Sienna L. ’23 Participates in Caltech's Summer Research Connection

This past summer, Sienna L. ’23 participated in Caltech’s Summer Research Connection (SRC) and was paired with a geology lab to conduct research. PolyNews spoke with Sienna about her summer and what she learned from the experience. 

How did you come to be involved with the Caltech Summer Research Connection (SRC)?
Sienna L. ’23: The opportunity was listed in the student bulletin last year, and at the end of the year there was an application for the SRC.  I've always wanted to try to conduct research, but during the early pandemic it was difficult to explore, so I thought this was a pretty cool opportunity. It is really neat that Caltech is right across the street. 

In the application, there were a bunch of labs that you ranked. There were 10 choices including astronomy, physics, engineering, chemistry, biology, and geology. I had never really looked at geology or been super interested in it, but I decided to put it just for fun just to try out something new. I was matched to the geology lab, and from there we were introduced to a grad student, Amanda, as well as two other students with whom I would be working with as well. We became really close over the six weeks. Amanda was researching seawater chemistry by analyzing ophiolites. Ophiolites are these types of rocks that are a sliver of ancient oceanic crust that has escaped subduction. 

What was your role in the lab?
Sienna: What I was doing along with my two other peers in the program was preparing the rocks for analysis. We were sanding them to get rid of any of the metal marks from the cutting. We were also cleaning them with a sonicator, and then we were using this machine called the jaw crusher to make the rocks into really fine dust, which would then be either pulverized or made into other small beads and then go into the spectrometer for analysis.

What is the sonicator? It sounds like a toothbrush!
Sienna: So in the little crevices of the rock there are impurities. With the machine, it’s given a sonicator bath. It's a machine where you fill it with water and put the samples in there, and it will use sound waves to remove all those, like tiny impurities that we couldn't get out by hand.

There's also this machine called the jaw crusher. It’s funnel-shaped, and we would drop in the rocks that had already been crushed. It would just immediately turn it into this pretty fine powder, and we'd have to run it through a few times because you want to get it to be extremely fine. 

I understand that you worked with other students at the high school level as well; what was that like?
Sienna: That was actually really incredible. We're all from very different backgrounds. And I definitely became friends with them. We went on a hike together, and we were spending a bunch of hours every day together sanding rocks. I think we'll definitely keep in touch.

How has this opportunity impacted you?
Sienna: I am not sure that I can say that I will pursue geology specifically, but by being physically in the lab, I got to see that research has so many different steps—it's such a collaborative process. In terms of how it might influence my career, I really liked that kind of teamwork spirit of science. But as a student, I do feel that I'm right in between the humanities and STEM. So I really would like to pursue something interdisciplinary, combining both, because I definitely need both kinds of thinking in whatever I study.

What would you say to other Poly students who are interested in SRC next year?
Sienna: I think that it's really an invaluable opportunity, and I say definitely go for it. You might have a preconceived notion of what you'll be doing, but there were so many things that I learned from it. There were many side moments where we would go with one of Amanda's grad student friends who were working in meteorites or minerals, or other subfields of geology. I never knew about all those fields of geology, and I never thought I would ever talk to people who are working in the fields. My mind was opened to so many different fields that I wouldn't have known about if I had not done the program. And I think that students should definitely have an open mind and definitely try a field of science that they aren't really interested in. For me, I wasn't really interested in geology, but I just went for it, and it was a really fun experience.