From the President of the Caltech Alumni Association

Bursts of Light

Neil Gehrels (PhD ’82, Distinguished Alumnus 2016) 1952-2017

Neil Gehrels (PhD ’82, Distinguished Alumnus 2016)

While working on this issue of Techer, we received word that Neil Gehrels (PhD ’82) had passed away. Just nine months beforehand, Gehrels, a noted astrophysicist who led NASA’s Swift Gamma-Ray Burst Mission, had earned the 2016 Distinguished Alumni Award. Gehrels received Caltech’s highest alumni honor along with his wife, Ellen Williams (PhD ’82). It is the first time a husband and wife have both won. We were in the midst of preparing their portraits in this issue (See The 2016 Distinguished Alumni Awards) when we heard the sad news. 

How Gehrels and Williams met will resonate with many of you: They were both graduate students in the late 1970s. Gehrels was studying astronomy under Robbie Vogt and Ed Stone. Williams, a chemist, was focusing on the emerging science of surface chemistry. They met as part of a hiking group that would take weekend excursions into the San Gabriel Mountains. A friendship soon formed, and the two were married in Dabney Gardens in 1980.

They each blazed their own independent and remarkable trails—Gehrels led groundbreaking research into
gamma-ray particles, peering at the afterglow of exploding stars. Williams pioneered new fields of nanotechnology, eventually becoming the director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy. Each encouraged the other’s success. 

When we celebrated Williams and Gehrels at our ceremony last year, we honored their individual accomplishments and contributions, and we marveled at the strength of their partnership. 

In many ways, their story epitomizes Caltech’s strong sense of community. Though we pursue different fields, we always collaborate, encourage, and support one another. Through these collaborations and partnerships, deep friendships form. And yes, those partnerships have blossomed into more than a few marriages. 

We are, in short, a family.

In this issue of Techer, we continue to celebrate the breadth of accomplishments of our Caltech family. Eric Betzig (BS ’83), pictured on the cover, is—like Gehrels and Williams—also a recipient of the 2016 Distinguished Alumni Awards, and inside this issue, you’ll learn about his winding path to the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

You’ll peer into the mind-bending genius of mathematician Ian Agol (BS ’92), who solved a thirty-year-old problem in topology. Discover how Joe Zadeh (PhD ’10) leads the technology behind Airbnb, and how Michaeleen Doucleff (BS ’98) has traveled to far regions to report on emerging issues in health and science for NPR. This was a surprising year for politics, shocking many pundits and pollsters—including neuroscientist Sam Wang (BS ’86), who runs the Princeton Election Consortium website. He unpacks how the presidential election took him by surprise. We even have a conversation between two science-fiction authors, David Brin (BS ’73) and S.B. Divya (BS ’96), for you to listen in on.

And importantly, we also have a report from and about you.

Last year, the Caltech Alumni Association, in partnership with the Institute, conducted a detailed survey of our alumni with undergraduate and/or graduate Caltech degrees. More than 2,300 of you participated. You shared information about your experience at Caltech, what you have gone on to do, and how you wish to stay connected and involved. The results were illuminating, and on behalf of the CAA, I want to thank everyone who participated. We hope to conduct studies like this every few years as part of our ongoing dialogue between the Institute and all alumni. 

As we send this issue of Techer to you, we are mindful of Gehrels and the other members of our Caltech family who are no longer with us. Still, like the gamma rays he researched, his light continues to be felt by all of us. 

In solidarity,

David Tytell (BS ’99)

Caltech Alumni Association