CalTech Initiative for Students

Co-Curricular Experience

Finding a path forward

Nov 18, 2022

Caltech Graduate Student Newton Nguyen

Newton Nguyen (MS ’19) is a master of workarounds. He lost his eyesight at age 12 due to a degenerative vision condition, but that didn’t stop him from taking on geophysics, climate science, and math.

“It’s a lot of visual data, but I generate the plots myself with my own code,” he says. “I can listen to my computer, read the code aloud, and understand what’s being typed out.”

Nguyen is a fifth-year graduate student in environmental science and engineering. Through his research with Christian Frankenberg—a professor of environmental science and engineering and Jet Propulsion Laboratory research scientist—Nguyen aims to develop a new greenhouse gas observation network to monitor carbon emissions.

He uses a three-step process to understand data:

“Number one is developing the code to actually generate the figures to look through the data. The second is looking through different statistical measures to understand what the data looks like. But that only gives you a coarse picture of what’s going on,” he says.

“Third, I sit down with my adviser, collaborators, or even just other friends at Caltech and discuss the details in the figures. I learn insights that I didn’t catch when they described the data to me.”

It took Nguyen a year or two to figure out this collaborative process, which mirrors how he navigates his co-curricular world of marathons and triathlons.

“I’ve learned a lot from my colleagues at Caltech and my running guides, friends to whom I am literally tethered when I run,” says Nguyen, who helped found the Caltech Triathlon Club and serves as its president. “They tell me where to go and when to look out for obstacles, and they give me feedback on my technique and pacing.”

Our Initiative for Caltech Students aims to raise $35 million to enhance students’ co-curricular experiences. This includes supporting more than 100 student-led clubs that—like the Triathlon Club—not only balance and enrich students’ academic experience, but also promote diverse ways of thinking and teamwork.

“In many ways, having to do all these workarounds for conventional pathways can help you because you have to think outside the box,” Nguyen says. “It’s a team effort, and when we cross the finish line, we do it together.”

Let us know what the Caltech student experience means to you.