Caltech undergraduates often spend their senior years casting a wide net of applications for graduate school funding. While all fellowships are prestigious, there are a few that are unusual in that they are intended to send students out for international experiences, typically before graduate school or even in lieu of it. The Marshall Scholarship and the Rhodes Scholarship, for example, fund students to do several years of research or study in the United Kingdom. The Watson Fellowship awards recipients with a yearlong stipend to pursue a creative, not necessarily academic, project almost anywhere in the world. And the Fulbright Scholarship sends students to study in a foreign country for up to a year, often creating a political and cultural connection in addition to an academic one. We talked to some young alumni who have received these somewhat nontraditional fellowships about the impact that these unique experiences have had on their lives, both during and after the prize.

Embracing the Unexpected

Iram Parveen Bilal
Photo courtesy of Dustin Snipes

Iram Parveen Bilal (BS ’04) had a meticulous plan for her Watson Fellowship, at the time a $25,000 prize—now $30,000—that allows recipients to travel the world in pursuit of their “deepest interest.” Though she majored in environmental science and engineering, she had a deep passion for dance—an activity that her mother, with the weight of a conservative society behind her, thought was inappropriate as a career. Bilal was determined to use her Watson year—from August 2004 to August 2005—to provide an alternative reality to the taboos against dance.

Bilal had always been interested in the performing arts, Bollywood, and dance, even while at Caltech. She took all the film courses offered at the Institute and led various performance-oriented activities, from public speaking to dancing. Nonetheless, upon getting in with a full scholarship, she attended Caltech “with vigor,” she says, to appease her parents and partly to play “safe”—until her very first research project, where being stuck in a subbasement, redundantly stringing DNA strands onto semiconductor chips, made her realize that she was made for a career with more human to human interaction. She felt she was too impatient to have an impact on others through science—she needed a more interactive form of dialogue. So her senior year she applied to film schools, at the same time applying for a Watson, hoping to use the year to learn more about the world and to challenge the opinions of dance she had grown up with. “I grew up in a family where dance was frowned upon,” she says. “My mom thought dancing was just bad. She was very resolute about it, but I was also very determined to provide her with alternate explanations.” When she received the prestigious prize, Bilal made it a goal to uncover the depths of complexity behind the seemingly simple question, why do people dance?

She spent months preparing, proposing, and planning. The fellowship took her through India, Tanzania, and Ireland, studying the motives behind dance: worship, social and religious rebellion, tribal identity. She traveled through temples and dance villages in India, to Maasai villages and tribes in Tanzania, to Irish step dancer clubs in Ireland, interviewing everyone she met. In the end, she found that she still didn’t have a concrete answer for why people dance. What she did find, however, was that rhythm and a sense of body movement was natural and woven into the fabric of life.

“Dance is a very intrinsic, innate thing,” she says. “I set out with this mission of proving something, that dance wasn’t bad, but the more you dive into knowledge, the vaster the unknowns are. Whilst I can qualify by examples that dance is innate, I can’t possibly pass a judgment one way or another. That would be too immature and impatient.”

Through her travels, though, Bilal was able to arrive at an unanticipated conclusion—that things in life don’t always work out as planned. “The Watson wasn’t really about this project, it was about the experiences,” she says.

While she traveled and wrote and filmed and researched, Bilal spent much of her time alone. “I know myself very well, and a lot of that has to do with the amount of time I spent by myself,” she says. “The Watson is all about isolation-driven learning. And through that, I found that I’m a very free soul. I’m not rigid about ideology; I’m very liberal. And, I’m bloody persistent.”

In the years following her Watson adventure, the effects of Bilal’s time abroad reverberated throughout her life. Currently, she is working on a feature film about Islamophobia and dance.

“A lot of this project has to do with the same ponderings that were the propulsion for my Watson project,” she says of the movie, called Forbidden Steps, that she began writing in 2006 and has since put aside, resurrected, and rewritten many times. “There’s something very pure and personal with this film—the research I did during the Watson is definitely going into the emotional moments in the narrative of the film.”

Plus, seeing the world alone has given Bilal a solitary travel bug. “Every six months I try to take a trip by myself to settle back and reevaluate where I’m going with my life,” she says, “to try to live in the moment, whilst still reflecting.”

On Being American

Moving to a new country on a new continent was a familiar feeling for Pradeep Ramesh (BS ’11). After spending his early childhood in India, he and his family moved to Singapore, where they lived for five years before moving to the United States when Ramesh was 12. So after finishing his bachelor’s degree in applied physics in 2011, it seemed natural to keep exploring the world.

Luckily for him, upon graduation Ramesh was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to live and study in Denmark, studying biophysics at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen. At the time he began the fellowship, he had been a U.S. citizen for just under three years.

“I was totally surprised when I got to Denmark, because suddenly I was ‘The American’” Ramesh says. “I didn’t really even think of myself as an American until recently. And suddenly here I was in Denmark—a country of five million people, 90 percent of whom are ethnically Danish—and there was some sort of expectation that I represent and ‘defend’ my country’s ideology and policies.”

Adding to that pressure, each year the Fulbright committee selects one student studying in each participating European Union country and brings them to Brussels, the capital of the EU, for a week of visiting parliament and NATO headquarters—and Ramesh was selected as the Denmark representative, a task that included conversations with EU justices, members of parliament, and ambassadors.

“I felt very lucky to be selected,” he says. “You meet some very high profile political figures. And here we were, talking to them face to face, off the record, and they really opened up. They’re not just political ‘figures’—they’re other human beings.”

One particular experience stuck with Ramesh. “We were having dinner with the commanding general of NATO, around the time that the military campaign against Libyan leader Qaddafi began,” he remembers.“The general said that one of the biggest challenges was the unit system—American fighter pilots would report the target distance in miles, and here are the British and French and Danish who are actively flying planes and trying to quickly do conversions to meters. It was so funny. We’re on the same side but we can’t seem to come to agreement on something like units or language.

“I got to learn about the nuances of diplomacy, the complicated times when there really is no right or wrong answer—it kind of banishes that subconscious idea you might have that ‘America is always right,’” he says.

When not meeting with ambassadors or traveling throughout the EU, Ramesh did have a job to do—his Fulbright research straddled the intersection of physics and biology, examining the basic compartments of life: membranes. “All forms of life on Earth are compartmentalized,” he says. “You rarely get naked DNA or RNA just floating around. I wanted to better understand the physical forces that drive compartmentalization and affect the shape of lipid membranes, which form the boundaries of cells. How did these forces then shape the evolution of life on Earth?”

Though the fellowship is intended to provide a stipend for scientific research, another big takeaway, Ramesh says, was the global perspective he gained. “Cellular life may be compartmentalized, but there’s not such distinct delineations between science, culture, people, and policies,” he says. “Science is not a pure little bubble—you can’t separate it from cultural, political, and geographical contexts.”

Ramesh’s winding journey through the world has also been a winding journey through biology. After his work on membrane biophysics, he went on to graduate studies at UC Berkeley, where he wanted to model cancer dynamics using the principles of evolutionary game theory. While there, he met Mikhail Shapiro, with whom he moved back to Caltech—where Shapiro is now an assistant professor of chemical engineering—in order to start a new lab in molecular imaging. Ramesh is currently working to advance the nascent field of magnetogenetics by trying to engineer mammalian cells to be magnetic. This would allow researchers to control cellular function noninvasively using magnetic fields.


A Global Take On Medicine

On steps in Chiloe-RESIZED-shp
Cindy Ko
Photo courtesy of Cindy Ko

Cindy Ko (BS ’07) always knew she wanted to study medicine. So when she applied for and received the Watson Fellowship during her senior year at Caltech, she designed it to expand her love for medicine globally by applying to study the relationship between indigenous medicine and Western medicine in a number of countries, including Peru, Chile, South Africa, Ghana, Benin, India, and China.

“I tried to pick locations where there was a site or particular kind of medicine that showed the day-to-day interplay between indigenous medicine traditions and Western medicine,” Ko says. “There are countries where the relationship is harmonious, like in India or China, and there are countries where the relationship is antithetic. Patients with a range of mild to serious illnesses have to do their own navigation between the two worlds, and it’s always changing.”

She had already taken a nontraditional undergraduate path to a career in medicine by majoring in mechanical engineering instead of biology. “I liked the idea of building and creating new solutions,” she says. And this experience prepared her to boldly and creatively tackle problems she encountered throughout her Watson year.

“Being a Mech-E student taught me to appreciate many ways to solve the same problem,” Ko says. “The human spirit is inventive, resourceful, and playful.” Her resourcefulness came in handy many times during her travels, such as when a computer charging cord snapped on a remote island in Chile. A replacement part was out of the question, so Ko fashioned her own repair using whatever was lying around, including the cap from her pen.

After the Watson, the transition seemed almost seamless to medical school in New York City. “New York is the best place to come back to, post-Watson,” says Ko. “I could get all my favorite West African foods just one train ride away, hear seven different languages being spoken while working at a hospital in Queens, and interact with a diverse patient population while learning medicine.”

Though indigenous medicine can sometimes be radically different from Western, the experience didn’t necessarily revolutionize Ko’s perspective on medicine. “I didn’t really have a fixed view of medicine or engineering before I left that was drastically changed by my year abroad. It felt more like I was adding to a big tapestry of things I learned and wanted to learn. Every experience has been transformative—from Caltech, to the Watson, to medical school itself.”

Ko is currently a resident in radiation oncology at the University of Wisconsin. “From my Watson experience, I’ve learned that the patient drives their own care no matter who they are seeing as their doctor,” she says. “I’ve had cancer patients who want to participate in both Western and non-Western treatments. It’s our job as physicians to keep our eyes, ears, and minds sensitive to our patients and help them find their best path.”

Life On the Edge

Peter Buhler (BS ’12) has been on a journey through every major geological epoch—by studying fossils, that is. After finishing his bachelor’s degree in geology, Buhler was awarded a Watson Fellowship to travel the world for a year studying the origins and evolution of life. The journey took him through space and time—across six continents and from the Hadean era to the Holocene.

Peter Buhler
Photo courtesy of Peter Buhler

A younger version of Buhler might be surprised at all this globe-trotting. “I grew up in the smallest state of them all—Rhode Island—living in the same house for eighteen years and attending the same school across the street for fifteen of them,” he says. “I had never really spent much time outside of the United States.”

And yet, Buhler’s Watson project was all about life that pushes the edge of biological comfort zones. He was hunting for extremophiles: organisms that live and thrive in extreme, harsh conditions. His Watson year began in Canada, where he dug up and examined dinosaur fossils; continued in Australia, where he studied stromatolites, bacterial waste products that harden into distinctive rocks; then took him to Taiwan, where he experienced an isolated island ecosystem where 25 percent of the species are endemic. Next he went to Spain, where life in the Rio Tinto survives at a pH of 2 (similar to battery acid) and provides an analog for the martian environment; then to the Atacama Desert in Chile, where photosynthetic bacteria live inside salt crystals; and finally to Peru, where Buhler observed examples of recent human evolution and the integration of indigenous people with modernized society.

“Getting my hands on fossils and seeing the crazy ways that life evolves made a deep impression on me,” he says. “Life is so adaptive, so varied, and can survive in so many ways.”

Bacteria weren’t the only organisms Buhler observed to survive in myriad ways—the scientists he interacted with around the world all had unique approaches to doing science.

“In Spain, I was at an institute a lot like Caltech—there was lots of funding, and lots of instruments,” he explains. “There’s a lot of freedom in that; it’s a privilege. But in Chile, I was basically working out of a shed with makeshift equipment. Just like different life forms can survive in different environments, scientists can survive in different working environments. And this environment shapes the way they approach their work.”

But whatever the scientific method, Buhler found one thing remained the same: people are people. “No matter where you go, there are people who will take you in and make you feel part of a community,” he says. “Each place I went, I had to explain my work often. But every time I did, I was just really excited to share my passion—the crazy ways life can survive and be resilient—with people who are figuring out their own ways to survive. No matter who they were, my work was a concept that they could relate to.”

Sharing his work became a huge part of the Watson experience for Buhler, and he started a blog titled Geolog: A Slice of Science, Topped with Humanity.

“It’s changed my mind-set from just getting work done, to really making sure it’s accessible to the public,” says Buhler. “I want to help people understand how exciting and awesome the world around them is!”

After a whirlwind adventure with the Watson, Buhler returned to Caltech for graduate school. As a third-year student, he’s not entirely sure of his plans for after his doctorate, but he has a feeling they will fall into place. “The Watson made me more aware of the opportunities I’ll have after grad school, because my field is such a big international community,” he says.

Seeking A Broader Horizon

Todd Gingrich
Photo courtesy of Todd Gingrich

Todd Gingrich (BS ’08) was interested in a Rhodes Scholarship because the program wasn’t exclusively about the science he was hoping to pursue.

“The committee likes to select people who can make things happen out of nothing,” he says, which was a concept that intrigued him. “I like the language in the selection criteria that talks about people who are ‘not mere bookworms.’”

The Rhodes funds between one and three years of study at Oxford, where students can use the grant for a master’s degree or three years of a PhD. Students selected to receive the Rhodes Scholarship are notified in person and are required to accept or reject the opportunity on the spot. Often, students haven’t had a chance to visit Oxford first—which means that expectations sometimes need to be revised.

“I only expected to do a one-year master’s program in theoretical chemistry in what Oxford calls a ‘taught course’—meaning that you take classes, do coursework, and have heavy supervision,” says Gingrich. A few months into the program, he realized that Caltech had prepared him incredibly well. “I wanted a little more of a challenge, so I switched to do a two-year research course, which is a lot more free-form.”

Gingrich wanted a change from the “trial-and-error” experimental research he had conducted at Caltech, so he applied his broad physics background to the study of theoretical chemistry at Oxford. “My master’s degree was about computational simulation methods for trying to predict the structures that certain molecules would adopt,” he says.

Gingrich liked the field so much that he went on to do a PhD in theoretical chemistry at UC Berkeley.

“Science is a rough thing to pursue, and it’s really easy to feel overworked and underappreciated. To that end, my experience with the Rhodes was actually really comforting and encouraging,” he says. “There was a broad group of people from all sorts of disciplines— law, literature, science—who were validating what I was working towards, even when it wasn’t entirely clear what I would achieve. It’s a nice feeling and it gave me a lot of confidence heading forward in my career. When science isn’t working out and you feel self-doubt, it’s amazing to have the support of these people.”

Right now, Gingrich is still pressing strongly along the academic path as a postdoc at MIT. “Academia is a little terrifying—there’s no certainty that you will get a faculty position,” he says. “But I try to stay calm about it. My experiences with the Rhodes and at Berkeley have taught me that there’s no shortage of other interesting things in the world to do.”


To the U.K., With Love

Emma Schmidgall
Photo courtesy of Emma Schmidgall

If you had told Emma Schmidgall (BS ’07) as an undergraduate that she would earn a Doctor of Philosophy in physics in 2015, she probably wouldn’t have been surprised. But Schmidgall would never have guessed that she would receive said degree from the Technion Israel Institute of Technology, by way of the United Kingdom.

“During undergrad, I studied abroad in England, and really I was just so excited to return,” she says of the prestigious two-year Marshall Scholarship that landed her back in the U.K. after graduation. There, she planned to spend one year at Cambridge University, studying physics for a Master of Philosophy degree, and one year at the University of Edinburgh, studying science policy. But ultimately Schmidgall decided against the cold, dark, and rain of Edinburgh, and she spent the second year of her Marshall Scholarship at Imperial College London studying nanomaterials.

“Everything I learned in my two years are things I use every day,” she says of the research she conducted in Cambridge and London on quantum information in semiconductor quantum dots. She loved the subject so much that she specifically sought out similar research groups when applying for her PhD.

Technion had just the sort of quantum information research Schmidgall loved—and it just so happened to be in a country that she had spent some time in. Just before she left with her Marshall Scholarship in 2007, Schmidgall ran into an old high school friend, Shachar Raindel, who lived in Israel. They hit it off and went on to date long-distance for the entirety of Schmidgall’s time in the U.K. The flight to Israel was only four hours, so she alternated weekends between traveling Europe and visiting Raindel. After her two Marshall years, Schmidgall moved to Israel to work as a process engineer at a semiconductor laboratory, and later began graduate school.

“We’ve been married for three years now!” she says.

The Marshall Scholarship seemed to guide Schmidgall quite naturally into her current line of research, but the full effect on her life is yet to be determined, she says.

“It was an amazing, awesome experience, and I’d highly recommend it,” says Schmidgall. “There’s this beaten path at Caltech that so many people take, where you go straight to grad school and never really get a chance to stop and look around. So for me, having two years to do something totally different was just fantastic!”