Independent work caps Princeton experience

Princeton NJ -- Both an academic requirement and a rite of passage, the process of writing the senior thesis -- an independent work that typically runs about 100 pages -- is daunting but exhilarating. Seniors who have been submitting their works over the last several weeks now can look forward to the next really big thing: graduation. Started in 1931, the senior thesis required of all undergraduates is unique to Princeton. Whether a research paper or a collection of poetry, the thesis is an original, in-depth project that focuses on a student's specific interests. All senior theses are archived in the Mudd Manuscript Library, and some have reached wider audiences through the value of their research and ideas. Below and inside are some examples from this year's crop.

Steven Schultz


Professor Eric Wieschaus, who advised Adam Friedman on his senior thesis, called the project "an intellectual stretch" -- for faculty member and student alike.


Adam Friedman's original plan for his senior thesis in molecular biology seemed ambitious enough. He wanted to investigate the genetics of how embryos develop by studying mice, then taking what he learned and testing it in fruit flies.

In the end, Friedman went even further, disproving his original thesis idea, generating another and then serendipitously hitting on a third idea, which he developed into a line of research that promises to yield insights into both fruit flies and mice.

"What's impressive about Adam is that he is close to having two completed projects, and has started on a third," said Friedman's adviser Eric Wieschaus, who received the 1996 Nobel Prize in medicine for his work on the genetics of fruit fly embryos. "He is extraordinarily efficient in getting things done."

Friedman began his research in his junior year working in the mouse lab of Thomas Vogt, who has since moved to pharmaceutical maker Merck & Co. He studied a particular protein called "lunatic fringe," which drives a critical cascade of events early in embryonic development. Friedman was trying to understand how the activity of lunatic fringe is regulated by other proteins that slice off parts of it.

He developed an idea for how this slicing works in mice, but then found it was wrong when he transferred the same genes into fruit flies. He began to work on what Wieschaus called a "totally original" alternate theory, when he found that one of the molecules he was studying had a profound effect on an entirely different cascade of events, these involving a protein called TGF-beta, or transforming growth factor-beta.

"I think that one of the things that makes his thesis all the more remarkable is that I don't work on TGF or fringe," said Wieschaus. "This is a project that was already an intellectual stretch for me. There are many labs that focus entirely on one of these molecules."

In the meantime, Friedman, the winner of this year's Pyne Prize, was making his own intellectual stretch: He also is general manager of Theatre Intime and has devoted considerable time to acting in campus theater productions. Most recently, he appeared in "Angels in America," which finished in March.

That made for some difficult scheduling, but his enthusiasm for the thesis research helped draw him through it. "During the process of writing it, I really became excited about it and I really wanted to do it," he said.

"It's been an invaluable experience for me," he said of the thesis. "I learned a tremendous amount about how science works and how to approach problems."

In the end, he said, "All that propaganda about a feeling of completion and success is actually true."

Next year, Friedman plans to enter a joint M.D/Ph.D. program at Harvard Medical School.


May 7, 2001
Vol. 90, No. 27
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Senior thesis
Independent work caps Princeton experience
Delving into bioethics
Researching the court
Combining two interests
Analyzing theses topics

Minicourses provide 'continuing education'
Dale touched students lives
Faculty team serves up a slice of the universe

Communiversity 2001
PWB readers surveyed soon


By the numbers: Endowed professorships
Nassau Notes
Calendar of events

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Editor: Ruth Stevens
Calendar editor: Carolyn Geller
Contributing writers: Karin Dienst, Jennifer Greenstein, Marilyn Marks, Caroline Moseley, Steven Schultz, Lauren Sun
Photographer: Denise Applewhite
Design: Mahlon Lovett, Laurel Masten Cantor
Web edition: Mahlon Lovett