Program strengthens links between work inside and outside the classroom

Oct. 15, 2009 9:44 a.m.
student at podium

When the more than 100 students who completed internships this summer through the Princeton Environmental Institute and the Grand Challenges Program returned to campus, they had at least one more commitment.

As a culminating experience, they were required to report on what they learned during their experiences with faculty, research labs, governmental agencies, nongovernmental organizations, nonprofit organizations and industry enterprises in more than 20 countries. On two Fridays this fall, the students participated in the Princeton Environmental Institute/Grand Challenges Summer of Learning Symposium.

"I have come to appreciate the importance of practical work in one's educational experience," said senior Fatu Conteh, a chemistry major who spent the summer working on a self-initiated project to establish five hand-dug wells in Ethiopia as a Development Grand Challenge intern. "I got the opportunity to put faces to the problems I discussed in the classroom." (See more accounts from the student interns below.)

The PEI/Grand Challenges internship program stresses faculty mentoring of students as they engage in summer work that complements their academic studies. The internship application process and debriefing of students upon their return to campus in the fall is an important element in shaping the summer experience in the context of the students' academic program. By linking the summer internships to the classroom experience, students can enrich and extend the knowledge they gain at Princeton and beyond, according to Katharine Hackett, associate director of the Princeton Environmental Institute/Grand Challenges, who directs the internship program.

Digging well

Senior Fatu Conteh (in white slacks) gathered with some of the workers at the site where she helped supervise the establishment of five hand-dug wells during her internship in Ethiopia. (Photo: Courtesy of Fatu Conteh)

"The internship program serves a unique role in our students' educational program," she said. "It allows Princeton undergraduates to leverage their classroom experience and intellectual capacities in real-world settings and through practical contributions."

The scope of the PEI/Grand Challenges internship program is broad, and it reflects the diversity of student academic backgrounds and their interests in environmental topics. These include energy, climate, infectious disease, global health, sustainable development, conservation and environmental justice. One-third of the interns worked on faculty-led research projects. Half of the assignments were in other countries, including Botswana, China, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Finland, France, Ghana, India, Italy, Kenya, Lesotho, Mozambique, the Netherlands, Peru, Saint Lucia, Sierra Leone, South Africa and Thailand. Students from 25 academic disciplines participated -- a reflection of the interdisciplinary nature of the program.

The Summer of Learning Symposium panels were organized around Grand Challenges topics in energy, health, development and sustainability. Hosted as two day-long events, the symposiums enabled students to share the details of their internships and research projects, preview their papers and discuss future research and independent work. The panels were moderated by faculty and others with research or professional expertise in the subject areas.

student presenting with laptop

Senior Justine Hausheer led a session on her internship during the symposium. By linking the summer internships to the classroom experience, students can enrich and extend the knowledge they gain at Princeton and beyond, according to Katharine Hackett, associate director of the Princeton Environmental Institute/Grand Challenges, who directs the internship program. "It allows Princeton undergraduates to leverage their classroom experience and intellectual capacities in real-world settings and through practical contributions," she said. (Photo: Denise Applewhite)

Panel topics were selected and grouped to ensure that students who had worked on similar topics, but from different academic perspectives, presented together so they could learn from each other's findings and experiences. Several students expect to extend their summer research as they develop their senior theses. A number reported on upcoming publications or policy briefs to which they had contributed. Some left the villages in which they worked better places for local inhabitants, and others were able to conduct graduate-level research alongside faculty in lab and field research.

In the area of health, interns studied disease microbials, therapeutics, antibiotic recognition, drug resistant strains, and policies aimed at disease spread and prevention with particular emphasis on malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS. Development Grand Challenges  panels addressed sustainable challenges facing the African continent, with students discussing issues such as resource scarcity, biodiversity preservation and poverty in rural Africa. Specific projects focused on issues at the intersection of water, land, climate, human populations and biodiversity.

Energy and climate change panelists discussed a range of technical projects, including work on fuel cells, hydrogen purification, water diffusion and solar cells. Several students traveled to Bermuda to study the effects of climate change on corals, reef sediment microbiology and human waste pollution. Additional internships addressed sustainability issues on a local to global basis. Several students contributed to campus sustainable initiatives, including work with the Butler College green roofs and University Dining Services' purchasing metrics. Others examined energy efficiency dynamics for low-income residential properties in Trenton and made contributions to local land conservation and invasive species eradication projects. 

Hackett said, "The Grand Challenges program was founded with a vision of combining the best of Princeton's research and teaching for a broader impact on influencing solutions to the world's most intractable environmental challenges. There is evidence through our students' internship experiences that we are doing just that."

The PEI/Grand Challenges internship program is a signature program of environmental studies at Princeton and the Grand Challenges Initiative. Grand Challenges was launched by PEI in 2007 in cooperation with the Woodrow Wilson School and the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Internship opportunities available through PEI and Grand Challenges, including an archive of past internship projects, can be viewed online.

In their own words

The students wrote the following about their internships:

Health Grand Challenge Intern

Name: Ashley Schoettle '10
Major: Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs
Internship: Working at Resources for the Future in Washington, D.C.

"This summer, I worked at Resources for the Future (RFF), a nonpartisan nonprofit think tank in Washington D.C., that provides policy research on energy, climate, sustainability and health. I conducted a project (and my resulting paper is soon to be published!) researching the effects of insecticide-treated bed nets on mosquito behavior, an area that has not been explored despite its crucial long-term significance. I loved working at RFF, for it provided me with valuable economic and journal-based research skills that complemented my field experiences from my previous three summers spent in Africa. I learned just how important and valuable quantitative skills are in the field of global health and hope to continue engaging these skills in the future (I am now writing an economic/quantitative based senior thesis on the efficacy of foreign aid.) I also loved engaging with my co-workers, from whom I learned about cutting-edge research in everything from forestry regulation and economics of climate change, to innovative and sustainable pricing schemes for malaria drugs. It was truly a summer experience that I will never forget."

studying proton membranes

Yin Liang performed tests at the State Key Lab of Material Synthesis at Wuhan University of Technology in China. (Photo: Courtesy of Yin Liang)

Siebel Energy Grand Challenge Intern

Name: Yin Liang '11
Major: Chemical engineering
Internship: Working in the State Key Lab of Material Synthesis at Wuhan University of Technology in China

"I interned under the supervision of Professor Mu Pan. Professor Pan's group achieved outstanding results in the studies of membrane materials for PEM (Proton Exchange Membrane) Fuel Cells. [Princeton] Professor [Jay] Benziger of the chemical engineering department kindly introduced me to this research internship. I designed a diamond-shaped flow channel and fitted it into a small (5 centimeters-by-5 centimeters) fuel cell. Then I performed various testings to study its performance in water management, which is a classic problem for fuel cell design operating at high humidity conditions. Comparisons were made with a 5 centimeters-by- 5 centimeters regular serpentine flow channel fuel cell. Throughout the internship I also participated in abundant hands-on work for testing and assembling of regular fuel cells for the lab. It gave me valuable experience and insights into alternative energy research. In the case of fuel cells and the proposed application to automobiles, I gained a better understanding of the prospects as well as challenges -- it is promising, but (there is) a long way to go. There are much more complicated issues in real world engineering design than membrane polymer or fluid dynamics. Now I'm more appreciative of the resources we are entitled to as undergraduates in Princeton."

collecting root samples

Ming Lu (left) and Molly O'Connor collected soil samples for laboratory analysis in Botswana. (Photo: Courtesy of Molly O'Connor)

Development Grand Challenge Interns

Names: Molly O'Connor '11 and Ming Lu '12
Majors: Civil and environmental engineering (O'Connor) and operations research and financial engineering (Lu)
Internship: Working on the Kalahari Transect Project in Botswana

(Molly O’Connor)

"This summer we helped out with fieldwork and data collection for a research project on carbon dynamics in southern Africa ecosystems. [Princeton] Professor [Kelly] Caylor is one of the principal investigators on this project, along with Professor Paolo D'Odorico (UVA) and Professor Greg Okin (UCLA). This internship was a very positive learning experience for me. The professors and graduate students I worked with were excellent mentors and teachers. In particular, Frances O'Donnell, a graduate student in CEE, taught me a lot. I learned about research methods and techniques. The field experience allowed me to learn about how scientists think and formulate research questions. This was my first research experience; it has been an opportunity to actively learn science. This summer I collected root samples so I can do a project on the relation between root physiology and annual rainfall; specifically, I want to study their hydraulic conductivity and resistance to annual rainfall. I might be able to develop this into my senior thesis. The chance to continue my summer learning through independent work is exciting, and I am grateful for the continued support of Professor Caylor. I would strongly recommend this summer internship program to other students. The research experience has informed my course selection and prepared me for independent work. In addition to learning a lot academically, I grew a lot personally by having the chance to live and work in Botswana."

launching at sunrise/working on nets

At left: Thinh Vu and Professor Tony Booth got ready to launch a boat in South Africa. At right: Melecia Wright made the artificial substrate she and Vu devised. (Photos: Courtesy of Melecia Wright)

Names: Melecia Wright '11 and Thinh Vu '12
Majors: Molecular biology (Wright) and undeclared (Vu)
Internship: Working in a laboratory at Rhodes University in South Africa

"It was an incredibly rewarding experience to work with a professional in the field of ichthyology [a branch of zoology devoted to the study of fish]. The fieldwork was what our professor, Tony Booth, called "real bucket science": preparation for our project involved sitting in a concrete workshop for hours while meticulously constructing 72 miniature artificial substrates from sustainable and cheap material. Working at Rhodes University was a stark contrast to the pristine laboratories at Princeton where everything is already prepared for use. We were pleased to have the opportunity to devise, execute and process our experiment each week. We also had some time to see Cape Town and visit the South African National Arts festival, and these were definite highlights of our trip. Grand Challenges granted us a special opportunity to enhance our understanding of culture while nursing our passion for ecology. I would recommend that any student with a love for practical fieldwork embark on a similar internship."

talking in Ethiopia

Fatu Conteh (in Princeton shirt) listened with the residents of Jorit, Ethiopia, as the father of her classmate, Hassen Yesuf, explained the purpose of their visit. (Photo: Courtesy of Fatu Conteh)

Names: Fatu Conteh '10 and Hassen Yesuf '10
Majors: Chemistry (Conteh) and astrophysical sciences (Yesuf)
Internship: Working on the Jorit Water Project in Ethiopia

(Fatu Conteh)

"This summer, thanks to grants from the Davis 100 Projects for Peace and the Princeton Environmental Institute, my friend Hassen Yesuf and I traveled to Jorit, Ethiopia, a semi-desert village about 350 kilometers from Addis Abba, to supervise the establishment of five hand-dug wells in and around the village. My involvement in this project stems from my experience growing up in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where water is usually hard to come by during the dry season. In fact, some of my vivid memories of my childhood are the times I spent standing behind long lines at the water well, and walking the long distance home with five gallons of water balanced on my head. This project has helped me see how the lack of water is an important problem that is stifling change in Ethiopia, Sierra Leone and most of sub-Saharan Africa. Moreover, after this project, I have come to appreciate the importance of practical work in one's educational experience. I got the opportunity to put faces to the problems I discussed in the classroom; the water crisis in Ethiopia and in many parts of Africa has the face of young girls who spend their days fetching water instead of going to school, and of women who travel miles from their villages to go do laundry. Moreover, I got to experience the frustrations and challenges that are usually involved in implementing solutions in developing countries. Therefore, I am very grateful for this experience and the ways it has deepened my understanding of the problems facing Africa."