Princeton Research Day spotlights collaborations across campus

Written by
Alaina O'Regan, Office of the Dean for Research
May 14, 2024

Dancing with an interactive robotic flower wall, never-before-seen craters on Jupiter’s largest moon, and the ethics of resurrecting extinct animals were among the buzzing conversation topics at Frist Campus Center on Thursday afternoon.

Attendees from the Princeton campus and the wider community came to the ninth annual Princeton Research Day (PRD) event to meet undergraduates, graduate students and postdoctoral researchers who embraced the task of sharing their projects and innovative ideas in ways that connect with a generalist audience.

Over 145 presenters submitted a three-minute video explaining their research or creative project in an accessible and compelling format, and the majority were at the May 9 event to share their work in-person.

All of this year’s videos are available to watch here. The full list of this year’s award winners is available on the Princeton Research Day website.

“This is a special event because it demonstrates the full range of creative work at Princeton,” said Dean for Research Peter Schiffer, professor of physics. “Princeton Research Day is an opportunity to build connections, to recognize all of the different disciplines, and allow people in the research community to share with each other the exciting work that they’re doing.”

Keely Smith, a graduate student in history, said that the experience reminded her why she is passionate about her research. “I’ve been deep in the dissertation phase for so long that it is easy to get caught in the weeds,” she said. “Creating a presentation about my work for general audiences was very reenergizing because it reminded me about the stakes of my work outside of academia.”

A staff member and graduate researcher holding Keely Smith's award certificate on stage in front of balloons

Liz Colagiuri, deputy dean of the college, presented graduate student Keely Smith with the Princeton University Library Award. Photo by Sameer A. Khan

Along with the opportunity to practice communicating their work, presenters could earn awards of up to $1,500 in a variety of categories.

Smith won a Princeton University Library Award for her presentation titled “Communicating Sovereignty: A History of the Muscogee Language and Communication Networks.” This award recognizes a thoughtful and innovative use of Library resources and services. “A goal of my project is to spread awareness about the importance of Indigenous language revitalization, and Princeton Research Day was a great opportunity to share this information with the larger community.”

The event kicked off at noon with the Showcase where early-career researchers shared their posters and exhibits explaining their thesis work, summer research project, art exhibit or other form of scholarship. As official PRD judges made their rounds and scored presentations based on how well the presenters communicated with general-interest audiences, attendees explored the variety of presentations and voted for their favorites.

Smith said a highlight of the day was a conversation she had with a first-year undergraduate who was conflicted about choosing a major. “We had a great talk about the connections between linguistics, history and computer science,” she said. “It was a joy to meet a young person with similar interests, but who has different technical skills than me that could be applied to my field.”

After the Showcase, attendees and presenters congregated downstairs for the Reception to enjoy appetizers, desserts and live music from a Princeton University jazz ensemble.

The day concluded with the Awards Celebration, which featured top videos and Q&As between University leaders and presenters.

Two undergraduates from the Class of 2024, Jad Bendarkawi, who studies electrical and computer engineering, and Yenet Tafesse, who studies computer science, received an Outstanding Presentation Award for earning among the highest scores for the video they produced about an immersive, robotic art installation that they developed called The Swarm Garden.

Dancer in front of a wall of purple glowing blocks with robotic flowers appearing to bloom.

A dancer demonstrates interactive engagement with The Swarm Garden exhibit at the Lewis Center for the Arts in April 2024. Image courtesy of researchers

Influenced by their involvement with dance performance and the desire to demonstrate wide-ranging, imaginative applications of emerging technologies, the pair leveraged a combination of swarm robotics, architecture and art that allows a dancer to dynamically interact with a wall of robotic flowers, which bloom and change behavior based on the dancer's gestures.

“We were really interested in contributing to this new wave of technology development that’s inspired by nature,” Bendarkawi said. “We wanted to encourage people to not feel that fear of the future that we tend to see a lot around technology these days, especially when it’s related to artificial intelligence and robots.”

Tafesse said that this project serves as a proof-of-concept for larger scale, self-adaptive facade architectures, and aims to pave the way for future designs that improve human-robot interaction and enrich artistic expression through emergent interactions. 

The Swarm Garden is a collaboration between the labs of Radhika Nagpal, Norman R. Augustine '57 *59 Professor in Engineering and professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and computer science, and Sigrid Adriaenssens, professor of civil and environmental engineering.

“I think engineering can oftentimes be put in a box,” said Bendarkawi. “Working on a project that intersects our interests as artists and engineers has been really valuable, and it’s been really exciting to share it with people from across campus and from the community.”

Lisa Schreyer, deputy dean of the Graduate School, emphasized in her remarks during the Awards Celebration that the ability to communicate one’s work with broad audiences is essential in order to achieve its rightful impact. “Your work is not recognized until it has been communicated,” she said. “Therefore, effective communication and storytelling is a part of the scientific and creative process.”

Princeton Research Day is a collaborative initiative between the offices of the Dean of the College, the Dean of the Graduate School, the Dean for Research and the Vice President for Campus Life, with support from the Dean of the Faculty and Office of the Provost.