Undergrads get taste of graduate student life

July 12, 2007 11:52 a.m.
Ho and Muigai

Below left: Princeton graduate student Jennifer Johnson met with students in the Princeton Summer Undergraduate Research Experience to discuss how to find good source materials for academic research.

Below left: Elijah Lowe (left), a computer science major at Morehouse College, is working with associate professor Mona Singh (right) and Princeton graduate student Tony Capra on a computational biology project that would predict which portions of a protein sequence are important for its function.

Photos: Denise Applewhite 

This summer college student Christine Ho is getting a taste of what it's like to study for a Ph.D. at a major research university like Princeton.

Ho, who is going to be a senior at the University of Texas-Austin this fall, is spending nine weeks at Princeton researching the role of women in post-colonial Algeria. She meets once a week with Princeton professor Simon Gikandi, an expert in the culture and literature of Africa, to discuss the reading she has done and talk about the direction in which her research is heading.

"Simon takes whatever I'm interested in and gives me 17 new leads," said Ho. "I'm gaining a lot of insight into the independent study aspect of graduate school."

Ho is one of 14 students participating in the Princeton Summer Undergraduate Research Experience, which matches each student with a faculty mentor to provide guidance for a major summer research project. The goal of the program is to help students who have a serious interest in pursuing a Ph.D. get prepared for graduate school by plunging them into intense independent research and offering lectures and seminars on other aspects of graduate school. Undergraduates who are underrepresented minorities, who are from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds or who are from liberal arts colleges are especially encouraged to apply.


"We are providing research training and information about graduate school to a group of students -- many minorities and many from institutions that don't have research opportunities -- to give those students an opportunity to build skills, learn about graduate school and become better acquainted with Princeton," said David Redman, associate dean for academic affairs in the Graduate School, which sponsors the program.

Students get practice presenting their research to others when they travel together to the Leadership Alliance Symposium, a consortium of student summer research programs held in Stamford, Conn., at the end of July. The students also attend workshops on the graduate school application process and financial aid. Two Princeton graduate students, Jennifer Johnson and Curtis Huttenhower, serve as mentors, leading discussions about choosing research topics and research methods.

Lowe, Capra and Singh

Associate professor Mona Singh is working with Elijah Lowe, a computer science major at Morehouse College, on a computational biology project that would create a program to predict which portions of a protein sequence are important for its function. Princeton graduate student Tony Capra also is working with Lowe on the project.

"I'm a big fan of summer research programs for undergraduates," Singh said. "They are a terrific way to expose students to research, and to show them what a life in academia and research might be like. I took part in one of these programs myself -- a program for women and minorities at AT&T Bell Labs -- and it heavily influenced my decision to go to graduate school."

For his part, Lowe said the program has broadened his horizons. "I am increasing my knowledge base in the area of biology so that I can use it, along with my programming skills, to create applications that will aid biologists," Lowe said. "This is very useful because experiments are so expensive and time consuming."

Participating in the program for the last two years has been rewarding for Gikandi. "I have been amazed by the intelligence and imagination of the young scholars I have been privileged to work with in the program," he said. "Christine's capacity to raise important questions is unusual for an undergraduate student. Working with her has forced me to rethink a whole set of questions that I thought were settled in my mind, and this is what makes this program thrilling for both mentors and mentees."

Ho has found living and studying at Princeton has given her a window into graduate student life. "This is something you can't read about or look up on a website," she said. "It's something you can only experience for yourself."