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.
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.
Hey hey! We’re starting a series where I walk you through my best finds for food and drinks in the Pasadena region, and in the LA metropolitan area. Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives, if you will (although, for copyright reasons we can’t call it that). As you explore your college options, I firmly believe that food and location are more important than your high school guidance counselor may lead you to believe. And I’m here to share my best finds from my time at Caltech with you.
Over the past several months, I have had the opportunity to intern at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) under the mentorship of senior research technologist Dr. Xiaoqing Pi. Dr. Pi’s guidance and mentorship has been instrumental to the development and success of my internship at JPL, where I use machine-learning to enhance the accuracy and integrity of navigation and communication signals. In addition to helping me develop an understanding of atmospheric and ionospheric remote sensing and machine-learning, Dr. Pi has often offered his insights on how to improve my researching skills. Dr. Pi was generous enough to take the time to answer a few questions regarding his research and advice for future student interns. I believe many students can benefit from some of the lessons that he has taught me:
The transition period to remote learning was a very uncertain time, especially for research and the Caltech Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships (SURF) program. Many hands-on projects had to pivot at the last minute to facilitate off-campus contributions. However, many Techers were able to take advantage of the research opportunities offered at Caltech and JPL to make the best out of remote learning and research. To paint a picture, I’ve interviewed a few talented Techers for some insight on what researching from home looks like for them.