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

Triple Threat

The public high school in Blue Springs, Missouri, just outside Kansas City, graduates more than 500 seniors each year. Remarkably, the valedictorian in 2015 was the younger sister of the valedictorian in 2014—who was the younger sister of the valedictorian in 2013.

And all three are now Caltech undergraduates. These are the Butkovich sisters: junior Slava and sophomore Nina, both majoring in chemical engineering, and freshman Lazarina (“Laza”), currently deciding between chemical engineering and chemistry.

The sisters represent “a three-peat,” says Caltech admissions director Jarrid Whitney, not a package deal. “All our applicants are reviewed independently and without regard to siblings, parents, or other legacies. For three family members to receive consecutive offers of admission indicates how tremendously talented all three of them must be.”

For their part, Slava, Nina, and Laza (pictured right to left, below) find their own nearly identical trajectories unsurprising. “We were taught at a young age that science majors can do a lot of good for society,” Slava says.

In fact, according to all three, one of the biggest challenges since leaving high school has been learning to rely on something they had honestly never needed before now: study groups.

Photo credit: Caltech

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

Dirty Work

On the grounds of San Marino’s Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens—in the private, half-acre Huntington Ranch area—nearly two dozen middle and high school students spent this past summer measuring the levels of nitrogen in the soils around them to help the ranch determine whether its dirt is up to the challenge of growing an urban garden. This hands-on research experience was part of the Community Science Academy @ Caltech, which is affiliated with Caltech’s Center for Teaching, Learning, and Outreach. At left, James Maloney (MS ’06), one of the two co-directors of the CSA@Caltech program, helps high school student Kate Samaniego gather soil samples for testing. Other projects involved conducting experiments on ant behavior, and designing and building sensor-carrying remote-controlled powered kites, which the students flew over the library grounds. —JA

Ditch Day: On A Roll

People moving about Caltech’s campus in giant hamster balls made of futuristic materials? It must be Ditch Day 2015. In the photo above, Elliot Simon, then still a junior, runs in front of the Broad Center for the Biological Sciences in a Zorb ball, followed closely by alum David Ding (BS ’14). The stack was themed around the 1980s video game “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?”

The Carmen Sandiego team spent the morning collecting clues via activities that included a laser puzzle, a chemistry demonstration, and the human hamster balls. After lunch, they put the clues together and began a quest across campus to finally catch Carmen Sandiego, played by then senior Daniel Kong (BS ’15), whom the team promptly tied to a tree with duct tape, as tradition dictates. They celebrated their capture (and quick release) of the elusive villain with a trip to Sky Zone, an indoor trampoline park.


Begin at the Beginning

“ As this, the first issue of the Caltech Alumni Review goes to press we feel like the
frosh who has just purchased a bright new beanie and is trying it on in front of
his mirror. Admiring his reflection he is happy at the thought that he is now old
enough to be a college man and proud of his new colors—when the terrible thought
occurs to him that as soon as he steps from the privacy of his room he will be
laughed at, criticised, and paddled by the sophs, ignored by the upperclassmen.”

So began the “Foreword” of the enterprise that begat the E&S magazine in your hands—or on your computer screen or tablet or smart phone. Edited by Albert W. Atwood Jr., BS ‘32, and published by the Alumni Association of the California Institute of Technology, the very first issue of the Institute’s very first magazine—published in June of 1937—was not that very different from the E&S of today.

Click here to read the entire story.

Ride of the Valkyries

The “noise” depicted on the cover of the June issue of E&S magazine is a screenshot from a video representation of Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” which is played at ear-splitting volume at 7 a.m. on the dot every morning during finals week at Caltech. The video above was created for E&S by motion-graphics designer Ryan Luse.

And just for fun…

Techie Talk

Genevieve Bell, Intel’s in-house cultural anthropologist, was this year’s commencement speaker. She studies the various ways in which people use technology—including what they love about it, what frustrates them, what they wish it would do—and processes and shares that information with the designers and engineers at Intel in hopes of creating products that can integrate more seamlessly into our lives. “I think our biggest challenge as technologists is sometimes we forget about people and all of their dimensions. We forget about families and art and love and beauty and poetry, and all that stuff,” Bell says. Her top tip for keeping all of that in mind when working in the technology field? “Read more poetry.”

Here are some other fun facts about the speaker at Caltech’s 121st annual commencement ceremony:

She knows how to get water from frogs.
Bell’s mother was an anthropologist who worked with aboriginal Australians, so Bell spent quite a bit of time in their settlements. Some of their survival techniques have stuck with her in part because they highlight the fact that different people think about and experience the world in different ways. “For me, there was something extraordinary as a kid to be immersed in that radically different worldview than the one I was accustomed to,” says Bell. “It set me on a path of thinking about and paying attention to the ways in which people see the world differently.”

She has an “embarrassingly large” personal collection of more than 5,000 books.
A lifelong avid reader, Bell’s prized possession as a child was her library card, and she read every book in her high school library, alphabetically by author.

Her favorite question to ask herself and colleagues at the end of the day is, “What surprised you today?”
“There’s something in the gift of still being surprised that’s about being curious and allowing that there are things that you don’t know,” she says. “I don’t want to ever become fixed in place or static.”

Photo of Genevieve Bell by J.R. Mankoff


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

Click here for the full feature story…

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

Click here for the full feature story…