06/12/2012 07:00:00

Caltech Graduating Senior Wins Multiple National Honors

When Caltech senior Arvind Kannan graduates on Friday, he will be one highly decorated Techer. During this academic year, the chemical engineering major racked up multiple honors that will support his graduate studies, including a Churchill Scholarship, a Hertz Foundation fellowship, and a National Science Foundation graduate research fellowship.

As one of only 14 new Churchill scholars, Kannan will spend the next academic year working on a Master of Philosophy in chemistry at the University of Cambridge. While there, he will work in the laboratory of Michele Vendruscolo, using computational methods to build a detailed structural model of a large protein complex called the 20S proteasome, which is involved in regulating processes ranging from gene expression to cell signaling. According to the Winston Churchill Foundation's website, the scholarship program "offers American citizens of exceptional ability and outstanding achievement the opportunity to pursue graduate studies in engineering, mathematics, or the sciences at Cambridge. 

When Kannan returns to the United States to complete a doctoral program at Stanford University, he will receive support from both the Fannie and John Hertz Foundation and the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program. These awards, Kannan says, will allow him to carry out an ambitious research project free from financial constraints. 

At Caltech, Kannan developed a passion for engineering proteins to do chemically useful things—like break down plant matter for use in biofuel production or speed up drug development. He has been working with Frances Arnold, the Dick and Barbara Dickinson Professor of Chemical Engineering, utilizing a technique called "directed evolution," which applies the principles of natural selection to molecules in the laboratory rather than animals or plants in nature.

"Arvind's brilliance and insatiable thirst for learning is matched by his commitment to studying and practicing science," says Arnold, who also described him as "well-rounded." Indeed, Kannan, has played the flute for eight years, has been singing Carnatic music—a type of South Indian classical music—since he was five years old, and is now a baritone in the Caltech Glee Club. "When not playing music, I love listening to it," he says. "I have also cultivated a passion for modern electronic dance music and enjoy participating in the major electronic music festivals of the L.A. area."

Of his time at Caltech, Kannan says he feels fortunate that the breadth of the curriculum and the diversity of opportunities for learning have prepared him so well for his future. He enjoys, for example, sitting at a lunch table with physics majors and biologists alike, and being able to join in conversations about both quantum field theory and cell signaling. "That experience, I think, has been really wonderful because science is an interdisciplinary, collaborative process," he says. "The more you know about other fields, the more it enriches both your own research and your appreciation for science as a whole."

Written by Kimm Fesenmaier