Buzzer beaters: Princeton athletes polish a scholarly thesis amid NCAA playoffs
On the court and on the mat, they’re fully focused on their performances during the NCAA playoffs. Yet many of the Princeton athletes who’ve been in the spotlight at national tournaments this month have an extra buzzer to beat: completing a senior thesis, the capstone scholarly project that Princeton students produce before graduating.
“The overwhelming majority of our student-athletes had offers to go to countless other institutions. They chose to come to Princeton because the institution provides the rare opportunity to excel both academically and athletically at the highest level,” says John Mack, the University’s athletic director who was a psychology major and record-setting track and field star in the Princeton Class of 2000.
“This academic-athletic balance requires a high level of collaboration with professors and academic partners across campus,” Mack says, “and we are fortunate to have their support.”
Twelve seniors on the men’s and women’s basketball teams and the wrestling team have been researching primary sources, brainstorming lab experiments, crunching data, interviewing experts and drafting a thesis on top of athletic demands and regular academic work, in close collaboration with the top-of-their-field faculty members who advise them.
Maggie Connolly, captain of the women’s basketball team and a psychology major, is expanding on her thesis adviser Emily Pronin’s psychology scholarship on perceptions of expert bias.
Her teammate Grace Stone, of the clutch 3-pointer that propelled the women’s team into Round 2 of the NCAA Tournament, is adding her insights to the critical analysis of Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,’ working with English and African American Studies Associate Professor Kinohi Nishikawa, one of the organizers of this week’s landmark Princeton academic symposium on Morrison's archives.
Quincy Monday, who placed third in the NCAA wrestling tournament last weekend, has designed an ethnographic study in consultation with professor Carolyn Rouse, the Ritter Professor of Anthropology. NCAA national champion wrestler Patrick Glory is applying machine learning techniques to model mortgage prepayment for his senior thesis in economics.
The tallest player on the Sweet 16 men’s basketball team, 6’11” forward Jacob O’Connell, is a chemistry major pursuing a certificate — Princeton’s term for an academic minor — in German language and culture, and another certificate in materials science and engineering. The working title of his thesis: “Exploring Magnetism in Cr-based Pyroxenes by Tuning Si Content.”
A Princeton tradition and crucible for great things to come
The senior thesis has been a rite of passage for students for nearly a century, developing from a 1923 faculty initiative requiring juniors and seniors to do concentrated work in a single department. Today, when students finish their theses, they celebrate by posing for photos at (or on) the tiger statues in front of Nassau Hall.
Theses can presage career paths, as was the case for former basketball star Bill Bradley, whose 1965 thesis focused on Harry Truman’s 1940 campaign for the U.S. Senate.
More recently, Jordan Salama of the Class of 2019 expanded his thesis on traveling the longest river in Colombia into “Every Day the River Changes: Four Weeks Down the Magdalena,” a critically acclaimed book chosen as this year’s Pre-Read assignment for incoming students.
A thesis is never an easy lift. Wendy Kopp of the Class of 1989 spoke in her baccalaureate address last spring to members of the Class of 2022 of how she struggled to find a thesis topic until late fall of her senior year. Breaking out of a “deep funk,” she focused on education and in her thesis laid the groundwork for what would become Teach for America.
“Each year, I’m always so impressed with how my seniors juggle their academic classes, the writing of their theses and the grind of the long basketball season,” said Carla Berube, coach of the women’s basketball team. “They show incredible discipline to carve out time in their days to research and write their thesis. It absolutely amazes me.”
Maggie Connolly: ‘I'm definitely a planner’
Connolly began work on her thesis well ahead of the basketball season, finishing most of her reading and research in September and October. Her thesis is tentatively titled “Perceptions of Expert Bias: Perceiving Bias in Refereeing in College Basketball Referees,” and it explores what drives people to see referees as biased.
Connolly front-loaded enough thesis work that when she and her teammates made their run at the Ivy League title and qualified for the NCAA tournament, she was able to focus exclusively on sports for those several weeks. “It feels like the biggest part of our season is right when I should be doing the most work on my thesis,” she said. “But I’m definitely a planner. I was able to take that break because I got so much done in the fall.”
Connolly’s thesis involved primary research, which she conducted at a men’s basketball game in December. She posted a survey on the big above-center-court message screens in Jadwin Gymnasium at halftime, asking attendees their perceptions of the refereeing during the game, especially whether they thought the refereeing was influencing the outcome. A second part of the survey asked participants about their own personality variables: whether they think others are biased who disagree with them, whether they believe in right and wrong, and the like.
Fans texted more than 100 replies, which Connolly has analyzed for her thesis.
She said student athletes have two number-one priorities, and balancing them can be hard. “I think students are really good at finding that balance and making sure that they’re investing enough into both sports and academics. But I think it takes a lot of support from professors, from coaches, from teammates. And I’m very fortunate that I have that support.”
Pronin, associate professor of psychology and also thesis adviser to Connolly’s teammate Lexi Weger, said she is in awe of her students as they have juggled their academic expectations while making a tournament run.
“I can't imagine being in an environment where the academic expectations are so high that you have to produce a senior thesis — we’re talking about running an original experiment, analyzing the data — and to do that at the same time that you’re playing basketball on such a competitive level that you’re participating in March Madness, it’s just phenomenal,” Pronin said.
Connolly has been a great thesis student, Pronin said. “She’s on top of her work, she’s smart, she’s thoughtful, and I love that her thesis is related to what she’s passionate about.”
Grace Stone and Tosan Evbuomwan: Game plans and discipline
Stone traced her interest in what would become a major in African American studies (and pursuit of an American studies certificate) to a class on race she took her first year with Eddie Glaude Jr., chair of the Department of African American Studies, the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor and professor of African American studies.
“When I got to Princeton, I didn't know if I would be able to handle the academic rigor of such a prestigious institution,” Stone said. “Everything about Princeton felt larger than life. I didn't really know specifically what my academic interests were, and I was scared to explore them fully.”
She took difficult classes that first year, feeling “imposter syndrome” and worrying she wouldn’t make it through four years. “Now,” she said, “I realize that I was more than prepared because, as an athlete, I learned how to work hard and to work smart, to be efficient with my time but also be determined in completing my academic tasks.”
Nishikawa, her thesis adviser, said he’s been impressed “with Grace’s commitment to write a thesis that allows her to combine critical inquiry with creative expression.”
“Grace checked in with me before this incredible run the team had,” he said. “We made sure she had a clear outline of how to complete her thesis. Grace took notes, asked questions and left with a clear sense of the next steps she had to take. Looking back on that meeting, I think of it as the two of us coming up with a game plan for the successful completion of her independent work.”
Gene Grossman, the Jacob Viner Professor of International Economics in the Department of Economics and the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, meets weekly with his advisees to check on their progress. “However, in most cases my advice (on keeping on pace) is not needed,” he said. “The student athletes are extremely disciplined and are quite good at keeping several balls in the air at once.”
One of Grossman’s advisees is Tosan Evbuomwan, a standout player on the men’s basketball team. He is majoring in economics with a certificate in finance, and his thesis examines the impact of diverse executive management staffs on the performance of National Basketball Association teams.
Grossman describes Evbuomwan as exceptionally self-motivated and self-disciplined. Even under the glare of extra media attention during the NCAA tournament, Evbuomwan has been unflappable, Grossman said. “None of it has affected his ability to succeed as a student. My colleagues who have worked with him are similarly impressed.”
Evbuomwan and senior teammate Jacob O’Connell have been honored by the Collegiate Sports Communicators (CSC) as Academic All-District selections. The CSC awards recognize the nation's top student athletes for their combined performances on the field and in the classroom.
Crunching data with O'Connell and Langborg
Robert Cava, the Russell Wellman Moore Professor of Chemistry, advises O’Connell for his thesis researching the mineral pyroxene, one of the most common elements in the Earth’s mantle. O’Connell is a regular presence in Cava’s lab, where his work, the professor says, is totally original and has some good data.
“I guess it's a philosophy of practicing he must get from basketball: dedicating yourself to making something work, even if it takes a long time.” Cava said. “I give undergraduates real problems to work on, and they either rise to the occasion or they don’t. Jacob did.”
For his thesis, Ryan Langborg, an economics major who dazzled in Princeton’s second-round victory over Missouri with 22 points, six rebounds and four assists, is studying how playing in multiple time zones affects the performance of NBA players and, further, how that might affect betting lines.
His adviser, Orley Ashenfelter, the Joseph Douglas Green 1895 Professor of Economics, said he met with Langborg the week before the tournament began but had no idea he played so well. Ashenfelter said Langborg has “a nice design for his empirical study, basically calculating how well a team does with a one-hour, two-hour, etc. time gap.
“I asked Ryan whether he thought there was an effect of the time gaps on performance, and he said he did not know, and of course the goal was to find out,” Ashenfelter said. “Funny thing — his play was in California, a three-hour time difference!”
'Be where your feet are': Quincy Monday and Patrick Glory
For his thesis, Monday is examining the ethnography of students finding community at Yeh College, Princeton’s seventh and newest residential college, which opened in the fall.
“On a lot of the trips this year, I’ve brought my work with me,” he said, but not to the championship tournament in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “I did not even bring my laptop because I wanted to be dialed in. Now that I’m back, I’m switching my focus again, being fully in thesis mode.”
Monday also finds time to devote as vice president to the campus Black Student-Athlete Collective, a group he co-founded with Stone of the women’s basketball team.
Monday credits his adviser, Rouse, with guiding him through the thesis process. He also cites a wrestling team catch phrase coined by a senior teammate during Monday’s first year at Princeton — “Be where your feet are” — with keeping himself focused. “When it’s time to be in the classroom, be fully attentive, be the best scholar you can be.”
Glory, who won the title in his weight class at the wrestling championships, is pursuing a certificate in finance in addition to the economics major.
“Pat is working on an exciting thesis,” said his adviser, Moritz Lenel, an assistant professor of economics. “He came up with his research topic building on his internship experience on Wall Street last summer. It took me a while to realize what an exceptional athlete Pat is, because when I would ask him about his season, he would just speak of how the team was doing overall with little mention of his own successes.”
After watching from home as Glory won the title last weekend, Lenel said, “I look forward to congratulating him at our next meeting to discuss his research progress.”