The Path Less Traveled

Senior Katie Brennan visits a chip stand on Lake Malawi during a volunteer trip to Africa. She spent two of her undergrad summers working at a pediatric nutrition clinic there. 

Growing up, Katie Brennan didn't have a lot of opportunities to travel. So when she started her biology studies at Caltech, one of her main goals was to explore the world. Thanks to a plenitude of funding from the Institute, Brennan—a graduating senior—can now cross two more continents and the mountains of Washington State off her list.

Starting out small the summer after her freshman year, Brennan traveled to Detroit's Wayne State University, near her hometown of Grosse Pointe, for a SURF project. There, she did research in bioinformatics to help develop tools for analyzing the structure of RNA. Before returning to sunny SoCal, she attended a weeklong retreat, deep in the woods of Washington State, as a recipient of the annual Don Shepard Essay Contest, which awards funding for "a program of self-enrichment outside of science."

"I had a friend who took sky diving lessons, and another one built his own guitar. I went to a retreat center in the mountains," says Brennan, who had to take two planes, a bus, a ferry, and another bus to reach the old mining town of Holden, where the center was located. "I went hiking. I learned how to do pottery. There were deer eating outside of my door. It was really great."

For the summer between her sophomore and junior years, she applied for and won Caltech's Studenski Award, which provides funding for students to travel and explore an area outside of academics. Brennan chose to go to Malawi to volunteer with Project Peanut Butter (PPB), a nonprofit organization focused on pediatric-malnutrition clinic work and research.

"Their aim is to end malnutrition, and they have developed a special kind of peanut butter that can help children recover from malnutrition very quickly," says Brennan, who spent a month and a half working in the clinic. "And once they've recovered, they are less likely to relapse into malnutrition. It's very impressive what the organization does."

In fact, Brennan was so impressed that she returned to Malawi this past summer to work on a PPB research project. This time, she was funded by the George W. Housner Student Discovery Fund, which provides support for independent study, including travel.