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October 19, 2005:

Cinderella men; scholarly women

By P.G. Sittenfeld ’07

Rocky, Rudy, David vs. Goliath – everyone loves a good underdog story.  This fall, a group of seven undergraduate engineering students will attempt to add their names to the pantheon of Cinderellas.

Their challenge – issued by the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) – is to build an autonomous vehicle that will drive itself across a 132-mile desert course from Southern California to Las Vegas.  For the right-brained among us, that sounds hard enough.  But to go down in the history books, their vehicle – dubbed the Prospect 11 – will have to complete the course ahead of the other 43 teams remaining in the competition.  The winner takes home a $2 million prize.

As one of a small number of teams comprised entirely of undergraduates, Team Prospect 11 knows that few regard them as legitimate contenders.  

“Our main sponsor is Tom Haines’ Pick Your Own Blueberry Farm,” said engineering Professor Alain Kornhauser, who is coaching the team.  “Of course, nobody’s picking us to win.”

Heavily-favored entrants such as Stanford and Carnegie Mellon are spending millions of dollars developing their vehicles.  Princeton’s costs, by competition’s end, will total a modest $75,000.

Still, the students say they aren’t intimidated by bigger budgets.  “We’ve adopted as our team motto: ‘Money can’t buy brains,’ ” said Anand Atreya ’07. 

Their success thus far has come from pouring themselves into the project, spending hours every day in a garage in the basement of the engineering quad.  While there, they brainstorm ideas and install high-tech gizmos and widgets into a 2005 silver GMC pickup truck so that ultimately it will think for itself.

Several students even stayed on campus throughout the summer to work on the truck.  “I think it’s fair to say we’re obsessed,” said Brendan Collins ’08.  “But this is an exciting challenge with very real applications and we’re getting to do the actual work.”

In last year’s competition – the first time DARPA sponsored the contest – half the teams failed to get their vehicles across the start line.  Carnegie Mellon’s vehicle traveled the farthest at just over seven miles. 

Team members will soon fly out to Southern California, where they will stay for 10 days during the competition.  The students admit to some trepidation but there is also an emerging air of confidence.

“I see no reason why we can’t win,” Atreya said.

Above all, the team agrees that the journey has been the reward.

“We’ve already won,” Kornhauser said.  “They rest is just gravy.  Our main objective is academic, not winning the money.  We want to motivate students to undertake more wild and crazy research projects like this one.”

[Update: Team Prospect 11 made it to the finals, but its vehicle suffered a software glitch 10 miles into the final challenge and had to drop out.]

IN RECENT YEARS, several Princeton grads have surfaced in the world of reality television, including Kyle Brandt ’02 on MTV’s Real World: Chicago and Jen Massey ’96 on NBC’s The Apprentice. Now Princeton can boast a student whose foray in this realm is more in line with the University’s quest for knowledge.

Freshman Milana Zaurova was a contestant on ABC’s summer show, The Scholar, in which 10 standout high school students from across the country competed for scholarships to top schools.

Zaurova, who emigrated with her family from Russia to Manhattan when she was three, says that when she first heard about the show she was skeptical.  “There was a flier for the show posted in my school, and when I saw the words ‘reality TV’ I was like, ‘Eww.’  Then I saw that you could win a full ride to college.”

Out of 2,500 applicants, Zaurova was chosen to fill one of the 10 spots on the show, which was filmed last January on the University of Southern California’s campus. 

Contestants faced off in Jeopardy!-like quiz bowls, community service projects, and sudden-death oral examinations to determine the cerebral survivors.  Zaurova made it to the final five and appeared in all six episodes. 

Despite the national exposure, Zaurova says that starting at Princeton was the same for her as for any other freshmen: a combination of butterflies and excitement about new friends and rigorous academics. 

“Most people here don’t even know I was on TV,” she said.

Still, on occasion, Zaurova receives celebrity treatment.  “One girl came up to me, and was like, ‘Oh, my god, you’re that girl from The Scholar!  Then, at the end, she said, ‘Thank you so much for talking to me.’  I was like, ‘I’m not the Dali Lama.’ ”

P.G. Sittenfeld ’07 is an English major from Cincinnati, Ohio.