An Intuition for Scale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scholarships Mean Freedom for Caltech’s Stamps Leadership Scholars

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

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

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

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

Courageous Choices

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

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

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

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

Long-held Goals

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Compromise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

16 uncut squares of Wyndstone Marble paper; 24”

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.


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 »

Caltech Pranks MIT Campus Preview Weekend

by Liz Lawler ’15
The California Tech (download »)

Last Wednesday night, 13 Caltech students flew to Massachusetts in preparation for MIT’s Campus Preview Weekend (CPW). Their mission: prove which institute is hot and which one is not. Their arsenal: 800 heat sensitive mugs that at first read “MIT The Institute of Technology” but under the influence of heat change to read “CALTECH The Hotter Institute of Technology.” The mugs came in boxes with a card with the instructions to “tweet the most MIT-proud picture of yourself with the MIT mug @MITmug2018 to be entered in a drawing to win a pair of Google Glass.”

Techers handed out the mugs to unsuspecting prefrosh right outside of CPW’s formal welcome event Thursday night. They scoped out the gym in which the event was held in advanced, discovered three different possible exits, and then staged six people at the main door and teams of four and three at the other doors. Thirty minutes before the event let out, they were poised and ready. At 9:30pm prefrosh began to trickle out, but then a couple minutes later a massive wave hit. 

As the prefrosh flooded out, officers from MIT’s admissions department tried to thwart the Techers’ efforts. The Caltech students were told they would need to stop handing out mugs unless they could prove they were a registered event. 

Senior and Caltech Prank Club President, Julie Jester cunningly stalled the antagonizing admissions staff for 20 minutes with a fake story that their event was registered through the MIT Alumni Association and that they were simply ignorant pawns told to pass out the mugs. When pressed for a name of the person who approved their event, Jester acted forgetful, fumbled on her phone, pretended to have trouble accessing MIT’s wifi as she “searched” for  the email thread containing their permission to hand out the mugs. 

However, the MIT admissions staff was relentless. They demanded a name. Jester called up Tom Mannion while he was mid-lecture in his cooking class and casually asked him for the name of official who sanctioned the mugs. 

Initially confused by the abrupt call, Mannion pulled through by questioning his class for a name of a member of MIT’s Alumni Association which he delivered to Jester. 

While Jester kept the MIT admissions inquisitors occupied, the prefrosh continued to pick up the mugs. 

To accommodate the numerous prefrosh, the Techers began putting out boxes in the walkway that the prefrosh ferociously attacked in a primal quest for free swag. Prefrosh gleefully took the mugs, but admissions officers refused to let the prank go on. They vainly attempted to shut it down by ripping the mugs out of prefrosh’s hands, proving MIT hates fun and all things awesome rather than accomplishing their goal. 

Despite MIT’s best efforts, Caltech’s prank went through beautifully. They were able to pass out all the mugs and proved that if you mess with Caltech, you're going to get burned.

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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