• Chris Lamartina, class of 2019 and Caltech Associates SURF Student

Independent Research to Understand Isotopes

An Interview with Caltech Associates SURF Student Chris Lamartina, class of 2019

Chris Lamartina, class of 2019 and living in Page House, was awarded a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) funded by the Caltech Associates. We met with him to learn how he came to Caltech and what he has enjoyed most about his summer research experience.

Name: Christopher Lamartina, class of 2019
Hometown: Forest Hills, NY
Major: Chemistry


Why did you choose Caltech?

Chemistry is the subject I enjoyed most during high school by far. I always did well in my classes, as it was a natural instinct for me. When it was time to decide where I wanted to go to college, I went online and looked up the best schools for chemical engineering, which is what I wanted to major in at the time. Caltech came up in the top spot. My older sister went to Yale, so since we have the same blood, I thought that if she can go to a top school, so can I.

My first visit to California was for Prefrosh Weekend [Caltech's recruitment weekend]. Caltech is a research institute first and school second. I was impressed by the many opportunities to do research, and despite its small size, Caltech's academic stature and stellar reputation were a draw. I learned about SURF and knew I wanted to take advantage of this program (and you get paid, too!).

After applying, I was surprised to get in. I wasn't the valedictorian at my school—my grades were good, but not great. However, during high school, I worked at an independent tutoring center in Queens, New York, called Kweller Prep, and I attribute this experience to getting into Caltech. Before working there for three years as a math and science tutor, I was mentored as a student by my trigonometry tutor, Brian, and my boss, Frances. Being both a student and tutor there helped me understand how much academics can positively affect one's life and motivated me to be an exceptional student in school. It is truly an experience I will never take for granted.


What do you enjoy most about being a student at Caltech?

I live in Page House on campus, and I love my housemates. Even though the undergraduate student population is small, those who are here are all one of a kind. Friendships are important to me, and I have much love for the people I am surrounded by. When you are at Caltech, you don't feel smarter than anyone else, and you respect your peers as equals. But when you step back into the outside world, you understand how technical and advanced this place is. When I returned to the tutoring center, I experienced newfound respect from high-schoolers who are impressed that I attend Caltech.

I enjoy being part of one of Caltech's a cappella groups, called Out of Context. This has been a great way to take my mind off the super-stressful academic workload. I am also involved in Caltech's Chemistry Club and serve on the executive committee as the outreach coordinator. I have been involved in various outreach events at local high schools. Most recently, along with four other undergraduates, I visited Arcadia High School to talk about chemistry at Caltech and perform some fun demos. I had founded and organized a chemistry club at my high school with my AP Chemistry teacher, so I think this also helped me get into Caltech and further pushed my passion for the subject.


Who are you working with for your SURF summer, and what is your project focused on?

One of my friends, who recently graduated from Caltech in planetary science, highly recommended that I learn about the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences and the geochemistry department. After some research, I found the earth sciences to be really fascinating. I heard back from John Eiler [Caltech's Robert P. Sharp Professor of Geology and professor of geochemistry] with the opportunity to do a SURF with him. He is known as one of the world's most brilliant geochemists and is pioneering the use analytical isotope geochemistry. Atoms of the same element found in the universe can have different masses, and these variant versions of the element are known as isotopes. Eiler's research is focused on understanding these isotopes and their behavior, from which we can learn about a compound's history and formation. 

After meeting in person, he explained that he wanted to collaborate on a specific project that I had to create. Prior to starting my SURF, Eiler's lab purchased a new machine that is the highest-resolution mass spectrometer on the market, which is called the orbitrap. It is capable of resolving exact masses of ion fragments up to a part per million of an atomic mass unit. That is a millionth of the mass of just one proton, so it's actually still crazy for me to even think about. The orbitrap also gives the relative abundances of these ion fragments, which is how we isotopically characterize our samples. So I set out to work on a new problem to understand the machine's capabilities. I wanted to pick a compound that, by understanding its properties, could lead to looking at issues of environmental geochemistry, such as pollution. My specific project is to develop a forensic method of isotopic fingerprinting of organic compounds to trace crude oil and refined oil samples to natural and anthropogenic sources of environmental pollution. The motivation for this project primarily stems from the recent major oil spills off the California coast, such as the Refugio oil spill, which took place in May of 2015. By using the orbitrap to compare the isotope ratios of an organic compound called para-xylene, a major constituent of crude and refined oil, we can eventually understand relationships among pollutant samples and make conclusions about where they are coming from. Looking at environmental samples is further down the road, but for now I am collecting data from the machine and analyzing the results.

What most excites you about your SURF project?

I am working on a brand new project, on a brand new machine. Only four people in my lab have used this machine before me, and I feel that we are breaking boundaries in the field. It is up to our imaginations to see what we can find out. Running my own unique project in a state-of-the-art laboratory is honestly a dream come true. 

Working with John Eiler is exhilarating, too. He makes me feel like a real researcher, and we will publish a paper on whatever our findings are at the end of the project. To be published as a first author in a scientific research paper by the time I turn 20 is a thrilling opportunity that is only possible at Caltech.

If you could have a superpower, what would you choose and why?

I'd master any skill in one day. I would first learn how to play the guitar at a Jonny Greenwood level, the lead guitarist from my favorite band, Radiohead.


Closing sentiments?

I look forward to continuing my studies in chemistry, but I definitely want to minor in geochemistry. I want to continue working in this field and find out where the results of my SURF project will lead. I would say that, overall, it is definitely worth pursuing an education at Caltech. I thank the Caltech Associates from the bottom of my heart for their generosity in providing me with this opportunity.