SURFing in Cajun Country
Part 2 of our conversation with Caltech junior Jordan Theriot about her summer SURF project at Louisiana State University
During her recent Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) project, Caltech junior Jordan Theriot received a hands-on education about the technical challenges of conducting high-level chemistry experiments. But the occasional hurdles that she encountered in her research were more than offset by her discovery that Caltech has a worldwide community of influential investigators and that, even as an undergrad, she is considered part of that community. She was treated as a colleague and not a trainee, and when her research wasn't going as well as she had hoped, she drew support from the Caltech network.
Caltech's SURF program gives undergraduates the opportunity to work with seasoned investigators on 10-week research projects. Instead of staying on the Caltech campus as she had for her 2009 SURF summer, Theriot, who grew up in the New Orleans area, wanted to be close to home this year.
Getting her wish turned out to be easier than she had imagined, and it gave Jordan her first glimpse of the Caltech network in action. In late 2009, Theriot, a chemistry major, met with her advisor, Harry Gray, the Beckman Professor of Chemistry and founding director of Caltech's Beckman Institute. When she told him that she really hoped to do a SURF project in Louisiana, Gray picked up the phone and called LSU, where one of his former graduate students, Andy Maverick (PhD '82), now chairs the chemistry department.
"That was it," Jordan recalls. "Done. And then when I got to LSU there were so many other Caltech alums in chemistry, including crystallographer Frank Fronczek (PhD '75). The point is, Caltech's influence is really wide."
The Caltech network also came through with financial support for Jordan's fellowship. Her experience was made possible by an unrestricted SURF funded by the staff of Caltech's Office of Development and Institute Relations (DIR). While individual staff members have funded SURFs in the past, this was the first time that a group of staffers pooled their resources to fund a summer fellowship, according to the SURF office. "It meant a great deal to me that funds for my SURF came from Caltech's DIR staff," Jordan says. "It showed me that the Caltech community extends beyond faculty, students, and alumni. That was inspiring."
At LSU, the Maverick lab focuses on building large framework molecules, which have applications in hydrogen gas storage, catalysis, and drug delivery. "It's like building a scaffolding on a molecular level," Theriot says. "You're adjusting molecules to give them a certain purpose—to make them chemically active."
Her assignment for the summer was to build one of these molecules, which proved to be easier said than done. "This was the first time that I was invited to design my own experiments," Theriot says. "That sounds great, but it was really quite terrifying. I spent my first three days there frozen at my desk. I didn't even know the first step to take. Then I sent Dr. Maverick an email with at least a dozen questions, like, 'What is the first step? How do I know if it's even working? What's good? What's bad?' And he typed out four pages of response and sent it to his entire group, saying, 'I think the whole group could benefit from a refresher on this.'
"SURF is hard, because it lasts only 10 weeks," Theriot adds. "Nothing takes 10 weeks in science. So there's a lot of pressure when you're doing a SURF to get results quickly. And even in week nine, when I hadn't gotten any positive results yet, Andy was very encouraging. I think he really cared more about me developing as a chemist over the summer than developing his research."
It was during that ninth week that she finally produced a potentially useful molecular structure. She ran out the door to Maverick's office.
"I asked his secretary, 'Is Dr. Maverick available for a high five?' So she phoned him, and then said, 'Yeah, he is. Go in.' And I walked in, and Andy Maverick, who is definitely over six feet tall, was standing on top of his office chair, holding up his hand. When I asked him what he was doing, he said, 'I wanted to give you a really high high five.' That was a good moment."
Maverick says that after Jordan's original setbacks, she accomplished a great deal in a short time. "Jordan didn't solve our problem completely, but she made a couple of new compounds that are on the path to what we are after," he says. "Jordan is a very sharp student and on her way to being an excellent scientist. I can hardly wait to hear about her next breakthroughs!"
Theriot's summer wasn't all spent in the lab. One of the reasons she wanted to be at LSU was to hang out with her old high-school friends in Baton Rouge. "My two years at Caltech were the only time that I had ever missed Mardi Gras," Theriot says. "I was homesick." And although she enjoyed the region's gastronomic delights, including po-boys, and the country and western karaoke, she says that she was ready to resume her studies at Caltech.
"I truly enjoyed LSU, but I was glad to return to Caltech," she says. "Until this summer, I never realized that the ability to walk up to my professor after class is unusual. I never realized that having an academic advisor who knows who I am is unusual. Something about being here reminds me that there's a grander goal.
"When I'm here, I feel like I'm part of the discipline," Theriot says of Caltech. "I'm a chemist here. I'm in training for something real. There are so many opportunities to develop as a scientist here. I get to work closely with professors and graduate students and I know what I'm getting into and where I'm going."
And as she learned this summer, when a Caltech student ventures away from campus, the Institute goes with her. "People already had high expectations just by virtue of the fact that I went to Caltech. Nobody asked me if I had overloaded with courses every term. Nobody asked for my GPA. People assumed something great about me. To walk around with that feeling was really very uplifting. It definitely got me through the harder times."
Written by Michael Rogers