Web Exclusives:On the Campus...

November 3, 2004:

Thesis Research on a Global Scale

By Katherine Reilly ’05

For the Class of 2005, the new school year brought conversations about staying on pace to complete the senior thesis. Students who had begun chapters intimidated those who only had found advisers. Classmates with vague notions of a topic were reassured by friends resolutely avoiding the issue. As students unpacked suitcases and hung posters in their last rooms at Princeton, they began to develop the bonds of the University’s thesis tradition.

By September, the thesis journey had already taken some students around the world, on Princeton’s dime. Woodrow Wilson School major Katy Glenn ’05 received $6,500 from the school to spend the summer in Argentina, visiting human-rights groups, combing through libraries, and conducting interviews to explore genocide committed against political minorities during the country’s “Dirty War.” For the Georgia native, living among the people she would write about was invaluable. “My unofficial research started when I realized that Buenos Aires taxi drivers really like to talk, and sometimes have interesting insights on the dictatorship,” she said. “I ended up explaining my research every time I took a taxi, and then listening to the driver’s opinion as we made our way through traffic.”

Civil and environmental engineering student Kyle Meng ’05 used his $5,000 University grant to study levels of carbon dioxide emissions in China. “This trip was an essential part of my thesis from the very beginning,” Meng said of his field work. Because of changes in Chinese industry, and stonewalling on the part of the government, “there really isn’t a central source for this kind of data in China.” The research Meng conducted will be put to use when he explores whether China could implement an environmentally safe system to capture emissions and store them underground.

Meredythe Ryan ’05 also went abroad in the hopes her thesis might offer suggestions for progress. The Woodrow Wilson School major plans to recommend how the Kosovar justice system can transition from United Nations supervision to independence. Living in Pristina on the $4,000 she received from the Wilson School and the Dean of the College, Ryan observed the trials of war criminals and organized-crime magnates. She also talked to the people helping to make the transition happen. “It was so bizarre to me that they are not citizens of anywhere,” she said. “They have no passports, no rights … But most people are open and honest and willing to talk about the problems of their society and what needs to happen to make it better.”

Though some Princeton seniors spent their summers globetrotting, others conducted thesis research within the confines of FitzRandolph Gate. Since its formation in the early 1980’s, the molecular biology department has asked rising seniors to remain on campus for the summer, beginning work in labs. Affectionately dubbed “MOL camp” by students, the program is designed to expose seniors to a laboratory environment and allow them to collect meaningful results. Senior Jon Rosen got a head start exploring pancreas development in zebra fish, the topic of his thesis. “Given how slowly the data can come, I can’t imagine being able to write a thesis without those extra months,” he said. Rosen’s advisor, Rebecca Burdine, stressed the importance of the summer experience for her students, saying, “It gives them the ability to really do research on an intense daily basis.”

Summer in Princeton wasn’t all laboratory time for the molecular biology students. Alison Gammie, a lecturer in the department, helped to organize a faculty forum for professors to present their research, as well as weekly student discussion groups and an end-of-summer project presentation. Students took it upon themselves to set up social events, including dinners and ice-cream outings at the Halo Pub. Senior Ann Raldow studied virus advancement over the summer but found what happened outside of her lab just as exciting. “I made a lot of new friends this summer – friends from my department – which was really nice,” she said.

Whether they began their work in Princeton’s labs or on research expeditions to far away places, seniors almost certainly will end up in the same places as thesis deadlines approach. The University’s basement computer clusters, Firestone study carrels, and Frist dining tables will be populated by weary seniors come springtime. For now, the Class of 2005 can share stories of summer work and race to complete preparations, aware that the hard part of this senior thesis tradition is yet to come.


Katherine Reilly, a Woodrow Wilson School major from Short Hills, N.J., can be reached at kcreilly@princeton.edu.