New Dean of Graduate Studies Named

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Senior Spotlight: Justin Koch

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

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

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

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

 

Justin Koch

Major: Mechanical Engineering
House: Blacker
Hometown: Townsend, Delaware

Why did you originally decide to come to Caltech?

The rigorous academic environment was certainly a consideration in choosing Caltech. However, I really made my decision after visiting the campus for Prefrosh Weekend. I found the housing system to be a unique experience that was something I had not seen at other schools.

Were you involved in extracurricular activities at Caltech?

The main extracurricular activity I'm involved with is the Caltech Robotics Team. I was part of the group that founded the club my freshmen year, and for the past two years I've led the team through my role as project manager. I've been interested in robotics since middle school and have been involved with robotics teams since sixth grade. We are currently building an underwater autonomous vehicle for a competition called RoboSub.

This past year I've also served as president of Blacker House. I've enjoyed the opportunity to give back to my house, which has definitely helped me enjoy my experience at Caltech.

What was your most memorable experience?

One of my most memorable experiences at Caltech was participating in the ME 72 competition my junior year. We spent two terms designing and building robots to compete in a competition involving head-to-head battle between robots trying to get a soup can to the top of a raised platform. Our hard work paid off and we ended up winning the competition. Though the competition was memorable, I'll never forget all the long hours we spent building the robots.

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

I did not fully understand quite how focused Caltech is on theory and research until after arriving here. The rigor of the classes was definitely much harder than anything I had ever done before. However, through my involvement with the Caltech Robotics Team I've been able to balance my knowledge of theory through classes with the applied technical skills I learn through the team.

What will you be doing after Caltech?

After Caltech I will be working as a robotics engineer at the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab. I'll be working in section 347 on robotic systems for a variety of environments, including land, space, and ocean applications.

Throughout my career I hope to work on the cutting edge of robotics. Although I am a mechanical engineer, I enjoy working on systems that require skills in not only mechanical engineering but electrical engineering and computer science as well.

Any words of advice to incoming students?

My advice to incoming students is to find an activity besides classwork that you're passionate about. Caltech can be a very intense place, so it's important to find another outlet besides classes. If a club that you want to be a part of doesn't exist, then take the initiative to start one. At Caltech it's very easy to start a club and there are a lot of resources out there to help.

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Senior Spotlight: Phoebe Ann

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

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

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

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

Phoebe Ann

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

Why did you originally decide to come to Caltech?

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

Were you involved in extracurricular activities at Caltech?

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

What were your most memorable experiences?

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

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

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

What will you be doing after Caltech?

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

Any words of advice to incoming students?

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

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Students Try Their Hand at Programming DNA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Students Win National and International Prizes

Caltech undergraduate and graduate students have collected an impressive array of awards this year, including three Fulbright grants, two Goldwater Scholarships, two Watson Fellowships, two Hertz Fellowships, a Soros Fellowship, a Marshall Scholarship, a Gates Cambridge Scholarship, and 31 National Science Foundation Fellowships.

Fulbright Fellowships

Seniors Jonathan Liu, Charles Tschirhart, and Caroline Werlang were selected as Fulbright Scholars. 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. The scholarship sponsors one academic year of study or research abroad after the bachelor's degree. Liu, Tschirhart, and Werlang will be studying next year in Germany, England, and Switzerland, respectively.

Barry M. Goldwater Scholarships

Sophomore Saaket Agrawal and junior Paul Dieterle were awarded Barry M. Goldwater scholarships for the 2015–16 academic year. The Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Program was established by Congress in 1986 to award scholarships to college students who intend to pursue research careers in science, mathematics, and engineering.

Thomas J. Watson Fellowships

Seniors Janani Mandayam Comar and Aaron Krupp were named 2015 Thomas J. Watson Fellowship winners. Each fellowship is a grant of $30,000 awarded to seniors graduating from a selected group of colleges. According to the Watson Foundation's website, "Fellows conceive original projects, execute them outside of the United States for one year and embrace the ensuing journey. They decide where to go, who to meet and when to change course." Fifty fellows were selected from a pool of nearly 700 candidates.

Hertz Fellowships

Caltech seniors Adam Jermyn and Charles Tschirhart were named 2015 Hertz Fellowship winners. Selected from a pool of approximately 800 applicants, the awardees will receive up to five years of support for their graduate studies. According to the Hertz Foundation, fellows are chosen for their intellect, their ingenuity, and their potential to bring meaningful improvement to society.

Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans

Mohamad Abedi, a PhD candidate in bioengineering, received a Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans. Thirty fellows, selected from nearly 1,200 applicants "for their potential to make significant contributions to U.S. society, culture, or their academic field," receive up to $90,000 to help cover two years of tuition, and other educational and living expenses, while studying any subject at any university in the United States. The fellowship was established to assist young new Americans—permanent residents, naturalized citizens, or children of naturalized citizen parents—at critical points in their educations.

Gates Cambridge Scholarship

Senior Connie Hsueh, a physics major, was awarded a 2015 Gates Cambridge Scholarship that will fund graduate studies at the University of Cambridge. The Gates Cambridge Scholarship program, established in 2000 through a donation to Cambridge University from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, recognizes young people from around the world who not only excel academically, but also display a commitment to social issues and bettering the world. Hsueh was selected from a pool of 755 applicants.

Marshall Scholarship

Senior Adam Jermyn received the 2015 Marshall Scholarship to pursue graduate studies in Great Britain. Funded by the British government, the Marshall Scholarship provides support for two years of post–bachelor's degree study—covering a student's tuition, books, living expenses, and transportation costs—at any university in the United Kingdom. Each year more than 900 students from across the nation compete for this prestigious scholarship.

NSF Graduate Research Fellowships

The National Science Foundation (NSF) selected 31 current Caltech students and 12 alumni to receive its Graduate Research Fellowships. The awards support three years of graduate study within a five-year fellowship period in research-based master's or doctoral programs in science or engineering.

Caltech's awardees for 2015 are seniors Bridget Connor, Boyu Fan, Mark Greenfield, Bryan He, Adam Jermyn, Robert F. Johnson, Ellen Price, Charles Tschirhart, Max Wang, Benjamin Wang, Caroline Werlang, Patrick Yiu, and Andy J. Zhou; and graduate students Louisa Avellar, Dawna Bagherian, Kevin Cherry, Rebecca Glaudell, Elizabeth Goldstein, Denise Grunenfelder, Nina Gu, Elizabeth Holman, Erik Jue, Kyle Metcalfe, Kelsey Poremba, Denise Schmitz, Rebekah Silva, Chanel Valiente, Grigor Varuzhanyan, Ryan Witkosky (also an alumnus), Emily Wyatt, and Nicole Xu. Caltech alumni in the 2015 class of Graduate Fellows are Karen Dowling, Melissa Hubisz, Pawel Latawiec, Laura Lindzey, Katja Luxem, Rocio Mercado, Bertrand Ottino-Loffler, David Sell, Benjamin Suslick, Jordan Theriot, Ryan Thorngren, and Matthew Voss.

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Biology, With a Beat

This term, students in Biology 1—Principles of Biology—were offered a novel alternative to the traditional final exam: the opportunity to create a two-to-four-minute video explaining some aspect of biology in an interesting, entertaining and, yes, musical way.

Bi 1 is a large lecture course for nonmajors and, for most of them, as close as they will come to biology during their undergraduate career. As the class's instructor, Dianne Newman, professor of biology and geobiology, explains, "It's almost an absurd challenge. How do you teach biology in a substantive and engaging way in 10 weeks to students whose primary interests lie elsewhere?"

Newman found at least one way to meet that challenge. "I have a mid-session break in my class because it's an hour and a half long," says Newman. "After 45 minutes, I show a short video that relates to the content of my lecture just to break things up, to give students a chance to stretch and reengage." One day in April, Professor Newman showed a rap video on Hox gene development created by Stanford students. "The Hox genes are regulatory genes in eukaryotes that are critical for development," says Newman. "It was such a clever video. And so, off the cuff, I said to my Bi 1 students, 'These Stanford kids are pretty good. If any of you can come up with something equally outstanding, I'll give you an automatic A in the class.'"

After class, to Newman's surprise, a student came up to ask exactly what the rules were for this automatic A. If they did a video, could they skip the midterm? Could they skip the final? What about the assignment requiring students to write a hypothesis-driven paper on a topic of their choice? Disarmed, Newman promised she would soon send the class an email that would explain it all. She reflected on the idea and then laid out the rules for the Bi 1 video challenge: an automatic A on just the final exam, but only if the video adhered to a stringent set of rules regarding originality, scientific content, and aesthetic value.

Newman was skeptical anyone would take on the challenge, but in the end, six videos were submitted. All were screened on June 4, the last day of class. All of the students in the class were given clickers to vote on each video—giving it an A, B, or C, based on how well the video fulfilled the criteria. Newman promised to take their votes into consideration as she made her decisions about the adequacy of each video. Newman further enlisted some special A-list guests to attend the showing and give their reactions: Harry Gray, the Arnold O. Beckman Professor of Chemistry and founding director of the Beckman Institute; Jonas Peters, the Bren Professor of Chemistry; Cindy Weinstein, vice provost and professor of English; and Bil Clemons, professor of biochemistry. As an added surprise to the students, President Thomas Rosenbaum stopped in for the viewing.

Student videos covered a range of topics, from photosynthesis to metabolism to respiration, and employed a variety of styles, with each video showcasing the unique personalities and creative talents of their creators. Tyler Perez (freshman, planetary science) and Nicholas Meyer (freshman, physics), for example, created a video titled "A Rap about GFP" (GFP, or green fluorescent protein, is used as a marker to visualize protein localization and gene expression). Perez notes that the main challenge was not having a dedicated cameraman, creating the need for "planning the shots beforehand, setting up the tripod, running to the scene to do the acting/dubbing, running back to check the shot, move the camera, repeat."

Rachael Morton (freshman, computer science) and Roohi Dalal (freshman, physics and history) described details about the nuclei of differentiated cells to the tune of Taylor Swift's "Blank Space" in a video they called "Enucleated Space." Morton recalls spending "a few interesting afternoons walking around campus in formal wear, lugging around cameras while lip syncing, as confused-looking tour groups and classmates passed by."

Ashwin Balakrishna (freshman, electrical engineering) and Kelly Woo (freshman, electrical engineering) collaborated on "Photosynthesis," rapping out lyrics like "ATP synthase she the center of it all/I got H+ gradient and now it comes into call" (inspired by Drake's rap video for "Energy"). Woo says, "As corny as this sounds, shooting this video really allowed me to slow down and appreciate how beautiful our campus is."

This may sound like a lot of fun and only a little science, but the Caltech faculty reviewers were impressed. "I'm a little prouder to be a professor at Caltech today," Peters said.

Harry Gray, after viewing the video on respiration created by Ashwin Hari (freshman, computer science) and Hanzhi Lin (freshman, computer science), humorously noted, "I've been studying respiration for a long time, but I learned more in this video than I have in 30 years. I hope you guys will make a lot more videos. I'm going to come to all of them so I don't have to spend all that time reading stupid journals."
 

While reviewing freshman Tara Shankar's (freshman, computer science) video, "Metabolism, Let's Break it Down," Jonas Peters tried to recruit the computer science major to chemistry. He even offered a powerful incentive: "If Professor Newman doesn't give you an A on the final for this video, you can take any course in CCE [the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering], and we will give you an A."

After the last video was shown, Peters, on a more serious note, drew students' attention to all the opportunities that they—as nonmajors in biology—could bring to biology from their very different "corners of the campus."

"Professor Newman's enthusiasm for the class was mirrored by the joie de vivre of the students, who sang, danced, and rapped their way through the central themes of Bi 1," says Weinstein. "Seeing students bring such intelligence, creativity, and downright fun to their studies reminds us of the rewards that come to teachers who inspire."

So did these students earn their prize, the opportunity to spend another afternoon singing and dancing their way across campus while their fellow Bi 1 students grind out their final? The jury—a one-woman jury named Dianne Newman—is still out, but it looks as though the Bi 1 video challenge will be finding its way onto her next Bi 1 syllabus.

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Seniors Give to Support Caltech

Each year as Commencement day approaches, Caltech's senior class traditionally makes a single combined gift to the Institute. But the class of 2015 has given that plan an unusual twist. In lieu of one joint contribution, each senior has been asked to "give back to the area of campus that has meant the most to you—whether it's your house, scholarships, athletics, student life," or any other facet of the undergraduate experience.

The idea is being championed by senior class copresidents Aditya Bhattaru and David Flicker, along with the senior representatives of all eight student houses. And to sweeten the deal, faculty alumni Tom Soifer (BS '68) and Kip Thorne (BS '62) have agreed to match each donation, dollar for dollar, up to a maximum of $20.15 per senior (commemorating the year) and $4,000 overall.

Individually earmarking multiple contributions makes for a less traditional legacy than something monolithic, like a bench or a scholarship or an avocado grove, but it is no less welcome. "Senior class gifts aren't about things," says Perry Radford, Caltech's assistant director of annual giving programs—young alumni and student philanthropy. "They're about culture, about awareness, about getting people engaged."

Evidently, the seniors think so too: by the end of May the campaign had raised more than $3,000, with nearly a third of the class participating. Radford says she is gratified by the wide variety of targets the students have designated. "They're giving to Student Life programs, to music, to athletics and SURF and the endowments of their undergraduate houses."

But the recipient most often named is the Art Chateau. A converted house in the northeast corner of campus, it hosts facilities for painting, drawing, ceramics, and other visual arts—none of which require a mouse or a keyboard. Its silk-screening equipment, used by student clubs throughout the year to make T-shirts, is in high demand in the weeks leading up to Ditch Day.

The Caltech Parents page on Facebook recently highlighted one of the fund-raiser's more entertaining events. Dean of Undergraduate Students John Dabiri (MS '03, PhD '05), Master of Student Houses Erik Snowberg, and men's basketball head coach Oliver "Doc" Eslinger spent an April day performing charity calisthenics: $2 a push-up. With 26 students donating a total of nearly $800, the three obliged with 377 push-ups. When Dabiri and Snowberg pledged to match, out of their own pockets, the donation of any student who joined in the workout, 15 of the 26 students accepted their challenge, pumping out an extra 256 push-ups and earning an additional $533.55 in matching funds.

Such activities, says Radford, send a powerful message. "Students' relationships with the Caltech Fund begin at the start of freshman year, and the entire time these seniors have been on campus, philanthropy has been happening all around them. But now that they're actually making their own donations—the first time for many of them—they're seeing how generosity breeds generosity."

She credits last year's seniors with inspiring this year's class. "The Caltech penny press of 2014 demonstrated how exciting a senior gift campaign can be. But more importantly, the class of 2014 taught the class of 2015 that philanthropy can be fun."

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Spotlight on Graduate Research

It is no secret that Caltech's graduate students have unparalleled research opportunities. Working closely with faculty advisers and colleagues in diverse fields across campus, their contributions are essential to the Institute's advances in science, engineering, and technology. For nearly two decades, the Everhart Lecture Series has provided a venue to highlight graduate student research at Caltech.

The annual series, named after Caltech president emeritus Tom Everhart, provides three carefully selected graduate students with an opportunity to present their work to an Institute-wide audience. The series was established with the goal of "encouraging interdisciplinary interaction and helping faculty and graduate students across campus to share ideas about recent research developments, problems and controversies, and to recognize the exemplary presentation and research abilities of Caltech's graduate students."

"Having the ability to demonstrate your work to the broader community—those outside of your own scientific area—is extremely important, and too often graduate students have very little experience with this," says graduate student Constantine Sideris, the 2014–15 chair of the Everhart Lecture Series committee, an interdisciplinary committee of graduate students that selects the three graduate student lecturers from a pool of more than a dozen applicants each fall.

"This series allows them to hone their presentation and dynamic speaking skills, and also their ability to explain difficult, technical concepts to a diverse audience," Sideris says.

This year's lecturers—Carissa Eisler (chemistry and chemical engineering), Roarke Horstmeyer (electrical engineering), and Peter Rapp (chemistry and chemical engineering)—gave talks on campus earlier this spring, and all three were invited to share their work with members of the Caltech community during the Institute's annual Seminar Day event in May. This year's lectures span a range of topics, from enhancing solar-cell efficiency, to improving microscope imaging, to understanding polymers. (Complete lecture descriptions from the students as well as links to podcasts of the recorded talks on iTunes U can be found below.)

"Research is only getting more interdisciplinary, so effectively communicating your work is an essential skill," says Eisler. "The lecture was really challenging, and I was very nervous, but it was incredibly rewarding, and I'm so glad that I did it."

Eisler and her colleagues noted that participating in the lectures provided valuable learning opportunities—by forcing them to synthesize and explain their work to individuals outside of their respective fields—and helped to build campus awareness for the breadth of research that's being done by graduate students.

"I work with a team of remarkable people, and I hope the lecture communicated that my project is just one among many exciting projects in our lab," Rapp says.  

 

Lecture Descriptions:

Building a Brighter Future: Spectrum-Splitting as a Pathway for 50% Efficiency Solar Cells
By Carissa Eisler
Lab: Harry Atwater, Howard Hughes Professor of Applied Physics and Materials Science and director of the Resnick Sustainability Institute

Although possible, ultra-high solar-cell efficiencies (>50 percent) have not been achieved because of limitations by current fabrication methods. Spectrum-splitting modules, or architectures that employ optical elements to divide the incident spectrum into different color bands, are promising because they can convert each photon more efficiently than traditional methods. This talk discusses our design and prototyping efforts to create such a spectrum-splitting module. We explore the spectrum-splitting optics and geometric optimizations in the context of high-efficiency designs. We show a design that achieves 50 percent efficiency with realistic device losses and geometric constraints. 

Listen to the lecture on iTunesU: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/building-brighter-future-spectrum/id986954281?i=341029550&mt=2

 

Computational Microscopy: Turning Megapixels into Gigapixels
By Roarke Horstmeyer
Lab: Changhuei Yang, Professor of Electrical Engineering, Bioengineering, and Medical Engineering

Optical aberrations limit the size of current microscope images to tens of megapixels. This talk will present a method to boost a microscope's resolving power to one gigapixel using a technique termed Fourier ptychography. No moving parts or precision controls are needed for this resolution enhancement. The only required hardware is a standard microscope, which we outfit with a digital detector and an array of LEDs. An optimization algorithm does the rest of the work. Example applications of our new microscope include full-slide digital pathology imaging, wide-scale surface profile mapping of human blood, and achieving sub-wavelength resolution without needing oil immersion.

Listen to the lecture on iTunesU: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/computational-microscopy-turning/id986954281?i=341030229&mt=2

 

Shaking Hands in a Crowded Room: How Sticky Polymers Travel through Viscoelastic Gels
By Peter Rapp
Lab: David Tirrell, Ross McCollum-William H. Corcoran Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering; Director, Beckman Institute

What if you could give a polymer hands and feet and watch it move? We have developed biological approaches to synthesizing functional materials made from proteins, nature's flagship polymers. These approaches provide a set of tools for answering fundamental questions in polymer physics and for synthesizing dynamic materials that find applications in soft-tissue engineering and regenerative medicine. This talk will explore the dynamics of a model "sticky" polymer: an artificial protein engineered with associative endblocks that self-assembles into viscoelastic hydrogels. Fluorescence relaxation studies have demonstrated that polymer diffusion in these gels is controlled by endblock exchange, a process akin to a molecular handshake. Genetic approaches to modifying the endblock architecture enable tuning of polymer mobility over a wide range.

Listen to the lecture on iTunesU: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/shaking-hands-in-crowded-room/id986954281?i=343195468&mt=2

 

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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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