Just a quick note about very relevant current events. Last week on Wednesday, a wildfire started a few miles away from JPL, up the Angeles Crest Highway. This ‘Station Fire’ has since grown to be huge. The main JPL campus (on Oak Grove) was closed over the weekend, and the fire line got quite close to here over the weekend – within a mile or so. But that part of the fire boundary was contained, and the active burning is not so close to the main JPL campus anymore, so it’s out of direct danger. Still, the Oak Grove part of the lab was closed for most people (like me) on Monday because of air quality concerns.
Things went back to normal here on Tuesday, but the air quality is still pretty bad. I’d estimate less than a mile of visibility this morning, looking to the East.
But that doesn’t mean that things are over. The current estimated boundary size is 140,150 acres (over 200 square miles!), and while JPL is safe, other areas are being threatened. This includes residential communities, as well as the Mt. Wilson communications center and the observatory. There has been a lot of work that has gone into protecting Mt. Wilson, from laying down fire retardant to back burning to get rid of fuel that the wildfire could use to jump to the facilities on the mountain top. Apparently things are looking somewhat up as far as keeping the facilities safe, but it’s not over yet. The towercam on the 150 ft solar telescope went offline yesterday afternoon, so we can’t directly see what’s going on up there.
Still, if you’re inclined to follow what’s going on, the incident website is here.
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.