New Women's Basketball All-Time Leading Scorer

Senior Stephanie Wong became the Caltech women's basketball program's all-time leading scorer as she nearly led the Beavers to their first SCIAC win of the season against Whittier College on Tuesday, February 26.

Wong tied and surpassed the 1,241-point benchmark set by Lindsay King '08 on a pair of free throws just before the end of the third quarter.

Read the full story on the Caltech Athletic's website.

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A Healthy Start

Science and medicine, it would seem, have always gone hand in hand. But for centuries, they were actually two very disparate fields. Identifying a need for "investigators who are well trained in both basic science and clinical research," the National Institutes of Health (NIH) created the Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP) in 1964 to help streamline completion of dual medical and doctoral degrees. The purpose of developing this highly competitive MD/PhD program was to support "the training of students with outstanding credentials and potential who are motivated to undertake careers in biomedical research and academic medicine."

Recognizing Caltech's strength in the biological and chemical sciences, UCLA—which first established an MSTP in 1983—formed an affiliation with the Institute in 1997 to offer an average of two students the opportunity to perform graduate research at the partner school through the MSTP; PhD thesis work is done at Caltech for UCLA medical students, and when completed they return to UCLA to finish their MD studies.

The vast majority of alumni who have completed their postgraduate training are actively involved in biomedical research as physician-scientists at outstanding research institutions across the country. Although the MSTP represented the first formal affiliation between UCLA and Caltech, the success of the combined UCLA-Caltech MSTP spearheaded and served as a model for several other joint efforts that benefit from the complementary strengths of the two institutions, including the Specialized Training and Advanced Research (STAR) fellowship program for physician-scientists, and the Institute for Molecular Medicine.

A joint program with the University of Southern California soon followed. In 1998, the Kenneth T. and Eileen L. Norris Foundation awarded Caltech funding to support a joint MD/PhD program with the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

The grant established the Norris Foundation MD/PhD Scholars Fund, which supports Caltech PhD candidates from Keck. Administered by Caltech in cooperation with USC, the program accepts two students each year. As with the UCLA program, students spend their first two years in medical school, taking preclinical science courses, with summers spent at Caltech gaining exposure to the academic research environment. They then come to Caltech, spending three to five years on their PhDs before returning to their medical school for the final two clinical years.

The late Caltech biologist Paul Patterson, who passed away in 2014, was instrumental in developing the joint degree program. He believed that Caltech graduate students should also have an opportunity to explore their work in a clinical setting.

"Paul showed creativity both in curriculum development, in student mentoring, and in bringing the Caltech faculty together to support a program, which was in collaboration with another major institution," says Richard Bergman, director of the Cedars-Sinai Diabetes and Obesity Research Institute, who helped Patterson form the initial collaboration with USC. "His contributions in this regard educated several generations of students who, today, continue to make important contributions to medical science. This was a great legacy of Professor Patterson."

Additional funding for students in the MD/PhD programs has come from a provost-directed endowed fund called the W. R. Hearst Endowed Scholarship for MD/PhD Students; from the Lee-Ramo Life Sciences Fund; and through lab support for medical research from the W. M. Keck Foundation Fund for Discovery in Basic Medical Research. The Division of Biology and Biological Engineering also provides support to students and scholars who are headed for careers in medicine through an endowed fund from the Walter and Sylvia Treadway Foundation.

Since the start of the two MD/PhD programs, 64 students have been accepted to work toward dual degrees, and 40 have received PhDs from Caltech.

This story was reprinted from the Winter 2015 E&S magazine. See the full issue online.

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Explore the origins of Caltech's joint MD/PhD programs, which help students develop expertise in both basic science and clinical research.

Hard Work Meets Hard Knocks: Caltech's SUSI Program

Caltech's students are familiar with hard work. Mastering the intricacies of quantum physics, biochemistry, and other demanding fields of study can be difficult. Being able to apply this hard-won education to make an impact in the business environment outside of academia can be equally challenging—and is not a lesson typically taught inside an academic environment. The Summer Undergraduate Startup Internship program (SUSI) is designed to bridge this gap by placing talented undergraduates in their first or second summer at Caltech into 10-week internships in real-world entrepreneurial environments.

The board of Caltech's Ronald and Maxine Linde Institute of Economic and Management Sciences worked with Caltech professors and internal departments such as the Career Development Center (CDC) to develop SUSI. The goal was to identify small startup companies that could offer undergraduates the opportunity to see firsthand how bold ideas can be translated into successful businesses or products.

"This was an experiment that has been very successful," says Jean-Laurent Rosenthal, the Rea A. and Lela G. Axline Professor of Business Economics and chair of the Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS). "Startups, as an idea, are glamorous, but they are also a lot of work. Failure rates are high, and it is a very demanding environment in which you might want some experience before deciding that it's right for you."

"Caltech undergraduates have an excellent range of summer internship opportunities outside of traditional research labs, and many of these positions pay well and come with housing subsidies," says Michael Ewens, an associate professor of finance and entrepreneurship and one of SUSI's creators. "Startups that want to hire our undergraduates as interns often cannot compete with those offerings. The SUSI program steps in to provide a salary and housing supplement to make startup internships a possibility. This allows students to learn about startups while working inside them wearing a variety of hats."

Ewens recruited firms like Idealab, a local tech incubator, and other Pasadena-based startups to participate in the program. "We identified local startups that were associated with faculty and also through contacts at local small-business incubators and the board members of the Linde Institute," he says. "Next, we screened the potential internships to insure that students would be given substantive challenges rather than narrow tasks such as programming and created a website to advertise the positions to Caltech undergraduates. Finally, we placed those students who were selected with companies that were a good fit for their skills and potential."

For this year's inaugural round of SUSI internships, five undergraduates were placed with local companies. Mentors—Caltech faculty or staff—were assigned to each student.

"It was a great experience," says Phillip An, a sophomore majoring in computer science and economics, of his SUSI placement in Idealab, started by Caltech alumnus and current trustee Bill Gross (BS '81). Idealab typically includes about 20 startups working in a supportive and structured environment conducive to success for new small companies.

"In a previous internship, I headed U.S. business development at a startup cofounded by a Caltech alum," An says. "At Idealab, I had the opportunity to start and run a real company. In this experience, I was able to rotate through a variety of functions including product design, project management, raising venture capital funding, and actually reaching out to and interacting with our customers. My tenure at Idealab seemed like a whirlwind, engendering opportunities to get my hands dirty in product management, software engineering, and mobile app creation, to name just a few. I believe this program has given me opportunities few undergraduate students can experience."

SUSI combines the strengths of HSS, the Linde Institute, Caltech's Office of Technology Transfer and Corporate Partnerships, the CDC, and the Entrepreneurship Club. The Linde Institute provides conduits to startup businesses through its board members. The institute, a hub for interdisciplinary research in business and economics, provided the funding to support the students during their internships.

Ewens is still evaluating the results of the first year of SUSI internships. Tracking the progress of the participants post-graduation helps refine future efforts. But it is clear, he says, that the program worked as planned. "It's still early in the process, but I think the students were provided a unique opportunity to explore the activity of an entrepreneurial firm," he says.

Ewens notes that placing students in the real-world environment of a startup helps them appreciate the broad number of options that they have as Caltech graduates. "I often tell students that a big part of college is simply figuring out what they do not want to do in life," he says. "They can only achieve this goal by trying out as many opportunities as possible while still in school. My hope is that SUSI can enable this for a select group of entrepreneurially inclined students each year."

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Hard Work Meets Hard Knocks
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The Summer Undergraduate Startup Internship program (SUSI) places undergrads into internships in real-world entrepreneurial environments.

Science with a Smile

The choice of career path—from teacher to musician to engineer—often results from experiences during one's formative years. For children born after 1985, it's likely a certain bow-tied, rumple-haired figure wearing a blue lab coat figured prominently in the lives of those who went on to pursue science and technology.

"I really admire Bill Nye due to his ability to inject a lot of entertainment and fun into teaching," says Caltech graduate student Sho Takatori. He was one of those kids who grew up watching Bill Nye the Science Guy, the long-running and award-winning science education series that originally aired on PBS Kids. "His wacky blend of engaging science concepts, wild experimentation, and humor was very compelling. His enthusiasm really got me fired up about science."

Growing up in Sacramento, California, in the 1990s, Takatori was a loyal fan of the show's fast-paced blend of science and amusement. This appreciation would later inspire him in ways he could have never guessed. After realizing the depth of his zeal for science in high school, Takatori moved on to UC Berkeley to earn a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering. While there, he worked with the California Environmental Protection Agency to help draft regulatory policies for the California Green Chemistry Initiative, a regulatory effort to develop safer chemicals and consumer products through the principles of green chemistry.

Takatori now works in the lab of John F. Brady, Chevron Professor of Chemical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering, where his work focuses on the fluid mechanics of particles suspended in liquids.."

Read more on the E&S website

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Inspired by Bill Nye’s blend of science and entertainment, Sho Takatori approaches his teaching and lab work with enthusiastic dedication.

May The Food Be With You

More than 900 students gathered at Chandler Hall on Tuesday night for the Dining Services quarterly Midnight Madness event—a late-night study break meant to provide students with some fun and much-needed sustenance during finals week.

This year's event was themed around Star Wars and drew volunteers from departments across the Caltech community–some of whom even donned stormtrooper costumes. In support of the theme and to help entertain the students as they snacked, the dining service staff decorated the hall with Star Wars-themed murals that represented each house, designed a TIE Fighter-style DJ booth, and played the Star Wars soundtrack throughout the evening.

"I firmly believe there is not another dining department in the country that could pull this off without hiring an art and design company," says Jonathan Webster, the senior director of Dining Services. "This event was a passion project for our group, a complete team effort, a drain on sleep for the last two weeks, and completely worth it to see the students' faces."

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Student Athlete Spotlight: Chris Bradley

In 1986, Caltech men's water polo player David Bruning (BS '88) set the record for the most goals scored during a season: 117. The record stood until 2014, when it was broken by then-sophomore Chris Bradley, who amassed 134 goals.

Bradley, now a junior, received an Honorable Mention in the All-American Awards for Division III by the Association of Collegiate Water Polo Coaches for the 2014–2015 season and was named to the Capital One Academic All-District Men's At-Large Team this past spring. "Chris brings passion, competiveness, and leadership to our water polo team," says water polo coach Jon Bonafede. "He demonstrates remarkable athleticism and endurance for one of the most physically demanding sports."

This season, Bradley has once again earned a spot on the all-time top scorers list, notching 88 goals to put him as the fourth highest scorer.

We sat down with Bradley to talk about water polo, academics, and the halfway point in his college career.

What brought you to Caltech?

I was attracted by the school's rigorous academic reputation, and I wanted to study mechanical engineering. I chose Caltech for purely academic reasons, but it's definitely a plus that Caltech is a place where I could continue playing sports.

When did you start playing water polo?

Well, it started because, as a high school freshman, I was cut from the football team! My older sister played water polo, and she encouraged me to try it out. Additionally, I grew up in the Bay Area of California, and California is kind of like the state to play water polo—most collegiate players come from here, so that was a big inspiration. I've been playing at Caltech for the last two years as a perimeter player—sort of a driver or attacker. It's a fluid position, and I get to play both offensively and defensively.

It's really nice that Caltech affords you the opportunity to play sports without really extreme expectations. Last year, the baseball coach asked me to see if I could pitch. I hadn't played baseball before, but I wasn't doing any sports in the spring, so I gave it a shot.

Do you have a favorite match or moment in a game?

We're still sort of looking for that magic moment: getting our first SCIAC [Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference] win. A SCIAC win would be super important to me and my teammates.

Last year, the team went on a trip to Annapolis, Maryland, to participate in a water polo tournament. It was a cool experience because it was one of the only times I was able to just focus solely on the sport—school hadn't started yet so there was no pressure of academics, just hanging out with the guys and playing water polo.

How have you balanced athletics with academics?

I just make the time. Of course, there have been plenty of long nights that probably could have been shorter if I weren't playing sports. But I really enjoy it; it's a great way to release competitiveness and get a good workout for a couple hours each day.

What got you interested in mechanical engineering?

In high school, I really enjoyed science and math. But high school physics is actually more similar to mechanical engineering than the kind of theoretical physics at Caltech. As a junior, I'm taking ME 72—the big design class for all mechanical engineering majors. Every year we participate in a different kind of competition. This year, each team has to design and build three robots to play a kind of soccer-style game against robots from another team. We've already designed the robots, and we're in the process of building the first one. We're pretty busy, but I'm really enjoying it.

What do you do when you are not studying or playing water polo?

I'm a member of Fleming House, and I'm what is called the "cannon master." Several times a year the big red cannon outside of Fleming House fires an explosive charge to mark big events—the end of rotation, the end of every term, and graduation. As cannon master, I'm in charge of buying the powder, making the charge, and keeping things safe.

I'm also a founding member of the Caltech Unmanned Aerial Vehicle club. We work on building drones and quadcopters, and we've gone from five to about 30 members in a year. We're currently talking with JPL about collaborating on a project.

What would you like to do after Caltech?

As I'm still a junior, I've got time to decide. I've been spending my summers exploring both research and industry. In the summer of 2014, I did a SURF [Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship] in Professor Guillaume Blanquart's lab, studying fluid dynamics and combustion, and in 2015, I worked in the Air Force research labs in Ohio studying low-observable materials for stealth. So I'm considering both graduate school and industry after graduation. I'm just going to see what happens in the next two years.

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Lepe Named Marshall Scholar

Senior Bianca Lepe, a bioengineering major from Granada Hills, California, has been named a Marshall Scholar, winning one of the most coveted fellowships for study in the U.K. The Marshall Scholarship is widely considered one of the most prestigious scholarships in the world. Approximately 1,000 Americans, mostly graduating seniors, apply for, at most, 40 fellowships awarded each year. The Marshall Scholarship provides funding for two years of post-bachelor's degree study at any university in the United Kingdom. The Marshall Aid Commemoration Commission, which oversees the fellowship, provides many cultural opportunities for Marshall Scholars during their tenure as scholars.

Lepe will spend the 2016–2017 academic year at the University of Edinburgh studying for a master's degree in synthetic biology and the following year at Imperial College London, completing a master's degree in science communication.

The Marshall Scholarship was founded by a 1953 Act of Parliament and named in honor of U.S. Secretary of State George C. Marshall. The scholarships "commemorate the humane ideals of the Marshall Plan and the fellowships express the continuing gratitude of the British people to their American counterparts."

The British Marshall Commission website says, "As future leaders, with a lasting understanding of British society, Marshall Scholars strengthen the enduring relationship between the British and American peoples, their governments and their institutions. Marshall Scholars are talented, independent and wide-ranging, and their time as Scholars enhances their intellectual and personal growth. Their direct engagement with Britain through its best academic programmes contributes to their ultimate personal success."

At Caltech, Lepe has participated in research with the Elizabeth W. Gilloon Professor and Professor of Chemistry James Heath, developing a diagnostic tool to detect a specific protein that causes malaria, and with President Emeritus and the Robert Andrews Millikan Professor of Biology David Baltimore, studying RNA and immunology. In 2014, Lepe was a member of the Caltech's undergraduate iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine) team, which participated in an international competition to create artificial biological systems from a kit of standard biological parts. "Our project's goal was to implement a nonnative gene circuit system in E. coli to manufacture a biological compound and regulate its concentration outside the cell," Lepe says. "We had the chance to attend the iGEM Jamboree to present our research, for which we received a bronze medal."

Lepe's experiences on the iGEM team spurred her interest in synthetic biology, which she will pursue at the University of Edinburgh during the first year of her Marshall Scholarship. "Edinburgh is unique because it has a research center, called SynthSys, which specializes in translating research into commercial applications—a skill I hope to gain while there," she says.

During the second year of her fellowship, Lepe will delve into the art of communicating science to the public. "When I study science communication at Imperial College, it will be beyond the traditional forms of communication into broader mediums and topics, such as television, ethics, and science policy. The skill sets I will gain at these universities will enable me to be an effective communicator and scientist as I pursue a career in synthetic biology."

"Bianca Lepe has excelled in many areas at Caltech: classes, research, leadership, student government. She has reinvigorated the Caltech Latino Association of Students in Engineering and Sciences, and she chairs the undergraduate student advisory board for Title IX efforts," says Lauren Stolper, director of fellowships advising and study abroad and the Career Development Center. "Bianca's two years in the U.K. will surely be a formative experience as a scientist and as a leader in communicating science to the public. Her Marshall Scholar win is well deserved, and Bianca will take full advantage of the experience."

In May 2015, Lepe received the Caltech Deans' Cup—an award presented to undergraduates "whose concern for their fellow students has been demonstrated by their persistent efforts to improve the quality of undergraduate life and by effective communication with members of the faculty and administration."

"Bianca has been a great student, a real leader with strong values and a wonderful friend to her peers," says Barbara Green, the Interim Dean of Undergraduate Students. "I delighted that she won the Marshall and will miss her next year."

International travel will not be too "foreign" for Lepe—in the autumn of 2014, she studied abroad at University College London. Additionally, she has traveled to India as a part of the Caltech Y's India-Ki-Khoj program in 2013.

Previous Caltech Marshall Scholars include current Marshall Scholar Adam Jermyn (BS '15) now studying for a PhD in astronomy at the University of Cambridge, Emma Schmidgall (BS '07), Wei Lien Stephen Dang (BS '05), Vikram Mittal (BS '03), and Eric Tuttle (BS '01). Other former Marshall Scholars in the Caltech community include Sterl Phinney (BS '80), professor of theoretical astrophysics; Thomas Everhart, President Emeritus; Edward Stolper, the Carl and Shirley Larson Provostial Chair and William E. Leonhard Professor of Geology; Jonas Peters, the Bren Professor of Chemistry and director of the Resnick Institute; and Thomas Miller, professor of chemistry.

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Tricking an Enzyme Into Making Better Insulin

Mary Boyajian, a junior majoring in chemical engineering at Caltech, spent her summer as a student in the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships (SURF) program trying to trick an enzyme. The enzyme, tRNA synthetase, has a very specific chemical target, and Boyajian wanted the enzyme to ease up a bit on its requirements so that it might also find acceptable a slightly altered version of the target. The work might sound esoteric, but it was Boyajian's piece of a project with an end goal that could benefit millions: devising a faster-acting insulin-replacement therapy for the treatment of diabetes.

A normally functioning pancreas keeps blood sugar within a narrow range by releasing large bursts of the hormone insulin after meals. Insulin helps cells absorb excess glucose and prevents the liver from producing additional sugar. In the case of diabetics, however, either the cells become resistant to the effects of insulin or the body simply cannot produce enough of the hormone, so additional insulin is needed.

In the 1920s, insulin isolated from animals became the first insulin-replacement therapy for diabetics. Forty years later, scientists figured out how to make human insulin in the lab. However, that synthetic insulin behaves a bit differently in the body. For example, it tends to clump up and therefore takes a long time for the body to absorb.

To improve the speed or ease of absorption, chemists have designed replacement therapies that are analogs of human insulin, made by substituting some of insulin's building blocks, or amino acids, with other naturally occurring amino acids. However, there is room for improvement. For example, scientists would like to make therapies that kick in faster, last longer, and offer a longer shelf life.

In all current insulin-replacement therapies, certain naturally occurring amino acids are swapped for other naturally occurring amino acids. But in the lab of David Tirrell, the Ross McCollum–William H. Corcoran Professor and professor of chemistry and chemical engineering at Caltech, chemists are working with what are known as noncanonical amino acids. These variants are designed and made in the lab to have slightly altered chemical structures. If expressed in a protein, these synthetic amino acids can introduce entirely new functions or capabilities. Tirrell's group has the idea to swap out a naturally occurring amino acid from insulin with a noncanonical amino acid to create a replacement therapy that would outperform those on the market today.

Boyajian's role this summer was to introduce specific mutations in the enzyme tRNA synthetase. Each of the 20 amino acids that are expressed naturally in proteins has its own tRNA synthetase that hunts within cells for its specific amino acid target, so that the amino acid can be incorporated in the right sequence to make proteins. Even a small difference in an amino acid's structure will deter its tRNA synthetase.

"When I started this project, I had no idea that changing one amino acid could change so much about a protein, but it can," says Boyajian. "My job is to mutate the tRNA synthetase so that it won't see a modified amino acid—one of our noncanonical amino acids—and say, 'That's the wrong one. Take it out.'"

To get an idea of how she might mutate the enzyme, Boyajian studied the known structures of similar tRNA synthetases and how they interact with their target molecules.

Once she had an idea for a mutation, she introduced the changes into the gene that codes for the tRNA synthetase. Then she used a standard technique in molecular biology called polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to make many copies of it. Next she grew cells with the mutated enzymes on media lacking the naturally occurring amino acid—think of it as a type of food for cells. Once the cells ate up any small traces of the amino acid in the media, she fed them one of the noncanonical amino acids. If a mutated enzyme worked, it was able to "eat" the new amino acids; if not, the cells eventually died.

At the end of the summer, one of Boyajian's mutated tRNA synthetases showed promising results in terms of incorporating one of the noncanonical amino acids, and she is now working to scale-up the size of cultures to determine whether the new enzyme can be used to produce proteins for future experiments. In the long term, if the enzyme is found to efficiently incorporate a specific noncanonical amino acid, the Tirrell lab would use the enzyme to produce novel insulins that could be assessed as potential biopharmaceuticals to improve the quality of life for patients.

Boyajian, who also plays basketball and serves as one of the captains of the water polo team, says she learned a lot from her SURF experience. "My grad student mentors, Seth Lieblich and Kat Fang, were great, and everybody in the lab was very welcoming," she says. "It's really nice to see everything you learned in the classroom being applied."

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Kimm Fesenmaier
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SURF: Working to Make a Better Insulin
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Junior Mary Boyajian spent her summer working on a project that aims to devise a faster-acting insulin-replacement therapy for the treatment of diabetes.

Three's Not a Crowd

The public high school in Blue Springs, Missouri, just outside Kansas City, graduates more than 500 seniors each year. Remarkably, the valedictorian in 2015 was the younger sister of the valedictorian in 2014—who was the younger sister of the valedictorian in 2013.

And all three are now Caltech undergraduates.

These are the Butkovich sisters: junior Slava and sophomore Nina, both majoring in chemical engineering, and freshman Lazarina ("Laza"), currently deciding between chemical engineering and chemistry.

"In the nearly half-century since Caltech began admitting women to its undergraduate program, 2015 is almost certainly the first year we've had three sisters enrolled in three different graduating classes at the same time," notes Barbara Green, interim dean of undergraduate students." The sisters represent "a three-peat," says Caltech admissions director Jarrid Whitney, not a package deal. "All our applicants are reviewed independently and without regard to siblings, parents, or other legacies. For three family members to receive consecutive offers of admission indicates how tremendously talented all three of them must be."

For their part, Slava, Nina, and Laza find their own nearly identical trajectories unsurprising. "We were taught at a young age that science majors can do a lot of good for society," Slava explains. "Anyway," adds Nina, "science is more objective than other things, like English and law. It has right answers."

Instead, they give much of the credit for nurturing their talents to their father, who is a lawyer, and their mother, a chemical engineer. They also single out recently retired Blue Springs High chemistry teacher Evan Manuel. "He's the above-and-beyond teacher," says Nina. "His passion for the sciences inspires his students."

Manuel praises the sisters for having "high expectations—not just of themselves but of others around them. I'm sure it's because of how they were brought up. And they've generously shared that perspective with their peers."

For example, the three young women, whose own heritage is Slavic and Filipino, cofounded their school's Association for Cultural and Ethnic Diversity and hosted its monthly world culture celebrations. That willingness to serve, says Manuel, earned them the respect of their peers. "And it's not a far-removed, no-interaction, pedestal kind of respect," he adds. "They like helping people, so people like them. Their college recommendation letters were some of the easiest I've ever been asked to write."

Even before landing in Pasadena, they had already completed summer research projects in university chemistry labs: Slava at Baylor and Missouri S&T, her sisters at the University of Iowa. They also tutored classmates in a variety of subjects in between sitting for a combined total of almost four dozen AP exams, many in subjects not even offered by their school.

At Caltech, all three Butkoviches will be pursuing summer research opportunities. Slava, who is planning a career in anti-cancer research, was named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships (SURF) fellow last year. They are active in the undergraduate house system (Nina is a member of Ruddock House; Laza and Slava are members of Dabney) and have taken part in yoga, tennis, tai chi, karate, and the NERF club. Their course loads are challenging, but none are carrying an overload. "I don't think extreme units is smart," Nina says.

In fact, according to all three, one of the biggest challenges since leaving high school has been learning to rely on something they had honestly never needed before now: study groups.

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The Butkovich sisters—junior Slava, sophomore Nina, and freshman Lazarina—find their own nearly identical trajectories unsurprising.

Volunteers for Vets

For the last three years, Caltech students and staff have been lending a hand at Pasadena City College, providing free tutoring and mentoring to some of the campus's nearly 800 student veterans. This past spring, 19 Caltech community members participated. Their involvement is part of a larger volunteer program, run through PCC's Veterans Resource Center (VRC)—established in 2010 under a grant from the California Community Colleges Chancellor's Office—that provides support and guidance to the campus veterans. 

Patricia D'Orange-Martin, coordinator of the VRC, calls the Caltech cohort "the core of our tutoring/mentoring team" and credits it with providing more than 60 percent of the program's support, "particularly for veterans preparing to transfer to four-year colleges and universities." 

Urte Barker, the creator of the tutoring program, started the center with a handful of volunteers. In 2012, she decided she was ready to enlarge the group of tutors and expand academic support, especially in higher-level math and science subjects, and approached Caltech through its Center for Teaching, Learning and Outreach (CTLO) and through the Caltech Y.

The Caltech community responded enthusiastically. Some tutors are undergrads, including Dennis Lam, a junior majoring in computer science. "The veterans I've worked with are motivated, hard working, and have a clear picture of where they want to be in the next stages of their lives," Lam says. Volunteers have also come from the ranks of Caltech's graduate students, postdocs, administrators—even a postdoc's chemistry-teacher wife.

Serving veterans, says Mitch Aiken, associate director for educational outreach at CTLO, "provides our students with the chance to deliver meaningful one-on-one outreach." It also allows them to "give back, expand their own worldview, and get in some excellent real-world teaching experience," he says.

"We're looking for mentors and role models of all ages," says Barker. "Current or recent students are close enough to their own study years to remember the feeling. Older volunteers bring invaluable experience in life-skills development."

"At first, I thought I'd need to be a subject-matter expert," says volunteer Elizabeth DeClue of Caltech Purchasing Services. "But tutoring turned out to be much more about supporting the student and sharing what it takes to be successful."

The need is great, Barker says. "Society has created this huge group of people in their 20s and 30s, dropped them back in school while they're scrambling to gain traction in civilian life and told them to catch up. Some are pursuing careers that will require years of study. Others have memory or health issues." With the military's emphasis on pride and self-sufficiency, however, veterans often resist seeking help, she says. "I keep reminding them: 'What you're learning in college will become your toolbox for your career and your life. Commit to it.'"

Volunteer tutor and former JPL education coordinator Rich Alvidrez understands from personal experience the issues these vets face. "I found myself very rusty in math after I left the Air Force to begin my college education, so I can understand how difficult it is for some vets to get back after being out of school."

Lessons learned extend far beyond the textbook. "Many students' lives prior to military service lacked enrichment opportunities," Barker says. "Now they're picking up valuable life skills: time management, prioritizing school against outside interests, perspective about opportunities they'd never heard of. That's uplifting and empowering."

Although the potential demand for tutors still outstrips the supply, Barker remains optimistic. "So far, we've just been putting drops on a hot stone," she says. "We also lost some wonderful people after graduation this year. But at the Caltech Y's Community Service and Advocacy Fair in October, I met people with phenomenal amounts of heart and energy. This program creates a feeling of effectiveness and personal satisfaction that keeps our volunteers coming back."

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Volunteers for Vets
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Caltech students and staff provide free tutoring and mentoring to some of Pasadena City College's nearly 800 student veterans.

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