Something about Caltech makes you very used to being wrong.
Not completely wrong, just the technically incorrect sort of wrong that (thank
goodness) still gets you partial credit. Take, for example, my last physics
quiz, in which a miscalculation of gamma caused me to get every answer wrong,
or my last blog post, in which I said my teary goodbyes only to find out it was
actually my second-to-last.
But that’s actually good news, because my Frosh Experience
this week has been pretty exciting. I finally started making steps towards
getting a SURF! I’ll bet I’m not the first to mention SURF here, but just in
case, SURF stands for Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships. As a frosh,
you hear about them a lot, and though you’re often encouraged to look for one,
it can still seem very intimidating to ask to join a professor’s lab. I used to
have this image of undergraduate interns being treated as a nuisance forced
upon professors by the institute, the little sisters of the science world. I
wondered what we could possibly do for the labs, other than wash dishes and
cost them $6000 a summer.
Well I’m still not sure what I can do for my mentor, but I
do know this. Caltech profs love their SURFs. In fact, during a Ch10 seminar,
Ch1a prof Nate Lewis boasted having the greatest total number of SURFs of all
the faculty. Maybe that’s why I ended up deciding to work in his lab. Friends
found their SURFs in a number of ways. Some took the “pizza classes”, and got
to see a sampling of all the research going on in one division. Others asked
upperclassmen who they knew had SURFed the previous year. But failing all that,
a lot of us just got online and checked out faculty webpages until something jumped
out at us. Although I owe most of my decision to the Ch10 pizza class, I ended
up doing a combination of all three.
Of course, deciding where to work isn’t quite enough. You
still have to ask the prof If he/she will take you on. Now, let’s do a
comparison between styles. My friend Megan read a stack of articles put out by
the lab she wanted to work for, researched the theory, and came up with a
possible new application of their work that she would like to try out. She
presented her idea to the prof, they talked it over, and she got the SURF. I,
on the other hand, am nervous, lazy, and confused with regards to the entire
SURF process, and so I sent an email to Nate Lewis that read something to the
effect of, “Prof. Lewis- I need to get started on my SURF proposal, but am not
sure how to go about this. I know I’d like to work in your lab, so can you
please advise me on the next steps to take?” A week later, he replied that he’d
take me on and that I ought to stroll around his labs and talk to grad students
until I find one I want to work with and who is willing to be my mentor. I
found one of his grad students, who also happens to be my RA, we talked it
over, and I got the SURF. See? Different ways to go about it, same result. When
it comes time to find a SURF for yourself, do what works for you.
Moral of the story? In order to SURF, you don’t have to have
research experience, you don’t have to
understand the first thing about p-chem, and you certainly don’t have to be a
smooth talker. Caltech labs are eager to take on undergrads, because they
realize how important it is to get comfortable working in a lab and to start
getting experience in your field as soon as possible. Of course, the process
doesn’t end here. Once you decide on a project, you have to write up a proposal
and send it for approval. Not all SURFs get approved, but it seems to me that
so long as you are clear about what you want to do, rejection is not much of a
concern. Proposals are due, I believe, the 23rd of February. Pssht…that’s
three weeks away. I’ll worry about that after I finish the Chem 1b set that’s due
Ok, enough about me, what about you? You know, my house is
already preparing for Prefrosh Weekend. Last house meeting, a committee was set
up to handle everything prefrosh-related for Ricketts House. Alas, I am not a
member of that committee and therefore cannot tell you what they’re planning.
What I can tell you, however, is that they are already soliciting students to
host prefrosh in their rooms that weekend. I signed up to be a host this
week, and am keen to find out how they match prefrosh with their hosts. Maybe
one of you will be staying with me this April!
Alright, one more topic and then this blog is done. This
weekend, I’m going to get a chance to see a little bit more of California,
because the fencing team is traveling to San Diego for a tournament. “Hey
Jordan, how did you get into fencing? Were you a fencer in high school?” Good
question, with a ridiculous answer. Not only have I never fenced before, I’ve
actually never played any sport before. When they say that at Caltech anyone
can be an NCAA athlete, they mean it. At first, I thought it sounded silly- I
am NOT the athletic type. But an empty space on the team and a friend’s request
later, I became gasp a student-athlete. And, you know what? It’s been really
fun. First off, it’s a no-excuses way of getting in some exercise. Secondly, I
got to learn something new. Thirdly, it’s always fun to be a part of a team. And now we’re traveling, not just around
California, but also to Notre Dame next week. When I told my mom all of this,
she had a pretty great observation. “Wait a minute,” she said, “you’re telling
me that with no sports experience whatsoever, they let you join the team,
outfitted you in a new uniform, gave you gear, taught you how to fence, and now
they’re flying you around the country? Where do I sign up?” She’s right, it is a pretty
Alright, now we’ve reached the actual end of The Frosh
Experience, not that crummy fake end we had last week. And like the blooper
reel at the end of an awful comedy show, I leave you with a series of pictures of
frosh having fun (read: banging their heads against the wall) down in the
Student Workshop doing Ph8 labs.
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.
Hey hey! We’re starting a series where I walk you through my best finds for food and drinks in the Pasadena region, and in the LA metropolitan area. Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives, if you will (although, for copyright reasons we can’t call it that). As you explore your college options, I firmly believe that food and location are more important than your high school guidance counselor may lead you to believe. And I’m here to share my best finds from my time at Caltech with you.