A Passion for Stats

Dean Oliver (BS ’90)
Director of Player Personnel and Analytics, Sacramento Kings
from E&S+

Unusual for Caltech, what started for me was a career in sports, one that now has me in the front office of the Sacramento Kings. In the last years of high school, the annual Bill James Baseball Abstract was my link between sports and numbers. Those books had me thinking when I entered Tech about how to scientifically break down sports using statistics. In my freshman year, math professor Gary Lorden showed me how James calculated the chances that the Detroit Tigers would have a 36-4 record after 40 games given their previous performance. Conversations with my freshman adviser, Peter Haff, about the physics and statistics of basketball encouraged me to apply what I was learning at Tech to sports.

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And so, as finals wound down in my freshman year, I decided to systematically chart the NBA Finals that were occurring at the same time. The system I developed would ultimately form the basis for much of the basketball analytics that are now used across the NBA and for college basketball.

In my sophomore year, Caltech hired longtime Mt. San Antonio College coach gene Victor to coach the basketball team—and I found another person to talk basketball with. Entering my junior year, I showed Coach Victor some of the work I had done, and he encouraged me to work with and join his coaching staff—maybe because I wasn’t a great player.

My friends at Tech weren’t all sports fans, but they appreciated the science behind what I was doing. Being able to talk basketball to scientists and science to basketball people helped build the language of sports analytics.

For graduate school, I turned down MIT, Stanford, and Harvard to go to the University of North Carolina, which had both a great basketball team and a great environmental engineering program. Coach Victor put me in touch with Bill Bertka, assistant coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, so that I could work as an advance scout in North Carolina. Four years later, I had a PhD in engineering and a lot of basketball experience.

At the time—1994—there was no market for what would eventually be called “basketball analytics.” There was a market for environmental consulting, so that’s what paid the bills. Then, in 2002, Michael Lewis sat down to write Moneyball, the story of how the Oakland A’s used analytics to win in baseball. At the same time, I took time off from consulting to write Basketball on Paper, a book on how to use analytics to win in basketball. The coincidental timing encouraged me to quit my job and take a chance at getting into the NBA.

That was 2004. Since then, I’ve been to the NBA Conference Finals, worked with Hall of Famers like Magic Johnson and Chris Mullin, helped build the sports analytics industry, and made sure to stay in touch with the friends and coach from Caltech who helped get me here.

Read more stories from The Starting Line on E&S+

Caltech Names Four Distinguished Alumni

Caltech has announced that Kip S. Thorne (BS '62), David D. Ho (BS '74), Quynh-Thu Xuan Le (BS '89), and Stanislav Smirnov (MS '95, PhD '96) are this year's recipients of the Distinguished Alumni Award.

First presented in 1966, the award is the highest honor the Institute bestows upon its graduates. It is awarded in recognition of a particular achievement of noteworthy value, a series of such achievements, or a career of noteworthy accomplishment.

The 2015 Distinguished Alumni Award recipients are

Kip S. Thorne (BS '62, Physics)
Richard P. Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics, Emeritus, Caltech
Thorne is being recognized for his contributions to gravitational physics and astrophysics; his mentorship of physics students, many of whom have become leaders in their fields; and for helping to increase the awareness of science through books and film.

David D. Ho (BS '74, Biology)
Director and Chief Executive Officer, Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center
Irene Diamond Professor, The Rockefeller University

Ho is being recognized for his positive impact on human health. His studies have elucidated the dynamic nature of HIV replication in infected persons, forming the foundation for combination antiretroviral therapy. This therapy paradigm has led to reductions in AIDS-associated mortality in developed countries.

Quynh-Thu Xuan Le (BS '89, Biology and Chemistry)
Katharine Dexter McCormick and Stanley McCormick Memorial Professor
Professor and Chair, Department of Radiation Oncology, Stanford University

Le is being recognized for her contributions to the development of new radiotherapy treatment paradigms for cancer of the head, neck, and lungs, and for her leadership in medicine on prominent national panels and as chair of the Department of Radiation Oncology at Stanford University.

Stanislav Smirnov (MS '95, PhD '96, Mathematics)
Professor of Mathematics, University of Geneva;
Director of SwissMAP, National Center for Competence in Research 

Smirnov is being recognized for his achievements in mathematics and in particular for his study of scaling limits in statistical physics. Smirnov provided the first rigorous proofs of conformal invariance in lattice models, work that opened new directions in probability theory. 

The awards will be presented at 11 a.m. on Saturday, May 16, in Beckman Auditorium on the Caltech campus during the 78th annual Seminar Day.

Mel Levet (BS '39, MS '40) Tosses First Pitch Against Occidental

The last time that Mel Levet squared off against Occidental College in a baseball game, Franklin Roosevelt was in his second term as the nation's president and Gone with the Wind had just won the Oscar for best picture.

Now 97, Levet returned to campus last Friday to throw out the first pitch for Caltech against Oxy.

"I haven't pitched a baseball in 65 years," Levet said. "This is pretty exciting."

Family, friends, and members of the Caltech community turned out to celebrate. "This has blossomed into a great day for Caltech baseball and for Caltech. We're delighted to welcome Mel home," said Matt Mark, the Beavers' head baseball coach.

Levet attended Caltech from 1935 through 1940, earning his bachelor's and master's degrees in geology. He fondly recalls studying under Ian Campbell, who later became the geologist for the state of California. "One minute, I would be in a final having to identify minerals from the 200 or so in Caltech's collection," said Levet. "The next, I'd be running out to the baseball field. It was a wonderful time."

During his three years on the varsity squad, Levet led teams to 15 wins—including a 2–0 shutout of Occidental College in his final season. Levet became team captain his senior year, then coached the freshmen while earning his master's degree. In 1938, the Caltech baseball team recognized Levet's accomplishments with their most prestigious honor, the Rawlings Trophy.

"I made a vow to myself when I joined Caltech's baseball team: that I would become captain, and that I would win the Rawlings," said Levet. "I'm proud to say I did both."

World War II broke out not long after Levet's graduation, and he enlisted with the United States Army Air Forces, joining their burgeoning meteorology program. He held posts in numerous locations across the Pacific, including the Solomon Islands and Japan. After the war, Levet worked for several oil companies, including Chevron Corporation, where he spent the majority of his career as a research geologist. He retired from the company in 1982.

"In work and in life, my father has always been deeply curious," said Levet's daughter, Jan Le Pouvir, while she sat in the bleachers with Levet's family after the pitch. "He never stops asking questions. That inquisitiveness comes from Caltech. And in a way, I think it's the secret to his long life."

"Throughout his athletic career here, Mel displayed the qualities of ability, sportsmanship, and character that are hallmarks of the Caltech athlete," said Betsy Mitchell, director of athletics, recreation, and physical education at Caltech. "We're thrilled that Mel is still connected to Caltech and that he is able to share with our student athletes the lessons and memories he took with him from here into life."

Levet did not get to relish a win on Friday—Occidental bested the Beavers, 11–1—but he did not seem to mind. "A lot has changed, but the core of Caltech and its students is all just as I remember. It's a remarkable institution," he said. "I'd love to come back and get my PhD."

Seven Alumni Awarded 2015 Sloan Fellowships

Congratulations to seven Caltech alumni and five Caltech professors who have been awarded 2015 Sloan Research Fellowships. The fellowships, awarded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, honor "early-career scientists whose achievements and potential identify them as rising stars, the next generation of scientific leaders." This year, 126 young scientists were awarded fellowships in eight scientific and technical fields: chemistry, computer science, economics, mathematics, computational and evolutionary biology, neuroscience, ocean sciences, and physics. Candidates must be nominated by a department head or other senior researcher and are reviewed by a selection committee of three distinguished scientists in each field. 

Recipients include:

Brandi Cossairt (BS ’06)
Jennifer A. Dionne (MS ’05, PhD ’09)
Aaron Esser-Kahn (BS ’04)
Michael Kesden (PhD ’05)
Neal Mankad (PhD ’10)
Stephanie Waterman (MS ’02)

Viviana Gradinaru (BS ’05)
Mitchell Guttman
Gregg Hallinan
Heather Knutson
Xinwen Zhu

Read More 

Blue-Sky Thinking

Cyrus Behroozi wants to connect the whole world to the Internet. 

“Two-thirds of the world’s population still doesn’t have access,” says Behroozi, an engineer with Google X, the Internet giant’s experimental division. Although it’s easy to think of the Internet as a luxury, he says, it’s now inextricably tied to economic development. 

Considering that Google X is most widely known for engineering the driverless car, its solution to global connectivity might seem charmingly low-tech—balloons. But these aren’t everyday balloons. Behroozi leads the network engineering for Project Loon, an ambitious experiment by Google X that’s focused on creating a global wireless network of balloons floating around the world 12.5 miles (20 kilometers) aboveground, within the  stratosphere—twice the elevation flown by commercial airlines.

We spoke with Behroozi to hear about his path from Caltech to Google’s lofty experiment.

[VIDEO: Scroll down to see a short produced by Google of the balloons in action, along with an interview with Behroozi.]


Tell us about your time at Caltech.

My parents were physicists, and I had grown up with a bit of hero worship for Richard Feynman. So when I arrived at Caltech, I felt that I had found “my people.” I fell under the wing of physics professor Ken Libbrecht (BS ’90), who at the time was very interested in Bose-Einstein condensates [cooling subatomic particles to near absolute zero so that they coalesce into larger structures, in some cases observable on a macroscopic scale]. Being able to trap and observe atoms has a very obvious “cool factor,” so I continued to pursue it after graduation. A couple of years later, I was part of a research team at Harvard that was able to slow down light traveling through a Bose-Einstein condensate. That project received a lot of press and really seemed to capture the imagination of the public. Jay Leno even made a joke about it: “Researchers announced that they were able to slow light. You know how they did it? They took a laser and aimed it through the post office.”

What exactly are Google X and Project Loon?

Google X is a research lab of Google, but it’s not just focused on problems related to the company’s core business. We look for big problems that might require radical solutions and breakthrough technologies. The self-driving car is perhaps our best-known project and a great example. The problem: People are generally terrible drivers; we cause traffic jams and get into accidents. A radical solution might be to teach computers to drive. Technology exists that might make that possible, but it’s an enormous challenge to implement it. So—big problem, radical solution, breakthrough technology.

Project Loon is an attempt to solve the problem of Internet access around the world. Right now, two-thirds of the world’s population does not have the ability to use the Internet. You might consider it a luxury, but access is now so closely correlated with economic development. There is an emerging global digital divide. People in developing countries could be greatly helped by gaining access.

So that's the problem: global Internet access. The radical approach and the breakthrough technology are doing it by balloon—and not just stationary balloons hovering over one location and providing access to a small group willing to pay for it. Most likely, that approach actually turns out not to be technologically feasible. Instead, the idea is to let the balloons float freely, travel with the winds in the stratosphere, and have just enough of them that as some drift out of range, new balloons come from the other direction to take their places.

Why balloons? Why not use satellites?

Well, satellites are also a great solution, but they're extremely expensive to launch. There's a long time delay between when a satellite is proposed, when it's built, when you can get a launch window, and the duration that it has to last in orbit to sort of pay for itself. You might be developing technology for a satellite that launches five years from now. It has to last for the next 10 years to become economically viable. So you're dealing with technology that might be 10 or 15 years old by the time it really gets used. 

With balloons, we have more flexibility. We can make them cheaply. We can launch them cheaply. We can refresh and iterate the technology on a month-by-month basis. So it's sort of low-stakes aerospace. We get the altitude and coverage similar to a satellite and gain the ability to iterate quickly—all at a much lower cost. 

What are the challenges involved?

Behroozi on Google's campus in Mountain View, California, with a prototype of a balloon's communications array.

Behroozi on Google's campus in Mountain View, California, with a prototype of a balloon's communications array.

It’s a terrific challenge of engineering. There's a big jump between making a balloon that can last one day and one that can last 100. Going through the day-and-night cycle is treacherous, requiring what's called a super-pressure balloon. Then, there's the navigation. Winds within the stratosphere tend to travel in one direction, which we can take advantage of to navigate. The balloon needs to be able to change altitude to catch a current headed in the right direction. 

My responsibility is the communication, connecting the balloons to the end users on the ground. As balloons drift in and out of range, we need the connectivity to feel seamless. We also need to link the balloons to one another, back to ground stations, and the Internet. One of the first basic challenges we faced was the fact that most transmitters are polarized, meaning the signal transmits in only one direction. But balloons rotate. So we designed special antennae that provide a signal no matter which way the balloon is oriented.

So to make this all work, we need: balloons capable of staying aloft for 100 days, altitude-control systems, an “air-traffic control” system that can predict weather models, and a network to tie them all together.

What stage of the project are you in?

Well, we've already done pilot testing in New Zealand and Brazil. We've been working furiously and growing the team since then. We're launching and flying balloons continuously right now. We're definitely “all in” to make this work.

[Update: Since this interview was conducted, Astro Teller, the head of the Google X lab, announced that Project Loon had logged more than 1.2 million miles (2 million kilometers) in testing and was on track to have a “semi-permanent” ring of balloons in the Southern Hemisphere within the next year or so.

We really look for what we call ‘T-shaped people,’ — people with really diverse backgrounds, but who also have very deep expertise in one area. That describes most Techers.

How did your training at Caltech prepare you for this career?

I really think that Techers fit very well within Google X. We have a bunch here right now. We really look for what we call T-shaped people—people with really diverse backgrounds (the top of the T) who also have very deep expertise in one area (the stem). Because of the way that Caltech trains us, that describes most Techers. I also believe that the collaborative culture at Caltech is really helpful. If I have a hard problem, my first reaction is to go find somebody else who might be an expert in it rather than attack it myself.

As an engineer, I’m very pleased to be here. Just about every project in Google X is something that relates somehow to the physical world. We have generous resources to tackle them and an environment that encourages risk—even if we end up failing.

Professor Libbrecht always impressed me with his ability to jump between projects and follow his interests. He often joked, “If at first you don’t succeed, no need to make a fool of yourself.” I would encourage people to be adventurous and explore many paths in order to find the ones that suit them best.

Crowdfunding the Classroom

Cesar Bocanegra (BS ’95)

Chief Operating Officer, DonorsChoose.org

Screen image of DonorsChoose.org, a nonprofit that matches public school projects with donors.

Screen image of DonorsChoose.org, a nonprofit that matches public school projects with donors.

Long before "crowdfunding" became a buzzword, Cesar Bocanegra had been harnessing it to bring needed resources to public schools at DonorsChoose.org, a nonprofit that matches classroom projects with potential benefactors.

Founded in 2000, the organization invites teachers and school administrators to post a project on its website, along with the supplies required to complete it and a budget. Donors then bid gifts, usually in small amounts. Once the budget is met, DonorsChoose.org ships the supplies directly to the school. According to the company, 62 percent of public schools in the United States have at least one teacher with projects on DonorsChoose.org. 

Bocanegra, who holds degrees from Caltech, MIT, and Wharton, leads the organization's operations, helping it to translate gifts made in cyberspace into physical supplies in the hands of students. We spoke with him about his work and the role technology can play within nonprofits today.

Cesar Bocanegra (BS ’95)

Cesar Bocanegra (BS ’95)

You have expressed a particular interest in education and mentoring. What drives that?

I think it’s because I know the power of having strong teachers and mentors in one’s life. I grew up traveling between the United States and Mexico. I knew as a child that I wanted to become an engineer, but by the time I reached the 10th grade, I was behind in my English and math courses. A counselor sat me down and said, “Look, if you’re serious about going to a top engineering school, you’ll need to work very hard to catch up.” She laid out an ambitious plan. I joined a magnet program at San Fernando High School and devoted myself to my studies. I did well enough to eventually make it to Caltech. That could not have happened without the support and guidance of my teachers.

Tell us about DonorsChoose.org and how it became involved with public schools.

DonorsChoose.org was started 14 years ago by Charles Best, who at the time was a history teacher at a public high school in the Bronx. He found that he was starting to spend money—his own money—on school supplies. His friends wanted to support him, but they weren’t quite sure how, given the opaque bureaucracy of school systems. Charles decided to create a crowdfunding website, before the word “crowdfunding” entered public consciousness. Teachers could post projects—all aimed at public education—and then anyone could donate to that specific project. Before Kickstarter, Twitter, or Facebook, DonorsChoose.org was a pioneer in the world of crowdfunding and social media.

What is your role?

I joined in 2007 as Chief Operating Officer to help scale the organization. DonorsChoose.org is a bit different from other crowdfunding sites in that we don’t just pass on funds, we actually fulfill orders of school supplies and ship them to classrooms. Where once it might take three minutes to fulfill a single order, I helped set up systems, integrations, and partnerships that allowed us to do 1,000 orders with the click of a button. In the first nine months, we went from supporting 10,000 schools to supporting 100,000. Today, we have fundraised more than a quarter of a billion dollars and helped more than 400,000 teachers.

Engineers and people who work in nonprofits share this in common—we want to make the world a better place.

The crowdfunding model has become more established since you started. What kinds of challenges and opportunities do you face today?

We actually have many of the same issues normal online retailers would have in terms of sourcing inventory and creating a distribution network. We joke that we have become the Amazon.com of the nonprofit sector. I’m proud to say we’re quite good at quickly translating an online donation into physical supplies in the hands of students. 

Now we see new opportunities in the data. We’ve been doing this for 14 years, so we have accumulated a great deal of information that could drive new insights. Hypothetically, we might observe, “Why do California teachers seem to order more pencils than teachers in the rest of the country?” or “Why are teachers in this Texas school district asking for more technology than books?” What stories would such data tell us? At a minimum, this could help enlighten key decision-makers about the needs and priorities of educators in their regions.

We’re also starting to drive more experimentation in the classroom. The best teachers are in many ways entrepreneurs, so we also want to connect them with entrepreneurs in industry. When MakerBot, a 3D-printing company, wanted a way to make its technology available to schools, we were able to affordably place more than 1,000 printers across the country in less than two months. Classes are using them to make anything from chess pieces to prosthetic limbs to replicas of artwork.

How does your training as a Techer help you in the nonprofit sector?

I think many people assume that nonprofits don’t necessarily need a lot of technical expertise. In fact, the opposite is true. Advances in technology have created similar opportunities and opened the same kind of disruption you see in business. We have fewer resources, so we need to be efficient with them. In the case of DonorsChoose.org, I was able to apply lean management techniques that I learned at Caltech, and MIT and Wharton afterwards, to refine it into what I call a “social, lean enterprise.” Even though we have been doing crowdfunding for 14 years, we still feel like we’ve realized only a fraction of the potential. 

Engineers and people who work in nonprofits share this in common—we want to make the world a better place. When people ask me for career advice, I often say that every company has a mission, so it’s important to find a mission that matches your passion. There is probably a position or job within that company that requires your skill set and education. I feel incredibly lucky to have found such a role, and I get paid to do it. 

I’m even more blessed to know that we’re making a difference in the lives of educators...because they certainly made a difference in mine.

Learn more about DonorsChoose.org.

Eric Betzig (BS '83) Shares 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Eric Betzig (BS '83), a group leader at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Janelia Farm Research Campus in Ashburn, Virginia, has been awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry along with Stefan W. Hell of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry and William E. Moerner of Stanford University. The three were honored "for the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy," a method that allows for the creation of "super-images" with a resolution on the order of nanometers, or billionths of a meter. In essence, the work turns microscopy into "nanoscopy."

The technique developed by the trio overcomes the so-called Abbe diffraction limit, which describes a physical restriction on the sizes of the structures that can be resolved using optical microscopy, showing that, essentially, nothing smaller than one-half the wavelength of light, or about 0.2 microns, can be discerned by these scopes. The result of the Abbe limit is that only the larger structures within cells—organelles like mitochondria, for example—can be resolved and studied with regular microscopes but not individual proteins or even viruses. The restriction is akin to being able to observe the buildings that make up a city but not the city's inhabitants and their activities.

Betzig, building on earlier work by Hell and Moerner, found that it was possible to work around the Abbe limit to create very-high-resolution images of a sample, such as a developing embryo, by using fluorescent proteins that glow when illuminated with a weak pulse of light. Each time the sample is illuminated, a different, sparsely distributed subpopulation of fluorescent proteins will light up and, because the glowing molecules are spaced farther apart than the Abbe diffraction limit, a standard microscope would be able to capture them. Still, each of the images produced in this way has relatively low resolution—that is, they are blurry. Betzig, however realized that by superimposing many such images, he would be able to obtain a sharp super-image, in which nanoscale structures are clearly visible. The new technique was first described in a 2006 paper published in the journal Science.

After Caltech, Betzig, a physics major from Ruddock House, earned an MS (1985) and a PhD (1988) from Cornell University. He worked at AT&T Bell Laboratories until 1994, when he stepped away from academia and science to work for his father's machine tool company. Betzig returned to research in 2002 and joined Janelia in 2005.

To date, 33 Caltech alumni and faculty have won a total of 34 Nobel Prizes. Last year, alumnus Martin Karplus (PhD '54) also received the Chemistry Prize.




An Intuition for Scale

Bobby (BS ’98) and Ann Johnson (BS ’99, MS ’00)

Bobby (BS ’98) and Ann Johnson (BS ’99, MS ’00)

Bobby (BS ’98) and Ann Johnson (BS ’99, MS ’00) today announced the public launch of their company, Interana, a data analytics startup in Menlo Park.

We interviewed the Johnson's for the winter 2013 issue of E&S.

“A lot of the things that you think a company like Facebook is doing with its data right now, it turns out that it can’t,” Bobby Johnson says. “The tools  that exist just aren’t good enough.”

He ought to know. Bobby served for six years at the social media giant, rising through the ranks to become director of engineering, charged with scaling the technology as the site grew from hundreds of thousands of users to nearly one billion.

With its exponential growth, Facebook was often in jeopardy of being crushed under its own digital weight. Bobby helped develop software, build infrastructure, and grow an army of engineers to keep the site humming as hundreds of millions signed on. Then, to collect the massive amounts of data  coming in from servers around the world, he wrote a program called Scribe, which was so effective that Facebook eventually made it open source.

Starting a business isn’t some magical thing, it’s a real skill to be taken seriously. It can be learned, but it’s important to find the people you trust to give you support and advice.

“Most people don’t have a good feel for scale,” says Ann, who met Bobby while the two were students at Caltech in the late ‘90s; they married right after graduation. “Many think that after a million, the next large amount is a billion, without understanding how enormously different those numbers really are. Bobby has a strong intuition for it.”

Now that the race is on to analyze the huge troves of data collected by services around the world, Bobby’s intuition tells him there’s a flaw in  the existing system for doing so. 

“Most information still ends up in standard databases,” he says. Such systems were built to put data into neat boxes, making them less useful for  finding relationships in these large, amorphous, and interconnected streams. “You can track statistics, but you can’t really draw meaningful patterns.” 

So Bobby and Ann joined with one of Bobby’s like-minded colleagues from Facebook to form Interana, a company created with the goal of designing a next generation platform capable of analyzing extremely large and loosely structured data sets. Ann serves as the chief executive, while Bobby directs the technology development. 

Still in its early stages, the company has grown quickly, quietly generating buzz. “Caltech trains us to take an unknown, break it down to first principles and solve it,” says Bobby. 

“Starting a business isn’t some magical thing, it’s a real skill to be taken seriously. It can be learned, but it’s important to find the people you trust to give you support and advice.”

Sean C. Solomon (BS ’66) Awarded National Medal of Science


Geophysicist Sean C. Solomon (BS ’66) was named a recipient of the National Medal of Science by President Barack Obama on Friday. 

A recipient of Caltech’s Distinguished Alumni Award (2006), Solomon is the director of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and principal investigator of NASA’s mission to Mercury.

“These scholars and innovators have expanded our understanding of the world, made invaluable contributions to their fields, and helped improve countless lives,” President Obama said in a statement. “Our nation has been enriched by their achievements, and by all the scientists and technologists across America dedicated to discovery, inquiry, and invention.”

In a career spanning four decades, Solomon has served on numerous projects exploring Earth and Earth-like planets in the solar system, including the Magellan mission to Venus, the Mars Global Surveyor mission, the GRAIL mission to the moon, and a number of ocean-bottom seismological explorations.

“The four inner planets of our solar system are nature’s experiments in how a planet like Earth became the planet it is today, and they had four extraordinarily different outcomes,” Solomon said in an interview with Columbia University in 2013. “To understand our own planet, we must understand how all Earth-like planets formed and evolved.”

Prior to Lamont-Doherty, Solomon served for nearly two decades as director of the Carnegie Institution for Science’s Department of Terrestrial Magnetism in Washington, D.C. When he departed in 2011, colleagues arranged to have a previously discovered asteroid named after him: asteroid 25137 Seansolomon, which orbits the sun between Mars and Jupiter.

"Sean Solomon is a pioneer in both Earth and Planetary Sciences, and a world leader in the discipline of geophysics," said John Grotzinger, chair of the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences (GPS) and Fletcher Jones Professor of Geology at Caltech. "Being awarded the National Medal of Science is a celebration of his extraordinary career, which has been rich with exploration, extending from the structure of the Earth, to the Moon, Mars, Venus, and Mercury. We are very proud of our alumnus from Caltech’s Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences."

Solomon is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and has received numerous other awards, among them the Geological Society of America’s G.K. Gilbert Award and the American Geophysical Union’s Harry H. Hess Medal. 

The National Medal of Science was created in 1959 and is administered by the National Science Foundation. Awarded annually, the medal honors individuals who have done work of outstanding merit or have had a major impact in the fields  of science and engineering. A committee of presidential appointees recommends medal candidates to the president based on their extraordinary knowledge in and contributions to chemistry, engineering, computing, mathematics, and the biological, behavioral/social, and physical sciences. 

The new awardees will receive their medals at a White House ceremony later this year.

More from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory:

Q&A: Sean Solomon on Lamont-Doherty, Earth Science and Space
Columbia Record, Oct. 30, 2013

A Breadth of Expertise, A Pioneering Spirit, Sept 14, 2012

Andy Yen (BS ’10) Launches Encryption Email Service

Cofounders, from left to right, Jason Stockman, Wei Sun, Andy Yen (BS ’10). Forbes.com

Cofounders, from left to right, Jason Stockman, Wei Sun, Andy Yen (BS ’10). Forbes.com

When the NSA surveillance news broke last year it sent shockwaves through CERN, the particle physics laboratory in Switzerland. Andy Yen, a PhD student, took to the Young at CERN Facebook group with a simple message: “I am very concerned about the privacy issue, and I was wondering what I could do about it.”

There was a massive response, and of the 40 or so active in the discussion, six started meeting at CERN’s Restaurant Number 1, pooling their deep knowledge of computing and physics to found ProtonMail, a gmail-like email system which uses end-to-end encryption, making it impossible for outside parties to monitor.

Encrypted emails have actually been around since the 1980s, but they are extremely difficult to use. When Edward Snowden asked a reporter to use an end-to-end encrypted email to share details of the NSA surveillance program the reporter couldn’t get the system to work, says Yen.

“We encrypt the data on the browser before it comes to the server,” he explains. “By the time the data comes to the server it’s already encrypted, so if someone comes to us and says we’d like to read the emails of this person, all we can say is we have the encrypted data but we’re sorry we don’t have the encryption key and we can’t give you the encryption key.”

“We’ve basically separated the message that’s encrypted apart from the key – all the encryption takes place on your computer instead of our servers, so there’s no way for us to see the original message.”

Read more 

Bettina Chen (BS ’10) Wins Funding for Toy Company on 'Shark Tank'

Roominate, a startup toy company founded by Bettina Chen (BS ’10) and Alice Brooks aimed at inspiring girls toward an interest in engineering and science, earned bids from investors Mark Cuban and Lori Greiner during the season premier of "Shark Tank." Watch the clip:

When Chen met Brooks in graduate school at Stanford, they quickly bonded over a shared goal of influencing young girls to become interested in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

They realized that an educational toy could be a good introduction to STEM, and Roominate—a fully modular build-your-own dollhouse complete with wiring capabilities—was born. Each kit comes with all the walls, furniture-building pieces, circuit components, and decorations needed to construct a room from scratch. There is no set way to assemble a Roominate room; instead, the girls are encouraged to explore and experiment.

“Girls must use creativity and problem-solving skills—essential skills to develop
for STEM—in order to build and wire a room with Roominate,” says Chen. “We believe that Roominate is the type of toy that is missing from the market today: a toy that will help girls build up the skills and confidence they need to persevere in more male-dominated fields.”

Iain Stewart (PhD ’99) offers Course on MITx

Theoretical nuclear and particle physicist Iain Stewart (PhD ’99) offers his MIT course on Effective Field Theory on edX. Take a look:

Effective Field Theory 8.EFTx is a graduate course on Effective Field Theory (EFT), which provides a fundamental framework to describe physical systems with quantum field theory. For residential students it is listed as 8.S851. The course will start September 16, 2014.

A Conversation with C. Kevin Boyce (BS ’95)

Images courtesy of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Images courtesy of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

The Stanford paleobotanist and 2013 MacArthur Fellow answers a few questions about his work, and what a 100-million-year-old leaf can tell us about the world today.

CAA:    What is a Paleobotanist?

Boyce:     Very different people work on the front line of fossil records. Some analyze vertebrates, such as dinosaurs. Paleobotanists like me study how plants are formed. Taken together, all of our work creates a picture of Earth’s environment from a different time.

CAA:    How did you choose this line of work?

Boyce:   What I do isn’t the type of biology pursued at Caltech, but it was important for me to be there. I studied cell morphology in Eric Davidson’s lab and Joe Kirschvink in geobiology helped to spark my interest in Earth’s biodiversity. I also majored in literature. George Pigman’s classes on Chaucer interested me in historical texts—which are similar to fossils, in a way.

I'd be perfectly happy being a biblical scholar if I wasn’t so terrible with foreign language. Reading someone like Chaucer, it's very easy to think you understand the text by projecting our modern world back on to it. Then you'll get to something that you just can't understand from a modern perspective—and you can't justify it away. That’s also true with fossils. There were forests 350 million years ago. They may feel familiar on a first look, but they were fundamentally different. 

CAA:     How do you approach your work with fossils?

Boyce:     Any examination of fossil records has to start with our understanding of modern ecology. You look at a fossil of a leaf and think, “Okay, that looks like a leaf. I understand that.” But as you examine the details more closely—and plant fossils can offer a great deal of detail, down to cellular anatomy—you discover that there are a number of differences within the structure. This leaf may not, in fact, operate like leaves today in terms of its construction or biological processes. 

CAA:     What does a prehistoric plant look like?

Boyce:     There's a lot of weird things out there, like Lepidodendron. Their closest relative today are these scruffy little plants a couple inches tall that poke their heads out of leaf litter in temperate forests. But if you went back 300 million years, they were the canopy trees — 30, 40 meters tall. They weren’t constructed at all like today’s trees, though. They had almost no wood at all, just a great deal of bark. It's unclear what was holding them up. Everything about their construction is very strange.

Paleobotanist C. Kevin Boyce was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2013. 

CAA:     What significant changes have occurred in plant life? 

Boyce:    Today, most plants are flowering plants, with reproductive characteristics that typically include flowers, seeds, or fruit.  But more than 100 million years ago, these types of plants didn’t exist. So how is it that they came to take over? Through my work, I demonstrated that as temperatures rose at that time, flowering plants’ evolved a high vein density which allowed them to cycle water at faster rates than previously dominant plants.

CAA:     What can these plants teach us about today’s ecology?

Boyce:    They can help us understand the origins of our food supply—which is dominated by crops that are all basically flowering plants. 

One focus of my research is how primary production, the process by which living compounds are synthesized from carbon dioxide, has changed over time. We know that today, carbon dioxide is increasing in the atmosphere. Generally, if you give plants more carbon dioxide, they’ll perform more photosynthesis and grow faster. That effect is easy to study over a couple of years. But what would happen if you were looking at increased levels of carbon dioxide across very large scales and over revolutionary time periods? 

Understanding how past ecologies adapted and changed may yield us valuable clues into our ecology today. And—presented with new changes to the environment, how it might adapt again.


Scholarships Mean Freedom for Caltech’s Stamps Leadership Scholars

(l to r) Stamps Leadership Scholars Jetson Leder-Luis (BS ’14), Randall Lin (BS ’14), and Ted Xiao (BS ’14) (image: Lisa Vandergriff/Caltech).

(l to r) Stamps Leadership Scholars Jetson Leder-Luis (BS ’14), Randall Lin (BS ’14), and Ted Xiao (BS ’14) (image: Lisa Vandergriff/Caltech).

Embracing the entrepreneurial spirit to help build a Bay Area startup, delving even deeper into research with Caltech faculty, heading off to that colder institute of technology for graduate study—these are choices that not every new college graduate could afford.

Caltech’s inaugural cohort of Stamps Leadership Scholars—Randall Lin (BS ’14), Ted Xiao (BS ’14), and Jetson Leder-Luis (BS ’14)—have earned an extra measure of freedom in choosing what to do next, thanks to scholarships that afforded them special opportunities during their Caltech days.
The Penelope W. and E. Roe Stamps IV Leadership Scholar Awards Program at Caltech, one of 35 Stamps scholarship programs nationwide, provides exceptional students with four years’ worth of tuition, academic, and living expenses as well as supplementary funds to help pay for study abroad, research, internships, conferences, and more. The program is made possible by a one-to-one funding match between the Stamps Charitable Foundation and Caltech.

Courageous Choices

“I don’t know if it’s true,” says Randall Lin, “but my mom always says if I hadn’t had this scholarship, I would have had to study what they wanted me to study. 

“They wanted me to go to med school. And now I have a physics degree and a computer science minor, even though I still did premed.”

The first in his family to attend college, Lin loves challenges. After steeping himself in biophysics and computational neuroscience at Caltech, he has deferred graduate school to join Halo Neuroscience, a start-up developing a transcranial therapy.

Thanks to this award, he was able to spend summers researching how neurons process information. He also dared himself to go outside his comfort zone by traveling to South Korea and Japan, countries he had never visited, and shooting documentary footage about perceptions of plastic surgery in Seoul and about a Tokyo DJ who caters to middle-aged house and hip hop fans. Lin was also able to avoid taking on loans, which he says made all the difference in his choice to join a start-up. 

Long-held Goals

Ted Guoning Xiao came to Caltech for the opportunity to work in the labs of world-class professors. Inspired by his mother’s love of her medical career and an experience shadowing a City of Hope investigator, Xiao focused on science and math in high school, excelling in research. 

“I knew early on what I wanted to do,” he says. “And now I’ve had the opportunity to go to different hospital environments and experience what it’s like to be in the ER and the operating room.” 

His unpaid hospital preceptorships were made possible by this opportunity. The funding also gave him the flexibility to spend summers conducting research in the lab of Frances Arnold, Caltech’s Dick and Barbara Dickinson Professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering and Biochemistry. 

“The scholarship has really helped me,” he says. “Without it, I would have had to do a lot of work study. As an engineering major, I had to study until early morning often. With the Stamps scholarship, I made it.” 

Xiao also had the freedom to achieve another long-held goal: reaching out to schoolchildren in the local community where he grew up, some from disadvantaged backgrounds. He started a volunteer program that brings several Caltech students to the nearby Learning Lab at the Hathaway-Sycamores Family Resource Center each week to help middle and high schoolers learn math and science.

Now a bioengineering graduate, Xiao hopes to spend a year working with another Caltech research group before enrolling in an MD/PhD program.

No Compromise

Graduating with options in economics and in applied and computational mathematics, Jetson Leder-Luis already has made contributions as a researcher. 

Through summer work with Jean Ensminger, Caltech’s Edie and Lew Wasserman Professor of Social Science, Leder-Luis helped conceptualize tools to spot fraud in development aid. He also collaborated with Harvard scientists to produce statistical models for analyzing survey responses, coauthoring a 2014 paper in the American Journal of Political Science.

Leder-Luis says the Stampses’ generosity gave him the freedom to focus and excel. The scholarship also funded extensive travel—enabling him to gain firsthand experience in developing nations such as Albania and Malaysia, which galvanized his interest in economics.

“This is my job,” he says. “I basically started being a grad student three years ago.” Next up, he will begin doctoral studies in economics at MIT.

Being a Stamps Scholar gave Leder-Luis the chance to engage his artistic skills as well. He held leadership roles in Caltech’s Fluid Dynamics a cappella group, Glee Club, and Chamber Singers, and was music director of an acclaimed Caltech production of the musical Rent. 

Leder-Luis is thankful for every opportunity allowed by this award.

“I’ve never had to compromise academics for funds, and I’ve been able to do things I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do otherwise,” he says. “Really, it feels like we have the sweetest deal in academia.”

Rumi Chunara (BS ’04) Named to MIT Technology Review's Innovator Under 35 List

Rumi Chunara, a researcher at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, was named to MIT Technology Review's annual list of innovators under 35.

Chunara investigates how social media and other online sources of information can help alert the public and authorities to an outbreak of disease. 

According to Chunara, a rise in cholera-related Twitter posts in Haiti correlated with an outbreak. "That’s important, because it takes the ministry of health in Haiti a couple of weeks to get their data aggregated,” she told the Review.

Read full story »


Would you be willing to pay more than 25 cents a year to understand the cosmos?

By Rebecca Oppenheimer (PhD ’99)
Professor and chair of the astrophysics department at the American Museum of Natural History

Studying the universe — perhaps even modern science as a whole — is as American as apple pie and baseball.

Although America was not the first country to launch a satellite into orbit, it has, for more than half a century, pioneered the exploration of the universe from the advantageous perspective that sensors, robots and telescopes offer once they are off-world. Looking through a telescope in space — as opposed to one on the ground — is, to an astrophysicist, as revelatory as a child's first sense that shapes and faces are physical, can be touched and explored, and that vision is a meaningful way to understand where one is.

Artist concept of an extrasolar planet. NASA / JPL

Artist concept of an extrasolar planet. NASA / JPL

Far from the water-laden, turbulent atmosphere that protects Earth's cozy climate, a telescope can study otherwise invisible aspects of the cosmos: black holes, the evolving structure of the universe, the birthing of stars and our closest, smallest neighbors, some comparable in size to Jupiter, yet roaming the universe alone. We even have evidence that planets similar to Earth may be quite common in orbits around stars other than the sun. These discoveries made by astrophysical experiments in space have completely transformed our view of where we are and how this planet came to be.

Twenty years ago, when I started graduate school at Caltech, if I said I wanted to find planets around other stars, people in the field would laugh and say, "Go watch 'Star Trek.'" Now the study of "exoplanets" is a rich field of research that addresses fundamental questions surrounding our own origins. Much of that knowledge comes from telescopes in space.

This priceless knowledge is a result of the dedicated effort of thousands of people over several decades. It could not have been achieved without the resources and forward-thinking mentality that NASA enables. Today, however, our country's political climate has put this groundbreaking work in jeopardy.

I recently chaired an independent review committee for NASA's astrophysics division to conduct a senior review, the highest-level peer review that division conducts. Our group of 10 experts was tasked with examining the existing telescopes and other types of sensors currently in operation, some in orbit around Earth, others trailing at huge distances and orbiting the sun.

Are we, as a nation, to be remembered ... for building these remarkable eyes on the universe, simply to let them drift away into darkness or vaporize in the atmosphere?

There are 10 current missions, representing an investment of billions of dollars over three decades, including smaller contributions by the European and Japanese space agencies. All of these spacecraft have unique capabilities to render facets of the universe visible for scientific scrutiny, capabilities that probably will never be replicated.

Our committee's charge involved ranking the scientific value of these missions, and helping the senior administration at NASA allocate available funds to ensure the highest-quality science for the next four years. For three weeks, we professors, researchers and other professionals, none of whom was directly involved in any of the projects, deliberated pro bono to develop a plan that would keep the field healthy within the specified budget guidelines.

When we heard what the guidelines were, we were horrified. We estimated that NASA was operating many of these missions at a level that was below 2% of the initial construction and launch expenses. Standard management practice suggests that 10% of the initial construction cost is a reasonable annual budget for operating a facility. We had to work with a total of $75 million. That is what the government spends roughly every 10 minutes. It is less than a third of the L.A. Dodgers' payroll in 2014, and represents a contribution of a little less than 25 cents per American each year.

In the next few years, this mission operating budget is projected to fall to less than 40% of this year's value. As a result, several fully operational spacecraft will be turned off — and lost in space.

Because our panel sought to maintain as much scientific breadth as possible, other projects have been reduced in funding almost to the point of simply collecting the data but not analyzing it. If the current budget guidelines are put into law, teams of scientists, engineers and software experts will be laid off. The collective talent of these groups will be permanently lost.

Is this extreme austerity, an artifact of the current political climate, really the right way forward? The United States is in a better position than ever to advance human understanding of the universe in ways unimaginable to Ben Franklin as he established American science many years ago. Are we, as a nation, to be remembered by future generations for building these remarkable eyes on the universe, simply to let them drift away into darkness or vaporize in the atmosphere, when they can still see things no one has ever imagined? Are we not obliged to continue this bold exploration, with vigor, for the benefit of all of humanity?

Rebecca Oppenheimer (PhD ’99) is curator, professor and chair of the astrophysics department at the American Museum of Natural History. This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times, with the author credited as B.R. Oppenheimer. Reprinted with permission.