From industry to academia, and Cambridge, Massachusetts to Cambridge, England, the remarkable individuals of the EAS class of 2023 are prepared to make a significant impact in various realms, as well as further their education in PhD and postdoctoral programs. ENGenuity spoke with nine exceptional students, both graduates and undergraduates from various departments, to learn about their next steps after Caltech and the motivations behind their choices. Although the experiences below only scratch the surface of the full EAS class of 2023, they give a vivid picture of the remarkable stories behind this year's graduating students. We also asked about books or other media that inspired them—and the responses were every bit as diverse and interesting as the class of 2023 itself.
Abigail Jiang, BS in materials science and history
Abigail will pursue a PhD in applied physics at Harvard this fall, with the support of an NSF Research Fellowship and a Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship.
Throughout my time at Caltech, I've grown to appreciate being involved in educational outreach, like hosting STEM research programs for first-generation, low-income high school students. That has been a critical part of my Caltech experience, and through that I realized I'm interested in pursuing academia to foster equitable mentorship and create opportunities, particularly for underserved students.
As a queer woman of color at Caltech, I've been in certain spaces where I've not seen people like me. Academia is a space where I want to cultivate an inclusive environment and a research group that is advancing not only the science end of things but also engaged in building connections with the community.
There was a period when I doubted if I wanted to do STEM. I felt like there were more tangible social impacts doing work in the humanities. One of the sagest pieces of advice that I got from Professor Danielle Wiggins [Assistant Professor of History], who's also my informal advisor, is that it's easier to be a scientist and engage in humanistic work with your community than it is to be a humanist and do scientific research. That moment of her telling me there are ways to do both—that you can invest in your community and be a scientist—was very pivotal.
Inspired by: How Far the Light Reaches by Sabrina Imbler. Each chapter is about an aspect of the author's life and how it connects to different deep-sea creatures. It's a cool combination of memoir and science journalism.
Ahmed Soliman, PhD in engineering and applied physics
Ahmed's thesis concerns the cosmic microwave background signal originating from the Big Bang—an endeavor that brought him to the South Pole. Ahmed will continue his research at NASA JPL as a postdoctoral fellow and research associate.
In my first year at Caltech, one of the papers I co-authored was awarded the second prize for the Best Student Paper Award at the IEEE Asia Pacific Radio Science Conference. After the paper was selected, I went to Professor Ahmed Zewail to get his opinion. Professor Zewail was Egyptian, like me, and he was a role model for all of us in Egypt and one of the main reasons I came to Caltech. He said, "that's a great engineering paper, but what is the science behind it?" I didn't understand what he meant about science because my background is in engineering, but this conversation changed my life. After this, I decided to find a PhD project where I could contribute to science.
Then, I spoke with Professor Kip Thorne [Richard P. Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics, Emeritus] and he advised me about the possible ways I could contribute to science. His guidance led me to my PhD project on developing a telescope to better constrain the primordial gravitational waves that may have emanated in the earliest moments following the Big Bang—the resulting observations can provide more clarity on the physics of the newborn universe and the properties of our observed universe today.
Ahmed Zewail changed my perspective towards science, and Kip Thorne guided me in the right direction. This ultimately led me to working at JPL, which was a dream of mine.
Inspired by: The Very First Light by John Boslough and John Mather. Mather is an astrophysicist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and a lead on the James Webb Telescope. Mather writes about the universe, the cosmic microwave background, and has deep insights that I found compelling. Another inspiring book is The Early Universe by Edward Kolb and Michael Turner.
Kaila Coimbra, BS in mechanical engineering and a minor in aerospace engineering
Starting this Fall, Kaila will pursue a PhD in aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford as a Knight-Hennessy Scholar. This 3-year scholarship is awarded to applicants who embody visionary leadership and dedication to social good within their fields.
I knew that I wanted to go to graduate school before coming to Caltech. I really like learning, and the first time I heard that a PhD is the highest educational level that you can get, I thought, I want to get that too.
The reason why I chose Stanford is because it has one of the best aeronautics/astronautics departments and that's the field that I want to be in, especially after doing research at Caltech through the NASA BIG Idea Challenge.
The NASA BIG Idea Challenge, which was through the AIAA student branch under the mentorship of Professor Soon-Jo Chung [Bren Professor of Control and Dynamical Systems; Jet Propulsion Laboratory Senior Research Scientist], was such a collaborative and enjoyable experience. It was very demanding, but also very rewarding. Having the experience of working on a physical project and bringing a technology from the point of design to building it in real life made me more passionate about space technology.
I also did a SURF [Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship] with Professor Chiara Daraio [G. Bradford Jones Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Physics; Investigator, Heritage Medical Research Institute] during my sophomore year summer, working on metamaterials. I'm so grateful for that experience because I was able to get more of a breadth of knowledge, which I think is the whole point of an undergraduate degree. There were many times when I was stuck but being able to work through challenges solidified that I want to keep doing research in graduate school.
Inspired by: Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Classes in sustainable engineering and climate change opened my perspective in these areas, and this book by Robin Wall Kimmerer talks about another very different perspective. We are all caught up in a western view where the world is for us to exploit; we take advantage of the nature around us for our own sake. Kimmerer is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, and she shows the indigenous wisdom and Native American perspective of treating nature with respect.
Pavlos Stavrinides, BS in applied and computational mathematics
Starting this Fall, Pavlos will pursue a PhD at Georgia Tech's School of Computational Science and Engineering. Along with his academic work, Pavlos is a member of Caltech's men's basketball team.
I didn't know that I wanted to get a PhD until this past summer when I tried out research. At Caltech, there's a lot of opportunity to do research, even for undergraduates. After doing a SURF this past summer and through working independently with Professor Kostantin (Kostia) Zuev [Teaching Professor of Computing and Mathematical Sciences], I realized that a PhD was my next step.
I have a strong passion for teaching, so I started to TA for Kostia. With his help, I developed my own course section called "Introduction to Network Science," which was offered through the CS 12 "Student-Taught Topics in Computing." Through this course, I participated in research with Kostia that resulted in a publication.
Reaching out to Kostia about being a TA for him was one of the best decisions I made here because it built upon my passion for teaching and ultimately led to me pursuing a PhD. The fact that the faculty allow the undergrads to be a strong component of the teaching and learning experience here is great. Additionally, Caltech offers breadth and depth. You can try out a bunch of different things, and then when you find something that you like, you can do meaningful work.
Inspired by: Metal music. Music is a huge part of my life, and I like to geek out on music. Currently, I'm listening to a lot of System of a Down, Trivium, and Meshuggah. Metal is very diverse—not matter your mood, you can find a band that reflects that state of mind. Metal has a lot of similarities to learning math. When you're first introduced to heavier, more abstract metal sounds, your reaction is a bit like, "whoa, what's going on?" When you get into new math concepts, it's a very similar reaction. You may not understand a concept completely, but you can appreciate individual elements, like a guitar riff in a song or an interesting vocal line.
Kai Matsuka, PhD in space engineering
Kai's thesis focuses on vision-based navigation algorithms to bridge the gap between space systems and robotics. Kai will join Tesla's autopilot team in the San Francisco Bay Area to work on humanoid robots.
One of the reasons I came to Caltech is because I've always been fascinated with space and the space industry.
With the dramatic growth of space exploration and technology, there has been an increase in demand for infrastructures in space—these are spacecrafts that are orbiting around the earth and doing things like refueling, fixing, and inspecting other spacecrafts. These capabilities require advanced technologies in robotics and computer vision to coordinate multiple spacecrafts in close proximity.
Through my PhD, I became more interested in the fundamental technologies and technical limitations with robotics. In robotics and computer vision, there is a lot of advancement that needs to happen to make the dreams of the space industry a reality. So, I decided to join Tesla, where I'll be working at the cutting-edge and forefront of humanoid robots—it's the same team that does autonomy for cars and robots. They both use computer vision to identify their surroundings, classify objects, and then determine how to navigate around obstacles.
This is an exciting opportunity because it involves working on challenging technical problems related to computer vision while producing viable products at a large scale.
Inspired by: Previous space missions, like the Cassini space probe mission. NASA JPL made a documentary about the end of Cassini's mission that described how Cassini explored Saturn and ultimately had to crash down into the planet. Capturing the story of these space missions and telling them in a way that is relatable gives people a vision of what's possible.
Laura Lewis, BS in mathematics and computer science
Laura was recently named a Marshall Scholar. As a Marshall Scholar, Laura will pursue a master's in mathematics at Cambridge University and then a research master's at the University of Edinburgh. After the two-year fellowship is complete, Laura will pursue a PhD in computer science at UC Berkeley, focusing on quantum information.
I've always liked math, and throughout elementary and middle school, I would do extra math problems for fun.
My first real exposure to theoretical computer science came in an introductory class at Caltech, CS 21 Decidability and Tractability, and I thoroughly enjoyed the new angle on computer science it presented, so much so that I later served as two-time teaching assistant. Pursuing this interest further, I was offered a SURF with Professor Thomas Vidick [Professor of Computing and Mathematical Sciences] in quantum cryptography, which resulted in the first-ever demonstration of efficient classical verification of quantum computations using interactive protocols. These experiences were pivotal in introducing me to quantum computing and quantum information, which is now my research focus. Currently, I am working with Professor John Preskill [Richard P. Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics] on obtaining provable guarantees for machine learning applied to quantum physical problems.
For those who are unsure about going into academia, I recommend giving a SURF and research a chance as you might discover an unexpected passion. Surrounded by world leaders in your field, Caltech is an excellent place for research. Along with the opportunities for research, the rigor of Caltech has prepared me extremely well for my next step. Caltech equips its students with a deep understanding of the fundamentals, allowing us to tackle some of the world's most difficult scientific problems.
Inspired by: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? This is the book that the movie Blade Runner is based on. I read this for a humanities class, and I enjoyed it because it had a lot of twists. It's also sci-fi themed, so it appeals to my computer science interests and raises many ethical issues about android rights. While reading this book, you're never sure who's an android and who's a human.
Saransh Sharma, PhD in electrical engineering
Saransh's thesis focuses on low-power and miniaturized medical electronics for in-vivo localization and tracking. Saransh will continue his research at Caltech as a postdoctoral scholar through the end of the year and will apply for newer academic positions in the fall.
I'm very interested in academia because of my experience at Caltech. I'm drawn to independent research and the creative ideas that come from an interdisciplinary environment. I want to pursue research and ultimately have a lab of my own to test unconventional ideas that can push the boundaries of devices and electronics.
Academia provides the freedom to experiment with devices and circuits that can be useful for different biomedical applications without the business pressures that come with working in industry. For instance, at Caltech I worked on novel medical devices that can help with localization and tracking inside the body, which is important for many applications like monitoring the GI tract or navigation during surgical procedures. This research involved an interdisciplinary and innovative approach combining electrical, mechanical, and biomedical engineering.
Caltech has played a major role in the way I approach problems, both in the scientific realm and life in general. I've learned to have an open mindset and be fearless—being fearless is something that gets the most innovative research ideas out of you. Even if your ideas don't work, you will learn a lot of things in the process of exploration.
Inspired by: The Harry Potter series has had a huge impact in my upbringing. It explores coming from a modest background, finding out that you have a certain gift, and then using that gift for a better cause. The series doesn't really preach; it's something that you can read as a kid, a teenager, and even as an adult. Another book which continues to inspire me is the Bhagavad Gita. In a series of dialogues, Lord Krishna instructs a warrior who is losing his determination to fight. Krishna essentially provides the basis for a moral compass, and teaches how to live your life, how to approach your work, and how to practice detachment from the fruits of your action.
Ben Schulze, PhD in environmental engineering
Ben's thesis concerns atmospheric science and urban air quality in the Los Angeles area. After Caltech, Ben will work at Bain & Company, a management consulting firm.
My father teaches environmental studies at a small liberal arts college, and our discussions caused me to develop an interest in environmental science from a young age. This background has led me to seek out careers that provide opportunities to have a meaningful impact on societal-scale environmental problems.
Throughout my undergraduate and early graduate studies, I was convinced that scientific research represented the most effective way to achieve my ultimate career goals. However, over time I've become increasingly interested in opportunities that involve developing and/or implementing solutions to existing environmental problems (for example, reducing the carbon footprint of large corporations or otherwise increasing the sustainability of business practices) rather than quantifying the magnitude of new or existing problems, as is typical in my specific research field.
Working at Bain & Company presents an interesting new challenge that will allow me to both further develop my skill sets while applying my environmental background to advance sustainability goals in business settings.
Inspired by: Think Again by Adam Grant. The book underscores the importance of being mentally flexible, considering alternative points of view, and being open to changing your mind. Grant provides numerous historical examples of how these traits separate efficient and thriving organizations from those that struggle when external influences shift and/or societal conditions change. The insights from the book have led me to question my own assumptions about the specific research questions I've been working on, my career path, and society more broadly.
Lily Dove, PhD in oceanography
Lily's thesis is on the interactions of physics and biogeochemistry in the Southern Ocean. Lily will continue her research at Brown University as a NOAA Climate and Global Change Postdoctoral Fellow this fall.
My goal is to be a teaching faculty member at a teaching-focused institution. Doing graduate research at Caltech has been amazing, but my interactions with the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Outreach (CTLO) helped me realize that I primarily value teaching. Teaching gives me energy and gets me out of bed in the morning.
A key moment happened when I was leading a recitation section for ESE 1, which is the introductory climate class for undergrads. I was talking about the ocean and how important it is, and one of the students came up to me after class and said, "you really got me interested in this, this is super exciting. I'm going to go read more about this. Can we meet to talk about this another time?" I hadn't realized how excited I was until that student came up to me. I realized then that teaching is what I want to do. I want to get people excited about oceanography.
Postdoctoral study at Brown is the perfect fit in terms of being in a high intensity research environment that values undergraduate education and undergraduate research.
Inspired by: The Sea Around Us by Rachel Carson. That book is special because it relates to my research, but more importantly, it tells a story about the ocean and how it integrates into our lives. It brings me back to why I think these questions are interesting, important, and exciting to go after. I read this regularly when I'm feeling down or need to be reminded why I do what I do.