When I decided to come to Caltech there was at least one major thing on my bucket list: Visit JPL. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory was founded by Caltech students back in the 60s and ever since, it has enabled the United States to do incredible space exploration and incredible research. Reasons in particular why I wanted to visit JPL:
1) It’s only a free bus ride away.
2) It’s completely operated by Caltech staff.
3) The Curiosity Rover had just been launched.
4) I heard something about NASA stopping all space programs, and wanted to know what was going on..
5) I was pretty sure that if I kept my eyes open, I’d be able to find out some top secret spy information, etc.
So, you can be sure that when I was registering for the classes I wanted to take for third term of my freshman year, I didn’t hesitate to click the button for “Introduction to Astrophysics”, or “Ay 1”. Let me be clear, I knew nothing about astronomy and certainly had no background in astrophysics.
And it was… AWESOME.
By far my favorite class of this term, Ay 1 had a SUPER knowledgeable professors, the BEST T.A.’s, fantastically interesting subject material that I’d never learned before, and … drum roll please … a FIELD TRIP. Yes, you heard (read) me right. The Ay 1 class members boarded two charter buses just last weekend and drove down to San Diego to visit the Palomar Observatory. Here are some of the interesting pictures and stories that follow:
On one side of the bus, a beautiful mountain range and graceful clouds streaking the sky. (You can’t see it, but we’re on top of a cliff).
And on the other side, this big ole’ dome:
My first thought, stepping off the bus was “Ah, and here we see the mountain’s bald spot, sticking out like a sore thumb among the bushes”. But oh, was there more …
As “special guests” of the Observatory, we got to use “the big doors”.
No, that’s the small door. I mean, the BIG DOORS. also… hi, Peter… :)
Once inside, we went straight up to the second floor to see the telescope itself.
^ Suspended above the floor was the 60’’ telescope. Made of one huge glass surface. Our guide told us of how this lens itself took almost forty years to design, craft, perfect, and install.
^The upper observation deck was all the way at the top of the telescope shaft. This reached all the way to the top of the dome and serves as a stable base for the rotating parts of the telescope.
^Here’s a closer look at the lens holding machinery. The glass itself is held in that circular area with the black dots all the way around it.
Interestingly, the glass lens of the Palomar telescope is made out of solid Pyrex glass – as in, the same thing a lot of your baking supplies are made of. Back in the 1920s when the telescope was being designed, they needed a material that wouldn’t move or shift during temperature changes. Using a material that could adapt so easily without changing its shape allowed for the telescope to be calibrated accurately and provide good measurements consistently, from summer to winter up on the mountaintop.
We finished our tour of the massive telescope and waited back outside for the group to get back together.
^ Sheila and Angela doing a little exploration of their own.
I also decided to try my hand at a panorama shot – stitched together.
^ A little rocky, but the framework is there!
Be sure to check out the next installment of this trip -
“SPAAAAACE! (Part II)”
Thanks to …
Professor George Djorgovski,
all of the TAs that accompanied us,
and the Palomar Observatory staff for an AMAZING TRIP.
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.