Undergraduate spotlight: Pollock finds the signal, cuts the noise

Friday, Apr 10, 2020
by Scott Lyon

He was just a kid when he first joined a swim team, dragged by his sister to the local pool. But that early contact with the water, the thrill of chasing time, set Princeton sophomore Jonathan Pollock racing full speed toward the top of the podium.

"I guess I got pretty good at it," said Pollock, an electrical engineering student in the Class of 2022. In high school, he won five Virginia state titles. At Princeton, despite a foreshortened sophomore season (due to Covid-19 cancellations), he has already notched several top-three finishes, including a season-opening win this year.

He trains 20 hours per week and on the weekends competes for the Tigers in the mid-distance freestyle and individual medley events. That regimen includes three days of what the team calls doubles, training in the pool both morning and afternoon. On the days when he has a morning off, Pollock studies late the night before, knowing he'll have a chance to sleep in.

"You have to be strategic about where you're putting in your work," he said. "But you can push yourself farther than most people think."

It's all part of the jigsaw schedule required of electrical engineering's many student-athletes, who consistently said, in a series of interviews, that the rewards of their twin pursuits far outweigh the sacrifices. There's no time to waste, but that sense of urgency and efficiency keeps them focused on long-term goals and strategies.

Pollock's academic sights are homed in on a vision of signal processing that encompasses all kinds of information, including sound, video and sensor data. He plans to pursue the data and information concentration within electrical engineering and add a certificate in applied and computational mathematics. This summer, he'll intern at Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems in McKinney, Texas, where he hopes to put his interests in machine learning and optimization to use.

"I once had a lecturer describe machine learning as the 'sledgehammer' [on] some of the hardest problems we're facing today," Pollock wrote in a follow-up email, listing automonomous vehicles, natural language processing and automated manufacturing as a few examples. "On the other side of the same coin, what made these solutions practical is optimization."

Optimization of a different sort seems to play a key role in his life. For Pollock, the intensity of his athletic schedule only sharpens his ability to perform academically, two powerful muscles working together in tension. And as with muscles, Pollock emphasized that flexibility is key, allowing him to take advantage of each moment as it comes and, ultimately, enjoy the thrill of the chase.

"I just try to have fun," he said.