The Hacktech organizer team. "So the reason I organize hackathons is to inspire people to build cool things. When first-time hackers come to Hacktech I want them to see the different kind of projects that people build and get ideas, experience building things, and an understanding of how large the realm of possibility in building things is (even in just 36 hours)."
On a whim at 2 am in the morning, I walked up to the registration booth for Hacktech. I signed up for the event, got my free pink T shirt and wandered into the event areas, full of people still buzzing with energy and an insane number of laptops.
So what is Hacktech? This event is part of Major Hacking League (MLH)'s schedule of college-hosted hackathons.
Despite what the name sounds like, students don't hack into super secret government servers. In fact, students from all over the world come and build a technology-related project within the 36 hour event, sometimes by modifying and thus "hacking" existing products like Roombas. Advith Chelakani, the head organizer, says that about 80% of the participants this year were from California, 15% from other US states, and 5% were international, hailing from Canada, Dubai, and several European countries. Advith even had to write visa letters for a couple people from Egypt and India to come. However, despite all the effort the 9 months of planning took, Advith says he didn't have much trouble balancing school and Hacktech, since this was the second year he had run it.
He says: "Hackathons are unique in that everything is free for the participants. We provide them with buses, reimbursed airfare, WiFi, food, swag, a place to work, sleep, and shower, and everything else for a whole weekend."
"We raised over 100K from corporate sponsors over the past year and we’ve been planning this year’s Hacktech for about nine months . In exchange for sponsorships, we give companies a chance to come to Caltech for Hacktech and get access to tons of young engineering talent as well as a chance to get their products and services in the hands of people who love to developing applications with them. On top of the basic necessities, we also provided hackers with fun activities for the whole weekend like a bunch house and lawn games as well as a bunch of technical workshops ranging from iOS app development to SSH tunneling to how to start a startup."
I was really impressed at the dedication some teams had. One team brought their own 3D printer all the way to Caltech to make little brackets that they put together to make wearable spinal cord-like prosthetic. They used a combination of sensors to get statistics about the user's posture.
Another team I talked to had actually met each other through the Facebook page for this event. Tonight was the first time they had met, but they've already prepared their own giant monitors and computer tower to create a virtual reality Minecraft-esque game.
It was really exciting to have so many new, like-minded people gathered together on a campus that could sometimes feel insular. From crazy 36 hour hacks to bringing hundreds of individuals together, Hacktech really emphasized the power we all have to make a difference.
With 45 Nobel Laureates on its Faculty Roster, it’s not surprising that research is an integral part of the Caltech undergraduate experience. One of the programs that promotes such research is the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF). There is no minimum knowledge or experience required to participate in a Caltech SURF. In fact, students can participate in a SURF as soon as the summer after their freshman year. It is not difficult to get a SURF. All you need to do is find a mentor who is working in an area of research that interests you and willing to mentor you through a research project. The mentor can work in a Caltech lab, at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), or at another participating institution. Once you find a mentor, you work together to write a project proposal that you later send to the SURF office for review and approval. About 98% of the SURF proposals get approved. This fellowship is a great way to explore various fields of research and obtain real, hands-on experience where you get to apply the theoretical knowledge you’ve learned in class. Not only do you get to work and learn alongside your mentor, but you also get compensated for your time. The length of the SURF is ten weeks, and it starts at the beginning of the summer. However, it is not uncommon for many students at Caltech to continue their research project throughout the academic school year.
Like many students at Caltech, I suffer from a slight boba addiction, where side effects may include over caffeination, minor sugar highs, and of course, a large toll on one’s wallet. This addiction is not helped by the fact that there are at least three boba shops within walking distance of campus. So, after an entire term’s worth of boba runs, I came back from winter break with a new year’s epiphany: it was time to get a job. Rather than try to curb my addiction, I decided to find a way to subsidize it.
Research at Caltech looks different for every student, and can often vary term by term. As a chemistry major, my course requirements are on the lighter side for a Caltech major, and many chemistry majors take advantage of the lighter course load to join research groups. This can be whenever the student wants, but many people join labs during their freshman or sophomore years. Some may work in one lab only, and some may switch between labs during the course of their undergraduate studies, depending on if their interests change.
SURF, short for Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship, is a quintessential experience for any Caltech student. It is a widely accessible research fellowship for Caltech students that funds your proposed research for one summer term. While many of my classmates did their first SURF the summer after their freshman year, I sent in my first application to the program as a sophomore. As a CS major, I was trying to chase meaningful work that intersected computation with the field of neuroscience. I ended up doing a SURF at the Stanford School of Medicine that first year, studying hand gestures in children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Since then, I’ve been working in the research space of applying computational analyses to ASD.