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New Caltech Scholars Urged to Take Advantage of Research Opportunities

Incoming students and postdoctoral scholars gathered with friends, family, and Caltech faculty and administrators at the 17th annual convocation ceremony

Together on campus for the first time, Caltech's newest community members—undergraduate and graduate students and postdoctoral scholars—were formally welcomed to the Institute by Vice President for Student Affairs Joseph E. Shepherd and President Thomas F. Rosenbaum at this year's convocation ceremony on Sunday, September 22. The event, which was held in Beckman Auditorium, launched a week of orientation activities and offered the incoming scholars a glimpse into the opportunities ahead of them.

The incoming class of 236 undergraduates is Caltech's most diverse to date, with women making up 44 percent of the class and 31 percent of those enrolled identifying themselves as being part of historically underrepresented minority groups. Ten percent of the class are first-generation college students, and incoming students are citizens of 12 countries around the globe, including the United States. Almost half of the incoming class speaks at least one language other than English at home.

The newest graduate student class is composed of 272 scholars and researchers from around the world. International students (from 26 different countries) comprise 49 percent of the class, with the majority of these students hailing from China and India. Women make up 36 percent of the graduate class.

Rosenbaum, who holds the Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair and is a professor of physics, welcomed the group and talked about Caltech as a place where a diverse set of scholars are free to explore and express their ideas fully while having those ideas “challenged and rebutted, shaped, and honed.” In this environment, he said, transformation follows from “a commitment to data-driven inquiry, a belief in the primacy of truth, and the experience of enlarging your world intellectually and socially.”

Rosenbaum encouraged those gathered “to engage with a wide diversity of peers and teachers, to venture outside the comfort zone of your house, your option, your division, and together to test and sharpen your ideas. You will crack open many books as you crack open the intricacies of science and engineering, but a full resonant education requires much more. You need to move beyond simple coursework and delve deeply into a subject at the boundaries of discovery.” Rosenbaum also urged students to seek greater understanding of other cultures and perspectives through study abroad and by availing themselves of the cultural riches of Los Angeles. “Science, technology, and the arts,” he said, “must work together to find solutions to the challenges we face as a society.”

Caltech’s emphasis on academic research provided a theme for Sunday’s event that was taken up by Shepherd, the Allen V. C. Davis and Lenabelle Davis Leadership Chair and event emcee, who spoke of the Institute as “a place infused with a spirit of inquiry and discovery through research.”

Candace Rypisi, director of student-faculty programs, gave an overview of research opportunities for undergraduates at Caltech, including the summer undergraduate research fellowships known as SURF. Benefits of participating in research, said Rypisi, range from higher graduation rates to enhanced critical thinking. A full 90 percent of undergraduates participate in at least one research project while at Caltech, she noted, while half of all Caltech students conduct research every summer through SURF. “Undergraduate research at Caltech is a commitment,” noted Rypisi in closing. “It’s a commitment to training the next generation of scientists and engineers, it’s a commitment to preparing future faculty and world leaders to work with others, and it’s a commitment to actively supporting student access, equity, and inclusion in STEM.”

Also featured during the program was Eric Moreno, a junior majoring in physics, who recently completed his second summer SURF project under the mentorship of Harvey Newman, Marvin L. Goldberger Professor of Physics. Moreno talked about his research experience with the Large Hadron Collider, noting that as well as learning valuable new skills in programming, machine learning, and data analysis that will be useful for his future, he has had the inspiring opportunity to collaborate with scientists from all over the world.

Next on stage was fourth-year aerospace graduate student Morgan Hooper, who spoke about what she had gained working with undergraduates in research. Hooper, whose mentoring experiences include working with community college students through the Base 11 Aerospace Mentorship Program, described how this opportunity has helped improve her own skills as a STEM educator and increased her confidence in running her own research group.

David Van Valen, assistant professor of biology and biological engineering at Caltech, closed out the program reflecting on his own SURF experiences at Caltech while he was an undergraduate at MIT. That experience, he said, led him to live a life in science. The Caltech research experience is special, he said, because students are involved in pushing the frontiers of human knowledge while receiving mentorship from “arguably some of the best scientists who have ever lived.”

In the upcoming week, Caltech’s newest scholars will continue to have opportunities to learn about and experience the Institute’s academic and social environment through orientation programs run through the offices of the Dean of Undergraduate Students and the Dean of Graduate Studies. Classes for the 2019–20 academic year will officially begin on Tuesday, October 1.

Written by Judy Hill

Caltech Media Relations