Going Global

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Going Global
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"Being a student at UCL has given me a global perspective. From day one you interact with students from all over the world. Just on my dorm floor alone we have students from France, Singapore, and all over the UK—not to mention the people we've met in our classes and outside of class who come from places as far away as India and Ecuador and as close as Serbia and Hungary. Daily interactions cause self-reflection and a heightened awareness of unique and varying viewpoints." —Bianca Lepe '16, University College London

Pictured: (Left to right) Kevin Zhao '15, Lepe, Alice Michel '16, and Ayush Gupta '16 at the Tower Bridge.

Credit: Courtesy of Kurtis Carsch

"I am using this opportunity to enroll in courses that are not offered at Caltech. I am enrolled in four chemistry courses: applied catalysis, synthetic biomolecular chemistry, the chemistry of metals in biological systems, and a PhD course on sustainable energy. Additionally, I am conducting research in organometallic chemistry." —Kurtis Carsch '16, Technical University of Denmark

Pictured: Carsch and Patrick Yu '16 overlooking the Charles Bridge and St. Vitus Cathedral.

Credit: Courtesy of Cedric Flamant

"I arrived at Polytechnique wanting to learn at the institution associated with the great minds of Fourier, Navier, Cauchy, and Lagrange. Never would I have guessed that I would eventually write a report on symmetry groups in SU(5) grand unification in the very language in which Galois first formulated group theory! Studying at Polytechnique has allowed me to reconnect with part of my heritage and meet fellow physicists, all while exploring Paris." —Cedric Flamant '15, École Polytechnique

Pictured: Flamant during a biking trip at Chamonix Mont-Blanc in France.

Credit: George Hopes

"Stepping into Cambridge, I felt as if I were transported back in time into a completely different world. I am currently staying at Corpus Christi College, which was founded in 1352 and is Cambridge's sixth-oldest college. At Corpus, I have had the chance to meet people who are not only studying STEM subjects but also classics, history, sociology, French, and more! . . . The experiences have felt so surreal that I've had to double-check to see that I am actually here in Cambridge." —Jacqueline Masehi-Lano '15, University of Cambridge

Pictured: Masehi-Lano (third from the left) poses with the other Cambridge fresher engineers.

Credit: Poonim Daya

"I've learned a lot from my classes here at Edinburgh, but many of my learning experiences have gone beyond academics. One of my favorite moments happened during a day trip to Glasgow with some friends from Caltech. While walking around the city, we spotted a bowling green. After asking a few questions, we ended up getting a free lesson in lawn bowling from some kind Glaswegians, and spent the afternoon honing our skills. It was a fantastic time—even if I'm not so good at lawn bowling!" —Emily Ellsworth '15, University of Edinburgh

Pictured: Ellsworth (front, center) with Harrison Miller '15 (left) and Caltech alumna Supriya Iyer '13 (right) hiking Arthur's Seat.


Earlier this fall, 28 Caltech sophomores and juniors ventured overseas and out of their comfort zones to spend time studying, doing research, traveling, and learning to communicate in countries far from home.

These students were the latest cohort of Caltech undergraduates to participate in the Institute's study abroad programs. Once accepted to one of the six Caltech-faculty-approved programs run each fall in partnership with peer institutions around the world, these Caltech students have the opportunity to study in England at the University of Cambridge or University College London; in Scotland at the University of Edinburgh; in Denmark at the University of Copenhagen or the Technical University of Denmark; in France at the École Polytechnique; and in Australia at the University of Melbourne.

Since Caltech's study abroad programs were established in 1999, more than 450 undergraduates have taken advantage of the chance to spend a term far from sunny Pasadena.

"The natural and engineering sciences are international arenas," says Lauren Stolper, Caltech's director of fellowships advising and study abroad. "All of our partners are top research universities. Caltech students continue to face the same rigorous academic challenges as at Caltech, while experiencing firsthand different styles of teaching and learning.

"They return to Caltech with a more sophisticated understanding of the world and academically and personally energized by the study abroad experience."

View the slideshow below to learn more about the experiences of this year's class from the students themselves.

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Senior Adam Jermyn Named Marshall Scholar

Caltech senior Adam Jermyn has been chosen as a recipient of 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. A maximum of 40 scholarships are awarded.

A physics major from Longmeadow, Massachusetts, Jermyn will use the award toward his pursuit of a PhD in astronomy at the University of Cambridge. "I got the call from the British Consulate, and when they told me, I couldn't believe it," Jermyn says. "After the call, I got an email from my parents about it, and it turns out that on my application I swapped my home and cell phone numbers, so they called my parents before calling me."

"My plan at Cambridge is to study how planets form around binary star systems," says Jermyn. "This will involve a collaboration I proposed between the fluid mechanics group in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics and the faculty researching astrophysical heat transport in the Institute of Astronomy. I'm extremely excited about the project and the scholarship as it will give me a chance to really focus on research in a field that I'm somewhat new to."

After the completion of the fellowship he hopes to pursue a career in academia and eventually obtain a faculty position in which he can both teach and do research.

Jermyn is currently completing his senior thesis—a study of how pulsars alter the atmospheres of tidally locked companion stars. More generally, his research interests fall under the field of emergent phenomena, "a broad term referring to situations where we know all of the laws on a fundamental level but where there are so many pieces working together that the consequences aren't known," he explains. Examples include protein aggregation, quantum information, and fluid mechanics.

At Caltech, Jermyn works in the lab of Harry Atwater, the Howard Hughes Professor of Applied Physics and Materials Science, on research that could be applied to solar cells. He also collaborates on quantum information with Associate Professor of Theoretical Physics Jason Alicea in Caltech's Institute for Quantum Information and Matter, and with former Marshall Scholar and Professor of Theoretical Astrophysics Sterl Phinney (BS '80) on the impact of external deep heating on stellar atmospheres.

Although he is still finishing up his undergraduate degree, Jermyn has already had two papers accepted for journal publication, on his solar energy and quantum information research projects. He is also the principal investigator on a computing grant from the Department of Energy (DOE) for exploring symmetric protein folding. Last spring, he was recognized at the national level for his research accomplishments with a Goldwater Scholarship.

In addition to his research, Jermyn's activities on campus include involvement on the Council for Undergraduate Education, the Curriculum Committee, and the Faculty Board's Honor Code Committee. He also served as a teaching assistant for several physics classes, including first-year physics course Phys 11.

"Adam has been an outstanding source of encouragement and advice for many Caltech students, particularly through Physics 11, where he is currently a teaching assistant. He has helped to keep the course going after the passing of Professor Tombrello," says David Stevenson, Marvin L. Goldberger Professor of Planetary Science.

Lauren Stolper, director of Fellowships Advising and Study Abroad, acts as Caltech's official Marshall Scholarship advisor. Stolper says, "It was a pleasure to get to know Adam well during the application and endorsement process. Adam has the kind of penetrating intellect that is a hallmark of Marshall Scholars. He is interested in the world around him and is willing to jump in to have an impact on things he cares about."

The Marshall Scholarship is named after George Marshall, chief of staff of the Army in World War II who was the creator of the Marshall Plan (also known as the European Recovery Program), which helped Europe rebuild after the war. Marshall later served as secretary of state and was a Nobel Peace Prize winner. The fellowship was established by the British government in 1953 to recognize the vital role the Marshall Plan played in Britain's post-WWII recovery.

Recent Caltech alumni winners of the Marshall Scholarship program include Emma Schmidgall (BS '07), Wei Lien Stephen Dang (BS '05), Vikram Mittal (BS '03), and Eric Tuttle (BS '01). In addition to Phinney, other former Marshall Scholars in the Caltech community include President Emeritus Thomas Everhart, Provost and William E. Leonhard Professor of Geology Edward Stolper, Bren Professor of Chemistry Jonas Peters, and Professor of Chemistry Thomas Miller.

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Senior Named Marshall Scholar
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In Our Community

Using Simulation and Optimization to Cut Wait Times for Voters

No one ever likes long lines. Waiting in line may be inconvenient at the coffee shop or the bank, but it's a serious matter at voting centers, where a long wait time can discourage voters—and can be seen as an impediment to democracy.

However, with millions of Americans showing up at the polls, can long lines really be avoided on Election Day? By developing a tool to help better prepare polling places, Caltech sophomore Sean McKenna is using his Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) project as an opportunity to address that problem.

Over the summer, McKenna, an applied and computational mathematics major who works with Professor of Political Science Michael Alvarez, has been building a mathematics-informed tool that will predict busy times in precincts on Election Day and allocate voting machines in response to those predictions. This information could help election administrators minimize wait times for millions of voters.

"My project is based on a report from the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, which asserted that no American should ever have to wait more than 30 minutes to vote," McKenna says. "And so we're trying to see if we can help reach that goal by allocating voting machines in a new way."

McKenna's work is part of the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project (VTP), which has been working on voting technology and election administration since the 2000 election. At a June workshop for the collaborative VTP project, which aims to improve the voting process through research, McKenna met with academics and election administrators who suggested how he might apply his background in mathematics to create a tool for voting administrators to use on the VTP's website.

The tool he is developing uses a branch of applied mathematics called queueing theory to quantify the formation of lines on Election Day. "Queueing theory assumes that arrivals to a system like a polling place have a random, memoryless pattern. Under this assumption, the fact that one person just showed up to the precinct doesn't tell us whether the next person will show up two seconds from now or two minutes from now," he says. "Furthermore, queueing theory predicts line lengths and wait times as long-term averages, which scientists might call a steady-state approximation."

Although queueing theory provided a good jumping off point, there were a few real-world problems that an analytical model on its own couldn't address, McKenna says. For example, voter arrival behavior is not completely random on Election Day; early morning and late afternoon spikes in arrivals are the norm. In addition, polls are usually only open for 12 or 13 hours, which is not considered to be enough time for steady-state queueing approximations to be applicable.

"These challenges led us to review the literature and determine that running a simulation with actual data from administrators, as opposed to attempting to adjust strictly analytical models, was the best way to represent what actually happens in an election," McKenna explained.

The goal of the research is to create a simulation of an entire jurisdiction, such as a county with multiple polling places. The simulation would estimate wait times on Election Day based on information election administrators enter about their jurisdiction into the web-based tool. Administrators would then receive a customized output prior to Election Day, suggesting how to allocate voting machines across the jurisdiction and detailing the anticipated crowds—information that could both predict the severity of long lines and prompt new strategies for allocating voting machines to preempt long waits.

Several other Caltech undergraduates in Alvarez's group also have been working on alternative ways to improve the voting process. Senior physics major Jacob Shenker has been developing a system for more secure and user-friendly postal voting, and recent graduates Eugene Vinitsky (BS '14, physics) and Jonathan Schor (BS '14, biology and chemistry) produced a prototype of a mobile phone app that could help voters determine if there is a long line at their polling place.

While these projects were completed separately, McKenna says there may be room for collaboration in the future. "One thing that we're hoping my tool will be able to do is to predict for administrators what times are going to be busiest, and we could also export this information to the app for voters," he says. "For example, the app could alert someone that their polling place is very likely to have long lines in the morning so they should try to go in the afternoon."

The technologies that McKenna and his student colleagues are developing could change the way that millions of Americans participate in democracy in the future—which would be an impressive accomplishment for a young student who has yet to experience the physical aspect of lining up to vote.

"So that's one kind of sticky situation about my working on this project: I've never actually been in to vote in person. I've only been able to vote once, and since I'm from Minnesota, it had to be absentee by mail," he says.

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How to Grip an Asteroid

On Saturday, October 18, hundreds of undergraduate students shared the results of their projects during SURF Seminar Day. The event provides students with the opportunity to discuss and explain their research to individuals with a wide-range of expertise and interests.

For someone like Edward Fouad, a junior at Caltech who has always been interested in robotics and mechanical engineering, it was an ideal project: help develop robotic technology that could one day fly on a NASA mission to visit and sample an asteroid.

Fouad spent 10 weeks this summer as part of the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program working in the lab of Aaron Parness, a group leader at JPL, where researchers are designing, prototyping, and refining technology for a device called a microspine gripper. Looking something like a robotic circular foot with many toes extending radially outward, such a gripper has the ability to grab onto a rocky surface and cling to it even when hanging upside down.

That makes it a good candidate to be included in the robotic capture phase of NASA's Asteroid Redirect Mission, which aims to capture an asteroid and haul it into lunar orbit where robotic and manned missions could study it more easily. One of two concepts that NASA is currently considering for that mission involves using robotic arms to grab a boulder for return from a much larger asteroid. Microspine gripper technology is being evaluated for use on these robotic arms.

Researchers at JPL have been working on this technology for almost five years. The latest version of the gripper is made entirely of metal and consists of two concentric rings of carriages—the toe-like appendages that stick out from the gripper. Each of those carriages is in turn made up of a number of "microspines" with steel hooks at their tips. When the gripper makes contact with a rocky surface, the carriages extend downward onto the rock and then pull inward toward the gripper's center. Because the carriages and microspines all move independently, the gripper is able to conform well to the rock's nooks and crannies.

For his SURF project, Fouad helped with the construction of the latest gripper prototype and worked on improving the design of the microspines for the next generation. In particular, his goal was to design a metal microspine that could conform to a rocky surface and stretch as needed toward the center of the gripper. One of the key elements in such a design is a compliant flexure, a material that can bend and flex, allowing each hook to move independently of its neighbors, to grab onto the crags of an uneven surface. In the past, elastic polymers and metal extension springs have been used for this purpose, but elastic polymers cannot stand up to the extreme temperatures of space, and the springs greatly increase the complexity of the gripper's design and complicate the manufacturing and assembly processes. A different metal option was needed.

"I started by brainstorming many different flexure designs, modeling them on the computer with CAD software, and laser cutting them out of acrylic to test their compliant properties," Fouad says. After repeating that process and improving the designs over several weeks, Fouad and Parness settled on two designs to prototype in metal and test on different rock types. In the end, one of Fouad's designs worked so well in bench-top tests that Parness's group is now incorporating it into their new gripper design.

"Edward did a great job this summer," says Parness. "The SURF program provides a great balance; it ensures an educational experience for the student but also provides a lot of value to the projects and mentors. I always try to work with the students before the summer so that the SURF projects provide some autonomy but give the students a chance to work toward something that could make a long-term contribution to the main project. Edward's project was a good example."

Fouad says he went into the SURF project with a lot of relevant experience. A statics and material mechanics course (ME 35—now ME 12) had provided him with the background he needed to understand how the microspine toes of a particular geometry would deform under different loading conditions. A mechanical design and fabrication class (ME 14) taught him important design skills. And, he says, "The experience I have gained leading the mechanical subgroup of the Caltech Robotics Team was invaluable for my work this summer. Through designing and constructing an autonomous underwater vehicle over the past year, I have acquired a great deal of design and machining techniques as well as the skills necessary to collaborate with others on a large group project."

Fouad says he loved working in Parness's lab and enjoyed having the freedom to pursue the design paths that he found most interesting and promising. And he says that he will now strongly consider pursuing a future career at JPL. "It is an incredible environment for someone looking for exciting robotics opportunities."

Kimm Fesenmaier
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Improving The View Through Tissues and Organs

On Saturday, October 18, hundreds of undergraduate students will share the results of their projects during SURF Seminar Day. The event, which is open to the public, is an opportunity for students to discuss and explain their research to individuals with a wide-range of expertise and interests.

This summer, several undergraduate students at Caltech had the opportunity to help optimize a promising technique that can make tissues and organs—even entire organisms—transparent for study. As part of the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program, these students worked in the lab of Assistant Professor of Biology Viviana Gradinaru, where researchers are developing such so-called clearing techniques that make it possible to peer straight through normally opaque tissues rather than seeing them only as thinly sectioned slices that have been pieced back together.

Gradinaru's group recently published a paper in the journal Cell describing a new approach to tissue clearing. The method they have created builds on a technique called CLARITY that Gradinaru helped develop while she was a research associate at Stanford. CLARITY allowed researchers to, for the first time, create a transparent whole-brain specimen that could then be imaged with its structural and genetic information intact.

CLARITY was specifically developed for studying the brain. But the new approach developed in Gradinaru's lab, which the team has dubbed PARS (perfusion-assisted agent release in situ), can also clear other organs, such as the kidney, as well as tissue samples, such as tumor biopsies. It can even be applied to entire organisms.

Like CLARITY, PARS involves removing the light-scattering lipids in the tissue to make samples transparent without losing the structural integrity that lipids typically provide. First the sample is infused with acrylamide monomers that are then polymerized into a hydrogel that provides structural support. Next, this tissue–hydrogel hybrid is immersed in a detergent that removes the lipids. Then the sample can be stained, often with antibodies that specifically mark cells of interest, and then immersed in RIMS (refractive index matching solution) for imaging using various optical techniques such as confocal or lightsheet microscopy.

Over the summer, Sam Wie, a junior biology major at Caltech, spent 10 weeks in the Gradinaru lab working to find a polymer that would perform better than acrylamide, which has been used in the CLARITY hydrogel. "One of the limitations of CLARITY is that when you put the hydrogel tissue into the detergent, the higher solute concentration in the tissue causes liquid to rush into the cell. That causes the sample to swell, which could potentially damage the structure of the tissue," Wie explains. "So I tried different polymers to try to limit that swelling."

Wie was able to identify a polymer that produces, over a similar amount of time, about one-sixth of the swelling in the tissue.

"The SURF experience has been very rewarding," Wie says. "I've learned a lot of new techniques, and it's really exciting to be part of, and to try to improve, CLARITY, a method that will probably change the way that we image tissues from now on."

At another bench in Gradinaru's lab, sophomore bioengineering major Andy Kim spent the summer focusing on a different aspect of the PARS technique. While antibodies have been the most common markers used to tag cells of interest within cleared tissues, they are too large for some studies—for example, those that aim to image deeper parts of the brain, requiring them to cross the blood–brain barrier. Kim's project involved identifying smaller proteins, such as nanobodies, which target and bind to specific parts of proteins in tissues.

"While PARS is a huge improvement over CLARITY, using antibodies to stain is very expensive," Kim says. "However, some of these nanobodies can be produced easily, so if we can get them to work, it would not only help image the interior of the brain, it would also be a lot less costly."

During his SURF, Kim worked with others in the lab to identify about 30 of these smaller candidate binding proteins and tested them on PARS-cleared samples.

While Wie and Kim worked on improving the PARS technique itself, Donghun Ryu, a third SURFer in Gradinaru's lab, investigated different methods for imaging the cleared samples. Ryu is a senior electrical engineering and computer science major at the Gwangju Institute of Science and Technology (GIST) in the Republic of Korea.

Last summer Ryu completed a SURF as part of the Caltech–GIST Summer Undergraduate Research Exchange Program in the lab of Changhuei Yang, professor of electrical engineering, bioengineering, and medical engineering at Caltech. While completing that project, Ryu became interested in optogenetics, the use of light to control genes. Since optogenetics is one of Gradinaru's specialties, Yang suggested that he try a SURF in Gradinaru's lab.

This summer, Ryu was able to work with both Yang and Gradinaru, investigating a technique called Talbot microscopy to see whether it would be better for imaging thick, cleared tissues than more common techniques. Ryu was able to work on the optical system in Yang's lab while testing the samples cleared in Gradinaru's lab.

"It was a wonderful experience," Ryu says. "It was special to have the opportunity to work for two labs this summer. I remember one day when I had a meeting with both Professor Yang and Professor Gradinaru; it was really amazing to get to meet with two Caltech professors."

Gradinaru says that the SURF projects provided a learning opportunity not only for the participating students but also for her lab. "For example," she says, "Ryu strengthened the collaboration that we have with the Yang group for the BRAIN Initiative. And my lab members benefited from the chance to serve as mentors—to see what works and what can be improved when transferring scientific knowledge. These are very important skills in addition to the experimental know-how that they master."  

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Saturday, October 18, 2014
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Caltech Moon Festival Gala 2014

Sensors to Simplify Diabetes Management

For many patients diagnosed with diabetes, treating the disease can mean a burdensome and uncomfortable lifelong routine of monitoring blood sugar levels and injecting the insulin that their bodies don't naturally produce. But, as part of their Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) projects at Caltech, several engineering students have contributed to the development of tiny biosensors that could one day eliminate the need for these manual blood sugar tests.

Because certain patients with diabetes are unable to make their own insulin—a hormone that helps transfer glucose, or sugar, from the blood into muscle and other tissues—they need to monitor frequently their blood glucose, manually injecting insulin when sugar levels surge after a meal. Most glucose monitors require that patients prick their fingertips to collect a drop of blood, sometimes up to 10 times a day for the rest of their lives.

In their SURF projects, the students, all from Caltech's Division of Engineering and Applied Science, looked for different ways to do these same tests but painlessly and automatically.

Mehmet SencanSenior applied physics major Mehmet Sencan has approached the problem with a tiny chip that can be implanted under the skin. The sensor, a square just 1.4 millimeters on each side, is designed to detect glucose levels from the interstitial fluid (fluid found in the spaces between cells) that is just under the skin. The glucose levels in this fluid directly relate to the blood glucose concentration.

Sencan has been involved in optimizing the electrochemical method that the chip will use to detect glucose levels. Much like a traditional finger-stick glucose meter, the chip uses glucose oxidase, an enzyme that reacts in the presence of glucose, to create an electrical current. Higher levels of glucose result in a stronger current, allowing the device to measure glucose levels based on the charge that passes through the fluid.

Once the glucose level is detected, the information is wirelessly transmitted via a radio wave frequency to a reader that uses the same frequency to power the device itself. Ultimately an external display will let the patient know if their levels are within range.

Sencan, who works in the laboratory of Axel Scherer, the Bernard Neches Professor of Electrical Engineering, Applied Physics, and Physics, and who is co-mentored by postdoctoral researcher Muhammad Mujeeb-U-Rahman, started this project three years ago during his very first SURF.

"When I started, we were just thinking about what kind of chemistry the sensor would use, and now we have a sensor that is actually designed to do that," he says. Over the summer, he implanted the sensors in rat models, and he will continue the study over the fall and spring terms using both rat and mouse models—a first step in determining if the design is a clinically viable option.

Sith DomrongkitchaipornJunior electrical engineering major Sith Domrongkitchaiporn from the Scherer laboratory, also co-mentored by Mujeeb-U-Rahman, took a different approach to glucose detection, making tiny biosensors that are inconspicuously wearable on the surface of a contact lens. "It's an interesting concept because instead of having to do a procedure to place something under the skin, you can use a less invasive method, placing a sensor on the eye to get the same information," he says.

He used the method optimized by Mehmet to determine blood glucose levels from interstitial fluid and adapted the chemistry to measure glucose in the eyes' tears. This summer, he will be attempting to fabricate the lens itself and improve upon the process whereby radio waves are used to power the sensor and then transmit data from the sensor to an external computer.

Jennifer Chih-Wen LinSURF student and sophomore electrical engineering major Jennifer Chih-Wen Lin wanted to incorporate a different kind of glucose sensor into a contact lens. "The concept—determining glucose readings from tears—is very similar to Sith's, but the method is very different," she says.

Instead of determining the glucose level based on the amount of electrical current that passes through a sample, Lin, who works in the laboratory of Hyuck Choo, assistant professor of electrical engineering, worked on a sensor that detects glucose levels from the interaction between light and molecules.

In her SURF project, she began optimizing the characterization of glucose molecules in a sample of glucose solution using a technique called Raman spectroscopy. When molecules encounter light, they vibrate differently based on their symmetry and the types of bonds that hold their atoms together. This vibrational information provides a unique fingerprint for each type of molecule, which is represented as peaks on the Raman spectrum—and the intensity of these peaks correlates to the concentration of that molecule within the sample.

"This step is important because once I can determine the relationship between peak intensities and glucose concentrations, our sensor can just compare that known spectrum to the reading from a sample of tears to determine the amount of glucose in the sample," she says.

Lin's project is in the very beginning stages, but if it is successful, it could provide a more accurate glucose measurement, and from a smaller volume of liquid, than is possible with the finger-stick method. Perhaps more importantly for patients, it can provide that measurement painlessly.

Sophia ChenAlso in Choo's laboratory, sophomore electrical engineering major Sophia Chen's SURF project involves a new way to power devices like these tiny sensors and other medical implants, using the vibrations from a patient's vocal cords. These vibrations produce the sound of our voice, and also create vibrations in the skull.

"We're using these devices called energy harvesters that can extract energy from vibrations at specific frequencies. When the vibrations go from the vocal folds to the skull, a structure in the energy harvester vibrates at the same frequency, generating energy—energy that can be used to power batteries or charge things," Chen says.

Chen's goal is to determine the frequency of these vibrations—and if the energy that they produce is actually enough to power a tiny device. The hope is that one day these vibrations could power, or at least supplement the power of, medical devices that need to be implanted near the head and that presently run on batteries with finite lifetimes.

Chen and the other students acknowledge that health-monitoring sensors powered by the human body might be years away from entering the clinic. However, this opportunity to apply classroom knowledge to a real-life challenge—such as diabetes treatment—is an important part of their training as tomorrow's scientists and engineers.

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Orchestrating the Healing Process in a Damaged Cornea

It is safe to say that the eye is an amazing biological system. One reason is its keratocyte cells—specialized cells that make up the bulk of the cornea. Unlike most of the other cells in our body, those in the cornea are transparent, making sight possible. Should something happen to make the cornea opaque, blindness results.

Sadly, injuries to the cornea do occur, sometimes in the simplest of ways, such as getting sand in one's eyes and scratching the cornea. The scar tissue that then grows to heal the cornea may have the unwanted side effect of being opaque. This does not happen, however, if the cornea and the tissue around it heal in a very orderly fashion. The question, then: Is it possible to encourage this orderly healing after an injury, thus preserving vision?

Professor of Chemical Engineering Julia Kornfield and graduate student Amy Fu are very much hoping that this is the case. To find out, they have assigned a few students, including Caltech senior and recent SURF fellow Jacqueline Masehi-Lano, to experiment with various growth factors that might inhibit the formation of scar tissue and promote orderly wound healing.

"We chose three growth factors to test because Amy Fu and I read several papers on growth factors that have been able to suppress some types of scar tissue," Masehi-Lano says. "In particular, we want to inhibit the formation of alpha smooth muscle actin, the type of stress fiber that creates opaque scars over corneal wounds. So far, the experiments I've done with cell cultures have worked pretty well, so it looks promising."

Eventually, the researchers hope to encapsulate the growth factors in a hydrogel that is reminiscent of the native cornea. "Our hydrogel starts out as a liquid and gels in situ on the eye," explains Masehi-Lano.

Masehi-Lano is enthusiastic about her experience with the SURF program. This past summer was her second in Kornfield's lab, and last year she was a recipient of an Amgen scholarship. "I'm really grateful that my mentor and my co-mentor have entrusted me with my own project and have allowed me to conduct my own experiments. And since it was my second summer in this lab, I was able to take up a leadership role by training a new SURF student," she says. "For me, SURF has gone beyond research. I've been able to improve my ability to present my research to the general public, which I think is extremely important." Indeed, Masehi-Lano was awarded the Caltech Doris S. Perpall SURF Speaking Competition for delivering the most outstanding oral research presentation.

Masehi-Lano plans to continue in bioengineering and is contemplating an MD/PhD program. "I've always been interested in the medical field, and though I'm committed to doing research," she explains, "I'd like to be able to do clinical trials and directly apply new medical technologies to people."

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Honored Student Scientists Return for their Senior Year

Among this year's cadre of returning Caltech students are four seniors who already have been recognized at the national level for their scholarly and research accomplishments. Last spring, the federally endowed Barry Goldwater Foundation awarded scholarships to Adam Jermyn, Ann Miao Wang, and Charles Tschirhart; Lawrence Wang was awarded honorable mention in the competition.

Goldwater Scholarships are designed to foster outstanding students and encourage them to pursue careers in the natural sciences, mathematics, and engineering.

Adam Jermyn, a physics major from Longmeadow, Massachusetts, specializes in the field of emergent phenomena. "This is a broad term referring to situations where we know all of the laws on a fundamental level, but where there are so many pieces working together that the consequences aren't known," Jermyn explains. Examples include protein aggregation, quantum information, and fluid mechanics. "I find this interesting primarily because these are problems which, in principle, we should be able to understand, but in practice the complexity is far too much to deal with straightforwardly. I find it fascinating that we have to find ways to analyze complexity."

Although he is still an undergraduate, Jermyn already has a patent pending for a method he developed while in high school to analyze atomic force microscopy data. He is also the principal investigator on a computing grant from the Department of Energy (DOE) for exploring symmetric protein folding. "The DOE grant is for work I'm doing with Milo Lin at UC Berkeley, though I started out on the project when he was here as a graduate student under Professor Ahmed Zewail [Caltech's Linus Pauling Professor of Chemistry and professor of physics]," he says.

Jermyn also works in the lab of Harry Atwater, Howard Hughes Professor of Applied Physics and Materials Science, on research that may have applications in solar cells, and he collaborates with Associate Professor of Theoretical Physics Jason Alicea on quantum information through Caltech's Institute for Quantum Information and Matter, and with Sterl Phinney, professor of theoretical astrophysics, on the impact of external deep heating on stellar atmospheres. He recently submitted papers for journal publication on his solar energy and quantum information research projects.

Currently, Jermyn is finishing up his senior thesis, a study of how pulsars alter the atmospheres of tidally locked companion stars. When it is complete (he is hoping for December), and he finishes up his graduate applications—with the eventual goal of obtaining a faculty position where he would teach and do research—he will continue work on his other projects and will begin new research in condensed matter physics, the study of solids, liquids, and a few other, more exotic phases of matter.

Charles Tschirhart of Naperville, Illinois, is a double major in applied physics and chemistry. His research focuses on nanotechnology, the design and construction of machines at the nanometer (one-billionth of a meter) scale, and on condensed matter.

"I got involved in nanotechnology because I was fascinated by the unique challenges of building machines at such small scales. I was also attracted to it because it has a wide array of useful applications in industry, and I think it's exciting to work on problems that, if solved, would have a real impact on our lives," Tschirhart explains. "I got interested in condensed matter because it represented the area of physics that felt the most tangible to me. It was fun to learn about how the properties of materials with which I'm familiar are explained by modern physics. I've always been fascinated by the idea that you can use physics to go all the way from subatomic particles and atomic physics up to bulk material properties, and that's sort of what condensed matter is all about."

This year, Tschirhart will pursue a senior thesis project in the laboratory of Sandra Troian, professor of applied physics, aeronautics, and mechanical engineering. "Our lab studies phenomena in fluid mechanics that only become important at very small scales. In classical fluid mechanics, physicists pretend that fluids are composed of infinitely divisible matter and thus don't have any 'graininess' to them," Tschirhart says, "although all fluids are, in fact, made up of tiny particles. Once you get down to small enough scales, however, even water becomes 'grainy,' and the predictions of fluid mechanics begin to fail."

Tschirhart's senior thesis project will be to investigate when and how classical fluid mechanics fails at these very small scales, with the ultimate goal of developing theories to correct for these effects. "I have spent the last year and a half building an experiment to investigate these phenomena, and I have just now begun to collect data, so it's a pretty exciting time for me, and I'm excited for my senior thesis." 

Upon graduation, Tschirhart plans to attend graduate school in experimental condensed matter physics. "I ultimately hope to become a condensed matter physicist. I plan to look for jobs in academia, but I would happily take advantage of opportunities outside of academia. Universities and technology companies offer very different work environments, but great science, at least in condensed matter, happens at both." 

Ann Miao Wang of Rochester, New York, describes herself as "especially passionate" about her area of study, experimental particle physics, "because it examines the fundamental building blocks of physics in ways that consistently push the frontier of the known universe," she says.

"The research I do at Caltech with the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) group involves searching for supersymmetry at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN in Switzerland. Supersymmetry," Wang explains, "is a mathematically compelling theory that predicts an existing superpartner particle for every Standard Model particle. It helps answer a lot of big questions in physics, including some of the mysteries of dark matter, that can't be answered by the Standard Model"—the theory that describes the basic building blocks of matter and how they interact, governed by the fundamental forces. "It's a very exciting area, especially with the upcoming runs at the LHC that will reach higher energies. The discovery of the Higgs boson gave us new insights into the Standard Model, but I'm excited by what other new physics phenomena may be out there."

Wang will conduct her senior thesis work with the CMS group on campus working with Professor of Physics Maria Spiropulu. After graduation and doing graduate work in particle physics, she hopes for a professorial career in which she can both do research and teach.

Biology major Lawrence Wang, who hails from Seattle, Washington, will spend his senior year continuing an ongoing interspecies research study under the supervision of John Doyle, the Jean-Lou Chameau Professor of Control and Dynamical Systems Electrical Engineering and Bioengineering, and in collaboration with Christopher Kempes, a visitor in computing and mathematical sciences, on the diversification of life in microorganisms. In particular, Wang has identified power law relationships between basic biological features and organism size. He and Kempes are now working on a journal article about the findings.

"The complexity behind living organisms has always intrigued me," Wang says, "and biology is the science of studying the art of life. In particular, I am currently interested in molecular biology because I want to understand life at the most fundamental level." 

After graduation, Wang plans to pursue an MD/PhD. "My career aspiration is to become a physician-scientist, because I would like to blend the rigor of scientific research with the pleasure of patient interactions." As a scientist, Wang would like to focus on molecular biology to help dissect the molecular mechanisms behind disease, and develop and improve treatments. As a physician, he hopes to specialize in pediatrics and work with children. "Their optimism and resilience—and the potential to make a lasting impact on their lives as not only a physician but a counselor, teacher, and friend—draw me to the field of pediatrics," he says.

Since its first award in 1989, the Barry Goldwater Foundation has bestowed 7,163 scholarships worth approximately $46 million, including 288 scholarships for the 2014–2015 academic year. The one- and two-year scholarships will cover the cost of tuition, fees, books, and room and board up to a maximum of $7,500 per year.

Kathy Svitil
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Tuesday, October 21, 2014
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