Hello all! My name is Lexy LeMar. I’m a rising junior studying chemical engineering in the environmental track (ChE ESE for short). I am currently writing to you from Boston, Massachusetts where I am doing research this summer through Caltech’s SURF program. For those of you who are unfamiliar with SURF, it is a ten week research program over the summer that allows students to conduct research in a lab on campus, at the Jet Propulsion Lab, or in any other institute research lab in the world! Last summer, I did a SURF in the Seinfeld group on campus, studying volatile organic compounds and characterizing the fluid dynamics of the Caltech photochemical oxidation flow tube reactor. I had a really great experience both in the lab and going on weekend adventures around the Los Angeles area; however, being on campus for such a long period of time made me realize how much I wanted a change of scenery.
This summer I am again doing a SURF, but this time I decided to broaden my horizons and head across the country to do a SURF at MIT. I have spent the last three and a half weeks here in Boston, exploring, trying new foods, and figuring out how to live on my own. It really has been a whirlwind of new experiences and adjustments. First of all, finding housing was MUCH harder than the previous summer. When doing a SURF on campus, students can live in the dorms for the summer, but when doing an off campus SURF, students are left to their own devices. Also, when doing a SURF on campus, students can remain on board and rely on cafeteria food, but since I am living in an apartment this summer, I actually had to learn how to plan a week of meals, make a grocery list, and cook. Well, I’m still working on the cooking part, but we’re getting there. The last huge adjustment was transportation. Caltech is such a small campus that I got used to only walking 5 minutes or so to get to lab or go get food. Boston is a beautiful city (as you can see from the picture of the Charles River that I took on my way home), but the roads are a complete mess, curving and weaving everywhere. A straight road in Boston is like rain in the desert. But between walking to campus and the grocery store and using the “T”, Boston’s subway and bus system, I think I’m starting to get used to navigating Boston. In all seriousness though, I think this whole experience has taught me a lot about being independent and has also made me appreciate the convenience of living on campus.
Other than the whole growing up and being an adult part, this summer has been quite an amazing experience so far. First of all, MIT is pretty cool. I realize there is a whole “feud” between Caltech and MIT, but they have a pretty neat campus with some awesome sculptures, and the students in the lab where I work are incredibly intelligent and surprisingly humble and welcoming. I was pretty nervous flying all on my own out to a city where I knew approximately three people and on top of that, I was going to be working in a prestigious lab with extremely talented and intimidating graduate students and post docs. Talk about butterflies! But on the first day, I walked in and everyone was super friendly and welcoming and I quickly found a new home. I even ran into some Caltech alumni who are currently PhD candidates at MIT who were friends of my friends and had some very insightful life advice for me. It was a completely unexpected connection that made me realize how small the world really is, especially in the realm of academia. Although I have only been here three and a half weeks, I have met some incredible people, have learned a BUNCH, and have begun to venture out and explore an exciting new city.
Let’s face it: the US loves being just a little different from everyone else. The obvious example? Units of measurement. As an international student from Canada, even I have no clue what’s going on half the time when my friends talk to me and use these weird nonsensical units. And I’ve literally lived on the border between Canada and the States for all my life. After a year here, I’ve finally got a sense of how the two systems of measurement compare and how you can more easily get your bearings with these weird units.
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.