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

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

Endnotes (+)

In our Fall 2015 issue, we asked alumni to share what they would do if they had no limits. We printed only a few of the responses we received. Here are several more, some of which were edited for grammar, spelling, length, and clarity.

If you had no limits, what would you do, build, or explore?


Build a faster-than-light spacecraft and explore the universe.

Establish a settlement on the moon.

I would want to unify physics, biology, and psychology to answer the three biggest questions about our world: 1. How did the universe arise? 2. How did life arise? 3. How did consciousness arise?

I would build a public college or university where talented students could attend without paying tuition or fees.

Build a diagnostic tool to determine what mental illness a person has, whether a person is getting better or worse, and whether treatment is effective.

Go back_otl_hex

Since 1984, my dream has been to work on the development of the first-generation artificial intelligence system capable of guiding the development of a second-generation AI system that exceeds the capabilities of humans.

peace2I would end all wars, fighting, terrorism, crime, poverty and suffering—forever. I would change people so they accept other people as they are without trying to convert them to their beliefs.

I would expand to fill the universe.

Origins: Birth of the pH Meter

Arnold O. Beckman was a Caltech alumnus (PhD ‘28), former faculty member, and trustee. He was also the founder of Beckman Instruments (now Beckman Coulter), a company that began with Beckman’s invention of the pH meter, now one of the most widely used pieces of laboratory equipment in the world.

The pH meter’s story started in 1934, when one of Beckman’s undergrad classmates from the University of Illinois at Urbana, Glen Joseph—who was then working for the California Fruit Growers Exchange—came to Beckman’s Caltech office with a lemon problem. Here is how Beckman recalled that encounter during a 1978 interview with Mary Terrall for the Caltech Oral Histories Project.

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Tracking Down Infections

Today, when there is an outbreak of disease, the first reports of it are likely to be online, through Facebook or Twitter. And as word in cyberspace goes viral, it can map closely to the spread of the actual virus in the physical world. That’s the conclusion of NYU researcher Rumi Chunara (BS ’04), whose paper analyzing Twitter and other online activity surrounding the 2010 outbreak of cholera in Haiti made waves in the public health world.

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Endnotes (+)

What Started for You at Caltech?

In our Spring 2015 issue, we asked alumni to share what originated for them at Caltech, and printed only a few of the responses we received. Here are several more, some of which were edited for grammar, spelling, length, and clarity.

The idea that I could study anything I want. The experience of pushing yourself to the limit, and then some more.

Caltech taught me how to think and consequently write. Without those talents my life would be in turmoil.

I got in the habit of doing exercises and have continued to do so. I am 73 years old now and in much better health than most of my peers. Had I not signed up for body building about 55 years ago I suspect I would not be nearly as healthy today. Thanks, Caltech!

I learned that science isn’t about carrying around a collection of facts and formulas. Instead, science is a process of learning to think, to deconstruct a problem, to solve it, and to put the solution into context.

A lifelong appreciation for the musical works of Richard Wagner.

I started running because of Caltech. And even though I’m still not all that fast and have never come close to winning a race (or even finishing in the top half), I’ve been running ever since.

It helped lead to my 1965 selection as one of the first scientist astronauts for the Apollo Program. Ultimately, I became the Lunar Module Pilot on Apollo 17 in December 1972 and the last of 12 men to step on the Moon and the only scientist to explore it.

Through exploration of different sciences and listening to societal problems, I realized that my interest was to bring science together to solve those problems.

It started my competitive swimming career.

My Caltech education proved invaluable in 1981 when I was invited to join the staff of the National Academy of Sciences Office of International Affairs, where I worked on projects ranging from a conference on chemistry and world food supplies, to biofuels in Brazil, to industrial energy efficiency in India.

The Starting Line: A Dance to Remember

I met my future wife on a blind date to a Ricketts House barn dance in my sophomore year, arranged by classmate Bill Graham (BS ’59). We became engaged in the middle of our senior year (she was a student at Pomona), and we married the evening I received my BS in physics from Caltech: June 12, 1959. I also was commissioned into the Air Force Reserve at the graduation ceremony. Quite a day! My wife and I recently celebrated our 55th wedding anniversary when we made a trip to Pasadena for my 55th class reunion.

—Phil Harriman, BS ’59

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Photo: Wikipedia/Anthony 22

The Starting Line: A Passion for Stats

Unusual for Caltech, what started for me was a career in sports, one that now has me in the front office of the Sacramento Kings. In the last years of high school, the annual Bill James Baseball Abstract was my link between sports and numbers. Those books had me thinking when I entered Tech about how to scientifically break down sports using statistics. In my freshman year, math professor Gary Lorden showed me how James calculated the chances that the Detroit Tigers would have a 36-4 record after 40 games given their previous performance. Conversations with my freshman advisor, Peter Haff, about the physics and statistics of basketball encouraged me to apply what I was learning at Tech to sports.

And so, as finals wound down in my freshman year, I decided to systematically chart the NBA Finals that were occurring at the same time. The system I developed would ultimately form the basis for much of the basketball analytics that are now used across

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The Starting Line: A Musical Journey

While Caltech certainly enhanced my scientific curiosity, it was my interests in music and musical theater that found their origins at Caltech. Never having done any musical activities in high school, I was plunged into the annual Caltech musical my sophomore year (Guys and Dolls), getting one of the leads, Nathan Detroit—a surprise given my utter lack of acting experience. But with the help of our exceptional director, Shirley Marneus, and the wonderful support of all the other cast and crew, I had an absolutely and indescribably marvelous time. I then went on to be in the musicals for my following two years at Caltech, as well as joining the Glee Club.

I can honestly say that those experiences in the musicals had as much of an impact on me as my classes. I learned how to focus on the moment, learn from those around me, communicate my thoughts, and assimilate information coming in from multiple places at the same time, as well as how to give of myself emotionally to others. Learning how to effectively communicate my thoughts and feelings in a larger setting has been indispensable to me in my current lectures to students as a professor of cell biology. When I think of the things that helped me to develop at Caltech, I think of my peers, my classes, my professors . . .and the musicals.

—Stan Cohn, BS ’79

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The Starting Line: A Collaborative Start-Up

In 2014, fellow alumna Vanessa Burns, (BS ’11) and I cofounded LumosTech, a start-up based on technology that hacks the body’s master circadian regulator to treat jet lag and other circadian-rhythm disorders.

My experience as a TA at Caltech was part of the inspiration for founding LumosTech. I noticed that the hormonally late-shifted circadian rhythms of my students—people in their teens and early twenties—combined with the night-owl undergraduate culture at Caltech, made early class times suboptimal for learning. As a result, I held my recitation section in the evening and found that my students were much more animated and engaged than at the morning lecture. While college culture is relatively forgiving to late chronotypes, or night owls, the modern workplace is rarely so accommodating, and many people find it difficult to go to bed early enough to get a full seven to eight hours of sleep before they need to wake up for their morning commute to work.

Using millisecond pulses of light, the smart sleep mask we are developing can shift your circadian rhythm while you sleep, using the same neural pathways as natural light in a way that is optimized to your sleep schedule through a companion smartphone app. Collaborating with another Techer has been awesome, and I credit much of our success so far to the close and productive working relationship we have. Our experiences at Caltech significantly shaped our ability to develop and manage an early-stage tech start-up. We built our own prototypes, analyzed the scientific literature, and developed a business plan that we could pitch to investors. Without the skills and perseverance we learned as Caltech students, we would not have been able to overcome the many obstacles facing a start-up.

—Kristin Rule Gleitsman, PhD ’10

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