In Situ and Out of Context

In search of inspiration for a senior research project on the opportunistic pathogen Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Caltech junior and biology major Jade Livingston assembled an ad hoc think tank of physics and engineering students.

“What’s great about talking with other biologists is that we can dive right into the science and speak jargon,” she explains. “But when I talk with people who aren’t immersed in the same world, they might ask why something is the way it is. Those unanticipated questions can spark new ideas.”

A New Frontier

Livingston has spent months studying P. aeruginosa in the laboratory of Dianne Newman, Caltech’s Gordon M. Binder/Amgen Professor of Biology and Geobiology and holder of the Allen V. C. Davis and Lenabelle Davis Leadership Chair in the Center for Environmental Microbial Interactions.


[Read more about Newman’s research: Mixed Microbes.]


After learning about Newman’s research in a fall 2016 pizza class, a forum where faculty members and postdocs describe their research to freshmen over lunch, Livingston asked Newman for permission to conduct research under her guidance through a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF), and Newman agreed. After the SURF concluded, she remained in the Newman laboratory as an undergraduate researcher.


“The world of microorganisms has been here all along, but there is so much left to discover.”
- Jade Livingston

In collaboration with Caltech experts in bioengineering, biological engineering, computational mathematics, and neuroscience, Newman combines biochemical, genetic, and geochemical techniques to image the physiological properties that microbes assume under different growth conditions.

Livingston used these imaging techniques to study P. aeruginosa in situ, for example, within sputum from a person with cystic fibrosis, in a senior research project aimed to clarify how P. aeruginosa’s gene expressions enable it to withstand exposure to antibiotics and persist in a state of chronic infection.

“The world of microorganisms has been here all along, but there is so much left to discover,” Livingston says. “We have new ways to investigate this frontier because Dianne Newman is doing science in a way that’s never been done.”


Livingston, a member of the a cappella group Out of Context, sang in Caltech’s March 2019 Love Sucks concert. Credit: Joseph Min


The ability to analyze P. aeruginosa in different contexts provides new insights about the organism that fascinate Livingston. Similarly, the opportunity to observe one’s self under variable conditions has the potential to yield personal insights. For this reason, Livingston plans to study abroad at University College London in fall 2019. “How will I feel stepping outside of my Caltech comfort zone?” she muses.

The Caltech Comfort Zone

At Caltech, Livingston is a volunteer with the Caltech YTitle IX, and the Caltech Center for Diversity. She also is an undergraduate health advocate, a Questbridge Scholar, and a director for Out of Context, Caltech’s oldest coed a cappella group. When not engaged in these activities or attending class, she studies and enjoys downtime with suitemates in Bechtel Residence, which is where the senior project brainstorm session took place. Each apartment in the residence is equipped with a floor-to-ceiling whiteboard on which students can jot down notes and sketches for projects and assignments.

Opened in September 2018, Bechtel Residence was named for longtime Caltech supporter Stephen D. Bechtel, Jr., whose gifts to the Institute through the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation total more than $28 million. The 212-bed building features a 400-person dining hall, an expansive interior courtyard, community lounges, and a full kitchen on each floor.

“It’s a comfortable gathering place where we explore diversity of thought, academically and otherwise,” Livingston says, “and just hang out.”

[Watch Livingston’s 60-second research explanation.]

Giving Priorities