Author Archives: Emily Trost

Jackson *86 speaks about ‘unfinished business’ for the envionment

Ever have that nightmare where you still haven’t finished your thesis? Former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa Jackson *86 has.

Returning to campus can counteract that “recurring nightmare,” Jackson said, addressing an audience of students, faculty, and community members in Dodds Auditorium April 9.

“I still have that nightmare that it’s the day before my master’s thesis defense. And I haven’t finished it, but I’m really stressed,” she said, the audience laughing. “But every time I’m here, it reinforces that I got the degree.”

Jackson, a chemical engineer who served as head of the EPA in the Obama administration from January 2009 until February of this year, recounted her personal story of how she came to define herself as environmentalist.

Noting that the word “environmentalist” has, in some circles, come to refer to environmental activism for political purposes, Jackson provided her own definition: An environmentalist is someone “who cares deeply about and prioritizes the environment — the environment, not as an outside concept, but more for its impact on our health, its impact on our well-being … and its impacts on our prosperity,” she said.

Jackson recalled learning about environmental issues during her undergraduate years at Tulane, when she first heard of the “soup of chemicals” in the Mississippi River causing problems downstream in New Orleans as well as the government’s inability to adequately respond to large-scale, hazardous environmental problems like the infamous Love Canal in upstate New York.

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Kornfeld Simpson ’14 uses computer science to aid archaeologists

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Anna Kornfeld Simpson ’14, left, and Yingxue Li ’13 test a robot at the project site in Malta. (Photo: Christopher Clark)

The complicated network of underground tunnels and wells under the island of Malta holds promise for archaeologists seeking to uncover more of the nation’s history. But to humans, they are largely inaccessible because of their narrow passages and the modern-day buildings that sit atop many. Archaeologists have resorted to using autonomous robots to explore the tunnels’ depths, and Princeton computer science major Anna Kornfeld Simpson ’14  has worked to improve how robots can navigate and understand where they are in the tunnels.

Kornfeld Simpson became interested in the project after a course in autonomous robot navigation with visiting professor Christopher Clark during her sophomore year. Looking for a way to get involved and apply what she’d learned, Kornfeld Simpson joined Clark’s team and set off for Malta last spring.

Kornfeld Simpson was tasked with finding a way to make it easier for a robot to move about the tunnels and create maps from the sonar information it collects. A robot lowered into an underwater tunnel is good at swimming, she said, but difficulties arise with how well the robot knows where it’s going. Sonar is helpful, but only up to a certain point.

“The biggest challenge with this data is that it’s really noisy, messy, and complicated,” she explained. “It’s just a whole bunch of numbers to the robot. … [The robot] takes a ‘look around’ like a bat might do. It finds out roughly how far away the nearest obstacle is in all directions.”

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Former ambassadors speak on ongoing violence in Middle East

In response to the recent anti-American violence in Libya, Egypt and Yemen, two Woodrow Wilson School professors and former U.S. ambassadors addressed the Princeton community Sept. 19. Daniel Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel, and Barbara Bodine, former U.S. ambassador to Yemen, spoke before a packed audience of students and community members in Dodds Auditorium.
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Kurtzer suggested that the displays of violence, which he called “horrific” and “terroristic,” demand a reassessment of the way Americans view the Middle East and its people. Such violence, he said, “happens against a backdrop of a certain way of thinking which we as Americans need to understand.”
Describing American embassies in these countries as “large and convenient targets,” Kurtzer recommended rethinking “the American footprint in the Middle East” and how the U.S. conducts diplomacy. Having had a staff of over 2,200 people in his own embassy, Kurtzer offered that a “leaner and meaner presence” may better serve U.S. interests in this region in the future.
Bodine similarly suggested that the events posed a “legitimate question about how we present ourselves in the Middle East” and a corresponding need to reconsider the size and structure of American embassies.

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TigerLaunch 2012 rewards top student entrepreneurs

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Fast Company magazine founder Bill Taylor ’81 delivered the keynote remarks at Tigerlaunch 2012. (Photo: Emily Trost ’13)
The challenge: seven minutes to make a pitch, convince the judges, and win a slice of $20,000 to start a company.
 
On April 7, Princeton students competed at the TigerLaunch Startup Challenge, a competition now in its 13th year that encourages young entrepreneurs to envision and develop their own companies.
 
Organized by the Princeton Entrepreneurship Club, the competition attracted more than 60 teams composed of 110 students who proposed ideas for start-up companies in either a general entrepreneurship or social entrepreneurship category.
 
In the general entrepreneurship track, ideas incorporated student-designed technology and ranged from improving mapping for urban development to enhancing the social media experience. The social entrepreneurship projects sought to apply students’ entrepreneurial spirit to address global issues. Student-proposed projects included providing necessary sanitary options to those in developing countries, highlighting sustainable production in goods, and creating social networks to tackle unemployment.
 

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Geosciences Society takes on ‘The Day After Tomorrow’

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Professor Daniel Sigman led the first screening in the "Hollywood Science Gone Bad" series. (Photo: Courtesy Christine Chen ’13)
As New York City was assaulted by an abnormally high tidal wave and the world rapidly began to freeze into a new ice age, laughter erupted in the Frist Campus Center basement.
 
The laughter came from an audience of students, faculty, and community members viewing the 2004 blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow, a film often criticized by scientists for its unrealistic portrayal of geologic events.
 
In the film, a rapid climate shift turns today’s conditions into a new ice age in a matter of days. To most viewers, the plot is both frightening and thrilling. To a group of geoscientists, it’s ridiculous, at best.
 
The screening was the first installment of “Hollywood Science Gone Bad,” a movie series organized by the newly formed Princeton Undergraduate Geosciences Society (PUGS). According to Christine Chen ’13, the group’s president, the series is “dedicated to debunking all the awful science seen in Hollywood blockbuster movies.”
 
The inaugural event, held March 29, attracted more than 70 viewers who watched The Day After Tomorrow and listened to short lectures and critiques from geosciences professor Daniel Sigman.
 
Sigman, whose research focuses on nutrient cycling and ocean biochemistry, led the group through a crash course in ocean-atmosphere interactions before the movie began. He explained that even the extraordinarily inaccurate scientific details of the film were inspired by “actual kernels of evidence,” or actual past events studied by geoscientists as well as global processes known to happen on much longer timescales.
 
“Up to a certain level,” Sigman said, “it’s entertaining to watch the portrayal of natural processes … and to recognize the things I know about the system and see mistakes. And then, at a certain point, you just go, ‘Oh my God.’”

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Students debate religious freedom for Whig-Clio prize

i-16f0b5286c4f9bdb8bbd95c5fa4aedd4-wb_campus.jpgPrinceton doesn’t often pit members of different class years against one another, and when it does, the contest usually involves a grassy tumble for a cane on Poe Field.
 
The Whig Senate Chamber hosted a more civilized alternative to Cane Spree Feb. 25: the Class of 1876 Prize Debate. Four students, James Hao ’12, Evan Larson ’13, Anthony Paranzino ’14, and Aaron Hauptman ’15, competed for the historic prize, established in 1886.
 
The debate, held annually on Alumni Day, pairs a senior and a freshman to debate against a junior and sophomore team. The four were selected as the top debaters in their respective class years from a pool of 25 students who competed in preliminary rounds. Based on the strength of the preliminary competition, Chelsea Ayres ’12, chairwoman of the Woodrow Wilson Honorary Debate Panel, introduced the four as “the best their class has to offer.”
 
With notes in hand, the two teams faced off across an intricately carved table in the center of the Senate Chamber. Students, alumni, and parents were seated around the debaters, with the judges, Ayres, Benjamin Weisman ’11, and Jason Anton ’10, poised at the chamber’s main podium.
 

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Forum in New York honors Bogle ’51

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John C. Bogle ’51 (Courtesy John C. Bogle ’51)
The story John C. Bogle ’51 often tells of his senior-thesis journey is something to which nearly every Princeton senior, past and present, can relate. It started in Firestone Library and ended before graduation in a 133-page document.
 
Holed up in then-newly built Firestone Library, Bogle paged through a December 1949 copy of Fortune magazine looking for inspiration. An article on page 116 caught his eye. It was titled “Big Money in Boston,” and it discussed the “tiny but contentious” mutual-fund industry. Bogle realized he had found his thesis topic as he read about an industry that appeared “totally untouched by academics and the press” at the time.
 
Bogle’s thesis, titled “The Economic Role of the Investment Company,” outlined a strategy to make investing in mutual funds more accessible to individual investors with lower costs made possible through indexing rather than actively managing funds.
 
The idea eventually led to Bogle’s founding of the Vanguard Group in 1974, an investment-management company that took advantage of low-cost indexing. Vanguard now manages approximately $1.6 trillion dollars in assets, according to a February 2011 estimate.
 
At a Jan. 31 gathering that celebrated Bogle’s influence on the financial world, former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker ’49 said, “[Bogle] is still living off an undergraduate thesis he wrote at Princeton. He got the thing reprinted! And it sells 50 years later!”
 
Bogle replied, “Never underestimate the power of luck.”
 

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Finding global history in Alpine rock formations

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Photos by Emily Trost ’13

After the onslaught of midterms, most Princeton students headed home or into hibernation for the weeklong break that began after classes ended Oct. 28. While my classmates recovered, I stood in a Swiss quarry clumsily balancing a hardhat on my head, gazing up at massive walls of chalky yellow and white rock.

With me stood nine students from my paleontology course, a recent alumnus, a geosciences lecturer, a geosciences professor, a Swiss professor of geology, and his graduate student. Our Swiss guide asked us to examine the massive rock for clues about what sort of environment we would have been standing in over 130 million years ago. Putting our noses close to these chalky surfaces, we could see that these rocks told a surprising story. If we had been here 130 million years ago, we would have been walking on the seafloor.

We were looking at the remnants of ancient carbonate platforms, the products of today’s coral reefs that serve as indicators of changing ocean and global climate conditions over time. Our studies of mass extinctions in Professor Gerta Keller’s 300-level course, “Evolution and Catastrophes,” required an understanding of the many global processes that contribute to these severe environmental changes. But to really understand those processes, Keller makes it a necessity that her class travel each year. “The classroom is one thing,” she said. “It’s theoretical. You are shown pictures, given concepts, and explained things — but it’s not real.” Standing on an ancient seafloor in Switzerland, however, is.

A group photo taken near La Chambotte, a section of the subalpine chains.

A group photo taken near La Chambotte, a section of the subalpine chains. (Courtesy Alfonso Pardo)

Usually Keller takes her classes to study the geology of North African countries, but the demonstrations and protests of the Arab Spring forced her to go elsewhere this year. Collaborator and friend Thierry Adatte, a professor at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, offered to take our class instead on an educational journey from Geneva down to the Mediterranean Sea in Cassis, France. Inviting along  Annie and Hubert Arnaud, experts on the region’s geology, to help him teach, Adatte aimed to expose us to ancient changes in the environment on both small and large scales.

We spent the week traveling by van through the fall foliage of the French countryside, stopping where parts of an ancient ocean’s history could be seen on land. We trekked through several outdoor classrooms in the regions around the French and Swiss Alps — from the quarries to tunnels carved through limestone mountains and on to the grassy hills of southern France and a pebbly Mediterranean beach.

For graduate student Paula Mateo, studying geology in the field this way is a process of learning through an accumulation of experience. “Still today, I remember everything about the field trip,” she said. “[Going into the field] is the easiest way to learn and remember.”

Tracing these carbonate platforms for a week across southern Europe not only helped course concepts sink in, but it also brought to our attention things we wouldn’t have noticed before seeing them on the trip. “I realized how much I’ve passed up in past field trips,” geosciences major Nathan Mathabane ’13 said.

Andrew Budnick ’13, who has traveled with geosciences classes every semester since arriving at Princeton in 2009, said that there’s a unique thrill that comes along with these trips. “It’s so much easier to understand something,” he explained, “when you have to figure it out in the field for yourself.”


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Emily Trost ’13 is a geosciences major from Huntingdon Valley, Pa.

Undergrads lead model congress for hundreds of high school students

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More than 950 students attended the 30th-anniversary conference of the Princeton Model Congress in Washington, D.C. (Emily Trost ’13)
Seventeen young men and women dressed in button-down shirts and business attire quietly took their seats at a long, narrow table in a conference room just down the street from the white dome of the U.S. Capitol. They opened their binders and began sorting bills and resolutions they planned to discuss for the next few hours. A gavel banged on the table.
 
“The chair will now look favorably on a motion to open the docket.”  
 
A young woman in a white blouse waved her name placard. “Motion to open the docket,” she offered.
 
“Is there a second? All in favor?” asked the chairwoman.
 
Seventeen placards shot up into the air. Gavel in hand, Molly Nacey ’13 smiled at the group from the head of the table. “The chair will now entertain ‘The No-Fly List Notification Act,’” she said. “Please take a few minutes to read it over.”
 
The room quieted to the sounds of rustling papers and pen scratches as 17 high school students from across the country prepared to debate the proposed legislation with Nacey moderating the discussion.
 
For Nacey, it was her first time chairing a committee at the Princeton Model Congress (PMC) conference, a three-day, student-run program held in Washington, D.C.  Designed to be educational, fun, and transformative for high school students, the conference, now in its 30th year, invites students to step into the shoes of U.S. congressmen and women, Supreme Court justices, cabinet members, members of the press, and others involved with the political process.
  

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Original play by Yu ’12 explores the life of an overlooked physicist

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Student playwright Lily Yu ’12 is pursuing a certificate in biophysics. Her play, Glass, Darkly, examines the life and career of physicist Chien-Shiung Wu, known as the Chinese Madame Curie. (Alice Zheng ’13)
Lily Yu ’12 believes that poets and physicists aren’t that different. “They’re both looking to describe the world as clearly and honestly as they can,” she explained. Yu, an English major pursuing a certificate in biophysics, knows this firsthand. Her writing has been published in Clarkesworld Magazine and The Kenyon Review Online and chosen for the Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume 6. She says her work is the sort of “stuff that gives people headaches trying to classify.”

Her play, Glass, Darkly, won last year’s Princeton Science Playwriting Competition, and it is something different than her usual work, she says. Glass, Darkly seeks to bring the life of physicist Chien-Shiung Wu out of the shadows. Once a Princeton instructor in the 1940s, Wu was a Chinese-American physicist often called the First Lady of Physics and the Chinese Madame Curie. In addition to her contributions to the field of nuclear physics, Wu participated in the Manhattan Project, and her work laid the foundations for others to receive the Nobel Prize. Still, Yu says, history has seemed to forget Professor Wu.

Yu was drawn to writing about Wu’s life because she had known virtually nothing about Wu and felt something needed to be done. “I wanted to make something beautiful out of material that was interesting to me,” she said, laughing as she noted that her desire to write about Wu might have been a selfish one. “She was a Chinese-American physicist; I thought I was going to become a Chinese-American physicist,” Yu said.

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Training Princeton’s student mentors, behind closed doors

Four residential college advisers (RCAs) huddle outside an oak door in a dormitory hallway. A slip of paper posted beside the door gives hazy details of a freshman student’s concerns with his roommate. “Who’s going in?” someone asks. Alyssa Mancini ’13 nods and the others step back as she knocks on the door. “Come in!” a voice calls from inside. Taking a deep breath, Mancini turns the knob and enters.
 
i-16f0b5286c4f9bdb8bbd95c5fa4aedd4-wb_campus.jpgThe scene inside is improvised, cut, and critiqued. It is early September before the Class of 2015 has arrived, and Mancini, a new RCA in Forbes College, is training to become an upperclass mentor to freshmen and sophomores.
 
While RCA training consists of a wide collection of presentations and discussions, RCAs overwhelmingly agree that the three days of role-playing sessions, collectively known as the “Behind Closed Doors” program, most realistically prepare them to serve as leaders, friends, and resources to their fellow students. Associate dean of undergraduate students Cole Crittenden *05 insists the program “is far and away the most important thing we do with RCAs.”
 
For a typical session, a group of about four new RCAs take turns acting as an RCA while senior RCAs step into the roles of freshmen with common first-year problems. Once the door opens, the situation is “real” and its handling is later analyzed by the non-acting RCAs and visitors from various campus resource offices. The scenarios are designed to prepare RCAs for what they are most likely to encounter and range thematically and in their level of urgency— from residence hall and health concerns to more complex identity issues.
 
For Mancini, the sessions were invaluable for putting knowledge of campus resources to use while learning from experienced RCAs what really works in the field. The silences throughout an exchange were important, she explained. “They gave everyone time to think and calm down in a tough situation.”
 

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