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The Next Big Thing

To get a glimpse into the future, what better place is there to look than the minds of those about to become Caltech's newest alumni? After all, our 2016 graduates have been at the forefront of research in vastly different fields for the past few years. Their unique perspectives have informed their ideas of the future, and their work will reach far beyond the confines of a lab.

With that in mind, in the Summer 2016 issue of E&S magazine, we talked to a handful of undergraduate and graduate students prior to commencement to find out what they think will be the next big thing in science and engineering and how their plans after graduation reflect those ideas.


I believe that the future of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) will place a greater emphasis on implementation and impact of research. While rapid economic growth and globalization have introduced numerous difficult challenges, society has acquired powerful new tools and technology to develop and implement solutions for these issues.

I will be working as a management consultant after graduating to expose myself to business and strategy. That way, I can perhaps one day help new discoveries and ideas produce a tangible impact on people's lives."

Aditya Bhagavathi
BS in Computer Science


I believe the future of planetary and space exploration will follow two paths—one, the search for life beyond Earth within the solar system, and two, the characterization of exoplanets.

For the solar system, the initial survey of its major worlds was just completed with the New Horizons flyby of Pluto, and therefore a new focus will likely emerge. That initial survey has revealed several worlds to be potentially habitable, including Mars, Europa, and Enceladus, with the former two already targets for future missions. These new missions will not only reveal more about these worlds but also force us to reevaluate what life is, how it arises, and how it endures.

For exoplanets, the diversity of worlds is immense. From giant planets that orbit their host stars in less than a day to habitable planets with permanent daysides and nightsides, exoplanets offer a tremendous opportunity to understand the planets in our own solar system. With the rapid development of technologies, instruments, and observing techniques, the flood of data regarding exoplanets will only continue. I plan to be among the scientists who will analyze this data and combine their results with theoretical models to investigate what these distant worlds are like. By doing this, we will be exploring our place in the universe and whether we are alone within it."

Peter Gao
PhD in Planetary Science


When asked what he would do with his degree in philosophy during a routine dentist appointment, David Silbersweig, MD at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Academic Dean at Harvard Medical School, responded with a single word that spoke volumes: 'Think.' Simply put, I too want to think.

I want to learn how to think at a complex level such that my ability to think and subsequently solve problems allows me to change lives. The history and philosophy of science degree at Caltech has given me exactly this. According to Silbersweig, 'If you can get through a one-sentence paragraph of Kant, holding all of its ideas and clauses in juxtaposition in your mind, you can think through most anything.' In my first History and Philosophy of Science class, I read Kant. I also find immense happiness in working with and helping other individuals, a sense of euphoria matched by little else in life. I learned this lesson through tutoring students and coaching younger athletes. And finally, as a collegiate athlete myself, I have undergone multiple orthopedic surgeries that ignited an interest in the musculoskeletal system and its ability to suffer injury yet recover remarkably. Together, these three aspects of life are central to my vision of the future. Becoming an orthopedic surgeon is the perfect combination—the career that will give me these components and a lot more.

One of the major developments in medicine will be 3-D printing, primarily in order to provide individuals with replacement bones and organs. Combining new progress in computer science will facilitate immense progress in 3-D printing, which also aligns well with the use of robotics in surgery. As an athlete who has torn my ACL and had bone spurs in the past year, I'm excited to be a part of this field in the future and hopefully help other athletes succeed in pursuing their passions."

Harinee Maiyuran
BS in History and Philosophy of Science


My personal hunch, and perhaps a somewhat common one, is that all disciplines—and not just STEM ones—are moving toward being increasingly data driven, a phenomenon rooted in freer dissemination and greater influx of research data. Correspondingly, computers and programming drive data processing in all disciplines; a common joke is that every scientist is automatically a software engineer. Statistical and machine learning techniques that are designed to tackle vast quantities of data are increasingly common in academic papers and will probably continue to climb in popularity.

I am planning to go into computational astrophysics research because I believe that the recent influx of data from new detectors will drive a huge surge of research questions to be investigated. And as a physics/computerscience double major, I'm uniquely equipped to analyze big data and extract scientific meaning from it."

Yubo Su
BS in Physics and Computer Science


Many aspects about future climate are unclear, such as how cloudiness, precipitation, and extreme events will change under global warming. But recent progress in observational and computational technology has provided great potential for clarifying these uncertainties. I plan to continue my research and utilize new data and models to develop theoretical understanding of these problems. I hope that such new insight will be helpful for assessing climate change impacts and designing effective adaptation and mitigation strategies."

Zhihong Tan
PhD in Environmental Science and Engineering


The future of science and engineering depends on closing the huge gap between the general public and scientists and engineers. I think this stems from a good deal of ignorance about what it is we do and hope to achieve, which leads to misconceptions about our work and community, and the separation between 'us' and 'them.' But if we're trying to understand and solve problems that affect everyone, shouldn't everyone be more involved?

When I graduate, I'm going to take a year off to try and bridge this gap in my own life. I don't know what I'll do yet, but it will be decidedly nonacademic. I want to travel, work odd jobs, and pursue hobbies I've set aside to finish my education. If I want to help people understand why I do what I do, I need to be certain that I understand first. After only four years surrounded almost exclusively by scientists and engineers, I want to get away a little. That way, when I inevitably return, I'll have a bit more perspective."

Valerie Pietrasz
BS in Mechanical Engineering and Planetary Science


Driven by the goal of reducing fossil fuel use and pollution, clean energy research plays and will play a pivotal role in America's energy future. Clean energy research spans disciplines such as biological and environmental sciences, advanced materials, nuclear sciences, and chemistry. Therefore, multidisciplinary efforts are not only necessary but also crucial to develop and deploy real-world solutions for energy security and protecting the environment.

As a graduate student, I have focused on understanding nanoscale energy transport in novel energy-efficient materials. In the future, I plan to further advance and apply my expertise to solve real-world problems in an integrated and multidisciplinary approach. I hope this effort will eventually lead to developing advanced clean energy technologies that could not only ease today's energy crisis but also improve our quality of life."

Chengyun Hua
PhD in Mechanical Engineering


I believe that in the next decade, the behavioral and computational subfields of neuroscience will work together seamlessly. I think this change will be primarily fueled by the development of new tools that allow us to measure the activity of large populations of neurons more precisely.

A prominent behavioral method of research, in mice at least, is to activate large structures in the brain and observe the aggregate behavioral effect. However, it is unlikely that all of these neurons are responsible for the same signal, so this approach may be too crude. I think new measurement techniques will enable behavioralists to collect large-scale population activity that computationalists can use in order to find subtle differences of function within these structures. Hopefully this collaboration will lead to generating and validating fundamental theories underlying how the brain works.

Currently, I am in the process of developing a method to measure the activity from over 10,000 neurons simultaneously. I hope to validate this technique before I graduate and then apply it to studying large-scale population activity during various behaviors. My future aim is to work closely with computationalists with the hope of discovering fundamental theories of brain function."

Gregory Stevens
BS in Biology


I think the future of planetary science is to discover and characterize more and more extra-solar planets, including their orbital configurations, atmospheres, and habitability. This is a challenging task because it requires a solid understanding of how chemistry and physics work on a planetary scale. Learning more about the planets closest to us paves a way toward the understanding of exoplanets that are far beyond our reach, since we can send missions to them. So after graduation, I will join the team for Juno—the spacecraft that will arrive at Jupiter in summer 2016—at JPL. New discoveries about Jupiter will also tell us more about what other planets beyond our solar system could look like."

Cheng Li
PhD in Planetary Science


Written by Nehaly Shah