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.
There is no limit as to how many SURFs you can participate in. You can sign up for a SURF every summer if you choose to do so. I’ve participated in two SURFs so far, both at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). My first SURF, which you can read more about in one of my other blogs, was in the Ionospheric and Atmospheric Remote Sensing Group where I researched machine learning techniques to improve GPS accuracy and navigation communication signal integrity. Now, I’m pursuing a major in Mechanical Engineering and prior to starting my SURF, my machine learning or programming skills were very limited. This was a very educational experience and allowed me to dive in and learn a tremendous amount of information in a short period of time. In this case, I was able to continue my project throughout my sophomore year. This just goes to show that you don’t need to be an expert in your area of research to conduct a SURF. In fact, most mentors are excited and willing to guide you through the process. The more you learn, the more rewarding it is for everyone. SURFs are a great way to learn whether or not you like research and, if so, which areas interest you the most.
My second SURF was in the Engineering and Operations for Surface Missions Group. One of the cool things about this SURF was that the Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover had just landed on Mars in February of 2021. As a result, I had the opportunity to work on Mars 2020 sampling and caching tool development! I was surprised to find out how closely I was allowed to work with the Rover and even came to learn that many interns played an essential role in the success of Perseverance.
To give you a little bit of background information, the Mars 2020 mission aims to explore the surface of Mars using the Perseverance Rover. In July of 2020, Perseverance was sent to Jezero Crater to analyze its habitability, seek biosignatures of past life, obtain and cache rock and regolith samples (the outer rocky material of the bedrock). This is done using the Sampling and Caching Subsystem that’s designed to have the Rover collect and cache rock core and regolith samples and prepare abraded rock surface. This entire system’s health and performance is monitored by the Sampling and Caching team through various assessments. In fact, on any given sol (one sol on Mars represents about 24 hours and 39 minutes on Earth) there is a plethora of data generated by the Sampling and Caching Subsystem. These data are later processed into informative reports but oftentimes, it can be difficult to immediately identify unique data trends. Thus, my research helped to establish an efficient, sampling-focused, trending infrastructure and improved the ability to identify trends in Rover data from specific activities over the course of the Mars 2020 mission. I also worked to develop tools that help to ensure the commands sent to the Rover have been reviewed, approved, and accounted for. These tools were mostly accomplished through the development of various Python programs that processed both the data that was sent back from the Rover as well as the data that was sent to the Rover. Identifying such trends helps us to pinpoint potential issues and allow for changes and/or corrections to the Sampling and Caching Subsystem’s operations where necessary.
This research project was quite unique in terms of the amount of collaboration involved. Mars 2020 is a large mission and its success is dependent on hundreds, if not, thousands, of people. As a result, my days usually consisted of team meetings and individual meetings with other members in my group. We would discuss each other’s progress and next steps. The programs I worked on also involved the input from others in my group. I would write my part of the program and then send it off for feedback. Once returned, I would make necessary adjustments and then send it off for testing before it was implemented. Needless to say, there are many groups at JPL working on Mars 2020 concurrently. My group worked on the tools that other groups used to evaluate the Rover’s performance so it was imperative that we regularly communicated with the other groups to understand their needs and that we completed our tasks in a timely manner to not delay the process!
Even though I was completing a SURF outside of Caltech, I was still expected to submit regular progress reports as well as a final report and presentation to my research group. This is just part of the SURF process. However, I will note that there are slightly different presentation requirements depending on your lab group. While this may seem like a lot of work, it was actually very helpful for me to document my research progress and eventually publish a paper on my findings.
Overall, my SURFs have helped me grow and expand my skill set tenfold and have been an important part of my undergraduate career. I truly believe that conducting meaningful research as an undergraduate is imperative for a student’s development and feel very fortunate to have such opportunities at Caltech!