Applying for a Caltech SURF!
The research opportunities, offered to all students at Caltech, are second to none! There are many labs on campus, and I am constantly amazed by the ground-breaking research being conducted by professors, graduates, and undergraduates in each of these labs on a daily basis. The best part is that Caltech undergraduates have the opportunity to apply for and obtain internships in many of these labs. They get to participate and be an integral part of ingenious research. From what I’ve heard, this is not the case in other undergraduate programs. Students elsewhere are usually not given such tremendous opportunities and respect, especially so early in their college career. Instead, they are usually tasked with cleaning beakers or secretarial work; not getting the opportunity to apply what they’ve learned in class to study a discipline they’re passionate about, firsthand.
One of Caltech’s Crown Jewels is its Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships (SURF) Program. This program, established in 1979, grants students the tremendous opportunity to conduct groundbreaking research in a field of their interest alongside field leaders who act as their mentors. The SURF process models a grant-seeking approach which allows students to gain experience writing project proposals, composing technical papers, and delivering presentations. These 10-week-long paid positions are taken advantage of, every summer, by the majority of Caltech undergraduates. Given the size of the student body, and Caltech’s 3:1 student-faculty ratio, the chances of landing a SURF over the summer are substantial if students are willing to take the initiative and apply for one. In fact, many of these research projects carry on into the school year.
To obtain a SURF you need to first find and contact a Principal Investigator (PI), researcher, or graduate student in a lab conducting research you’re interested in. Students can choose from the plethora of labs on campus or research projects at other facilities and universities. When selecting a mentor, it is important to consider the research and your collaborative compatibility with the lab and potential mentor. For instance, sophomore, Elsa Palumbo, studying Astrophysics, kept this in mind when searching for her mentor. Last year, Elsa secured a SURF in the NEWTS (NEarby Worlds and Their Stars) Lab with Dr. Benjamin Montet, a Caltech alum who teaches at the University of New South Wales. She identified their compatibility during her interview and perceived “that [they] would work very well together, that [their] project would really be going somewhere, and that [she] would learn an awful lot doing a SURF with him,” (Elsa). At the conclusion of her successful SURF, she wrote a Python pipeline that systematically searches for young planets in data from TESS (NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite).
Finding a mentor is simple and while there are countless mentors to choose from, obtaining a research position requires tenacity and drive. Mahider Gessesse, a current sophomore pursuing a major in Computational and Neural Systems (CNS), participated in a SURF with Clayton Mosher from the Rutishauser Lab at Cedars Sinai Hospital. She worked on quantifying the effects of brain pulsation due to the cardiac cycle on the detection and sorting of neural spike trains. She claims that “persistence is everything”. Even though “being a Caltech student no doubt [makes] this process easier [by facilitating students to] go up and talk to professors” and potential mentors, one is not guaranteed an immediate position. Sometimes professors and/or PIs of labs are “too busy to respond to emails, but [it is important to] try and try again.” Oftentimes, to increase your chances of securing a spot as a research mentee, you need to take initiative and convey your excitement for the lab’s research. For example, you can go “to the lab, in person, on multiple occasions” to learn more about the project, introduce yourself, and highlight your qualifications and desire to contribute to the project (Mahider).
The process of applying for a SURF is made easier with help from the many resources available at Caltech that aid in all aspects of the SURF application process. Ismail Elmengad is a sophomore interested in Physics. He participated in a theoretical physics SURF where he studied mathematical structures involved in certain supersymmetry models alongside Professor Jim Gates at Brown University. In his experience, “the SURF application would have been pretty difficult on [his] own, but the Caltech Student-Faculty Programs (SFP) Office provided great help in the process. They created a schedule with unofficial deadlines to guide and track [his] progress [and] helped [him] search for reasonable professors…to contact, given [his] interests,” (Ismail).
In addition to the SFP office, Caltech’s Hixon Writing Center provides workshops detailing what constitutes a successful project proposal as well as sessions where students can receive feedback on their technical writing. In addition to these helpful resources, almost everyone at Caltech is passionate about helping students secure a SURF. A perfect example of this is Diana Frias Franco, a sophomore pursuing a major in Mechanical Engineering. A month before the deadline to submit her project proposal, Diana had yet to find a mentor and/or research project. When speaking to “Monique Thomas from the Caltech Center for Inclusion and Diversity (CCID)…about [her] major and what [she] wanted to learn this summer” she was referred and introduced to her summer mentor, Dr. Melany Hunt, “a wonderful leader and advocate for students on campus” (Diana). It was through networking with those at the CCID and Diana’s persistence that she landed a SURF, alongside Dr. Hunt, analyzing a NASA experiment that flew on the ISS (Packed Bed Reactor Experiment) and looking at trends and characterizations of nitrogen gas/liquid water flow in a packed bed system with no influence of gravity.
Due to circumstances surrounding COVID-19, SURF programs this year were more challenging because most of them took place remotely. Nevertheless, Techers are resilient and many of my fellow students had wonderful SURF experiences! Anna Li, a sophomore studying Chemistry, for example, conducted research in the Goddard and Fischer lab at Caltech and worked on computational chemistry. She used molecular dynamics and quantum mechanics calculations to better understand the photo-assembly and mechanisms of the oxygen-evolving complex in Photosystem II. She is “glad for the skills and knowledge [she] gained, as well as…the experience of what research is like, specifically, what it is like to ask questions about why something happens and figure out ways to try to answer that question. It helped…realize that [she would] like to go to graduate school in order to continue doing research,” (Anna). Additionally, Tea Freedman-Susskind, who is also pursuing a major in chemistry, investigated the impact of mutations on anti-SARS-CoV-2 antibody binding stability and used this analysis to help build a machine-learning-driven pipeline to design better antibodies to treat COVID-19 over the summer. She worked at the City of Hope National Medical Center in the Jonsson Computational Lab. In her opinion, it “was very exciting to get to extend and apply the thermodynamic concepts [she] learned in class to such an important topic” and felt grateful “to be able to contribute to such an urgently needed body of knowledge,” (Tea).
Much like many SURFs this year, due to the pandemic, I also had to conduct my SURF remotely. As I mentioned in my first post, “From Algorithms to Sprung Rhythms”, I am a current intern at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). This is a continuation of my SURF project from last summer. Growing up, my dream has always been to one day work for NASA. However, I didn’t know exactly how to bridge the gap between my dream and making it reality. I didn’t know anyone who worked at NASA and much less a female or member or a minority in STEM. This never stopped me though. I knew that if I stayed focused and determined, I would eventually figure it out. When I got to Caltech and learned that JPL was offering SURF positions for the summer of 2020, I made it my mission to apply for and land one of them. This was not an easy task. For starters, JPL doesn’t usually take college freshmen or sophomores. I sent out about 30 emails with my resume attached, eager to find a research mentor. When I didn’t get any responses back, I began cold calling. The first few times, I was extremely nervous. Getting rejected over the phone isn’t the most pleasant experience and it hurts a lot more than not getting a response. Honestly, about two weeks before the deadline to submit my project proposal, I thought that I wasn’t going to get a SURF at JPL. However, as the Japanese proverb says, “Fall seven times, stand up eight.” For every rejection I got, I was that much closer to an acceptance - I just needed to be persistent. It wasn’t until I emailed and called one final person, whom I almost didn’t contact because I had felt so defeated, that I was offered an opportunity to conduct Aerospace Engineering research at JPL. This was a big accomplishment for me, and I truly feel fortunate to have landed this opportunity!
With 76 Nobel Laureates on its roster, it’s no surprise that Caltech is a breeding ground for exceptional research opportunities! “Being a Caltech student [definitely makes] the SURF process easier since…there is such a culture of learning on campus…excited to help [you grow]!” (Diana). And though the process may seem daunting, there is no need to be “timid when contacting potential mentors. Oftentimes, potential mentors are happy to take on a young student for the summer,” (Ismail). However, like with everything else, there are no guarantees. It’s important to “start early, be clear about what you’re interested in,” and remain focused and determined (Tea).