Rushikesh Joshi, 2015 Heather and Paul Haaga SURF Fellow
October 2015
SURF Newsletter  

Dear Friend of SURF,   

For thirty-seven summers we've watched our talented students do research under the guidance of our incredible faculty. Some of these students went on to publish their SURF results.  Many of them went on to graduate school. Many have had successful careers in science and engineering.  And, many have won prestigious awards over the years. In recent years, however, we've been wondering: when will the first SURF alum win a Nobel Prize? Well, last year it happened!  Congratulations to Dr. Eric Betzig (BS '83: SURF '80) on being awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry along with Stefan W. Hell and William E. Moerner! We are proud to be one small part of your success!


We are betting that Dr. Betzig won't be the last SURF alum to win a Nobel Prize. If you are wondering if there is another future winner among our 2015 class, we invite you to come to SURF Seminar Day on October 17. This is when our students present their projects and findings from their summer research.  It is always a great day and it is a wonderful way to recognize our young scholars. We hope you can join us! 


Candace Rypisi

Director, Student-Faculty Programs

A Key to SURF: Seminar Presentations
By Mike Stefanko, BS '70

As an alum with 20 years in education and a doctorate in psychology, I have long believed that the presentation a student makes on SURF Seminar Day is one of the most valuable parts of the SURF experience. Learning to make a presentation about their research to audiences that are (at least somewhat) technologically literate, but unversed in their specific area of research, will be important to most students in the future as they seek funds from their managers or universities or foundations or donors. SURF Seminar Day provides one of the few opportunities for undergraduates to practice this skill and get valuable feedback.
The importance of providing feedback to improve student presentation skill is the main reason I have volunteered as a Session Chair for the past 18 SURF Seminar Days. I have looked forward to hearing presentations in a variety of areas, from Chemistry to Astrophysics to Applied Math to the Humanities. Relying on a judge to provide me with information regarding the technical merits of the presentations, I focus on how well the student was able to convey the importance of her or his project to me as the literate but unversed member of the evaluation team. The energy and enthusiasm of the students has always made this one of the most rewarding days on campus for me.

With about 225 presentations in 20 to 25 sessions, there is always a need for additional Session Chairs (and Judges). I encourage alums with SURF experiences to consider volunteering as a Session Chair and all alums, even those who are pre-SURF like me, to come to campus on October 17th and participate in SURF Seminar Day, even for just part of the day. If you would like to observe before committing to chairing a session, come as an audience member, it is great to have more persons in attendance to encourage the students. For more information, contact Carol Casey by email ( or phone (626-395-2887). 

Unrestricted Donations: Your Support Matters! 

It takes a lot of time, talent and treasure to provide research experiences for over 400 undergraduates each summer.  Did you know that over 1000 staff, faculty, alumni, graduate students, postdocs, and volunteers give their time and energy to make the SURF program a success? Of course, it also takes a lot of funds! Funding doesn't only support research stipends, but also the operation and the many co-curricular activities offered to our students. Programs such as Seminar Day, the Whitney Workshops, Explore JPL, and many others rely on the generosity of our donors.

The first three "legs" of financial support to SURF are mentors, corporations, and revenue generated by endowed SURFs. These funds help cover the cost of SURF stipends. Funds are also needed to cover other expenses, including staff and administrative costs. This is where individual donors, such as you, come in. You are the "4th" leg. Unrestricted donations provide vitally needed funds to keep the program going.

As we approach the end of the calendar year and people start to think about their final charitable gifts, we hope that SURF will be included in the list of worthy causes you wish to support. Even small gifts allow us to show others how broad our support is. Your investment in Caltech and our students is so appreciated!

You can conveniently make an online gift.
  • After entering your donation amount, select "Choose specific designations."
  • In the pop-up designations window, scroll to the "Research Support" section and select "SURF (Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships)."
  • Click on "Continue" to close the pop-up.

October: The Season of the Nobel

In 1980, SURF was in its infancy. The year before 18 students participated in the first SURF summer. Among them was current Caltech professor Ken Libbrecht, then a senior who studied the coulom distribution of pion spectra from heavy-ion collisions with Dr. Steve Koonin.
The following summer the program grew (as it has almost every year since) to 43 students. Among them was freshman Robert (Eric) Betzig. Eric worked with then aeronautics professor Garry Brown. For his SURF, Eric conducted experiments on the linear and non-linear evolution of the helical instability in jets. 

Betzig went on to graduate from Caltech in 1983 with a degree in physics. He then earned an MS and PhD from Cornell University. In 2005 he joined the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Janelia Farm Research Campus.

Congratulations Eric!

For more on Dr. Betzig check out Kathy Svitil's article.

Credit: LIGO/LLO/Caltech

LIGO's SURF Students Look for the Perfect Wave
By Douglas Smith

As the Advanced LIGO Project geared up last summer, 27 undergraduates from around the world became full partners in one of the biggest, most complex physics experiment ever. Their contributions ranged from creating hardware and software for current use to helping design next-generation detectors.
LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, is designed to detect the ripples in the fabric of space and time produced by such violent events as supernova explosions or the mergers of pairs of black holes trapped in a death spiral. Such waves were proposed by Einstein as a consequence of general relativity. His theory turns 100 this November, and all of its other predictions have been confirmed; LIGO, a joint project of Caltech and MIT, entered the search with its first science run in 2002.
Gravitational waves are so subtle that the hunt requires ingenuity on a grand scale-each of LIGO's twin observatories, located in Hanford, Washington, and Livingston, Louisiana, consists of a four-kilometer-long, L-shaped interferometer containing hanging mirrors designed to bob on such a wave as it passes through. Lasers measure the mirrors' motions down to one-thousandth the diameter of a proton. Advanced LIGO, a package of upgrades that became operational on September 18, 2015, is increasing that sensitivity by a factor of 10.
Thanks to Caltech's Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships (SURF) program, students have been part of LIGO since the 1990s-more than 350 of them. Some have gone on to careers in LIGO, and some are now mentoring students themselves. Anamaria Effler SURFed with LIGO in 2004 and 2005 before graduating from Caltech with a bachelor's degree in physics in 2006. But, she says, "I wasn't sure I wanted to go to grad school, so I worked as an operator at LIGO Hanford for three years." The experience moved her to enroll at Louisiana State, "the closest school to a LIGO site." Effler is now a Caltech postdoc at LIGO Livingston, and last summer she mentored an undergraduate from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor in a project to track down noise sources generated within the interferometer itself.

  Read the entire article here
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