SURF's Up at Caltech

SURF's Up at Caltech

As promised from my last post, here is my first SURF update! As you may already know, the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship program (SURF) is a program through which students both from Caltech and from other schools can come and work with a Caltech or JPL professional researcher. This program allows students to explore areas of research they either have no time to do during the year, continue projects started during term, or to further their academic goals. It’s a great time for students to go more in-depth into a field they’re interested and gain some work experience. Plus, we get paid.

This year, I am working in the Kirschvink lab, a paleomagnetics lab. Paleomagnetism is the study of magnetism due to earth’s magnetic field. I’m, however, working in a very specific field that combined work related to both my majors (Computation and Neural Systems and Geobiology): biomagnetism! I use electroencephalographs (EEGs) to measure people’s brainwaves and see their responses in various magnetic fields. Hopefully, this work will potentially show that humans have the ability to unconsciously sense changes in small magnetic fields, something that sounds straight out of a science fiction movie!

Today, I am running two subjects through our experiment. The process is fairly simple. A subject comes in, they consent to be experimented on via EEGs, and then we get to work. We measure their head size, select an EEG cap, and then begin to squirt electrically conductive gel on their heads to make sure we get a strong brainwave signal. We then stick 64 electrodes on their head and test the system. These are the devices that pick up brainwave signals directly. Subjects are then asked to sit in a giant Faraday cage and the experiment begins.

Although we can’t read minds through an EEG, we can directly see things like eye blinks and body movements. It takes some data processing, though, to look for indications of magnetic perception. I am working on writing programs in MATLAB to complete some of this analysis, which has been a great experience. I did not have much of a coding background coming into the SURF (I had only taken CS1, our intro CS class), feel like I am learning a lot about coding. Maybe next summer I can work at Google or Facebook (haha, just kidding!).

Anyway, I should get back to the lab now as we have another subject arriving soon. I can’t wait to see whether they have a sixth, magnetic sense!

Here I am with the 64 electrode cap on. It takes 10-20 minutes to put all of the electrodes in place.