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Faculty Profiles «Ńaltech.Edu»

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Fri, 16 Nov 2018 20:22:20 +0000
Caltech News tagged with "faculty_profile"
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Tue, 09 Oct 2018 21:02:28 +0000
The Future of Imaging Cells: Q&A with Lu Wei
New chemistry professor is at the frontier of new visualization tools
News Writer: 
Whitney Clavin
Lu Wei
Lu Wei
Credit: Caltech

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.

What kinds of microscopy techniques are you developing?

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 tags—such as those with certain types of carbon bonds, including carbon-carbon triple bonds—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.

How does this technique differ from others used for imaging 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.

What are some applications of this technique?

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.

What other methods are you working on?

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 lines—the signatures from the different molecules—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 colors—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.

How do you like Caltech so far?

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.

How do you like Pasadena?

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!

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Wed, 05 Sep 2018 19:30:25 +0000
Illuminating New Possibilities: An Interview with Alireza Marandi
News Writer: 
Robert Perkins
photo of Alireza Marandi
Alireza Marandi
Credit: Caltech

New Caltech faculty member Alireza Marandi is on the cutting edge of laser science. Marandi, assistant professor of electrical engineering in the Division of Engineering and Applied Science, explores how nonlinear photonics, a field of optics, enables a broad range of previously less-explored opportunities for using lasers and light detectors for a variety of purposes, including molecular sensing and computing. Although lasers currently are used for a number of important applications from surgery to communications, imaging, and sensing, the devices are not always available at the wavelength needed for a given application. Marandi and others are exploring ways to convert laser wavelengths to suit any given purpose, by passing the light through specially engineered devices. Such nonlinear devices can also be used in information processing. Marandi received a bachelor's degree from the University of Tehran, a master's from the University of Victoria, and a doctorate from Stanford University. Recently, he answered a few questions about his life and work.

What brought you to Caltech?

Caltech has a great focus on science and engineering. Everyone you meet shares the same passion and drive, which fosters strong collaborations and motivates you to dig more deeply into your own field and be more effective. It has been a utopia for the type of research I am interested in.

Moreover, Caltech has played a critical role in the evolution of electrical engineering and photonics. Many of the prominent figures in the field have been at Caltech at some point in their careers as students, postdocs, or faculty members. It is extremely exciting for me to be a part of this community and contribute to its extraordinary impact.

What first got you excited about photonics?

When I was in primary school, I saw one of those sci-fi movies that had lasers in it. I don't even remember the name of the movie, but it got me interested in understanding what a laser was and how it was different from other light sources. Being a bookworm at the time, I actually went out and bought a laser textbook. Except for the first few pages, I could not understand anything in that book, but it helped me create an imaginary picture of the physics behind lasers. It was fun. Of course, everyone teased me for having a laser textbook in primary school. 

Later, in high school, I got my hands on some laser diodes and built the simplest optical communication link. It was my first serious photonic experiment. When I got to college, I knew I would do electrical engineering. I had always been the type of kid that would try to build things. My parents may not agree with me on the term "build," but I "worked" with a lot of electronics in high school. 

As an undergrad, I got a little off-track from photonics and found myself working a lot with artificial intelligence. I used artificial intelligence to design electromagnetic structures, which we built and tested. That got me back into learning more about electromagnetics and optics. Fast forward to after my PhD, when I ended up using photonic structures to solve some artificial intelligence problems. So, everything connects in a nonlinear way. In hindsight, one of the most appealing elements of photonics for me is that you can find a nice balance between science and engineering design and development.

Can you give an example of how nonlinear photonics can be used?

Think of breath analysis. There is a correlation between the molecular composition of your exhaled breath and what exists in the blood. So, there's a lot of useful information about your health contained in your breath, but it is difficult to analyze because the concentrations are so low. To overcome that, you could analyze the spectra of exhaled breath using lasers, searching for the spectral "fingerprints," or signatures, that reveal the presence of those compounds. The problem is that those fingerprints sometimes only show up at certain wavelengths of light, for which lasers and light detectors are not easily available. Wavelength conversion in nonlinear photonics enables accessing that information using the currently available lasers and detectors.                          

What are you most excited about in your field right now?

There are two application directions that I'm particularly excited about: one of them is related to information processing and the other is related to sensing, which I just described. For information processing, nonlinear photonics can provide access to extraordinary functionalities ranging from low-power logic operations to generation and manipulation of quantum states of light,but the challenge is that it's expensive and not easy to scale at the moment. The important question is how you can bring such functionalities, either for sensing or information processing, into a scalable platform to solve real-world problems.

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Fri, 13 Jul 2018 21:10:54 +0000
From Colorado to Caltech: Meet Chemistry Professor Kimberly See
New video highlights one of Caltech's new chemistry professors, who specializes in batteries
News Writer: 
Whitney Clavin

New Assistant Professor of Chemistry Kimberly See caught her first glimpses into the world of chemistry growing up in Colorado. She originally thought she wanted to be a botanist, but then began to realize that plants—and everything else around her—are made up of molecules, and switched her interest to chemistry. 

"My chemistry kit was going outside and playing in the streams and being in nature and climbing in mountains and trees," she says in a new video profile. 

After earning her bachelor's degree in chemistry from the Colorado School of Mines in 2009, she went on to UC Santa Barbara, where she received her PhD in 2014. She worked as a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign until last year, when she joined the Caltech faculty. 

See's passion for the outdoors led her to focus on energy research, and more specifically, battery chemistry. She and her students are looking into potential new electrodes and electrolytes that go beyond the traditional chemical reactions using lithium-ion batteries. For example, they are studying the chemistry of magnesium and other abundant, less-expensive resources that might one day be used in batteries for electrical vehicles or other forms of renewable energy storage. Says See, "the ultimate goal of our lab is really to develop new chemistry."

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Fri, 22 Jun 2018 15:46:38 +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.

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Fri, 18 May 2018 19:03:00 +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.

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Tue, 01 May 2018 20:30:23 +0000
Cooking up Polymers: A Q&A with Maxwell Robb
News Writer: 
Whitney Clavin
Maxwell Robb
Maxwell Robb
Credit: Caltech

Ever since his parents bought him a chemistry kit in elementary school, Maxwell (Max) Robb has wanted to be a chemist. Now, as a new assistant professor of chemistry at Caltech, Robb possesses the grown-up equivalent of a chemistry kit—a new state-of-the-art laboratory for making materials, in particular plastics that respond to mechanical forces. Robb's research has important applications like sensing stress in plastics, where mechanically sensitive molecules could signal impending damage by changing color. But his passion lies in fundamental chemistry. "I like making new things and exploring the chemical world," he says.

Robb moved to Pasadena after a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He earned his PhD in chemistry in 2014 from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and his bachelor's degree in chemistry from the Colorado School of Mines in 2009. 

We sat down with Robb to learn more about his research and why making plastics is not that different from cooking. 

Tell us more about your field of synthetic polymer chemistry.

In my lab, we make new materials. We make small molecules as well as large molecules such as polymers, which are long chains of repeating units. You can think of a polymer as being like a spaghetti noodle. If you cook spaghetti, you end up with a tangled ball of noodles. The same is true for the materials we make in our lab—the polymers become tangled together, and this gives rise to many of their properties.  

What kinds of materials are you making?

The research in my group focuses on functional polymers, or functional plastics. We're interested in tuning the structure of these materials, at the molecular level, so that when you apply a stimulus, by pulling on the material or applying a mechanical force, it causes some chemical reaction, some transformation, to take place. Such changes would provide a simple visual cue, for example, that would allow you to identify if a plastic component has been subjected to a potentially damaging stress. We are particularly interested in developing polymers that provide a visual readout of the amount of force a material has experienced.  

And how might these materials be used?

This technology could be applied to personal protective equipment—helmets, for instance—to provide immediate information about the severity of an impact to the head. That feedback could then be used to inform medical treatment. For industrially relevant plastic components, we could identify stresses early on that would eventually cause the material to fail, so that the parts could be repaired or replaced before more significant damage occurs. We are also working on a type of "invisible ink" for polymeric materials—where mechanical force would be used to write a pattern that can be revealed later using a secondary stimulus.

How do you go about making these new materials?

Typically, we start with an idea for a new molecule or material and then we perform computational calculations to try to predict how the molecule will respond to mechanical force. From there, we go into the lab and synthesize the new materials. Sometimes we will modify existing molecules that we know behave in certain ways, and sometimes we'll develop completely new materials. However, the ability to design new mechanically responsive molecules from the ground up is still a big challenge in the field. My group is working on this by developing the fundamental framework for understanding how force is coupled to molecular reactivity.

What do you like about Caltech?

The community aspect of Caltech is really special, coupled with the small size of the Institute. The people here are incredibly friendly, open, and supportive. People are collaborative, everyone is doing amazing science, and there are zero barriers to interacting with anyone on campus. And the students are absolutely amazing. I've been lucky to recruit an outstanding group of researchers.

What do you do in your spare time?

I like hiking and exploring the outdoors. I love living near the mountains. I enjoy trying all the restaurants that Pasadena offers, but I also like to cook. Synthetic chemistry is a lot like cooking. I think there's a correlation between being a good synthetic chemist and being a good cook at home. I wish I had more time to be creative in the kitchen. Watching a good TV show or movie is one of my guilty pleasures.

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Mon, 16 Apr 2018 21:36:07 +0000
Studying Turbulent Seas: A Conversation with Jörn Callies
News Writer: 
Robert Perkins
Jörn Callies
Jörn Callies

New Caltech faculty member Jörn Callies studies ocean circulation, in particular focusing on the eddies that churn the surface and govern how heat and carbon dioxide are absorbed by the water. In 2011, Callies received a diplom—roughly equivalent to a combined bachelor's/master's degree—in meteorology with a minor in mathematics from the University of Hamburg in Germany. In 2016, he earned a doctorate in physical oceanography from the MIT–WHOI (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute) Joint Program in Oceanography. He then spent about a year as a postdoctoral researcher, splitting his time between MIT and Harvard, before joining Caltech as an assistant professor of environmental science and engineering in September 2017. Recently, Callies answered a few questions about his work and its role in deciphering the forces that shape the earth's climate.

What excites you most about coming to Caltech?

The collaborative spirit and sense of community. Nobody at Caltech disappears into their disciplinary pigeonhole—you constantly learn what is new in other fields and share what is exciting in your field. It makes for a very stimulating environment.

What do you work on?

I work to better understand the ocean's circulation and how it regulates the climate on Earth. By probing the ocean with in situ and satellite observations, developing simplified dynamical models, and using detailed numerical simulations, I aim to extract the laws that govern this turbulent fluid.

What do you find most exciting about your research?

The ocean is an incredibly dynamic system. Its circulation consists of currents spanning the entire globe, vigorous eddies that stir it up over distances of hundreds of kilometers, and small-scale turbulence that is generated by the breaking of waves that propagate through the ocean's interior and reach amplitudes of hundreds of meters. These different types of flows interact and as a whole shape how the ocean helps regulate the earth's climate.

We are in the middle of deciphering how this complex mosaic of flows works. With the emergence of satellite observations and our developing ability to autonomously sample the ocean with robotic vehicles, we have seen an explosion in the volume of data available. And with continuing advances in computational power, we can simulate the ocean's circulation in ever more detail. Our understanding of the circulation is thus starting to give justice to its richness, and we are starting to learn just how eddies, turbulence, and other types of flows help take up excess heat and carbon from the atmosphere. 

How did you get into your field?

I originally studied physics, mathematics, and atmospheric science. I was drawn to atmospheric science because I learned to explain the phenomena that surround us: Why are there storms? How do clouds form? Why is the sky blue? I then became fascinated with the ocean and found out how little we knew about its circulation.

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Mon, 12 Mar 2018 21:08:00 +0000
Digging for Answers: An Interview with Claire Bucholz
News Writer: 
Robert Perkins
Bucholz
Credit: Claire Bucholz

New Caltech faculty member Claire Bucholz is a globe-trotting field geologist studying igneous rocks from the transition between the Archean and Proterozoic eons 2.5 billion years ago, which roughly coincides with a time period known as the Great Oxygenation Event (GOE), when oxygen began appearing in the earth's atmosphere. She hopes to better understand what impact this had on the earth's crust and, in turn, how that may have impacted processes deep inside the planet. A native of Irving, Texas, Bucholz completed her undergraduate studies at Yale and earned a PhD through the MIT/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute Joint Program in Cambridge in 2016. Recently, Bucholz answered a few questions about her research and the important clues about the earth's deep past that can be found in the rock record.

Can you tell us a little about your work?

I think about the composition and chemistry of igneous rocks from a field-based perspective. My studies all start with detailed field observations and then build up from there with layers of new data from microscopy, mineral and rock chemistry, isotopic analyses, geochronology, and more. Some of the big questions I am thinking about include how changes in conditions and the surface of the earth—for example, the rise of oxygen or the oxygenation of the deep oceans—may have been imprinted on the igneous rock record and how the continental crust is constructed.

How did you get into your field?

My mom jokes that I always wanted to be a "rock scientist" and was filling my pockets with rocks from the time I was able to toddle about. But what really got me excited about geology was a semester abroad in Switzerland in high school. Our science curriculum was geology. We conducted labs sitting on moraines overlooking vast glaciers or observing metamorphic rocks that had originally been part of the sea floor but are now at some of the highest peaks in the Alps. It was a surreal and totally engrossing experience. 

What do you find most exciting about your research?

As my research is based in detailed field studies, I get to travel to some amazing places to observe and collect rocks, then take these rocks back to the lab, analyze them, and synthesize all of the data into a larger picture. This process is a really unique way to connect with a place. It makes you feel a really close connection with the earth.

Why are you excited to be in Southern California?

I have to admit that I thought I made a terrible mistake when I first moved here. It was actually the one place I swore I would never move to. I remember driving over Cajon Pass and down into the Inland Empire in early September into the thick heat and smog. However, I've adjusted and am actually now a complete fan of Southern California. The weather, of course, is great, but the ability to get outside to the beach or to the mountains on the turn of a dime is incredible. There is a wealth of natural beauty here and such a visceral connection with geology that is unlike anything I have experienced in a big city before. 

What do you do outside of the lab?

I mostly try to keep the chaos of my two kids to a reasonable level. However, I'm an avid gardener and have been loving the Los Angeles climate. My family and I also enjoy exploring the San Gabriel Mountains and the coastline during the weekend.

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Thu, 01 Feb 2018 21:00:20 +0000
A Conversation with Caltech Entomologist Joe Parker
New assistant professor of biology Joe Parker discusses his lifelong love of insects and explains how a tiny kind of beetle can answer fundamental questions of evolution.
News Writer: 
Lori Dajose

Meet Joe Parker, Caltech's Newest Entomologist

Meet Joe Parker, Caltech's Newest Entomologist
VIDEO: Joe Parker's decades-long fascination with bugs and beetles led to his recent appointment as an assistant professor at Caltech. As an entomologist, he studies particular species of beetle that can help us answer some of the fundamental questions of evolution.
Credit: Caltech

Not many people get to turn their childhood hobby into a career, but when Joe Parker began collecting insects at the age of 7, he simply never stopped. Parker took his childhood fascination with insects to the next level, amassing a diverse and pristine collection from the Welsh countryside surrounding his hometown of Swansea in the United Kingdom. It was only natural for him to turn this love of insects into a career, and, in 2017, Parker arrived at Caltech as an assistant professor of biology and an affiliated faculty member of the Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Institute for Neuroscience. He now focuses on small species of beetle that have the potential to answer fundamental questions of evolution.

Watch our conversation with Parker here.

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A Tabletop Approach to Probing Fundamental Laws of Physics
Nick Hutzler's new lab at Caltech will look for hidden fundamental particles and forces of nature using laser-based experiments.
News Writer: 
Whitney Clavin
Nick Hutzler
Nick Hutzler, assistant professor of physics at Caltech.
Credit: Caltech

Nick Hutzler, a new assistant professor of physics, is returning to Caltech after 10 years of probing the fundamental laws of physics at Harvard University. He earned his undergraduate degree in mathematics from Caltech in 2007, then switched to physics, earning his PhD from Harvard in 2014 and completing a postdoctoral fellowship, also at Harvard, in 2017.

Hutzler uses tabletop experiments to study the fundamental particles and laws of nature. Unlike particle accelerator experiments, where atoms are smashed together, he uses laser beams to carefully probe atoms and molecules and look for the hidden influences of never-before-seen particles and "broken symmetries" in the laws of physics.

We sat down with Hutzler to talk about his move back to Caltech and the advantages his tabletop technique brings to particle physics.

What made you switch from mathematics to physics?

I was a math major at Caltech, but I did a lot of physics. During my freshman year I was a SURF [Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship] student at JPL and then my sophomore year I started doing research with Brad Filippone [the Francis L. Moseley Professor of Physics]. I continued doing research with Brad until I left for Harvard. I still use math every day, but now as an experimental physicist, I also get to hit stuff in the lab with a hammer and shoot lasers!

How are you able to probe matter at the most fundamental levels with tabletop experiments?

My goal is to look for the signature of new physics interacting with regular matter—in particular, atoms and molecules. If you can perform very precise measurements of the properties of atoms or molecules, you can actually see signatures of the same types of particles found in particle accelerator experiments.

In our experiments, we take atoms or molecules and put them in an ultrahigh vacuum chamber so that there's nothing, such as background gas atoms, bumping into them. You cool them down so that you don't have to worry about thermal effects or the molecules bouncing into each other. And then you shoot a laser at the molecules to push around the electrons and nuclei and see what happens.

What kinds of signals are you looking for?

We're looking for effects that violate fundamental symmetries in the laws of physics, meaning that we're looking for something that shouldn't actually be there at all. For example, we know the universe is made out of matter and not antimatter, which means that some kind of symmetry was broken in the laws of physics—otherwise, we would have the same amounts of matter and antimatter. This is called the baryon asymmetry problem. We're looking for signatures of this same type of symmetry breaking in the atoms and molecules in an electromagnetic field, specifically by looking for energy shifts that violate the symmetry rules found in textbooks on electromagnetism and quantum physics.

Are other scientists doing these same types of experiments?

It's not a big field. There are a handful of people taking this specific approach of using atoms and molecules. There are other people at Caltech looking for these symmetry violations with similar experiments but in different particles; for example, Brad Filippone is looking in neutrons, and Ryan Patterson [professor of physics] is looking in neutrinos. Also, Frank Porter [professor of physics] and David Hitlin [professor of physics] search for symmetry violations in heavy, unstable particles called mesons.

What drew you back to Caltech?

What drew me to Caltech as an undergrad and as faculty is that it's pretty unique. It's small and overwhelmingly focused on science and engineering, and has lots of world-class research going on. There are not very many places that offer all of that and none that offer it in the way that Caltech does.

Our lab on the first floor of Downs-Lauritsen is just about completed, and we're excited to get to work. That's one of the nice things, in my opinion, about this tabletop approach to looking for new particles: you can do this all here. You don't have to go to an accelerator or a telescope. We can just do it all on the first floor of Downs-Lauritsen.  

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