“Sometimes asking the right question is more important than getting the answer to it.”
Before Pioneer scholar Alejandra, from Colombia, applied to do her Pioneer Research Program, she was interested in both biology and physics. She was leaning toward molecular biology, and was trying to decide which of the two areas to focus on. When she was placed in a research concentration in biophysics, she learned that the two disciplines could be combined, and her Pioneer experience led her to the field that is now her major interest.
Alejandra’s Pioneer Research Program was an eye-opening, life-changing experience in other ways as well. First, her carefully constructed research yielded negative results. Her hypothesis was not proved to be true, and that taught her something very valuable about research. Second, she had real-life experience of working with colleagues in both her own and other fields, and is continuing to enjoy this kind of enriching interaction as a student at Princeton.
Alejandra’s cohort was studying biosensors, neurons in the body that send electrical signals to cells. They were investigating these sensors from a biophysical theoretical point of view, a mathematical way of looking at apparently random phenomena and trying to see if there is an overall pattern to their behavior. Alejandra was particularly intrigued by one sensor, a channel that opens or closes depending on the electrical charge it receives. She devised an equation for a relatively simple model that could be tested in the short time she had available, and learned that the channel she was examining did not follow the pattern she had anticipated, but was in fact truly random. At first she was disappointed, but then realized that disproving a hypothesis is also a valuable contribution to the scientific discussion, and a useful tool to keep other researchers from trying something that has already proved to be a dead end. In fact, her work was so potentially useful that her professor suggested submitting it for publication in a professional journal, a long process that is ongoing as she continues to revise her work.
Working closely with her professor on this project was one experience of collaborating with a colleague, one that Alejandra said was good preparation for working with her professors in college. Her associations with her cohort peers provided a similar experience. “The first valuable thing I noticed,” she said, “was that we could all immediately understand each other through the topics of math and physics and science, even though we were from so many different countries.” One common trait was that all the scholars had “curious minds.” In Alejandra’s view, “curiosity is really, really important.”
Princeton is providing Alejandra with still more opportunities to work with peers, and also to interact with other Pioneer alums. This is one of her primary goals for college. “I want to learn from other people,” she says, particularly from people from other countries about their different cultures. And she has another goal, as well. “I want to figure out how I can use this knowledge to better a community, maybe back in my country.”