Sophomore year, third term, I took my first medically-relevant class at Caltech. It’s a course taught by Dr. Petrasek, who has a degree in medicine and later got a PhD in applied math at Tech, so it’s a class that deviates from the basic sciences to look at clinical research and medical advances. Since I loved the class last year, this year I decided to be a TA (teaching assistant) for it.
The class, titled BE153:Case Studies in Systems Physiology, approaches medicine with quantitative, engineering strategies. Basically, we look at different recent cases in clinical medicine (topics include sleep regulation, HIV, and cardiovascular physiology), try to come up with a mathematical model to explain the phenomenon, and see if our model matches up with experimental data in the scientific literature. The class has three sets and a final project– for the final project, students have to choose a biological/ medical phenomenon and then come up with a math model to simulate that phenomenon.
For example, this year, two students decided to model scar formation. Here’s how they did it:
Step 1: Model happy, healthy collagen matrix
Step 2: Make sure the model is biologically accurate. Does the collagen matrix generated look kinda like collagen matrix in vivo?
Step 3: Model a wound
Step 4: Model scar tissue formation
[c4 refers to how quickly scar tissue
compensates for missing skin tissue; c5 describes
the inhibiting effect of the kinetic energy of the normal skin tissue; c6 refers to the contact inhibition caused
by a closed matrix (this coefficient should be large)]
Ok, so they modelled scar tissue formation.. so what?
Well, if the model actually matches up with experimental data and is pretty accurate, it can be potentially predict how scars will form. So, surgeons can make carefully planned cuts and punctures to reduce scarring, making the scars less noticeable and more aesthetic!
Pretty cool, right?
This summer I had the incredible opportunity to do a 10-week internship at Gilead Sciences in Foster City, CA. For those unfamiliar, Gilead Sciences, Inc. is a research-based biopharmaceutical company focused on the discovery, development, and commercialization of innovative medicines.
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.