In Response to COVID-19, SURF Program Goes Virtual

Montage of SURF students thumbnails in grid on laptop screen

Adapting to the challenges presented by the novel coronavirus, Caltech’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships (SURF) program went virtual this summer, with more than 380 students engaging in 10-week mentored research projects remotely.

Candace Rypisi, director of Student-Faculty Programs, says that when Caltech switched to an online spring term, faculty members grew concerned that students might lose the opportunity to do summer research unless the program could be adapted. To make it work, faculty mentors, graduate students, and postdocs had to rethink and refocus their projects in order to ensure that students could have a successful summer doing research.

“For experimental or engineering projects that required being on campus, faculty worked with students to come up with related computational or theoretical projects that could be done remotely,” Rypisi says.

Because of this campus-wide effort, students are working on research projects from home or other off-campus sites. As with the in-person SURF program, students check in with mentors several times a week and access an array of enrichment activities including faculty seminars, professional development workshops, writing and communication classes, and informal online coffee meetings. Only now these activities are done remotely. A survey conducted midway through the summer showed that more than 90 percent of SURF students said they were “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with the level of mentoring they were receiving, she says.

Of this year’s 383 SURF fellows, 320 are Caltech students. Of the participants, 257 work with Caltech mentors, 47 at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and 79 worked with affiliated mentors, at locations including University College London, MIT, The University of Newcastle, and the Niels Bohr Institute.

Started in 1979, SURF provides students with the opportunity to conduct research under the guidance of experienced mentors. Modeled on the grant-seeking process, students collaborate with a potential mentor to define and develop a project, and then write research proposals as part of the application process. Faculty members review and approve the proposals. This summer, each SURF student received a $6,420 award for their summer work.

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