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09/05/2013

Ride Along with Algae Girl through CalTech and JPL

Evie Sobczak from St. Petersburg, Florida was the Best of Category winner in Energy and Transportation at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF) 2013 for her project on turning algae into oil. Along with a cash award, Evie won a trip to visit the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and the California Institute of Technology (CalTech).

 

Innovation Award - DSC_2344From the second I arrived until my plane took off, I was on a scientific thrill ride with informational twists and turns through CalTech and JPL. On day one, we managed to see everything from a Paleomagnetics Lab to an Ion Probe Lab with Mitch Aiken, the Associate Director for Educational Outreach, leading the way.

 

We started out with a quick campus tour where we learned the history of CalTech, including the infamous CalTech - MIT cannon saga. We next encountered a double-dip into the world of sustainability. Both the Resnick Institute for Sustainability and the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis focus on developing new methods to generate power and reduce dependence on fossil fuels, a theme prevalent in my research. The equipment in these labs makes my garage workshop look even more pathetic. The fact that they test over a million samples a day was unimaginable.

 

The next helix loop is one I will never forget: a tour of the Baltimore Biology Lab by the Nobel Laureate himself, Dr. David Baltimore. I was stunned that one of the greatest biologists wanted to spend time with three teenage wannabe scientists. After a tour through his lab, he took us to lunch where he shared his Noble Prize story with us. A definite “aha” moment for me. After a swoop through a couple of tectonic and glacial labs, we arrived at the most interactive lab: the Kavli Nanoscience Institute Clean Room. After suiting up and being blasted with air, we were lint free and ready for admission. Through the double doors, there were a dozen scientists programming machines to etch microscopic circuits onto cracker size wafers. The atmosphere was as intense as it was sterile. But after zooming through the campus all day, I was thrilled that it was dinner time and even more excited to meet our dinner companion, Erika DeBenedictis, the 2010 Intel Science Talent Search winner! It was fascinating to hear about her life after winning Intel STS and all she has accomplished.

 

On day two we were catapulted up the mountain to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The G force barely kept me in my seat as excitement spewed out of me. We were escorted to Dr. Charles Elachi’s office, the JPL Director. I would have thought it was a dream if I hadn’t snapped a quick picture with him. We then headed to the Visitor Center Museum & Spacecraft Models. Luckily we had Mr. David Seidel, Deputy Education Director aka spacecraft virtuoso, as our tour director.

 

We quickly ascended to the Mars Yard, a replica of the fourth plant from the sun, except with some furry aliens. You couldn’t even imagine my excitement when I saw Bambi and his mother. That’s right, free roaming deer! A sight not common on the beaches of Florida. Another uncommon sight was Curiosity’s identical twin, the testing rover. It was hard to believe that every task completed on Mars is first tested here in California, an average of 140 million miles away. After a briefing on all that Curiosity has to offer, we began our descent to the Earth Science Center where we met Douglas Ellison, the creator of a website that provides the location of every satellite on every planet. Doug is quite popular at the JPL as his height is used as their universal measurement, i.e. “one satellite is 70 Dougs tall.” 

 

Our third day went by at supersonic speed. We first met up with Tara Estlin, one of the drivers of the Mars Rover Opportunity. She took us to the MER Sequencing Team daily briefing. Too bad I can’t tell you what I learned, top secret! But what I can tell you is that I was getting very anxious as our ride was suddenly inverted and it was our turn to present our projects, and mine was no space rover or nano device. The auditorium stage was big, the audience’s IQ was even bigger, but they treated us like science superstars listening attentively and encouraging us to continue our research. After a quick delicious bite, we were off to the Space Flight Operations Facility where we saw a familiar face: Adam Steltzner, the opening ceremony speaker at Intel ISEF 2013. After a quick selfie with him, we were whisked away to see the Cassini Mission Operations where we learned about Saturn and its moons. Our last lab was the Nano Device Technology Lab. I have never met anyone more passionate about his work than Dr. Farouhar. The future of nanotechnology looks tremendous with him at the helm. But sadly, the most exhilarating ride of my life was over.

 

My time at CalTech and JPL was immensely educational and inspiring. My sincerest gratitude to Barbara Carman, David Baltimore, Mitch Aiken, David Seidel, Larry Bergman, and all the scientists, engineers, and staff at CalTech and JPL who shared their passion with us. They made me realized that it isn’t just the discoveries that are important, but it’s the passion they bring to their research. I also would like to thank Intel, Intel ISEF, and the Society for Science and the Public for providing me this invaluable opportunity. You truly have informed, educated and inspired me!

 

P.S. If you were wondering about the lodging and food, it was amazing! We got to stay at The Atheneum, a private club located on the CalTech campus that houses visiting scientists. It is where Albert Einstein lived when he worked at the university. Filled with scientific journals and paintings of famous scientists, you feel motivated just walking through the halls. The food is just as enticing as the surroundings. The whole wheat blackberry pancakes were scrumptious, the sushi buffet was delectable, and the banana foster and a chocolate fountain were a dream come true. I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate the end of science fair season than visiting this educational institution where research surrounds you. Work hard my friends, for it pays off.

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