I signed up for the summer ME 13 Introduction to Mechanical Prototyping class a while back thinking that it would be a great opportunity to pick up some useful design skills. Since I am a prospective Electrical Engineering student, I would not have time to take the class during the academic year. There are demos for different machines each week, and we learn skills to build this cool moving trophy at the end for our final project. I promise it is more sophisticated than what I make it out to be.
Anyways, I was able to get in the shop a day before class started because I needed to make a small apparatus for tensile testing for my SURF project. Essentially, I needed to cut down two aluminum blocks and put four matching holes through them, then attach the blocks to an existing apparatus. I assumed that the process would take roughly 30 minutes, but it ended up eating up my whole day. I had completely underestimated the amount of time it takes to tap, thread, and what not, all for a single hole. It took so long even though I had a grad student perform all the manual labor for me!
For our first class, we learned how to use a Johnson saw, and a lathe. We cut some aluminum rods, then shaped, taped and threaded the ends. I have a funny and sad story to tell about this experience…
While using the lathe, I was moving the blade in the Y direction and I got confused between clockwise and counterclockwise on the wheel. I almost lobed off an entire end of the rod that I had so painstakingly shaped. Thankfully I caught myself, but there is now a divot in one end. Now, a near miss is not as bad as an ACTUAL miss.
The final step is to thread the hole we had tapped. Well the thing about threading is that it can only be done once, otherwise the threads will become messed up. I was so eager to finish up (I was getting hangry) that I only threaded the hole half-way. Since I can’t go back in with the tool, it meant that I now need to re-do the whole part. To sum up the experience:
On the bright side, I can get some extra practice on the machines…
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.