I spent seven years of my life competing in Science Olympiad. And by competing in, I mean studying 500 hours a year for (ok, less in middle school). The organization hosts regional, state, and national competitions that involve students competing in pairs in 23 events, each spanning completely different fields of science or engineering. Being a part of this organization taught me so many things about myself, not to mention years and years of extracurricular science. I can truly say that Science Olympiad was the reason I came to Caltech, but I’ll get into that later.I learned leadership skills, organizational skills, study habits, how to read academic journals, how to read an anatomy textbook in French class but look like you’re doing busywork, etc. I got the chance to study anatomy, protein biochemistry, epidemiology, organic chemistry, forensic science, and genetics between the ages of 14 and 17. Biology classes in freshman year of college are so easy to follow when you’ve already read about all of the topics! My interest in proteins through Science Olympiad led me to the two research labs I have worked in, as well as to my SURF grant last summer. I made lifelong friends (guaranteed for anyone who participates in an activity that takes up a lot of your time and all of your love) and I am still dating my senior-year co-captain (romantic relationships not guaranteed).
The organization itself does a ton of outreach: It trains middle school and high school teachers to be coaches and involve their students in fields of science they’ve probably never heard of (Forestry, Entomology, Herpetology, Optics?). They also run several Urban Schools Initiatives programs across the country, that trains inner city students to participate in partial competitions and encourages schools to adopt as much of the program as they are able (shout out to the Philadelphia chapter, run by my former middle school coach and some of my friends from high school!).
The Caltech Science Olympiad club organizes and helps run the LA regional and SoCal state Science Olympiad competitions, and several local invitational competitions. A ton of Caltech students participated in Science Olympiad in high school, so the club has a ton of volunteers. On February 28th, we hiked to Occidental College to host the regional competition. I helped proctor the Science Crime Busters (forensic science) event for the middle school division, an event I competed in for three years…about 6 years ago (oh god I am old oh dear). I also helped grade the protein models from the Protein Modeling event, which I competed in for three years in high school, and which kickstarted my love of bioengineering and biochemistry.
Science Olympiad got me through high school. I was So. Damn. Bored. in all of my classes, except for the three hours after school every day where I got the chance to goof off and study with my friends. Probably no one, apart from the readership of these blogs, knows what I’m talking about when I say spending all of your free time learning something new, something awesome, something sciencey, is the best choice you could make. I seriously went into college admissions interviews and when asked, “What do you do for fun?” I would answer “Science Olympiad” with complete honesty. Science Olympiad gave me the opportunity to explore fields of science that I would have had no entry to in high school (or middle school, especially), and through that venue I found the fields that I fell in love with and decided to pursue. Science Olympiad is the reason I decided to go to a capital-I-Institute for college.
I am so lucky to be able to contribute to this organization and volunteer at competitions now that I’m in college, and I urge everyone out there who has had the opportunity to participate in FIRST robotics, VEX, TSA, SO, or any other science outreach program in high school to give back after they graduate! Help foster that love for creation and discovery in other students.
I’m positive that everyone reading the Caltech admissions blogs has some hobby that they feel this passionate about. What do you do for nerdy fun? Do you build things in your garage? Read textbooks for fun (guilty)? Build robots that smash into each other? Volunteer firefight? Play and build video games? Code websites? Design rockets? Do research? I want to know what makes you light up and talk for an hour when people ask you what you do for fun.
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.
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.