One day, I was having breakfast in Fleming dining hall during rotation. A girl I had talked to once before came up to me and asked, “Hey, wanna start an all-girls a cappella group?” And so the Pipettes began.
When Preethi, the girl above, talked to people about the prospect of forming such a group, she was met with encouragement but hesitation — in the past, people had tried to form groups, even all-girls a cappella groups, but they had never lasted. Though I was excited about the idea, I was also hesitant at our ability to gather people and get them committed to the group. But Preethi persisted, recruiting girls from all different houses, mostly frosh, until we had a sizable group of potentials.
I remember we had a first meeting, in the Caltech Music House, where we just talked about possible songs. I felt pretty skeptical after that meeting, and didn’t expect anyone to show up to the next one. Though the second meeting was filled with an almost completely different set of people, somehow, they stuck with us, and are the group I sing with today. Over the next several weeks of the term, people started asking me about the group — somehow, the word had spread — and I recruited some more members. We started buying songs and practicing them. We made a Google Group, Google Drive, and a Facebook group. We had regular rehearsals and communication. It was totally weird, and looking back, as it was interspersed with problem sets and college life, it all seems to have happened at once.
About a month after we formed, we learned that we were invited to sing at the Caltech a cappella winter concert less than a month away. Our formerly lax rehearsal agendas became harried as we panicked to prepare our set. Our last song, “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” was pulled together in about two weeks, with less than four rehearsals. Though other a cappella groups reassured us that nobody was going to judge us, we were still determined to make a good first impression. Though we were terribly nervous, and had a pretty bad mic check, the performance ended up going just fine:
We had no idea what we were doing then, and we have only a slightly better idea of what we’re doing now, two terms later. One thing I know for certain is that scheduling is a pain. We have two rehearsals a week, one on a weeknight and one during a weekend afternoon, totaling 3.5 hours a week. This is a when2meet we have for scheduling just one rehearsal during the first week of third term. Only 6 people out of 10 have signed up so far, but we still have so many non-negotiable conflicts (classes, other rehearsals, meetings) that there is only one 2 hour period during which everyone is available. Next week, we’ll have to do another when2meet, and also talk about when people’s sets are due, to figure out when the regular rehearsals will be this term. Such is Caltech scheduling.
And of course, I know that every member of the Pipettes is integral to the group. Once you’re in a house, it’s harder to hang out with people from other houses. But we have 6 of the 8 houses represented in our group, so we automatically get to spend time with a pretty “diverse” group of people for 4 hours a week. Sometimes more than that, because we chat and eat at the student coffeehouse after night rehearsals, and have girls nights and food excursions. This was our junk food pile at girls night:
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.