<span style=”font-size: 12pt; font-family: “Times New Roman”;”><span style=”font-size: 12pt; font-family: “Times New Roman”;”>
Life is full of surprises and Caltech can sure convince you of this fact if you are having any doubts. Ten years ago, I spent the last night of the 20th century on the stage of San Francisco Ballet Opera House participating in the company’s production of the Nutcracker. At that time I would never have thought that I would be celebrating the coming of 2010 in the audience of San Francisco Symphony thinking mostly about my upcoming second term at Caltech.
Last term I took a course called Physics 10. We met once a week to hear a Caltech faculty member speaking about his or her Physics research. The idea of this is to expose us to the work being done in modern Physics, to spark our interest and to give us an idea of what to expect from various Caltech laboratories. I enjoyed this course but one lecture really stood out for me. The research of this Professor seemed especially interesting and I got the idea to try to have a SURF with him next summer.If you haven’t heard of SURF before, it stands for “Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship”, which is a very popular thing for Techers to do over the summer. Undergraduates are highly encouraged to join a lab for ten weeks (on or off campus, or even in another country!) and get involved in research. This program, is one of the things that really makes Caltech so special. SURF allows students to not worry about problem sets and exams but rather apply what they’ve been learning all year to real investigations. Well, over break I started worrying about getting a SURF for the next summer and I remembered this particular Physics 10 lecture, so once second term began, I asked that Professor for a tour around his laboratory. This tour convinced me even more that I’d love to do a SURF there so a few days later I asked if a SURF project would be offered in this lab. The professor discussed a project with me, introduced me to his graduate students and showed me around the lab a little more. Well, pretty soon I became a happy Frosh with a promised SURF project!
The contents of the Lab Kit.
Last week I also had a great night in my Cooking Basics class. I made all the chicken for my team but by the end of the night the table was covered in tons of risotto, club soda shrimp, chicken, corn bread, honey mustard horseradish sauce, and macadamia nut-crusted chicken breasts (now my specialty). Each week at the end of each class we all sit down dinner and we eat what we made (this probably also encourages us to try harder while cooking). However, we make so much food each week that we just have to bring back left-overs to our houses. By this point, I really don’t feel like eating anything anymore so I let my friends have it. I’m afraid that I have trained them to expect good food every Wednesday night from now on. In any case, good food sure makes us happy!
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.