My research project has been a blast. Like I said before, my graduate student mentor, Brian, has already done most of the hard work of building an ion mobility spectrometer. I walked in just in time for the final touches and testing! Here’s a diagram I made of it…
The point of this machine is to make ions flow through a chamber against a current of gas before they move into the mass spectrometer, where you can measure their mass. You start out by generating ions at the ESI – electrospray ionization. What it basically does is repel either positive or negative ions so that they shoot off in a stream. I’ve used ESI before, but it’s usually hidden inside a machine. Here I could actually see a stream of ions flowing from a needle towards a brass cap that captured them and passed them along into the ion chamber. This is a picture taken with a special camera. The cap is no bigger than a couple of centimeters in diameter at the widest end.
One of the first problems we ran into was that the ions dissipated off the cap because it had such a big surface area. Our answer was to replace it with aluminum foil. This was one of my contributions to the machine. :)
It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but as soon as we made the change, we were able to measure a huge increase in ion flow into the chamber. Brian was really excited because he’s been looking forward to this moment for a couple of years. We also needed to set up the mass spectrometer at the other end of the ion chamber. Again this is the kind of thing that chemists use all the time, but it’s usually inside a big box to which you insert your sample and come back an hour later to see the results on a computer. I was able to see the inner workings of it, such as this part, the octopole ion guide.
We had a lot of structural work to do. Like setting up a cooling system for the vacuum pumps and building frames to hold parts of the laser. For me this meant a return to my high school days of using power tools in the engineering team.
This summer I had the incredible opportunity to do a 10-week internship at Gilead Sciences in Foster City, CA. For those unfamiliar, Gilead Sciences, Inc. is a research-based biopharmaceutical company focused on the discovery, development, and commercialization of innovative medicines.
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.