After spending 3 days onGalavan, we were sad to leave the boat. We were headed to Santa Cruz island next, one of the few inhabited islands of the Galapagos. There, sea lions come up to people’s boats, jump in, and start sunning themselves!
Our destination was the Charles Darwin Research Center. It used to be home to Lonesome George, the last Pinta Island tortoise. Every island has a unique species of tortoise, but many have gone extinct due to hunting by the Spanish colonialists. Pirates who traveled these waters also hunted the tortoises, and it’s suspected that they moved tortoises from different islands to one or two islands, where they were more conveniently accessed. So, although each species of tortoise on the Galapagos has evolved uniquely over time to adapt to the environment on that island, there has been some mixing of genes after humans have come to the Galapagos.
The Charles Darwin Research Center has a tortoise breeding program which aims to reestablish the tortoise populations on the different islands. Although they mostly have tortoises for people to see, there are also some land iguanas.
As we were walking through town, we came upon a fish market. Behind the counter, there was a sea lion and several pelicans patiently waiting for scraps!
Next, we traveled to the island of Isabella, the largest island in the Galapagos. There, we saw marine iguanas, flamingos, and fiddler crabs. This particular species of crab is lopsided – one of its pincers is huge, while the other is really small!
Deeper in the forest, there was another tortoise breeding area, where we got to see a baby tortoise only a few days old that was smaller than my palm! (The ones pictured below are a couple years old.)
The next day, we climbed Volcan Sierra Negra to see the caldera. Isabella has 5 volcanos, each with its own species of tortoise. Since there was some sign of activity in the volcano, we couldn’t hike the trail along the caldera, unfortunately.
Back on Santa Cruz, we hiked into the forest to see giant tortoises in their natural habitat, and we also walked through a lava tube :)
I really enjoyed going to the Galapagos because I met people who I hadn’t previously talked to before and got closer to the people I knew. There was a wide variety of people in the class – there were biology and bioengineering majors, but also physics, geology, chemistry, and chemical engineering majors. I also enjoyed being able to interact with my professors outside of class in an informal manner (we all learned some Bollywood moves and danced to Jai Ho during the trip). One of my favorite parts was the waterproof field notebooks our professors gave us. We took notes as we were guided around the islands, and I made a lot of sketches of the landscape and the animals. I thought it was really fun and educational, and this way, I always have something to refer to when I think about what I saw in the Galapagos.
Two aspects of the trip I loved were the sunset and the stars. The sunsets were absolutely beautiful. I didn’t include any pictures because my camera can’t capture them properly, but the colors were perfect. And the stars – at night on theGalavan, we would sit on the deck and look at the Milky Way, with birds flying next to us to catch the draft. It was really awe inspiring and made me appreciate how lucky I am and how extraordinary the world is.
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.