Ride Along with Algae Girl through Caltech and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab

This blog was posted on behalf of Evie Sobczak, 16, of St. Petersburg, Fla. Evie  received the Innovation Exploration Award at the 2013 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair for her research on algae oil production. The award included a behind-the-scenes visit to the California Institute of Technology and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. 

Evie Sobczak
Safety goggles in place for a tour of the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis at Caltech’s Resnick Institute for Sustainability.
(L to R) Intel Program Manager Barbara Carman; Intel International Science and Engineering Fair winners Evie Sobczak, Samantha Marquez, Michael Janner; Caltech Research Engineer Slobodan Mitrovic
PHOTO CREDIT: Mitch Aiken/CalTech

From the second I arrived, I was on a scientific thrill ride with 24 informational twists and turns through California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). On day one at Caltech, 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 and MIT Cannon saga. From there, we dipped into the world of sustainability at the Resnick Institute for Sustainability and the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis, where they focus on developing new methods to generate power and reduce dependence on fossil fuels, a theme prevalent in my 2013 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair research. The equipment in these labs makes my garage workshop look even more pathetic. The fact that they test more than a million samples a day is unimaginable.

The next helix loop is one I will never forget: a tour of the Baltimore Biology Lab by 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 spin tour through his lab, he took us to lunch where he shared his Nobel 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 programing machines to etch microscopic circuits onto cracker-sized wafers. The atmosphere was as intense as it was sterile.

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 the competition and all she has accomplished.

On day two, we were catapulted over to NASA’s 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, a.k.a. spacecraft virtuoso, as our tour director. He shared stories about the spacecraft as we ascended to the Mars Yard, a replica of the fourth planet from the sun – complete with 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 that I call home. Another uncommon sight was the Mars rover’s identical twin, the testing rover. It was hard to believe that every task completed on Mars is first tested here in California, nearly 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 its universal measurement, i.e. “one satellite is 70 Dougs tall.”

Evie Sobczak
Inspecting instrumentation for advanced nanofabrication in Caltech’s Kavli Nanoscience Institute’s Clean Room.
(L to R) Evie Sobczak, Michael Janner, Samantha Marquez, Caltech Associate Director for Educational Outreach, Mitch Aiken
PHOTO CREDIT: Melissa Melendes/Caltech

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 Mars Exploration Rover Sequencing Team daily briefing. By that time I was getting very anxious as it was now our turn to present our projects, and mine was no space rover or nano device.

The auditorium stage was big and the audience members’ IQs were even bigger, but they treated us like science superstars as they listened attentively and encouraged 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 the 2013 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. We were each able to speak with him one-on-one about our projects, before we were whisked away to see the Cassini Mission Operations where we learned about Saturn and its moons.

Our last stop 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 Intel’s Barbara Carman, Nobel Laureate David Baltimore, Caltech’s Mitch Aiken, NASA’s David Seidel, NASA’s Larry Bergman, and all the scientists, engineers, and staff at Caltech and JPL who shared their passion with us. They made me realize 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 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, the place makes 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 bananas foster and 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.

1 thought on “Ride Along with Algae Girl through Caltech and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab

Comments are closed.