Princeton as a Research University

Published in the April 10, 2019 edition of the Princeton Alumni Weekly.

Pablo Debenedetti, the Class of 1950 Professor in Engineering and Applied Science and professor of chemical and biological engineering, has served as dean for research since 2013. I invited him to write a guest column for this issue. I am delighted that he has responded by offering some thoughts on Princeton’s fundamental commitment to groundbreaking research.—C.L.E.

Princeton was founded in 1746, but its status as a modern research university is more recent: its origins can be traced to the late 1800s, when a handful of American universities began to adopt the ideas of German philosophers such as Wilhelm von Humboldt. [1]

Humboldt and his contemporaries conceived of universities as institutions defined by open-ended scholarly inquiry, academic freedom, and the integration of teaching and research. In Humboldt’s view, the role of the university was to teach students how to think, and the best way to accomplish this goal was by engaging them in research.

Dean for Research Pablo Debenedetti

Dean for Research Pablo Debenedetti
Photo Credit: David Kelly Crow

Today, Princeton continues that tradition in ways that make it unique among the world’s great research universities. We are committed to undergraduate and graduate teaching of unsurpassed quality, and our teaching and research missions are seamlessly integrated. A single faculty of world-class teacher-scholars, engaged with undergraduate and graduate students in the classroom and the lab, embodies Princeton’s dedication to the creation and the transmission of knowledge.

The scope of research carried out by faculty, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, undergraduate students, and professional researchers ranges from robust engagement with the major challenges of our time—energy, the environment, health, security—to probing the origin of the universe. Our researchers expand the confines of the known and strive to find solutions to societal challenges through creative, systematic, and fact-based inquiry. Their scholarly papers, books, inventions, symposia, exhibits, and performances enrich us as human beings, and often lead to innovations that can improve our quality of life.

Many honors attest to the extraordinary quality of the research produced at our university. Seven Fields Medals (for outstanding achievement in mathematics), 11 National Humanities Medals, 21 National Medals of Science, and 26 Nobel Prizes have been awarded to Princeton faculty and staff who were either employed by the University when they received the distinction, performed their award-winning work at Princeton, or are currently employed by the University. Below I provide three examples, in the vital areas of bioengineering, data sciences, and the environment, that illustrate the scope of research at Princeton.

Bioengineer Clifford Brangwynne investigates the mechanisms by which cells form organelles, structures that perform essential functions such as photosynthesis and protein folding. Until recently, it was thought that organelles are always membrane-bound. Brangwynne, an associate professor of chemical and biological engineering and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, has shown that phase transitions, akin to the separation between two liquid phases such as oil and water, constitute an additional mechanism for partitioning cellular material without a membrane. Phase transition-driven compartmentalization is emerging as a new paradigm in cell biology and is potentially applicable to the treatment of some neurodegenerative diseases.

Leah Boustan, a professor of economics, studies historical events through the powerful lens of big-data methodology. She recently applied this lens to the age of mass migration (ca. 1850 – ca. 1920), and found that the conventional view, that European immigrants during that period assimilated and climbed the economic ladder more quickly than modern immigrants, does not stand up to rigorous quantitative scrutiny.

Using fossil records from the Southern Ocean, Daniel Sigman, the Dusenbury Professor of Geological and Geophysical Sciences, found evidence of increased circulation in the Southern Ocean during the last 11,000 years, leading to enhanced release of dissolved carbon dioxide, and hence to warmer climates that have supported human civilization. This work suggests an oceanographic mechanism for the stability of the Earth’s climate throughout human history.

World-class research, and the learning opportunities that come with it, are expensive, requiring funds for state-ofthe- art equipment, graduate student stipends, postdoctoral salaries and more. Our faculty are very successful in competing for grants from federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

There are roughly 1,600 externally funded research projects at Princeton, with annual expenditures exceeding $220M. Recent years have seen a steady increase in industrial support for research: in fiscal year 2014, industrial funding represented 6 percent of Princeton’s total sponsored research funding; in fiscal year 2018 this number was 12 percent. Fields driving this trend include computer science, where frontier research often happens at the fertile confluence of industry and academia.

The knowledge and ideas produced by research are among Princeton’s most important contributions to the world. They bring to mind the words of Robert R. Wilson, first director of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (and a physics instructor at Princeton in the early 1940s), during his 1969 testimony to the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy. When queried about the value of building Fermilab’s first accelerator, Wilson responded: “…this new knowledge has all to do with honor and country but it has nothing to do directly with defending our country, except to help make it worth defending.” Princeton’s contributions to the creation of knowledge are immense in scope and extraordinary in quality, and they are an essential part of what makes this institution great.


1. The Rise of the Research University: A Sourcebook, Menand et al., eds., The University of Chicago Press, 2017.

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