A new home, close to home
Isabel de la Torre Roehl, '23 grew up in Caltech's backyard. She went to elementary school two blocks from the university. In fact, de la Torre Roehl was so familiar with campus that she was able to give unofficial tours to fellow freshmen when they first arrived.
So was Caltech always at the top of her list?
"Definitely not," says de la Torre Roehl, a chemistry major who is about to enter her senior year. She had plenty of reasons why:
She wanted to get away from home and explore another city.
She thought "all of the students on campus would be like Sheldon from ‘Big Bang Theory.'" In other words, endlessly wrapped up in science.
She didn't think she stood a chance of getting in.
But she applied, largely to get her parents off her case. Then she got in and came for an accepted-student event, where she found herself in a house watching "Legally Blonde"—not exactly what she expected. And while she was just 20 minutes from home, she knew the opportunities she found at Caltech would take her as far as she wanted to go.
"Caltech has a lot of really, really, really incredible resources," she says. "There's a lot of great connections to be made with professors, with graduate students and postdocs, and also with other undergraduates."
The saying is that Caltech is very competitive to get in, but once you're in, it's very collaborative.
Throughout her undergraduate career, de la Torre Roehl says she's found nothing but open doors waiting for her. When she was a freshman, she contacted a professor out of the blue looking for research opportunities. He immediately sent out an email blast to his research group, advertising de la Torre Roehl's availability.
Ultimately, she connected with a postdoc who showed her how to do everything from finding and following procedures, to setting up reactions on her own, to using a fire extinguisher.
Now, she's ready to embark on her senior thesis, a project in which she'll look for ways to synthesize a chemical found in plants that has medicinal use. "That project is completely my own," she says. "And I'm able to do that because I was trained from start to finish."
De la Torre Roehl says her experience is fairly typical. Peers are willing to help her go over problem sets. Postdocs have offered to edit her resume before applying for an internship. Professors extend their contacts. "The saying is that Caltech is very competitive to get in," she says. "But once you're in, it's very collaborative."
The key to success, she says: Take the help. At a high-powered place like Caltech, it can feel like asking for help is an admission of defeat. De la Torre Roehl says she got over that when she realized that "the people who know the answers are the people who went to office hours."
"You don't need to know everything," she says. "But you need to be ready and willing to learn and find resources to get the help you need."
To incoming students, de la Torre Roehl offers a few pieces of advice. First, she says, find something to do that isn't work. For her, that's dance—a passion she pursues both with the Caltech Dance Club and a local ballet studio. (She also admits to binging trashy reality TV with friends, especially "The Bachelor" and "The Bachelorette.")
Most of all, though, she encourages them to jump into Caltech with both feet. "Be ready and willing to make connections and make the most of them," she says. "Because they are available to you. And that's how you're going to succeed, ultimately, at Caltech."