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Fri, 27 Jul 2018 22:59:08 +0000
Program Brings Area High School Students, Teachers into Caltech Labs
Summer Research Connection promotes curiosity, scientific literacy, and research skills
News Writer: 
Jon Nalick
Maggie Higginbotham, a 10th-grade student at Blair High School in Pasadena, opens an incubator shaker to reveal cultures of bacteria used to produce gas vesicles for research.
Maggie Higginbotham, a 10th-grade student at Blair High School in Pasadena, opens an incubator shaker to reveal cultures of bacteria used to produce gas vesicles for research.
Credit: Photo/Caltech

Working in a Caltech chemical engineering lab this summer, Maggie Higginbotham spends a lot of her time coaxing bacteria to make extremely small bags of gas that can be used to improve the diagnostic abilities of ultrasound equipment.

While that task may be fairly routine for the faculty, postdocs, graduate students, and undergraduates in the lab, it's a brand-new experience for Higginbotham: she's still in high school.

Higginbotham, a 10th-grade student at Blair High School in Pasadena, is one of 22 local high school students—and three teachers—participating in Caltech's Summer Research Connection (SRC). The six-week program brings high school students and teachers to campus to conduct research in a dozen labs in fields ranging from chemistry, physics, and materials science to chemical engineering, astronomy, and planetary science.

After several weeks in the program, Higginbotham says working as a member of the research team "has been a fantastic experience that's allowed me to see what doing research is really like. I've learned how to use the tools and how to handle myself in a lab."

And that is precisely the point of the program, according to Mitch Aiken, associate director for educational outreach for the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Outreach, which runs the program each summer.

Aiken says the goal of the program is threefold: to provide graduate students and postdocs with the opportunity to practice mentoring, teaching, and polishing their scientific communications skills; to offer K–12 teachers opportunities to learn techniques that they can take back to their classrooms; and to give local high school students firsthand exposure to how research is conducted at the university level. "SRC also provides an avenue for many researchers on campus to engage in community outreach and meet a key component of the Broader Impacts fulfillment requirement of National Science Foundation grants," Aiken says.

Working for 20 hours a week in the lab of Mikhail G. Shapiro, assistant professor of chemical engineering, Higginbotham joined Marshall High School student Thomas Scott as well as Garrett Gibson, a teacher from Environmental Charter Middle School in Gardena. The team's work focuses on growing flasks of bacteria and archaea that produce gas vesicles—air-filled protein structures that the cells normally use as flotation devices. The Shapiro lab is developing the vesicles as imaging agents for ultrasound, making it possible for this imaging technology to visualize specific cells and molecules in the body.

In the lab, Higginbotham and Gibson work under the mentorship of research technician Dina Malounda, who has been teaching them proper lab techniques such as purifying gas vesicles from bacteria that will be used by other scientists in the lab for their experiments.

Malounda says SRC provides "a rare opportunity for high school students and K–12 teachers to witness and experience the atmosphere in an actual scientific research laboratory … and to interact with scientists."

Higginbotham and Gibson say they are learning a great deal about the process of conducting research by participating in regular lab discussions where all of the group's members pitch ideas, talk about their projects and goals, and ask questions about each other's work.

"I love asking questions," Higginbotham says. "It's always great when you can ask questions and learn."

Gibson praised SRC as intellectually rigorous and rewarding for teachers like himself and added that it greatly helps to "demystify research for students. Going from being an undergraduate to a PhD student is a big leap, but it's not impossible. Having an experience like this can make it much less scary for them."

The program culminates with a seminar day on August 10, when student-teacher-mentor teams from the various campus labs will explain their work to their peers and invited guests during formal 10-minute presentations followed by question-and-answer periods.

After being involved in her lab's weekly meetings, Higginbotham says she feels well prepared for her presentation: "I've seen how to present ideas at meetings and now know how to set up our information and explain it."

Shapiro says the program also serves a crucial function as a channel for "investing in future PhD students. Research relies on young, ambitious people, and this can help us encourage them to become scientists."

SRC is one of several programs for youth running on campus this summer, including iD Tech Camps, Alexa Caf

Fri, 20 Jul 2018 23:57:33 +0000
Hundreds of Prospective Students Flock to Campus Summer Preview
July 27 event highlights women in STEM
Caltech senior Madelyn Stroder leads a tour of prospective female students and their families at a Caltech Summer Preview event highlighting women in STEM on Friday, July 27.
Caltech senior Madelyn Stroder leads a tour of prospective female students and their families at a Caltech Summer Preview event highlighting women in STEM on Friday, July 27.

Caltech welcomed more than 550 prospective female undergraduates and their family members to campus on Friday, July 27, for an all-day preview event highlighting women in STEM. The event was the capstone to Caltech's Undergraduate Admissions and Financial Aid offices' Summer Preview event series, which aims to provide prospective undergraduate students with a closer look at Caltech's academic, research, and residential experience. Each event features a series of talks, tours, panel discussions, and activities that allow visitors to hear directly from current students, faculty, and staff, and meet with admissions staff to learn more about Caltech's application and financial aid process.

Earlier this month, the admissions team hosted more than 500 guests for Summer Preview events on two respective Saturdays.

Fri, 20 Jul 2018 22:30:31 +0000
Can We Invent Our Way Out of Global Problems?
Brad Jones Portrait
G. Bradford Jones

Catastrophe can be the mother of invention. That's why Caltech trustee Brad Jones feels optimistic in the face of climate change. Throughout history, according to the Manhattan Beach–based venture capitalist, people have solved major challenges by inventing things.

To that end, Jones has pledged $5 million to Caltech. Part of his gift endows the G. Bradford Jones Professorship, which Caltech's president and provost initially will use to support or recruit a top environmental scientist or engineer.

Looking forward, Jones says: "Efforts to decrease carbon emissions help, but not enough. I think we need new technologies that capture carbon to manage global warming. That's the kind of challenge that warrants the attention of people as smart as those at Caltech."

But he has an even broader vision for benefiting humanity. After 15 years, by his design, Caltech leaders will award the professorship in any field where breakthroughs can make a difference for the world.

In addition to the professorship, his pledge will create two G. Bradford Jones Fellowships, supporting graduate students in any discipline.

Read the full story on the Break Through website

Fri, 13 Jul 2018 21:10:54 +0000
Caltech Appoints Associate Dean for Undergraduate Students
News Writer: 
Shayna Chabner McKinney
Kristin Weyman Portrait

Kristin Weyman, a student affairs professional with more than a decade of experience in supporting the personal and professional development of undergraduate students, is joining Caltech as an associate dean for undergraduate students. Weyman will assume her new role on July 30, 2018.

Weyman will be one of two associate deans who work with Dean of Undergraduate Students Kevin Gilmartin in sharing responsibility for the development of Caltech's 1,000 undergraduate students. The dean's office oversees a wide variety of issues related to the well-being and progress of students throughout their educational career, including academic advising and support services, personal and general advising, faculty outreach and communication, student conduct, crisis management, and disability services.

Weyman comes to Caltech from Ohio Wesleyan University, a small, private, residential liberal arts college, where she has served as the associate dean for student success for the last year. Prior to that, she was in Southern California, serving as the associate dean for students and dean for first- and second-year students at Claremont McKenna College. Throughout her time in higher education, and in particular in working within student affairs leadership, Weyman has taken on a broad range of increasing responsibilities, from supervising and aligning student support services throughout student affairs, to assisting in the review and development of policies and procedures to enhance the student experience, to overseeing new student orientation programs, to meeting one-on-one with individual students and groups in an advising and mentoring capacity.

Weyman says, "I am excited to join the Caltech community and work with its motivated student body and dedicated faculty and staff to further the Institute's goals in helping students foster a balanced, healthy lifestyle while engaging in academic and extracurricular pursuits."

Weyman's appointment is occasioned by the retirement of Barbara Green, after 29 years of supporting Caltech's students and families in the dean's office. Green, an honorary member of the Caltech Alumni Association and a 2013 Thomas W. Schmitt Annual Staff Prize awardee, has been an integral team member in the dean's office, overseeing the transition between several faculty deans as well as serving as interim dean and sole representative for the office during two separate academic years and filling the role of disability services coordinator for graduate and undergraduate students.

"As I leave my position as associate dean, I am happy to know that someone as thoughtful, experienced, and dedicated as Kristin will be joining the dean's office," Green says. "Throughout her career in higher education, Kristin has demonstrated a commitment to supporting individual students—understanding their individual needs and backgrounds, and aligning the support and resources to help them succeed. She will be a welcome addition to Caltech."

Fri, 29 Jun 2018 17:48:14 +0000
A Conversation with Matt Thomson
New assistant professor of computational biology Matt Thomson discusses how cells make decisions and work together.
News Writer: 
Lori Dajose
Matt Thomson
Credit: Courtesy of Matt Thomson

How do cells make decisions to divide, to differentiate, or to work together? For former physicist Matt Thomson, these questions drew him out of physics and into the study of computational biology. Thomson recently joined the Caltech faculty as an assistant professor of computational biology. We sat down with him to discuss his work and how he made the leap from physics into the world of the living.

What is computational biology?

It's a lot of different things. For me, it's really about building models of cells and cell behavior. 

Cells have a fascinating ability to make decisions. How does a stem cell decide to become a neuron, or a muscle cell? We try to answer this in my lab by building mathematical models of the networks of proteins inside single cells, in order to understand how they allow the cell to collect information and make developmental decisions.

In this way, we examine the molecules inside the cell, but we also look at how the cells themselves all work together to do things like construct a brain. We build models of collective cell behavior. One of the really weird things about development is that there are trillions of cells moving around. There's no master plan and yet somehow everything gets to the right place. How does this distributed system construct an organized tissue that can actually function?

So how do cells make decisions?

Inside each cell is a complex web of proteins called a regulatory network, kind of a chemical computer. They take information from outside of the cell—like signals sent from nearby cells—and change gene expression accordingly. We build models of cellular regulatory networks using dynamical theory, a branch of mathematics, in order to understand when and how cells decide what to do. 

How do you build a model of a cell?

You can build models of cells by measuring the messenger RNA (mRNA) abundance of every gene in the genome of a single cell. The different abundances of mRNA molecules tell you which genes are being turned on, and how strongly.

To do this, first you take cells from a tissue and put them inside water droplets, such that each droplet gets a single cell. Then you break the cell open inside the droplet, capture the RNA inside, and sequence it.

In particular, we study in vivo mouse brain development, but we can make cellular models for different kinds of mouse tissues at different stages of development. We can basically record the history of cells going through development. Our sequencing machine allows us to profile 100,000 cells per day.

You come from a physics background. What motivated you to go into biology?

For a long time, I've been interested in life and how it works. I've especially been interested in the idea that organisms can process information and do computing. 

During graduate school, I started becoming interested in life, biology, and information processing. Then it was a matter of deciding exactly where in these fields I could enter. My first project in biology was doing some theoretical work on the nanopore sequencer. Nanopore sequencing is a way to do DNA sequencing by pulling a piece of DNA through a very small hole in a piece of silica.

At the time, people needed theoretical work to understand how the DNA interacts with the hole, so that was the very first thing I did. While I was doing that, I realized, "This isn't the interesting part. The interesting thing is how cells work, how organisms work." So, I got involved with renegade physicists who were starting to do modeling of biological systems on all different scales. That happened for me when I was a master's student.

What led to you becoming a professor at Caltech?

I was in Boston for a really long time—I was at Harvard for both undergrad and grad school. For my PhD, I did a big blend of theory, data analysis, and experimental work, all about decision-making, dynamical systems, and models of cellular/regulatory networks. 

Then I went to UC San Francisco as a Theory Fellow. I was interested in starting to work on collective behavior—how cells interact. I also worked on self-organization of tissues and some statistical methods doing data analysis. Then I got an Early Independence Award from the National Institutes of Health that let me hire a few people, and that was great because then we could actually start collecting some data. I was there at UCSF for a total of six years, which was crazy. That's long.

Then, Caltech was doing this computational biology search. A lot of the people I worked with over the years had given me a great admiration for Caltech, and I always admired the history of really taking on very deep scientific problems, so I was excited when there was a search that appeared to be a good fit.

What do you like to do when you're not doing computational biology?

I have two kids, a four-year-old and an 18-month-old. We love California and do a lot of California things, like going to the beach, hiking, being in the ocean. My free time is focused around playing music, trying to learn Spanish, and exploring a lot.

Growing up, did you know you wanted to be a scientist?

Yes, science was always a hobby of mine when I was younger. I grew up in a small town about an hour from St. Louis, and as a kid I spent a lot of time outside in the woods. That's the defining experience of my childhood, and I think it had a big influence on me.

Fri, 22 Jun 2018 15:46:38 +0000
ASCIT Honors Excellence in Teaching for 2017–18
Annual ceremony celebrates outstanding professors and TAs
Illustration of a woman at a chalkboard
The ASCIT Teaching Awards recognize professors, instructors, and TAs who demonstrate exceptional commitment to teaching and concern for their students' learning

The Associated Students of Caltech (ASCIT) hosted its annual teaching awards on June 8 honoring exceptional faculty and TAs for the 2017–18 academic year.

Voted on by undergraduates, this year's ASCIT Teaching Awards were presented to Marina Agranov, professor of economics; Oleg Ivrii, the Olga Taussky and John Todd Instructor in Mathematics; Thomas Vidick, professor of computing and mathematical sciences; and Konstantin Zuev, lecturer in computing and mathematical sciences.

The TAs honored were junior Bobby Abrahamson and graduate students Sophie Miller, Angad Singh, and Ashmeet Singh.

Sophomore Erika Salzman, chair of the ASCIT Academics and Research Committee (ARC), which administers the awards, says they are intended to "recognize professors, instructors, and TAs who demonstrate exceptional commitment to teaching and concern for their students' learning." 

View images from the ceremony here (see bottom of the page).

Mon, 18 Jun 2018 22:57:42 +0000
Probing Protein Processes: A Conversation with Rebecca Voorhees
Rebecca Voorhees, a newly appointed assistant professor of biology and biological engineering, has been awarded a Pew-Stewart fellowship to examine how proteins are created and destroyed.
News Writer: 
Lori Dajose
Rebecca Voorhees
Rebecca Voorhees, assistant professor of biology and biological engineering
Credit: Courtesy of Rebecca Voorhees

Protein complexes are intricate biomolecules, used in essentially every task carried out by cells. Rebecca Voorhees, assistant professor of biology and biological engineering and Heritage Medical Research Institute Investigator, is fascinated by how proteins are made, the cellular quality control mechanisms that destroy defective or unnecessary proteins, and how these mechanisms malfunction during diseases like cancer.

Voorhees joined the Caltech faculty this year and most recently was named a 2018 Pew-Stewart Scholar. We sat down with her to discuss the life cycle of proteins, the state-of-the-art microscopes crucial to her work, and life back in the United States after 10 years in England.

What do you study?

Broadly, we are trying to understand two related areas of biology: protein biogenesis—how proteins are made, how they get to the right places in the cell, how they are assembled—and what happens when these processes fail. How does the cell recognize when something has gone wrong? How does it degrade a bad protein to prevent disease?

Proteins can't be seen with regular microscopes. What kind of equipment do you use to study them?

To look at protein structure, our laboratory uses X-ray crystallography—where you shoot X-rays through a crystallized sample and observe how they scatter—and cryo-electron microscopy, or cryo-EM. Cryo-EM allows us to take detailed images of a protein at very, very cold temperatures. Caltech has actually just set up a new facility with two cryo-EM microscopes, which is really critical and exciting for my research and for others at Caltech interested in protein structure and molecular mechanisms.

Are there specific kinds of proteins you focus on?

We are particularly interested in membrane proteins, which make up a fairly large proportion of proteins made in the cell. Membrane proteins have large stretches of hydrophobic, or water-repellant, amino acids because they ultimately end up in the cell's membrane, which is hydrophobic as well. The challenge is, cells have to make these proteins in an environment full of water. How does the cell deal with these hydrophobic sequences? How do you get them to the right place? What happens when these processes fail?

When a membrane protein fails to make it to the membrane, it can create aggregates, or clumps, of proteins within the cell. Protein aggregates are associated with diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. 

What did you do leading up to Caltech?

I grew up in Chicago and went to Yale for my undergraduate degree in biophysics and biochemistry. Then I was in England for 10 years, for graduate school and a postdoctoral fellowship at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology. I just moved back this past summer.

Are there things you miss about England?

I never felt like I was really British, even though I had been there for a long time. So being back in the U.S. is like coming home and I'm really excited about it. But it does take some getting used to—especially the sunshine and warm weather.

One thing I will try to bring with me from England is that we would always have tea and cake every afternoon with the lab. It was a really informal way for people to chat, sometimes about science and sometimes not. It fostered a lot of casual interactions and discussions that it's difficult to engineer in any other way. So, I'm hoping we can at least partially implement something like this in my lab. 

What's an interesting fact about you that people might not know?

I played intercollegiate water polo during undergrad at Yale. It got me into the habit of waking up really early, so most days I'm up at 5 a.m.

Wed, 20 Jun 2018 16:58:21 +0000
group photo of the SURF participants for 2018
The participants in Caltech's SURF program for 2018
Credit: Caltech

This week, Caltech welcomes 455 undergraduates from campus and around the world into laboratories and facilities at Caltech, JPL, and elsewhere to start a 10-week research intensive with experienced mentors working at the frontiers of their fields.

The students are participants in the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships (SURF) program, which was started in 1979 to promote the Institute's deep commitment to research and training tomorrow's science and engineering leaders. Through SURF, Caltech provides hundreds of undergraduates an opportunity to conduct independent research and apply the theories they have learned in the classroom to address real-world research problems, while working closely with faculty and graduate student mentors.

This year, SURF participants are studying everything from climate change and glacier dynamics in high-mountain Asia to the fabrication of flexible electrode arrays for artificial skin. They will be working with 197 mentors across campus and JPL.

At the end of the summer, students will have an opportunity to present their work at two separate SURF events—Summer Seminar Day on August 23 and Fall Seminar Day on October 20.

Tue, 05 Jun 2018 18:36:00 +0000
Chalk One Up for Science
Caltech team draws space-themed artwork at Pasadena Chalk Festival
Keane (bottom) and Li apply the finishing touches to a planetary science/space exploration-themed chalk drawing at the festival on June 16.
Keane (bottom) and Li apply the finishing touches to a planetary science/space exploration-themed chalk drawing at the festival on June 16.
Credit: Photo/Thomas Willard

James Keane, a postdoctoral fellow in Caltech's Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences and Irena Li, a JPL systems engineer, were among more than 600 artists who participated in the 26th annual Pasadena Chalk Festival, held June 16-17 at the Paseo Colorado.

Caltech Service & Impact Awards Honor Staff Excellence
May 31 event recognized individuals and teams for their service to the Institute
Tina Lowenthal (right), director of procurement for Purchasing Services, accepts the 2018 Team Impact Award on behalf of the P2P team.
Tina Lowenthal (right), director of procurement for Purchasing Services, accepts the 2018 Team Impact Award on behalf of the P2P team.

At the 63rd annual Staff Service & Impact Awards ceremony on May 31, Caltech President Thomas F. Rosenbaum presented awards to 289 staff members for their years of service and contributions to the Institute. Two employees have served the Institute for 50 years (Pat Anderson and Bob Logan); three for 45 years; six for 40 years; 14 for 35 years; 25 for 30 years; 35 for 25 years; 61 for 20 years; 49 for 15 years; and 93 for 10 years.

Julia McCallin, associate vice president for human resources, served as master of ceremonies for the event, while Provost David Tirrell (who is the Carl and Shirley Larson Provostial Chair at the California Institute of Technology) and Kip Thorne (BS '62), Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics, Emeritus, both gave speeches underscoring the vital importance of Caltech's staff members to the accomplishment of the Institute's scientific mission.

The event also included the announcement of two awards, one honoring individual achievement and another recognizing the impact of teams making significant contributions to the work of the Institute.

Manuel (Manny) De La Torre, stockroom lead for the Division of Biology and Biological Engineering, received the Thomas W. Schmitt Annual Staff Prize, which honors a staff member whose contributions "embody the values and spirit that enable the Institute to achieve excellence in research and education."

Nominators cited De La Torre—whose duties include managing equipment and supply procurement for multiple labs—for his hard work, cheerful attitude, and eagerness to help others. In the words of one supporter, De La Torre makes those he works with feel "like you're part of a winning team."

The Procurement and IMSS Teams won the Team Impact Award, which recognizes "teams that make significant contributions to the work and mission of the Institute" and are able to demonstrate work that has impacted and supported its research or education programs.

The teams' P2P project—which saw members working with vendors, Caltech divisions, and employees to implement a new and efficient payment-and-invoice processing system for the Institute—"meaningfully responded to years of frustrations many [on campus] had with old ways of integrating purchasing and payments," one nominator wrote. "This has taken an incredible amount of effort, and yet they have maintained positive, even cheerful attitudes throughout."

The other Team Impact Award nominees were: Applied Physics and Materials Science Administrative Team; Custodial Project Team; IMSS Help Desk & Advanced Help Desk; Mail Services; Office of Laboratory Animal Resources; PMA Student Support Team; Residential Life Coordinators; and Student-Faculty Programs.

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