When Science Mentors Art, and Art Plays with Science

"I'm trying to do my best to put science on stage—because science is going to save us."
— Tira Palmquist, author of "Two Degrees"

When Tira Palmquist wrote her play "Two Degrees," focusing on a female climatologist dealing with personal grief and professional strain, she knew she had to get the science—and the scientist protagonist—just right.

Fortunately, the Orange County playwright discovered a ready resource in a four-year-old theater festival called "MACH 33: The Festival of New Science-Driven Plays at Caltech," presented by Theater Arts at Caltech. MACH 33 pairs playwrights with science advisers from Caltech and JPL who can inform the plays' fictional worlds with scientific authenticity and insight to produce richer dramatic works.

Mach 33 linked Palmquist with Jennifer Walker, a Caltech environmental science doctoral student in Simona Bordoni's research group, who helped shape Palmquist's understanding of her protagonist's work. For example, Walker suggested specifying that the character, originally conceived as a "climate scientist," be recast as a specialist in paleoclimatology—someone whose job is literally to drill deep into the past. The change presented the author with an unexpectedly rich metaphor for the protagonist's desire to understand her own personal history.

Walker says her six-week stint as a science adviser "was interesting and exciting. I had never been involved in theater before and to see this story—especially about a person in a related field—come to life on stage was really fun. There aren't a lot of plays about scientists, so it's nice to have that kind of representation." She praised the program as a means of making science more accessible and welcoming to lay audiences "and helping engage people and open up a whole world for those who might not be thinking about science."

In 2013, Caltech formalized the festival, to allow for development of new plays at the nexus of science and art. Since then, MACH 33 has featured plays dealing with such scientific subjects as climate change, quantum information theory, the discovery of Pluto, space flight, cold fusion, and ecology. MACH 33 refers to both the speed at which an object on earth reaches escape velocity and breaks free of its gravity—about 33 times the speed of sound—and, more figuratively, to the innovative, dynamic breakthroughs that the scientists and artists achieve together. This year, the Caltech student-driven theater group EXPLiCIT has joined the team to help produce and develop the festival.

To find plays, Brian Brophy, director of Theater Arts at Caltech since 2008 and artistic director of Mach 33, and Arden Thomas, associate artistic director of MACH 33, solicit submissions by playwrights from Caltech, JPL, and the larger Los Angeles community. Playwrights of chosen works are then matched up with science advisers—usually Caltech PhD students—who work with the playwrights for several months developing the science in the plays. During that collaboration, there may be several informal readings of the plays to provide the playwright with additional feedback. Thomas said writers consider the festival to be extraordinarily useful, noting, "They leap at the chance to get the science right."

After workshopping the plays throughout the academic year, MACH 33 stages readings of the plays during a festival in the spring. This month, MACH 33 has presented four such productions, including a comedy about selling your soul for science, a historical fantasy about the discovery of Pluto, a play about the Los Angeles aqueduct and the drought in the Owens Valley, and a screenplay about Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, winner of the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Brophy says that, through MACH 33, the playwrights and scientists have been able to work together to produce scientifically accurate drama by balancing the needs of art with the rigor of science. "You don't want to sacrifice the theatrical, artistic element of the play just to get the science right," Brophy explains, "but at the same time you don't want to sacrifice the science to have a piece of theater. These two things have to work together."

In the end, Thomas says, science and art are often two sides of the same coin: pushing boundaries, seeing the world in novel ways. "Scientists and artists are doing the same thing," she notes. "They're creating, they're discovering, they're taking risks, they're failing—and they're trying again."

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A Celebration of the Performing and Visual Arts at Caltech

On May 21, 2016 at Pasadena's Ambassador Auditorium, the Caltech Concert Band, Glee Club, Jazz Band, Orchestra, and a few of the Institute's many chamber music groups will take the stage for a unique Performing and Visual (PVA) Showcase. The one-night event—featuring over 200 Caltech students—also will include a reprisal of favorite scenes from Boldly Go!, Theater Arts at Caltech's recent Star Trek musical parody, as well as presentations from students in the course Storytelling for Scientists (PA040C), taught by lecturer and Boldly Go! director Brian Brophy. In addition, select works from Caltech's visual artists will be displayed in the Ambassador lobby—which also will feature pre-showcase performances by additional chamber groups.

The idea for the first-of-its-kind showcase originated in 2014, when William (Bill) Bing, director of the Caltech-Occidental Concert Band (and former director of the Caltech Jazz Band), was looking for a world-class venue in which the band could perform; in prior years, the band had played at Carnegie Hall in New York and Beijing's Tsinghua University, among other locales. Bing hoped to next take the group to Italy, but the trip proved too expensive. Then long-time ensemble member, guest conductor, and Caltech professor of geology and geochemistry Paul Asimow (MS '93, PhD '97) suggested an alternative: Pasadena's Ambassador Auditorium. Bill and his wife Delores, founder and director of Caltech's chamber music program, had both played the Ambassador in the past—Bill on trumpet and Delores on cello—so they knew the acoustics well. The pair decided that this local performance should include all of the different performing and visual arts groups at Caltech, and the showcase was born.

While plans for the showcase developed, Bill and Delores made the decision to retire from Caltech in 2016, after a combined 75-plus years heading the Caltech's music program. Friends and colleagues made the obvious connection, determining that the showcase should honor the Bings. The call for a celebration of the Bings was not surprising, as the pair is well known across campus to current and former undergraduate and graduate students, staff, faculty, and others.

"Bill is one of the kindest people I know," says Rebecca Glaudell, a graduate student in physics. "I found out about Caltech's music program the week before I started classes at Caltech. I hadn't even brought my trumpet to California, but Bill was able to lend me an instrument until I had mine shipped. He really looks out for the members of the band."

"As a student, I greatly looked forward to getting my brain away from the technical world and into the world of sound and music," recalls Robert M. Manning (BS '81) of JPL, chief engineer for the Mars Pathfinder flight system. "Bill was gentle, fun, always self-deprecating, and respectful and enthusiastic even when we rolled late into his rehearsals in the Beckman basement disorganized, tired, unprepared, and unpracticed. Within an hour of being with Bill, we were full of energy and focus and found our groove as if we had practiced all week. We did it as much for Bill as for ourselves."

Clare Hao, a freshman clarinetist who is "thrilled" to be playing at the Ambassador, describes the Bings as "amazing" people. "They are very enthusiastic and supportive of everyone's musical endeavors, and they are always a great reminder of why I love music." Victor Tsai (BS '04), assistant professor of geophysics and an alumnus of the music program, was coached by Delores. "She was always so nice and understanding, and was somehow able to bring out the most musicality we had in us," he says.

"What sets Caltech's PVA program apart from those at other higher education institutions is their all-inclusiveness and the depth of their community integration," notes Tiffany Kim, grants administrator in the Division of Humanities and Social Sciences, who has participated in the program as both an alto and an actor. "From the moment I came on the scene, it felt so warm and inviting that it was hard not to keep coming back!"

Leslie Deutsch, deputy director for the Interplanetary Network Directorate at JPL, is another who has kept coming back—literally, for decades. Deutsch joined the Caltech Band as a freshman in 1972 and the Caltech Jazz Band in 1973, and began playing the organ at Caltech's commencement ceremony in 1974. Because of his father's connection to the Bings, Deutsch's son Elliot began trumpet lessons with Bill as a child. Today he heads up the Elliot Deutsch Big Band, a Los Angeles-based swing band. After learning that Bill was retiring, Elliot composed a piece titled Lyric/Endurance Suite in Bill's honor. ("Lyric Endurance" is the title of a series of trumpet exercises Bill developed for his students.) Elliiot's piece will premier at the PVA showcase.

Bill and Delores are coming to terms with their decision to retire, but both say that they will really miss the students. "I enjoy being around smart people, and I enjoy being around nice people, and Caltech students have both those qualities," Bill says.

However, long after the Bings depart, a new endowment created in their honor—the Bing Fund for the Arts at Caltech—will continue to help students. "The Bings have left a marvelous legacy in the form of a vibrant music program that forms an important part of the student experience at Caltech," says Joseph E. Shepherd, vice president for student affairs and C. L. Kelly Johnson Professor of Aeronautics and Mechanical Engineering. "Music and more broadly, the arts, complement our students' intense education in technology and the sciences. I am hoping that all the supporters of the music and arts program at Caltech will join me in helping ensure that our present and future students will continue to enjoy the marvelous benefits of these programs."

The Performing and Visual Arts Showcase is funded by the Office of the President, Caltech Student Affairs, the Alumni Association, and the Moore-Hufstedler Fund. Tickets are $10 for students, $25 for general admission, and $50 for premiere seating, and can be purchased by visiting music.caltech.edu and clicking the link for the showcase, or by calling (818) 538-4911. Net proceeds will go to the Bing Fund for the Arts at Caltech. Donations to the Bing Fund also can be made at http://breakthrough.caltech.edu/.

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Two Caltech Seniors Win Hertz Fellowships

The Fannie and John Hertz Foundation has selected two Caltech seniors, Kurtis Carsch and Paul Dieterle, to receive 2016 Hertz Fellowships. A total of 12 students were selected from more than 800 applicants and will receive up to five years of support for their graduate studies.

Carsch and Dieterle bring the number of Caltech undergraduate students who have received the Hertz fellowship to 62.

Kurtis Carsch, a chemistry major from Bellevue, Washington, attributes his interest in chemistry to playing with LEGO blocks at a young age—paving the way for his current focus on what he describes as "combining elements to create molecules with unprecedented properties." His work experiences at SAFCell and Honeywell UOP, as well as his research experiences at Caltech with William A. Goddard, the Charles and Mary Ferkel Professor of Chemistry, Materials Science, and Applied Physics; and professor of chemistry Theodor Agapie, have focused on the interface between experimental and theoretical chemistry. He will receive both a BS and an MS in chemistry this spring and begin his PhD work in inorganic chemistry at Harvard University in the fall, where he, inspired by multimetallic enzymes in biology, will study the manipulation of chemical bonds by multiple metal centers. Carsch is also a recipient of a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.

Paul Dieterle is a senior in applied physics from Albuquerque, New Mexico. While attending high school in Madison, Wisconsin, Dieterle discovered a passion for physics, as well as for rock climbing and creative writing. At Caltech, he has worked and studied under the guidance of Oskar Painter, the John G. Braun Professor of Applied Physics and Fletcher Jones Foundation Co-Director of the Kavli Nanoscience Institute; professor of physics Maria Spiropulu, professor of applied physics Keith Schwab, and the late professor Tom Tombrello. His research focuses on the physics of superconducting quantum circuits, photon-phonon interactions, and many-body interactions. In the long term, he says, he aims to "construct integrated quantum systems to explore both fundamental and application-oriented physics." Dieterle will also attend Harvard University in the fall, pursuing a PhD in quantum physics.

According to the Hertz Foundation, fellows are chosen for their intellect, their ingenuity, and their potential to bring meaningful improvement to society. "Following in the footsteps of Hertz Fellows who have come before them, these young men and women will utilize this fellowship to pursue work that will have a tremendous impact on the future of our country and society as a whole," said Robbee Baker Kosak, Hertz Foundation president, in a statement.

Since 1963, the Hertz Foundation has awarded fellowships to students they describe as "the best and brightest" from the fields of science and engineering. The highly competitive selection process for the Hertz Fellowship includes a comprehensive written application, four references, and two rounds of technical interviews. 

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Kurtis Carsch and Paul Dieterle have been selected to receive Hertz Fellowships.

STEM Olympians Come to Campus

One thousand of Southern California's brightest middle- and high-school students came to Caltech this past Saturday as the Institute hosted the Southern California finals of a nationwide science and engineering competition. Caltech students from across campus seized the opportunity to show off the Institute, to demonstrate Caltech's commitment to K-12 educational outreach, and participate in a program designed to help students start their careers in science and technology.

Science Olympiad, one of the country's premier science competitions, has been fostering student interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields since the 1980s. Each year, tens of thousands of elementary-, middle-, and high-school students participate in regional meets, with the latter two groups advancing to the state and national levels. Tournaments consist of multiple events that involve laboratory investigation, hands-on engineering, or a written test.

Caltech's involvement with Science Olympiad dates back to 2004: hosting coaches' workshops, designing and scoring regional and state tournaments, and supporting practice competitions. (Observant viewers of the CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory—much of which purportedly takes place at Caltech—can spot a Science Olympiad brochure on a cafeteria wall in two recent episodes.) But last Saturday was the first time the campus has hosted a meet.

The tournament involved 17 campus buildings and 46 events. Sixty teams, each the winner of a regional competition, chose from among physiology, hydrogeology, protein modeling, and other subjects atypical of the standard pre-college curriculum.

To provide logistical support, Caltech Science Olympiad Club copresidents Nick Trank, a sophomore, and Tony Zhang, a senior, assembled a group of roughly 150 volunteers. "Most were Techers," says Trank, "but some came from UCLA, USC, and other schools." The Caltech Y, which has supported Science Olympiad in recent years through its Make-A-Difference Day, provided volunteers in connection with its centennial celebration. And more than a few walk-ons turned up. "Caltech students and alumni are really into events like this," says sophomore Stephanie Gu, "and this was a local event, so we got a lot more volunteers than we usually do."

One non-local volunteer was former competitor (and Caltech Prank Club president) Julie Jester (BS '14), who flew in from France just for the event. "There was no way I was missing [Science Olympiad at Caltech] after working so hard to get it there," she says. "Science Olympiad is the reason I decided that I wanted to become an engineer."

Sophomore Tiffany Zhang and junior Tyler Okamoto were kept busy coordinating events, while Gu's responsibilities included scorer support. "Scoring can be challenging," she says. "A written test with an answer key, like the Disease Detectives event, might take a few hours to score. But Experimental Design, an engineering event, took six."

The overall winner of the Division B competition (middle school) was Muscatel Middle School from Rosemead—their eighth state win in a row—and the overall winner of the Division C competition (high school) was Troy High School, a Fullerton magnet school that has won the state competition every year since 1996. Both will go on to the national finals at the University of Wisconsin-Stout in May. "Those schools have incredibly dedicated students, parents, and coaches," notes Trank. "Muscatel has hosted an invitational tournament for the past five years, and Troy has weekly after-school study sessions."

For Zhang, one of the day's greatest challenges was not connected to academics. "Most Science Olympiad awards ceremonies start late and run long," he says. "We thought hard about how to streamline ours. We watched videos from other meets and timed how long each portion took. In the end, our ceremony started a little late, but it finished early."

The ceremony opened with a pair of recorded messages. Stephen Hawking welcomed the Beckman Auditorium overflow crowd of family, friends, and locals. Then Caltech President Thomas Rosenbaum expressed the Institute's gratitude at being able to host the event because "having incredibly talented young men and women on our campus doing great things is exactly what we like to see."

And what does it take to be invited to host a statewide science competition? In this case, student leaders strategized for years, then coordinated with administrators to petition the Science Olympiad national organization. "The Caltech administration was tremendously supportive," acknowledges Trank. "They've been as excited as we are." In the future, he hopes Caltech will have the opportunity to host more statewide meets, perhaps even the nationals. "We've got great facilities. We've got great people. And what better opportunity is there to get these young students onto campus?"

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One thousand middle- and high-school students came to Caltech recently as the Institute hosted the Southern California Science Olympiad finals.

Caltech Students and Alumni Receive 2016 NSF Graduate Research Fellowships

This year, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has selected 20 current Caltech students and 13 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.

The NSF notes that the Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) "is a critical program in NSF's overall strategy to develop the globally-engaged workforce necessary to ensure the nation's leadership in advancing science and engineering research and innovation." The selection criteria used to identify NSF fellows reflect the potential of the applicant to advance knowledge and benefit society.

Caltech's awardees for 2016 are seniors Kurtis Mickel Carsch, Webster Guan, Soumya Kannan, Emil Timergalievich Khabiboullin, Laura Shou, and Karthik Guruswamy Siva; and graduate students Hannah Marie Allen, Charles H. Arnett, Sarah Michelle Cohen, Heidi Klumpe, Rachel Ann Krueger, Usha Farey Lingappa, Joseph P. Messinger, Andres Ortiz-Munoz, Shyam M. Saladi, Lee Michael Saper, Nancy Helen Thomas, Annelise Christine Thompson, Elise M. Tookmanian, and Jeremy Chi-Pang Tran. The graduate student awardees join 136 current NSF fellows enrolled at Caltech, representing approximately 20 percent of the domestic graduate student population.

Caltech alumni in the 2016 class of Graduate Fellows are: Sidney Douglas Buchbinder, Kaitlin Ching, Katherine Jennie Fisher, Emmett Daniel Goodman, Edward W. Huang, Jacqueline Maslyn, Misha Raffiee, Connor Edwin Rosen, Nicole Nisha Thadani, Malvika Verma, Eugene Aaron Vinitsky, Yushu Joy Xie, and Doris Xin.

In total this year, the NSF selected 2,000 GRFP recipients from a pool of nearly 17,000 applicants. Caltech's Fellowships Advising & Study Abroad Office works with current students and recent Caltech graduates interested in applying for an NSF fellowship, sponsoring a panel discussion of previous winners each fall and offering one-on-one advising.

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20 current Caltech students and 13 alumni will receive fellowships to support graduate study.

Kannan Receives Fulbright Fellowship

Soumya Kannan, a senior bioengineering major, has been selected to receive a Fulbright Fellowship to pursue research and graduate study in Denmark.

The Fulbright Program is the U.S. government's premier scholarship program. Set up by Congress in 1946 to foster mutual understanding among nations through educational and cultural exchanges, Fulbright grants enable U.S. students and artists to benefit from unique resources in every corner of the world. Each year, approximately 1,200 Americans study or conduct research in more than 150 nations through the Fulbright Program.

Kannan will be working at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) in the Department of Systems Biology, developing a mathematical model for promoter activity—promoters are a class of genetic elements that initiate transcription of a gene—in Saccaromyces cerevisiae, a species of yeast. Additionally, she will be pursuing master's coursework in bioinformatics and systems biology.

"Recent developments in the fields of systems biology and synthetic biology have greatly expanded our ability to use engineering principles to model, design, program, and control behavior of organisms at a cellular level," says Kannan. "Promoters are critical to this design process, as they drive the level at which a gene is expressed and its expression pattern over time, and thus offer control over intracellular pathways. The ability to have fine-tuned control over genetic elements leads to more effective implementation of circuits and pathways in biological systems."

Kannan has worked in the lab of Mitchell Guttman, assistant professor of biology, since her sophomore year, studying long non-coding RNA, or lncRNA, a class of regulatory molecules, first characterized by Guttman, that are involved in genome regulation and cellular organization.

Kannan, a native of Northern California, has had prior international academic experience—in the winter term of the 2014-15 academic year, she participated in Caltech's Cambridge Scholars study abroad program at the University of Cambridge. During her time at Caltech, she was a four-year member of the women's water polo team, earning the Most Valuable Player award in 2014 and 2015, as well as Academic All-SCIAC (Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference) honors for those two years. Kannan has also participated as an editor and photographer for the Caltech yearbook.

"Soumya Kannan exemplifies how Caltech students can excel in academics, while also having range of activities in leadership and sports," says Lauren Stolper, the director of Fellowships Advising, Study Abroad, and the Career Development Center. "She will be an exemplar for Caltech and the U.S. during her stay in Denmark."

After her Fulbright year, Kannan will be pursuing her PhD in biological engineering at MIT.

"I am grateful for the opportunity provided by the Fulbright Fellowship to live abroad and immerse myself in a culturally new environment," Kannan says. "DTU also has a fantastic Department of Systems Biology, and I am excited to explore the research and academic opportunities at the university."

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Soumya Kannan, a senior bioengineering major, has been selected to receive a Fulbright Fellowship to pursue research and graduate study in Denmark.

April Fools, The Caltech Way

At Caltech, pranks are an integral part of student life. Over the years students pranked their comrades, student Houses pranked other Houses, and their witty machinations often spread outside campus.

The pranks were varied, involving furniture, vehicles, and even architecture, but all share the trademark Caltech ingenuity, and the sheer pleasure of working together to solve difficult problems. This light side of Caltech life, on par with scientific achievement, remains a highlight among the memories of many alumni.

For this year's April Fools Day, the Caltech Archives pay a photographic tribute to all the Caltech students who, over the decades, have used their creativity, imagination and hard work to explore not only the boundaries of science, but also those of humor and merriment.

—Written by Elisa Piccio

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Caltech Athletics Welcomes Women's Soccer

The Caltech Athletics program is adding a women's soccer team to its roster, beginning in fall 2017. The move is both in response to direct requests from the community and a desire to further enhance the programming and services provided to an ever-more diverse community.

"The addition of this team offers current and prospective students more choice, making Caltech more appealing as a destination of choice for scholar-athletes," says Joe Shepherd, the vice president for student affairs and C. L. Kelly Johnson Professor of Aeronautics and Mechanical Engineering.

Caltech currently fields 19 varsity teams, including men's and women's basketball, cross-country, fencing, swimming and diving, tennis, track and field, and water polo, as well as women's volleyball and men's baseball and soccer. The teams, which draw players from approximately 20 percent of the student body, compete as members of the NCAA Division III and Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SCIAC). Caltech is the only institution in the SCIAC that does not currently sponsor women's soccer. Over 97 percent of all schools in Division III sponsor women's soccer, with over 10,000 women competing across the country—the highest female participation rate of any sport in Division III.

"I am thrilled to be able to provide this opportunity for the young women who are already enrolled at Caltech and who will be looking to join the campus in future years," says Betsy Mitchell, Caltech's director of athletics, physical education, and recreation. "Women's soccer is one of the fastest growing sports, both nationally and internationally."

At Caltech, female undergraduates are currently eligible to play on the men's soccer team, and, as Mitchell notes, women have played on the team every season since she arrived on campus in 2011. Additionally, Caltech Athletics has previously sponsored women's soccer at the club level.

The decision to create an independent team for these and other female scholar-athletes and to provide them with an opportunity to compete at a collegiate level on a par with many of their colleagues was carefully considered, she said. Factoring into the administration's final decision was the strong interest in the sport both on campus and in the world at large, as well as the availability of field space and a convenient season of competition, among other things. Women's soccer will be the first new addition of a varsity team to the department since women's water polo was added in 2003.

The first step in establishing the women's soccer team will take place this spring, when Athletics plans to hire a coach to build the program while also teaching physical education classes (as does each coach at Caltech). In the fall of 2017, the team will begin play, but with a reduced schedule—likely eight games, one with each team in the conference.

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The Caltech Athletics program is adding a women's soccer team to its roster, beginning in fall 2017.

Celebrating Pi Day 2016

Today's the day to grab a big piece of π.

In celebration of International Pi Day, March 14, the Caltech community honored the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter with its annual pie-eating event at 1:59 a.m. at the Olive Walk, where 26 each of five different flavors of pie were served (pictured at right). This year, the Caltech bookstore is also in on the action with a Pi Day sale. In previous years, festivities have included building a paper chain with the digits of pi on it and a Pi Day Collage.

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Seeking a Balanced Equation

In the most recent issue of E&S magazine we feature a handful of the more than 1,200 graduate students at Caltech who are creating and discovering new knowledge as they train to become scientific researchers.

Read more on the E&S website about their work building autonomous underwater vehicles and studying supernovae, performing musical spoofs and creating bike-share programs, mentoring women in STEM and playing for Caltech's cricket club.

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Graduate students talk about the work they love and the campus activities that round out their lives.

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