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Summer Research at Caltech
by Samuel Ho

After a rigorous semester at Berkeley, most undergrads would agree that summer is a time for some serious fun and relaxation, but many would also note that summer provides students with an opportunity to explore other research fields related to their chemistry curriculum. Research fellowships allow undergrads to take on another research project at participating national laboratories and universities. These programs are of a great asset to students because they provide undergrads with research experience outside from Berkeley, a chance to learn new laboratory skills and meet renowned faculty from different institutions, and a truly unique summer experience from living in another city or state for a few months.

I myself was fortunate to participate as a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellow (SURF) at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), working in part with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a facility under a contract with NASA. My project involved investigating whether one of the Jovian moons of Jupiter, Europa, is able to support life forms underneath its subsurface ocean by taking terrestrial microorganisms and testing their survival and growth under simulated Europa ocean conditions. Results from the summer project could be potentially be used for further in situ mission exploration on Europa, particularly in the detection of relevant biosignatures.

This project was such an experience—let me start out by saying I am strictly a chemist and up until this past summer, I had not touched biology at all. Working at JPL changed my views completely. Bacteria and microorganisms are pretty finicky; the media supplied to them must be specific to the type of strain being grown. Sometimes the summer consisted of me setting up reaction conditions and just hoping my cell cultures would do what I wanted them to do. However, what was really awesome was how I was able to apply some of the tools and techniques I had learned in my organic and analytical chemistry courses in my experiments. It was pretty cool because bringing chemistry to the interface of biology changed the dynamics of how my summer progressed. From my physical chemistry courses, I was able to apply some of theory I learned to computer simulations that modeled potential biogeochemical reactions on Europa. We had a lot of work to do outside the classroom too; every three weeks the undergrad fellows would submit a progress report (think of it as a very extensive lab report) and a final report at the conclusion of the program. We also gave talks throughout the summer on our project, which was almost like practicing for what grad school would be like! Don’t get me wrong though—summer may have been busy, but the summer interns definitely had time to have lots of fun! Every weekend we would take a trip to a city outside Pasadena, from exploring the Chinatown streets of LA to hitting up beaches in San Diego, every weekend was filled with, again, some serious fun and relaxation.