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.

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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.

Paul Chirik (PhD ’00) Named Editor of Organometallics

Transient

Paul Chirik (PhD ’00) was named the editor-in-chief of Organometallics,  a peer-reviewed journal published by the American Chemical Society focused on organometallic and organometalloid chemistry.

Chirik is currently the Edward S. Sanford Professor of Chemistry at Princeton University.

"My vision for the journal is to continue its position of excellence as the flagship publication in the field and also to capture the growth and new multidisciplinary chemistry moving forward," Chirik says.

Before earning his PhD at Caltech, Chirik studied at Virginia Tech. He went on to become a  postdoctoral fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 2001, he joined the faculty at Cornell University, where he stayed for 10 years before joining Princeton.

The research group he now leads focuses on solving long-standing problems in chemical synthesis. For example, they are working on developing catalysts using earth-abundant elements, focusing on more environmentally benign syntheses.

"We are delighted to welcome Dr. Chirik in his new role as editor-in-chief of Organometallics," says Susan King, Ph.D., senior vice president of ACS Publications. "Dr. Chirik has been an active supporter of ACS Publications through his authorship, reviewing activities and Editorial Advisory Board capacity. Dr. Chirik's breadth of scientific interests, his strong leadership skills and his editorial experience will ensure Organometallics continues to innovate and expand into multidisciplinary areas."

Patricia Thiel (PhD ’81) Wins 2014 Welch Award

Transient

Patricia Thiel (PhD ’81) has been named the 2014 winner of the AVS Medard W. Welch Award, which recognizes outstanding research in the fields of materials, interfaces and processing. Thiel, who is a faculty scientist at the U.S. Department of Energy's Ames Laboratory and a Distinguished Professor of chemistry at Iowa State University, is recognized for her "seminal contributions to the understanding of quasicrystalline surfaces and thin-film nucleation and growth."

"We congratulate Pat on the Welch Award and for her outstanding contributions to the field of surface chemistry. Pat's work in understanding the surface structures of complex materials has advanced the understanding of quasicrystals and nanoparticles on metal and semiconductor surfaces," said Adam Schwartz, director of the Ames Laboratory.

The Welch Award was established in 1969. Thiel is the first woman to win the Welch Award in its 44-year history.

"This award is defined by the people who won it before me. They have been the giants in the field of surface science. I am humbled and honored to be joining their ranks. The award really recognizes much more than me. It recognizes my many talented coworkers and the agencies that have enabled our work, especially the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation," said Thiel.

Eddy Hartenstein (MS ’74) Steps Down From Tribune Media

from the LA Times

Eddy Hartenstein (MS ’74) has stepped down as publisher and CEO of the Los Angeles Times to become nonexecutive chairman of the Tribune Publishing board. Hartenstein will serve on the board along with five outside directors.

Civic leader and former Wall Street investment banker Austin Beutner has become the the new publisher and chief executive of the Los Angeles Times.

Hartenstein said that he recommended Beutner for the position and that the board of Tribune Publishing Co., The Times’ new corporate parent, approved the appointment last week.

Hartenstein, 63, had led the Los Angeles Times since 2008, leading the newspaper, and later Tribune Co. (which will change its name to Tribune Media on Monday), during a four-year stay in Chapter 11 bankruptcy. 

“It’s been an interesting journey,” Hartenstein said. “It’s one that I can look back on here, not only on Monday but for years to come, that speaks to the power of the various Tribune brands in their marketplace. I salute the women and men of Tribune Co., wherever they are — markets big, medium and small — for staying with it.”

A satellite TV pioneer, Hartenstein graduated with a bachelor's degree in aerospace engineering and math from California State Polytechnic University at Pomona in 1972 and added a master's degree in applied mechanics from Caltech. He started his career at California-based satellite company Hughes Electronics Corp., which was later acquired by General Motors.

In 1990, he was named to head a Hughes subsidiary developing direct-to-home satellite TV service, and four years later launched DirecTV, revolutionizing the subscription television landscape. He was named chairman and CEO in 2001, serving in that role until 2004, after GM sold its controlling stake in DirecTV to News Corp.

While publishing may not be rocket science, he was recruited by then-Tribune Co. Chairman Sam Zell to become publisher of the Los Angeles Times in August 2008 -- less than four months before the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Hartenstein stayed the course and played an instrumental role in its reorganization and emergence under new owners.

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Milan Mrksich (PhD ’94) Creates Tool to Test Drugs at High Speed

Transient

Pharmaceutical researchers trying to create medications begin by testing each variation for signs of effectiveness. Using automated machines, they can screen as many as 1,000 molecules a day. 

Milan Mrksich can do 100 times better than that. A biomedical engineer and chemical biologist at Northwestern University, he has developed a process that can assess up to 100,000 compounds a day. He calls his turbocharged tool Samdi, for self-assembled monolayers for desorption ionization. He also has a startup, Samdi Tech Inc., that will run these tests for a fee for academic  and commercial researchers. 

"Samdi is the first label-free assay that can be performed at high throughput," Mr. Mrksich says.

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Emre Toker (BS ’84) To Head Center for Entrepreneurship at Washington University in St. Louis

Emre Toker (BS ’84) has been appointed managing director of the Skandalaris Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. Toker most recently served as entrepreneurship senior mentor-in-residence at the University of Arizona’s Eller College of Management.

An accomplished entrepreneur, Toker is the founder or co-founder of five Arizona- and California-based technology companies.

“We are ecstatic that Emre Toker has accepted our offer to lead the Skandalaris Center,” said the university's provost H. Holden Thorp (PhD ’89), also a graduate of Caltech. “With his passion for innovation and proven ability to develop, nurture and successfully launch startup enterprises, I am certain that he has the vision and ability to harness the creative energy of the university and the community to further our efforts to become a vibrant hub for entrepreneurship.”

5 Myths about Networking for Techers

When Bobby Johnson (BS ’98) was the director of engineering at Facebook, he was responsible for growing the social networking site from hundreds of thousands of users to nearly one billion. And he needed to hire a team of engineers to do that. 

His favorite people to recruit? Techers.

“I loved hiring fellow graduates from Caltech, regardless of their specific majors,” says Johnson, who branched off in 2013 to start his own company, Interana. “I knew how they were trained to think.”

The problem was that he had trouble finding enough graduates to fill the ranks of his team. When Johnson organized networking socials—which overflowed with engineers in Palo Alto eager to hobnob with Facebook insiders—few Techers turned out. Johnson knew that when he could make contact with Caltech graduates, it was often a great fit. Why, then, did it seem difficult to make that first connection?

“For whatever reason, I think there’s a kind of stigma amongst Techers against professional networking,” Johnson says. “Maybe it’s that we’re introverted by nature, maybe we’re focused on the work. We tend to think, ‘Oh, networking is something business majors do. Not us.’ But experience has taught me that no matter the industry or how qualified you are, you still need to leverage your contacts. You have to jump in.”

Does the old and clichéd adage, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” really apply to the sciences, where the bar for required knowledge and competence is set so high? 

Techers boldly tackle problems that change the world. Solving the challenge of your own career requires another set of skills that may feel foreign, but with a little effort, can be acquired.

We asked alumni for their opinions and experiences. Here, in no particular order, are five common Techer preconceptions about networking.

 

1: "Good work speaks for itself."

“We’re trained to focus on our work” says Debbie Bakin (BS ’86). “If we’re rigorous about our work, then the thinking is it will help you to land the next job.”

There can be no denying that the quality of one’s work product is essential to unlocking future career opportunities. But how will the right people find out about your work?

“Good work is certainly important,” says Elayne Chou, a career consultant in the Bay Area who advises a number of academic clients, including graduates from Caltech. “But to have the most effect, that work needs to be presented at the right moment.” Managers hire because they are looking for a certain skill set to address a need, Chou explains, and no matter how good the portfolio—it must still reach the right person at the right time. 

Search for people in your area of expertise and learn about their priorities, then find appropriate ways to make them aware of your own work and how it addresses their needs. Rather than assume they will make the connection, count it as your job to do it for them.


2: "A Caltech degree can work as well as networking."

There can be no doubt that a Caltech degree is a mark of significant accomplishment.

“One of the things that makes Caltech special is that it is, in many ways, a meritocracy. We had to do so much to earn our degree. It’s evidence not just of our training but also our determination,” says Johnson. “For those who know—it speaks for itself.”

But it can be difficult to know exactly how well a hiring manager understands the specifics of an institution, or to what degree they value education versus other factors like work experience. 

The advantage of a Caltech degree is the ability to solve difficult problems. Discover the problems that hiring managers are trying to solve, and then educate them on how you—using the methods learned at Caltech—can best help them find the solution. And your degree offers another benefit—access to a broad network of fellow alumni who are placed in positions to help.

Like Johnson, there are people looking specifically for Caltech graduates. Rather than waiting and hoping for them to find you, make it your role to find them.


3. "People don’t want to hear me talk about myself."


“I think that, as Techers, one of the things we prize is authenticity,” says Dave Tytell (BS ’99). “Which may be why many of us tend to shy away from ‘selling’ ourselves.”

Here’s a fact: networking is uncomfortable for most people. Some worry that by communicating their accomplishments, they may sound boastful or arrogant. 

“There is an art to speaking up such that others recognize your valuable contributions,” says Chou, who recommends focusing on how your work benefits others. “That’s a way of taking the focus off you and relating it to your work.”

Practice helps you gain comfort. It may help to think of career networking like research. If a couple of experiments don’t yield the results hoped for, it’s not time to declare the entire theory invalid. Rather, take the opportunity to learn what didn’t work and refine your methods.

“You won’t develop your ability to appropriately self-promote unless you do it regularly,” says Chou. Small, regular interactions can make a big difference. Share information on your projects, ask advice from colleagues, or drop a note just to catch up. Chou advises setting a goal to meet at least one new person per quarter to broaden your base.


4. "I don’t know enough people."


One of Caltech’s distinguishing features is its incredibly selective student body. Once in the marketplace, however, many Techers observe that larger schools have very broad professional networks. It’s easy to feel eclipsed sometimes. 

But the same advantages that make Caltech a superb place to study also amplify the power of its alumni network. 

First, there are fewer degrees of separation. “Caltech’s alumni community, which numbers more than 23,000, has an outsized impact on science, academia, industry, and society relative to its size,” says Heather Dean (BS ’00, MS ’00), president of the Caltech Alumni Association. The smaller population means that there are often just one or two degrees of separation between a new graduate and an alumnus/a who is a recognized leader within his or her chosen field.

Second, the strength of ties between contacts is often tighter. “There’s a real sense that we were in the foxhole together,” says Tytell. “And even if I didn’t know you personally, I know your experience.” As a result, Techers often express a willingness to be of assistance to fellow graduates.

“It’s not just about having a high volume of contacts,” says Dean. “It’s about having the right ones. Most Techers will find that they are uniquely positioned to make meaningful—and actionable—connections very quickly.”


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5. "My contacts will be annoyed if I ask for help."


One of the larger challenges many Techers express with networking is the fear of imposing. 

“Rather than asking for a job, it can be more comfortable—and more successful—to ask for information or advice,” Chou advises.

Not sure where to start?

The Caltech Alumni Association, in partnership with the Career Development Center, launched a new online mentorship initiative on LinkedIn: the CHAT Network (Career Help: Ask a Techer).

“More than 16,000 Caltech alumni are registered on LinkedIn. But it can be hard to know whom to approach,” says Alexx Tobeck, executive director of the Caltech Alumni Association. “The CAA is committed to helping Techers connect professionally. We created this dedicated group to make reaching out as easy as possible.”

By joining the group, alumni agree to respond to requests for advice from fellow alumni and current students. 

“It’s not necessarily the place to ask for a job,” says Lauren Stolper, director of fellowships advising, study abroad and Caltech’s Career Development Center. “But it’s a good opportunity for Techers to learn more about a field of work, get recommendations, and expand their field of contacts.”

“The hardest part about networking is knowing where to begin,” says Dean. “The CHAT group is a great place to start. ”


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NEED CAREER HELP? ASK A TECHER.

Whether you’re looking for advice—or have guidance to give—join the Caltech Alumni Association’s dedicated career advice network on LinkedIn. Look for alumni displaying this green badge, then go ahead and ask. You’ve got the green light.   

Robert Lang's (BS ’82, PhD ’86) Work on Exhibit

ALLOSAURUS SKELETON, OPUS 326 16 uncut squares of Wyndstone Marble paper; 24” COURTESY OF ROBERT LANG

ALLOSAURUS SKELETON, OPUS 326
16 uncut squares of Wyndstone Marble paper; 24”
COURTESY OF ROBERT LANG

Never mind that back-of-the-napkin calculation. Robert Lang will take your napkin and turn it into an origami masterpiece. The Distinguished Alumnus (’09) has several new exhibitions throughout the country over the coming months. You'll never look at paper the same way.

Lang achieves his work through the assistance of computers. Last year, he collaborated with professors from the  University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Cornell University, and Western New England University to develop the world's smallest origami sculpture—a programmed self-folding polymer the thickness of five human hairs. The sculpture was part of a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to investigate structures that could one day construct themselves in space.

 

Nominations Open for 2015 Distinguished Alumni Awards

To:    All Members of the Caltech Alumni Community 

From:     Edward M. Stolper, Interim President and Provost

Re:    2015 Distinguished Alumni Award Nominations

 

Nominations are now being accepted for the 2015 Distinguished Alumni Awards. 

The Caltech Distinguished Alumni Award is the highest honor the Institute bestows upon a graduate, and is in recognition of "a particular achievement of noteworthy value, a series of such achievements, or a career of noteworthy accomplishment." Since the award's inception in 1966, Caltech has recognized 244 alumni in science, engineering, business, and the arts. 

A living alumnus or alumna who has attained any degree (B.S., M.S., Engineer's Degree, or Ph.D.) at Caltech may be considered for this award. Selections are made by the president of Caltech based on recommendations from a committee comprising faculty, staff, and alumni; the president’s recommendations are confirmed by the Board of Trustees. 

Graduates who currently are on the faculty or staff of Caltech are not eligible, with the exception of those who have achieved the rank of Professor Emeritus. Awarding the DAA to a retired Caltech faculty or staff member has been and is expected to continue to be a rare occurrence. Sitting members of Caltech’s Board of Trustees are not eligible until they have achieved the rank of Life Trustee.

Self-nominations are not accepted.

To nominate an alumnus or alumna for consideration, please complete the online application by September 7th. The Distinguished Alumni Awards will be presented at Seminar Day, in May 2015.

Go to Nomination Form »

Geophysicist Jay Melosh (MS ’71, PhD ’73) Wins Honor at Purdue University

Jay Melosh, a distinguished professor of geophysics at Purdue University internationally known for his work on impact cratering, planetary tectonics, and the physics of earthquakes and landslides, received the 2014 Herbert Newby McCoy Award, the school's most prestigious research honor in the natural sciences.

Melosh is part of NASA's Deep Impact mission that created a 50-m diameter impact crater on Comet Tempel 1 on July 4, 2005, the NExT mission that returned to Tempel 1 in 2011, the DIXI mission to comet Hartley-2, and the GRAIL mission to obtain high-precision data on our moon's gravity field. Asteroid #8216 was named "Melosh" in his honor.

"I'm certainly honored and humbled to join the fraternity of past McCoy Award winners at Purdue University who share a love of research and celebrate those days in the laboratory with our students when we realize we might be onto something that will provide a deeper understanding of our universe," Melosh said.

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Jonathan Tsai (BS ’10) Awarded Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans

Caltech alumnus Jonathan Tsai (BS '10) has been awarded a 2014 Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans. At Caltech, Tsai worked in the laboratory of David Baltimore, Robert Andrews Millikan Professor of Biology, where he developed and patented a technology to isolate T-cell receptor genes from single tumor infiltrating cells, creating new proteins able to kill melanomas.
 
The Soros grant, given annually to the most accomplished and promising immigrants and children of immigrants in American graduate education, provides each recipient with tuition and stipend assistance of up to $90,000. This year's group of 30 winners was selected from more than 1,200 applicants.

More information on recent awards

Janet Nelson (PhD ’91) Named Associate Vice Chancellor at University of Tennessee

Janet Nelson was named the new associate vice chancellor for research for the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

As associate vice chancellor, Nelson will initially oversee three groups—the research development team, the faculty development team, and the research informatics group.

“I am extremely excited about the terrific opportunities that await me at UT, and I am looking forward to working closely with the Office of Research and Engagement team,” said Nelson. 

Nelson, who earned her doctorate in chemistry from the California Institute of Technology in 1991, has broad research-related experience across academia, government, not-for-profit organizations, and industrial communities.

Nelson is a member of the American Chemical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, and the Society for Biological Engineering.

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Andrea Prosperetti (MS ’72, PhD ’74) Wins EuroMech Prize

Johns Hopkins University Professor Andrea Prosperetti, an authority in the area of fluid dynamics and underwater acoustics, has been awarded the 2014 EUROMECH Fluid Mechanics Prize by the Council of the European Mechanics Society.

Prosperetti, the Charles A. Miller Jr. Distinguished Professor of Mechanical Engineering in the university's Whiting School of Engineering, received the award "in recognition of his profound, seminal contributions to fluid dynamics and acoustics in general and to bubble dynamics and rain noise in particular," according to a statement by the society. The group also cited his development of novel numerical techniques and his world leadership in those fields along with his brilliance in their applications to engineering.

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Sandra Tsing-Loh (BS ’83) Releases New Book and One-Woman Show

For Sandra Tsing Loh, Change Is Good

Excerpt from the New York Times
by Alexandra Jacobs

A perpetual darling of the ever-beleaguered Los Angeles intelligentsia (“queen of the shoe box,” as she characterized her public-radio stardom) and constant candidate for that publishers’ holy grail, “the female David Sedaris,” Ms. Loh, 52, was given a national platform a decade ago as an essayist in The Atlantic magazine. From this she effectively performed a triple somersault with “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” (2009), in which she announced that she was leaving her husband of 20 years and questioned the very idea of modern marriage; “The Bitch Is Back” (2011), a paean to menopause; and “Daddy Issues” (2012), a declaration of her fervent wish, yet-ungranted, that her nettlesome 90-something father, Eugene, would just die already.

Ms. Loh has expanded these pieces, with emphasis on the least gasp-inducing middle one, into a new book, “The Madwoman in the Volvo,” and a one-woman show, with petite “Greek chorus,” that she will perform on Monday at Joe’s Pub in downtown Manhattan. In both, she distills from the work of Dr. Christiane Northrup that, contrary to conventional wisdom about hot flashes and hurled crockery, it is actually the fertile phase of a woman’s life that is one, literally, of lunacy.

“It’s like you lived on earth, and then you went to the moon, and lived there for a while,” Ms. Loh said. “Now you’re back where you started” — the hormone levels of a preadolescent — “and it’s, like, ‘Welcome home.’ ”

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Remembering a Milestone

In 1970 Caltech opened its doors for the first time to undergraduate women. This year, Caltech celebrates the graduation of those pioneers, who went on to forge new paths across science, technology, and engineering.

Jacqueline Barton, the Arthur and Marian Hanisch Memorial Professor of Chemistry and chair of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, speaks with five alumnae who were among the first women to graduate from the Institute about their time at Caltech, their experiences in the decades that followed, and the role of women in the sciences today.


THE PANEL

moderator:
Jacqueline Barton 
Arthur and Marian Hanisch Memorial Professor of Chemistry; Chair of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering

Sharon Long (BS ’73)
Professor of Biological Sciences, Stanford University

Rhonda L. MacDonald (BS ’74)
Former Director of Structures and Mechanisms Products, Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems

 

Louise Kirkbride (BS ’75, MS ’76) 
Cofounder of CADRI and Answer Systems and Trustee, Caltech

Lauretta Carroll (BS ’77) 
CEO, Practice Today

Suzanne Shea (BS ’79) 
Cofounder and Executive Vice President, Praxis Engineers


Barton:  First of all, let me say that it’s an honor to speak with you all. Each of you was part of a class of pioneers. I’m curious to know why you chose Caltech, knowing that it had only just begun to accept women. 

MacDonald:  I was interested in math and wanted to attend a school where I could try some engineering courses. I was attracted to Caltech for the same reasons many are—its reputation for excellence in science and engineering, its small size, and its excellent faculty-to-student ratio. My high school guidance counselor actually tried to cancel my interview with a Caltech professor because, he said, “You will be going to Smith College.” I told him that I was interested in engineering and that I would be going forward with the Caltech interview.

Long:  I loved science as a child; I collected rocks and minerals and especially enjoyed chemistry. I first read about Caltech in Reader’s Digest and fell in love with its culture and tradition of pranks. I just thought, “What a creative, imaginative, and interesting place.”

Kirkbride:  Once I heard that Caltech was the hardest school to get in to, it was irresistible. Harry Gray [Arnold O. Beckman Professor of Chemistry] actually interviewed me. You usually think of scientists being so stuffy—but I couldn’t imagine a more engaging, dynamic person. After I met him, I would have crawled over broken glass to get to Caltech.

Shea:  My mother first tried to dissuade me, warning me that I was heading in a direction where there would not be very many women, which would be tough. I said: “I know. I think it’s going to be part of my job in life—to be one of the first women in these fields.” When I made my choice, she was very proud of me attending Caltech, and extremely supportive.

Carroll:  I was a product of the Los Angeles public school system in 1972, when it was really in disarray and we joked that it was a feat just to graduate without a criminal record. I had my sights set higher. To be placed at Caltech was a real achievement, of which I’m very proud.

 

Barton:  So when you arrived at Caltech, did you feel different? Were you aware of being the first women on campus?

Kirkbride:  You were certainly aware that this was a momentous change for Caltech, yes. Most of the campus was very supportive, but there were some rough edges—some professors, including my first advisor, who voiced their opposition. 

Long:  You heard some rumblings that people considered it an experiment—and that if the experiment didn’t work, they would just “undo it.” But these changes were happening at many campuses, and we knew there really was no going back.

Carroll:  My first advisor said, “Well, Carroll, you know you have to pass AMa 95 [now ACM 95/100],” in such a way that I knew he doubted that I would. I found that unfortunate, but in a strange way, it made me stronger. I became absolutely determined to do the work—and I did very well.

(click on images to expand)

Barton: Despite some of the doubts and opposition, each of you stayed and stuck it out. What drove you?

Kirkbride: You had to expect some of that resistance. But at the top, the Institute was completely committed to and accepting of us. [Former Caltech President] Harold Brown was very supportive, and his help meant a great deal. Carver Mead [Gordon and Betty Moore Professor of Engineering and Applied Science, Emeritus] was just tremendous. He was the reason I got out of astrophysics and into electrical engineering. 

Long:  I agree—there were so many who supported us. I remember Elsa Garmire, who was a research associate in physics. She helped to organize a series on women in science, bringing in outside speakers such as [the Columbia physicist and winner of the Wolf Prize] Chien-Shiung Wu. That was so important and is to Caltech’s credit. 

 

Barton:  Were there other mentors who helped you?

Shea: Robert Cannon [then chair of Engineering and Applied Science] was hugely supportive. He was very interested in advances in undergraduate education at the time and so was enthusiastic about finding ways to have more women at Caltech. I really benefited from that.

MacDonald: Rolf Sabersky [Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Emeritus] was my undergraduate advisor at Caltech. He was there for me through thick and thin. When my mother had to sell her business due to her poor health, we weren’t sure how we would pay for Caltech. He stood ready to help in any way needed so that I could continue.

 

Barton: What were some of the early experiences and challenges you faced as women once you went out into the professional world?

Carroll:  I went into a very small group at Hughes Aircraft that was filled with nothing but Caltech graduates—so it was just like being on campus. It was a very special and supportive environment.

MacDonald:  My first job was in structural engineering in the petrochemical industry, at a company where I was the first woman engineer. I had to buck some silly company dress codes—women had to wear dresses—which were impractical for visiting job sites and steel fabricators. At one time, my salary significantly lagged behind those of my male peers. I provided my supervisor with current salary data and said that I expected the inequity to be rectified or I would have to seek employment elsewhere. The adjustment to my salary was made, and I never faced inequitable compensation again.

Carroll:  Wow. You were lucky. That didn’t happen for everyone.

Kirkbride:  I went to work in aerospace. I remember a lead engineer said he “simply wouldn’t work with a woman.” I just sat there in his room cooling my heels. A lot of this sounds outrageous today—but that’s the way the world was. I didn’t necessarily feel that people were evil; they were products of their time. You just had to push on.

Shea:  I completely agree. The fact that some people wouldn’t work with me led me to start my own company with a colleague, combining my expertise in computer and controls with his in the energy field. We created our own work environment and set our own standards for professionalism.

 

Barton:  I’ve noticed confidence is often a big issue for the many young women who come through my lab. Did Caltech help you to achieve more confidence? Did it help to have the Caltech imprimatur?

Kirkbride:  I certainly think so. I took one year off to work for the Burroughs Corporation in Santa Barbara, where I learned just how highly my peer engineers regarded Caltech. When you’re inside the Caltech bubble, you don’t understand how respected the Institute is. It opened so many doors. It just put to bed any questions about my competence.

Carroll:  The way I look at it: If someone finds out you went to Caltech, their opinion of you changes. If they don’t know about Caltech—then your opinion of them changes. 

A Caltech degree ends all discussion about whether you’re competent or not. Period. If you are interested in science and engineering, I don’t think you can do any better.
— Louise Kirkbride (BS ’75, MS ’76)

 

Barton:  Many people say that “Caltech teaches you how to think.” Do you agree?

Long:  Absolutely! Caltech gave me a foundation in how to think through problems. If a question is important enough, then I have both the hunger and the confidence to go back to fundamental principles and solve it.

 

Barton:  What is your sense of where women are today in science and engineering? 

Kirkbride:  Statistically, Caltech still lags a bit behind our peer institutions in the number of applications from women. But when you look nationally, studies indicate that once women are admitted to college, they graduate at a higher rate than the men do. We need to persuade more talented and ambitious young women to consider Caltech. 

Carroll:  Personally, given my background, I would like to see more women of color at Caltech. I think we could do better there: Because if we’re interested in raising women, then we want to see all women succeed and flourish—both at Caltech and in science as a whole.

MacDonald:  Beyond Caltech—I’d say women have made inroads in a number of scientific areas. But in many other fields such as mechanical, electrical, and aeronautical engineering, women still represent only a small percentage of the number of contributors. I’d love to see more women take on the technical challenges in these exciting industries.

 

Barton:  How do you maintain your connections and your involvement with Caltech?

MacDonald:  There are numerous opportunities to stay connected and involved with Caltech. I’ve been heavily involved through the Caltech Alumni Association, the Caltech Associates, Caltech’s Gnomes, and the Caltech Y. It gives me great pleasure to support an undergraduate scholarship, since I greatly appreciate the financial aid that Caltech made available to me during my undergraduate years. 

Kirkbride:  I now serve as a trustee. Caltech was a formative experience for me, and I’m grateful for the leadership of those who pushed the Institute to open its doors to women, making it possible for me to attend. I think it’s important to stay involved and help shape Caltech for future generations.

 

Barton:  Would you recommend Caltech to aspiring female scientists and engineers?

Carroll: Oh, absolutely. One hundred percent.

Long:  The knowledge and content that you get from any school or major is going to be of some use, but its usefulness will vary. Caltech teaches you the courage and discipline to work through things you don’t know. That endures a lifetime.

Shea:  That’s true. The ability to tackle new problems, break things down, start from first principles, apply what you’ve learned to different disciplines—it’s incredibly powerful and was one of the greatest things that I got from Caltech.

Kirkbride:  A Caltech degree ends all discussion about whether you’re competent or not. Period. If you are interested in science and engineering, I don’t think you can do any better.  

 

Women at Caltech Today

Photos: Stephanie Diani, Lance Hayashida, Ben Tomlin

Caltech Alumni Elected to the National Academy of Sciences

Four Caltech alumni have been elected to the National Academy of Sciences, one of the most prestigious scientific organizations in the country. 

Jeffrey A. Harvey (PhD ’81), Enrico Fermi Distinguished Service Professor, Enrico Fermi Institute, University of Chicago, Chicago

Thorne Lay (MS ’80, PhD ’83), Distinguished Professor, Earth and Planetary Sciences Department, University of California, Santa Cruz

Stephen Shectman (PhD ’73), staff member, Observatories of the Carnegie Institution for Science, Pasadena, Calif.

Howard Stone (PhD ’88), the Donald R. Dixon and Elizabeth W. Dixon Professor in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Princeton University

 

The National Academy of Sciences is a private, nonprofit institution that was established under a congressional charter signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. It recognizes achievement in science by election to membership, and — with the National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council — provides science, technology, and health policy advice to the federal government and other organizations.

Full list of newly elected members »