New VP for Student Affairs Named

Joseph Shepherd (PhD '81), the C. L. "Kelly" Johnson Professor of Aeronautics and professor of mechanical engineering, is leaving his post as dean of graduate studies to succeed Anneila Sargent (MS '67, PhD '78), the Ira S. Bowen Professor of Astronomy, as vice president for student affairs. Shepherd's new role is effective September 15.

Sargent, who served the campus as the leader of student affairs the last eight years, announced in March that she was leaving the post to return to research and teaching full time. Shepherd, who joined the Caltech faculty in 1993, has served the last six years as the dean of graduate studies.

We recently sat down with Shepherd to talk about his past role and his new one, his strengths and goals, and his experience at Caltech.

 

Q: What does the vice president for student affairs do?

A: Student Affairs includes the offices of the undergraduate and graduate deans as well as obvious things like the registrar, undergraduate admissions, fellowships and study abroad, the career center, the health center, and the counseling center. It also includes things you might not think of—athletics; performing and visual arts, which includes the music programs, the theater program, the various arts programs, and all of the faculty and instructors that make these programs possible; and a whole group of organizations lumped under "auxiliaries."

The term "auxiliaries" is misleading, because they're central to student life. Housing and dining are the biggest parts, but there are services like the C-Store, the Red Door Café, the Caltech Store and Wired.

 

Q: What makes this role exciting for you?

A:  People speculate about what it is that makes Caltech a great school. A lot of folks say, "Well, it's because it's so small." But I think it's also because we work with people instead of creating some bureaucratic mechanism to solve problems. We say, "All right, what's the issue here? How can we resolve this?" instead of, "We need to create a rule. And then we need to create a group to enforce the rule." My approach is to ask, "What do we want the outcome to be?" In Student Affairs, you want the outcome to be something that supports the students, supports the faculty, and then you make sure that it's not going to adversely affect the Institute.

 

Q: Are there any changes coming, any initiatives you want to establish?

A: We need to think about how we build on the strengths we have and improve the things that we're weakest at. Before you make any changes to an organization, you need to understand those two things. There are a lot of parts to Student Affairs, so I need to understand the strong points of those organizations, and then get them to help me formulate what's important to do.

You always have to be careful of unintended consequences. As they say in chess, you want to think several moves deep. All right, suppose we do that. What will it mean for different parts of our population? Do we make this choice based on the data we have, or do we need more data? Will there be effects on people we haven't thought about? Maybe we need to go talk to those people.

When you have the authority to change things, you also have the responsibility to ask, "Are these the right changes?" Nothing happens in isolation. Anything you do is invariably going to wind up touching quite a few people.

 

Q: You've been dean of graduate studies since 2009. Did you consider taking a breather before jumping into this?

A: Well, much to my surprise, I found that being the dean of graduate studies was rewarding in many different ways. Sometimes you had to do some difficult things, but I actually liked being the dean. I was able, to some extent, to continue my research. I did some teaching—although last year I taught a major course all three terms, and I had my research group—and I was the dean of graduate studies. That taught me a lesson: a man's got to know his limitations.

So when I was asked if I would take this position, I did think about taking a break and not doing it. I enjoy my research and I enjoy teaching. I enjoy working with students, but I also enjoy trying to help the Institute as a whole. Here at Caltech, we pride ourselves on the notion that we have this very special environment. We have this small school, and we have dedicated professionals that work together with faculty to nurture that environment—having faculty who are invested in participating in the key administrative roles is essential.

When I was a graduate student here, my adviser was Brad Sturtevant [MS '56, PhD '60, and a lifelong faculty member thereafter]. Brad was the executive officer for aeronautics [1972-76]. He was in charge of the committee that built the Sherman Fairchild Library and he was on the faculty board. He emphasized to me that being involved in administration was just as valuable as all the other aspects of being a faculty member. He was a dedicated researcher, but he also felt strongly that you should be a good citizen. You should contribute.

 

Q: It seems like this is more than just a duty to you, though.

A: I'm looking forward to it. I'm also very conscious of the responsibility. I think it's going to be important for us all to think about how we maintain the excellence of the Institute and that we imagine how this place is going to evolve. As society evolves around us, we will naturally wind up changing. We need to do that in a thoughtful way so that we continue to be the special organization that we are.

At the end of the day, I'm counting on help from the faculty and staff. Caltech works because of the committed individuals within our organizations, the personal connections we form as we work together and the cooperation across the campus that these connections enable.  It's a collective enterprise.

I think administration is not something that's done to people. It's being responsible for making sure that folks have the right work environment, the right job assignments, and the right resources. It's making sure we're doing the right things with the finite resources we have. One of our former presidents said something that's always stuck with me: an administrator's goals are not about their own career so much as helping the careers of others. You need to think about how you're helping the people working for you, because they have goals and aspirations. That's where you take your satisfaction.

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2015 Teaching Conference - Save-the-Date

New Dean of Graduate Studies Named

On July 1, 2015, Doug Rees, the Roscoe Gilkey Dickinson Professor of Chemistry, will begin serving as the new dean of graduate studies at Caltech.

"Doug's experience and concern with graduate education make him an ideal choice for dean of graduate studies. I am very pleased that he is willing to make this commitment to the Institute and its students," says Anneila Sargent, vice president for student affairs and the Ira S. Bowen Professor of Astronomy.

As the new dean, Rees will be the principal administrator and representative of Caltech's graduate education program, responsible for attending to concerns regarding the welfare of graduate students as well as for upholding the Institute's rules and policies.

"There are many groups essential to the effective operation of our graduate program that I want to get to know better, starting with the graduate students, the Graduate Office staff, and the option administrators and option reps," says Rees. "In my 26 years at Caltech, I've gained an appreciation for how the graduate programs in biochemistry and molecular biophysics and in chemistry operate, but the cultures in different options across campus can vary significantly, and I look forward to better understanding these distinctions."

Rees says that he is also very much looking forward to working directly with graduate students, staff, and faculty on behalf of the graduate program. Of particular interest during his tenure will be issues relating to the well-being and professional development of graduate students.

"I find research to be an adventure that, while exhilarating, is also challenging, frustrating, and even stressful; those aspects, however, are not incompatible with having a positive student experience and a supportive environment," Rees says. He adds that his priorities will be to raise fellowship support, increase the diversity of the graduate student body, and ensure that students have access to appropriate support services such as health care, counseling, and day care. "In addition, I also hope to be able to explore mechanisms to better prepare students for life after Caltech, including both academic and nonacademic career options," he says.

In his new post, Rees will take the place of C. L. "Kelly" Johnson Professor of Aeronautics and Mechanical Engineering Joseph Shepherd, who has served as the dean of graduate studies since 2009. "Joe leaves big shoes to fill and the campus owes him a huge debt of gratitude for all he has accomplished as dean of graduate studies. What I have learned from watching him in action over the past six years, and more recently as he has been helping me during this transition period, is that the most important quality for the dean is to care about the students—and I will definitely be working to follow his example," Rees says.

Rees received his undergraduate degree from Yale University in 1974 and his PhD from Harvard in 1980, becoming a professor at Caltech in 1989. An investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Rees also served as the executive officer for chemistry from 2002 to 2006 and the executive officer for biochemistry and molecular biophysics from 2007 to 2015.

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Students in Bioengineering Course Take Inspiration from Nature

A new class in bioengineering debuted this term at Caltech: "Exploring Biological Principles Through Bio-Inspired Design" (BE 107). The class was the brainchild of Michael Dickinson, the Esther M. and Abe M. Zarem Professor of Bioengineering, and Richard Murray, the Thomas E. and Doris Everhart Professor of Control and Dynamical Systems and Bioengineering, who are hoping to make this a regular part of the curriculum at Caltech to create more opportunities for interdisciplinary work in biology.

"Design courses in which students actually build something are not uncommon in some academic disciplines—such as electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, industrial design, and so forth—but are quite rare in biology," Dickinson says. BE 107 was designed to redress this lack. In the course, students were required to either build a new instrument that could derive information from a biological system or create a hardware platform, such as a robot, that successfully mimics a given biological behavior.

On June 4, teams of two to three students presented their bioinspired creations to each other and to the professors, postdocs, and TAs who worked with them over the course of the term.

One student group pursued the first design option and developed a new instrument to track animal behavior—specifically, the rhythmic motions of jellyfish. The group's camera array and image processing and data analysis system observed jellyfish motion and output data that could then be analyzed and interpreted to reveal the frequency and size of jellyfish contractions, even in a tank with several jellyfish of different sizes and species.

Two other groups opted to create robots that mimicked an animal behavior. One such robot was designed to navigate through space via the "cast and surge" technique used by Drosophila, the common fruit fly, to detect and track an odor plume to its source, such as a tasty (to a fruit fly) piece of rotting fruit. The robot did not fly, nor did it smell, but it was engineered to roll along on four wheels in pursuit of a computer-generated spatial pattern that mimicked an odor plume.

The third team's robot was also a four-wheeled vehicle, but one designed to navigate through a lane marked out on a patch of campus concrete using patterns of polarized light in the sky created by the passage of sunlight and moonlight through the atmosphere. In nature, dung beetles, among other animals, use this type of navigation. The students tested their robot in the late afternoon, when the sun produces a polarization pattern that can be more easily tracked, and were able to get it to swing about in the sunshine in a not-quite-random dance.

Creating a bioinspired design is far from trivial. "Biological systems are much more complicated than engineered systems," Murray says, using a wide variety of sensory inputs to yield behavioral outputs. But this, says Dickinson, is one of the best aspects of the course: the opportunity "to make explicit comparisons between how nature constructs devices via evolution and how engineers design comparable machines."

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Guttman Receives Early-Career Award for Cancer Research

Mitchell Guttman, an assistant professor of biology, has been named as one of five Pew-Stewart scholars. The scholarship is awarded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Alexander and Margaret Stewart Trust, and provides four years of funding to "pursue innovative work aimed at advancing progress toward a cure for cancer."

Guttman's research aims to understand how a newly discovered class of regulatory ribonucleic acid (RNA) molecules called long non-coding RNAs (lncRNAs)—which Guttman first described when he was a graduate student—controls gene activity. By regulating cell growth, many of these lncRNAs are often disrupted in human cancers, but how lncRNAs prevent cancer formation is unknown. To find out, Guttman and his group are exploring how lncRNAs organize protein and DNA molecules in the cell to control precise gene programs.

Recently, by studying an important lncRNA called Xist, Guttman and his lab discovered how this RNA gathers a group of proteins to silence an entire chromosome during embryonic development. These findings mark the first time that researchers have uncovered the detailed mechanism of action for lncRNA genes.

Guttman, who joined the Caltech faculty in 2013, received both his BS and MS degrees in 2006 from the University of Pennsylvania and completed his PhD at MIT in 2012. Among other honors, he was named among the 2015 class of Sloan Research Fellows, was the recipient of the 2014 Wilson S. Stone Memorial Award from the MD Anderson Cancer Center in recognition of his "outstanding contribution to biomedical research," and has been included twice (in 2013 and 2014) on Forbes magazine's "30 Under 30" list for science.

In addition to funding for cancer research, the Pew Trust also awards Pew Biomedical Scholarships to "young investigators of outstanding promise in science relevant to the advancement of human health." Caltech Pew Biomedical Scholars include Assistant Professor of Biology Viviana Gradinaru, who received the award in 2013, as well as Professor of Biology Markus Meister, Professor of Biology Kai Zinn, and Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator and Max Delbruck Professor of Biology Pamela Bjorkman, who were named Pew Biomedical Scholars in 1993, 1990, and 1989, respectively.

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Caltech, JPL Team Up to Take On Big-Data Projects

Acknowledging not only the growing need among scientists and engineers for resources that can help them handle, explore, and analyze big data, but also the complementary strengths of Caltech's Center for Data-Driven Discovery (CD3) and JPL's Center for Data Science and Technology (CDST), the two centers have formally joined forces, creating the Joint Initiative on Data Science and Technology.

A kickoff event for the collaboration was held at the end of April at Caltech's Cahill Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics.

"This is a wonderful example of a deep cooperation between Caltech and JPL that we think will serve to strengthen connections between the campus and the lab," says George Djorgovski, professor of astronomy and director of CD3. "We believe the joint venture will enable and stimulate new projects and give both campus and JPL researchers a new competitive advantage."

Individually, each center strives to provide the intellectual infrastructure, including expertise and advanced computational tools, to help researchers and companies from around the world analyze and interpret the massive amounts of information they now collect using computer technologies, in order to make data-driven discoveries more efficient and timely.

"We've found a lot of synergy across disciplines and an opportunity to apply emerging capabilities in data science to more effectively capture, process, manage, integrate, and analyze data," says Daniel Crichton, manager of the CDST. " JPL's work in building observational systems can be applied to several disciplines from planetary science and Earth science to biological research."

The Caltech center is also interested in this kind of methodology transfer—the application of data tools and techniques developed for one field to another. The CD3 recently collaborated on one such project with Ralph Adolphs, Bren Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience and professor of biology at Caltech. They used tools based on machine learning that were originally developed to analyze data from astronomical sky surveys to process neurobiological data from a study of autism.

"We're getting some promising results," says Djorgovski. "We think this kind of work will help researchers not only publish important papers but also create tools to be used across disciplines. They will be able to say, 'We've got these powerful new tools for knowledge discovery in large and complex data sets. With a combination of big data and novel methodologies, we can do things that we never could before.'"

Both the CD3 and the CDST began operations last fall. The Joint Initiative already has a few projects under way in the areas of Earth science, cancer research, health care informatics, and data visualization.

"Working together, we believe we are strengthening both of our centers," says Djorgovski. "The hope is that we can accumulate experience and solutions and that we will see more and more ways in which we can reuse them to help people make new discoveries. We really do feel like we're one big family, and we are trying to help each other however we can."

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Injured Jellyfish Seek to Regain Symmetry

Self-repair is extremely important for living things. Get a cut on your finger and your skin can make new cells to heal the wound; lose your tail—if you are a particular kind of lizard—and tissue regeneration may produce a new one. Now, Caltech researchers have discovered a previously unknown self-repair mechanism—the reorganization of existing anatomy to regain symmetry—in a certain species of jellyfish.

The results are published in the June 15 online edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Many marine animals, including some jellyfish, can rapidly regenerate tissues in response to injury, and this trait is important for survival. If a sea turtle takes a bite out of a jellyfish, the injured animal can quickly grow new cells to replace the lost tissue. In fact, a jellyfish-like animal called the hydra is a very commonly used model organism in studies of regeneration.

But Caltech assistant professor of biology Lea Goentoro, along with graduate student Michael Abrams and associate research technician Ty Basinger, were interested in another organism, the moon jellyfish (Aurelia aurita). Abrams, Basinger, and Goentoro, lead authors of the PNAS study, wanted to know if the moon jellyfish would respond to injuries in the same manner as an injured hydra. The team focused their study on the jellyfish's juvenile, or ephyra, stage, because the ephyra's simple body plan—a disk-shaped body with eight symmetrical arms—would make any tissue regeneration clearly visible.

To simulate injury—like that caused by a predator in the wild—the team performed amputations on anesthetized ephyra, producing animals with two, three, four, five, six, or seven arms, rather than the usual eight. They then returned the jellyfish to their habitat of artificial seawater, and monitored the tissue response.

Although wounds healed up as expected, with the tissue around the cut closing up in just a few hours, the researchers noticed something unexpected: the jellyfish were not regenerating tissues to replace the lost arms. Instead, within the first two days after the injury, the ephyra had reorganized its existing arms to be symmetrical and evenly spaced around the animal's disklike body. This so-called resymmetrization occurred whether the animal had as few as two limbs remaining or as many as seven, and the process was observed in three additional species of jellyfish ephyra.

"This is a different strategy of self-repair," says Goentoro. "Some animals just heal their wounds, other animals regenerate what is lost, but the moon jelly ephyrae don't regenerate their lost limbs. They heal the wound, but then they reorganize to regain symmetry."

There are several reasons why symmetry might be more important to the developing jellyfish than regenerating a lost limb. Jellyfish and many other marine animals such as sea urchins, sea stars, and sea anemones have what is known as radial symmetry. Although the bodies of these animals have a distinct top and bottom, they do not have distinguishable left and right sides—an arrangement, present in humans and other higher life forms, known as bilateral symmetry. And this radial symmetry is essential to how the jellyfish moves and eats, first author Abrams says.

"Jellyfish move by 'flapping' their arms; this allows for propulsion through the water, which also moves water—and food—past the mouth," he says. "As they are swimming, a boundary layer of viscous—that is, thick—fluid forms between their arms, creating a continuous paddling surface. And you can imagine how this paddling surface would be disturbed if you have a big gap between the arms."

Maintaining symmetry appears to be vital not just for propulsion and feeding, the researchers found. In the few cases when the injured animals do not symmetrize—only about 15 percent of the injured animals they studied—the unsymmetrical ephyra also cannot develop into normal adult jellyfish, called medusa.

The researchers next wanted to figure out how the new self-repair mechanism works. Cell proliferation and cell death are commonly involved in tissue regeneration and injury response, but, the team found, the amputee jellyfish were neither making new cells nor killing existing cells as they redistributed their existing arms around their bodies.

Instead, the mechanical forces created by the jellyfish's own muscle contractions were essential for symmetrization. In fact, when muscle relaxants were added to the seawater surrounding an injured jellyfish, slowing the animal's muscle contractions, the symmetrization of the intact arms also was slowed down. In contrast, a reduction in the amount of magnesium in the artificial seawater sped up the rate at which the jellyfish pulsed their muscles, and these faster muscle contractions increased the symmetrization rate.

"Symmetrization is a combination of the mechanical forces created by the muscle contractions and the viscoelastic jellyfish body material," Abrams says. "The cycle of contraction and the viscoelastic response from the jellyfish tissues leads to reorganization of the body. You can imagine that in the absence of symmetry, the mechanical forces are unbalanced, but over time, as the body and arms reorganize, the forces rebalance."

To test this idea, the team collaborated with coauthor Chin-Lin Guo, from Academia Sinica in Taiwan, to build a mathematical model, and succeeded in simulating the symmetrization process.

In addition to adding to our understanding about self-repair mechanisms, the discovery could help engineers design new biomaterials, Goentoro says. "Symmetrization may provide a new avenue for thinking about biomaterials that could be designed to 'heal' by regaining functional geometry rather than regenerating precise shapes," she says. "Other self-repair mechanisms require cell proliferation and cell death—biological processes that aren't easily translated to technology. But we can more easily apply mechanical forces to a material."

And the impact of mechanical forces on development is being increasingly studied in a variety of organisms, Goentoro says. "Recently, mechanical forces have been increasingly found to play a role in development and tissue regulation," she says. "So the symmetrization process in Aurelia, with its simple geometry, lends itself as a good model system where we can study how mechanical forces play a role in morphogenesis."

These results are published in a paper titled "Self-repairing symmetry in jellyfish through mechanically driven reorganization." In addition to Abrams, Basinger, Goentoro, and Guo, former SURF student William Yuan from the University of Oxford was also a coauthor. Jellyfish were provided by the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. John Dabiri, professor of aeronautics and bioengineering, provided discussions and suggestions throughout the study. Abrams is funded by the Graduate Research Fellowship Program of the National Science Foundation.

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Senior Spotlight: Phoebe Ann

Caltech's class of 2015 is group of smart, creative, and curious individuals. They are analytical thinkers, performers, researchers, engineers, athletes, and leaders who are ready to apply the lessons they have learned from Caltech's rigorous academic environment and the unique experiences they had as part of this close-knit community to pursue future challenges. 

We talked to two of these graduates, Phoebe Ann and Justin Koch, about their years at Caltech and what will come next.

Other graduates share their stories in videos posted on Caltech's Facebook page.

Watch as they and their peers are honored at Caltech's 121st commencement on June 12 at 10 a.m. If you can't be in Pasadena, the ceremony will be live-streamed at http://www.ustream.tv/caltech. You may also follow the action and share your favorite commencement moments on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram by using #Caltech2015 in your tweets and postings.

Phoebe Ann

Major: Biology and English
House: Lloyd
Hometown: Irvine, California

Why did you originally decide to come to Caltech?

I was attracted by the small class size, and I've found to this day that it is one of Caltech's strongest advantages. Caltech is also extremely supportive of a student's individual endeavors, as demonstrated by the numerous awards and programs that promote independent research, volunteer work, or extracurricular interest projects. The most significant example of this is the Caltech Y, through which I was able to learn how to implement a personal idea or passion into a tangible program that my fellow students and I can all enjoy.

Were you involved in extracurricular activities at Caltech?

My most significant extracurricular activities were implemented through the Caltech Y. My proudest accomplishments were organizing alternative spring break trips to New York for Hurricane Sandy relief and to Costa Rica for community construction. Prior to Caltech, I had never traveled independently, let alone led a group of students to a foreign country. These activities were absolutely crucial to developing myself into an effective community member and future physician.

What were your most memorable experiences?

Aside from my Caltech Y activities, my most memorable experiences were interactions with my fellow Lloydies during freshman year. It was an exciting time of realizing my similarities and differences with others, as well as my ability to function without sleep.

What did you not know about Caltech that you learned after being here?

I did not know how hard Caltech pushed its students. I struggled tremendously upon arriving at Caltech because I was intimidated by all the students who seemed "naturally" intelligent. But Caltech forced me to just shut up and get to work. And when all was said and done, I was able to accomplish so much more than I had ever imagined.

What will you be doing after Caltech?

I will be studying medicine at Feinberg Medical School at Northwestern University in Chicago. After, I would like to be a surgeon or a pediatrician, depending on how well I can maintain a work-life balance.

Any words of advice to incoming students?

Join the Caltech Y! It is critical not only to find a work-life balance outside of the house system, but also to ground your scientific endeavors in a broader purpose: to serve and better your local, national, and international community.

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Diversity Retreat at Caltech

In September 2013, Caltech, UC Berkeley, UCLA, and Stanford University founded a new consortium—the California Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP)—to support underrepresented minority graduate students in the STEM fields of mathematics, the physical sciences, computer science, and engineering. The Alliance, launched through a grant from the National Science Foundation, was created to address the fact that minority students enter STEM fields in disproportionately low numbers and that, as a group, their progress slows at each step in their academic careers.

This April, Caltech was host to "The Next Generation of Researchers," the Alliance's second annual retreat. The retreats are designed to bring together graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, research scientists, and faculty from the four institutions and national labs in California for mentoring and network-building opportunities.

We recently spoke with Joseph E. Shepherd (PhD '81), dean of graduate studies and the C. L. "Kelly" Johnson Professor of Aeronautics and professor of mechanical engineering, about AGEP, the recent retreat, and Caltech's diversity initiatives.

 

What was Caltech's motivation for entering into the California Alliance, and what has the program accomplished so far?

Caltech joined the Alliance to encourage underrepresented minorities to pursue academic careers in mathematics, physical science, computer science, and engineering fields. We seek to not only diversify our own campuses (Caltech, Berkeley, Stanford, and UCLA) but also contribute to diversity throughout the nation.

During the first year, the Alliance members identified participants at the four campuses. We have conducted two retreats—the first at Stanford University in 2014 and the second at Caltech. Graduate students, postdoctoral scholars, and faculty gathered at these retreats and learned about opportunities and challenges for underrepresented minority students transitioning from graduate studies to a career as a faculty member.

In 2014, the Alliance established a postdoctoral scholar fellowship program, accepted applications in the fall, and is in the process of finalizing awards for this coming academic year (2015–16). The Alliance has also accepted applications for the mentor-matching program through which graduate students can visit faculty at Alliance institutions to learn about opportunities and faculty careers in specific research areas.

 

AGEP programs are funded by the NSF. What are they hoping to achieve through these programs?

The AGEP programs were originated at NSF as a response to the recognition of the obstacles that underrepresented minority students faced in graduate education and advancing to faculty careers. These issues are highlighted in "Losing Ground," a 1998 report of a study led by Dr. Shirley Malcom, director of Education and Human Resources Programs of the American Association for the Advancement Science. Dr. Malcolm is a Caltech trustee and was a featured speaker at our 2015 retreat.

 

What are we doing at Caltech to support underrepresented minority students in the graduate sciences, and has anything at Caltech changed as a result of our involvement in this consortium?

The Caltech Center for Diversity has a number of programs that support various segments of our student population, and we are increasing the number of underrepresented minority postdoctoral scholars at Caltech.

In collaboration with several offices across the campus, we are developing and maintaining a strong network focused on outreach, recruitment, matriculation, and the eventual awarding of degrees to underrepresented minorities in the campus' graduate programs.  

Specifically, the Office of Graduate Studies, the Center for Diversity, and the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Outreach focus on programming that creates access to resources, builds community, and leverages relationships to help to address the challenges highlighted in the AGEP program, including facilitated discussion groups that address issues of inclusion and equality, various graduate student clubs that promote cultural awareness and community education, and an annual "Celebration of Excellence" reception to recognize student successes and the efforts of staff, faculty, and students who promote equity and inclusion on campus.

In addition, the graduate recruitment initiative coordinated by the Office of Graduate Studies works to ensure that the campus is able to recruit at underrepresented minority STEM-focused conferences and research meetings around the United States, and encourages graduate student ambassadorship and provides opportunities for underrepresented minority graduate students to network across national professional communities with similar research and academic interests.

 

What can we do better?

Encourage greater diversity in graduate admissions by identifying and recruiting underrepresented minority graduate students and ensuring that every student thrives at Caltech. Encourage more of the current underrepresented minority students and postdoctoral scholars at Caltech to take advantage of the professional development opportunities in the Alliance and facilitate their transition to the next stage of their academic careers. Provide more professional development opportunities for all Caltech students and postdoctoral scholars to learn about academic careers.

 

What was the goal of this year's annual retreat?

One goal was to promote introductions and discussion among students, postdoctoral scholars, and faculty at the Alliance schools. In addition to informal meetings between participants, we held a number of roundtables and panel discussions on topics such as knowing what to expect of grad school, the postdoctoral experience, and, in general, life as a researcher and faculty member. Our retreat highlighted the research between done by faculty, students, and postdoctoral scholars in the Alliance by holding a poster session that enabled the participants to learn about each other's research activity. The retreat participants learned about some of the exciting research being done in protein design at Caltech from the other featured speaker, Steve Mayo (PhD '88), Caltech's William K. Bowes Jr. Leadership Chair of the Division of Biology and Biological Engineering and Bren Professor of Biology and Chemistry.

 

Who were participants in this year's retreat, and what do you think they gained from the program?

There were a total of 111 attendees: 40 percent were faculty, 42 percent were graduate students, 8 percent postdoctoral scholars, and the remainder were staff members, including some from JPL and Sandia National Laboratory.

The participants were recruited by the Alliance leadership at each university. The student participants gained the opportunity to network with scientists and faculty at other Alliance institutions, learned about academic careers and postdoctoral scholar opportunities, and were able engage in wide-ranging discussions about careers in science. The faculty and staff participants were able to provide information and advice to students as well as learn about prospective postdoctoral scholars and faculty members.

In addition, a total of 18 faculty from Caltech participated out of a total of 43 faculty members who attended from all four Alliance universities. The faculty at Caltech are very positive about this program, and we are encouraged by the high level of participation.

 

Were the sessions specifically focused on the particular needs of underrepresented groups?

The focus of the Alliance is on helping young people from diverse backgrounds to consider and succeed in academic careers in science. Many of the issues that contribute to success or failure in academic science careers do not depend on the particular perspective or background of a prospective postdoctoral scholar or professor. The pathway to the professoriate and the mechanics of succeeding in an academic career are far from obvious, particularly for students with disadvantaged backgrounds as well as those who are the first in their family to obtain a college degree or consider a career in science. One of the important roles of the Alliance retreat is in providing information about the many career aspects to which our student participants are exposed early enough in their careers so that it may make a difference. 

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Students Try Their Hand at Programming DNA

In a new class called Design and Construction of Programmable Molecular Systems (BE/CS 196a), taught this term by Assistant Professor of Bioengineering Lulu Qian, undergraduate and graduate students in computer science, computation and neural systems, and bioengineering came together to study a new intersection of their fields: biomolecular computation. "Molecular programming is a really young research field that only has a couple of decades of history," said Qian, introducing the class's final project presentations on Friday, June 5. "But it offers a huge potential for transforming all molecular sciences into information technology."

In recent years, in order to "program" synthetic DNA sequences to accomplish a diverse range of functions, bioengineers have begun to take advantage of their ability to predict how DNA strands interact, exchange their binding partners, and fold.

Over the course of 10 weeks, three student teams in BE/CS 196a had the chance to specialize in one of the possibilities afforded by this technology. Working in the wet lab—a lab where biochemical materials can be handled in test tubes of liquids—one group attempted to simulate rudimentary neural networks that recognize the presence or absence of DNA strands, each representing information about four Caltech undergrad houses. Another designed molecules to compute multistep logic functions that implement two particular "transition rules" involved in a famous conjecture concerning a theoretical model of computation called "cellular automata."

Students in the third group designed DNA "origami." In DNA origami, a technique first developed at Caltech, DNA molecules automatically fold into prescribed shapes that may contain patterns of attachment sites—like a smiley face or a miniature circuit board—based on the molecules' designated sequence.

As used by Qian's students, junior Aditya Karan, a computer science major, and first-year bioengineering graduate student James Parkin, the process begins with a single-strand loop of DNA—the genome of virus M13, which has over 7,000 nucleotides. "Staples" made of matching sequences are used to connect specific points on the loop, so that these points are pulled together, causing the loop to fold into the desired shape. The team focused their efforts on manipulating a set of microscopic square tiles of DNA. In one experiment they created complex patterns on the surface of the squares; in another they designed the tiles to form heart-shaped arrays consisting of 11 tiles of four distinct types.

Although complete control of molecular systems is a long way off, these technologies offer what is essentially a programming language capable of interfacing with a biochemical environment. DNA folding, for example, could be used to design microscopic "boxes" that open and release a therapeutic drug only under certain chemical conditions on the surface of or inside specific type of cells. "What has kind of amazed us is how much we can get done with just DNA," says Parkin. "With DNA, we can design complicated things from scratch. We can't do that with proteins yet."

As Qian notes, programming molecular systems is an area "full of imagination and creativity."

"That's why I want to share these adventures with Caltech students," she says.

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