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.


Photo: Courtesy of Celso Flores

No Rest for a Nobelist–Rudolph A. Marcus

Rudolph A. Marcus (1923–)
Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1992 “for his contributions to the theory of electron transfer reactions in chemical systems”

Marcus, the John G. Kirkwood and Arthur A. Noyes Professor of Chemistry, discussed his post-Nobel experience in a recent interview.

“Life certainly became busier. I tried and did maintain the research program at the same rate as before in terms of number of people that were with me and in terms of doing things on my own. All along, I continued to do some thinking on my own; I just enjoy playing with ideas involving theory and trying to understand some experiments.

“In addition to having what I had before, then there were all these invitations that really arose primarily because of the Nobel Prize.

“But it meant for a far busier life, and doing new activities that took a lot of time made doing research on one’s own a little more difficult.

“There are various unanswered problems in fields that I’ve been involved with, including some that my group and I are working on currently, so I am excited to find the answers to those problems. For example, the field of ‘single molecule’ experiments has provided new challenges. In one study of a biological molecular motor, we have applied theories about how chemical and mechanical aspects within the system might work to data from single molecule experiments to build a more detailed model of the motors. To learn more, we are applying the same method to another type of single molecule experimental results on the same system.”

“The common theme is seeing something which is a puzzle and trying to find an answer to it. . . . It goes back to doing puzzles as a child, actually.”

Header image credit: Caltech

No Rest for a Nobelist–David Baltimore

David Baltimore (1938–)
Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1975 (with Renato Dulbecco and Howard Martin Temin) “for their discoveries concerning the interaction between tumour viruses and the genetic material of the cell”

Baltimore, the Robert Andrews Millikan Professor of Biology, and President Emeritus of Caltech, was interviewed recently about his life and work after the prize.

“When you win the Nobel Prize, you become much more visible as a member of the scientific community. Visible to the press, visible to your colleagues, visible to students. Today, and ever since, when I meet a student, I know that they’re looking at me and saying, ‘That’s a Nobel Prize winner.’ And it actually makes normal communication more difficult because they think I come from some other planet.

“I had to accept the medal of speaking for the scientific community and have spent now basically almost all of my career as a sort of visible member of the scientific community, conscious of a responsibility and an opportunity.

“I’ve been involved in some of the biggest changes in the nature of biology, the way we do it, and the controversies that have been associated with that. Probably the biggest one was the recombinant DNA controversy in 1975, partly as a result of my work. We suddenly realized that there was a new capability, the capability to cut and paste DNA and therefore to move genes from one organism to another, to modify genes, to capture genes, to use them in biotechnology, and that was a monumental new way of looking at biological experimentation and the capabilities of our profession. But it also raised the issue of whether we were going to create some kind of monster, some kind of problem, disease-causing organisms. And so the world got pretty worried about that.

“I was part of the organization that put together the Asilomar Conference, a conference that looked at this question of danger coming from the new capabilities and put in place a procedure whereby we could slowly extend the capabilities to new organisms and new ways of doing science with safe checks along the way so that this was done carefully over a decade. And I think that gave the general public a sense that we were being responsible as scientists.

“Inevitably the biggest impact that people will have seen from my career is the discovery of the reverse transcriptase because that won the Nobel Prize and stood out. I think that in all of the areas where I’ve worked, there are personal satisfactions which are as great as that— the success of my students.”

Header image credit: Caltech

No Rest for a Nobelist–Robert H. Grubbs

Robert H. Grubbs (1942–)
Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2005 (with Yves Chauvin and Richard R. Schrock) “for the development of the metathesis method in organic synthesis”

Grubbs, the Victor and Elizabeth Atkins Professor of Chemistry, talked about life after the Nobel in a recent interview.

“I really liked doing what I was doing before [the prize], so I’ve mostly continued doing that. I think my wife had the best statement on it. She said, ‘We now drink better wine and we dance more.’

“I’m getting old, so I’m going to have fun now. Part of what we’re doing is making better catalysts. . . . We’re also trying to define and find new transformations that use catalysts to convert a molecule, one into another one.

“There’s a new Hepatitis C treatment, and one of the molecules that is involved in that new treatment, which finally cures Hepatitis C, is a molecule made using our chemistry.

“And then another whole area which I’ve been working on for a long time, which is sort of my hobby now, is developing materials for biomedical applications.

“We probably have 10 different projects going now that are developing materials for really interesting [medical] applications. . . . It’s not biology; it’s what I call plumbing, and we’re having a good time developing these materials.

“The only thing going forward is that I hope we can have the opportunity to keep going for quite a while and these wonderful students keep showing up, and postdocs. I’d like to have a chance to do a few more things.”

Header image credit: Caltech

No Rest for a Nobelist–Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman (1918–1988)
Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965 (with Sin-Itiro Tomonaga and Julian Schwinger) “for their fundamental work in quantum electrodynamics, with deep-ploughing consequences for the physics of elementary particles”

In January 2016, Caltech held an event celebrating the legacy of Richard Feynman, which included a long and revered teaching career both at the Institute and through a series of lectures aimed at laypeople interested in physics.

In a blog tribute titled “The Best Teacher I Never Had” and written for the event, Bill Gates remembers how he stumbled upon Feynman’s lectures.

“A friend and I were planning a trip together and wanted to mix a little learning in with our relaxation. We looked at a local university’s film collection, saw that they had one of his lectures on physics, and checked it out. We loved it so much that we ended up watching it twice. Feynman had this amazing knack for making physics clear and fun at the same time. I immediately went looking for more of his talks, and I’ve been a big fan ever since. Years later I bought the rights to those lectures and worked with Microsoft to get them posted online for free.

“In that sense, Feynman has a lot in common with all the amazing teachers I’ve met in schools across the country. You walk into their classroom and immediately feel the energy—the way they engage their students—and their passion for whatever subject they’re teaching.”

Header image of Richard Feynman courtesy of the Caltech Archives


Seeking a Broader Horizon

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.”

Photo: Courtesy of Todd Gingrich

A Global Take on Medicine

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.”

Photo: Courtesy of Cindy Ko

Embracing the Unexpected

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.”

Photo: Courtesy of Dustin Snipes

The Science of Economics

John Ledyard is an economist, but when he talks about the work that he and his colleagues who study socioeconomic systems at Caltech have completed over the last decade with the support of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, he looks to astronomy for an appropriate metaphor. He’s trying to find a way to explain the importance and utility of a suite of software they have developed.

“It’s kind of like building a new, powerful telescope,” Ledyard says. “It’s not that all of the astronomers using that telescope are working on the same thing, but because of the larger telescope, they can all do a lot more, different work. What the Moore Foundation grant enabled us to do was to build a bigger measurement device.”

The new software, along with funding, has enabled researchers to create and run experiments in the lab to test all sorts of market systems involving social interactions—everything from the effect of inequality on tax rates to the best way for the United Nations to auction off pallets of natural rubber in Vietnam.

Click here to read the full feature.

Full Circle Physics

With the help of interviews conducted by IQIM communications coordinator Crystal Dilworth (PhD ’14) and filmmaker Iram Parveen Bilal (BS ’04), E&S has delved into the thinking of several IQIM scientists about the frontiers of quantum science, the role IQIM plays in exploring that frontier, and the question oft thought but rarely spoken: Why should we care? Here—in a “conversation” assembled from separate interviews—are some of their insights into what makes the world of the tiny such a big deal.

Click here to read the full feature.

Unlocking the Chemistry of Life

Scientists can easily sequence an entire genome in just a day or two, but sequencing a proteome—all of the proteins encoded by a genome—is a much greater challenge says Ray Deshaies, protein biologist and founder of the PEL.

“One challenge is the amount of protein. If you want to sequence a person’s DNA from a few of their cheek cells, you first amplify—or make copies of—the DNA so that you’ll have a lot of it to analyze. However, there is no such thing as protein amplification,” Deshaies says.

Click here to read the whole feature.

Viral Videos (And Bacterial Ones, Too)

Grant Jensen is taking what he’s learned over the past 13 years using cryo-EM and sharing it with the world through a series of online videos that serve as visual textbooks to teach to the world the skills and knowledge needed for cryo-EM studies.

“The nature of our work is very visual,” says Jensen, a biologist who is one of just a handful of experts in this growing field, in which the electron imaging of cryogenic samples allows scientists to image biological specimens in as close to a natural, or native, state as possible.

Click here to read the full feature.