Caltech has recently created a multidisciplinary team of professional staff to identify and assist students with academic, social, and mental health needs.Â
Jennifer Howes, executive director of Student Wellness Services, says the CARE Team was launched last fall to take "aÂ unified approach to identifying students who are struggling and helping to connect them with appropriate early intervention strategies."
Howes, who chairs the CARE Team, adds, "We wanted to create an easy way for people to bring forward concerns and refer students to resources."
Formed through a partnership among offices within student affairs, campus security, and the Staff and Faculty Consultation Center, the CARE TeamÂ grew out of the Caltech Safety Net and Caltech Cares campaigns, which highlighted support resources around campus with a particular focus on suicide prevention. The team continues this work by offering mental health education and training, and also through thoughÂ Caltech Connect, an interactive learning experience to help participants recognize the risk factors and warning signs of suicide so that they can intervene.
Additionally, Howes notes, the CARE Team is responsible for the initial assessment of threatening behaviors or concerns about student safety that come from the community.Â
The CARE Team has anÂ online referral form, which may be used by faculty, staff, and students to make the team aware of a student who may benefit from assistance.Â Â A team member will reach out to the student and invite them in for a one-on-one conversation to learn more about their needs and to begin developing a support plan. For example, a student who is struggling academically might benefit from tutoring support or a connection to the registrar to discuss course planning.
"This team allows us to be responsive to community concerns around safety in a way that's designed to be helpful and supportive to students," she says. "We use tools that look at the actual behavior or data to reduce emotion-driven or fear-based responses. This is for the protection of both the community and of the individual's rights."
Community members can learn more about the team, make a referral, and sign up for training atÂ caltechcares.caltech.edu.
This summer, Maria Hernandezâ€”a student at Santa Monica Community Collegeâ€”lived in Caltech student housing and spent her days in Beverley McKeon's lab, building an autonomous submersible robot from scratch.
This was the second summer in a row that Hernandez participated in a program through the nonprofit organization Base 11, which connects high-achieving, underrepresented students from community colleges throughout the country with top research institutions like Caltech. Base 11 describes its mission as tackling the lack of qualified workers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields, which in turn is fueled by an underrepresentation of women and minorities. Based in California, Base 11 seeks to create a pipeline of science and engineering students from community colleges into the workforce. Â
Hernandez, who lives with her parents in East Los Angeles, is a first-generation college student who leaves her house every weekday morning at 5 o'clock and spends all day on campus in Santa Monica, either in class or working as a tutor to help pay tuition, finally returning home around midnight to sleep. Through Base 11, she has had the opportunity to instead spend summers working at labs throughout Southern California, including with women engineersâ€”like McKeonâ€”who have given her the encouragement and guidance she has needed to chart her career path.Â
"This program gave me the inspiration to become an engineer," says Hernandez, now in her fourth year of college. "Throughout high school, I was always good at math, but I never really knew what engineering was. The closest thing to an engineer in the community I grew up in was a mechanic."
Caltech has partnered with Base 11 to bring around a dozen students to campus each year to work with Caltech faculty members. Caltech's involvement in the program was spearheaded originally by Guruswami Ravichandran, John E. Goode, Jr., Professor of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering and Otis Booth Leadership Chair of the Division of Engineering and Applied Science, working in concert with Caltech volunteer and donor Foster Stanback, who has close connections with Base 11.
"These are low-resource, high-potential students who are creating top-quality research products," says Ravichandran.Â
Spending the summer at Caltech or another academic institution that Base 11 partners with has impacts beyond academics. "Most of these students are the first in their families to go to college, and so they have never even imagined themselves in a setting like Caltech," says Ingrid Ellerbe, executive director of Base 11. "To be made to feel at home there, to receive mentorship from people they can relate to, and to realize that they can meaningfully contribute to research is a truly life-changing experience that empowers them to believe they can achieve things they never thought possible."
Over the past two years, Beverley McKeon, Theodore von KĂˇrmĂˇn Professor of Aeronautics, andÂ 2018 recipient of the Northrop Grumman Prize for Excellence in Teaching, has taken the lead in coordinating the relationship with Base 11. The students participate in one of two programs, one that runs for the full academic year, and one that runs during the summer. The academic-year program draws students from community colleges to campus once per month, nine times a year, to work with Caltech graduate students on research projects.
For the summer program, four students each year come to campus through the Caltech Student-Faculty Programs office to work on a research project in a faculty member's lab, akin to a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF). These Base 11 students work with a student mentor from the lab and ultimately present their findings in a seminar day at the end of the summer.
David Huynh, a graduate student in McKeon's lab, served as a student mentor from 2014 to 2017, helping students work on projects related to physics and fluid mechanics.Â
"They all came in pretty gung ho, but they didn't know exactly what they wanted to do, which is the perfect mindset," Huynh says. "They were excited to learnâ€”but about anything, not just what they wanted to do. They were motivated to learn and gain from this experience, which makes it a lot of fun."
That energy and curiosity translated into impressive and successful final projects. "I have been blown away by the presentations that the Base 11 interns made. Their performance is as good or better than the undergraduates coming from the best of the best schools for summer research fellowships," Ravichandran says.
McKeon agrees. "Students who come have been really outstanding, and the research that they've done has been indistinguishable from any of the other summer programs. They have thrived in an environment that can be quite new and challenging," she says.
Exposure to laboratories is one of the key components of the program for Base 11 students, she says, giving participating students the opportunity to do research and then decide if it is something they would want to pursue as a career.
"Part of the point of the program is to enable people who may not be initially comfortable at a place like Caltech to feel at home in a technical environment and see whether research or graduate school is something they're interested in," McKeon adds. "For some, it's the first step toward a long and brilliant academic career. An equally valid outcome is that the student discovers that academia is not what they want. Either way, they've been able to sample it and make that decision," she says.
The program has so far been funded by Foster Stanback and his wife Coco. Caltech's Office of Technology Transfer and Corporate Partnerships is currently seeking additional collaborations and partnerships with the aerospace industry to ensure that the program continues at Caltech.
Two years ago, the Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Institute partnered with Caltech to launch a major neuroscience initiative. Central to the initiative was the creation of theÂ Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Institute for Neuroscience at Caltech, where research investigations span a continuum, from deciphering the basic biology of the brain to understanding sensation, perception, cognition, and human behavior, with the goal of making transformational advances that will inform new scientific tools and medical treatments.
Construction on the Chen Neuroscience Research Building began in March 2018 and is expected to be completed by October 2020.
Fast facts about the Chen Building:
For more neuroscience stories, visit:Â http://www.caltech.edu/news/tag_ids/155
A new visual culture program is about to make Caltech a lot more colorful. From tours of neon art around Los Angeles to campus artists-in-residence, the program will have a little bit for anyone interested in art and its potential for intersecting with science.Â
The program, the first of its kind at Caltech, is being funded by a grant worth nearly $1 million from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which is known for its support of the arts and humanities in higher education. The foundation has previously funded initiatives at Caltech like the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship and, since 1986, the Caltech-Huntington Postdoctoral Instructorship program.
The program, still in the planning stages, will be part of the Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS) and will include new course offerings, a postdoctoral instructor, artists-in-residence, guest lecturers, and the addition of a visual culture professor to the faculty.
English professor Dehn Gilmore, who is overseeing the program's launch, says this academic year is sort of a pilot for the program, but adds that there is already a full slate of activities planned for the next several months, including a student trip to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) to see a 3D-themed exhibit. Visitors to campus will include Malian textile artist Abdoulaye Konate; Katherine F. Chandler, a professor and artist at Georgetown University whose work has explored, among other things, drone aircraft and drone warfare; and Scott Chimileski, a microbiologist and photographer of microbial life.
A centerpiece of the program will be an artist residency that brings artists for extended stays on campus to work with students and organize exhibits and other events, including public lectures. Caltech has previously hosted artists including Israeli programmer and poet Eran Hadas and LA-based visual artist Sarah Rara, but never as part of a long-term program. "There have been these examples of artists-in-residence from the past, but what's coming up represents a much longer-term commitment to visual culture by the Institute," says Hillary Mushkin, research professor of art and design in mechanical and civil engineering, who co-directs Caltech's data visualization program and is involved in shaping the artist-in-residence program. "This will be an opportunity to bring in numerous artists to develop deeper conversations and collaborations and cross-pollinate ideas."
The first artist-in-residence will be Leslie Thornton, an experimental filmmaker best known for Peggy and Fred in Hell, a 17-episode series that follows two children acting out lives as adults in a chaotic world.Â
Other Caltech faculty members involved in the visual culture program are Professor of English Catherine Jurca, who studies classic Hollywood cinema and the American novel, and history professor NicolĂˇs Wey-GĂłmez, whose lecture series Exploration: The Globe and Beyond will be expanded as part of the program.Â
The program will also involve collaborations with The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens (The Huntington) that connect the Caltech community with artists, exhibition culture, scholars of visual culture, and The Huntington's extensive collections of visual materials.
Gilmore says it is her hope that the visual culture program will allow HSS faculty, postdocs, and students to connect with Caltech's other divisions in new and innovative ways, energizing further collaborations.Â Â
"It will be very exciting for undergrads to learn new ways of thinking and looking," she says. "I think that will inspire new research avenues and hopefully inspire a new set of conversations among the faculty."
Facing the certainty of a changing climate coupled with the uncertainty that remains in predictions of how it will change, scientists and engineers from across the country are teaming up to build a new type of climate model that is designed to provide more precise and actionable predictions.Â
Leveraging recent advances in the computational and data sciences, the comprehensive effort capitalizes on vast amounts of data that are now available and on increasingly powerful computing capabilities both for processing data and for simulating the earth system.Â
The new model will be built by a consortium of researchers led by Caltech, in partnership with MIT; the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS); and JPL, which Caltech manages for NASA. The consortium, dubbed the Climate Modeling Alliance (CliMA), plans to fuse Earth observations and high-resolution simulations into a model that represents important small-scale features, such as clouds and turbulence, more reliably than existing climate models. The goal is a climate model that projects future changes in critical variables such as cloud cover, rainfall, and sea ice extent more accurately â€“ with uncertainties at least two times smaller than existing models.
"Projections with current climate modelsâ€”for example, of how features such as rainfall extremes will changeâ€”still have large uncertainties, and the uncertainties are poorly quantified," says Tapio Schneider, Caltech's Theodore Y. Wu Professor of Environmental Science and Engineering, senior research scientist at JPL, and principal investigator of CliMA. "For cities planning their stormwater management infrastructure to withstand the next 100 years' worth of floods, this is a serious issue;Â concrete answers about the likely range of climate outcomes are key for planning."
The consortium will operate in a fast-paced, start-up-like atmosphere, and hopes to have the new model up and running within the next five yearsâ€”an aggressive timeline for building a climate model essentially from scratch.Â
"A fresh start gives us an opportunity to design the model from the outset to run effectively on modern and rapidly evolving computing hardware, and for the atmospheric and ocean models to be close cousins of each other, sharing the same numerical algorithms," says Frank Giraldo, professor of applied mathematics at NPS.
Current climate modeling relies on dividing up the globe into a grid and then computing what is going on in each sector of the grid, as well as how the sectors interact with each other. The accuracy of any given model depends in part on the resolution at which the model can view the earthâ€”that is, the size of the grid's sectors. Limitations in available computer processing power mean that those sectors generally cannot be any smaller than tens of kilometers per side. But for climate modeling, the devil is in the detailsâ€”details that get missed in a too-large grid.Â
For example, low-lying clouds have a significant impact on climate by reflecting sunlight, but the turbulent plumes that sustain them are so small that they fall through the cracks of existing models. Similarly, changes in Arctic sea ice have been linked to wide-ranging effects on everything from polar climate to drought in California, but it is difficult to predict how that ice will change in the future because it is sensitive to the density of cloud cover above the ice and the temperature of ocean currents below, both of which cannot be resolved by current models.
To capture the large-scale impact of these small-scale features, the team will develop high-resolution simulations that model the features in detail in selected regions of the globe. Those simulations will be nested within the larger climate model. The effect will be a model capable of "zooming in" on selected regions,Â providing detailed local climate information about those areasand informing the modeling of small-scale processes everywhere else.
"The ocean soaks up much of the heat and carbon accumulating in the climate system. However, just how much it takes up depends on turbulent eddies in the upper ocean, which are too small to be resolved in climate models," says Raffaele Ferrari, Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Oceanography at MIT. "Fusing nested high-resolution simulations with newly available measurements from, for example, a fleet of thousands of autonomous floats could enable a leap in the accuracy of ocean predictions."
While existing models are often tested by checking predictions against observations, the new model will take ground-truthing a step further by using data-assimilation and machine-learning tools to "teach" the model to improve itself in real time, harnessing both Earth observations and the nested high-resolution simulations.Â
"The success ofÂ computational weather forecasting demonstrates the power of using data to improve the accuracy of computer models; we aim to bring the same successes to climate prediction," says Andrew Stuart, Caltech's Bren Professor of Computing and Mathematical Sciences.
Each of the partner institutions brings a different strength and research expertise to the project. At Caltech, Schneider and Stuart will focus on creating the data-assimilation and machine-learning algorithms, as well as models for clouds, turbulence, and other atmospheric features. At MIT, Ferrari and John Marshall, also a Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Oceanography, will lead a team that will model the ocean, including its large-scale circulation and turbulent mixing. At NPS, Giraldo will lead the development of the computational core of the new atmosphere model in collaboration with Jeremy Kozdon and Lucas Wilcox. At JPL, a group of scientists will collaborate with the team at Caltech's campus to develop process models for the atmosphere, biosphere, and cryosphere.
Funding for this project is provided by the generosity of Eric and Wendy Schmidt (by recommendation of theÂ Schmidt FuturesÂ program); Mission Control Earth, an initiative of Mountain Philanthropies;Â Paul G. Allen Philanthropies;Â the Heising-Simons Foundation; Blaine and Lynda Fetter; Deborah Castleman;Â Caltech trustee Charles Trimble;Â the Chair's Council of the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences;Â and the National Science Foundation. More information can be found atÂ https://clima.caltech.edu.
April CastaĂ±edaâ€”who recently stepped into the newly created position of assistant vice president for equity and equity investigations and Title IX coordinator at Caltechâ€”is charged with designing and implementing a comprehensive approach to all issues pertaining to discrimination, unlawful harassment, and sexual misconduct. Though the role is new for both the Institute and CastaĂ±eda, she is no stranger to 1200 East California Boulevard, having served in a variety of roles at Caltech (in the provost's and president's offices, as well as Human Resources) for more than 20 years before a recent two-year stint as the assistant director for human resources at JPL.
The office now includes not just Title IX [a law that covers discrimination on the basis of sex] but also Title VII and Title VI. Title VII covers discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. Title VI is the same thing but applies to federal contractors. And because we take federal money, that applies to us as well. We also have state regulations, and California has about 40 different protected classes. So anything that involves a protected class comes into this office.
Although the office is now part of HR, we maintain very close connections with Student Affairs, working closely with the vice president, the deans and the many other offices that serve our students. We're also in the process of hiring an education and deputy Title IX coordinator for Student Affairs to ensure that the needs of the student community are met. The office deals with all constituents, so that's staff, faculty, postdocs, and studentsâ€”both grad and undergrad.
For us, especially with the size of Caltech, it makes a lot of sense to create one equity office. There were times in the past where people had to figure out, "Where do I go? OK, I feel like it's discrimination. Is it sex discrimination? Is it race? If it's sex discrimination, I have to go to this office; if it's race, I go to that office." Whereas here, all you have to know is, "OK, that's the office that I go to if any discrimination or harassment or sexual misconduct happens."
I also think the combination of HR and Student Affairs is really powerful. We get to see all the different constituents, so we learn how they're all experiencing itâ€”from the faculty side to the student side to the staff side to postdocsâ€”making our investigations, outcomes, and solutions stronger.
We also have a lead investigator [a new position], Brian Quillen, who is focused on the equity office model and dedicated to it and has that expertise. That's a real strength because one of the things that we find is that with Title IX, the laws change, the regulations change. ... It's a burgeoning field. Having a lead investigator who is keeping up on those changes makes for a really strong program.
And as I said, we're also hiring a full-time community educator who will do preventative outreach. That person will be in the residences, working with grads and undergrads, getting to know the students, really understanding the culture.
My whole career has been spent talking to people about difficult things. My approach is always that it is a privilege to be there in a person's life at a moment when they really need help, so I try to handle it with care and respect.
We also want to make this process as easy and as approachable as possible, as well as being impartial and fair. Having good investigations brings closure for people. When something happens in a community, the only way that you can become resilient is to feel like you had a fair process, it got closed, and now you are able to move on.
Some people come in and say, "I need an investigation. I want to get down to what happened, I want the fact-finding part." And we provide that. But it doesn't always reach the level of an investigation. And then there are lots of people who just come in for consultation. I tell people before we start, if you want to just tell me what happened, I'm happy to do that, too. And then they might come back later and be ready to share names.
The nice thing about Title IX is that the person who's reporting the incident has a lot of ability to dictate what happens. They often can come in and file a report without us taking action. I follow where they lead. That said, there are things we have to move on if we feel like there's a danger to a community or to themselves.
I have done so many things in my life that really mesh well with this role, so I feel like I'm bringing all those different pieces of me into this job. When I was in grad school at USC [where CastaĂ±eda earned a master's degree in social work], I did my internship here in Caltech's Staff and Faculty Consultation Center. They asked me to stay on, and I worked full-time, but they let me work four 10-hour days, so that left me a day a week and the weekends to do trauma consulting. I then became a diversity liaison under David Baltimore, when he was president. From there, I came into HR as the head of staff education and development, and ultimately became executive director of Human Resources. About two and a half years ago, JPL asked me to come over there as assistant director of Human Resources to work on building communication and getting the different branches of HR to all grow in the same direction.
I'll know it's successful if the number of our cases goes down and the number of our office visits goes up. I want people to come in before things escalate. Absolutely there are times where we need to do an investigation, but there are also lots of things that we can do to build inclusive communities. We want people to worry about school, work, their research, winning Nobel Prizes. ... We don't want them to worry about, "Am I safe? Am I OK?"
We've heard lots of feedback from people that they find our policy really daunting. It's a 25-page policy with lots and lots of process. It's a solid policy, with everything you could ever want in a policy. But when you're in a crisis, you don't want to have to sit down and read a 25-page legal policy. So, making guidelines that are easier to read and updating the language so that it's clear, concise, and relatable is really important.
Another goal is setting clear communication standards for what the equity office and Title IX is, so people really understand who we are. That involves changing everything from the look and feel of the Title IX website to how we engage the community.
We're also using data to inform our work and our practices. We're looking at the numbers of visits, the kinds of things people are coming in for. It's so important to have data so that you can really look and see what's happening without being prejudiced by your emotion.
I've spent most of my career doing things that are engaged around social justice. It's important to me that people have the rights and the ability to do good work.
When I first came to Caltech, I was reluctant to be an intern here because before then I had always worked with underserved populations, and here I saw a lot of privilege. My adviser at the time said to me, "April, pain is pain, no matter if it's in a suit or on the street." And she said, "You have to decide. If you're trying to alleviate pain and help good things happen, there's a place for you here."
But I also do this kind of work for my 10-year-old daughter. Because what we do here sets precedent, and it changes how other people will experience college and education and work.
Caltech's new assistant professor of chemistry Lu Wei is pushing the boundaries of imaging cells. She is developing new spectroscopy and microscopy techniques to track molecules in real time inside cells, and to visualize them in dozens of different colors. Though her primary focus is to create next-generation tools for biologists, Wei also plans to apply these tools to the complex environments of biological samples, such as brain tissues.
Wei grew up in the city of Wuhan in central China. She received her BS from Nanjing University in 2010 and her PhD from Columbia University in 2015. She came to Caltech as a visiting associate in 2017 and became an assistant professor in 2018.
We sat down with Wei to talk about her chemistry research and to learn more about one of her favorite Pasadena-area restaurants.
We make use of physical chemistry principles to develop microscopy methods that enable us to visualize the dynamics inside cells.
One method we are working on is vibrational spectroscopy, where we detect the vibrations of certain chemical bonds. For example, we have utilized a class of small chemical tagsâ€”such as those with certain types of carbon bonds, including carbon-carbon triple bondsâ€”to detect small biomolecules of interest in live cells. Because these chemical bonds are not normally found in cells, and because they vibrate at a special frequency where none of the molecules in cells vibrate, they can be specifically tracked. We can attach these tiny chemical tags to small biomolecules of interest such as neurotransmitters, nucleic acids, and amino acids, to visualize where these small molecules are in living cells.
A common method in bioimaging is fluorescence microscopy, which involves the protein called green fluorescent protein, or GFP, which was the subject of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. GFP glows with a green color and is therefore used as a tag to visualize the insides of cells. However, GFP is a large molecule and is mostly suitable for tagging proteins. Using it as a tag for smaller biomolecules poses the risk of changing the properties of these functional molecules in cells. Our method better retains the properties of these small molecules.
We can use our microscopy methods on all kinds of biological tissues to understand activities inside the very complex environments of cells. For example, one application of our method in neurobiology is to visualize the metabolism that goes on in brain tissues involved in degenerative diseases. Because our tools are devised for living cells, they can help us and other researchers trace and understand the changes in metabolic dynamics of diseased brain tissues with high spatial and temporal precision. This will help us gain more insight into the causes and possible treatments for these diseases.
We want to be able to visualize multiple components in a cellular environment at the same time. This would allow us to understand the relationships and interactions of a variety of the machineries inside cells. We have developed a laser-based microscopy technique called pre-resonance Raman spectroscopy that allows us to achieve a multicolor imaging capability. As a comparison, in fluorescence imaging, the spectral linesâ€”the signatures from the different moleculesâ€”are broad and therefore easily overlap with each other, and this limits the total number of molecules that can be resolved in the visible-light range. With our Raman spectroscopy technique, we have created molecules with sharp peaks, allowing us to view them in up to 24 colors.
So far, we can visualize eight colorsâ€”corresponding to eight kinds of biomolecules participating in cellular activity at a time in a cell or tissue. These targets include proteins like alpha-tubulin, which makes up microtubules, major structural components of cells. We expect to be able to do even more colors in the near future.Our general goal is to push the frontiers of bioimaging. We want to be able to visualize something that we couldn't see before.
I really like being at a small campus, where basically anywhere is within a 10-minute walk. It's very convenient for talking to other people and setting up interdisciplinary collaborations. It's a dream place to be for any scientist.
It's a really nice place, the climate is great, and I like the food. We just went to a nice place for dinner in Arcadia called Meizhou Dongpo with some faculty. Meizhou is a place in Sichuan Province in China and Dongpo was a very famous Chinese poet who also happened to be a good cook, so that's why the restaurant is named after him. There is a lot of good Chinese food around here!
The families of Caltech's newest undergraduates were welcomed to the community and provided a glimpse of Caltech's undergraduate program during the Institute's annual Family Weekend event.
Between Friday, November 9, and Sunday, November 11, more than 100 families explored campus and participated in events and activities that included a parents' happy hour at the Athenaeum's Rathskeller as well as panel discussions and presentations with Student Affairs administrators, faculty, and students on undergraduate life, opportunities for studying abroad, summer research, career planning, academics, and a look at what the Caltech experience is like for student athletes. Families and their students were also invited to attend a Von KĂˇrmĂˇn Lecture and a performance by the Caltech-Occidental Wind Orchestra.
During a luncheon held in the dining hall of Caltech's recently opened Bechtel Residence, President Thomas Rosenbaum greeted the families with a message that highlighted the range of opportunities and experiences undergraduate students' haveâ€”from the close interaction with faculty and peers to hands-on researchâ€”to broaden their thinking and perspective while also helping to advance discoveries that have the potential to positively change the world.Â
"Thank you for sharing your children with us," Rosenbaum said. "We are really excited that they are bringing their energy, their intellect, their idealism to our community, and we look forward to many years of discovery."
Ten years ago, Caltech and City of Hope forged a partnership that combined what each institute was best atâ€”engineering and medicine, respectivelyâ€”with the goal of developing new biomedical technologies.
This October, researchers came together to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Caltech-City of Hope Biomedical Research Initiative and highlight recent noteworthy projects funded by the initiative.
This year's featured projects were:
â€˘ Assessing cardiovascular health and testing for the presence of metabolic disease using a handheld device developed by Mory Gharib (PhD '83), the Hans W. Liepmann Professor of Aeronautics and Bioinspired Engineering. The research is being conducted by Joanne Mortimer, a professor and researcher at City of Hope, and Danny Petrasek, a visiting associate and lecturer in medical engineering at Caltech.
â€˘ A system for tracking the location of tumors during surgery using implantable magnetic beacons and a sensor array placed near the area being operated on. The system is being developed by Yu-Chong Tai, Caltech's Anna L. Rosen Professor of Electrical Engineering and Medical Engineering, Andrew and Peggy Cherng Medical Engineering Leadership Chair, and executive officer for medical engineering; and Yuman Fong, a professor and surgeon at City of Hope.
In all, the initiative has funded 53 collaborations between researchers at Caltech and City of Hope. They include research into early detection of breast cancer, a treatment for HIV, and research into the effects gut microbes have on the immune system, among many others. It involves researchers from the divisions of Engineering and Applied Science, Biology and Biological Engineering, and Chemistry and Chemical Engineering.
Recently, a dozen graduate students and postdoctoral researchers gathered at the Exploratorium in San Francisco to explain climate science to nonexperts. The students and postdocs were participating in a Climate Science Translators Showcase, held by the California Council on Science and Technology (CCST) in conjunction with its 30th Anniversary Celebration and Global Climate Action Summit's Science to Action Day. The 12 researchers engaged in one-on-one conversations with summit attendees for two hours in a private reception setting, to give them valuable practice translating climate science to policymakers and decision-makers.
Caltech was represented at the showcase by sixth-year graduate student Zach Erickson, whose work explores how the ocean takes up excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by storing it in the ocean interior. Erickson works with Andrew Thompson, professor of environmental science and engineering, deploying undersea drones off the coast of Antarctica to measure and track carbon in the water.
We recently chatted with Erickson, who discussed his participation in the event and how he communicates his research.
I've known about CCST for many years because of my involvement with the Institute's student-run science policy club, Science & Engineering Policy At Caltech (SEPAC), and have even been to one of CCST's regular meetings as a student observer.Â I heard about this specific opportunity through a SEPAC meeting with Professor Susan Hackwood [of the University of California, Riverside], the outgoing executive director of CCST, who encouraged me to apply.
The event was held during an evening mixer in the Exploratorium, San Francisco's science museum. CCST set us up at cocktail tables in one area of the room, and people attending the mixer would come by and mingle with us. The goal was to talk about our science and how it impacts climate policy.Â
Something I didn't fully appreciate before this event was the importance of connecting with your audience. It sounds obvious, but a lot of our interactions as scientists are heavily curatedâ€”that is, we talk mostly to people who already know the importance of what we do. So to generate a dialogue, I focused on connecting climate research with something that my conversation partner could relate to. Had they gone on a cruise? Been diving or at least swimming in the ocean? Had to get out of the water because of a harmful algal bloom? These are all great entry points that lead into my research.
Jargon. The main problem is that I forget what is and isn't jargon. Terms that I use all the time in my research, like "salinity," "solar radiation," and "ocean glider," can be relatively easily replaced with "the saltiness of the ocean," "sunlight," and "ocean robot." Not everything can be substituted or explained so easily, but it's a start.
Scientists can sometimes be isolated within an academic bubble. It is important to me to be able to reach outside that bubble and talk to nonscientists about what I do and why it is relevant or interesting or helpful to their lives. Partly, this is because my chosen field, the science of Earth's carbon cycle, is currently very important to humanity's relationship with our planet. In addition, scientific outreach is the manifestation of the teacher in me, who wants to help people learn simply for the sake of making new connections and understanding our planet better as a result.Â
And, I admit, it is self-serving. After struggling to make sense of my data, it is really helpful for me to take a step back and tell people about how I use measurements from ocean robots around Antarctica to study how the ocean takes up carbon dioxide. It gives me perspective and helps me get excited anew about the research I get to do here!
Scientists in general don't talk enough about what scienceÂ is. To most nonscientists, science is the end resultâ€”what gets put in a textbook as established fact. But science is really the process: the hypothesis, the methodology, the mechanism, the uncertainty, and especially the healthy dose of skepticism that fuels the whole cycle. People usually don't want to hear this. They want the answer. And, in a field as polarizing as climate science, they typically want an answer that matches their expectations.
I think the key to improving scientific literacy is to better communicate the science, rather than just the conclusions of the science. How do we know what we know, how uncertain are we, and how could we strengthen or disprove our results? We ought to share not only our conclusions but also how we came to them, and help nonscientists make the same connections.
For my own career, I want to focus primarily on academic research. But there are myriad opportunities to reach out beyond the academic bubble, whether through teaching, popular science writing, science expositions, science museums, or community outreach events. I plan to make use of these to try to increase scientific literacy and the public's understanding of how science-based problem-solving works.