When I was choosing a college, there was one aspect of Caltech which I could not get out my head. It wasn’t its rigorous academics, its world-renowned research, or even its number one rank by Times Higher Education. In fact, the strongest pull I felt from Caltech had nothing to do with education at all. I was in love with the plants.
I visited Caltech in the spring, when the orange trees lining the walkway by the South Houses are laden with fruit and fill the air with a delicate perfume, when purple blossoms dangle like grapes from the wisteria vines covering the archways around Millikan Library, and fluffy layers peel from the peach-skinned trunks of gum trees towering into the electric blue sky. A year later, everything is blooming again, so let’s take a tour.
We’ll start in the southwest corner of campus, bounded by East California Boulevard and Wilson Avenue. Walking up Wilson, we’ll soon have a direct view of Millikan Library on our right. It’s the tallest building in Pasadena, but only two of the nine floors of this “library” actually store books. Heading towards it, we’ll walk between two archways covered with wisteria. Entwined with each other and clinging to the stucco walls, the wisteria vines blindly grope for support in the sky.
Just around Millikan Library, we’ll be met with roses erupting in a volcano of color.
We’ll continue east, past the turtle pond and the real library, Sherman Fairchild, until we arrive on the Olive Walk. Once upon a time, some students made olive oil from the trees along this path. I think some can be bought today. Our next stop is the Orange Walk, Caltech’s own orange grove. Most of the fruit here will make you pucker, but the first tree on the right produces yellow-skinned citrus that’s mildly sweet—and may actually be grapefruit.
Beside the Orange Walk is the block of South Houses, with Fleming and Dabney alongside one row of trees. We’ll turn left, passing the North Houses and then Chandler Café, and stop in front of Jorgenson Laboratory, which houses the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis. Outside, lavender flowers sway on soft, gray-green stems.
We’ll go left again here and head back across campus to our last stop, the lily pond. As we pass Sherman Fairchild Library again, we’ll catch a glimpse of the turtle pond on the other side. Now imagine one of those turtles crawling all the way over to us and continuing for the remaining hundred meters to the lily pond—or don’t, because it’s actually happened. Who knows how the turtles found it so far from their home, or how they got past its raised concrete walls.
This concludes our tour—hope it gave you a feel for campus!
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.
This summer, from the confines of my Brooklyn apartment, you could find me typing away on a tiny 13-inch laptop screen. At times I was looking for answers on countless Stack Exchange pages, editing a Jupyter notebook, or making blood flow measurements on a software called Arterys. This was my 2021 Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURF) experience.
Almost a year ago now, I was just about to start my first Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) at JPL. NASA had sent out an email to all of their summer interns containing a social media template to announce that we had been selected as NASA interns. Excited to show my NASA pride, I posted it on my Instagram story, unaware of what would come out of this small action.