Choosing Caltech

Jean Badroos cast her net intentionally wide when applying for graduate school. In the end, though, the choice was obvious. Badroos is now a first-year graduate student in biochemistry and molecular biophysics at Caltech.

"I felt like here I would have the most ability, freedom, and support to do whatever I wanted to do," says Badroos, who, while an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, spent two summers at Caltech, first as an Amgen Scholar and then as a WAVE Fellow. When she visited campus for interviews, she says, "even professors that didn't know I had been here for two summers were just much more excited to talk to me about science than faculty at other places on my list."

The fact that Caltech even made it onto Badroos’s short list has everything to do with her participation in those two 10-week summer undergraduate research programs, she says. "It was the first time I actually had the opportunity to plan my own projects, and it was just amazing to be respected as a researcher even at a young age, to have my own ideas to develop rather than simply working on somebody else’s projects."

This fall, 9 former WAVE Fellows and Amgen Scholars became part of Caltech’s new class of graduate students—a significant number given that both are small-scale programs with a total of around 45 participants each summer. Now in its fifth year, the WAVE Fellows program aims to foster diversity at the Institute by increasing the participation of underrepresented students in science and engineering PhD programs and to make Caltech’s programs more visible and accessible to students not traditionally exposed to the Institute. The Amgen Scholars Program, funded by the Amgen Foundation, is part of a national initiative to increase research opportunities for students committed to pursuing careers in the sciences, with a specific focus on biology, chemistry, and biotechnical related fields.

That Caltech is the graduate school of choice for such a sizable cohort of WAVE Fellows/Amgen Scholars this year is exciting, says Candace Rypisi, who oversees both programs as director of Student-Faculty Programs. "For us, it means we're doing something right, in that we're finding those students who have the potential to come to Caltech and do well. We’re introducing them to the science happening here, and we’re making sure they feel like this is a place where they can succeed."

The WAVE program has become increasingly competitive and selective, says Caltech vice provost and chief diversity officer Cindy Weinstein. That’s a good thing, she adds, because "we're getting students who are better positioned to be able to get into Caltech as graduate students." WAVE, she says, is an important pipeline program for Caltech and "an opportunity for us to potentially make a real difference in terms of diversity on our campus."

To help students make the most of their summer experience, both the WAVE and Amgen programs include mentoring sessions with graduate students and postdocs as well as small student-faculty lunches and dinners. "We meet with each group weekly as well to make sure that they're on track," says Rypisi, who has witnessed firsthand the fellows' increasing self-confidence over the course of the summer. "Students coming into WAVE and Amgen have probably done another summer program elsewhere," she says. "They get here, and all of a sudden their level of independence and the level to which they can become engaged with our research is just higher than they’ve experienced before. That's when they start to really blossom. That's when they realize that they can do it. They leave knowing that they can email the professors they’ve worked with and build those relationships."

David Cagan, who began his undergraduate career studying art at Pasadena City College before switching to chemistry and transferring to Cal State Los Angeles, says he was impressed by his interaction with the Caltech faculty even before he began his WAVE summer. "Before I knew it [chemistry professor], Harry Gray was emailing me and saying he was excited to work with me. I was like, 'What is happening to me?'" Once the program began, he says, Gray took the time to meet with him and other students at least once or twice a week.

After his WAVE summer, Cagan consulted with Gray to fine tune his graduate school list. He applied to eight schools and was accepted by six. "It was a very emotional thing to get accepted here because I never felt this was a possibility for me. To actually be accepted here and for them to say, 'We’re going to commit to support you for five or six years, and we’re going to share our resources with you and make you a part of us,' for Caltech to say that to me was a very big deal."

For Daniel Mukasa (shown at top), who spent a summer at Caltech as a WAVE Fellow while he was an undergraduate at Oberlin College, the experience gave him a clear sense of the Institute's research environment and whether it would be a good fit for the kind of interdisciplinary work he was interested in doing. "It opened up my eyes to what was actually here at Caltech, how people worked," he says. "It showed me that everyone is really excited about what they are doing."

Mukasa, now a graduate student in materials science, also appreciated hearing about Caltech’s diversity efforts on campus and how he could become involved. "I already know that once I actually have time, there are a lot of diversity initiatives that I can take advantage of."

For their part, Rypisi and her staff are already planning ways to engage this new cohort of graduate students in serving as mentors for next summer’s crop of WAVE/Amgen scholars. Rypisi’s overall goal is a continued focus on diversifying the pool of potential graduate students. "For us, it's about trying to make sure that that opportunity is available to as diverse a group of students as possible so that we can introduce more people to Caltech."

Written by Judy Hill

Caltech Communications