How FSRI Adapted to being Online

The annual summer program for underrepresented and/or underserved first-year students still connected students to research mentors

By Snigdha Saha | Published 09/28/2020

This summer, I was fortunate to be a part of the 2020 FSRI cohort. I researched under graduate students Sara Beery and Neehar Kondapaneni who work in the Pietra Perona Lab on Computer Vision. My specific project was working on constructing a neural network to predict when a MegaDetector Model for detecting Camera Trap images is falsely confident.

Caltech’s Freshman Summer Research Institute (FSRI) is a five-week program meant to ease the transition from high school to college. Normally, the program consists of five weeks (or more) of research with a mentor and a four-week Math class introducing students to Caltech rigor, supplemented with Caltech dorm life experience, field trips, and social activities. Ho
wever, in compliance with COVID-19 pandemic health guidelines, organizers Monique Thomas and Taso Dmitriadis transformed the 2020 FSRI program into an online version instead. They included a three-week Python bootcamp, online social activities, and many online sessions regarding Caltech resources, trying their best to reproduce the same environment as they did online.

I joined this project with no experience in research, very limited experience in Python and close to none in Machine Learning. I also joined FSRI with no knowledge of linear algebra or differential equations. But, despite the virtual setting, I learned all of these concepts through my research project, a four-week Caltech level Math class by UC Irvine Assistant Professor of Teaching Robert Pelayo (PhD ‘07), and a three-week Python bootcamp by Teaching Professor Justin Bois (PhD ‘07).

Beyond the learning experience, I also met a community of many freshmen and upperclassmen (our mentors and TAs). Throughout the program, we had several fun events and games to meet one another, starting with a scavenger hunt and closing with an escape room. Interestingly, my birthday fell in the middle of the program and the entire cohort collaborated to write me a special birthday card. We also grew closer through difficult homework sets and collaboration in the Math lessons. The community truly helped assure many of us that Caltech is really the place we belong, and we bonded closely through our meetings on Discord voice chat and Zoom.

Despite the fun and valuable learning experience, FSRI definitely demanded a lot of hard work out of all participants. Between the classes, the homework sets, the tests, and the project, there seemed to be an insufficient number of hours in the day. Therefore, it was quite the introduction to the Caltech rigor and really helped us as newcomers transition into the academic challenges that lie ahead.

My fellow participant, Hope Arnett, expressed her gratification with the program in saying, “The challenges I faced during FSRI gave me an opportunity to see what I’m capable of... I can look back on this experience and have confidence in my abilities. It is very exciting to know that I contributed to the field of synthetic biology.” Similarly, Daniel Nagles said that FSRI was a “fantastic experience”, further stating, “I got to understand what Caltech academics might look like, got to learn new things about mathematics and computer science; I had my first experience in research, and I got to make new friends that I hope to grow closer with as Caltech goes on!”

My own mentor, Neehar Kondapaneni, expressed his satisfaction by saying, “It's always an awesome experience watching someone improve at something. The only thing I really wished I had was a whiteboard, it's just so difficult to explain some things without being able to draw. Overall it went really smoothly, I feel like we all adapted to being virtual really quickly.”

Overall, FSRI was an invaluable experience and helped many of us explore research in a virtual setting. Personally, it was my first time researching and I realized that it is potentially something I enjoy immensely. I am happy I was able to do this program ahead of my freshman year: I have now experienced a snippet of the Caltech rigor and am a little more prepared for my classes and the busy days that are soon approaching.

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