Caltech Featured by Times Higher Education


For the past three years, Caltech has sat atop the rankings of the world’s universities published by the Times Higher Education. This week’s cover story features an in-depth look at the Institute, asking the question, “How does a tiny institution create such outsized impact?”

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The factors driving Caltech’s extraordinary success thus seem quite simple: it stays deliberately small, resolutely interdisciplinary, exceptionally selective when hiring, and maintains a flat, flexible management system.

CaltechTHESIS: Making Your Work Available to the World


The Caltech Library wants to publish your thesis online


For more than a decade, the Caltech Library has been converting its collection of theses to digital format, to share with researchers around the world. They just need your help.

From the Caltech Library:

The Caltech Library and the Grad Office have been supporting an electronic thesis program since 2002.  All PhD graduates have been required to deposit an electronic thesis since 2003.  In the print era, a heavily used PhD dissertation was one that was borrowed from the library more than once, EVER.  Things have changed.  Caltech theses were downloaded more than 1,000,000 times during 2013 and usage has been growing every year for more than a decade.

The library has been working under guidance of the Office of General Counsel to scan and make available all of the Caltech PhDs, regardless of the year in which you received your degree.  The thesis database, CaltechTHESIS, has approximately 6,300 PhD theses online currently and more are added all of the time.  Not all of the theses have been digitized yet and not all of those that are online can be accessed from off campus, in accordance with copyright law.  You, the authors, hold the key to allowing your thesis to be globally available.  Depending on graduation date, the Library must have permission from the author to make a thesis available from off campus.

Please consider helping the Library make this part of your Caltech legacy available to the world. Use this web form to provide the necessary permission and, perhaps, some additional information about your thesis, advisor, and committee.  The Library will scan, if necessary, and remove access restrictions from theses as quickly as possible following the submission of your information.  Depending on the volume of responses it may take several days to process all of the theses.


Video: Construction of the Palomar Telescope

From the Caltech Archives: footage depicting the construction of the Palomar Observatory.

The Universe from Palomar, 1967

This first film, produced two decades after the opening of the observatory, covers the history of the telescope's construction and operation, featuring appearances by Ira Bowen (who also narrates), Edwin Hubble, Milton Humason, and Bruce Rule, plus additional voice-overs by George McCauley and Melvin Johnson.


The Caltech Library wants to digitize your thesis.

Learn More »


Original Footage

The above film drew extensively on this archival 16mm footage taken during the construction. 


For more on this and other treasures, visit the Caltech Archives.

Laurie Leshin (MS '89, PhD '95) Named President of Worcester Polytechnic Institute

    Caltech alum Laurie Leshin will be the 16th president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute

 Caltech alum Laurie Leshin will be the 16th president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Caltech alumna Laurie Leshin (MS '89, PhD '95), has been named the new president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Worcester, Massachusetts. Leshin, previously the dean of the School of Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), will be the first woman to lead WPI in the university's 150-year history.

Both of Leshin's Caltech degrees were in geochemistry. "Laurie did an important thesis measuring the deuterium/hydrogen ratios of martian meteorites that got her off to a strong start in her academic career. Her subsequent contributions as a professor, as a scientist and administrator at NASA, and as an academic leader at RPI have prepared her well for this leadership role," says Caltech interim president and William E. Leonhard Professor of Geology Edward Stolper, who, along with Sam Epstein (Caltech's first Leonhard Professor), coadvised Leshin during her time as a graduate student at Caltech.

After earning her doctoral degree from Caltech in 1995, Leshin worked as a postdoctoral fellow at UCLA, followed by a faculty position as a professor of geological sciences at Arizona State University (ASU). Her research and administrative contributions led to her appointment, in 2005, as director of science exploration at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Leshin joined the faculty at RPI in 2011.

In her administrative position at RPI, she increased the size of the institute faculty while also supporting curriculum changes and interdisciplinary academic initiatives. She also continued her research as a geochemist and space scientist, and served as a member of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Science Team that analyzed data collected by the Curiosity rover to find the evidence of water on the surface of Mars.

"She is a natural leader," says Curiosity project scientist John Grotzinger, Caltech's Fletcher Jones Professor of Geology. "Laurie Leshin is a first-rate scholar with tremendous energy and a deep understanding of planetary science. Her involvement in MSL has been substantial even as she worked as dean at RPI, engaging as a member of two different instrument teams and also serving as a mission strategic planner, helping to integrate Curiosity's complex activities."

When Leshin begins her term as WPI's 16th president on July 1, 2014, she will join a list of at least 11 other Caltech alumni who are currently serving as presidents of colleges, universities, and research institutions around the world.

Written by Jessica Stoller-Conrad

Reddit Co-founder Alexis Ohanian Visits Caltech

 "I waste too much time on Reddit. I wanted to tell him how much I hate him for that." Graduate Student Manan Arya (left) poses with Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian

"I waste too much time on Reddit. I wanted to tell him how much I hate him for that."
Graduate Student Manan Arya (left) poses with Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian

Tech entrepreneur and Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian visited Caltech to promote his book Without Their Permission. Caltech students and guests turned out to Hameetman auditorium to hear Ohanian speak about his experience building Reddit into one of the internet's top news sharing sites, with more than 100 million users.

 Greg Tanaka (left) with Ohanian

Greg Tanaka (left) with Ohanian

"As Caltech students, you have the tools and the skills to cut out the middle man and change the world," Ohanian said.

Ohanian engaged in a "fireside chat" with former student Greg Tanaka, founder of the startup Bay Sensors in Palo Alto, to speak about how Tanaka's Caltech education has helped to shape his experience as an entrepreneur.

Mike Edwards (BS ’13) Turns Pro Basketball Player

Last winter, Mike Edwards finished his four-year career as Caltech’s career-leading scorer with 1,581 points. 

Now he has gone pro.

Edwards, 23, signed a contract with a team known as the Pee Dee Vipers of the Premier Basketball League, based out of Florence, S.C.  

He played his first game on Saturday against the West Virginia Angels, coming off the bench to score four points and make two blocks.

The Vipers won the game 123-69.

“It’s all kind of led up to this and now it’s kind of my turn to show what I’ve got and keep improving and to make an impact and learn a lot and have fun too,” said Edwards. 

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Caltech Pranksters Strike BCS Title Game at the Rose Bowl

On Monday, when it seemed all eyes were on the Bowl Championship Series national title football game at the Rose Bowl, 100 Caltech undergraduates performed a two-part prank. Early in the morning, the group erected a 2,000-square-foot sign that spelled out "Pasadena" on a hillside overlooking the Rose Bowl. Then, just before the game's halftime, they used 6,300 orange lights to illuminate and transform the sign so that it read "Caltech." 

"The scale of this prank is really what makes it amazing," said Caltech senior Julie Jester. "The design had a lot of us, including myself, very worried that we'd be unable to make it so big. On top of the sheer size, we had to figure out how to actually transport everything up the steep, thin, long, and winding trail to the top of the mountain. By putting our heads together we managed to work through all of the issues."

Read more in the Pasadena Star News.

Written by Allison Benter


Cassini Flyover of Titan

From JPL

This colorized movie from NASA's Cassini mission shows the most complete view yet of Titan's northern land of lakes and seas. Saturn's moon Titan is the only world in our solar system other than Earth that has stable liquid on its surface. The liquid in Titan's lakes and seas is mostly methane and ethane.

The data were obtained by Cassini's radar instrument from 2004 to 2013. In this projection, the north pole is at the center. The view extends down to 50 degrees north latitude. In this color scheme, liquids appear blue and black depending on the way the radar bounced off the surface. Land areas appear yellow to white. A haze was added to simulate the Titan atmosphere.

Kraken Mare, Titan's largest sea, is the body in black and blue that sprawls from just below and to the right of the north pole down to the bottom right. Ligeia Mare, Titan's second largest sea, is a nearly heart-shaped body to the left and above the north pole. Punga Mare is just below the north pole.

The area above and to the left of the north pole is dotted with smaller lakes. Lakes in this area are about 30 miles (50 kilometers) across or less.

Unannotated versions of this video are available at this site.

Most of the bodies of liquid on Titan occur in the northern hemisphere. In fact nearly all the lakes and seas on Titan fall into a box covering about 600 by 1,100 miles (900 by 1,800 kilometers). Only 3 percent of the liquid at Titan falls outside of this area.

Scientists are trying to identify the geologic processes that are creating large depressions capable of holding major seas in this limited area. A prime suspect is regional extension of the crust, which on Earth leads to the formation of faults creating alternating basins and roughly parallel mountain ranges. This process has shaped the Basin and Range province of the western United States, and during the period of cooler climate 13,000 years ago much of the present state of Nevada was flooded with Lake Lahontan, which (though smaller) bears a strong resemblance to the region of closely packed seas on Titan.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington, DC. The Cassini orbiter was designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The radar instrument was built by JPL and the Italian Space Agency, working with team members from the United States and several European countries.



Henry Schwarcz (PhD ’60) Becomes AAAS Fellow

Henry Schwarcz (PhD ’60) has been made a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science for his pioneering development and application of stable isotope analysis for environmental Earth sciences, geoarchaeology and the reconstruction of human history. Schwarcz studies isotopes to better understand everything from temperature to diet during ancient times.

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JPL: Ranger Impact Limiter

  Ranger Impact Limiter — Photograph number 292-41A

Ranger Impact Limiter — Photograph number 292-41A

From JPL's Slice of History Blog | Julie Cooper

This photo was taken in November 1960 to show the lightweight balsa wood impact limiter that was to be used in the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Ranger Block II spacecraft design (Rangers 3, 4, and 5). The woman holding the sphere is Systems Design secretary Pat McKibben. The sphere was 65 cm in diameter, and it surrounded a transmitter and a seismometer instrument that was designed by the Caltech Seismological Laboratory. The sphere would separate from the spacecraft shortly before impact and survive the rough landing on the moon. The capsule was also vacuum-filled with a protective fluid to reduce movement during impact. After landing, the instrument was to float to an upright position, then the fluid would be drained out so it could settle and switch on.

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The Feynman Lectures on Physics

In the 2013 issue of Nature, Rob Phillips celebrates Feynman's seminal series as it nears its 50th anniversary.


Over the past three decades, I have asked hundreds of people to name the five or ten books that have meant the most to them. Although Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice tops the list, The Feynman Lectures on Physics is the science title most often cited. That may say something about the kind of readers I talk to, but it is an accurate reflection of the broad reach of this half-century-old scientific classic.

The book was based on a course the Nobel- prizewinning theoretical physicist and polymath Richard Feynman taught from 1961 to 1963, in an attempt to reinvigorate ‘freshman physics’ at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena. In 1964, the course was published as the three-volume The Feynman Lectures on Physics, by Feynman and fellow physicists Matthew Sands and Robert Leighton. With his lectures, Feynman joined a long tradition of famed physicists — such as Max Planck, Arnold Sommerfeld, Wolfgang Pauli and Lev Landau — providing personal grand vistas. Unlike those, Feynman’s vista is ‘elementary’ and joyous — a joy deeply magnified in the audio version.

Feynman’s physics is about simplicity, beauty, unity and analogy, presented with enthusiasm and insight that bursts from the page.

What makes these lectures timeless? Elementary physics has been taught to undergraduates for nearly a century with relatively little change. Over the past 50 years the subject has been even more static. Textbooks and introductory courses have largely targeted those planning to study medicine and engineers with a focus on formulaic problem-solving and exam preparation, rather than cultivating a wonder for nature and the development of physical intuition.

Superficially, Feynman’s primer touches on the same topics that others do: mechanics, thermodynamics, optics, electricity and magnetism, and modern physics. Beneath this veneer of common cause, his introduction to elementary physics seems to have higher aspirations — the love of nature and a grasp of it through experimentation and reasoning. In Feynman’s hands, even a topic as mundane as projectile motion becomes the story of how Galileo and Newton unlocked the secrets of planetary motion. Feynman’s physics is about simplicity, beauty, unity and analogy, presented with enthusiasm and insight that bursts from the page.

He works this magic even in areas often thought to be the most boring parts of the curriculum. For example, his fascination with the way that Newton's second law of motion, F = ma, can describe the motions of large, composite objects such as galaxies leads intuitively to the profound idea of the centre of mass. Feynman also repeatedly appeals to 'variational' principles based on minimizing quantities such as travel time (pictured). This is seen nowhere more impressively than in the way he develops optics by thinking about the transit of light rays as they pass through various media, whether lenses or the atmosphere. These same ideas return in his treatment of the elliptical motions of planets. When talking about Brownian motion (the random movement of particles in a gas or liquid as they collide with molecules of that medium), he elegantly teaches us the fluctuation–dissipation theorem, which relates how rapidly particles diffuse to the drag force they experience, without ever naming it as such. And he similarly provides an advanced but accessible introduction to elasticity — the likes of which, unfortunately, advanced physics students rarely see even now.

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Rob Phillips, Fred and Nancy Morris Professor of Biophysics and Biology
Reprinted by permission from Macmillan Publishers Ltd: Nature, 2013

Pushing The Envelope

Niniane Wang (BS ’98)

CTO, Minted

To you, it's a holiday greeting card. But to Niniane Wang, it’s a social-media canvas.

Wang is the chief technology officer of Minted, a social-commerce company that discovers artists and graphic designers, curates their creations through online competitions, and then connects them with customers who can personalize these designs to their own tastes and have them produced in the form of wedding invitations, framed art, and more.

We met with Wang near Minted’s headquarters in San Francisco to ask a few questions about her company, her career, and her time at Caltech.


Caltech Alumni Association: Why did you choose Caltech? 

Wang: I’m one of those annoying people who loved everything about Caltech, starting with the day I first heard of it, which was when I received the informational brochure called “Ten Little Reasons to Choose Caltech.” It listed the usual things—strong academics, beautiful campus, etc. But inside, it also had a poster that when unfolded read “Ten Big Reasons to Choose Caltech.” Kip Thorne took up a third of it. I remember thinking that was so quirky, different, and adventurous. I knew I wanted to go there.


CAA:    Why did you pick computer science?

Wang:  A friend of mine said that God “hit her with a brick” one day, and she suddenly knew exactly what she wanted to do with her life. I remember thinking, “I want a brick, too.” But it was a little more subtle for me. 

I had just turned 15 when I got to Caltech, so I was young. Before my second term, I sat in my room in Dabney trying to pick courses from the catalog. There were so many in computer science that I wanted to take. To fit them all in, I looked at the schedule and actually tried to calculate the exact time it would take to walk between classes. It was then that I realized I should probably be studying computer science.


CAA: Was there one mentor or one particular class that inspired you? 

Wang: Peter Schroeder at the time was quite an imposing professor. His first assignment to us was, “If you don’t know C++, learn it now.” People rise to the level of expectations that you have for them. If you expect they’ll be strong, then they’ll be strong. And I learned C++.


CAA: What’s your favorite memory of Caltech?

Wang: That’s easy. One day, a 20-foot-tall palm tree toppled in the courtyard of Dabney. Someone came up with the bright idea that we could replant it across campus in the middle of Beckman Lawn. So a bunch of us gathered around and picked the tree up. It was incredibly heavy and awkward; the bark of the trunk scratched our hands. As we moved across campus, people would stop and laugh—then 30 seconds later they’d join in. We enlisted almost everyone we saw. We were like this growing amoeba of students drifting our way to Beckman Lawn.

It turns out that it’s really difficult to get a 20-foot tree to stand up. We spent a lot of effort trying to figure out the mechanics—should we use a lever, or have a fulcrum, what physics would be involved? In the end it was pure brute force—and we got the tree to stand up again.  

That’s what I love about Caltech, people really celebrate and support one another’s uniqueness. If you want to carry a palm tree across campus, you can find someone to help you.


CAA: What were your first steps after graduation?

Wang: I started my career at Microsoft, where I worked on the game Flight Simulator. I developed rendering mechanisms for clouds, rains, snow, the sky, and other features that were applauded by reviewers and contributed to the success of the game. 

I then went to work at Google, where I helped to start their Desktop Search product and led the Gmail ads team. Taking advantage of the company’s “20 percent time” [through which employees were encouraged to devote 20 percent of their time to personal projects], I started Lively, an avatar- and room-building project. Users could create avatars and virtual spaces that they could decorate with wall art made from their Picasa pictures or YouTube videos. Lively was eventually discontinued during one of Google’s refocusing initiatives, but it was a terrific experience. 


 Minted's offices in San Francisco.

Minted's offices in San Francisco.

CAA: Tell us about Minted.

Wang:    Minted is a social-commerce company. We are a platform for a global community of artist and graphic designers who submit work into our competitions voted on by customers. It could be in the form of framed art, holiday cards, wedding invitations—almost anything that has a design. The top pieces are then made available for people to customize and purchase, and the original designer gets a commission for every sale. 

I met the founder and CEO, Mariam Naficy, through Jeremy Stoppelman [founder of Yelp]. I was originally going to help Minted find a new engineering leader, but I ended up falling in love with the company and decided to do it myself.


CAA: What are the technical challenges that you have had to face?

Wang: Our demographic is very savvy and has high expectations about design. So we want the technology to be smooth, seamless, and fast. On the user-interface side, artists come up with very elaborate elements, such as curvilinear text, that need to be customizable and work in every Web browser. Then, when outputting the high-resolution art file, it needs to be pixel perfect. In the community-and-competition model we employ patent-pending algorithms we have that make sure we get the best crowd-source results. 

I just feel a personal calling toward enabling storytelling and self-expression.
 A selection of designs that can be found on Minted.

A selection of designs that can be found on Minted.

CAA: How has the response been?

Wang: It’s been very gratifying. Artists have been able to use these tools to produce incredible work, and our customers love the products that they’re able to purchase.  In October, we announced a $41-million round of investments. This will enable us to expand our technology capabilities, create new tools for designers, expand product offerings, and reach new audiences.

CAA: What advice do you have to offer entrepreneurs or those interested in pursuing computer science?

Wang: There are two aspects that are important to building a company: First, it’s very important to understand your customer—what types of books they read, their favorite magazines or websites, where they shop, how they interact with their friends and colleagues. You want to understand them as well as you would a relative. Then you can supplement with metrics, measure their behavior, and see how they actually interface with your product. 

Computer science has been and remains a very hot field. Skilled programmers are in demand and can have their choice of jobs. I think if someone really enjoys programming they can work to make themselves an attractive engineer for others to hire and partner with. 


CAA: Are there resources that Caltech graduates can take advantage of? 

Wang: Techers have a very warm bond and will try to help one another out when possible. The Caltech Career Development Center was very helpful to me in lining up interview opportunities. One of my Caltech classmates is working with me at Minted right now. 


CAA: It seems that you like being at an intersection of art and technology.

Wang: I just feel a personal calling toward enabling storytelling and self-expression. I think that humankind relates to one another through telling stories. I think that I’ve often wanted to work on products in which people are able to express who they are and tell their own stories. 

It's important to focus on something you love. You do your best work that way.


Visit Minted

What is the Meaning of Life?

This past spring, for the Endnotes in E&S, we asked you the question "What is the meaning of life?"

As we celebrate the holidays, we thought we'd re-post some of our favorite answers, along with a few more that didn't make the magazine. 

"Understanding the meaning/purpose of life would undermine and prevent us from achieving its meaning/purpose."

"Looking for a universal answer to "What is the meaning of life?" is a betrayal of the question, because that is what the universe is asking *us*. To every living being, the Universe is posing the question: "LIFE...?" And how that being chooses to live, is its answer to the question."

"Leave the world a better place than when you arrived on it." 

"Since life itself is an anti-entropic phenomenon, it follows that this is also our purpose: reduce entropy and increase order.  This can be seen everywhere, from the preference in architecture for regular spacing in railings, the appeal of 'neat' handwriting, the thrill of organizing your book and music collection, and even nicely-laid-out traces in printed circuit boards."

"I think each person may have a different purpose for her or his life. So, the meaning of each life may be quite different. I *want* my life to be for loving those who haven't been loved. What does that really mean or look like? I don't know if there's a computer big enough to calculate that. "

"Life is a process by which valuable information is protected from the eventual breakdown of physical manifestation of information.  This is why we celebrate people who pass down what they know to many people and why we are saddened by the passing of people who did not have sufficient time.  Life also favors the higher value ideas by making the those in possession of the idea to be more productive."

"Friends (and also 42, of course)"

"Life is a game of balance.  We inhabitants of Earth must learn how to interact with each other (vegetable, animal and mineral), use limited resources wisely, and create a happy, sustainable existence for ourselves and our progeny without destroying ourselves or our lifeboat.  Depending on your beliefs, losers go extinct, are relegated to the sidelines of the afterlife, or get sent back to try again. "

"Life is the ebb and flow of energy and electrons.  What is meaningful is to discover nature's secrets of how energy and electron flow  are regulated and controlled."

"If I did not have strong memories of the Caltech community respecting minority opinions, I would be uncomfortable giving this answer. But I do, so here goes: as a practicing Christian I find myself defining the meaning of life in terms of doing what my Creator created me for. That would include things that apply to all of humanity, such as making sure that I respect the presence of God in each of my fellow humans. But in my case, because of the educational and career path I've followed, it also includes doing whatever I can to provide my fellow humans with a pathway to other planets, and potentially the stars. Because of that, I've found my approximately-42-year career as an aerospace engineer very personally rewarding. Not only did I do it well, but I always felt like it was what I was supposed to be doing. "

"Life is a search."

"Acts of kindness last forever."

"As we said in the 60's, 'Make love, not war.'"

"Chocolate, duh!"

"Invention is the meaning of life. Even my dog likes inventing games. I shouldn't say 'even,' my dog is quite smart."


"Family, friends, society with dance, art and music are the meaning of life. Science, medicine, history are the means of making life better. All can provide great joy to practitioners. As we packed our family to move overseas, we had to choose what to bring in our single container. Art, music, books (including the Feynman Lectures), antiques - these were first in."


"Life is all about leaving the world a better place for the future be that by raising children, giving a smile, lending a hand, making something beautiful, inventing a better gadget, improving health, or solving world peace.   Follow your passion!
Why should one expect there to be a meaning?"


"Perhaps an answer lies in the question, 'What is a life of meaning?'"


"The real mystery to me is why there's someting rather than nothing.  I don't mean a perfect vacuum, I mean simply not anything!  Once over that shock, I marvel at the universe in all its complexity, which without 'intellegent' life would just go unappreciated.  My studies have mainly taken me into the fields of inorganic chemistry and the earth (now planetary) sciences.  So I differ little from the layman regarding the details of organic chemistry and living matter.  The ultimate meaning of life lies far beyond me but I am enjoying the chance to actor thrown out onto the stage of life without a script to follow!  Some great minds have come up with interesting ideas, but no one yet has avoided his or her final curtain.  So I'll end where I began. The meaning of life is to find out that there's something rather than nothing."


"Life is a spacesuit for your DNA."


"First to seek God, then to find God, then to know God. After that, love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind and love others as you love yourself."


"Beg pardon, but this is a really, really stupid question.  'Life' is a huge category including everything from viruses to humans.  The question erroneously presupposes only one meaning for all the organisms in the generalization.  The question doesn't recognize that meaning is a transitive event, namely between the object or event and the organism/person for whom it has meaning. (Omits "for whom" life has meaning.)  It ignores the context in which the meaning occurs."


"That is perhaps the most important human question. It is also outside the realm of science."


"What comes next."

Networking as an Introvert: Secrets to Tapping Your Strengths


Stop comparing yourself to extroverts and identify and tap into your unique strengths! Listen in on this recording of career coach Dr. Elayne Chou speaking to Caltech alumni and you will learn how to:

  • Identify and leverage your networking strengths

  • Build genuine and profitable relationships with employers or potential advocates

  • Build your networking strategy and habits to increase your comfort level as a networker

Outline of the session.


DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar (PhD ’85) Engages Alumni in D.C

Caltech distinguished alumna details work of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency


Arati Prabhakar, director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency spoke to Caltech alumni and their guests at a special event held in Washington D.C. in September.

Prabhakar spoke about the agency and its place within a wider culture of innovation.

"Universities like Caltech are the best place to do basic scientific research," Prabhakar said. "Our work at DARPA would not be possible without the larger research and development ecosystem that exists around us."

Prabhakar also noted the responsibility to carefully consider ethical challenges associated with new discoveries. "Personally, I don't want to live in a world where anyone decides in isolation what's good for society," she said. "At DARPA, we engage a wide range of experts in science and policy to weigh in on research at the earliest stages to think through a project's ramifications."

Universities like Caltech are the best place to do basic scientific research. Our work at DARPA would not be possible without the larger research and development ecosystem that exists around us.

ENGenious magazine (the publication of Caltech's division of Engineering and Applied Science) interviewed Prabhakar in 2011, before she assumed the role of director of DARPA.

Leaving the Conventional Trajectory

The most important thing Arati Prabhakar (MS ‘80, PhD ‘85) learned at Caltech was that she didn’t want to do what was expected of her. After becoming the first woman to earn a PhD in Applied Physics from Caltech, Dr. Prabhakar did anything but follow the traditional route for graduate students at the time.

She first became a Congressional Fellow at the Office of Technology Assessment before serving as a Program Manager and Office Director at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) from 1986 to 1993. After serving President Clinton for several years as Director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, she went to Silicon Valley, where, for the past 14 years, she has been funding and managing world-class engineers and scientists to create new technologies and businesses. In this interview, we find out more about this accomplished trailblazer.

ENGenious: What was your experience as the first woman to receive a PhD in Applied Physics at Caltech?

Prabhakar: I was an Indian immigrant kid who came from a family where my mom started sentences with, “When you get your PhD,” and it wasn’t a joke. It was sort of an expectation. But, at that time, the students at Caltech were pretty clueless about women. It certainly wasn’t thoughtfully hostile, though. On the other hand, it wasn’t particularly welcoming. People were just sort of confused. They didn’t quite know what to make of it. A couple of women had come through the Department and had decided to change fields. I remember a guy down the hall greeted me with, “I hope you make it.” But he said it with a sense of possibility. The progress that we’ve made over the last generation or two is pretty interesting. I have kids who are in middle school and starting high school this year. In the environment that they live in, girls talk about being engineers and no one gasps and thinks it’s remarkable. It’s changed pretty dramatically since my time. The broader involvement you have across society in our profession, the healthier it is for what engineers really care about, which is coming up with solutions that solve problems for our society.

ENGenious: How has your Caltech education influenced you?

Prabhakar: Well, Caltech for me was not a pleasant experience. Other alumni would say, “Oh, those were the best years of my life,” and I thought, the best years? I didn’t get a lot of jollies out of it. On the other hand, it was a very important experience. Initially, I was on the trajectory to get a PhD with the expectation that I would be an academic, but I rapidly realized that was not what I wanted to do. Today, new PhDs go off and do a huge range of interesting things, but when I graduated in ’84, you were expected to go into a tenure-track position at a university, IBM Research, Bell Labs, or some other serious laboratory. Those were the only choices, and none were what I wanted to do. My advisor, Professor Thomas McGill, was the kind that thought a PhD degree should be an enabler. He didn’t see it as a sin to leave research. Out of the blue, Tom said, “Why don’t you go be a Congressional Fellow?” Tom was someone who enabled you to do whatever you needed to do. That’s such an important person in your graduate career. When you’re young and right out of school, it’s a great time to just do something without plotting out the whole rest of your life.
Having a very solid technical foundation really helped with judgments I had to make in my career. My first major job after I left Caltech was at DARPA as a Program Manager. I was investing in people that I thought were going to make big leaps forward in technology. I wasn’t in the lab doing the work, but I was trying to exercise good judgment about where real breakthroughs might come from. That wouldn’t have been possible without the solid technical foundation I received at Caltech.

ENGenious: What have been some of the most satisfying times in your career thus far?

Prabhakar: When I left the conventional trajectory, a whole range of new options opened up to me. After about a year and a half of being a Congressional Fellow, I got the chance to become a Program Manager at DARPA. It was a dream job for me at that time in my life. I walked into the door and someone handed me 10 to 20 million dollars and requested that I find the highest-impact R&D in the area, the one that’s really going to make a difference in the world. It was wonderful. I had the privilege of building some programs over time at DARPA that I think have had a lot of impact in the long term. That’s one of the most satisfying things. I was at DARPA from ’86 to ’93, and in that period a lot of our investments were in new semiconductor technologies and, in particular, semiconductor process technology and lithography. In the late ’80s, 193-nm photolithography was sort of a pipe dream. No one had the right laser sources. No one had the right optical materials. It was pretty clear that we needed some kind of solution. X-ray lithography didn’t really seem like it was a very promising way to go to me, although there was a lot of money getting dumped into that. So, we planted some seeds in the late ’80s, and now the chips in your cell phone are made from the tools that use that technology.

ENGenious: What role can government play in new technology development and implementation?

Prabhakar: Well, for energy technology specifically, as in other areas like telecom, there is a critical role for government action. This action includes investments in R&D and setting policies and regulations that define boundaries on the market. However, we’re living in a dynamic environment. Geopolitics change. Energy supplies change. New technologies come online. How do you deal with all of those factors? We need to exercise judgment based on the dynamics of what’s happening right now. So, how do you do that? You nurture the ability to adapt and listen to what’s going on in the world and implement programs in a way that is going to achieve the right objective. I feel a great privilege in having worked in organizations such as DARPA and National Institute of Standards and Technology [NIST] that can do this. This doesn’t happen by accident. It happens by building organizations with people who are able to interact with the outside world—people who are given the autonomy to think and listen and then exercise judgment and who are held accountable for what comes out of that judgment. If you don’t have that, you don’t get the caliber of judgment that you really need to deal with these complex dynamic issues.

ENGenious: Where does the United States stand in resolving the global energy crisis?

Prabhakar: There is a huge amount of interest in moving to cleaner energy sources and addressing these issues, but you’re not going to get that enthusiasm in places where livelihoods and family income depend on coal. We just have to be realistic, and when you peel those layers back, it’s about different financial interests and fears. This has to be dealt with. The good news in the United States is that we do have a very strong technology foundation and the innovation engine to come up with new solutions. There are a host of very exciting new ideas that are bubbling and brewing, such as artificial photosynthesis and ways to store energy at scale. 
As an engineer, the question in my mind is, What is it really going to take for any one of these to make a real impact on the way we create and use energy? We’re still, by far, the global leader in that area, but I don’t take that for granted. Unless that is continuously nurtured, it will shrivel up. If the markets don’t develop here over time, the technology advantage will wither away. Thus, not only do we have to fund the technology, we have to make sure that there’s some place for it to go in a domestic market to thrive over time. The change process that we are on is not going to take us from today’s energy system to tomorrow’s energy system, and then we’re done. This is going to be a continuing process of transformation. And that’s not something our energy system is very good at doing.

ENGenious: What advice would you give to the next generation of Caltech graduate students?

Prabhakar: Realize that there are so many things you can do with the foundation that you get at a place like Caltech. I really am grateful that I had the experience. Both the learning and the Caltech experience, which is very personal. When you live in an academic environment, there’s a tendency to think that what you see around you is all there is, but it’s not. It’s just one small piece of a much bigger world, and it’s a world in which you can take that foundation and do a lot of different, interesting, and impactful things.


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