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It's us against the sets. Not us against each other.

Lexy LeMar (pictured above, front row, second from right, with fellow Pageboys at a dodgeball competition) is a Caltech senior studying chemical engineering. She serves as vice president of the Caltech chapter of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE), after previously holding the roles of the frosh representative and ChemE Car Manager. She is a member of Page House, plays tenor saxophone in the Caltech Wind Orchestra, serves as an admissions ambassador for the undergraduate admissions office, and is a member of Tau Beta Pi, a national engineering honor society. Lexy recently spoke with the Caltech Fund about her unique Caltech experience and the impact of philanthropy.

Q: You've held leadership roles in the AIChE club during all four years of your time at Caltech. Tell us about your involvement.

In AIChE, we have a mentor-mentee program to help connect first-years with upper-level students. I've been on both sides of that, as a mentee and a mentor. I've helped plan student-faculty luncheons to give students an opportunity to chat with potential research mentors and their future professors. 

I would say my biggest role in the club was as the ChemE Car Manager. The ChemE Car Competition is held every year at the AIChE conference. In teams of five to ten people, we create a shoebox-sized car that is powered by a chemical reaction and cannot have any mechanical brakes. On the day of the competition, you are given a certain distance your car must travel. The team whose car reaches the closest to that distance wins. Unfortunately, we did not do so well my first year, but I loved participating in a hands-on project. Since most of Caltech's curriculum in the first two years is very theory-based, the frosh and sophomores really appreciated the chance to work on this in the lab two to three times a week.

Lexy (third from left) and members of Caltech's chapter of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers at the ChemE Car Competition.

Q: How would you say your involvement in extracurriculars like AIChE and the Caltech Wind Orchestra has impacted and enhanced your time at Caltech?

The ChemE Car project and research opportunities have helped me realize how much I enjoy being in the lab. Those really led me toward grad school. I plan to attend MIT in the fall to pursue a PhD in chemical engineering.
The Wind Orchestra provided a community for me, as well as a place where I can take a break from STEM. It's really nice to go to rehearsal once a week and forget about all of the math and science that's going on, to use my brain in a different kind of way. Through the pandemic, we've been doing synchronous rehearsals. Everyone is on mute and kind of playing to themselves, to a recording, but we're all on Zoom and on video. We can see each other playing together, and while it's not the same as being in person, it's good to still have that outlet.

Lexy (left) with friends and Frances Arnold (center), the Linus Pauling Professor of Chemical Engineering, Biochemistry and Bioengineering, Director of Donna and Benjamin M. Rosen Bioengineering Center, and 2018 Nobel Laureate.

What was your favorite course during your time at Caltech? How did it stand out?

I would say my favorite course was atmospheric chemistry with professors John Seinfeld and Paul Wennberg. I took it last year at the beginning of the pandemic. It's an introductory class in atmospheric chemistry that covered much of the basics at the beginning. But toward the end, they brought up a lot of current topics related to atmospheric chemistry. We even discussed how the lockdown impacted CO2 emissions from cars, especially in cities like Los Angeles. 

The course inspired me to reach out to someone at JPL, where I ended up conducting a summer internship that was a complicated version of what I learned in the class. I worked on an atmospheric photochemical model, which is all computational. Although the entire internship was remote, it was cool to take the basics that I learned through the class and apply them in a much more complex way.

Now I'm a teaching assistant for that course, and I may continue my JPL internship this summer. What we're researching, in short, is a long set of reactions going on in the atmosphere: we look at the relative rates of each reaction to see how the composition of the atmosphere would change over time. With greenhouse gases, as you increase certain chemicals, that affects the temperature. The temperature is the climate part of it. That in turn feeds back into the rates of chemical reactions, because those rates are dependent on the temperature. These chemistry and weather models were originally separate, but they go hand in hand. Through this research, I'm working to combine the two models, and I hope to write a paper on it.

Could you tell us more about your interest in researching sustainability?

Growing up in rural Illinois, I knew about climate change, but I was not aware of its importance until coming to college. Where I grew up, there was not much emphasis on recycling or reducing waste or walking instead of driving cars. You just didn't see the impact as much as in some places, so I didn't think it was as big of an issue as it is. But when I came to California, heard stories about smog, and saw the impact firsthand, that really showed me why sustainability is so important. Then, hearing about exciting research on atmospheric chemistry and carbon capture—that really built on my initial interest.

The summer after my freshman year, I did a SURF with Professor Seinfeld. I had zero background in sustainability at that point, and it was wonderful to have the chance to work in the lab and do computational work through MATLAB. Hearing stories about how bad the smog was in LA and learning about Professor Seinfeld's significant role in explaining how chemistry connected car emissions to smog and air quality—and how he pushed for policies to clean that up—was inspirational to me.

What have you learned during your time at Caltech that will stay with you?

The honor code has played a big role in my time here. When I first came to Caltech and heard that there are take-home exams, I was shocked. I thought, "There's got to be so much cheating." But everyone takes the honor code so seriously that it actually works. It's reinforced the idea that when you do cheat, you really only cheat yourself. You're not learning if you don't put in the effort. That's definitely something that I will carry with me through grad school and beyond.

I would also say that my research experiences have shown me just how exciting research can be. I was passionate about science in high school, which is why I chose to come to Caltech—but seeing it firsthand is completely different. That's one reason I'm very excited to attend grad school: to do more research, learn more science, and be surrounded by incredible people who are so passionate about what they do.

How have Caltech donors impacted your work and experiences over the past four years?

There are several ways I've been impacted by the generosity of Caltech donors. The first would be through clubs. AIChE is very dependent on funding. The first conference we attended—not to compete, but just to observe—was at UC Irvine. Then the second year was at USC, and then we were able to attend the national conference in Orlando. It's a bit more expensive to haul eight students to Florida, but it was an incredible opportunity to see, at the national level, the different cars and ideas from students around the country, and also to network. They had a grad school fair, so I could also see what different options existed for me in the future. And I was afforded the opportunity to compete in their research paper competition. I took the paper I wrote for my SURF in the Seinfeld group after my freshman year, and I gave a brief talk on it. It was exciting both to share my research and to hear what research other students are doing around the country. We would not have been able to do all this without funding from donors.

Another major way I've been impacted by donors is through the SURF program. I did SURF after my freshman year and also after my sophomore year, with funding from the Sidney and Nancy Petersen Fellowship and the Jack and Edith Roberts Fellowship, respectively. For the second SURF I completed, I went to MIT and worked in the Strano Research Group. I would say that both of those experiences were very influential in developing my passion for research as well as my interest in sustainability. Going somewhere else helped me realize that it's not just at Caltech that I'm excited about research. That was the first time I really pictured myself going to grad school and doing research long-term. And that's a big reason why I decided to continue my education.

The third way I think donors have impacted my time at Caltech is through my house. A lot of our events are made possible by donations. This may not seem as important as going to conferences and doing research, but Caltech can be a very stressful place. Having that outlet, having fun things to look forward to throughout the term, has really helped me stick with it all and to develop friendships that I will keep for a long time. I found a community where I feel at home. My house community has really become my second family. Through the pandemic, we've held weekly happy hours, and at the end of each term there's a big Zoom party with trivia, games, and prizes. They send out Grubhub gift cards so people can eat together. It's been nice to still have some connection with my house through all of this, and it's been possible because of the support of house donors.

Finally, I've been a recipient of the James E. Bailey Scholarship for all four years, which enabled me to attend Caltech in the first place. I would not be here without donor support.

Graduation is coming up in June. What will you miss most about Caltech?

Definitely the people. I know that's a very clichéd answer, but the people are the reason that I came to Caltech. I was deciding between Caltech and MIT, and when I came to visit Caltech, I stayed with a student who was also a ChemE. She showed me that people at Caltech are so humble while also being incredibly brilliant and passionate about science. At the same time, science isn't their whole life. I was worried about being overwhelmed by studying and only focusing on research and my career. But I found that the people at Caltech like to have fun and support one another. It's not a cutthroat environment—it's very supportive and engaging. This is where I found my lifelong friends and the people who make me feel at home. We have this mentality that I've grown to love: that it's us against the sets, not you against me. I love that about Caltech.