05/22/2013 08:45:16

Senior Spotlight: Raymond Jimenez

Tech-savvy student headed to SpaceX

Caltech's Class of 2013 is a group of passionate, curious, and creative individuals who have spent their undergraduate years advancing research, challenging both conventional thinking and one another. They have thrived in a rigorous and unique academic environment, and built the kinds of skills in both leadership and partnership that will support them as they pursue their biggest and best ideas well into the future.

Over the next few weeks, the stories of just a few of these remarkable graduates will be featured here. Watch as they and their peers are honored at Caltech's 119th Commencement on June 14 at 10 a.m. If you can't be in Pasadena, the ceremony will be live-streamed at http://www.ustream.tv/caltech.

Talented, curious, fun, innovative, and wildly intelligent. Although these adjectives describe many Caltech students, they come to mind instantly when talking to senior Raymond Jimenez. The electrical engineering major is brimming with ideas and technical know-how. During his years at Caltech, for example, he developed new circuit designs for neural probes and figured out how to vastly increase the computing power available to students in Dabney, his undergraduate house; in his free time he has been designing a small-scale particle accelerator. Jimenez even helped improve the displays on the Tokyo Metro while interning for Mitsubishi last summer.

Jimenez, a native of Duarte, began his association with Caltech when he was a high-school junior at Polytechnic School (across the street from the Institute) and had the chance to work in the lab of Paul Bellan, a professor of applied physics. From the outset, Jimenez was struck by the freedom Caltech students were given to figure out unique solutions to research problems. Bellan gave Jimenez a spending allowance and suggested that he figure out how to make a smaller version of an experimental setup the group had been using to produce laboratory versions of the sun's coronal bursts. "There was a lot of trust put in me," Jimenez says. "I got to design my own hardware. I helped make a mock-up of the experiment using normal, basically everyday materials, instead of a bunch of fancy big-science things."

That's something Jimenez loves—showing that individuals can do science that is typically restricted to huge research teams with millions of dollars. He hopes that the room-sized particle accelerator for which he is currently drawing up plans will give students first-hand experience with such an instrument. "It's one thing to say you know that the paths of electrons can be bent using a magnetic field and another to actually go into the lab and then be able to say that you've bent the paths of electrons using a magnetic field," says Jimenez, who hopes to build the accelerator in the next few years. "A big dream of mine is to actually see if there's a way for interested people to not have to go through the usual channels to do science."

According to Jimenez, if you want to do science on a modest budget, it helps to know how to build things yourself. One of his favorite classes at Caltech was APh/EE 9, Solid-State Electronics for Integrated Circuits—a course then taught by Oskar Painter, also a professor of applied physics. In the class, students learn to make transistors for computer chips. "You might think that transistors are only available to really well-stocked companies with big research budgets, so it was really cool to be able to make one and participate in that hands-on way," he says.

After taking APh/EE 9, Jimenez completed a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) project with Axel Scherer, the Bernard Neches Professor of Electrical Engineering, Applied Physics and Physics, in which he helped design circuitry for a computer chip that may eventually be used in tiny implantable neural probes that measure human brain activity.

Scherer describes Jimenez as "one of the most capable undergraduates whom I have had the pleasure of working with over my past 20 years at Caltech," adding that he has "extraordinary" abilities. "Raymond brought tremendous enthusiasm, talent, and insight to our neural probe project," Scherer says. "It was fun working with him on our research projects, and I think of him more as a scientific collaborator than as a student."

Jimenez has also been active outside of the lab and classroom. He has particularly enjoyed Caltech's unique housing system for undergraduate students and served as the vice president of Dabney House during his junior year. He was especially innovative as Dabney's system administrator, shifting available funding to create a scientific computing cluster with a hundred terabytes of storage for students to use for their classes and projects.

Sound as if Jimenez has been spread a bit thin? He says that one of the most significant skills he has gained from his time at Caltech is the ability to manage his priorities and his time. "The workload at Caltech showed me what I can achieve in a given time period," Jimenez says. "If you're pushed and you know what your total output can be, then you have a baseline standard to compare yourself to."

Starting in July, Jimenez will take that knowledge with him to the Hawthorne-based commercial space-transport company SpaceX, where he will work on the avionics team.

Written by Kimm Fesenmaier