September 2019 Newsletter: Pursue the Dissenting Idea

Sept. 18, 2019
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What did you do this summer? Maybe you hung out at the shore and enjoyed a swim in the ocean. Or fired up the gas grill for a barbecue. Or studied in a lab learning how to use artificial intelligence technology to analyze human impacts on the Amazon rainforest, like one of the many groups of young people on campus this summer did. 

Now that the summer is behind us, the students are back and campus is in full swing. This year’s Opening Exercises, which formally kick off the academic year, provided an opportunity for President Chris Eisgruber to pay tribute to Toni Morrison, who passed away on August 5. He shared Professor Morrison’s challenge to the University community, issued in a speech she delivered years ago in celebration of the University’s 250th anniversary, to pursue “the translation of tradition, of history, into a livable present and a civilized future,” and to “prize conscience above orthodoxy.”

In that spirit, this issue of "" looks at several ways in which the University empowers individuals to question their preconceptions in order to bring innovative approaches to present challenges. Read on to learn more about solutions to lead contamination in water; campus programs to build research and trade skills; and ocean quality, natural gas and other climate change concerns.

Lead in tap water

Water being poured into a clear glass
Project to identify sources of lead contamination in Trenton among projects awarded research funding

The Princeton Environmental Institute (PEI) has selected nine Princeton University graduate students as 2019 recipients of the Mary and Randall Hack ’69 Graduate Awards for Water and the Environment. The awards provide up to $8,000 in research funding to Princeton Ph.D. candidates exploring water and water-related topics in various disciplines. Jack Murphy will use the funding to try to identify and isolate the specific sources of lead contamination—service lines, solder and pipe fittings—in residential tap water in Trenton. Learn more.

This research is connected to ongoing University research with the non-profit Isles Inc. to provide no-cost lead testing for Trenton residents. 

People at reception during Demo Day 2019
Princeton student entrepreneurs seek to solve societal problems, including lead in water

Lead and other toxic impurities plague water systems around the world, and in the U.S.--and here in New Jersey--have left some mayors clamoring for options.  A team of Princeton University undergraduates is working on a solution.  They are just one of the groups that participated in the eLab Summer Accelerator program, which allows student entrepreneurs an opportunity to develop products that solve important societal problems.  Learn more.


Building skills for the future

Students at AI4ALL working on laptops
Princeton program empowers youth to shape the future of artificial intelligence

Teenagers enjoy the products of artificial intelligence (AI) every day, whether taking a twisted selfie with a photo filter or listening to music with an automated streaming service.  but not many high school students have used AI themselves to analyze human genetic variation or track deforestation in the Amazon.  These are two of the challenges undertaken by rising 11th graders as part of this summer's Princeton AI4ALL program, which gives young women and others from underrepresented groups a chance to learn the basics of the field from an early age.  Learn more.

High school students touring Princeton laboratory
High school students connect materials science to future careers and global challenges

In a lab room at Princeton lined with high-tech imaging and fabrication tools, high school students peered at samples of spongy gels and suspensions of microscopic beads--novel materials that could be useful for environmental cleanup or drug delivery.  The high schoolers toured the lab as part of the Princeton University Materials Academy, a 3-week program that brings students from underrepresented backgrounds to Princeton for a deep dive into the world of materials science and the culture of academic research.  Learn more.

New apprentices and special guests at launch of PPPL apprentice program
PPPL kicks off apprentice program giving technicians the opportunity to "learn while they earn"

One day after Labor Day, four early-career technicians officially began four-year apprenticeships at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) where they will learn cutting-edge skills both on the job at a national laboratory and in the classroom.  The apprentices signed on September 3 to become mechanical and electrical technicians in a ceremony at PPPL.  They were joined by New Jersey Commissioner of Labor and Workforce Development Robert Asaro-Angelo along with top officials from PPPL, Princeton University, and the U.S. Department of Energy.  Learn more.


Climate Change

Map of flood risk zones along eastern and southeastern coast of U.S.
'100-year' floods will happen every one to 30 years, according to new coastal flood prediction maps

A 100-year flood is supposed to be just that: a flood that occurs once every 100 years, or a flood that has a 1% chance of happening every year.  But Princeton researchers have developed new maps that predict coastal flooding for every county on the Eastern and Gulf Coasts and find 100-year floods could become annual occurrences in New England and happen every one to 30 years along the southeast Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico shorelines. Learn more.



satellite image of Earth
When will we observe significant changes in the ocean due to climate change? New study offers map

Sea temperature and ocean acidification have climbed during the last three decades to levels beyond what is expected due to natural variation alone, a new study led by Princeton researchers finds.  Meanwhile other impacts from climate change, such as changes in the activity of ocean microbes that regulate the Earth's carbon and oxygen cycles, will take several more decades to a century to appear. Learn more.


Pick-up truck in a field with methane detection equipment in the bed
A small number of leaky natural gas wells produce large emissions of greenhouse gases

Wells that extract natural gas from underground often leak large amounts of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, into the air.  A team of Princeton University researchers has found that in one of the biggest gas-producing regions, most of these emissions come fro ma tiny subset of the wells, a finding with major implications for how to control the problem. Learn more.

Also see: Offshore oil and gas rigs leak more greenhouse gas than expected.

School of fish in the ocean
Fewer fish may reach breeding age as climate change skews timing of reproduction, food availability

Climate change may be depriving juvenile fish of their most crucial early food source by throwing off the synchronization of when microscopic plants known as phytoplankton bloom and when fish hatch, according to Princeton University researchers.





Logo for Politics and Polls podcast with faces of Sam Wang and Julian Zelizer
Politics & Polls #150: Election Reform with Lawrence Lessig

Voter suppression, money in politics, and even issues with the electoral college all call into question whether the United States truly has a representative democracy.  How might these issues play a role in the upcoming 2020 elections? Listen to the podcast.



Logo for All for Earth podcast - stylized microphone on green background
All for Earth podcast: Crossing the Aisle with Fred Rich

This is an all-hands-on-deck moment.  But in an age of intense polarization, can we all pull together to address climate change--the most pressing issue of our time?  There's cause for optimism.  Listen to the podcast.



Princeton's David Oettinger testifying before NJ Senate and Assembly Environment Committees
Princeton recycling manager testifies at legislative hearing on recycling in NJ

David Oettinger, Princeton's recycling manager, recently spoke about the steps that the University is taking toward a zero waste future, including a cleaner recycling stream, sustainable purchasing, and food waste recycling, all included in the University's Sustainability Action Plan.