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.
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.
“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.”
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:
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.”
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.”
Theoretical nuclear and particle physicist Iain Stewart (PhD ’99) offers his MIT course on Effective Field Theory on edX. Take a look:
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.”
Caltech president Thomas F. Rosenbaum accepts the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge from MIT president Rafael Reif. Dr. Rosenbaum gets doused in the flume in the Earth Surface Dynamics Laboratory of Michael Lamb, Caltech professor of geology. Dr. Rosenbaum challenges Worcester Polytechnic Institute president and Caltech alumna Laurie Leshin (MS '89, PhD ’95) and University of Chicago provost Eric Isaacs. The water used in the flume's experiments is recycled; it gets pumped from the flume's floor back up to the top of the incline. No water was wasted in the making of this video.
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.
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.
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.
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) 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) 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.
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.
For more »
Excerpt from Crain's Chicago Business
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.
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.”
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.”
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. ”
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.
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.
- Folded, displaying more than 100 of his pieces at the Williamson Gallery at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, through August 20.
- Folding Paper: The Infinite Possibilities of Origami at the Bellevue Arts Museum in Bellevue, Washington through September 21
- Kevin Box/Origami in the Garden sculptural exhibition at the Santa Fe Botanical Garden in Santa Fe, New Mexico through October 25
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.