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Working in Lab During the Year

Hi all,
Sorry for my prolonged absence from the airwaves. I’ve been working a lot on my senior thesis this term, and as a matter of fact I’ll talk about what it’s like to do research during the year in this blog post.

Some vocabulary terms:
SURF – Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship. Caltech’s summer undergrad research program.

PI – Principal Investigator. The professor that is the head of a lab group.

It is really as true as they say, that undergraduate research is quite easy to come back at Caltech. Maybe 80 percent of undergrads participate in the SURF program during their time here. Doing a SURF is nice because there is plenty of time to work at least 40 hours a week during the summer–as most of you probably have experienced for yourself, research can often be quite slow. During the term, we find ourselves scrabbling to carve out time to go to lab. Even managing 9 hours a week can be difficult, what with the average course load of 5 9-unit set or essay classes to balance. The one or two who manage to put in 20 hours a week do so either at the expense of their sleep, or take a much lighter course load to compensate for lost time.

I purposefully left more time during my senior year to do research. This term, I am taking 2 English classes and thesis. Not having classes Monday, Wednesday, and Friday leaves plenty of time to go into lab–although, compared with going in every day during the summers, this is still drastically less time than the amount grad students put in.

I see my PI, Professor Harry Gray, on occasion, usually when I email him to set up an appointment, whether it be to sign an add card, ask for career advice, graduate school advice, etc. Harry is one of those profs who are very on top of their email. Sometimes I’ll send him a meeting request at 4 a.m. before I sleep and wake up the next day to see that he responded at 7 a.m. He always gives me the impression that he’s very glad to see me when I walk into his office. Not all profs are like this. Some are extremely hard to schedule one-on-one time with, but Harry always makes time for his students no matter how busy he gets.

In the lab, though, I work primarily with my grad student mentor, Brendon, on a project in collaboration with another member of the Gray group. Some people do their senior theses on projects they have been working on for years, maybe started during a SURF a few summers ago. I had switched to my current senior thesis project just at the beginning of second term this year. My original project had been in the catalytic reduction of carbon dioxide into usable fuels, and we were shooting lasers at a metal target suspended in organic solvent to create catalysts with meta-stable crystal structures that formed from the flash-cooling of the plasma. I’m now working on a project about redox flow batteries for grid-scale energy storage; we are exploring chemical systems to scale up energy density for the batteries.

Lab work is a mixture of intellectual thought processes, hypothesizing about data, dealing with other people, and mechanical grunt work. Recently, my mentor and I hand-purified an entire vial of an iron compound we had made by forcing the liquid through a small piece of filter paper in a pipette. The sheer amount of squeezing we had to do left our fingers sore within minutes. Below is a picture of the starting compound–that cloudy vial circled in the red. I don’t have a picture of our final purified compound, but I can just tell you now that it was a beautiful clear orange. All that squeezing was worth it!

I won’t go into technical details about my research–privacy concerns and all that, plus I know most of you probably aren’t reading these blogs for a really technical story anyway–but I hope this gives a clearer idea of one possible type of work experience in a lab at Caltech as an undergrad.

Till next time!

Anita Chen

Anita is a senior majoring in chemistry and minoring in English. Born in the island nation of Taiwan, she braved the cold on the American East Coast for a year at the age of six before moving to San Diego, California. At Caltech, she is involved in the music program and the literary and visual arts magazines. She is also an upperclass counselor (UCC) in Ruddock House, one of the 8 dorms on campus, where she watches out for the mental health of her peers and every once in a while tries to stir up trouble and excitement for her hallmates. In her spare time, she tutors and TAs, writes poetry and prose, plays the violin, draws, paints, cooks, and climbs rocks. She is currently pursuing her senior thesis project under renowned professor of chemistry Harry B. Gray, and plans on attending graduate school next year.

Graduation year: 2017

Option: Chemistry

Minor: English

House Affiliation: Ruddock