My SURF Experience

My SURF Experience

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.

My SURF this past summer was with the Adolphs lab at Caltech. I’m a lab member during the year as well, so it was a seamless transition into summer work. One of the great things about Caltech is the small school size, so my PI (principal investigator/head of the lab) already knew me from classes I took with him before. I was able to meet him for individual meetings every week, where I shared my progress. My research project is still ongoing, but it involves collaborating with Google on studying eye-tracking features in people with ASD. Specifically, we are leveraging the usage of smartphones for obtaining eye-tracking data. If it proves to be successful, this introduces a much more accessible and streamlined way of collecting important research data.

In addition to doing research, my lab also held regular wellness checks and lab hikes on the weekend. One of the hikes I went on was the Little Santa Anita Canyon Trail in Bailey Canyon. As shown in the picture above, ascending gives you a sweeping view of Pasadena and the rest of the valley. It was a great way to get to know not only the other members of the lab that didn’t work in my subject area, but also the other visiting students doing research for the summer. As someone from the East Coast, the dry, sandy landscape of SoCal hikes has always been a strange experience. I’ve grown to appreciate the scenery of a desert climate and also the benefit of having mountains to summit with amazing views at the top.

We also went for brunch after the hikes, as well as semi-regular lab dinners over the summer. I was able to explore different trails and restaurants in the area. Essentially, I hiked and ate my way through my summer SURF – what more could you ask for?

Throughout the SURF, students are required to submit progress reports, culminating in a final report and presentation at the end. I opted to share my research on the Oct 16th presentation date. Sadly, the symposium was not held in-person this year, but through a virtual format instead. Still, my summer research experience was very fun, especially since I was living near campus and able to interact with people in my lab.

That was my SURF experience for summer 2021! I encourage anyone who can at Caltech to do a SURF for at least one summer. It exposes you to many fields of meaningful research and if you choose to work at Caltech, many awesome graduate students, post-docs and professors as well. I truly enjoyed this past summer of SURF and it’ll definitely be one of the things I miss most when I graduate.