October 11, 2000

President's Page

What They Did on Their Summer Vacations

Fall semester is in full swing, and the memory of summer fades as surely as the days grow shorter. But summer activity on campus leaves lasting legacies. The most visible, to the eye at least, are new facilities, including the wonderful Frist Campus Center which was completed in early September. In addition, the Sociology Department, the Office of Population Research, the social sciences library and members of the Woodrow Wilson School occupied the new Wallace Hall; the Finance Program settled into Bendheim Hall, the refurbished Dial Lodge; students took up residence in the renovated Blair dormitory; and Princeton's men's and women's crews moved into expanded headquarters at the Shea Rowing Center. The most important activities that take place over the summer appear later in the classroom, in scholarly publications, or in the University's academic program. Faculty use the summer to develop or renew courses and to further research. Often both undergraduate and graduate students are intimately involved with these activities.

The following brief summaries will give you some idea of how teaching and research here at Princeton were advanced this summer by faculty and students who are in the sciences and engineering. Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Naomi Leonard *85 is heading up a team of researchers, including both undergraduate and graduate students, that is trying to answer an age-old question in biology: How does a group -- whether schools of fish, flocks of birds, or herds of land animals -- move in a synchronized, seemingly intelligent way in the absence of any apparent designated leader? The research group used the summer to construct a submersible vehicle to help decipher the "traffic laws" that control this aspect of group behavior. Answers to the question could lead to the creation of a "school" of autonomous underwater vehicles that could greatly improve ocean exploration -- searching for plumes of pollution or airplane wreckage. Such a fleet, of unmanned submarines for example, could travel in formation and navigate obstacles without external prompting.

Our efforts to promote and foster excellence in teaching through the 250th Anniversary Fund for Innovation in Teaching gain important momentum during the summer months. One of the fund's objectives is to promote curriculum development. With support from the fund this summer, Professor of Physics David Wilkinson began work on a new course intended to introduce sophomores to the techniques, methods and equipment familiar to professional research scientists. The focus is on hands-on learning and mentoring by professionals. Students will work in groups of three on experiments and will be encouraged to seek advice from faculty, postdoctoral fellows, graduate students and physics staff members. The course will help them decide whether they want to pursue a laboratory science as an area of concentration by showing them what experimental science is really like. Professor Wilkinson explains that the course will also bring gifted young researchers to the attention of faculty. As he says, some students who may not excel in their regular course work, really "catch fire" in the laboratory. This course will bring these talents to light at a much earlier stage in the student's career than is now sometimes possible.

Several of the science departments sponsor summer programs specifically intended to engage undergraduates in ongoing research being conducted at the University. Under a program offered by the Department of Molecular Biology and partly funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, undergraduates between their third and fourth years spend the summer working in the laboratory on projects that often give them a head start on their senior theses.

For over a decade, Dr. Henry Gingrich and Kirsten Erwin in the Department of Chemistry have organized the Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP) to enable eight to ten first- and second-year undergraduates to participate in research in the department. Funding for the program is provided largely by pharmaceutical and chemical companies, with additional support from research grants to individual faculty members. Undergraduates accepted into the program work on a research project in the laboratory of one of the faculty members and participate in a seminar program in which they give a public presentation on their project.

As part of SURP, this summer Garani Nadaraja '02 participated in Dr. Suzanne Walker's research group studying a bacterial enzyme called MurG. This particular enzyme is essential to the bacteria's survival because of the role it plays in making the bacterial cell wall. What Dr. Walker and her group learn about the enzyme can help other scientists identify substances that can be used to destroy or impair MurG, and eventually lead to new antibiotics. Since bacteria are rapidly developing resistance to the full array of current clinically-used antibiotics, contributions to our understanding of such enzymes are of enormous importance.

Like other students in SURP and participants in research projects in other departments, over the summer Garani gained six weeks of intense hands-on laboratory experience and, in her case, made discoveries that will contribute to a possible new arsenal in fighting bacterial disease. She also discovered that chemistry is the field she wants to pursue as her area of concentration at Princeton -- not a bad end result for a summer "off."