian olive orchards, even spending our fall break in Italy gathering data in the field.  Of course, I jumped at the chance for free travel and worked hard on my application to the class.  To my surprise, I got in, even though I had no programming experience and admittedly struggled with science.  I later found out that Adam and Frederik had read all of our essays personally, and selected a group they thought would be enthusiastic and hard working.  I can attest to the hard-working part — a year later, and I still count that class as the hardest one I have ever taken.  

However, I was sure all the long nights spent at my computer would be worth it once the lab portion of the class came along.  While most Princeton students spent the last day of fall midterms preparing to visit home or sleeping off the late nights studying, I spent it frantically packing my duffel bag and racing to the bus our class would take to the airport.  A bus ride and a plane flight later, I was blinking in the late-morning sun in Naples, Italy, the warmth on my skin in stark contrast to the air-conditioned flight or the chilly October morning I had left behind in New Jersey.   

A blue ocean and sky framed by cliffs on either side

Over the course of the eight days FRS 161 spent in Italy, we drove along the beautiful Amalfi coast, collected data from three different olive orchards (where we were welcomed with open arms and presented with gifts of olive oil), visited historic Pompeii and majestic Mt. Vesuvius and shared pasta with our hosts at an Italian monastery.  This was no vacation — we were in the orchards from nearly sun up to sundown, and spent nights doing data entry and modeling.  I recall hours spent calling out pH readings for my classmates to record as we worked by flashlight and headlamp late into the night.  But I also recall running into the cold ocean at the end of a long hike, gleefully grabbing all of the gas station snacks I didn’t recognize from home, and finding stray cats wandering among the ruins of Pompeii.

A gray striped cat lying in a patch of sun.

Although the days of international travel and unmasked gatherings seem so far away, scrolling through the old photos reminds me that there was a time before this, and there will be a time after.  I eagerly await the day when I can once again apply for Princeton courses that promise international adventure!


Thesis-ing Online

The senior thesis is the capstone project of your Princeton career: it’s normally between 80 and 120 pages, and is an opportunity at once to explore an academic passion and to produce original academic research. It’s also a huge time commitment for seniors. Many seniors begin work — oftentimes, after receiving summer research grants or fellowships — on their theses shortly after their junior year. Procrastinating types often wait until later in the fall (or occasionally, until the new year) to get started.

This year is a little bit different for seniors, and for their theses. The travel grants that so many students look forward to receiving each year, which often afford them the opportunity to journey across the country or abroad to conduct first-hand research for their thesis, were unilaterally canceled due to COVID-19. The vast majority of seniors also don’t have the opportunity to work with their advisers in person; instead, that communication is happening largely over email. Many students who had hoped to work in laboratories have had to revise their thesis plans so that research can be conducted at home. And being off-campus for the fall has meant students don’t have access to libraries and study spaces where, just a year ago, it was common to see seniors, surrounded by books, typing away on their capstone projects. 

But students and the University are adapting. My department, Politics, has worked hard to keep digital research funding available for seniors wherever possible, even if the pandemic has stolen much of the fun from its use. My thesis adviser and I have met over Zoom, and I’m excited and well prepared to begin my work. The University Library has stepped into overdrive, responding to student requests for scanned volumes and access to digital resources normally unavailable to off-campus students.

The senior thesis holds near-mythic status at Princeton; writing one is an experience shared by nearly all Princeton alumni, and many graduates cite it as the most fulfilling endeavor of their academic career. Writing a thesis is a way for seniors to explore future projects and career paths: Wendy Kopp, a member of Princeton’s Class of 1989, laid the framework for Teach for America, which she would go on to found, in her thesis. And, as is the case with most things, it would be impossible to argue the experience of piecing together a thesis will be quite the same this year. But I’ve been heartened by the way students, the faculty, and the University have come together to provide support for seniors in the home stretch of our Princeton careers.

My Study Abroad Adventure(s)

Even before I arrived at Princeton, I knew that I wanted to study abroad. I have always been curious about travel and experiencing new languages and cultures. My initial plan was to study abroad in a Spanish-speaking country. I had studied Spanish throughout high school and was keenly interested in the culture and history of Spanish-speaking countries around the world. That said, my academic interests shifted and I decided to concentrate in Near Eastern Studies (NES)

An essential part of the NES concentration involves studying the languages of the Middle East. As a result, after my first year, I used Princeton funding to travel to Israel to study Hebrew. I had an incredible experience and went back during winter break of sophomore year to continue my studies and then secured a summer job in Tel Aviv. After two language study abroad experiences and a summer spent working abroad, I thought that I would not want to go abroad for another semester. Studying abroad for a semester can seem intimidating. Not only do you have to manage the cultural differences that come with living and studying in another country, but you also must be prepared to leave behind your friends, activities, classes and everything else that feels familiar and safe about Princeton. 

Grace in Jerusalem

However, as I entered my junior year, I was offered an incredible chance to study abroad again — this time not in the Middle East but at SOAS University of London, a specialty school for Middle East studies. While it was tough leaving Princeton, I decided to put myself outside my comfort zone and had an amazing experience. Ultimately, while my semester abroad was cut short due to COVID-19, I am still grateful for the opportunity to have the experience.

While being abroad meant that I missed out on certain aspects of Princeton, it also meant that I got to have experiences that I never would have had inside the "Orange Bubble." I was able to pick from a wide variety of classes related to the study of the Middle East and be surrounded by a large cohort of like-minded peers. I had the chance to hone my language skills, live in a city and experience all of the vibrancy of city life London has to offer. I was joined by exchange students from all over Europe and the world. Some of my favorite memories are of late nights spent singing songs with my new friends, switching between English, German, Norwegian, Italian and more.

Finally, one of the most meaningful elements of my study abroad was the learning I got to do outside of the classroom. I did some of my research for my junior independent work in Oxford and Cambridge, and enjoyed seeing the incredible architecture of Scotland on a weekend trip to Edinburgh. I took the train around Europe — visiting the Swiss Alps, walking the streets of Paris and hanging out on the beach in Barcelona. I even managed to make it to Australia on one of our longer breaks from school. For someone who loves traveling, these experiences were truly priceless. 

Grace in Scotland

All in all, I am beyond grateful for the study abroad experiences that I have had during my time at Princeton. Each one has helped to show me the extent to which Princeton offers every student the opportunity to engage in learning in a variety of meaningful ways.

Picking a Research Topic

A couple days after my admission to Princeton, I opened my mailbox to find a thick orange envelope. Inside were a series of pamphlets and flyers that would prepare me for my time at Princeton, discussing everything from student life to the Novogratz Bridge Year Program. After poring through those materials, and the University’s corresponding online resources, I came away with two key impressions. The first was that Princetonians really love the color orange (it’s true!). The second was that students really care about research. 

Even after looking online, I couldn’t truly picture what “research” might mean for a student like me. I knew I was interested in social sciences and the humanities, and I’d always imagined “researchers” wearing white coats and goggles at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).  It wasn’t until my writing seminar at Princeton — a mandatory class for first-year students that introduces a variety of research methods and principles — that I got a grasp of what academic research outside of the scientific disciplines might look like. Even then, as I was reading through and analyzing academic articles at a new, rigorous level, I wasn’t sure how I was ever going to come up with a topic to research myself. How was I, a public school kid from the suburbs, going to come up with an original research topic with academic merit?

I’ll let you in on a secret: it’s not as hard as you think. Every student at Princeton is required to produce a senior thesis as well as independent work during their junior year. What all that work has in common is that it represents an exploration of something each student is passionate about. As you declare your concentration (our word for major) as a sophomore and delve into your chosen field, you’ll discover with your professors that there are myriad questions left unanswered in your discipline’s literature. There is so much we don’t know! And there’s no way you won’t be curious about it. Many incoming students are under the misguided belief that their independent work has to be revolutionary somehow — that their findings have to be game-changers if they want to get an A or the respect of their professors. What they inevitably find, however, is that academic progress is oftentimes made up of minute contributions to larger questions. It’s bit by bit that many of society’s biggest questions are answered. It’s your job as a researcher to add another piece to the puzzle. 

Princeton is a community of student researchers. That really does include every student — no student has ever graduated without turning in a research project. And don’t worry, there’s no chance you’ll be the first. Research can seem daunting, especially to students in disciplines not typically associated with “research.” But it’s nowhere near as nerve-wracking as you think, and the curiosity you’ll develop as a Princeton student will leave you with many more leads than you could ever research.