Research interns get creative around science and social change in the summer of COVID-19
When the pandemic shut down almost all on-campus research, students who had arranged in-person summer research internships needed to pivot quickly.
In a typical year, the Office of the Dean of the College (ODOC) sponsors summer research opportunities for undergraduate students both on- and off-campus, complete with weekly workshops, lectures and community-building activities. But this year, as the students and mentors re-imagined their research plans to become projects that could be accomplished from home, two ODOC programs — the Office of Undergraduate Research (OUR) and the Program in Community-Engaged Scholarship (ProCES) — also re-invented their support structures, creating online check-ins and workshops to replace group lunches, digital bonding activities in place of in-person game nights, and stress management workshops for students juggling an unprecedented combination of challenges.
Many students found that their planned internships couldn’t make the pivot to remote work, so Trisha Thorme, the ProCES director, created a new pathway where students who had lost their summer opportunities could propose new research-based nonprofit internships. Prior to that, Thorme had planned to oversee six local Derian ProCES interns. (In past years, she’s had as many as 12.) So many students took advantage of the new pathway that Thorme had an unprecedented 25 remote Derian interns this summer.
In past years, the students wrapped up their summers by preparing and presenting research talks and posters. In 2020, OUR students created intern profiles and research videos to be shared with incoming Princeton students in the Freshman Scholars Institute and other members of the Princeton community, while the ProCES interns prepared reports and presentations for their host organizations and developed 90-second pitches that describe their summer work and its impact.
“Overall, what I’m most impressed by is just the level of creativity and resilience that student researchers have shown, to adapt to the situation,” said Pascale Poussart, the OUR director, who oversees ReMatch+, OURSIP and the Summer Research Colloquium (SRC), a weekly community-building program for OUR research interns and mentors.
ReMatch, part of a collaboration between ODOC and the Graduate School, is a year-long program that builds mentoring relationships between undergraduates and graduate students or postdoctoral researchers — three groups that didn’t often interact, historically. In the fall, ReMatch first-years and sophomores meet with ReMatch graduate mentors to find their “match”, and in the spring, the mentor-mentee pairs can apply for ReMatch+, a paid summer research internship. Of the 10 ReMatch+ projects funded this year, one focused on closing the sex gap in neuroscience research, while others investigated genes associated with breast cancer and breastfeeding and studied how rats make decisions.
"While this year looked very different from past summers, it was great to see how the ReMatch+ graduate and undergraduate participants built strong research relationships, despite having shifted to a virtual environment," said Christine Fecenko Murphy, the assistant dean for academic affairs in the Graduate School, who co-directs the ReMatch Program.
Jessica Brice of the Class of 2022 was matched with Lauren Feldman, a fifth-year graduate student who works in the lab of Joel Cooper, a professor of psychology. Brice’s original research went in a new direction after the death of George Floyd on May 25. She ran a linguistic analysis of the statements provided by 179 university leaders — presidents, provosts and chancellors of 112 predominantly white institutions and 67 historically Black colleges and universities — looking for hundreds of phrases about indirect bias and structural inequality.
Her preliminary results suggest that this summer, colleges and universities were more willing to publicly recognize and explicitly describe racist behavior than they had been in the past. She also identified some trends in language use. For example, she found that statements from predominantly white institutions were somewhat more likely to use more social unity words like “solidarity,” “community” and “together” than HBCUs, while HBCU statements were many times more likely to use words like “defund,” “restructure” and “abolish.”
“This experience has not only given me some exciting ideas for my junior paper but strengthened my interest in pursuing a career in research psychology,” Brice said.
Office of Undergraduate Research - Student Initiated Internships (OURSIP)
Every year, OURSIP provides grants to Princeton first-years and sophomores (and occasionally juniors) who have independently created or secured an unpaid faculty-mentored research internship over the summer.
This summer, OURSIP supported 30 projects, which ranged from a study of cholesterol at the molecular level to designing a cheating-proof sports tournament, studying little-known proteins that are key to photosynthesis, and investigating magic-angle graphene.
Allison Yang of the Class of 2023 was both an OURSIP intern and the SRC program assistant, with responsibility for organizing and running weekly social events online to build community between the geographically scattered interns. “She developed a truly fun and creative line-up of events so students could connect with each other informally,” said Poussart.
Yang’s OURSIP project used fMRI brain scans to look for neural synchrony — brains syncing up together — during communication. She tracked brain activity simultaneously in pairs of volunteers, as one student gave another instructions on simple tasks, like how to find Waldo in a picture or how to design an avatar. Her goal was to better understand how neural activity corresponds to effective communication.
“I’d definitely recommend participating in OURSIP, even if you don’t plan on a research-related career,” Yang said. “The experience of research truly benefits your problem-solving and analytical skills, and the process of discovery is so exciting!”
ProCES Derian Internships
In these internships, rising sophomores, juniors and seniors apply academic skills in service of a local nonprofit or governmental organization. Each student tackles specific projects and research under the direction of the organization they’re partnering with — at least one project that can be completed during the internship and another, larger project that both addresses the nonprofit’s needs and launches junior paper or senior thesis work.
This results in extraordinarily varied final products: Avery Goldinger, Class of 2021, created a 17-week STEM curriculum, including 70 lesson plans and teacher training materials, in partnership with the Boys and Girls Club of Western Pennsylvania — an organization whose robotics club had played a key role in helping her be the first member of her family to attend college.
“When all is said and done, the best thing about STEM education is that it’s not just about STEM,” she said. “Speaking from personal experience, these students think they’re just learning about robots or clouds or blood cells when they’re also learning about communication, confidence and what it means to be a good teammate. This project gave me the chance to give back to my community, and I am so grateful for it. Hopefully, it will inspire upcoming generations of Pittsburgh students to pursue higher education.”
Jonathan Wang of the Class of 2021 worked with Prevention Point Philadelphia, a harm reduction center serving people affected by opioid addiction. After working with their program treating opioid use disorder with behavioral therapy and medications, he spent this summer reviewing anonymized patient charts to document how housing insecurity affects treatment outcomes. He found that patients experiencing housing insecurity, particularly street homelessness, were less likely to stay in treatment, take their medications regularly or attend their appointments, compared to their stably housed counterparts. “Housing is health care,” Wang said. “Health care is so much messier than simply fighting diseases; it’s fighting the structures that give rise to them. I hope that I can enter a career as a health care provider to fight for the social changes I want to see.”
Another ProCES Derian intern, Fernanda Romo Herrera Ibarrola of the Class of 2022, helped the families of disappeared people in Mexico with the organization FUNDAR. “I’ve gotten to work alongside some really amazing coworkers, who come from all kinds of different academic backgrounds — from law, social sciences like sociology, politics, history, even psychology,” she said. “It’s really given me a much closer and deeper look at the kind of work that civil society organizations can do: the ways they can pressure governments, push for certain policies and accomplish things by advocating for a more just society.”
Ashley Morales, now a junior in the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, spent the summer working for Cristosal, a human rights nonprofit working in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Her research project examined transitional justice — the public reckoning and public reconciliation after genocide or state-sanctioned violence in an attempt to regain trust in government and transform institutions.
She had originally planned to focus solely on Central America, but she pivoted after the protests in the United States suggested that the U.S. was beginning its own public reconciliation with years of systemic racism. She compared police brutality and extrajudicial executions, historical erasure and memory, and impunity. “This project has shown me the power of academic research in framing social justice topics and convincing others to advocate for a cause,” she said. "I have been so grateful for this opportunity, especially as someone who intends to pursue international law in the future. … We must advocate for human rights issues across multiple regions, including the United States, in order to achieve universal peace, accountability and justice.”
These projects give students extraordinary opportunities to make tangible contributions to real-world problems and see the links between their academic work and serving the public good, said Thorme. “We really want the students to see how important knowledge, research and information are in the process of creating social change.”