Lucky for this biology major, on my walk to class everyday I pass the Grant Museum of Zoology, home to 67,000 animal specimens. It’s a curious, curious place. I popped in the other day and this is what I saw:
I’ve learned so much about these animals while at Tech. It was very satisfying to see their bodies up close. Books and lectures kept cropping up in my mind, reminding me of all sorts of amazing phenomena I’ve had the privilege to study. This is just cool: a cheetah can accept a skin graft from any other cheetah! Crazy. It’s true that a lot of the animals at the zoology museum could be seen at a zoo, but there are some glaring exceptions: the museum has preserved the recently extinct quagga and thylacine. I can read about the aye-aye’s bizarre hands all day long, but the awe sinks in when I get to see those hands in person!
I’ve been learning about the brain, spinal cord, and nerves in my neuroscience course. In the same way that the zoology museum made my animal behavior and evolution courses come to life, anatomy lab for neuroscience was electrifying. At UCL the second year biology students don lab coats and invade the medical school’s dissection room. We spent an afternoon, surrounded by cadavers, examining real human brains! We investigated the various protective membranes (your brain has three), lobes (more than three), and fissures (way more than three). We located the optic chiasm (where some of the neurons from your left eye cross over to the right side of your brain and vice versa), where the facial nerves separate from the brain, and the brain’s ventricles. These brains were about five year old and heavy with the weight of chemical preservative. The consistency reminded me of white button mushrooms soaked in water. Finally touching the brain made weeks of lecture suddenly click. It is that “ah ha” moment in the lab and the expressions of “that’s so amazing!” in the zoology museum that keep me pumped about my classes. What gets you pumped?
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.