Princeton project explores past ties to slavery

By Catherine Zandonella

“TO BE SOLD AT PUBLIC VENUE on the 19th of August next all the personal effects of Revd. Dr. Samuel Finley, consisting of two Negro women, a Negro man, and three Negro children, household furniture, horses … some hay and grain, together with a variety of farming utensils.”

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The “personal effects” belonged to the estate of the Reverend Dr. Finley, the fifth president of the College of New Jersey, now known as Princeton University. The sale, advertised in the Pennsylvania Journal and Weekly Advertiser, took place in 1766 in front of the President’s House near two newly planted sycamore trees. The house and the trees still stand today near the north border of campus.

That a slave sale took place on campus and that the first nine Princeton presidents were slaveholders at some point in their lives are two of the major findings from a sweeping new endeavor by Princeton scholars and students to explore the ties of early University trustees, presidents, faculty and students to the institution of slavery.

The Princeton and Slavery Project has released the findings on a public website. The online materials include over 80 articles, video documentaries, interactive maps and several hundred primary source documents.

Leading the project is Professor of History Martha Sandweiss, who was surprised when she joined the faculty in 2009 to find that Princeton had never conducted a comprehensive study of its ties to slavery, as many other universities had done. Those studies revealed that slavery was an integral part of the history of American higher education, in both the North and the South.

The Princeton project did not find evidence that the University as an institution owned slaves, nor that students brought slaves to campus, but the scholars and student researchers involved in the project did establish that the man who deeded the University’s original 4.5 acres, Nathaniel FitzRandolph, was a slave owner. Funds from donors with ties to slavery funded the construction of several prominent campus buildings, and all seven of Princeton’s founding trustees were slave owners.

Martha Sandweiss

Professor of History Martha Sandweiss, second from right, leads a research project to explore the role slavery played in the early days of Princeton University. PHOTO BY DENISE APPLEWHITE

Much of the research was conducted by undergraduates in Sandweiss’ upper-level history seminars, which she organized starting in 2013 with the dual goals of investigating slavery and exposing students to methods of archival research. The project received support from the University’s Humanities Council, as well as the Princeton Histories Fund, which provides funding to explore “aspects of Princeton’s history that have been forgotten, overlooked, subordinated or suppressed.” Many other departments contributed to the project.

“Professor Sandweiss and her colleagues and students have brought creativity, diverse perspectives and rigorous academic standards to bear on research that sheds new light on previously unexamined aspects of this University’s past. Although the project began before we established the Histories Fund, it exemplifies the innovative work that we hope the fund will support,” said Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber. “The symposium that the project has organized brought a remarkable group of scholars and artists to our campus to reflect on its findings; I expect that the symposium and the project will stimulate ongoing discussion, additional research, and a more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of our history.”


A 1764 copper engraving by artist Henry Dawkins of the earliest campus buildings, Nassau Hall (left) and the President’s House (now Maclean House), which still stand today.

For help finding original materials, she approached University Archivist Daniel Linke. Linke taught students to navigate the nearly 400 collections in the University archives, which include alumni records, student letters, Commencement speeches, sermons, treasurers’ reports, and trustee and faculty meeting minutes. Students also used digital resources purchased by the Princeton University Library such as newspaper collections and business and court records. “When students would make a discovery, I would help them find additional documents to identify the context of the information and corroborate their findings,” Linke said.

The nation’s fourth-oldest college
Chartered in 1746 as British North America’s fourth college, the institution then known as the College of New Jersey was located first in nearby Elizabeth and then Newark before moving in 1756 to its current location in “Prince-Town.” The University took its present name in 1896.

The young college, founded by Presbyterian ministers who embraced the Enlightenment, nurtured several American independence leaders, including John Witherspoon, Princeton’s sixth president and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and James Madison, the nation’s fourth president. Both were slave owners.

To fund the college’s growth, Witherspoon actively cultivated students from well-off Southern and Caribbean families. Before his tenure as college president began in 1768, about 20 percent of students came from the South, but by 1790 the percentage was 67 percent.

As cotton plantations spread into states such as Mississippi and Louisiana, and slavery spread westward, so too did the states of origin of the student body. Between 1746 and 1865, Southern-born students made up about 40 percent of the class on average. “You can see the westward spread of slavery as you track our student body,” Sandweiss said.

Slavery Ad

This page from the July 31, 1766, Pennsylvania Journal and Weekly Advertiser lists six people among the items for sale from the estate of the fifth president of the College of New Jersey, now known as Princeton University.

The finding helps explain why the anti-slavery movement at Princeton was relatively weak compared to peers like Harvard and Yale universities. Princeton was the founding location of the American Colonization Society, which was a movement to send free blacks back to Africa. “Princeton was a place where people with vastly different viewpoints came together, and the emphasis was on ‘keeping the peace,’” Sandweiss said.

Southern wealth was not the only money that came tainted by human bondage, however. One of the most prominent donors in Princeton’s history is Moses Taylor Pyne, a Northerner whose name adorns several campus buildings and a prestigious undergraduate prize.

In the records of the New York Historical Society, Maeve Glass, who earned her Ph.D. in history at Prince-ton in 2016 and is now an academic fellow at Columbia University, discovered that Pyne’s fortune — which he inherited from his grandfather — stemmed from a shipping business that transported sugar grown by slaves on Cuban plantations. Glass and other students traced the sources of funding for many of Princeton’s buildings to slavery.

Gown and town
Despite its location in the North, New Jersey was one of the last Northern states to ban slavery, and its “gradual emancipation” law, enacted in 1804, kept some individuals in bondage right up until the end of the Civil War. But the town of Princeton was home to a vibrant free black community — in 1862, one-sixth of Princeton’s 3,700 residents were of African descent — a fact that did not sit well with some of the Southern- born students.

In 1846, when a black man accused two students of harassing a black woman on a town street, violence broke out. A mob of 14 students, angered by the black man’s “insolence,” went to the farm where the man worked. Despite resistance from a “dozen brawny Irish laborers” who tried to protect the man, the mob forcibly took him into town, threatening to lynch him. A professor, John Maclean Jr. — a future president of the college — tried to stop the mob but failed, and the students whipped the man to “within an inch of his life,” according to a classmate’s account.

Isabela Morales, a graduate student in history, described how she felt when she read about this event. “I was sitting in Firestone Library, reading the diary of a long-ago student, John Robert Buhler,” she said, “and I gasped at what I found. In some ways this incident was a preview of the kinds of divisions that would happen among the students at the start of the Civil War. Some would go home to fight for the Confederacy and others would fight for the Union.”

Another spate of violence broke out in 1843 over the plight of a fugitive slave named James (Jimmy) Collins Johnson. He’d escaped from a Maryland plantation and was working as a janitor at the college when a student from a nearby plantation recognized him. Although the law required Johnson to be returned to his master, many townspeople came out in his support, and the case was settled only when a local citizen paid $500 for his free-dom. Johnson was allowed to stay, and over his lifetime he worked off his debt, including by selling sundries to students outside Nassau Hall.

A long reach into people’s lives
To make these and other findings available to the public, Sandweiss and her team created a public website hosted by the University library. Joseph Yannielli, a post-doctoral research associate with the Humanities Council and the Center for Digital Humanities, is the website’s project manager and lead developer.

“The sheer size of the project is staggering,” Yannielli said. “It is, by far, one of the largest studies of a university’s relationship to slavery yet attempted. We have over 6,000 files in our archive, covering thousands of students and dozens of faculty members across three centuries of history. Grappling with all of that data is an ongoing challenge.”

To ensure that the local community learns of the findings, Sandweiss collaborated with the Princeton-area public schools to create lesson plans for high school students. “Most students are surprised to find that there was slavery in the town of Princeton,” Sandweiss said. “I hope that high school teachers not just in Princeton but around the country will be able to use the lessons we’ve developed.”

Sandweiss also reached out to the University’s arts community to suggest creating public works of art and theater. “I believe in sharing history with the broadest possible audience,” Sandweiss said, “so I wanted to collaborate with artists who, while honoring the facts of the past, can elaborate and speculate in ways that historians — always bound by footnotes — cannot.”

Sandweiss said she is touched by how the findings about the University’s past resonate with today’s students and alumni. In a freshman seminar, Sandweiss asked students to create videos from interviews with their peers, alumni and others with Princeton connections who are descended from slaveholders, slaves or both. For example, in one video, a student of African American descent learns that she is descended from a family of mixed-race slaveholders in New Orleans.

“This isn’t a story that ended in 1865,” Sandweiss said. “This is a story that has a long reach into people’s lives.”

Impact on students
The project has been a rare opportunity for students to conduct original archival research that will reach a wide audience. Many of the historical articles on the website were written by Princeton undergraduates under the guidance of Sandweiss and graduate students. “Each time the class was taught, the students had greater success, because we became better at framing questions for them to research,” Sandweiss said. “But it is impossible to overstate how open-ended this was at the beginning.”

Craig Hollander recalls the excitement of those early days of discovery. He was then a postdoctoral researcher at Princeton and is now an assistant professor of history at today’s The College of New Jersey, located about

10 miles from Princeton. Hollander spent hours hunched over boxes of documents, photographing them as fast as possible, and then bringing them back to the computer to blow up the images so he could examine them.

“We would marvel over the discoveries we were making every day,” Hollander said. “You had to read these documents with a fine-tooth comb, because you didn’t know if a sentence or phrase was the smoking gun that provided evidence for a larger finding. Some-times I would come away from a day’s work with a single document and say to myself, ‘This is why I got up in the morning.’”

One undergraduate who contributed to the project is Sven (Trip) Henningson. Although he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history in 2016 and now works in Washington, D.C., Henningson still spends some of his free time on the research.

Henningson remembers going to the Library of Congress one Saturday morning and finding an original 1864 memorandum from a former Princeton student demanding that his escaped slaves hiding behind Northern lines be returned to him. “Holding that document in your hand is just something that gets you fired up and ready to go for another round in the archives,” he said.

An American story
This fall, a new group of students enrolled in Sandweiss’ research seminar and began to delve into Princeton’s history, this time in the post-Civil War era. “We’ve been examining issues of how people were talking about race in the aftermath of the Civil War,” Sandweiss said, “and how people wrote the history about what the war meant.”

The natural question to ask is what do these findings mean for Princeton? But the broader question, Sandweiss said, is how does what we are learning change our feelings about America’s history?

In many ways, the story of Princeton is the story of America writ small — how its leaders ignored the economy’s ties to slavery so that it could continue to thrive on the fruits of human bondage. The young nation espoused liberty while rationalizing its deeply troubling footings.

“To acknowledge that history, to be upfront about it, that is what universities do best,” Sandweiss said.

“Educational institutions should sponsor this kind of inquiry no matter where it goes, and Princeton has done that. What we’ve uncovered does not set us apart in any way, nor should it embarrass us. Our institutional history embeds us in the paradox of liberty and bondage that underlies the development of our nation.

“We are not special, we are simply American.”

The more than 600 pages of documents, maps, videos and essays are available at


New journal highlights student research

By Yasemin Saplakoglu

Cover of journal

The inaugural Princeton Undergraduate Research Journal

This spring marked the debut of the Princeton Undergraduate Research Journal, a peer-reviewed publication where students can publish original research findings. “The entire goal of research is to communicate new discoveries to a larger academic community,” said Daniel D. Liu, who co-founded the journal with fellow Class of 2018 student Yash M. Patel. “We felt that a lot of valuable independent work by Princeton undergraduates was going unnoticed.” The journal, peer-reviewed by an executive board of undergraduates and by a faculty advisory board, is open access, meaning it is available for anyone to read online. Liu and Patel aimed to introduce under- graduates to the process of peer review and to implement a rigorous review process parallel to that of established academic journals.

The editorial board encourages submissions from a broad range of disciplines from the sciences to the humanities and arts. “I personally have learned a lot about what’s going on in other disciplines by going through this process, and I’m hoping that other readers of the journal will also,” said Liu, who is majoring in molecular biology. The team plans to distribute the publication to prospective students and alumni. Interested undergraduates can submit their original research findings at

Probing the genetic basis for dog-human relationships

By Pooja Makhijani

A new study has identified genetic changes that are linked to dogs’ human-directed social behaviors and suggests there is a common underlying genetic basis for hyper-social behavior in both dogs and humans.

An interdisciplinary team of researchers, including those from Princeton University, sequenced a region of chromosome 6 in dogs and found multiple sections of canine DNA that were associated with differences in social behavior. In many cases, unique genetic insertions called transposons in the Williams-Beuren syndrome critical region were strongly associated with the tendency to seek out humans for physical contact, assistance and information.

Emily Shuldiner

Emily Shuldiner, Class of 2016, was a co-first author on a study published in the journal Science Advances on genetic changes linked to dogs’ social behaviors toward humans. PHOTO BY ALEXIS BAILEY

In contrast, in humans, it is the deletion of genes from the counterpart of this region on the human genome, rather than insertions, that causes Williams-Beuren syndrome, a congenital disorder characterized by hyper-social traits such as exceptional gregariousness. The study, which was supported by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, was published July 19, 2017, in Science Advances.

“It was the remarkable similarity between the behavioral presentation of Williams-Beuren syndrome and the friendliness of domesticated dogs that suggested to us that there may be similarities in the genetic architecture of the two phenotypes,” said Bridgett vonHoldt, an assistant professor in ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton and the study’s lead author.

Emily Shuldiner, Class of 2016 and a co-first author, pinpointed the commonalities in the genetic architecture of Williams-Beuren syndrome and canine tameness as part of her senior thesis research.

VonHoldt’s findings suggest that only a few transposons on this region likely govern a complex set of social behaviors. “We haven’t found a ‘social gene,’ but rather an important [genetic] component that shapes animal personality and assisted the process of domesticating a wild wolf into a tame dog,” she said.

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How cancer stem cells evade the immune system

By Yasemin Saplakoglu

When Daniel D. Liu first encountered the world of research, he saw giants in white lab coats shaking flasks and squirting liquids into small vials. He was 4 years old, and his parents, both biochemists, would bring him to work and set him down with a book and instructions to keep quiet.

“I didn’t really understand what was happening, but I guess that was my first impression of what adults do,” said Liu, Class of 2018, who is majoring in molecular biology. It was no wonder that he went into the family business at a young age. During summer breaks in high school, he worked at the National Institutes of Health near his home in Potomac, Maryland.

At Princeton, Liu joined the laboratory of Yibin Kang, the Warner-Lambert/Parke-Davis Professor of Molecular Biology, where he focuses on breast cancer stem cells, which are a subset of cancer cells that can self-renew and cause tumors to spread or grow back after treatment.

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Daniel Liu

Undergraduate Daniel D. Liu co-authored a Nature Cell Biology study on the discovery of an RNA molecule that protects stem cells.

In a study published earlier this year in Nature Cell Biology, Liu helped identify a molecule that protects cancer stem cells by shielding them from the immune system. When the immune system cannot attack the cancer cells, the cells can spread to surrounding tissues, a process known as metastasis and a leading cause of cancer-related deaths.

The team found that when cells produce a lot of this molecule — actually a short strand of genetic information called microRNA-199a — both healthy and cancerous cells take on stem cell-like properties such as a heightened ability to regenerate breast tissue and to create spherical clumps of cells called mammospheres.

This stem cell-like property is necessary for normal breast tissue functioning, but it is also fuel for cancer cells to survive and duplicate, helping them to escape from the suppressive effects of immune cells.

The findings may shed light on the puzzle of why immunotherapy, a cancer treatment that spurs the immune system to attack tumors, is highly successful against some types of cancer patients but does not work well for others.

“Everyone is really banking on immunotherapy as a breakthrough in cancer treatment, but it only works really well for some types of cancers,” Kang said. “In breast cancer the response isn’t great, and we don’t really understand why.”

As a result of this study, made possible through funding from the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Defense, Kang now thinks the lack of response to immuno-therapy by some patients could, in part, be due to the microRNA’s role in protecting the cancer stem cells.

Since the team now understands what guards the cancer cells, Liu said, “perhaps we can target this pathway so as to sensitize cancer stem cells to immunotherapy.”

Liu’s contributions to the lab go beyond bench experiments. Recently, he coded a user-friendly program that enables the team to sift through large patient data sets quickly, improving upon the lab’s previous, manual approach. He also co-founded the Princeton Undergraduate Research Journal (see page 2) to help fellow students publish their work and learn firsthand about the peer-review process.

“Daniel not only does his own work but also makes life much easier for everyone in the lab,” Kang said. “It’s quite unusual for an undergraduate to make fundamental contributions to the lab that enable everyone to do research in a better way.”

Historian and neuroscientist team up for podcast

By Yasemin Saplakoglu

When history professor Julian Zelizer and neuroscientist Sam Wang started the podcast Politics and Polls prior to last year’s presidential election, they never dreamed it would still be going a year later. “We thought there wouldn’t be much to talk about after Hillary won,” Zelizer said.

Instead, the pair found themselves with plenty of new ground to cover. And Wang, who’d boasted on Twitter that he would eat a bug if Donald Trump won, found himself swallowing a cricket on national television.

Fast-forward to the present, and Zelizer and Wang continue to record weekly interviews with guests ranging from renowned journalists and politicians to playwrights. The podcast has become an influential source of commentary and analysis for policy-makers, journalists and the public. In the past year it has been downloaded 170,000 times on iTunes and it is ranked in the top 20 for political podcasts.

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The discussion resembles a dinner table conversation among friends trying to make sense of the political world around them. The hosts contemplate unfolding events such as the Trump-Russia story, or discuss the impact of gerrymandering on elections. Or they may talk about immigration with an expert in that field, or debate Brexit’s parallels to U.S. events.

Zelizer, who is also a commentator on CNN, said his background as a historian provides perspective on Trump’s victory.

Julian Zelizer and Sam Wang

Professors Julian Zelizer (left) and Sam Wang record the weekly podcast Politics and Polls at the University’s broadcast studio. PHOTO BY EGAN JIMENEZ

“I don’t tend to see partisanship as a product of 2017 as much as a product of 30 years of change in American politics, whose players I have been following closely,” said Zelizer, the Malcolm Stevenson Forbes, Class of 1941 Professor of History and Public Affairs in the Woodrow Wilson School for Public and International Affairs. “At the same time, I’m sensitive to the way in which certain individuals can make a huge difference in key moments, in ways that historical data may not be able to predict.”

The use of data to predict election outcomes is one of the areas of expertise that Wang, a professor of molecular biology and the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, brings to the podcast. In 2004, he started the Princeton Election Consortium, a blog that analyzes and predicts the outcomes of U.S. elections using polling data. While he stands behind statistical methods, he admits that the outcomes of the 2016 presidential election taught some new lessons.

“In news coverage and polling, there is this naive view that the way to find out what people think is to ask them,” he said. But many people don’t feel comfortable revealing information, he said, and it is useful to augment polling with information from people’s online searches, social media posts and other behaviors.

The podcast is produced by the Woodrow Wilson School. Additional research for each week’s episode is conducted by undergraduate Sophie Helmers, Class of 2019, who provides back-ground information on speakers and possible questions to ask.

As to the future direction of the podcast, Wang and Zelizer haven’t a clue — and they want to keep it that way. “I think it’s a virtue that there is no grand strategy for where this goes,” Zelizer said. “The election was so dramatic that it gave us an endless number of topics to talk about, and who knows what is going to happen next.”

Listen to the Politics and Polls podcast at or download via iTunes, Soundcloud or other podcast services

Students create exotic state of matter

By Bennett McIntosh

IN THE SUMMER OF 2015, Princeton students Joseph Scherrer and Adam Bowman experienced something few undergraduates can claim: they built, from scratch, a laser system capable of coaxing lithium atoms into a rare, highly excited state of matter to reveal their quantum nature.

When they joined Assistant Professor of Physics Waseem Bakr’s lab in the spring of 2014, Scherrer and Bowman had little experience in optics or quantum physics. Their task was to convince lithium atoms to enter a state of matter known as the Rydberg state. In this state, each atom has a very high-energy electron located far from the atom’s nucleus. The separation of the electron’s negative charge from the nucleus’ positive charge creates a dipole, like a magnet’s north and south poles.

To give the electrons the right amount of energy to create the Rydberg state, Scherrer and Bowman hit the atoms with two carefully tuned lasers, first blue and then red. To prove that the lithium atoms had indeed entered the Rydberg state, the two researchers needed a way to detect them. They trawled the scientific literature for a sensitive enough detection method, and eventually implemented a technique called electromagnetically induced transparency. With this technique, the Rydberg atoms interfere with the absorbance of certain wavelengths of light, so if the gas is transparent in those wavelengths, the Rydberg atoms are present.

The undergraduates designed and built the device independently, Bakr said. “I wasn’t planning on starting this, and suddenly it grew into a whole project, largely due to their efforts,” he said.

“It was a turning point in our scientific development,” said Scherrer, who graduated in 2016 with a degree in physics. “For me, it was a realization of what you can do with quantum optics.” Scherrer was awarded a Fulbright grant to join a team in Munich, Germany, where he is building electron microscopes to image the brain. He will next head to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to pursue a Ph.D. in physics. Bowman, a physics major in the Class of 2017, continues to study the physics of electronically interesting materials, and spent his junior year and the summer of 2016 working on a new project with Ali Yazdani, Princeton’s Class of 1909 Professor of Physics. There, Bowman built a device that works like an inkjet printer for atoms to print superconductors layer-by-layer.

Princeton Research Day highlights student and early-career work

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MORE THAN 150 undergraduates, graduate students and postdoctoral researchers presented their work at the first Princeton Research Day held May 5, 2016.

The event highlighted research from the natural sciences, engineering, social sciences, humanities and the arts in formats including talks, poster presentations, performances, art exhibitions and digital presentations — all designed with the general public in mind.

“It’s a wonderful cross section of the research enterprise at Princeton,” said Dean for Research Pablo Debenedetti, the Class of 1950 Professor in Engineering and Applied Science, and professor of chemical and biological engineering.

In all, Princeton Research Day presented an important opportunity for undergraduates, said Dean of the College Jill Dolan, the Annan Professor in English and professor of theater in the Lewis Center for the Arts.

“Princeton is one of the very few universities in the world where undergraduate students are encouraged to do the kind of original research that every single undergraduate on this campus does,” Dolan said. “So taking the opportunity at the end of the year to do a major public event in which students can present that work is groundbreaking.”

Princeton Research Day was a collaborative initiative between the offices of the dean of the college, dean of the faculty, dean of the graduate school and the dean for research. The second Princeton Research Day is scheduled for May 11, 2017. –By Michael Hotchkiss

Exploring the emergence of Cuban consumerism

DENNISSE CALLE FOUND THE TOPIC for her senior thesis along a Havana street in the back of a stall that sells pirated movies and music.

Cubans pay the equivalent of a few dollars, insert a flash drive into the computer at the back of the stall, and get access to El Paquete — a weekly, one-terabyte compilation of popular TV shows, movies, music, computer and phone apps, and advertisements that serves as an offline Netflix, YouTube, Craigslist and more in a country where internet access is slow and expensive.  Calle, a sociology major at Princeton, spent two weeks in January doing research in Cuba and interviewed 50 users and distributors of El Paquete — which means “The Package” — to learn about the service and the way it fits into the lives of everyday Cubans.

“I focus on how El Paquete is transforming how people view themselves as consumers,” Calle said. “This is one of the first forms of consumer culture that is being normalized in Cuba, in part because it’s cheap and easy to pass around.”

The origins of El Paquete, which began around 2008, are unclear, as is the identity of the people behind it. El Paquete is  widely available — either distributed door to door using a portable hard drive or from central locations like the stall where Calle discovered it — despite existing in a sort of legal gray area in Cuba.

It offers an alternative to state-controlled Cuban television, which broadcasts only 10 channels of news and sedate fare to most residents.

Many of the TV shows and movies — generally subtitled in Spanish — come from the United States, along with the United Kingdom and Spain. Competition shows such as “The Voice” and “Cake Wars” are popular, as are South Korean soap operas.  Calle, who is originally from Ecuador and moved to Trenton, New Jersey, also looked beyond the content to explore how El Paquete is changing the way people see themselves. “I think it’s reflective of what’s happening in Cuba, moving from a state that is very controlling to one that is allowing capitalism to emerge into the nation and its culture,” she said.

Calle’s research and analysis are impressive, said her adviser, Patricia Fernandez-Kelly, a senior lecturer in sociology. “It’s really a study about identity,” Fernandez-Kelly said. “Not just personal identity but national identity.”

What’s ahead for El Paquete in Cuba, which has been working to ease tensions with the United States? Calle predicts El Paquete will survive even if Cubans gain broader access to the internet —  in part because it is so inexpensive and easily shared.  –By Michael Hotchkiss

Engineering health solutions for all

Hundreds of women die every day due to excessive bleeding after childbirth, but this can be prevented by an injection of the hormone oxytocin, which stimulates uterine contractions that reduce bleeding. Yet oxytocin must be kept cold, and developing countries often lack the resources to transport and store the hormone. Nor do they have enough trained personnel to administer the shot.

Benjamin Tien, who graduated from Princeton in 2015 with a degree in chemical and biological engineering, has been awarded a Fulbright grant to join a research team developing an aerosolized, inhalable version of oxytocin. He’ll work at the Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences in Australia to use a technique called “spray-drying” to turn liquid oxytocin into a dry powder that can be released from an inexpensive, disposable device. This would cut out the need for special storage conditions, eliminate the risk of infection from needles, and make the treatment available even to women giving birth at home.

While at Princeton, Tien conducted senior thesis research on nanoparticles for dealing with bacterial infections such as cholera or pseudomonas with Robert Prud’homme, a professor of chemical and biological engineering and Tien’s thesis adviser. During the summer before his senior year, Tien worked at a startup company in Boston called Diagnostics for All that develops medical diagnostics for developing countries.

While doing research in Australia, Tien will also work with the Poche Center for Indigenous Health, an organization that aims to improve the health of indigenous Australians with an emphasis on forming lasting relationships with the communities. “I want to get a better sense of the challenges people are facing on the ground, which will help me know what to focus on in my career,” Tien said.

-By Takim Williams

Computer chip for point-of-care diagnosis

Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering Kaushik Sengupta and his team are developing a computer chip-based diagnostic system, which rests comfortably on a fingertip but contains hundreds of different sensors for simultaneous detection of disease-causing agents. The eventual goal is to use the chip in a handheld, portable diagnostic device that could be deployed in health clinics around the globe, especially in resource-limited settings.

The chip detects and measures the presence of DNA or proteins to help diagnose health conditions. Most existing methods for detecting these agents involve shining light on fluorescent labels attached to the DNA or protein and reading a resulting signal. However, in many types of tests, the signal is so weak that complex optical equipment is necessary to read the signal.

To perform this analysis using a simple handheld device, Sengupta is co-opting silicon chip technology similar to that found in personal computers and mobile phones. “This is a great technology for handheld medical diagnostic devices because it allows us integrate extremely complex systems in a single chip at very low cost. The vision is to unleash Moore’s law in diagnostics,” said Sengupta, referring to Intel co-founder Gordon Moore’s observation that processing power in computer chips has increased rapidly over the years.

The team starts with highly sensitive light-detecting components, or photodetectors, that are already ubiquitous in smartphone cameras, then adds new optical processor capabilities to the chip. The researchers found a way to re-wire the architecture of the chip so that in addition to carrying electrical information necessary for image processing, the chip also interacts with the incoming photons from the fluorescent light, and can block them out, allowing the signal that carries information about the test sample to be detected and processed.

Lingyu Hong and Kaushik Sengupta

Lingyu Hong, a graduate student in electrical engineering, and Kaushik Sengupta, an assistant professor of electrical engineering at Princeton University are developing technology for use in a handheld diagnostic system for healthcare in resource-limited settings.

This ability to integrate optical elements with electronics inside a single silicon chip is enabling the team to build detection systems for both genetic material and proteins. Millions of photodetectors can already be crammed into smartphone cameras and Sengupta plans to put hundreds or even thousands of such sensors on the new chip to create a platform capable of testing many agents at once. In addition to being cheap and robust, this “lab-on-a-chip” will be user-friendly. Sengupta and his colleagues envision that the chips will be used in a portable device similar to a smartphone that can use an app to analyze the fluorescence data and display diagnosis results in a clear, simple format.

To make the device truly portable, it will be necessary to develop a small and lightweight apparatus to isolate proteins and genetic material from blood or other fluids, and Sengupta and his collaborators are working on this challenge. “The entire end-to-end system may take another couple of years to reach, but we’ve demonstrated the feasibility of the approach,” said Sengupta, who collaborates with Professor of Chemistry Haw Yang. “Princeton provides the kind of environment that makes it easy to reach out to faculty members across the campus and to work on creative endeavors that cut across traditional disciplines.”

The initial work on the chip was supported by Project X, a fund established through a donation from G. Lynn Shostack S’69 for the support of exploratory research. The project involvesgraduate students Lingyu Hong in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Hao Li in the Department of Chemistry, Postdoctoral Research Associate Simon McManus and undergraduate Victor Ying. Lingyu and Hao were awarded a Qualcomm Innovation Fellowship for 2015-16 for this work.

-By Takim Williams

Student identifies difference between the dinosaur sexes

THE DISCOVERY OF A SINGLE ANATOMICAL DIFFERENCE between males and females of a species of Stegosaurus provides some of the most conclusive evidence that some dinosaurs looked different based on sex, according to research published in PLoS One and conducted by Evan Saitta while he was an undergraduate at Princeton.

The study found that the back plates of the species Stegosaurus mjosi came in two varieties that indicated the animal’s sex — short and wide, and tall and narrow. Females had one type of plate and males the other. The lack of a particular female-specific bone tissue found in birds and some dinosaurs, however, made it difficult to determine which sex had which plate type.

Saitta, who graduated from Princeton in 2014 and conducted the research for his senior thesis project, drew from existing animals, particularly horned animals, to suggest that the distinct shape of male and female S. mjosi plates indicated two different functions. He supposes that the tall, narrow plates belonged to females, who would have needed the pointier plates to defend themselves against predators. The wide plates, which were 45 percent larger in surface area, likely served as “billboard” displays males used to attract females, similar to the plumes of the male peacock.

Beyond the implications for Stegosaurus, the research establishes that sexual dimorphism — in which males and females of a species have distinct physical forms — could exist in non-avian dinosaurs, a group that includes iconic reptiles such as Tyrannosaurus and Brontosaurus, Saitta said. Existing work on sexual dimorphism in non-avian dinosaurs had been inconclusive. Saitta is now a graduate student at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom.

Andrew Farke, the Augustyn Family Curator of Paleontology at the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology in Claremont, California, said that the work provides a potential foothold for other researchers wanting to explore sexual dimorphism in Stegosaurus and possibly other non-avian dinosaurs.

“This is very species specific, so there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to extend this to other animals,” said Farke, who is familiar with the study but had no role in it. “It’s not the end of the road, but I think it will stimulate people to look at this issue in Stegosaurus.”

–By Morgan Kelly

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Hero explores Vietnam War experiences

FOR HIS SENIOR THESIS, Eamon Foley combined indie rock music, dance, aerial choreography and ethnographic research to create an original theater-dance piece titled Hero, which tells the story of a young man transformed by his experiences in the Vietnam War.

The senior thesis is a major research or creative work required of all Princeton undergraduates. Foley’s thesis, featuring a cast of fellow Princeton students, was performed April 25 through May 1, 2015, at the Lewis Center for the Arts’ Matthews Acting Studio, the Program in Theater’s black box theater.

The script is based on Foley’s interviews with Vietnam veterans and other research, including his visit to Vietnam in summer 2014. “I spent a lot of time studying ethnography — the idea of gathering information through interview,” said Foley, who graduated in 2015 with an anthropology degree and a theater certificate. “I thought this would be a great way to look at where anthropology and theater meet.”

A documentary about the experience of creating Hero, by Danielle Alio and Jamie Saxon, takes viewers through Foley’s 10-month creative journey, from early fall 2014 when he had no script, no choreography and no cast — just “a lot of great ideas bouncing around in my head” — through opening night.

-By Danielle Alio and Jamie Saxon

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New chemistry aids drug development

Tova Bergsten


DRUG DEVELOPMENT OFTEN INVOLVES modifying the chemical structure to get the right combination of properties, such as stability and activity. Working in the laboratory of John Groves, the Hugh Stott Taylor Chair of Chemistry, undergraduate Tova Bergsten and graduate student Xiongyi Huang developed a practical and versatile method for altering molecules that could have wide application in drug synthesis and basic research. The method involves using a manganese catalyst to convert carbon-hydrogen bonds into chemical structures known as azides, which are useful for modifying the properties of drugs.

“Since this was my first long-term lab experience, I learned quite a bit,” Bergsten said. “It was eye-opening to be involved in the experimenting, writing and publishing side of a paper. I plan to continue with scientific research, and what I’ve learned through this experience will definitely be useful for my future work.”

The research, which was supported by the National Science Foundation, was published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society on April 14, 2015.

–By Tien Nguyen

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Listening in on bacterial communications

Leah Bushin and Mohammad Syedsayamdost

While an undergraduate, Leah Bushin (left) co-authored an article on the structure of a signaling molecule involved in bacterial communication with co-first author Kelsey Schramma and adviser Mohammad Seyedsayamdost (right), assistant professor of chemistry, PHOTO BY C. TODD REICHART

BACTERIA SPEAK TO ONE ANOTHER using a soundless language known as quorum sensing. In a step toward translating bacterial communications, researchers have revealed the structure and biosynthesis of streptide, a signaling molecule involved in the quorum sensing system common to many diseasecausing streptococci bacteria.

The research team included undergraduate Leah Bushin, who was the co-first author on an article published on April 20, 2015, in Nature Chemistry. Bushin helped determine the structure of streptide as part of her undergraduate senior thesis project.

To explore how bacteria communicate, first she had to grow them, a challenging process in which oxygen had to be rigorously excluded. Next, she isolated the streptide and analyzed it using two-dimensional nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, a technique that allows scientists to deduce the connections between atoms.

The experiments revealed that streptide contains an unprecedented crosslink between two unactivated carbons on the amino acids lysine and tryptophan. To figure out how this novel bond was being formed, the researchers took a closer look at the gene cluster that produces streptide. Within the gene cluster, they suspected that a radical S-adenosyl methionine (SAM) enzyme, which they dubbed StrB, could be responsible for this unusual modification.

“Radical SAM enzymes catalyze absolutely amazing chemistries,” said Kelsey Schramma, a graduate student and the other co-first author on the article. The team showed that one of the iron-sulfur clusters reductively activated one molecule of SAM, kicking off a chain of one-electron (radical) reactions that gave rise to the novel carbon-carbon bond.

Kelsey Schramma is a graduate student in chemistry working on a project to study bacterial communication. Disrupting communication could lead to novel strategies to fight infections. PHOTO CREDIT: C. TODD REICHART

Kelsey Schramma is a graduate student in chemistry working on a project to study bacterial communication. Disrupting communication could lead to novel strategies to fight infections. PHOTO CREDIT: C. TODD REICHART

“The synergy between Leah and Kelsey was great,” said Mohammad Seyedsayamdost, an assistant professor of chemistry who led the research, which was supported by the National Institutes of Health. “They expressed interest in complementary aspects of the project, and the whole ended up being greater than the sum of its parts,” he said.

Future work will target streptide’s biological function — its meaning in the bacterial language — as well as confirming its production by other streptococcal bacteria strains.

–By Tien Nguyen

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Ashes, images and the survival of democracy


A vase known as a loutrophoros that carried water for ritual cleansing and was often placed at the graves of young, unmarried men. Loutrophoros in the manner of Talos the Painter. Berlin, Staatliche Museen. PHOTO CREDIT: JOHANNES LAURENTIUS/ ART RESOURCE, NEW YORK

Ashes, images and the survival of democracy: Nathan Arrington searches for meaning in ancient Athens’ public cemetery

By Catherine Zandonella

IT’S AN OVERCAST AND WINDY DAY, cold for June, but a strawberry stand across the road reminds us that summer has almost arrived in New Jersey. Nathan Arrington, an assistant professor of art and archaeology, sometimes visits the cemetery near campus to think. “Archaeologists tend to be comfortable with death,” he says.

I walk with Arrington past pitted, moss-stained headstones, wondering if any of those buried here died fighting for a fledgling democracy in the Revolutionary War’s Battle of Princeton. Arrington is an expert on another burial ground, thousands of miles away and 2,500 years in the past, in Athens, Greece, where another fledgling democracy — perhaps the world’s first — was fighting for survival.

The cemetery is an appropriate place for a mystery, and Arrington is exploring a mystery that has captivated him since he was an undergraduate at Princeton in the early 2000s. Back then, he became intrigued by how ancient Greek art included portrayals of their defeats as well as their victories. For example, several of the marble carvings on the Parthenon showed Greeks being speared, trampled and otherwise humiliated in battle. In contrast, Arrington says, “The ancient Assyrians would never portray their warriors as anything but victorious.”

Greek portrayal of defeat

As an undergraduate at Princeton, Arrington was intrigued at how the ancient Greeks portrayed their own defeat in works of art, such as this marble sculpture created around 447-438 B.C. of a centaur trampling a Greek warrior situated on an outside wall of ancient Athens’ largest building, the Parthenon. London, British Museum. PHOTO CREDIT: ALBUM/ART RESOURCE, NEW YORK

The portrayals of Greek defeat would eventually lead him to the larger question of how a young democratic society, at first fighting for survival against foreign aggression and later waging war for territorial expansion, convinced its citizens to sacrifice its young men to war. This topic would become the subject of a several-years obsession and eventually a book, Ashes, Images, and Memories: The Presence of the War Dead in Fifth-Century Athens (Oxford University Press, 2015). It’s a mixture of art, archaeology, history and modern neuroscience, tackling questions of how Athens in the fifth century B.C. developed rituals that helped its citizens accept the war dead as a necessary sacrifice to the survival of the state, rituals that influence us even today.

Mapping Athens’ ancient cemetery

When Arrington was an undergraduate, these findings were still far in the future. He wrote his senior thesis, a major work of scholarship required of all Princeton undergraduates, on the portrayal of defeat in classical Greek art, graduated in 2002 and then departed — first to the University of Cambridge, where he earned a master’s degree, and then to a doctoral program at the University of California- Berkeley. During that time, he spent a year as a Fulbright scholar at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens.

One day in 2008, amid the sound of cars honking and the smell of chestnuts roasting in a street vendor’s cart, Arrington followed Leda Costaki, a research archivist at the American School, on a tour of Athens’ ancient city walls. Most of the walls lie in ruins beneath the concrete and asphalt of the modern city. We know the location of the walls due to the work of government archaeologists who hastily catalogue the historical treasures — crumbling walls, roadbeds, even statues — uncovered whenever the urban landscape is peeled back during the construction of a commercial building or apartment house.

This type of archaeology — the examination of artifacts exhumed from beneath existing development — is considered so hard that a lot of people don’t want to do it. Instead of digging in dirt, urban archaeologists delve through stacks of papers or scroll through computerized reports. But as Arrington traipsed in and out of basements where parts of the walls had been preserved, he realized that it might just be possible to use the reports of these urban archaeologists to learn more about Athens’ ancient public cemetery.

Inspired by Costaki’s tour, Arrington undertook the task of mapping Athens’ ancient cemetery, the dēmosion sēma. Scholars already knew a bit about it from funeral orations and gravestones, but until Arrington, no one had conclusively mapped it or catalogued the locations of the large public graves for the war dead.

Arrington’s map revealed more mysteries. For one thing, the cemetery wasn’t exactly where you might expect a public graveyard to be — it was a little off the beaten path and outside the city — and the graves were not placed in neat rows the way they are in modern veterans’ cemeteries such as the Arlington National Cemetery. Instead, the graves were spread out over an area nearly a mile long that also housed a pottery manufacturing area.

“Sources speak of the [cemetery region] as a quiet place of solitude, or an ideal spot for a walk,” Arrington wrote of what the region would have been like in the fifth century B.C. in his doctoral thesis. “The wide road created an appealing, open space, with many paths leading off to the sides. The public graves did not dominate the edges of the road in a strict line but, like family plots, created smaller, inviting precincts. Such layouts of the monuments encouraged the pedestrian not to stroll by or between memorials, but to pause, experience, explore.”

The mapping of the dēmosion sēmaand study of casualty lists earned Arrington his doctorate degree in 2010, acclaim for his scholarship, and a job the same year as Princeton’s newly hired expert on classical Greece — filling the shoes, incidentally, of his senior thesis adviser, William Childs. Childs, professor of art and archaeology, now emeritus, is impressed with the scholar that Arrington has become.

“He is extraordinarily sensitive and very intelligent,” Childs says when I meet him in a windowless room above Princeton’s Marquand Library of Art and Archaeology. The room is crammed with filing cabinets and the walls are lined with faded black-and-white photos of Princeton archaeologists from a time when men on expedition dressed for dinner. “He covers just about everything — I disagree with him on a few points, but it is first-rate work, and he is a first-rate scholar.”

As an assistant professor at Princeton, Arrington began to piece together the story of what the public cemetery, together with the art and texts of the time, tell us about the lives and customs of a young, militant democracy.

The story starts about 508-507 B.C., when the citizens of Athens set up what is considered the first-ever democratic system of government. The city had hardly gained independence when it faced the threat of Persian invaders. Banding together with other Greek city-states, Athens triumphed over the Persians in 480 B.C. and waged many more battles — not only for survival but to gain power and territory. But the cost of these victories, and also some defeats, was high.

“There was an obvious problem with the war dead,” Arrington says. “You had to convince a society that these wars were worth the risk. And if you are a young democratic community, you need to honor the dead, but you cannot elevate the dead above the rest of society.”

The public cemetery was one way that city leaders sought to make the sacrifice more acceptable, Arrington found. Prior to the dēmosion sēma’s construction, the mourning of family members killed in battle was a very personal experience. Families would go to the battlefield to collect the body. Once home they’d wash the body, and invite extended family and friends to honor the deceased. Those who could afford to do so erected statues and monuments to commemorate the dead.

Once the public cemetery was created, however, the building of private monuments ceased, according to the records and artifacts that Arrington studied. Instead, officials cremated the war dead at the battlefield or somewhere else outside the city, then brought the ashes into Athens by the cartload to display in the burial ground. “This would have been a startling and disturbing sight,” Arrington says.

Individual monuments were replaced by tall slabs of marble called stelae inscribed with lists of names of the fallen. The carvings appear to have been done with some haste, probably in time for an annual celebration that would include speeches and funeral games.

“This was a way to honor people equally,” Arrington says. “You were elevated to the same level as your rich neighbor across the street. Death in battle was the great equalizer.”

Death was also the great anonymizer, he says. Only first names were carved on the stelae. “The anonymity of the lists encouraged a view of dead as a collective instead of individuals. These were fundamental changes in the way that people viewed their dead.”

Coopting the war dead for civic purposes

As Arrington learned more about these customs by studying the stelae, the works of art of the period and surviving funeral oration texts, he began to understand how the Greek battle scenes that had so puzzled him as an undergraduate fit into the picture.

These battle scenes were prominently on display on the crown of Athens’ largest building, the Parthenon, which, with its marble sculpture, was the Times Square of the ancient world. There, for all to see, were carvings of an Amazon spearing a Greek soldier, a centaur trampling a Greek and a Greek soldier turning to run or crawl away. These mythical foes, carved between 447 and 438 B.C., represent real-life battles. The Amazons, for example, wore Persian dress.

The location of these scenes on a sacred building — the Parthenon is a temple to the goddess Athena — suggests a deific stamp of approval. The images of flight, loss, defeat and death are a means of catharsis, creating an emotional connection between the viewer and the defeated, Arrington argues. Long after the funeral orations and games were over, the monuments posed the question to the living: What will you do?

Nathan Arrington

“There was an obvious problem with the war dead. You had to convince a society that wars were worth the risk.”
–Nathan Arrington, assistant professor of art and archaeology. PHOTO BY DENISE APPLEWHITE

How did the Greeks respond to coopting of their war dead for civic purposes? With their private traditions supplanted by public rituals, families over time shaped new customs. One such custom was to place in the cemetery offerings of decorative oil-filled bottles called lekythoi.

At the Princeton University Art Museum in the center of campus, I meet J. Michael Padgett, curator of ancient art. At a back entrance, a security guard checks me in, and Padgett takes me to a room lined with shelves of Greek antiquities where Arrington once worked as a student, and where in turn his students come to study lekythoi and other artifacts in the classes he teaches.

Padgett hands me a smooth vase about the size of a soda bottle. If I drop it, I would destroy an object created thousands of years ago. Holding it makes me feel somehow closer to understanding how a grieving mother might revere such an object, which served as a way of connecting the living and the dead. “Vases are a window on the past, although they are a smudged and cracked window,” Padgett says.

On one of the lekythoi described in Arrington’s book, a woman stands facing a tall grave marker, her outstretched hand holding a lekythos, possibly purchased at the nearby pottery works. A warrior looks at her from the other side of the grave.

From his armor, it is clear that he is a ghost; people didn’t go to graves dressed like that. The image carries a reassuring message for the grieving survivor who held this vase in pre-Christian Greece: Your dead son is here in spirit, and he knows that you visit his grave.


Disallowed from building individual monuments for their loved ones who died in battle, Athenians honored their war dead in the public cemetery by placing small vases called lekythoi at the mass graves. On this lekythos, dating from about 460-450 B.C., a woman carrying a basket with grave offerings on her head offers a lekythos to a striding warrior, probably the deceased. Berlin, Staatliche Museen. PHOTO CREDIT: JOHANNES LAURENTIUS/ ART RESOURCE, NEW YORK

Arrington examined this and other lekythoi as snapshots — the selfies of everyday life and loss in ancient Greece — and started to see how the Athenians used the vases in combination with the public cemetery to make sense of their losses. “What you actually see is the variety of responses to the war dead, to the point of almost being subversive. I wouldn’t call it an antiwar movement, but these were reactions against the city’s claims to the dead, to the bodies or to the endless wars.” Eventually the monuments to individuals returned, paid for by the families who could afford them, around 430 B.C.

Padgett takes the lekythos from my hand. He has clear memories of Arrington as an undergraduate. Just after graduation in 2002, Arrington worked as an intern in the art museum, helping Padgett prepare an exhibition. “Of course I remember Nathan,” Padgett says. “He stood out even then as an extremely bright and motivated student. He has great powers of concentration — and he was already multilingual by then. I and others were delighted when he came back.”

During his undergraduate years at Princeton, Arrington met his wife, Celeste, who is now an assistant professor of political science specializing in the Koreas and Japan at George Washington University. A few years later, while they both were working on their doctorates, Arrington found himself living in Japan. When not sifting through piles of photocopied Athenian archaeology documents, he would visit the Yasukuni war shrine. (“I was the strange tourist just sitting there watching people come and go,” he says.) Here, soldiers who gave their lives for Japan are revered as deities. Around that same time, the U.S.-Iraq war was going on, yet U.S. government policy forbade news photography of the coffins arriving home from Iraq and Afghanistan. He began to think about how our ways of remembering the dead — even today — influence our willingness to accept the personal cost of war.

Crossing the centuries

The sprawling cemetery, the anonymity of the grave markers, the funeral orations, the objects of art from the small lekythoi to the massive marble friezes — all were clues that pointed to ways that societies shape how their citizens view death.

And that led to the last piece of the puzzle: Exactly how did these material objects influence the thought processes of Athenians? Arrington found himself turning to modern neuroscience to learn how our environments and past experiences influence what we remember. We don’t remember everything that happens to us, but rather only those things that have some importance or value. And our biases or mindsets can influence what we remember. The public nature of the cemetery with its ashes on display, funeral games and speeches, plus the anonymity of the markers, carried strong messages that the war dead should be perceived and remembered for their contribution to the state rather than as good sons or dedicated husbands.

Few scholars today could have put together such a comprehensive look at how the objects of art and archaeology revealed something about the culture of ancient Athens, says Matthew Sears, a historian who studies classical Greek warfare at the University of New Brunswick in Canada. “Nathan’s work crosses boundaries between disciplines,” says Sears, who first met Arrington when they were students at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. “The objects of art that Nathan describes in his book are very well known. They’ve been studied for, in some cases, centuries, but they’ve only been studied in isolation from each other. Nathan brings them all together, as parts of the same story, and he brings in advances in memory and cognitive studies, things that have nothing to do with classical scholarship, in a way that sheds light on how Athenians lived,” Sears says.

A truck rumbles past the strawberry stand outside the cemetery in Princeton. Arrington is leaving for Greece in a few days, where he’ll lead students in an excavation of an ancient trading port on the north coast of Greece. The financial uncertainty in Greece is a worry. Celeste will go with him, and they’ll be bringing their young child (with another on the way), to the dig.

Arrington is musing on how modern society has coopted Greek classical art and architecture to make grand statements. For example, near campus on the Princeton Battlefield stands a neoclassical monument consisting of four Greek columns. “We use classical style as a way to elevate things, but to do that is to not understand the full complexity of Greek art,” he says. “I think we adopted some of these practices without understanding where they are coming from.”

The issues of the treatment of the war dead, the state support of war veterans and the place of war in society are issues that we are still grappling with today, says David Pritchard, a senior lecturer in Greek history at the University of Queensland who is familiar with Arrington’s work. “All of these questions are still being asked. Athens is a very rich point of comparison for thinking about pressing issues of democracy, citizenship and military participation.”

He adds: “Ancient Athens was democratic, but it was a state that was constantly at war. It was a state that prioritized military spending over social security spending, and it was a state that picked fights with other states all the time. So I think that Athens stands as a warning to the modern world that we shouldn’t be complacent in thinking that democracy protects us from warmongering or that democracy means that we only fight just wars, and we only fight necessary wars.”

Western-style democracies, in other words, have much in common with the ancient Greeks when it comes to the war dead: What do you do with the bodies? How will you memorialize them? How will you portray them in images? And will you honor the dead as a way to glorify war?

Arrington is not sure we honor our war dead particularly well. “We as a culture tend to ignore death as much as we possibly can,” he said. “It is difficult for society to come to grips with the cost of war because death is not part of our visual culture on a regular basis, the way it was in the ancient world. Yet these ashes, images and the memories they create are needed if we are to have national healing.”

Arrington’s work has been supported by Princeton University’s David A. Gardner ’69 Magic Project and the Stanley J. Seeger Sabbatical Research Grant.

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Discovery_2015_F_3_Arrington_book_cover_9780199369072Arrington explores how a young democracy coped with the sacrifice of so many of their young men to war in his book Ashes, Images, and Memories: The Presence of the War Dead in Fifth-Century Athens (Oxford University Press, 2015). On the cover of the book is a vase known as a loutrophoros that carried water for ritual cleansing and was often placed at the graves of young, unmarried men. The vase, which dates from about 410 B.C., shows a deceased man looking at an equestrian statue of himself. The vase represents a way that families commemorated their dead and hints at a backlash against the practice of burying soldiers’ ashes en masse in Athens’ public cemetery.

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A RISKY PROPOSITION: Has global interdependence made us vulnerable?

A Risky Proposition

RISK IS EVERYWHERE. There’s a risk, for example, that volcanic ash will damage aircraft engines. So when a volcano erupted in Iceland in April 2010, concerns about the plume of volcanic ash disrupted air travel across Europe for about a week. Travelers, from the Prince of Wales to Miley Cyrus, were forced to adjust their plans.

In the interconnected world of the 21st century, that risk also put Kenyan flower farm employees out of work because their crop couldn’t reach Europe, and forced Nissan to halt production of some models in Japan because certain parts weren’t available.

Welcome to global systemic risk, where virtually every person on Earth can be affected by disruption in interdependent systems as diverse as electricity transmission, computer networks, food and water supplies, transportation, health care, and finance. The risks are complicated and little understood.

TextA core group of about two dozen faculty members from across the University — along with postdoctoral research fellows, graduate students, undergraduates and outside researchers — has come together for a three-year research effort focused on developing a comprehensive and cohesive framework for the study of such risks.

The Global Systemic Risk research community, with financial support from the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies, is working to better understand the nature of risk, the structure of increasingly fragile systems and the ability to anticipate and prevent catastrophic consequences.

“You can’t isolate any of these systems,” said Miguel Centeno, the Musgrave Professor of Sociology and head of the research community. “They’re all complex systems complexly put together. We’ve been running this unique experiment for the past 50 years or so, and we’re all dependent on it continuing to work.”

Making systems stronger

The goals of the community, now in its second year, include research, course development, conferences and even a movie series that will give the public a chance to use popular disaster films as a point of entry to discuss the serious issues of systemic risk.

Thayer Patterson, a research fellow and a member of the group’s executive committee, said the work that emerges should be useful not just for academics, but also policymakers, leaders in business and finance, and the public.

“This isn’t just an academic pursuit; it’s an intellectual exercise that has the potential for real consequences in terms of making our systems stronger and more robust to the inevitable shocks that they will experience,” Patterson said.

Policymakers, for example, may learn more about the ways dangerous unintended consequences can arise from seemingly sensible laws and regulations, Patterson said. And business leaders may better understand the importance of realistic risk assessment.

“We want to celebrate the risk takers and the innovators and the fruits of their labors,” Patterson said. “We are by no means doomsayers, but we hope to provide more information to people on the robustness and fragility of systems.”


What are the most fragile global systems? Centeno points to two that concern him the most: the Internet and global health.

While the Internet itself is fairly robust by design, Centeno said, many other crucial systems — such as electrical grids, financial institutions and transportation systems — rely on the Internet, and a catastrophic failure there could quickly have dangerous effects worldwide.

And the ease of global travel today raises the risk that disease can spread unchecked around the world before health authorities have an opportunity to react, he said.

“We now have the conditions under which we could create some kind of pandemic very quickly that we would not be able to resolve,” Centeno said.

Tackling research

The research community includes faculty members from 17 academic departments and five interdisciplinary programs at Princeton. Each brings his or her own background and approach to the topic.

Adam Elga, a professor of philosophy, said he has been interested in the topic of risk for several years and previously co-taught a course on the philosophy of extreme risk. That course piqued his interest in the idea of cascading failures, in which a series of small failures builds within a system and results in a catastrophic failure.

Elga is conducting a series of experiments this year with financial support from the research community that examines how individuals assess risks in situations where there is a small, but real, risk of catastrophic failure.

Elga’s hypothesis is that many experiment participants will struggle to accurately account for the risk of catastrophic failure. In the same way, Elga said, policymakers and the public can be lulled into complacency by the fact that important global systems haven’t experienced catastrophic failure — even though the risk is real and the potential consequences devastating.

“There is some evidence that people aren’t going to be scared enough by the bad outcomes until they’ve already been hit by one,” Elga said. “But once you get hit by a really big one, it’s too late and the game is over.”

Elga said he has derived benefits from the research community beyond direct support for his work.

“It’s been stimulating to hear people from adjacent fields such as psychology, to talk to people who have thought about this from mathematical and engineering perspectives,” he said.

Another participant is Stanley Katz, a lecturer with the rank of professor in public and international affairs, who has begun applying ideas about risk from the research community in his study on philanthropy.

How does a major philanthropic donor, for example, decide between spending $100 million in Africa on bed nets, which have a known effect on the transmission of malaria, or spending the same sum on an unproven vaccine that could either be much more effective than bed nets or be a total failure? Such decisions, Katz said, are based, in part, on assessments of risk.

“The field hasn’t ordinarily been studied this way,” Katz said. “This is relatively new language, and this is one of the things that appeals to me about the project. I’m learning a lot from scholars in social sciences who are much more accustomed to working with the language of risk.”

No easy answers

Vu Chau, a member of the Class of 2015, is an undergraduate fellow with the research community and received funding for summer research on risk-related topics. The economics major is working to understand the impact that policies the Federal Reserve implemented in response to the 2007-08 financial crisis had on emerging markets.

“Before the crisis, the common thinking was that we need only design policies and regulations that focus on individual agents such as banks, because the larger system would be safe if each of its components is safe,” Chau said. “However, the crisis taught us that even when individual parts act prudently and follow regulations, the whole system can fail under certain conditions. This is precisely why systemic risk is dangerous and deserves the kind of attention it is getting.”

Systemic risk is a topic that doesn’t lend itself to easy answers, Centeno said.

Warning systems — such as better measures of financial risk to avert another financial crisis — can be helpful but are limited. Regulations — such as environmental rules to slow global warming — can cause unintended problems.

Safety nets — such as redundant equipment on power grids — are expensive and can actually increase risky behavior.

Shut-off switches — such as quarantines to limit the spread of disease — are practically and ethically challenging.

“Maybe the way to approach this isn’t that we need a better financial system or a better food system,” Centeno said. “Maybe we need a better system as a whole. Increasingly, you can’t divide these domains.”

So while the research community won’t be able to solve the problems of systemic risk during its three-year term, Centeno said its role is both clear and important: “The task of a research community is to create interdisciplinary conversations about a set of problems or issues so you can better understand what you’re looking at. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

-By Michael Hotchkiss

Math and music spark student’s research interests

Alexander Iriza

Alexander Iriza. Photo by Denise Applewhite

WHILE PRINCETON SENIOR Alexander Iriza, of Astoria, New York, credits his parents for sparking his interest in math — his mother gave him math workbooks when he was a toddler — that was merely “a nudge” in the right direction.

For his senior thesis, required of all Princeton undergraduates, Iriza worked with Yannis Kevrekidis, the Pomeroy and Betty Perry Smith Professor in Engineering, to examine specific data analysis techniques.

“The idea is to start with a dynamical system of many particles that interact with each other on the microscopic level,” Iriza explained. “It’s believed that many animal species in the wild operate in this way, with each organism having its own personal preferences but also reacting to the individuals in its vicinity. Then we seek to understand the often beautiful and complex behavior that emerges at the macroscopic level of the entire flock.”

Iriza was also a violinist in the University orchestra. His exceptional scholarship led to his being named salutatorian for the Class of 2014, delivering a speech in Latin at Commencement. Comparing the maturity and depth of Iriza’s work to that of a strong graduate student, or even a postdoc or colleague, Kevrekidis said: “His intellectual strength, his work ethic, his joy in discovery and thinking, [and] his own vision about research directions single him out among the wonderful students I have had the good fortune to work with in my 28 years in Princeton. I truly look forward to finding out what he will accomplish in his research life.”

–By Jamie Saxon

Emotional map illuminates an iconic rock song

Gilad Cohen

Gilad Cohen, a graduate student in music composition, analyzed the songs of the English rock band Pink Floyd. (Photo by David Kelly Crow)

IN A TYPICAL ROCK SONG, a few chords and a simple rhythm form the foundation for catchy lyrics that carry the listener along for three or four minutes. Expand these elements into a 20-minute song, and the result should be boring.

Yet songs of this length were common for progressive rock bands in the late 1960s and 1970s. Most of these extra-long songs were actually collections of “sub-songs” — sequences of disparate musical ideas, according to Gilad Cohen, a graduate student in music composition. As part of his dissertation research, Cohen analyzed the expanded songs of the ever-popular English rock band Pink Floyd.

The 1975 Pink Floyd song “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” is 26 minutes long. “And it’s all in the same key,” Cohen said. “The rhythm is very simple. You have a few chord progressions, and they just repeat themselves again and again.”

But the song is anything but boring. “There’s a very clever, detailed arrangement process that makes this music interesting, and allows it to maintain momentum throughout a long stretch of time,” Cohen said. The arrangement includes motivic development — the alteration or repetition of a motif throughout a piece of music — and the layering of instruments, in addition to the use of studio effects such as reverb and delay, innovative tools at the time.

“Shine On You Crazy Diamond” is a tribute to Syd Barrett, Pink Floyd’s former leader. Barrett left the band in 1968 due to mental illness, which was likely exacerbated by his use of LSD and the intense pressure he felt to create hits. Cohen views the song as an emotional journey through the stages of grief, an expression of the band’s sense of loss.

A "bereavement map" for Pink Floyd's "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" reveals which parts of the song express each of the five stages of grief - numbness, yearning, anger, mourning and acceptance.

A “bereavement map” for Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” reveals which parts of the song express each of the five stages of grief – numbness, yearning, anger, mourning and acceptance.

To better understand how the sounds reflect these emotions, Cohen created a “bereavement map” showing which parts of the song express each of the five stages of grief — numbness, yearning, anger, mourning and acceptance. Like the real grieving process, the progression is not exactly linear.

Numbness, for example, is represented by drawn-out, improvised keyboard and guitar solos built around a single chord. Then, the guitar plays the song’s famous four-note “yearning motif,” in which the last note doesn’t quite belong with the rest. “It sounds like it wants to go somewhere,” Cohen said. “Pink Floyd is amazing at creating this tension.” Later, the same melody is played in two different rhythms, which alternately impart feelings of yearning and anger.

“Rock music is starting to have its day in the sun in musicological scholarship,” said Scott Burnham, the Scheide Professor of Music History and Cohen’s dissertation adviser. “Gilad’s work is timely, and it’s coming from a really great place — namely, his work as a musician and composer.”

Cohen shared his passion for Pink Floyd by organizing the first academic conference on the band’s music, “Pink Floyd: Sound, Sight and Structure,” which was held at Princeton in April 2014, and was co-organized by Dave Molk, a fellow graduate student in composition. The event’s keynote speaker was James Guthrie, Pink Floyd’s producer and engineer.

Cohen said he was inspired by the reactions of students, scholars and “hardcore fans” who attended the conference. “They’re really starved for this kind of knowledge. They listen differently to the music now,” Cohen said. “If I can expand someone’s enjoyment of music they’ve listened to throughout their lives, that’s a big thrill.”

–By Molly Sharlach

Laser device may end pin pricks, improve health for diabetics

Diabetes sensor

Claire Gmachl, Kevin Bors and Sabbir Liakat test a laser-based glucose-sensor. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

PRINCETON RESEARCHERS have developed a way to use a laser to measure people’s blood sugar, and, with more work to shrink the laser system to a portable size, the technique could allow diabetics to check their condition without pricking themselves to draw blood.

“We are working hard to turn engineering solutions into useful tools for people to use in their daily lives,” said Claire Gmachl, the Eugene Higgins Professor of Electrical Engineering and the project’s senior researcher. “With this work we hope to improve the lives of many diabetes sufferers who depend on frequent blood glucose monitoring.”

In an article published June 23, 2014, in the journal Biomedical Optics Express, the researchers describe how they measured blood sugar by shining their specialized laser — called a quantum cascade laser — at a person’s palm. The method exceeded the accuracy required for glucose monitors, said Sabbir Liakat, the paper’s lead author and a graduate student in electrical engineering. The team is now working on making the device smaller and portable.

Besides Liakat and Gmachl, researchers included Princeton undergraduate students in electrical engineering Laura Xu (Class of 2015), Callie Woods (Class of 2014) and Kevin Bors (Class of 2013); and Jessica Doyle, a teacher at Hunterdon Regional Central High School. Support for the research was provided in part by the Wendy and Eric Schmidt Foundation, the National Science Foundation, Daylight Solutions Inc., and Opto-Knowledge Systems.

–By John Sullivan