Right now, I’m two stories underground and I’m clothed in a
white puffy suit that makes me look like some sort of fat space bunny. A really
fat space bunny. It’s cold in the room,
and the suit’s not helping. I’m sitting
in a captain’s chair at the console for a giant machine that reminds me a lot
of the Death Star.
Don’t worry though: I’m not dreaming, nor have I been abducted by
aliens. I’m just in lab. Hi, my name is Tom Gwinn. I’m a junior at Caltech majoring in
Electrical Engineering, and I’m going to be writing this blog for at least the
next couple of weeks.
I was born and raised in a small
suburb of Orlando, Florida. I claim (to
the extreme skepticism of others) that this has somehow given me a good
understanding of Southern culture, but I think really it just means I like to
eat barbecue a lot. Oh, while we’re
still on the topic of where I’m from, I just want to say that there ARE places
in Florida that aren’t filled with old people. Maybe only a few places, but still.
Did I mention that I like
barbecue? I also really like sushi,
especially sashimi and chirashi (basically raw fish and raw fish on rice). Right now you might be thinking that my
tastes are pretty eclectic, but that’s not really true. I just like to eat! I’m always trying new places around Pasadena,
although I do have a few old favorites I try to visit often. Right now I’m craving some Kang Kang; Kang
Kang is a Chinese place in nearby Alhambra that serves a good dinner for around
$4. That’s right, $4! It’s pretty good, too. Mmm… I can already taste the pan-fried bao.
OK, I’ve got to change topics
now. If I keep it up any longer I’ll
have to stop writing to go eat.
Last week was a really big week
for me. I managed to go to my house’s
hot tub at least five times, I taught my first lab section of APh9 for the year,
I learned how to politely request someone’s surname in Mandarin Chinese, I
finally found a Pandora station I really like… and oh, yeah, I had to give a
presentation that acted as the culmination of an entire summer’s worth of
research. Guess which one of these was
the most stressful!
In fairness, you might not know
of half the things I’m talking about, so I’ll just tell you that it was the
presentation. I spent this summer
working at Caltech through a program called the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship or
SURF for short. Basically, you do
ten weeks of research with a Caltech professor, you write a paper and give a
presentation, and you get a pretty nifty six grand stipend. It’s a really great deal, so a lot of
students at Caltech do SURFs. In fact,
This was my second SURF with Dr. Axel Scherer,
the head of Caltech’s Nanofabrication
group. My project was really cool—I made
some really tiny (10% of your average human hair’s width) incandescent light
emitters to be used in on-chip infrared spectroscopy. You can see one of the ones I made to the right. I started from the ground up—I designed the
device in theory, then worked on fabrication methods, and finally attempted to
make a device. Then I attempted to make some more devices. Then I tried
again. Research is like that sometimes.
I still remember my first working
device vividly though—it was 1am in the subbasement of Moore, an Electrical
Engineering building here on campus. I
had been tweaking my test setup all night to attempt to see something…
anything. One last tweak, I thought,
before I go to bed. I half-heartedly
turned up the current on the filament, only to see it glow brightly. I started yelling (there may have been some
mild profanity) and ran around the lab. That was a bad idea, I hit my shin—but it was totally worth it.
I guess what I’m trying to say is
that my summer experience was one I’ll never forget.
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.
This summer, from the confines of my Brooklyn apartment, you could find me typing away on a tiny 13-inch laptop screen. At times I was looking for answers on countless Stack Exchange pages, editing a Jupyter notebook, or making blood flow measurements on a software called Arterys. This was my 2021 Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURF) experience.
Almost a year ago now, I was just about to start my first Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) at JPL. NASA had sent out an email to all of their summer interns containing a social media template to announce that we had been selected as NASA interns. Excited to show my NASA pride, I posted it on my Instagram story, unaware of what would come out of this small action.