Graduate students are tasked with a nearly impossible feat: spend seemingly endless hours doing research in the lab, complete at least a few years of coursework, study for and pass the dreaded qualifying exam, assume teaching assistant responsibilities, and of course—the be-all, end-all source of grad student grief—write and successfully defend a thesis. On top of all that, many PhD students at Caltech are in their 20s and 30s, formative years in which they are working to create a path toward careers they love, developing long-term relationships, building a community of friends, and filling nonwork hours with activities they enjoy. In other words, they are also working to build a fulfilling life while reaching their academic goals.
At Caltech, more than 1,200 students—most working toward their PhDs, as only a handful of master’s programs are offered—are pursuing not only academic excellence in six different divisions, but hoping to reach beyond their research to create a multifaceted life that balances work in the lab with social and societal pursuits. Luckily, they have some help along the way. The campus abounds with clubs, organizations, and support structures—many that cater specifically to graduate students and that are run by the students, for the students.
Here are just a handful of graduate students talking about their research, their life outside the lab, and how Caltech supports a vibrant community beyond the undergraduate level.
HEATHER CURTIS, second-year graduate student in developmental biology.
Hometown: Grapevine, Texas
Research: Curtis is studying the directional cues that guide migrating cells during fly development.
“My work involves live imaging in Drosophila embryos, and I am learning some pretty neat tricks to visualize transient phenomena. Currently I am working on two methods of visualizing polarized receptor-mediated endocytosis within a group of migrating cells because I suspect that it contributes toward directional migration.
I lived in Dallas, Texas, and New York City before coming to Caltech. Both cities were great, but it was time for something totally different. That is why when I saw parrots and mountains from the Caltech campus I knew that I could not resist coming here. Apparently the parrots spend their summer days happily munching on tree fruits right outside my lab making the most amusing noises. This place is a paradise!
My first year here I was involved in two Caltech theater performances, Alice Through the Wormhole and Two Degrees. The first was a super funny, original musical spoof on academia, and the second was a serious play-reading meant to educate the audience about global warming and science advocacy. Before Caltech I didn’t know plays about science existed! I have made many friends from Theater Arts Caltech, or TACIT, and look forward to the many plays to come.
What I look forward to most each week is a club that my friends and I hold called The Bioengineering Boba-Talks. It’s a combination of all the best things! We come together and take turns informally presenting our current or past research for an hour, and then go out for boba tea or ice cream!”
Theater Arts at Caltech, or TACIT, typically produces and performs 2 or 3 plays each academic year. A musical parody based on Star Trek and called Boldly Go!—written by a grad student in theoretical physics, Grant Remmen, and his brother, Cole—is expected to debut in early 2016.
DOROTHY PAN, fourth-year graduate student in chemistry, sixth-year MD/PhD student.
Hometown: Saratoga, California.
Research: Pan makes nanoparticles for the targeted delivery of therapeutics to tumors. In particular, the therapeutic she is trying to deliver is small interfering RNA (siRNA), molecules that researchers believe have the potential to knock down genes associated with diseases like cancer and macular degeneration.
“Nanoparticle drug delivery is exciting because the principal investigator I’m working with, Caltech chemical engineer Mark Davis, has already translated two therapies from the lab to the clinic, and has shown that they are incredibly effective yet have few adverse effects. This makes a huge difference to the quality of life for patients by allowing them to continue their normal activities while being treated for their disease.
I am an MD/PhD student, so where I would be doing my medical training was as important to me as where I would be doing my graduate work. As a medical student at the University of Southern California (USC) training mainly at the Los Angeles County + USC Medical Center, I am exposed to patients from many different backgrounds with interesting illnesses and am also able to contribute a lot to their care directly.
The first time I met people at Caltech who weren’t in my lab was at a Catalina community associate (CCA) dessert night when I started working the summer before first year. I have been a CCA since then, and am currently a resident associate (RA) in the Catalina apartments. We plan a variety of academic, athletic, cultural, and social events for the community that allow the students to meet each other, especially fellow students outside their department or lab, over food or a shared interest.
I’ve played the flute and piccolo in the Caltech-Occidental Symphony Orchestra ever since my first year here, and occasionally also play in chamber ensembles or at other events around campus. I have also volunteered to play music in nursing homes, homeless shelters, and hospitals. Music is an artistic, creative, and emotional outlet, and also often touches the lives of those for whom I perform.”
The Catalina apartments, or the Cats, are basically graduate student dorms but in the form of 199 fully furnished apartments. Approximately 450 students call the Cats home, and there is always a waiting list to get in. The popularity is likely due to the packed social calendar organized by the residential life coordinator, 3 Resident Associates, and 6 Catalina Community Associates.
The Caltech-Occidental Symphony Orchestra rehearses once a week and performs 3–4 major concerts a year, including one combined with the Glee Club and the Chamber Singers. Caltech musicians can also get their fix playing for the Caltech–Occidental Concert Band, Caltech Jazz Band, or chamber music groups.
ZACH ERICKSON, third-year graduate student in geological and planetary sciences
Hometown: Anoka, Minnesota
Research: Erickson uses measurements from autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) called Seagliders, which his group deploys into the Southern Ocean for months at a time to characterize phytoplankton blooms and estimate the amount of carbon dioxide these microorganisms export as biomass into the ocean interior.
“In April 2015 I went on a research cruise to Antarctica to pick up our Seaglider, which we had deployed the previous December. We saw numerous penguins and whales, but my favorite was the icebergs—towering chunks of ice, often many times larger than our ship, surrounded by the clearest blue water you’ve ever seen.
In choosing Caltech, I wanted a place with scientific rigor but also a strong graduate student community, where I could engage in extracurricular activities and develop myself in ways beyond simply doing good research. This year I was elected president of the student club SEPAC (Science & Engineering Policy at Caltech), which educates the student body on how to become engaged and involved in policy decisions that impact their research.
We hold monthly discussion groups, bring in faculty and guest speakers, and host workshops. I cofounded the Caltech bike-share program through funding provided by the Moore-Hufstedler Fund because I wanted to encourage people to bike places instead of driving. Now, anyone with a Caltech library card can check out a bike at the Sherman Fairchild Library just as they can check out a book. We are excited to bring convenient bicycle access to the whole Caltech community and hope to see many more people using bicycles to get around Pasadena!
I started playing piano when I was 4 and horn at 14, and have been involved as a musician all my life—even double majoring in music as an undergraduate. I can’t imagine a life without making music and am thankful for all the new friends I meet through the Caltech band, orchestra, and chamber music programs.
The small size of Caltech makes it unusual among graduate schools. There is little hierarchy here, so if I need to talk with the director of security operations about bike security, or the director of sustainability programs about a question I have about water usage, or the alternative transportation coordinator to ask about improving bike-commuting incentives, I can often literally walk into their respective offices without an appointment and ask my question or make my suggestions.”
Caltech has graduate students working all over the world. In addition to research cruises to places like Antarctica and Tasmania, there are graduate researchers at CERN, the South Pole, and ETH Zurich, to name a few.
The Moore-Hufstedler Fund is an endowment established to increase the quality of undergraduate and graduate student life at Caltech. In the past year, the MHF has helped fund a campus music festival called TechStock, a graduate formal dance at Dodger Stadium, and a seminar on climate policy by Mary Nichols, chair of the California Air Resources Board.
RAMYA KORLAKAI VINAYAK (MS ’13), PhD candidate in electrical engineering
Hometown: Sagar, India
Research: Ramya works on building optimization algorithms for learning useful information from big data with the aim of making reliable and efficient predictions in various fields—from astronomy to bioinformatics.
“As an undergrad I found using mathematical models to understand the laws of nature and using these fundamental ideas to build engineering systems very exciting. A lot of interesting signal processing, information, and communication theory that I learned as an undergrad are behind the algorithms that make the mobile phones actually work. Now I use the ideas from these fields to work on machine learning algorithms to make them reliable and efficient in processing data.
One of the nice things about campus is that the Graduate Student Council, International Student Programs, Caltech Center for Diversity, and Caltech Y, by organizing various events ranging from parties to camping trips throughout the year, help foster a sense of community. Also, I live in the Catalina graduate apartments where we also have a lot of events. As grad students we all tend to get busy with our research and get confined to our labs. I find these events really help me to relax and meet a diverse set of graduate students who work on different areas of research.
I think what is unique about Caltech is its size. It is very easy to interact with grad students from various departments. I am in electrical engineering, and at any event I attend on campus I meet students and professors in biology, physics, mathematics, chemistry, geology, etc. Knowing about the exciting cutting-edge research in the other fields of science and engineering is intriguing and enriching.”
The Caltech Y is an independent organization formally affiliated with Caltech that offers hundreds of opportunities to get involved within 5 different types of programs: educational, outdoor adventures, community service, social activities, and cultural events.
ALICIA LANZ, sixth-year graduate student in physics
Hometown: Tustin, California
Research: Lanz is part of a team developing the Cosmic Infrared Background Experiment 2 (CIBER-2), a rocket-borne instrument specifically designed to study the extragalactic background light, which contains light from the earliest stars and galaxies in the universe.
“I love the idea of space. I grew up reading science fiction, which left me with a sense of space imbued with wonder and potential. Learning the formal science and math of physics and cosmology has only heightened my appreciation and fascination. I love that we mere humans can use our senses and our minds to study everything from the world around us to the history of the universe long before our existence.
A practical factor that influenced my decision to attend Caltech was the proximity to my family, specifically for the child-care help they generously provide for my two young daughters. It would be much harder to balance parenting with research and student involvement without them.
I really appreciate that many organizations on campus offer wonderful programming that helps build community. It can be lonely in the lab, and many majors do not organize much in the way of social activities. I’m involved in the Women Mentoring Women program at the Caltech Center for Diversity, which provides opportunities for personal and professional development. The Graduate Student Council (GSC) does a great job of hosting both academic and social events throughout the year, and it’s really fun to meet brilliant people in other areas of science who value service and work to create community.
This year I’m the secretary of the GSC. I’m organizing a yearlong series of events around the theme “Exploring Nonacademic Careers” for graduate students and postdocs, in conjunction with many other groups and organizations on campus. Through workshops and industry panels, participants will be able to identify at least one industry with a good fit and know the procedure for being a competitive applicant.
One really unique aspect about studying at Caltech is that graduate students here are often given a lot of autonomy. We are given access to many tools, many ideas, and many potential collaborators with few limits on what we should do or how we should go about doing it. This allows for much more impactful research than is achievable through other models, and such minimal direction is great for creativity and new ideas. Sometimes I can hardly believe I get to launch a rocket to try to understand a bit more about the history of the universe!”
38 students are elected each year to uphold the GSC’s mission to “work to maximize the quality of life for the graduate student community at Caltech.” One of the GCS’s biggest social events is on Thanksgiving, when more than 500 people traditionally gather together for a celebratory meal.
SARAH GOSSAN, PhD candidate in physics
Hometown: Bristol, England
Research: Gossan’s research aims to use gravitational wave observations to infer the physical processes occurring inside core-collapse supernovae.
“Core-collapse supernovae are giant explosions in space that happen when massive stars die—pretty much the coolest thing ever! Our simulations, however, sometimes have trouble exploding. It’s a field of research where there are a lot of unanswered questions, and with Advanced LIGO having come online in September 2015, we now have a chance to observe core-collapse supernovae in a way that’s never been done before. This is groundbreaking research that is so phenomenally exciting.
I remember one of my first days at Caltech, I walked past three Nobel Prize winners having lunch at the Athenaeum—it totally blew my mind, and to be a part of the history of this institution? I feel incredibly privileged and honored to be able to do cool science here.
I think my favorite moment so far would have to be the LIGO panel that I was on with Rana Adhikari and Kip Thorne. We answered questions on the science behind Advanced LIGO and the astrophysical sources that we might expect to see. Kip has been an idol of mine for as long as I’ve wanted to be involved in physics, and to sit on a panel of experts alongside him? I was so humbled by the experience, and it has been the highlight of my career so far!”
SIDDHARTH JAIN, third-year graduate student in electrical engineering
Hometown: Chandausi, India
Research: Jain is working to understand the role of duplications in the evolution of DNA.
“There are several interesting information-theoretic and combinatorial problems that arise in my research area. I have always been excited about these theories, and my research gives me an opportunity to use them to understand something about DNA evolution or, in other words, life.
Besides research, I am involved with OASIS, which is an Indian subcontinent organization that organizes several programs representing various aspects of the subcontinent culture. We celebrate several subcontinental festivals, organize potluck dinners, and do movie screenings. We have a Diwali show and annual show where we have dance, music, skits, poetry, and a subcontinental dinner. It gives us an opportunity to showcase our culture to the whole Caltech community. It is always a nice feeling when you showcase your culture to others, as it gives them a chance to learn about it and also to appreciate it.
From childhood, I have been passionate about cricket. I am involved with the Cricket Club at Caltech, which officially started in 2014. Before that, we just brought our own stuff and practiced. Now, we have matches or practices every week during the fall, winter, and summer terms. I play the role of medium-paced bowler for my team. It was very exciting to win a university tournament that we played in the spring 2015 term against UC San Diego and UC Irvine.
Both of these activities have made my experience at Caltech very enriching. By being involved with OASIS, I learned about organizing shows and about logistics, since I had never done this at such a level in the past. By playing with and against several experienced players both inside and outside Caltech my cricketing skills have improved. More importantly, I have made many great friends and got experience working with a team due to these activities.”
OASIS is just one of more than 10 international student organizations. In 2014–2015, 60 percent of applicants and 42 percent of the graduate population were non-U.S. students. For more than 10 years, the top 5 countries that grad students hail from are China, Canada, South Korea, India, and Taiwan.
There are more than 100 student clubs and sports organizations on campus, with interests ranging from juggling and alpine climbing to entrepreneurship and robotics.
PETER HUNG (BS ’08), eight-year graduate student in applied physics, who at press time was set to defend his thesis in January 2016
Hometown: Hong Kong and Arcadia, California
Research: Hung does mass spectrometry and inertial imaging.
“In our lab, we shoot molecules of different sizes and shapes at really small mechanical resonators—tiny bridges almost 1,000 times smaller than the width of your hair—and use the change in the resonant frequency (how fast these bridges are vibrating) to reconstruct the shape and mass of the molecules that we’re shooting.
To me, it is absolutely amazing how changes in the vibration speed of these tiny bridges can allow us to determine the shape and size of some unknown molecule, which may one day help us to detect cancer and other harmful cells.
I’ve also been involved with the Graduate Student Council, serving as the treasurer for two years, and the Graduate Honor Council, which helps uphold the Honor Code. I am currently student president of the Caltech Y, and I chaired the Graduate Orientation Planning Committee, serve on the Caltech Project for Effective Teaching planning committee, and was the volunteer and student coordinator for the first TEDxCaltech in 2011. I also founded the Caltech Science Olympiad Club.
I’m extremely honored to be the inaugural recipient of the R. Bruce Stewart Prize for Excellence in Teaching Physics. It has been an absolute delight to work with so many spectacular students, both in classes and in research. I have personally had a number of role-model TAs and professors at Caltech who will do literally everything to help students learn, like coming in at 7 a.m. or staying until past midnight to answer questions or designing experiments to demonstrate strange theories and foreign ideas so that we can see them with our own eyes. The most rewarding part of teaching has been using different methods to explain a new concept to the students and then seeing the sparkle in their eyes when all of a sudden everything just clicks.”
The Graduate Honor Council (GHC) is the official student group that reviews cases of alleged coursework Honor Code violations, and is led by two chairs. When considering Honor Code violations, the chairs will select 7 members of the GHC to hear the case.
The Caltech Project for Effective Teaching helps members of the Caltech community, including graduate teaching assistants, become effective educators through seminars on best practices, practical training, an improved understanding of pedagogy, and teaching resources on campus.