Barnard College Library. Photo Credit: Teresa Brown
At the end of September I had to choose a “second reader” for my thesis. In the History
department, all students writing a thesis attend a year-long thesis seminar course. In addition to the professor for this course, who leads the class, each student is required to seek out a second reader. The second reader is ideally another professor of history whose research interests are similar to that of the student’s and thus can function as a sort of expert in the field and faculty mentor.
View from the lab trailer. Photo Credit: Sara Bell
I spent the longest summer of my adolescence in the company of more fish than people. There were mosquitofish, bass, alewife, three-spined stickleback, guppy, herring; fish that had been preserved since 2013 and fish that were euthanized early that morning; ethanol-soaked fish sitting in jars, dried fish in Ziploc baggies piled in the fridge, icy fish biding time in the freezer. Fish seemed to occupy nearly every available storage space. I spent the whole summer in that tiny freshwater ecology lab at the University of California at Santa Cruz, slicing open mosquitofish with a scalpel, then pulling out their gonads to weigh them, so as to theorize the effect of water temperature on fish gravidity.
Empty hotels bearing hearts. Photo credit: Isabel Wong
A couple of days ago, I conferenced with my poetry professor. We had met for the first time in class the day before. Despite our near-stranger relationship, we talked for an hour and a half.
According to my sister, I had never laughed so much during a call. Now, re-acclimating to gravity, the reality that I had work to do hit me. I had an email to write.
Emails, for me, are no simple affair. Despite the etiquette, the “Dear” at the beginning, the “Best” at the end, emails are pitted with writerly decisions. I am a very indecisive person, and this email’s conditions and stakes, I knew, could keep me up for weeks nibbling away at edits.
Photo Credit: Taylor Vick
My CC professor has a really beautiful outlook on research, and it’s one that I try to apply to all of my research work. She always used to say that research should only serve one purpose— to amplify knowledge. Yet instead, research is often used as a tool of obstruction. Big words and big phrases are used to intentionally confuse people from accessing the knowledge the research is purported to discuss. How many students have tried reading an extraordinarily dense piece of text, their eyes scanning the same words over and over again, without any actual meaning sinking in? But as soon as somebody explains the summary of the text to you, it suddenly all makes sense. It’s not that the material being discussed in research is confusing—it’s just the presentation of that material.
Photo credit: University Archives, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University Libraries
So you need to cold-email a professor. Perhaps it’s someone you’ve had a large lecture with but never spoken to one-on-one, or someone you’ve been directed to by another professor—or maybe it’s someone you’ve truly never met. I’ve sent a good number of cold-emails in my time as a Columbia student, and I have a couple of tips I’ve picked up along the way. The most important thing to bear in mind is that however freaked out about cold-emailing you may be, the professor on the other end of the email isn’t likely to be surprised or read into the specific wording of your email too much. Professors receive a lot of email, including from people they don’t know.
Resting trains at the West Side Yard. Photo Credit: Isabel Wong
Every few months, I will, without warning, run headlong into post-graduation panic. Having just woken up, I’ll meander into the kitchen, pop a slice of bread into the toaster and check my phone to learn my friend has landed an internship or my other friend is beginning the postgraduate fellowship essay grind. I am sent spiraling. Not so much from the news as from its movement. For whether they’re accepting or interviewing, each is on their way. Trunks loaded, snacks open and waiting, some already pressing foot to pedal. All of them operating in next steps. And here I am left, phone in hand, unsure where I’m going let alone whether by boat, by car, by plane, by foot.
Photo credit: Teresa Brown
A few weeks ago I started my senior year. Unlike any scenario I could have imagined 3 years ago when I began my journey at Columbia, I find myself seated in front of my laptop, some 2,895 miles from New York City.
I had no idea what classes on Zoom were going to be like. For better or worse, I was abroad in Spring of 2020 and, due to the different academic calendar of my university in Budapest, I didn’t experience the half-semester of Zoom classes that my peers who were on campus at Columbia had to adjust to. Rather, when I was sent home in March, my classes only had a single week left and all of my professors determined that it wasn’t worth it to attempt to schedule one or two final online meetings with students suddenly scattered all over the globe.
Dawn or dusk? Photo credit: Isabel Wong
I have a playlist called “compost” meant to house all the songs I’ve grown tired of and don’t want to actively listen to anymore but also don’t want to delete and risk losing forever. Someday, I imagine, nostalgia or historical curiosity or desire will compel me to return to these songs, and, like compost, they will find use again, perhaps just with a new purpose.
Preparing for the REU presentation. Photo credit: Teresa Brown.
So far, all of my posts have focused on historical research. But I started my journey at Columbia with the intention to major in mathematics and no plans to take a single history class.
In the spring of my freshman year I was accepted into Columbia’s Mathematics Department’s Summer Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU). I was ecstatic. A year prior, when I had just been accepted to Columbia and declared my interest in majoring in mathematics, I had scoured the department’s webpage for classes and research opportunities. I planned to apply to the REU program maybe sophomore or junior year. It was a long-term goal I set for myself, but I found myself presented with this opportunity much sooner than I expected.
Photo Credit: Regional rapid transit; a report to the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit Commission, 1953-1955.
One of my favorite icebreaker questions at Columbia is “What’d you write your P3 on?” The P3, for those uninitiated, is the Phase 3 essay in University Writing, a Core course required for all Columbia College and Engineering students. The course entails four essays: the first, a “critical response” essay, analyzing a problematic or unclear moment in a text; the second, analyzing an exhibit and defending a claim about it; the third, a longer research paper that requires you to use a variety of sources to make a claim about a controversy or exhibit; and the fourth, an op-ed. The last is probably the flashiest—some students end up publishing P4 essays in newspapers. But the third is, at its best, a labor of love: you’re given a fairly loose set of constraints and asked to come up with an argument you care about, to invest a sizable amount of time in it.