Readying for graduation, Princeton engineering students reflect on their senior thesis experience

By Melissa Moss
May 20, 2019

As their thesis deadlines approached, seniors in the School of Engineering and Applied Science reflected on what they’ve gained by tackling a demanding yearlong research project, along with their coursework and other activities.

The thesis experience allows Princeton students to apply the material and skills they’ve learned over their four years at the University.

“The senior thesis or independent project is the culminating experience of a Princeton undergraduate education,” said Peter Bogucki, associate dean for undergraduate affairs in SEAS. “Students build on the knowledge gained from their coursework, choose a topic in consultation with an adviser, and perform experiments, design prototypes or simulate processes as they take ownership of a particular engineering problem. They then present their results in a professional way, having become an authority on the topic they have chosen.”

Said Elad Hazan, professor of computer science, “It’s a very gratifying experience for me as an educator to see students grow over the course of junior and senior years. They learn what it means to innovate in research, the challenges involved in making these innovations rigorous and provable, how to handle setbacks, how to collaborate, and how to communicate their results and relate them to relevant research in the field. I am amazed by the resilience and motivation some of them display, bringing out unique skills they have, whether mathematical, programming or writing, as impressive as any I have seen in my colleagues. They truly become researchers.”

Snapshots of several of this year’s students and senior theses in engineering are below.

Emily Abdo

Emily Abdo photo

Hometown: San Diego, California

Degree: Chemical and biological engineering

Adviser: Richard Register, Eugene Higgins Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering

Thesis title: “Synthesizing Monofunctionalized Polycyclopentene with Chain Transfer Agents during Ring Opening Metathesis Polymerization (ROMP)”

Other interests: Running, reading, drawing

Plans after graduation: “I’ll be working on NASA projects as a modeling and simulation chemical engineer under Jacobs Engineering at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.”

On pushing through: “There are definitely moments in the senior thesis experience when you ask yourself whether it will get done in time. But over time you realize that it builds up to something. It’s been a challenge, but it also has been a really good lesson in how to start a huge project and take it all the way to completion.”

Maryam Bahrani

Maryam Bahrani photo

Hometown: Shiraz, Iran

Degree: Computer science

Adviser: Matthew Weinberg, assistant professor of computer science

Thesis title: “The Matroid Secretary Problem”

Other interests: Poker, beach volleyball

Plans after graduation: “I’m taking a gap year, then pursuing a Ph.D. in theoretical computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, starting fall 2020.”

On learning through collaboration: “My thesis was a very collaborative process. I worked closely with a grad student, a postdoc and my adviser. I even dropped by the office of a grad student in a completely different area whose expertise I needed to prove something. Collaborating with several people taught me about how my approach to research is sometimes different from others, and how to utilize those differences to produce better work. I will be actively seeking out collaboration opportunities in future research projects.”

Mayee Chen

Mayee Chen photo

Hometown: Williamsburg, Virginia

Degree: Operations research and financial engineering

Adviser: Elad Hazan, professor of computer science

Thesis title: “A Quantum Version of the Multiplicative Weights Algorithm”

Other interests: Dance, fashion, ancient history, environmental sustainability

Plans after graduation: “I’ll be starting my Ph.D. in computer science at Stanford University this fall.”

On new directions in research: “Working with Professor Hazan has given me exposure to a new form of open-ended research; in this case, rather than analyzing data or engineering a product, we want to propose the existence of an algorithm, which was very difficult since we took a big risk by not knowing if the desired outcome was even possible. Nonetheless, this was a great experience for my thesis. My adviser also helped me work through the steps of generalizing my algorithm and pointed out the most interesting directions to take the project. My work with him has shaped my goals of continuing to pursue machine learning research.”

Whitney Huang

Whitney Huang photo

Hometown: Plainsboro, New Jersey

Degree: Mechanical and aerospace engineering

Advisers: Anirudha Majumdar, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering; Marcus Hultmark, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering

Thesis title: “Controlling Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in High Wind Speeds Using Nano-Scale Thermal Anemometry Probes”

Other interests: Playing cello, architecture

Plans after graduation: “I’ll be working as an embedded software engineer at Zipline International, a startup company located in Half Moon Bay, California. The company delivers life-saving medical supplies via high-speed drones to hospitals in Rwanda and Ghana, and is expanding rapidly.”

On theory and application: “Working on thesis has given me a much greater appreciation for the theoretical work we do at Princeton in the classroom. Despite my project being on the application side of the research spectrum, having a theoretical basis informing each design decision I made is so important.”

Joyce Kimojino

Joyce Kimojino, sitting on a bench and smiling

Hometown: Narok, Kenya

Degree: Civil and environmental engineering

Adviser: Minjie Chen, assistant professor of electrical engineering and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment; Catherine Peters, chair and professor of civil and environmental engineering

Thesis title: “The Future of Electricity Generation and Distribution in Sub-Saharan Africa”

Plans after graduation: “I will spend two years working for InterSystems Corporation (a company that specializes in software and tech products for the health care industry) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, before going to graduate school.”

On seeing the bigger picture: “A key takeaway from my thesis research is that there is a big intersectionality between technology and environmental studies, especially in understanding the terrain of energy access in information-starved areas like sub-Saharan Africa.”

Bhaskar Roberts

Bhaskar Roberts

Hometown: Buffalo, New York

Degree: Electrical engineering

Adviser: Mark Zhandry, assistant professor of computer science

Thesis title: “Toward Secure Quantum Money”

Other interests: Performing with Triangle Club, playing saxophone, giving tours for the School of Engineering and Applied Science

Plans after graduation: “I’ll be pursuing a Ph.D. in computer science here at Princeton.”

On the intellectual journey: “You’re expected to pick up knowledge really fast about concepts you’ve never seen before. You learn to push through setbacks even if you’re still not getting results after months and months of working on it. Although you never know how far away the next success is, you know that it has to be out there.”

Njuguna Thande

Njuguna Thande

Hometown: Waldorf, Maryland

Degree: Electrical engineering

Adviser: Peter Ramadge, the Gordon Y.S. Wu Professor of Engineering

Thesis title: “Finding Repeated Musical Parts with the Matched Filter”

Other interests: Working on personal audio projects, playing video games.

Plans after graduation: “I’ll be a software engineer at Capital One.”

On staying motivated: “The seniors in electrical engineering I met in my first few years here encouraged me to pick a topic that I’d like for the whole of senior year. Choosing a subject that meant something to me — that I really liked — helped move the project along.”

Editors' note: Due to a layout error, a previous edition of this story misidentified students in this story.