Monday 19 March 2018

The college that's just been nominated as the best in the world

Caitriona Palmer

For decades, the California Institute of Technology has been derided within academic circles as the beating heart of 'nerd central'. But now the tiny college on the west coast of America has finally got to run with the cool kids after it was declared the world's top university.

It beat Harvard University, the venerable 375-year-old east-coast titan and long-time title holder, to first place in the influential Times Higher Education (THE) list as the top academic institution in the world.

This year, the geeks of Caltech outperformed Harvard and the other big guns of global academia -- Stanford, Princeton, Cambridge and Oxford -- by pushing their stuffy nemesis off the number-one spot.

"I always recognised how unique and special it was," said Professor Christopher Brennen, a native of Magherafelt, Co Derry, who has spent the last 41 years teaching at Caltech.

"It was different from the other universities. It was different even from places like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Stanford."

Academics and scientists within the United States have long admired the private-research institution in California -- Caltech has produced no fewer than 31 Nobel Prize laureates -- but few Americans have heard of the tiny university tucked away in the hills of the San Gabriel Mountains in Pasadena, north of Los Angeles.

Until now, Caltech's primary renown has been in the outrageous and high-visibility pranks performed by the institution's brainy students. In 1987, students confounded Los Angeles residents when they awoke to find the famous Hollywood sign that looms over the city had been changed to read 'CALTECH'.

In 1984, some Caltech computer eggheads hacked into the Rose Bowl scoreboard -- the US university sporting equivalent of the FA cup -- and reconfigured the half-time score between Illinois and the Bruins to make it appear that Caltech (never renowned for its students' athletic prowess) was not just playing in the game, but beating its rival MIT.

Although Caltech has been dwarfed in size by the academic colossuses that are Harvard and Stanford, experts believe that Caltech's tiny scale, narrow focus and excellent teacher-to-student ratio have been the key to its formidable success.

Caltech has approximately 2,200 students in total -- around 970 undergraduates and 1,200 graduate students -- and a mission to train the very best in future scientists, engineers and mathematicians.

"I think that its small size is one of Caltech's greatest strengths," Brennen told the Weekend Review. "Small and excellent is what characterises Caltech.

"We are very careful in selecting the faculty -- they are the smartest people and we give them the freedom to do what they think is the most exciting research."

Visitors to the Caltech campus say that unlike their snooty Ivy-league rivals on the east coast, the atmosphere is informal and fun.

"You've got maybe the greatest collection of minds in the country and they're hanging out in jeans and flip-flops," said Gina Hall, who, along with Scott Bridges, has co-written a screenplay about Caltech's infamous pranks.

"It really feels like summer camp. No one walks around Caltech in a bow tie, like they might at Harvard or Princeton," added Brennen.

Like most private universities in the United States, the annual student fees at Caltech are formidable -- €26,000 per year for an undergraduate degree, in comparison with Harvard's €25,000.

But even if you have the funds to bankroll an education at Caltech, beating the competition to simply get in the door is a daunting task for secondary-school students.

Those with only the highest SAT scores (the American equivalent of the Leaving Certificate) need apply and only then if they can demonstrate a dedicated passion for the sciences.

"They want someone who is both excellent in science and engineering and mathematics courses and passionate about it," said Dr Mason Porter, a lecturer in mathematics at Oxford University and a Caltech alum.

"It is a very difficult school. It is not for everybody."

Porter recalls studying and working on average 100 hours a week during one term in his undergraduate degree at Caltech and trying to cram in power naps between classes.

"I am probably still feeling the permanent damage now," he said. "It was very intense and every week was like a sprint. I had so many things due on Wednesday that Tuesday was an all-nighter literally every week."

But for nerdy teenagers like Porter, who struggled to fit in with his high-school peers, Caltech was like a breath of fresh air.

"Caltech very much felt like home," he said. "I really liked being surrounded by lots of smart people and people who are passionate about what they do. You're around a lot of nerds.

"There was an element of ostracising that I sometimes felt in high school. When I went to Caltech I saw you didn't have to be ashamed to be a nerd."

Fellow Caltech alum, Autumn Looijen, was grateful to be somewhere "really accepting of people who are quirky and weird".

"Normally the people who go to Caltech are those who have been at the top of their high-school class, who maybe didn't have a lot of friends or a lot of social skills," said Looijen, who holds an Irish passport and now works in Silicon Valley.

"They get to Caltech and they suddenly realise that there are other people like them."

But even for Looijen, who navigated high school as one of the smartest kids in the room, the newly crowned top university in the world was no walk in the park.

"One thing that Caltech did for me was that it really kicked my butt. I met people who -- there was no question -- were smarter than me," she said.

"It's good to know that if you're going out into the world. It gives you some humility and it gives you some perspective. And I think that that is one of the important things that Caltech does for smart kids."

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