11/30/2010 08:00:00

Beginning a Life in Science

It was a posting that offered a chance to "see how research is done and understand the lifetime enthusiasm that can be generated" that brought Zach Wickens to Caltech. The announcement was posted by pioneering organic chemist John (Jack) Roberts, Caltech's Institute Professor of Chemistry, Emeritus. As an undergraduate at Macalester College, a small liberal-arts school, Wickens had developed a deep interest in organic chemistry. But he wanted a taste of life in a big research lab before he signed up for grad school and a scientific career. In 2009, he discovered the Amgen Scholars program, which funds summer study in scientific labs, and saw Roberts's posting for an Amgen Scholar. Wickens emailed Roberts and crossed his fingers.

The program Wickens applied to was a trial run for Amgen. In 2007, Caltech was one of 10 universities to receive a $1 million grant to support summer undergraduate research. After four successful years, this month Amgen launched a second phase of the grant that will enable Caltech and 12 other universities to offer summers in premier labs to more than 1,000 undergraduates over the next four years. Wickens's summer gives a sense of the outstanding experiences in store for the 100 students who will conduct research in Caltech labs thanks to Amgen's new grant.

Roberts responded promptly to Wickens's note. Soon, the Macalester student was packing his bags for Caltech, expecting a radically different environment. He was in for a surprise. "In many ways, Caltech actually feels very much like a small liberal arts school—it's close and friendly, with no barriers between groups. I didn't get as far out of my comfort zone as I expected. I sort of failed in my quest to do something really different," he laughs.

But he nailed his goal of previewing grad school and the scientific life. He discovered that he loved working in a lab group, with ideas flying back and forth, and that he flourished in the well-funded, 24-hour-a-day research environment. He credits the Amgen Scholars program with cementing his ambitions.

"As many people as possible should have this experience," he says. "You want to go to grad school thinking, ‘This is something I like. I'm going to enjoy this and accomplish a lot.'"

Wickens found a role model in his 92-year-old mentor. "Jack showed up every day. His door was open. He has a strong, very positive personality, and he's fun to talk to—he knows so much."

The summer lab group included two Amgen scholars, two postdocs, a high-school student, and four students in Caltech's Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships (SURF) program. At weekly meetings, each member gave a 40-minute presentation covering the week's achievements. "That was a good checkpoint. It kept you focused," says Wickens.

Wickens remembers a great lesson about a big part of research: overcoming seemingly simple complications. He'd made a molecule and wanted to study it in different solvents. He started with water, and things went well for a few weeks. "But when I moved to other solvents, I couldn't get my molecule to dissolve in anything." The group figured that the molecule's chloride counterion was reducing solubility. They brainstormed ways to make the molecule with a different counterion or produce the original molecule and then switch the chloride out. Solving the problem "took a lot of trial and error and talk with Jack and the postdocs," says Wickens. From there, he conducted more significant spectrographic investigations of the molecule.

"I gained problem-solving skills," he says, "and I learned that I like talking with people about chemistry. I can't count the number of times I would walk up to someone with spectra—or they would walk up to me—and say, ‘What's going on here?'"

"Amgen gave me the ability to add a big-research experience to my liberal-arts-school education," Wickens says. At Caltech, he had more access to materials and equipment, he notes. "I didn't have to worry so much about the price of chemicals." And he had daily—or, rather, nightly—access to nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectrometers he'd had only rare opportunities to use at Macalester. "I became nocturnal—that's when machines were available," he explains. "We were free to work anytime. At Caltech, people are in the labs at all hours." In addition to the lab experience, the program offered lunches with invited speakers and a symposium packed with science talks and presentations on career opportunities. Soon, thanks to the renewed Amgen program, 100 more aspiring scientists will try on lives in research and get a taste of the many options open to them.

Wickens tried not to let the summer influence his grad-school decision. But after visiting each potential school, he found himself up against deadlines without an obvious choice. "It was a really tough decision. But my Amgen summer underscored what I saw during my visit: at Caltech, the grad students know each other, no matter what group they're in, and people are unusually happy."

Now a Caltech student in the lab of Nobel laureate Robert Grubbs, Wickens continues to build the lifetime enthusiasm that Jack Roberts promised he could find in the lab.


Written by Ann Motrunich