2018 Year in Review
Harry Gray, the Arnold O. Beckman Professor of Chemistry, was awarded Caltech’s Richard P. Feynman Prize for Excellence in Teaching in honor of his six-decade career at the Institute. Celebrated for his combination of thoughtful instruction and enthusiastic entertainment, Gray even lectured in a horse costume to keep his class engaged. Gray also created the “Solar Army,” an outreach program through which hundreds of high school students meet weekly with Caltech grad students and postdoc mentors to search for new catalytic materials that might help make the production of solar fuels from sunlight more efficient and affordable.
The annual Mechanical Engineering 72 (ME72) competition pitted undergraduates against each other in an epic series of robot battles dubbed “Tank Wars.” Women outnumbered men in the competition for the first time in its 33-year history, and the Riveters, the only all-woman team, took home the coveted trophy without losing a single battle.
To increase the understanding of climate science and mark the start of Earth Week, Caltech hosted a two-day series of lectures about climate and climate change in collaboration with the Resnick Sustainability Institute and the Ronald and Maxine Linde Center for Global Environmental Science. This first event of its kind drew students, staff, and faculty, as well as alumni and Caltech Associates, to the Beckman Institute Auditorium, where lecturers offered primers on the underlying science and mechanisms that drive climate change.
Roohi Dalal (BS ’18) received a Fulbright Fellowship to travel to the Netherlands and study what the distribution of galaxies in space can tell us about fundamental properties of the universe. “I really like applying mathematical methods to these big, fundamental questions we’re trying to answer,” Dalal said. “I think everyone wants to know where and how the universe started.”
Jacqueline Barton, the John G. Kirkwood and Arthur A. Noyes Professor of Chemistry and the Norman Davidson Leadership Chair of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at Caltech, was awarded the Royal Society of Chemistry’s prestigious Centenary Prize for 2018, which is given to “outstanding chemists, who are also exceptional communicators, from overseas.”
On May 11, 2018, Richard Feynman—beloved Caltech physicist, Nobel Prize winner, and masterful storyteller—would have turned 100 years old. In celebration of the great physicist’s 100th birthday, Caltech hosted a two-day event, May 11 and 12, featuring talks by top scientists around the world and Feynman’s family and friends. Speakers included Feynman’s sister, Joan, and daughter, Michelle, and Caltech scientists John P. Preskill and Kip S. Thorne (BS ’62).
The Caltech Alumni Association welcomed over 1,350 alumni and friends back to campus for four days of festivities during the 2018 Reunion Weekend and Seminar Day. Alumni relived their Caltech intellectual experience through lectures by Caltech professors and scientists, reconnected with their fellow Techers, shared memories, and discovered what has changed—and what hasn’t—since their time on campus.
Caltech men’s tennis freshmen Varun Shanker and James Wei rallied to claim a three-set victory and earn All-America status as the program’s first representatives at the NCAA Championships in Claremont, California. In September, Shanker and Wei won the Intercollegiate Tennis Association West Regional Championship, making them the first pair of Caltech student-athletes to win an ITA regional tournament.
NASA’s Curiosity rover, built at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, found new evidence— “tough” organic molecules in 3-billion-year-old sedimentary rocks near the surface and seasonal variations in the levels of methane in the atmosphere—suggesting that the planet could have supported ancient life. “With these new findings, Mars is telling us to stay the course and keep searching for evidence of life,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters.
“We need science more now than ever before. You must help fight for the soul, not just of our nation, but the soul of the planet.”
Researchers from Caltech, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, and the University of Salerno developed a machine-learning algorithm that can predict a person’s intelligence from functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of their resting-state brain activity and blood flow. “We found if we just have people lie in the scanner and do nothing while we measure the pattern of activity in their brain, we can use the data to predict their intelligence,” says Ralph Adolphs (PhD ’93), Bren Professor of Psychology, Neuroscience, and Biology, and Allen V. C. Davis and Lenabelle Davis Leadership Chair and director of the Caltech Brain Imaging Center.
Spiros Michalakis, manager of outreach and staff researcher at Caltech’s Institute for Quantum Information and Matter (IQIM), and Matthew Hastings, a researcher at Microsoft, solved one of the world’s most challenging open problems in the field of mathematical physics. The problem, related to the “quantum Hall effect,” was first proposed in 1999 as one of 13 significant unsolved problems to be included on a list maintained by Michael Aizenman, former president of the International Association of Mathematical Physics. “I hope that the solution to this problem will invigorate interest in the field of mathematical physics,” Michalakis said. “As is often the case with proofs of significant problems in math, the solution leads to new ideas and techniques that open the doors to resolving several other important questions.”
The new Bechtel Residence, named for Caltech life trustee Stephen D. Bechtel Jr.,
is the first new undergraduate housing facility to open on campus in more than two decades. With the opening of Bechtel, Caltech is able to house all undergraduates on campus for the first time. The multiuse, multigenerational residence accommodates over 200 undergraduate students from all classes and was so popular that all available spaces were filled through a lottery system. With a mix of single rooms and suites, Bechtel provides students greater flexibility in shaping their residential experiences.
Frances H. Arnold, the Linus Pauling Professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering and Biochemistry, won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for “the directed evolution of enzymes.” Directed evolution, pioneered by Arnold in the early 1990s, is a bioengineering method for creating new and better enzymes in the laboratory using the principles of evolution. Today, the method is used in hundreds of laboratories and companies that make everything from laundry detergents to biofuels to medicines. Enzymes created with the technique have replaced toxic chemicals in many industrial processes.
The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation selected two Caltech alumni as 2018 MacArthur Fellows. Doris Tsao (BS ’96), professor of biology, T&C Chen Center for Systems Neuroscience leadership chair and director, and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator; and Sarah Stewart (PhD ’02), planetary scientist and professor at the University of California, Davis, are the latest Caltech alumni to receive the so-called “Genius Grant.” Tsao is recognized for uncovering the fundamental neural principles of primate vision, and Stewart is recognized for advancing new theories of how celestial collisions create planets and their natural satellites.
The inaugural Milton (PhD ’69) and Rosalind Chang Career Exploration Prize was awarded to Sean McKenna (BS ’17) to explore how to tackle California’s housing crisis, and to Kyle Lakatos (MS ’14) to incorporate early childhood development services into community centers. The Chang Prize provides funding for recent Caltech graduates to fearlessly explore new career paths through innovative projects that have meaningful societal impact.
In celebration of the 100th anniversary of Distinguished Alumnus Frank Capra’s (BS 1918) graduation from Caltech, a screening of It’s a Wonderful Life was presented on campus, including a discussion of the Academy Award-winning director’s time as a student at Caltech.