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.
The U.S. Senate has approved astrophysicist and Caltech alumna France A. Córdova (PhD '79) as the new director of the National Science Foundation (NSF). Currently the chair of the Smithsonian Board of Regents—the Smithsonian Institution's governing board—Córdova will succeed former director Subra Suresh and will replace acting NSF director Cora Marrett on March 31.
After receiving her doctoral degree in physics from Caltech, Córdova spent the next decade at the Los Alamos National Laboratory as a staff scientist and eventually as a deputy group leader. In 1989, she joined the faculty at Pennsylvania State University as head of the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics. She served in this position until 1993, when she was selected as NASA's chief scientist—becoming the first woman ever selected for the position.
Córdova has also served in additional research and leadership positions including vice chancellor for research and professor of physics at UC Santa Barbara from 1996 to 2002, chancellor and distinguished professor of physics at UC Riverside from 2002 to 2007, and as president of Purdue University from 2007 to 2012.
President Obama nominated Córdova for the NSF directorship in July 2013; the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions approved the president's nomination on January 29, 2014.
With her recent confirmation, Córdova joins several other Caltech alumni who have been nominated to lead or now lead federal research agencies, including the current director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Arati Prabhakar (MS '80, PhD '85), and Ellen Williams (PhD '82), who, in December 2013, was nominated by President Obama to be the next director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency—Energy.
Written by Jessica Stoller-Conrad
Caltech Media Relations
Following Caltech, Iram Parveen Bilal traversed disciplines to become a filmmaker and activist. For her first feature, Bilal returned to her home country to film Josh: Against the Grain, a mystery thriller set in Karachi. The award-winning film comments on class structures, social movements, and patriotism in Pakistan. Since its first showing in Mumbai in 2012, the film has screened around the world. Bilal speaks about her unique story, and the surprising connections she finds between science and art.
Caltech Alumni Association: What was it like to attend Caltech as an international student?
Iram Parveen Bilal: I came to Caltech when I had just turned seventeen. It was a huge culture shock. I remember going back home after the first term and saying “I want to transfer out,” because it was really hard. I was alone and had no family in the US. But I usually put myself against the harder odds and then I try to win people over. It’s just how my life has been. And Caltech is the kind of place that if you rise to the challenge, it makes you stronger. I eventually found my place at Caltech.
CAA: How did you make the leap from engineering to filmmaking?
IPB: I got into USC and I didn’t know what I was in for. Being this kid who had grown up on Bollywood, and then sitting alongside classmates talking about Citizen Kane, I had this steep learning curve.
And now I’ve gotten to a point where I think, “You don’t have to know all the classic films in order to be a filmmaker. You have to make films.” That’s not arrogant; I just feel like I have my own point of view, now.
CAA: Tell us about the film.
IPB: I was working on a documentary about Benazir Bhutto [the 11th Prime Minister of Pakistan] when I heard about a woman who runs food kitchens in Karachi. My producing partner at the time wanted to also make a documentary about her, but I I felt Pakistan had enough documentaries—I wanted to make a fiction film. The script eventually evolved into something different, but that was the genesis.
Josh is a mystery thriller set in Karachi that follows an upper class woman who becomes determined to find out what happened to her missing caretaker. Her journey takes her to a nearby village run by a feudal lord, and in the process endangers herself and others. The story tackles themes of feudalism, youth movements, poverty, and the challenges of trying to do good amidst social unrest.
CAA: What was it like to film in Pakistan?
IPB: It was tough because there was no infrastructure for film, really. There were no equipment houses where you could easily rent. I had access to resources in the US. But as a Pakistani, I was tired of people coming in with foreign crews only to leave. So we took a lot of local media students and trained them. After we wrapped, a lot of films started shooting, hiring many of the crew members we trained. I’m proud that Josh is at the forefront of a new Pakistani wave.
CAA: How have audiences responded to the film?
IPB: When our film was screened in Melbourne, one audience member was so moved by the story of the food kitchen (and the woman who was the genesis of the film), that he launched a fundraiser. He solicited donations from around the world, enough to provide food for a 140 families in Pakistan. I was able to go and help ditribute the food. It was a powerful moment of real humility. I thought, “I had no idea where this story would go and here it is actually translating into change. Here are all these women who are going to be feeding their kids and they have no idea or care who I am. They just want their food ration bags.” That’s the power of story.
CAA: You started in science, but transitioned to art. Do you see any connections between them?
IPB: Both science and art are really about curiosity of the world, and curiosity of human behavior. I think that in making a film—just like in science—your gut instinct is very important. The research that you go through when you’re writing a screenplay, when you’re thinking about characters, and when you’re thinking about emotions, is so similar. You’re absorbing from the world around you. Your evidence is the people you interact with. And then you put forth a hypothesis, which is a character in this environment and this circumstance. What happens? On that level, I feel that writing is very similar to research.
CAA: What advice can you offer to current Caltech students?
IPB: I think when one comes to an institute like Caltech, it’s important to give yourself space and the leverage to study a variety of things. Try and strive for as balanced of an education as you can get here and to expose yourself to as diverse an environment as you can. You never know what will ultimately resonate the most with you.
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
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.
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.
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.
The David Morrisroe Professor of Physics and former Director of JPL receives NASA's Distinguished Public Service Medal.
Stone receives receives NASA's Distinguished Public Service Medal for a lifetime of scientific achievement.
"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.'"
"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 participate...an 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."