Adapting to the challenges presented by the novel coronavirus, Caltech's Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships (SURF) program went virtual this summer, with more than 380 students engaging in 10-week mentored research projects remotely.
Candace Rypisi, director of student-faculty programs, says that when Caltech switched to an online spring term, faculty members grew concerned that students might lose the opportunity to do summer research unless the program could be adapted. To make it work, faculty mentors, graduate students, and postdocs had to rethink and refocus their projects in order to ensure that students could have a successful summer doing research.
"For experimental or engineering projects that required being on campus, faculty worked with students to come up with related computational or theoretical projects that could be done remotely," Rypisi says.
Because of this campus-wide effort, students are working on research projects from home or other off-campus sites. As with the in-person SURF program, students check in with mentors several times a week and access an array of enrichment activities including faculty seminars, professional development workshops, writing and communication classes, and informal online coffee meetings. Only now these activities are done remotely. A survey conducted midway through the summer showed that more than 90 percent of SURF students said they were "satisfied" or "very satisfied" with the level of mentoring they were receiving, she says.
Of this year's 383 SURF fellows, 320 are Caltech students. Of the participants, 257 work with Caltech mentors, 47 at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and 79 worked with affiliated mentors, at locations including University College London, MIT, The University of Newcastle, and the Niels Bohr Institute.
Started in 1979, SURF provides students with the opportunity to conduct research under the guidance of experienced mentors. Modeled on the grant-seeking process, students collaborate with a potential mentor to define and develop a project, and then write research proposals as part of the application process. Faculty members review and approve the proposals. This summer, each SURF student received a $6,420 award for their summer work.
At the conclusion of the program, students submit a technical paper and give an oral presentation at one of several SURF symposia modeled on professional technical meetings. This year, the presentations will be held remotely on August 20 and October 17. (For information on how to attend Summer Seminar Day on August 20, visit sfpstudentportal.caltech.edu.)
During an August 6 Zoom gathering with SURF donors, several SURF students described their experiences this summer.
Adam Abbas, a junior studying materials science, said he was excited to have been able to bring his knowledge in computer science to bear on collaborative projects with other students, for example, in helping create Raspberry Pi-based controls for a fellow student's vacuum-pumping system.
"SURF is one of the best parts of Caltech, but especially this summer, being able to stay connected to the scientific community and retaining my identity as an undergraduate researcher," he says.
Sophomore Annabel Gomez, majoring in mechanical engineering, conducted her summer research at JPL, applying machine learning to predict high-latitude ionospheric irregularities to help improve the accuracy of navigation and communication signals. She praised the program as "allowing me to explore the field I'm interested in and giving me a jump start in my career by providing me the opportunity to gain valuable hands-on experience. … It's more than just a summer internship. It has propelled me one step closer to achieving my dream of working for NASA."