CalTech Undergrads Get Into The SURF

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

Oct 16, 1989
Barbara Spector

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 for 10 weeks and receive a summer stipend of $3,000. Faculty sponsors provide lab space, equipment, computing time, and travel expenses when required. In addition to pursuing their SURF projects, the students attend weekly research seminars given by CalTech faculty " and JPL technical staff members, and meet for lunch or dinner with leaders in business and academia, during which they discuss ways to develop a career path. They also participate in communications workshops, in which they learn to write a technical paper, present talks to nontechnical audiences, and create visual aids. Since CalTech does not offer summer classes, says SURF director Carolyn Merkel, the program offers SURFers an opportunity to do something “more along the lines of their interest than just flipping hamburgers or other summer jobs that students traditionally have.

But these benefits are not merely handed to the SURFers. The program is “based on the student’s taking the initiative and being the motivator,” says Merkel. Students are required to contact a prospective faculty sponsor, research possible areas of investigation, and draw up a funding proposal, which is then reviewed by a faculty committee—an exercise that is designed to include “all components of the grant process,” according to the program director. In January, the SURF office posts a list of potential sponsors and possible research topics; proposals are due in early March, awards are made in April, and SURF work begins in mid-June. At the end of the summer, the students write a technical paper based on their research. In most cases, says Cole, “it’s the first time they’ve had to write up research that they themselves have done.”

Cole, who was a SURF sponsor before he became a program administrator, says the students’ initial meetings with prospective mentors are themselves important lessons. “The student-tries to develop a concept proposal, and gets a critique,” he says. The exchange of information with the faculty member teaches the student “how scientists and engineers develop ideas.” By the time the would-be SURFers are ready to write the proposal, says Cole, they “have had to dig into the literature, and find out about technology they might not have known about.”

The program was designed by Fred Shair, a former CalTech professor of chemical engineering who is now dean of the School of Natural Sciences at California State University, Long Beach. Funding for SURF comes from private donors, individual endowments, CalTech’s alumni association, and corporations such as General Motors, Ford, AMETEK Inc., Bristol-Myers Co., the Los Angeles Times, Unitek, and Pacific Telesis. The National Science Founda- tion has also supported SURF through its Research Experiences for Undergraduates grant program. In addition, faculty sponsors finance part of the student stipends. “Our goal is to raise enough money so the students will come Tree to our faculty,” says Merkel. To that end, SURF is establishing an endowment fund, which now stands at slightly under $1 million. Donors contribute endowments of $50,000; the income from each endowment provides funding to support one SURF student each year in perpetuity.

And as word of the program has spread, the number of SURFers in need of support has grown considerably. In 1979, SURF’s first year, 18 students tested the waters under the sponsorship of 17 faculty members. Each SURFer received a $2,000 stipend; the program’s total budget was $36,000. (“There was no overhead,” says Merkel. “Everything was just absorbed.”) In subsequent years, as more students have learned of the summer experience, SURF has been undeniably up. This past summer 188 SURFers, sponsored by 120 faculty members, each received $3,000 stipends; the budget, including a percentage for overhead, was expected to reach $626,040.

Although the program is designed primarily for CalTech students, undergrads from outside the institute are often invited to join the program. Of the 188 students who participated this year, 31 were from colleges and universities other than CalTech. Among the 22 institutions represented were Brown University, Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Santa Rosa Junior College, Beijing University, and Clark University. Many of the non-CalTech SURFers are funded by NSF grants, according to Merkel. Potential SURFers from outside the institute learn of the program “through the academic network,” she says. In many cases, professors at other universities who are collaborating with CalTech SURF sponsors or are otherwise familiar with their work suggest that the students apply. Merkel notes that even non-CalTech SURFers must get in contact with faculty sponsors from the institute before submitting an application; many do so by phone or electronic mail.

Former SURFers have gone on to win Time magazine’s College Achievement Award; SURF projects also have been published in scientific journals ‘and, in some cases, have led to the launching of entrepreneurial ventures. This year’s SURFing expeditions included projects on “Programming for Robot Control System and Analysis,” “Thermal Model of the Interior of Mars,” and “Photoelasticity and the Study of the Human Cornea.” Another of this year’s SURFs resulted in the discovery of a supernova by 19-year-old engineering student Celina Mikolajczak (University Briefs, The Scientist, Oct. 2, 1989, page 4). A few SURF projects each year also focus on the humanities and social sciences.

Collaboration Is The Key

The collaboration between students’ and faculty members, says Merkel, “is one of the key elements to a successful SURF.” The program director explains that “if the sponsor and the student are both interested in working together, the student will have a good educational experience, even if the whole experiment fails.”

CalTech senior Clifton Kiser knows about SURF experiments that meet with less-than-publishable results. The materials science major says that the two SURFs he has done—an investigation last year into the synthesis of photoreactive metalloporphyrins for use in optical. switching, and a project this summer on toxic waste disposal—”both ended up going sour.” Nonetheless, Kiser considers SURF “an excellent experience.” The main benefit of the program, he says, is “not having to follow cookbook "instructions." You’re the one calling the shots.” Kiser says that because being a SURFer has given him experience in conducting his own research, he feels “confident about being out on my own,” and more prepared for graduate school.

SURFers also become experienced at speaking at professional colloquia through participation in SURF Seminar Day; an annual event at which the students speak for 20 minutes to an informed audience about their research. This year, SURF Seminar Day will take place on Saturday; Merkel expects 400 people to attend. “It’s sometimes the most traumatic part of the whole SURF experience,” says Cole. But Kiser, a veteran SURFer, says he’s found that the talk “goes really fast,” primarily because the topic each student is charged with presenting “is something you’ve done with” your hand; you haven’t [merely] read it from a book.”

Program administrators are proud to point out that the first second-generation SURFer is now teaching at CalTech. Ken Liebbrecht, an assistant professor of astrophysics, was a member of the first SURF class as a CalTech undergraduate and has now become a SURF faculty sponsor. Liebbrecht, who did a nuclear physics SURF opinion production in 1979, says the experience was instrumental in the crystallization of his career goals. “At some point, one realizes that you can make a living doing science,” says the astrophysicist. “I sure wanted to do that.”

Cole attributes the, phenomenal growth in funding support for SURF to the “perception that this is an excellent program for training people for later professional activities in science and engineering.” Kiser says the benefactors don’t have to worry about a lack of interest among potential SURFers. “So long as funding is still provided, there will always be students who want to do the SURF program,” he says, noting that in the past, SURF proposals have been rejected because of a lack of available funds, but”’as funding came in, more [of the rejected] students were brought back into the program.”

‘It’s a neat program to be a part of,” says Merkel, who notes that the SURF experience generally turns out to be “a win for everybody.” Faculty sponsors, she says, find that SURFers are a valuable source of “top-flight research at bargain-basement prices.” And the students, says CalTech senior Kiser, are grateful to have the opportunity to “pursue that little question they’ve always wondered about.”