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01/18/2012 08:00:00

SURF Student Orators Set for Final Round of Competition

Seven Caltech undergrads, whittled down from the 290 who presented in October, will do their best to impress, inform, and generally dazzle the audience and judges with details of their summer research projects on Thursday, January 19, in the Beckman Institute auditorium. The seven speakers are finalists in the third and final round of the Doris S. Perpall SURF Speaking Competition, which is open to the public and begins at 2 p.m.

All told, more than 400 students and nearly 200 mentors participated in the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships (SURF) program last summer. Created in 1979 to provide undergrads with the opportunity to complete meaningful research with the guidance of established scientists, the program requires students to submit a final report and to verbally present their results.

Taking that latter requirement a step further, alumnus and SURF board member Robert C. Perpall established the Doris S. Perpall SURF Speaking Competition in 1993 to give Caltech students an extra incentive to deliver outstanding oral presentations. As the SURF website says, "science not communicated is science not done."

"Research in science and engineering is a collaborative process-one that needs researchers to disseminate their results for society at large, and even for the scientific community, to benefit," says Siddharth Dasgupta, administrative director for the Powering the Planet Chemical Bonding Center and one of the judges for Thursday's competition. "Therefore, public speaking, whether to an expert audience or to lay people, is an important aspect of the training to become a researcher. The Perpall competition is a fantastic way to reward those who can make high-caliber presentations."

So bring on the laser pointers and PowerPoint presentations. This year's finalists are seniors Dai Wei, Brian Peng, and Travis Scholten, and juniors Carly Bond, Kevin Gu, Matthew Mayers, and Anum Jang Sher. During 15-minute presentations, the talented orators will share details of their SURF projects, with topics ranging from investigations of methods to prevent the formation of metal dendrites that reduce the lifetime of rechargeable lithium-metal batteries to the origins of one type of sensory neuron in the olfactory system of zebrafish.

Dai Wei, a senior and the Kiyo and Eiko Tomiyasu SURF Scholar, spent his summer working to improve one of the algorithms used to detect earthquakes with a network of smartphones. He says he was "pleasantly surprised" to be chosen as a finalist in the speaking competition, attributing his selection to his enthusiasm and the clarity of his slides. "The requirement to do this presentation pushed me to reorganize my entire summer's worth of work, to step back and make it presentable and logical. Just burying yourself in research and writing code and running numerical experiments doesn't necessarily give you that perspective."

Junior Carly Bond, another finalist, participated in a SURF Exchange Program and spent 10 weeks working in the lab of Giyoong Tae, a professor of materials science and engineering at Gwangju Institute of Science and Technology (GIST), in the Republic of Korea. Bond investigated several nanomaterials-components such as carbon dots and graphene with features on the scale of billionths of a meter-as possible photothermal materials for the treatment of tumors. A delegation of six faculty members from GIST will be in attendance at the competition on Thursday.

Additional judges for this year's finals will include Zhen-Gang Wang, professor of chemical engineering; Erik Winfree, professor of computer science, computation and neural systems, and bioengineering; Kaushik Bhattacharya, the Howell N. Tyson, Sr., Professor of Mechanics and Professor of Materials Science, and the executive officer for mechanical and civil engineering; alumnus Michael Hartl, entrepreneur; and John Sepikas, associate professor of mathematics at Pasadena City College.

Cash prizes will be awarded ($1,000 for first, $600 for second, and $400 for third). Following the speeches, there will be a short reception at 4:40 p.m., and winners will be announced at 5 p.m.

Written by Kimm Fesenmaier