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Half-built hoverboards, forgotten fruit flies: the senior theses that never were

<h6>Ans Nawaz for The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Ans Nawaz for The Daily Princetonian

Three weeks and a pandemic ago, Bojan Lazarevic ’20 kept a regimented daily checklist. Do my fruit flies have enough food in their vials? Is their food too dry? Too wet? Are the flies healthy? Are they laying eggs? 

The molecular biology concentrator joined the Gavis Lab during the spring of his junior year. Since then, he’d spent much of his time — most of his time — caring for and cross-breeding fruit flies with the hopes of identifying a protein’s role in the species’ central nervous system. 

The work was demanding. He poured hours into checking on his flies, flipping them into new food vials, sorting through bottles of freshly hatched offspring, identifying purebreds under the microscope. Sometimes, only half of the flies would have the necessary phenotypes, and the process would begin from scratch — so this sorting and breeding carried on for weeks. 

Then arrived the COVID-19 pandemic. And suddenly — like arts performances, campus traffic, and study abroad programs — Lazarevic’s work came to a full stop. 

“The process was long and tedious,” Lazarevic said. “I was just about to run my last main experiment, and now I can’t do it. It’s disheartening.”

In the coming weeks, most seniors across most departments will struggle to complete their theses from home. But for some seniors in STEM fields, such as Lazarevic, the suspension of undergraduate research and campus move-out order mean that they are now completely unable to finish their anticipated projects. The incomplete fruits of the seniors’ labor will sit idly in shuttered University laboratories. Half-built machinery will collect dust, instead of results.

Two weeks ago, this scenario seemed a world away. 

Even after the University announced that all students were to leave campus for the rest of the semester, many STEM seniors believed they would be able to stay. Dean of the College Jill Dolan had stipulated in a March 11 email that exceptions to the move-out order would be made for students who “must conduct lab or Princeton-based research on campus” for their senior theses. Many students initially received approval from their departments and believed they were on track to continue their projects. 

Yet the rapidly evolving nature of COVID-19 quickly reversed these decisions. Just days later, seniors were contacted with the news that their exemption status no longer applied, as the University sought to dramatically decrease the number of students left on campus. 

Lydia Zhong ’20, a molecular biology concentrator, was shocked when she heard she would no longer be able to stay and finish her research, which centered on thirteen-lined ground squirrel pups.

“It felt like a complete 180,” she said. “The University had been clear in their guidelines that seniors whose theses depended on laboratories would stay. I don’t think they expected so many would want to.” 

The news was disappointing for all students, many of whom felt they had just finally made breakthroughs in their work. 

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Alex Rogers ’20, a student in the mechanical and aerospace engineering department (MAE), was using the telescope in the University’s Peyton Observatory to analyze the orbital determination on the geostationary satellites that reside over campus. Images of the satellites could only be taken from about 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. or 1 a.m. to 6 a.m., when sunlight isn’t blocked by the Earth. In early February, after three months of attempts, he finally captured an image of the satellite on his DSLR camera.

Inspired by the breakthrough, he was hoping to continue to capture similar images. But leaving the University means also leaving behind the satellites and the observatory crucial to his work. Las Cumbres Observatory in California will now help him remotely collect data from completely different satellites. But his old data has lost its value. 

Similarly, when research-based move-out exemptions were revoked, Maya Naphade ’20 and Nick Callegari ’20, also MAE concentrators, had only just been able to test the motor of their soon-to-be-hoverboard and see it float for the first time. Naphade explained they were “just preparing to build the actual board.”

“Now we have to work remotely,” said Callegari. “And don’t have the same functionality we would have in the machine shop.” 

For many seniors, like Naphade and Callegari, their theses will have to shift from analyzing (ideally successful) projects to describing hypothetical ones. 

Lazarevic, the fruit fly aficionado, plans to write about what he expects would have happened in his final experiment; his thesis will be focused primarily on introductory material. 

While some departments have not yet contacted seniors on the grading for their projects, advisers have assured them that they certainly won’t be penalized. Audrey Shih ’20, a senior in the chemical and biological engineering department, has just enough data collected to show her semester-long design of how a porous media model works. Her adviser told her that given the circumstances, this work will suffice.

“I was intending to run a control experiment and test other variables,” she explained. “But my adviser understands I wasn’t able to collect the rest of this data and said not to worry about grading.”

Students in the MAE department were notified that the PDF option will be available on all of their undergraduate course work including the Senior Thesis, Senior Project, and Independent Work. And though the more lenient grading may help alleviate stress, the feeling of disappointment among STEM seniors persists. 

MAE concentrator Jackson Artis ’20, whose project involved working outside of his comfort zone in plasma physics, felt a personal connection to his project. 

“More than anything else,” he said, “I was always excited and proud to do this project because it was a physical manifestation of an idea I had as a kid of what being an engineer would be like. Working on it was rewarding and fulfilling, and I wish I would’ve learned more throughout the process.”

Kate Andre ’20 and Matt Hetrick ’20, in the MAE department, were working together on a water bottle that tracks how much you drink in a given time frame. Before the news broke, they intended to 3D-print the design over spring break. For the duo, the decision to opt for PDF or not is a difficult one.

“PDF would be the ultimate nail in the coffin of ‘this isn’t what we wanted it to be.’ It would make it feel like … not a thesis,” Hetrick said. 

In the same vein as Artis, the pair spoke about why they chose MAE in the first place and how, in light of recent events, it has fallen short of their expectations. For Hetrick, one of the reasons he chose the concentration was the exciting promise of a hands-on project in lieu of a research-based thesis. 

“Being forced to go into quasi-research, [instead of] being able to play around with stuff … it’s been disappointing,” he said. 

For these seniors, their theses were more than just a culmination of their work as Princeton undergraduates. Many grew up with the hopes to one day become scientists — dreaming of a day when they could perform groundbreaking studies of their own. Some engineers — when declaring their majors two years ago — already had plans of their capstone creations in mind. 

“I wanted to finish the major by creating something,” said Andre. “Now, it just kind of feels like there wasn’t a point in all of this.”

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