• Xiaomi Du (BS '16), Associates-Funded SURF
    Xiaomi Du (BS '16), Associates-Funded SURF
    Credit: Michael L. Wong

Everybody's Gone SURFin'—Caltech Style!

Xiaomi Du (BS '16), a recent graduate in biology, was awarded an Associates SURF during her time at Caltech. She worked in the laboratory of David Baltimore, the Robert Andrews Millikan Professor of Biology, on understanding the complex engineering of the immune system. She credits the Associates with exposing her to a network of fascinating people and helping her to better see Caltech's impact on the outside community.

Originally from Connecticut, Xiaomi always dreamed of coming to Caltech but never thought she would be accepted. She had heard about the Institute's scientific prowess for years from her father, so she initially regarded it as a place just for very smart people to do groundbreaking research. But she continued to fall for it, loving even the postcards sent to prospective students and the refreshing and fun application essay topics, though she was afraid to get her hopes up. While sorting through her spam email one day, she found a message from Caltech. She immediately told her parents and remembers being almost too afraid to open the email by herself. But when she did manage to open it, she screamed with joy at being accepted to Caltech.

Why did you choose Caltech?

After finding my acceptance email, I attended Prefrosh Weekend, and I had a great time. Everyone I met was interesting in their own way, and the opportunities for research and learning became even more apparent. In order to make my final decision about which school to attend, I made a multi-school Venn diagram, in which Caltech clearly stood out. I chose Caltech for both its scientific opportunities and its people.

What does being awarded a SURF through the Caltech Associates mean to you?

Being awarded a SURF through the Caltech Associates gave me this incredible research experience. It also meant that I could continue the work I had started during the school year throughout the summer. Without the time spent on classes, sets, projects, and other such activities, I could be in lab more hours every day and focus on a genuine research project.

Receiving an Associates SURF put me in touch with a network of fascinating people that love Caltech, too. I was fortunate to be invited to several Associates events and their Garden Party in October. Meeting the Associates members and finding out how much they care about the Institute and the work we are doing made me realize the global scope of the impact that Caltech has on the outside community, beyond my little bubble on campus.

Can you tell us a little about your SURF experience and the work you undertook?

I worked with microRNAs in the lab of David Baltimore. MicroRNAs are small non-coding RNA molecules, approximately 22 base pairs long, which affect B-cell function and development, where important immune cells in the body produce antibodies. Specifically, my project investigated a putative target of microRNA-132. The mRNA targets of microRNAs can be computationally predicted by looking through their sequences, but that is not sufficient to declare that they actually interact. A variety of assays, immunoblots, and other experiments looking into whether the microRNA affects mRNA are necessary.

Do you have a favorite Caltech story or moment?

I have too many memories to pick a favorite story! I think a part of what makes this difficult is distinguishing a moment that is part of the college experience—making friends, finding mentors, studying, not sleeping—from a story that is unique to Caltech. One memory I have in which I clearly remember thinking "only at Caltech" was the week during freshman year when I had lunch with two Nobel laureates. I was an ombudsperson for Ph 1c, a freshman physics class, which meant I met with Professor Politzer [Richard Chace Tolman Professor of Theoretical Physics] with the other ombudspeople and discussed student feedback about the class roughly halfway through the term. During that same week, I also had the fortune of having lunch with Professor Baltimore, when the two undergraduate seniors in lab took the other freshman and me to lunch. There aren't many other schools where you have the opportunity to interact and socialize so closely with such distinguished Nobel laureates!