Faculty Footnotes: Mansi Kasliwal

Mansi Kasliwal is a new assistant professor but certainly not a Caltech newbie. The astronomer earned her PhD here in 2011, having helped design and build the Palomar Transient Factory (PTF), an automated widefield survey at Palomar Observatory that systematically searches for cosmic transients—powerful events like supernovae that appear in the night sky with the light of a million to a billion suns, and then fade away.

“These are extreme events where a lot of elements that we see around us are actually synthesized,” says Kasliwal.

Kasliwal continues to work with PTF and its successor, the Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF), but is also leading a major international project devoted to chasing and studying transients using observatories around the globe. Known as GROWTH, for Global Relay of Observatories Watching Transients Happen, the project was recently granted $4.5 million through the National Science Foundation’s Partnerships in International Research and Education (PIRE) program. Its goal is to detect transients and then “stay unbeaten by sunrise.”

“We just go around the globe and keep passing the baton so that the sky remains dark,” explains Kasliwal. Here are a few more fun facts about Kasliwal:

  • She grew up in Indore, India, and came to the United States as an adventurous

Noting Kasliwal’s love of the natural sciences, a teacher in India advised Kasliwal to apply to American boarding schools. She took her advice and attended a college-prep school in Connecticut for her junior year. She spent her senior year taking classes and working with a professor at Bryn Mawr College.

  • She studied applied and engineering physics as an undergrad at Cornell.

Astrophysics was only her concentration, but at Cornell she was able to work with the late Jim Houck, the principal investigator for the infrared spectrograph on NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. “Spitzer was being launched, and I got to see the data start flowing in,” says Kasliwal. “From then on, I was just completely hooked.”

  • Her work has already made it into textbooks.

Kasliwal received a freshman astronomy textbook in the mail from a professor she had interned with and was astonished to find a page in it dedicated to a supernova that she had discovered. “It was one of the most awesome moments for me,” she says.

Photo credit: Caltech

Faculty Footnotes

There are approximately 100 billion neurons in the human brain—and the growth, development, and death of these neurons are controlled by thousands of genes. Sorting out how changes in these genes and neurons can lead to changes in behavior seems like a tall order, but that’s exactly the problem that biology research professor Carlos Lois is interested in.

His work uses songbirds as a model organism for the study of schizophrenia and autism:

“The advantage of working with birds is that they have this very natural behavior—singing—that in many ways is very similar to speech learning in humans. First, they have to listen to an adult tutor—the father bird—and after they listen, they practice until they can make a copy of the song that is very similar to what the father makes. There are not that many other animals that have this vocal learning. In humans there are a few communication-related genes that, when mutated, are associated with schizophrenia and autism. By studying mutations in those same genes in songbirds like zebra finches, we can learn how those mutations affect the bird’s ability to communicate with others—one characteristic used to diagnose these disorders.”

When he first came to Caltech to do a postdoctoral fellowship in David Baltimore’s lab, he didn’t have a driver’s license:

“When I was growing up in Spain, I lived in a big city and I didn’t need a car. Then I lived in New York and Boston. I came to Pasadena to do my postdoc and I was 28 years old and I didn’t know how to drive. I thought, ‘I’m sure I could do fine with a bicycle.’ I even went to Manhattan Beach, Santa Monica, and Zuma Beach on my bicycle, but then I decided that was enough, and I got my driver’s license.”

He loves the movies:

“I really like any sort of fiction—like novels, short stories, and especially movies. From 1986 to 2007 I’d say I watched an average of four movies every week. But when my son was born in 2007, it went from four movies per week to four movies per year. So now I mostly read fiction in novels and short stories.”

Faculty Footnotes: Konstantin Batygin

By day, Konstantin Batygin (MS ’10, PhD ’12), assistant professor of planetary science, is developing a theoretical understanding of how planetary orbits evolve—from start to finish—by studying the dynamical structure of our own planetary system. By night, he’s the lead singer of a band called The Seventh Season. Earlier this year, Batygin’s impressive research reputation—he had published 21 first-author papers by the age of 28—coupled with his musical interests earned him a spot on the Forbes “30 Under 30” list in the science category, where he’s described as “the next physics rock star.” We asked Batygin for a few other facts that probably don’t appear on his résumé:

He grew up surrounded by scientists in Japan, where his dad was a physicist at a research institution called RIKEN.
“At the time, I had grown to believe that becoming a scientist is simply something that you do when you grow up. However, this had nothing to do with my own career choice as I am now keenly aware that other jobs do exist—for example, one can also become a musician!”

His first trip to Disneyland was with a famous astrophysicist.
“When I was about 10 years old, I had a good friend named Dmitry. I knew Dmitry’s dad studied something related to black holes, but at the time the coolest thing about Dmitry’s dad was that he took us to Disneyland in Tokyo, and we got to go on all the rides, including Space Mountain. My mind was totally blown when I finally realized in grad school that Dmitry’s dad, Nikolai Shakura, was a world-famous astrophysicist who developed the standard theory of disk accretion.”

He met his wife, Olga, on the day he arrived in the United States as a teenager.
“Meeting her that day confirmed what the USA brochure had said: America really is a great country.”

Photo by Lance Hayashida