In the past 11 years, the number of California Institute of Technology undergraduates who spend their summers SURFing has increased more than 1 0-fold. The rapid rise is attributable not to the legendary lure of California’s beaches, but to growth in funding support for CalTech’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships (SURF). The program, inaugurated in 1979, offers undergraduates the opportunity to research a project that they themselves have developed. Each student pursues his or her research under the tutelage of a faculty sponsor, who serves as the student’s mentor.

For most SURFers, “it’s the first time they’ve had a genuine research experience,” says Terry Cole, chief technologist at CalTech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), senior faculty associate in chemistry and chemical engineering, and chairman of the SURF Administrative Committee: “They struggle—with real equipment, in a real lab—with a problem to which no one really knows the answer.”

SURFers participate in the program...

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