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  • Eric Chang (left) and Peter Buhler have been named two of this year's Watson Fellows.
04/25/2012 07:00:00

Two Caltech Seniors Named Watson Fellows

Program supports a year of independent travel and study

Caltech students Eric Chang and Peter Buhler have been named two of this year's Watson Fellows. The fellowship enables graduating seniors to spend a year traveling around the world, exploring and learning about topics of their choice. Buhler will travel to British Columbia, Spain, and Chile to study how past, present—and possibly martian—life has flourished. Chang will head off to Asia, where he will learn how sustainable buildings can meet the world's growing demand for housing.

Chang, a mechanical engineering major, will spend about three months each in Taiwan, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Hyderabad, India. In Asia, more and more people are moving from rural areas to the cities, and these cities must be able to build the infrastructure to handle the new population. "I wanted to see how these problems are being approached in these countries," he says. "These issues are going to have a large impact on the world."

Ever since childhood, Chang says, he was excited by architecture; part of the fun of visiting friends, he says, was exploring the layouts of their houses. Then he read E.O. Wilson's The Diversity of Life, which made him more aware of environmentalism and sustainability. At Caltech, he discovered a love of building things when he helped design and construct a replica of the Tokyo skyline, including building facades and electronic billboards, for Lloyd Interhouse, an annual themed party that Lloyd House throws for the rest of the students. Last summer, he interned at a sustainable engineering firm, which sparked an interest in learning how sustainability issues are being tackled in other countries—each with their own regional challenges.

Chang says he is looking forward to experiencing new cultures and meeting new people—and as a lover of food, he is especially eager to try different kinds of cuisine. "It's really easy to become comfortable in the U.S. and not want to or need to venture outside that bubble," he says. "Seeing the rest of the world is exciting because it's so different."

Buhler will first go north to British Columbia, where he will camp, hike, and search for fossils that represent the beginning of macroscopic life. Then he will go to the Rio Tinto, a river in southern Spain that is the largest acidic ecosystem in the world. With a pH of two, it is as acidic as vinegar—yet is home to all sorts of life. Because some regions of Mars may have similar conditions, learning about the bustling microbes in the Rio Tinto could help scientists learn more about how Martian life might have existed. Lastly, Buhler will study how life can survive in the Atacama Desert in Chile, the driest place on Earth.

A native of Rhode Island, Buhler has been doing research on Mars for the past three summers at Brown University. At Caltech, he has worked with Mike Lamb, assistant professor of geology, and Andrew Ingersoll, professor of planetary science. After four years of learning Spanish in high school, Buhler has also spent four years at Caltech studying the language.

"I'm looking forward to a change of pace—being able to have freedom from deadlines, to explore and get my hands on some rocks, and to see what it's like to be completely on my own, which is also scary," he says. With the prospect of ample alone time—especially in the desolate salt flats of the Atacama Desert—he plans to devote his evenings to drawing and writing poetry. In Chile, he says he is particularly excited to see the salt lakes up in the mountains. "At certain times of the year, there are giant flocks of flamingos that come," he says. "That would be pretty awesome to go up and explore."

Established by the Thomas J. Watson Foundation in 1968, the Watson Fellowship includes a $25,000 stipend to support independent study and travel outside the United States. The fellowship has so far granted more than 2,300 awards and is open to graduating seniors from 40 participating institutions across the country. This year, there were 700 candidates, only 40 of whom were named fellows. Caltech has had 43 fellows since becoming a participating institution in 1973.

Written by Marcus Woo