Caltech's annual Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships (SURF) program is one of the most popular ways in which Caltech undergrads get firsthand experience in a laboratory.
Established in 1978, SURF is open to undergraduates at Caltech as well as other colleges. More than 400 students design and complete research projects through the SURF program each year, and more than 5,500 students have SURFed since the program began.
Students who want to participate begin by drafting a research proposal in order to receive a fellowship grant. (Over 90 percent of these proposals are ultimately funded—much better odds than in the outside world.) SURFers work on their projects with a professor, grad student, or postdoc for about 10 weeks, or occasionally longer, and receive a $6,000 award.
At the end of the summer, each SURFer writes up his or her findings in the format of a scholarly article and gives a talk at SURF Seminar Day. Structured like a professional scientific meeting, Seminar Day draws a large audience of parents, students, and other members of the Caltech community. SURFers may also submit their work for publication, particularly in the Caltech Undergraduate Research Journal.
SURFers have the opportunity to reprise their Seminar Day presentations at the Doris J. Perpall Speaking Competition. The contest, which awards cash prizes to the three best speakers, was established to encourage students to hone their scientific communications skills. (Three rounds of competition are judged by a panel of faculty, JPL staff, alumni, and grad students.)