The Synthesist

Like many who come to Caltech to learn and explore, undergraduate Damien Bérubé dreams of changing the world with science and engineering. But his personal vision—the force that drives him in the classroom, the lab, and beyond—is an uncommon one.

“I believe science should be studied as a system,” he says. “The better I understand science as a whole, the better I’ll be able to succeed in science, and eventually translate that knowledge into social impact and benefit humankind.”

A native of Montréal, Bérubé was able to come to Caltech thanks to support from the Edie and Lew Wasserman Scholarship Fund. And since he has been here, a donor-funded Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) has added momentum to his studies. He is plotting a path that crisscrosses scientific fields, with the ultimate goal of putting it all together to realize his dream of making the world a better place.

A Breadth of Experience

Bérubé’s interdisciplinary impulse predates his time at Caltech. Before he arrived on campus in 2016, he already had participated in research on peptide science and macular degeneration, the biochemistry of sensation and pain, and Mars exploration.

Following his first year at the Institute, he served as an intern with a Colorado-based nonprofit, the Global Entrepreneur in Residence Coalition. Founded by a Caltech alumnus, the program connects international entrepreneurs with American universities, where they mentor students and explore opportunities to launch their businesses in the United States.

Bérubé helped analyze the coalition’s economic impact while trying to pick up some of the soft skills needed to advocate for science in the public interest.

“The disconnect between science and policy is growing,” he says. “To bridge the gap, I want to equip myself with the language and finesse policymakers have.”

During his sophomore year, he helped put together the fan array for the huge wind tunnel at Caltech’s Center for Autonomous Systems and Technologies (CAST), which will help researchers develop drones that can withstand a variety of weather conditions. He also dedicated himself to investigations with the team of Harry Gray, the Arnold O. Beckman Professor of Chemistry. Beaker in hand, Bérubé took on the challenge of synthesizing inorganic compounds with special properties that could lead to better biomedical imaging.

As the Thomas C. Hays SURF Fellow, he joined the lab of John Seinfeld, the Louis E. Nohl Professor of Chemical Engineering, in 2018. Bérubé helps examine little-studied compounds found in the smoke from wildfires—including a molecule that gives barbecue potato chips their flavor—and catalogs the reactions that occur when those compounds mix with air.

“We expect to see more, and more intense, wildfires over the next century,” Bérubé says. “Down the line, this research could inform climate models meant to determine the effects of these fires.”

All in This Together

To help achieve his ambition of understanding science as an integrated whole, Bérubé has built a customized interdisciplinary major called “Systems Studies” that blends elements of chemistry, physics, and aerospace engineering. He sees Caltech as the right place for his approach. In his free time, he frequently takes advantage of the Institute’s unspoken open-door policy to tap the brains of faculty members from a host of disciplines.

“All sorts of cutting-edge topics are uniquely assembled at Caltech. The small size of the community allows you to have much more personal interactions with people who are giants in their fields.”
- Damien Bérubé

Philanthropic funding—in the form of the Wasserman Scholarship and the Hays SURF—has proven vital in preparing Bérubé to connect aspects of science and engineering in service of society.

“Finances have always been a hardship for me,” he says. “If I hadn’t known that Caltech would help me afford my education, I would not have applied. On a very basic level, student aid is the reason I can be here in the first place.”

More than just peace of mind, he takes personal encouragement from the support of donors.

“The scholarship is a validation,” Bérubé says. “It means that somebody believes in me. They’re willing to invest in my education, and I hope to return that value back to the community, the country, the whole world.

“It makes me feel as though I’m on my way to making a difference, and I’m not alone in that journey.”



Since this story was published, Bérubé received the 2019 Dean’s Cup, which recognizes efforts to improve the quality of undergraduate life at Caltech, and the Caltech Y ACT (Advocating for Change Together) Award, which promotes civic engagement and leadership by giving students the opportunity to explore issues of local, national, or global significance. Bérubé used his ACT Award to learn about international nuclear nonproliferation and safeguards and plans to share what learned with the campus community.

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