Caltech Seniors Win Library Friends Thesis Prize

Two Caltech seniors, Adam Jermyn and Kerry Betz, were named as winners of this year's Library Friends' Senior Thesis Prize. The Thesis Prize is intended to encourage undergraduates to complete a formal work of scholarship as a capstone project for their undergraduate career and to recognize sophisticated in-depth use of library and archival research. For their achievement, recipients of the $1,200 prize are listed in the commencement program.

Caltech faculty nominate seniors whose theses they deem to be deserving of the prize. Nominated students then supply a research narrative that explains their research methodology, detailing not only the sources they used, but the way they obtained access to them.

Adam Jermyn, a physics major from Longmeadow, Massachusetts, won the prize for his thesis titled "The Atmospheric Dynamics of Pulsar Companions." The Library Friends committee described it as a "tour de force in its breadth of scholarship, creativity and significance," and Jermyn's faculty adviser Sterl Phinney, professor of theoretical astrophysics and executive officer for astronomy, said in his nomination that the thesis is "comparable to the best PhDs in impact and innovation."

Jermyn's work is a study of the ways in which the radiation emitted from pulsars changes the atmospheres of other nearby stars. Pulsars are a highly magnetized and rapidly rotating type of neutron star, the dense remnants of a star gone supernova. They often orbit closely together with a low-mass "companion star" that can receive enormous amounts of radiation from the nearby pulsar.

"It's been a really fantastic experience. My mentor, Professor Phinney, has been amazing at encouraging me in productive directions and enthusiastically went along with me when I wanted to go off in a strange direction on a hunch," Jermyn says. "You think you've rounded the corner and found the answer, only to realize that you've just walked into more rich and complicated phenomena."

Jermyn, also the recipient of a Hertz Fellowship, a Marshall Scholarship, and a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, will start his graduate work at the University of Cambridge in the fall.

 

Kerry Betz, a chemistry major from Boulder, Colorado, won the prize for her thesis titled "A Novel, General Method for the Construction of C-Si Bonds by an Earth-Abundant Metal Catalyst." Robert Grubbs, the Victor and Elizabeth Atkins Professor of Chemistry and Betz's faculty adviser, praised the thesis in his nomination for its "significance, creativity, and novelty."

Betz's work concerns the use of a new catalyst to form carbon-silicon bonds through a process called silylation. The newly discovered catalyst is highly efficient and can operate at room temperature and pressure. Traditionally these reactions require expensive and inefficient precious metal catalysts, such as platinum or palladium. Betz's catalyst is made from the abundant metal potassium, which is more effective than state-of-the-art precious metal complexes at running very challenging chemical reactions.

"I've done this research over the last three years, and I really enjoyed how writing it up brought it all together," says Betz. "Writing up my work revealed new questions and directions to pursue. It showed me how unpredictable and exciting research can be." She will continue her research at Caltech for a year and will then begin graduate studies at Stanford University in the fall of 2016.

 

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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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Kathy Svitil
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Celebrating 45 Years at Caltech

The 60th Annual Staff Service Awards will be presented in Beckman Auditorium on Thursday, June 4, at 10 a.m. During the ceremony, nearly 250 staff members whose service ranges from 10 to 45 years will be honored for their commitment to Caltech. A full list of awardees is online.

Among the honorees is Robert A. Taylor, who has worked at the Institute for the last 45 years, most recently in the Division of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy (PMA) for the Laser Interferometry Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) project. We spoke with Taylor about his four-and-a-half decades at Caltech.

 

Can you tell us how you originally came to Caltech and a little about your career?

In 1969, I was attending Pasadena City College, majoring in electronics analysis. I came to class one evening and my instructor, who was the chief engineer for the Seismology Laboratory at Caltech, asked if I would like to work for Caltech. I said yes. The job was in the Division of Geology and Planetary Sciences with Dr. Anderson [Don L. Anderson, the late Eleanor and John R. McMillan Professor of Geophysics, Emeritus, and former director of the Seismology Lab] to help build the seismometer that was to go to the moon.

In GPS, I enjoyed working with the students on their thesis projects and on other projects that have come along over the years. Some of those projects have taken me to places that most people never get to go. I observed an atomic bomb detonation in Nevada, serviced a seismic station at the base of the Andes Mountains in Peru, and dove on coral reefs off Sumatra, Indonesia. In the deserts of California, Arizona, and New Mexico, I did experiments with the first rocks brought back from the moon. That is just the first half of my time here at Caltech.

The second half is still ongoing. In 2001, I transferred to PMA, to continue my journey with LIGO, running the ultrahigh-vacuum bake lab. The purpose is to clean the parts that go into the vacuum envelope of the interferometer. LIGO is by far the most interesting project I have worked on since I have been here at Caltech.

What were your first impressions of Caltech?

Quite frankly, I was a bit intimidated at first. I had never worked in an academic atmosphere before with the kind of prestigious people that I come in contact with on a daily basis. For example, the first office that I had was across the hall from Dr. Charles F. Richter [developer of the Gutenberg-Richter law for measuring the size of an earthquake]. Could that be more awesome? But I soon realized that the people around me were accepting me as part of the team at Caltech.

What has been the most exciting moment for you so far at Caltech?

There are two moments that stick in my mind. The first is the research that we did in Indonesia with Dr. Sieh [Kerry Sieh, formerly Caltech's Robert P. Sharp Professor of Geology], taking coral samples from reefs in the Batu Islands off Sumatra. The other was the first time I visited the LIGO Livingston Observatory and saw firsthand a full-size interferometer.

What has changed the most for you here over the last 45 years?

I think what has changed most is my idea of what is possible. At Caltech, the possibilities are limitless.

How much longer do you think you will stay?

Let's just put it this way: I love what I do. I feel like the luckiest person alive to have been invited to participate and be a part of Caltech.

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Kathy Svitil
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Celebrating 11 Years of CARMA Discoveries

For more than a decade, large, moveable telescopes tucked away on a remote, high-altitude site in the Inyo Mountains, about 250 miles northeast of Los Angeles, have worked together to paint a picture of the universe through radio-wave observations.

Known as the Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-wave Astronomy, or CARMA, the telescopes formed one of the most powerful millimeter interferometers in the world. CARMA was created in 2004 through the merger of the Owens Valley Radio Observatory (OVRO) Millimeter Array and the Berkeley Illinois Maryland Association (BIMA) Array and initially consisted of 15 telescopes. In 2008, the University of Chicago joined CARMA, increasing the telescope count to 23.

Dalmation Drawing

An artist's depiction of a gamma ray burst, the most powerful explosive event in the universe. CARMA detected the millimeter-wavelength emission from the afterglow of the gamma ray burst 130427A only 18 hours after it first exploded on April 27, 2013. The CARMA observations revealed a surprise: in addition to the forward moving shock, CARMA showed the presence of a backward moving shock, or "reverse" shock, that had long been predicted, but never conclusively observed until now.
Credit: Gemini Observatory/AURA, artwork by Lynette Cook

CARMA's higher elevation, improved electronics, and greater number of connected antennae enabled more precise observations of radio emission from molecules and cold dust across the universe, leading to ground-breaking studies that encompass a range of cosmic objects and phenomena—including stellar birth, early planet formation, supermassive black holes, galaxies, galaxy mergers, and sudden, unexpected events such as gamma-ray bursts and supernova explosions.

"Over its lifetime, it has moved well beyond its initial goals both scientifically and technically," says Anneila Sargent (MS '67, PhD '78, both degrees in astronomy), the Ira S. Bowen Professor of Astronomy at Caltech and the first director of CARMA.

On April 3, CARMA probed the skies for the last time. The project ceased operations and its telescopes will be repurposed and integrated into other survey projects.

Here is a look back at some of CARMA's most significant discoveries and contributions to the field of astronomy.

Planet formation


Dalmation Drawing

These CARMA images highlight the range of morphologies observed in circumstellar disks, which may indicate that the disks are in different stages in the planet formation process, or that they are evolving along distinct pathways. The bottom row highlights the disk around the star LkCa 15, where CARMA detected a 40 AU diameter inner hole. The two-color Keck image (bottom right) reveals an infrared source along the inner edge of this hole. The infrared luminosity is consistent with a 6M Jupiter planet, which may have cleared the hole.
Credit: CARMA

Newly formed stars are surrounded by a rotating disk of gas and dust, known as a circumstellar disk. These disks provide the building materials for planetary systems like our own solar system, and can contain important clues about the planet formation process.

During its operation, CARMA imaged disks around dozens of young stars such as RY Tau and DG Tau. The observations revealed that circumstellar disks often are larger in size than our solar system and contain enough material to form Jupiter-size planets. Interestingly, these disks exhibit a variety of morphologies, and scientists think the different shapes reflect different stages or pathways of the planet formation process.

CARMA also helped gather evidence that supported planet formation theories by capturing some of the first images of gaps in circumstellar disks. According to conventional wisdom, planets can form in disks when stars are as young as half a million years old. Computer models show that if these so-called protoplanets are the size of Jupiter or larger, they should carve out gaps or holes in the rings through gravitational interactions with the disk material. In 2012, the team of OVRO executive director John Carpenter reported using CARMA to observe one such gap in the disk surrounding the young star LkCa 15. Observations by the Keck Observatory in Hawaii revealed an infrared source along the inner edge of the gap that was consistent with a planet that has six times the mass of Jupiter.

"Until ALMA"—the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array in Chile, a billion-dollar international collaboration involving the United States, Europe, and Japan—"came along, CARMA produced the highest-resolution images of circumstellar disks at millimeter wavelengths," says Carpenter.

Star formation


Dalmation Drawing

A color image of the Whirlpool galaxy M51 from the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). A three composite of images taken at wavelengths of 4350 Angstroms (blue), 5550 Angstroms (green), and 6580 Angstroms (red). Bright regions in the red color are the regions of recent massive star formation, where ultraviolet photons from the massive stars ionize the surrounding gas which radiates the hydrogen recombination line emission. Dark lanes run along spiral arms, indicating the location where the dense interstellar medium is abundant.
Credit: Jin Koda

Stars form in "clouds" of gas, consisting primarily of molecular hydrogen, that contain as much as a million times the mass of the sun. "We do not understand yet how the diffuse molecular gas distributed over large scales flows to the small dense regions that ultimately form stars," Carpenter says.

Magnetic fields may play a key role in the star formation process, but obtaining observations of these fields, especially on small scales, is challenging. Using CARMA, astronomers were able to chart the direction of the magnetic field in the dense material that surrounds newly formed protostars by mapping the polarized thermal radiation from dust grains in molecular clouds. A CARMA survey of the polarized dust emission from 29 sources showed that magnetic fields in the dense gas are randomly aligned with outflowing gas entrained by jets from the protostars.

If the outflows emerge along the rotation axes of circumstellar disks, as has been observed in a few cases, the results suggest that, contrary to theoretical expectations, the circumstellar disks are not aligned with the fields in the dense gas from which they formed. "We don't know the punch line—are magnetic fields critical in the star formation process or not?—because, as always, the observations just raise more questions," Carpenter admits. "But the CARMA observations are pointing the direction for further observations with ALMA."

Molecular gas in galaxies


Dalmation Drawing

CARMA was used to image molecular gas in the nearby Andromeda galaxy. All stars form in dense clouds of molecular gas and thus to understand star formation it is important to analyze the properties of molecular clouds.
Credit: Andreas Schruba

The molecular gas in galaxies is the raw material for star formation. "Being able to study how much gas there is in a galaxy, how it's converted to stars, and at what rate is very important for understanding how galaxies evolve over time," Carpenter says.

By resolving the molecular gas reservoirs in local galaxies and measuring the mass of gas in distant galaxies that existed when the cosmos was a fraction of its current age, CARMA made fundamental contributions to understanding the processes that shape the observable universe.

For example, CARMA revealed the evolution, in the spiral galaxy M51, of giant molecular clouds (GMCs) driven by large-scale galactic structure and dynamics. CARMA was used to show that giant molecular clouds grow through coalescence and then break up into smaller clouds that may again come together in the future. Furthermore, the process can occur multiple times over a cloud's lifetime. This new picture of molecular cloud evolution is more complex than previous scenarios, which treated the clouds as discrete objects that dissolved back into the atomic interstellar medium after a certain period of time. "CARMA's imaging capability showed the full cycle of GMCs' dynamical evolution for the first time," Carpenter says.

The Milky Way's black hole

CARMA worked as a standalone array, but it was also able to function as part of very-long-baseline interferometry (VLBI), in which astronomical radio signals are gathered from multiple radio telescopes on Earth to create higher-resolution images than is possible with single telescopes working alone.

In this fashion, CARMA has been linked together with the Submillimeter Telescope in Arizona and the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope and Submillimeter Array in Hawaii to paint one of the most detailed pictures to date of the monstrous black hole at the heart of our Milky Way galaxy. The combined observations achieved an angular resolution of 40 microarcseconds—the equivalent of seeing a tennis ball on the moon.

"If you just used CARMA alone, then the best resolution you would get is 0.15 arcseconds. So VLBI improved the resolution by a factor of 3,750," Carpenter says.

Astronomers have used the VLBI technique to successfully detect radio signals emitted from gas orbiting just outside of this supermassive black hole's event horizon, the radius around the black hole where gravity is so strong that even light cannot escape. "These observations measured the size of the emitting region around the black hole and placed constraints on the accretion disk that is feeding the black hole," he explains.

In other work, VLBI observations showed that the black hole at the center of M87, a giant elliptical galaxy, is spinning.

Transients

CARMA also played an important role in following up "transients," objects that unexpectedly burst into existence and then dim and fade equally rapidly (on an astronomical timescale), over periods from seconds to years. Some transients can be attributed to powerful cosmic explosions such as gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) or supernovas, but the mechanisms by which they originate remain unexplained.

"By looking at transients at different wavelengths—and, in particular, looking at them soon after they are discovered—we can understand the progenitors that are causing these bursts," says Carpenter, who notes that CARMA led the field in observations of these events at millimeter wavelengths. Indeed, on April 27, 2013, CARMA detected the millimeter-wavelength emission from the afterglow of GRB 130427A only 18 hours after it first exploded. The CARMA observations revealed a surprise: in addition to the forward-moving shock, there was one moving backward. This "reverse" shock had long been predicted, but never conclusively observed.

Getting data on such unpredictable transient events is difficult at many observatories, because of logistics and the complexity of scheduling. "Targets of opportunity require flexibility on the part of the organization to respond to an event when it happens," says Sterl Phinney (BS '80, astronomy), professor of theoretical astrophysics and executive officer for astronomy and astrophysics at Caltech. "CARMA was excellent for this purpose, because it was so nimble."

Galaxy clusters


Dalmation Drawing

Multi-wavelength view of the redshift z=0.2 cluster MS0735+7421. Left to right: CARMA observations of the SZ effect, X-ray data from Chandra, radio data from the VLA, and a three-color composite of the three. The SZ image reveals a large-scale distortion of the intra-cluster medium coincident with X-ray cavities produced by a massive AGN outflow, an example of the wide dynamic-range, multi-wavelength cluster imaging enabled by CARMA.
Credit: Erik Leitch (University of Chicago, Owens Valley Radio Observatory)

Galaxy clusters are the largest gravitationally bound objects in the universe. CARMA studied galaxy clusters by taking advantage of a phenomenon known as the Sunyaev-Zel'dovich (SZ) effect. The SZ effect results when primordial radiation left over from the Big Bang, known as the cosmic microwave background (CMB), is scattered to higher energies after interacting with the hot ionized gas that permeates galaxy clusters. Using CARMA, astronomers recently confirmed a galaxy cluster candidate at redshifts of 1.75 and 1.9, making them the two most distant clusters for which an SZ effect has been measured.

"CARMA can detect the distortion in the CMB spectrum," Carpenter says. "We've observed over 100 clusters at very good resolution. These data have been very important to calibrating the relation between the SZ signal and the cluster mass, probing the structure of clusters, and helping discover the most distant clusters known in the universe."

Training the next generation

In addition to its many scientific contributions, CARMA also served as an important teaching facility for the next generation of astronomers. About 300 graduate students and postdoctoral researchers have cut their teeth on interferometry astronomy at CARMA over the years. "They were able to get hands-on experience in millimeter-wave astronomy at the observatory, something that is becoming more and more rare these days," Sargent says.

Tom Soifer (BS '68, physics), professor of physics and Kent and Joyce Kresa Leadership Chair of the Division of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy, notes that many of those trainees now hold prestigious positions at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) or are professors at universities across the country, where they educate future scientists and engineers and help with the North American ALMA effort. "The United States is currently part of a tripartite international collaboration that operates ALMA. Most of the North American ALMA team trained either at CARMA or the Caltech OVRO Millimeter Array, CARMA's precursor," he says.

Looking ahead

Following CARMA's shutdown, the Cedar Flats sites will be restored to prior conditions, and the telescopes will be moved to OVRO. Although the astronomers closest to the observatory find the closure disappointing, Phinney takes a broader view, seeing the shutdown as part of the steady march of progress in astronomy. "CARMA was the cutting edge of high-frequency astronomy for the past decade. Now that mantle has passed to the global facility called ALMA, and Caltech will take on new frontiers."

Indeed, Caltech continues to push the technological frontier of astronomy through other projects. For example, Caltech Assistant Professor of Astronomy Greg Hallinan is leading the effort to build a Long Wavelength Array (LWA) station at OVRO that will instantaneously image the entire viewable sky every few seconds at low-frequency wavelengths to search for radio transients.

The success of CARMA and OVRO, Soifer says, gives him confidence that the LWA will also be successful. "We have a tremendously capable group of scientists and engineers. If anybody can make this challenging enterprise work, they can."

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Three Caltech Fulbrights

Caltech seniors Jonathan Liu, Charles Tschirhart, and Caroline Werlang will be engaging in research abroad as Fulbright Scholars this fall. Sponsored by the Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the Fulbright Program was established in 1946 to honor the late Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas for his contributions to fostering international understanding.

 

 

Jonathan Liu is an applied physics major from Pleasanton, California, who will be doing research at Ludwig Maximilian University Munich in Germany. He plans to work with a biophysicist studying how DNA moves in a liquid with a thermal gradient, which could shed light on the molecular origins of life. Long strands of DNA should break apart well before they have time to organize themselves into the complicated arrangements needed to be self-reproducing, but previous work in the lab Liu is joining has hinted that deep-sea hydrothermal vents may have allowed long strands to form stable clusters. Liu plans to enroll at UC Berkeley for graduate study in physics at the PhD level on his return; he was awarded one of UC Berkley's Graduate Student Instructorships to support his work.

Charles Tschirhart of Naperville, Illinois, is a double major in applied physics and chemistry. He will be studying condensed matter physics at the University of Nottingham, England, where he plans to develop new ways to "photograph" nanometer-sized (billionth-of-a-meter-sized) objects using atomic force microscopy. He will then proceed to UC Santa Barbara to earn a PhD in experimental condensed matter physics. Charles has won both a Hertz fellowship and National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship; both will support his PhD work at UC Santa Barbara.

Caroline Werlang, a chemical engineering student from Houston, Texas, will go to the Institute of Bioengineering at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland to work on kinases, which are proteins that act as molecular "on/off" switches. She will join a lab that is trying to determine how kinases select and bind to their targets in order to initiate or block other biological processes—an important step toward designing a synthetic kinase that could activate a tumor-suppressor protein, for example. After her Fulbright, she will pursue a doctorate in biological engineering at MIT. Caroline's PhD studies will be supported by a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship.

The Fulbright Program is the flagship international exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government. Seniors and graduate students who compete in the U.S. Fulbright Student Program can apply to one of the more than 160 countries whose universities are willing to host Fulbright Scholars. For the academic program, which sponsors one academic year of study or research abroad after the bachelor's degree, each applicant must submit a plan of research or study, a personal essay, three academic references, and a transcript that demonstrates a record of outstanding academic work.

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Yeast Protein Network Could Provide Insights into Human Obesity

A team of biologists and a mathematician have identified and characterized a network composed of 94 proteins that work together to regulate fat storage in yeast.

"Removal of any one of the proteins results in an increase in cellular fat content, which is analogous to obesity," says study coauthor Bader Al-Anzi, a research scientist at Caltech.

The findings, detailed in the May issue of the journal PLOS Computational Biology, suggest that yeast could serve as a valuable test organism for studying human obesity.

"Many of the proteins we identified have mammalian counterparts, but detailed examinations of their role in humans has been challenging," says Al-Anzi. "The obesity research field would benefit greatly if a single-cell model organism such as yeast could be used—one that can be analyzed using easy, fast, and affordable methods."

Using genetic tools, Al-Anzi and his research assistant Patrick Arpp screened a collection of about 5,000 different mutant yeast strains and identified 94 genes that, when removed, produced yeast with increases in fat content, as measured by quantitating fat bands on thin-layer chromatography plates. Other studies have shown that such "obese" yeast cells grow more slowly than normal, an indication that in yeast as in humans, too much fat accumulation is not a good thing. "A yeast cell that uses most of its energy to synthesize fat that is not needed does so at the expense of other critical functions, and that ultimately slows down its growth and reproduction," Al-Anzi says.

When the team looked at the protein products of the genes, they discovered that those proteins are physically bonded to one another to form an extensive, highly clustered network within the cell.

Such a configuration cannot be generated through a random process, say study coauthors Sherif Gerges, a bioinformatician at Princeton University, and Noah Olsman, a graduate student in Caltech's Division of Engineering and Applied Science, who independently evaluated the details of the network. Both concluded that the network must have formed as the result of evolutionary selection.

In human-scale networks, such as the Internet, power grids, and social networks, the most influential or critical nodes are often, but not always, those that are the most highly connected.

The team wondered whether the fat-storage network exhibits this feature, and, if not, whether some other characteristics of the nodes would determine which ones were most critical. Then, they could ask if removing the genes that encode the most critical nodes would have the largest effect on fat content.

To examine this hypothesis further, Al-Anzi sought out the help of a mathematician familiar with graph theory, the branch of mathematics that considers the structure of nodes connected by edges, or pathways. "When I realized I needed help, I closed my laptop and went across campus to the mathematics department at Caltech," Al-Anzi recalls. "I walked into the only office door that was open at the time, and introduced myself."

The mathematician that Al-Anzi found that day was Christopher Ormerod, a Taussky–Todd Instructor in Mathematics at Caltech. Al-Anzi's data piqued Ormerod's curiosity. "I was especially struck by the fact that connections between the proteins in the network didn't appear to be random," says Ormerod, who is also a coauthor on the study. "I suspected there was something mathematically interesting happening in this network."

With the help of Ormerod, the team created a computer model that suggested the yeast fat network exhibits what is known as the small-world property. This is akin to a social network that contains many different local clusters of people who are linked to each other by mutual acquaintances, so that any person within the cluster can be reached via another person through a small number of steps.

This pattern is also seen in a well-known network model in graph theory, called the Watts-Strogatz model. The model was originally devised to explain the clustering phenomenon often observed in real networks, but had not previously been applied to cellular networks.

Ormerod suggested that graph theory might be used to make predictions that could be experimentally proven. For example, graph theory says that the most important nodes in the network are not necessarily the ones with the most connections, but rather those that have the most high-quality connections. In particular, nodes having many distant or circuitous connections are less important than those with more direct connections to other nodes, and, especially, direct connections to other important nodes. In mathematical jargon, these important nodes are said to have a high "centrality score."

"In network analysis, the centrality of a node serves as an indicator of its importance to the overall network," Ormerod says.

"Our work predicts that changing the proteins with the highest centrality scores will have a bigger effect on network output than average," he adds. And indeed, the researchers found that the removal of proteins with the highest predicted centrality scores produced yeast cells with a larger fat band than in yeast whose less-important proteins had been removed.

The use of centrality scores to gauge the relative importance of a protein in a cellular network is a marked departure from how proteins traditionally have been viewed and studied—that is, as lone players, whose characteristics are individually assessed. "It was a very local view of how cells functioned," Al-Anzi says. "Now we're realizing that the majority of proteins are parts of signaling networks that perform specific tasks within the cell."

Moving forward, the researchers think their technique could be applicable to protein networks that control other cellular functions—such as abnormal cell division, which can lead to cancer.

"These kinds of methods might allow researchers to determine which proteins are most important to study in order to understand diseases that arise when these functions are disrupted," says Kai Zinn, a professor of biology at Caltech and the study's senior author. "For example, defects in the control of cell growth and division can lead to cancer, and one might be able to use centrality scores to identify key proteins that regulate these processes. These might be proteins that had been overlooked in the past, and they could represent new targets for drug development."

Funding support for the paper, "Experimental and Computational Analysis of a Large Protein Network That Controls Fat Storage Reveals the Design Principles of a Signaling Network," was provided by the National Institutes of Health.

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Gravitational Waves—Sooner Than Later?

Built to look for gravitational waves, the ripples in the fabric of space itself that were predicted by Einstein in 1916, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) is the most ambitious project ever funded by the National Science Foundation. LIGO consists of two L-shaped interferometers with four-kilometer-long arms; at their ends hang mirrors whose motions are measured to within one-thousandth the diameter of a proton. Managed jointly by Caltech and MIT, Initial LIGO became operational in 2001; the second-generation Advanced LIGO was dedicated on May 19.

Barry Barish is the Roland and Maxine Linde Professor of Physics, Emeritus. He was LIGO's principal investigator from 1994 to 1997, and director from 1997 to 2006. Stan Whitcomb (BS '73) was an assistant professor of physics at Caltech from 1980 to 1985. He returned to campus as a member of the professional staff in 1991 and has served the LIGO project in various capacities ever since. We talked with each of them about how LIGO came to be.

 

Q: How did LIGO get started?

BARISH: Einstein didn't think that gravitational waves could ever be detected, because gravity is such a weak force. But in the 1960s, Joseph Weber at the University of Maryland turned a metric ton of aluminum into a bar 153 centimeters long. The bar naturally rang at a frequency of about 1,000 Hertz. A collapsing supernova should produce gravitational waves in that frequency range, so if such a wave passed through the bar, the bar's resonance might amplify it enough to be measurable. It was a neat idea, and basically initiated the field experimentally. But you can only make a bar so big, and the signal you see depends on the size of the detector.

[Professor of Physics, Emeritus] Ron Drever, whom we recruited from the University of Glasgow, had started out working on bar detectors. But when we hired him, he and Rainer [Rai] Weiss at MIT were independently developing interferometer-type detectors—a concept previously suggested by others. Usually you fasten an interferometer's mirrors down tightly so they keep their alignment, but LIGO's mirrors have to be free to swing so that the gravitational waves can move them. It's very difficult to do incredibly precise things with big, heavy masses that want to move around.

 

WHITCOMB: Although bar detectors were by far the most sensitive technology at the time, it appeared that they would have a much harder path reaching the sensitivity they would ultimately need. Kip Thorne [BS '62, Richard P. Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics, Emeritus] was really instrumental in getting Caltech to jump into interferometer technology and to try to bring that along.

Ron's group at Glasgow had built a 10-meter interferometer, which was all the space they had. We built a 40-meter version largely based on their designs, but trying to improve them where possible. In those days we were working with argon-ion lasers, which were the best available, but very cantankerous. Their cooling water introduced a lot of vibrational noise into the system, making it difficult to reach the sensitivity we needed. We were also developing the control systems, which in those days had to be done with analog electronics. And we had some of the first "supermirrors," which were actually military technology that we were able to get released for scientific use. The longer the interferometer's arms, the smaller the displacements it can measure, and the effective length is the cumulative distance the light travels. We bounce the light back and forth hundreds of times, essentially making the interferometer several thousand kilometers long.

 

Q: When did the formal collaboration with MIT begin?

BARISH: Rai [Weiss] and Ron [Drever] were running their own projects at MIT and Caltech, respectively, until [R. Stanton Avery Distinguished Service Professor and Professor of Physics, Emeritus] Robbie Vogt, Caltech's provost, brought them together. They had very different ways of approaching the world, but Robbie somehow pulled what was needed out of both of them.

Robbie spearheaded the proposal that was submitted to the National Science Foundation in 1989. That two-volume, nearly 300-page document contained the underpinnings—the key ideas, technologies, and concepts that we use in LIGO today. A lot of details are different, a lot of things have been invented, but basically even the dimensions are much the same.

 

WHITCOMB: When I returned in 1991, LIGO had become a joint Caltech/MIT project with a single director, Robbie Vogt. Robbie had brought in a set of engineers, many borrowed or recruited from JPL, to do the designs. The late Boude Moore [BS '48 EE, MS '49 EE], our vacuum engineer, was figuring out how to make LIGO's high-vacuum systems out of low-hydrogen-outgassing stainless steel. This had never been done before. Hydrogen atoms absorbed in the metal slowly leak out over the life of the system, but our measurements are so precise that stray atoms hitting the mirrors would ruin the data. Boude was doing some relatively large-scale tests, mostly in the synchrotron building, but we also built a test cylinder 80 meters long near Caltech's football field, behind the gym.

So all of these tests were going on piecemeal at different places, and at the 40-meter interferometer we brought it all together. We were still mostly using analog electronics, but we had a new vacuum system, we redid all the suspension systems, we added several new features to the detector, and we had attained the sensitivity we were going to need for the full-sized, four-kilometer LIGO detectors.

And at the same time, in 1991, we got word that the full-scale project had been approved.

 

Q: How were the sites in Hanford, Washington, and Livingston, Louisiana, selected?

WHITCOMB: I cochaired the site-evaluation committee with LIGO's chief engineer, [Member of the Professional Staff] Bill Althouse. We visited most of the potential sites, evaluated them, and recommended a set of best site pairs to NSF. We had several sets of criteria. The engineering criteria included how level the site was, how stable it was against things like frost heaves, how much road would need to be built, and the overall cost of construction. We had criteria about proximity to people, and to noise sources like airports and railroads. We also had scientific criteria. For example, we wanted the two sites to be as far apart in the U.S. as you could reasonably get. We also wanted LIGO to work well with either of the two proposed European detectors—GEO [in Hanover, Germany] and Virgo [in Tuscany, Italy]. We needed to be able to triangulate a source's position on the sky, so we did not want LIGO's sites to form a line with either of them.

 

Q: What makes Advanced LIGO more sensitive?

BARISH: Well, it's complicated. Most very sensitive physics experiments get limited by some source of background noise, so you concentrate on that thing and figure out how to beat it down. But LIGO has three limits. We are looking for gravitational waves over a range of frequencies from 10 Hertz to 10 kilohertz. Our planet is incredibly noisy seismically, so from 10 Hertz to about 100 Hertz we have to isolate ourselves from that shaking. And at very high frequencies, we have to sample fast enough to see the signal, so we're limited by the laser's power, which determines the number of photons we can sample in a short amount of time. And in the middle frequencies, we're limited by what we call "thermal noise"—the atoms in the mirrors moving around, and so forth.

Advanced LIGO has a very much more powerful laser to take care of the high frequencies. It has much fancier isolation systems, including active feedback systems. And we have bigger test masses with better mirror coatings to minimize the thermal background. All of these improvements were in the 1989 proposal, which called for Initial LIGO to be built with proven techniques that had mostly been tested here on campus in the 40-meter prototype; followed by Advanced LIGO, to be built using techniques we would test in the 40-meter after Initial LIGO went operational. And now we're using the 40-meter lab to develop and test the next round of upgrades.

 

Q: How close do you think we are to a detection?

BARISH: I've always had the fond wish that we'd do it by 2016, which is the hundredth anniversary of Einstein's theory. Advanced LIGO may take three to five years to reach the designed sensitivity, but we'll be taking data along the way, so the probability of a detection will be continually increasing. Our sensitivity is designed to improve by a factor of 10 to 20, and a factor of 10 increases the detection probability by a factor of 1,000. The sensitivity tells you how far out you can see, and volume increases with the cube of the distance.

When we started this back in 1989, some people were a bit skeptical, saying maybe it's a little bit like fusion. They always say fusion is "50 years away." With LIGO the common lore is we are 10 years away from detecting gravitational waves. I would say that it's not 10 years any longer. It's probably within five.

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Douglas Smith
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Tuesday, May 26, 2015 to Friday, May 29, 2015
Center for Student Services 360 (Workshop Space) – Center for Student Services

CTLO Presents Ed Talk Week 2015

Ditch Day? It’s Today, Frosh!

Today we celebrate Ditch Day, one of Caltech's oldest traditions. During this annual spring rite—the timing of which is kept secret until the last minute—seniors ditch their classes and vanish from campus. Before they go, however, they leave behind complex, carefully planned out puzzles and challenges—known as "stacks"—designed to occupy the underclassmen and prevent them from wreaking havoc on the seniors' unoccupied rooms.

Follow the action on Caltech's Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram pages as the undergraduates tackle the puzzles left for them to solve around campus. Join the conversation by sharing your favorite Ditch Day memories and using #CaltechDitchDay in your tweets and postings.

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Ditch Day 2015
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Caltech Astronomers Observe a Supernova Colliding with Its Companion Star

Type Ia supernovae, one of the most dazzling phenomena in the universe, are produced when small dense stars called white dwarfs explode with ferocious intensity. At their peak, these supernovae can outshine an entire galaxy. Although thousands of supernovae of this kind were found in the last decades, the process by which a white dwarf becomes one has been unclear.

That began to change on May 3, 2014, when a team of Caltech astronomers working on a robotic observing system known as the intermediate Palomar Transient Factory (iPTF)—a multi-institute collaboration led by Shrinivas Kulkarni, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Professor of Astronomy and Planetary Science and director of the Caltech Optical Observatories—discovered a Type Ia supernova, designated iPTF14atg, in nearby galaxy IC831, located 300 million light-years away.

The data that were immediately collected by the iPTF team lend support to one of two competing theories about the origin of white dwarf supernovae, and also suggest the possibility that there are actually two distinct populations of this type of supernova.

The details are outlined in a paper with Caltech graduate student Yi Cao the lead author, appearing May 21 in the journal Nature.

Type Ia supernovae are known as "standardizable candles" because they allow astronomers to gauge cosmic distances by how dim they appear relative to how bright they actually are. It is like knowing that, from one mile away, a light bulb looks 100 times dimmer than another located only one-tenth of a mile away. This consistency is what made these stellar objects instrumental in measuring the accelerating expansion of the universe in the 1990s, earning three scientists the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2011.

There are two competing origin theories, both starting with the same general scenario: the white dwarf that eventually explodes is one of a pair of stars orbiting around a common center of mass. The interaction between these two stars, the theories say, is responsible for triggering supernova development. What is the nature of that interaction? At this point, the theories diverge.

According to one theory, the so-called double-degenerate model, the companion to the exploding white dwarf is also a white dwarf, and the supernova explosion initiates when the two similar objects merge.

However, in the second theory, called the single-degenerate model, the second star is instead a sunlike star—or even a red giant, a much larger type of star. In this model, the white dwarf's powerful gravity pulls, or accretes, material from the second star. This process, in turn, increases the temperature and pressure in the center of the white dwarf until a runaway nuclear reaction begins, ending in a dramatic explosion.

The difficulty in determining which model is correct stems from the facts that supernova events are very rare—occurring about once every few centuries in our galaxy—and that the stars involved are very dim before the explosions.

That is where the iPTF comes in. From atop Palomar Mountain in Southern California, where it is mounted on the 48-inch Samuel Oschin Telescope, the project's fully automated camera optically surveys roughly 1000 square degrees of sky per night (approximately 1/20th of the visible sky above the horizon), looking for transients—objects, including Type Ia supernovae, whose brightness changes over timescales that range from hours to days.

On May 3, the iPTF took images of IC831 and transmitted the data for analysis to computers at the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center, where a machine-learning algorithm analyzed the images and prioritized real celestial objects over digital artifacts. Because this first-pass analysis occurred when it was nighttime in the United States but daytime in Europe, the iPTF's European and Israeli collaborators were the first to sift through the prioritized objects, looking for intriguing signals. After they spotted the possible supernova—a signal that had not been visible in the images taken just the night before—the European and Israeli team alerted their U.S. counterparts, including Caltech graduate student and iPTF team member Yi Cao.

Cao and his colleagues then mobilized both ground- and space-based telescopes, including NASA's Swift satellite, which observes ultraviolet (UV) light, to take a closer look at the young supernova.

"My colleagues and I spent many sleepless nights on designing our system to search for luminous ultraviolet emission from baby Type Ia supernovae," says Cao. "As you can imagine, I was fired up when I first saw a bright spot at the location of this supernova in the ultraviolet image. I knew this was likely what we had been hoping for."

UV radiation has higher energy than visible light, so it is particularly suited to observing very hot objects like supernovae (although such observations are possible only from space, because Earth's atmosphere and ozone later absorbs almost all of this incoming UV). Swift measured a pulse of UV radiation that declined initially but then rose as the supernova brightened. Because such a pulse is short-lived, it can be missed by surveys that scan the sky less frequently than does the iPTF.

This observed ultraviolet pulse is consistent with a formation scenario in which the material ejected from a supernova explosion slams into a companion star, generating a shock wave that ignites the surrounding material. In other words, the data are in agreement with the single-degenerate model.

Back in 2010, Daniel Kasen, an associate professor of astronomy and physics at UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, used theoretical calculations and supercomputer simulations to predict just such a pulse from supernova-companion collisions. "After I made that prediction, a lot of people tried to look for that signature," Kasen says. "This is the first time that anyone has seen it. It opens up an entirely new way to study the origins of exploding stars."

According to Kulkarni, the discovery "provides direct evidence for the existence of a companion star in a Type Ia supernova, and demonstrates that at least some Type Ia supernovae originate from the single-degenerate channel."

Although the data from supernova iPTF14atg support it being made by a single-degenerate system, other Type Ia supernovae may result from double-degenerate systems. In fact, observations in 2011 of SN2011fe, another Type Ia supernova discovered in the nearby galaxy Messier 101 by PTF (the precursor to the iPTF), appeared to rule out the single-degenerate model for that particular supernova. And that means that both theories actually may be valid, says Caltech professor of theoretical astrophysics Sterl Phinney, who was not involved in the research. "The news is that it seems that both sets of theoretical models are right, and there are two very different kinds of Type Ia supernovae."

"Both rapid discovery of supernovae in their infancy by iPTF, and rapid follow-up by the Swift satellite, were essential to unveil the companion to this exploding white dwarf. Now we have to do this again and again to determine the fractions of Type Ia supernovae akin to different origin theories," says iPTF team member Mansi Kasliwal, who will join the Caltech astronomy faculty as an assistant professor in September 2015.

The iPTF project is a scientific collaboration between Caltech; Los Alamos National Laboratory; the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee; the Oskar Klein Centre in Sweden; the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel; the TANGO Program of the University System of Taiwan; and the Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe in Japan. The Caltech team is funded in part by the National Science Foundation.

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Caltech Astronomers See Supernova Collide with Companion Star
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