Leading by Example (+)

Harry Gray
Photo by Verity Smith

Harry Gray, the Arnold O. Beckman Professor of Chemistry, has a knack for grooming academic leaders. At last count, six protégés who have passed through his lab over the past 50 years have gone on to lead universities, and 125 are professors of chemistry at institutions worldwide.

Those colleagues who went on to lead universities are:

  • Dave Dooley (PhD ’79), president at University of Rhode Island (2009-present)
  • Greg Geoffroy (PhD ’74), president of Iowa State University
  • Holden Thorp (PhD ’89), chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
    (2008-2013) (now provost at Washington University in St. Louis)
  • T. Manoharan, vice chancellor* of the Indian Institute of Technology Madras (1997-1999)
  • K. Poon, president of Hong Kong Polytechnic (1990-2008)
  • Mark Wrighton (PhD ’72), chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis (1995-present)

In addition, many of Gray’s former graduate students and postdocs are on the faculties of Harvard, Penn State, Cornell, University of Chicago, Northwestern, University of Illinois, Purdue, Berkeley, Stanford, and UC San Diego. Steve Mayo, Caltech’s Bren Professor of Biology and Chemistry and the William K. Bowes Jr. Leadership Chair of the Division of Biology and Biological Engineering, was also a student of Gray’s, as were Caltech faculty members Nate Lewis (BS ’77, MS ’77), the George L. Argyros Professor and Professor of Chemistry, George Rossman (PhD ’71), the Eleanor and John R. McMillan Professor of Mineralogy, and Jay Winkler (PhD ’84).

* Madras’s vice chancellor position is equivalent to that of a university president.
‡ Manoharan was a graduate student of Gray’s while both were at Columbia University

Learning While Leading (+)

Caltech’s student leaders have full plates. In addition to splitting their time among responsibilities in academics, research, athletics, internships, social causes, and many other activities, they have also been elected to serve as representatives of and advocates for their peers.

However, these students say the juggling act can be a gratifying challenge. We recently spoke with (from left to right): Sunita Darbe, Connor Rosen, and Catherine Jamshidi about their experiences in student leadership, their goals for their organizations, and their time-management strategies.

What are your main leadership responsibilities?

Darbe: As chair of the Graduate Student Council (GSC), my job is to be the face of the graduate student body when interacting with all of the other parts of Caltech—for example, in working with the undergrads and with all of the various administrative offices and staff offices. I also try to keep an eye on what graduate students are bringing up and try to make sure that those concerns are heard by the appropriate people.

Rosen: I’m the chair of the Interhouse Committee (IHC), and the ASCIT vice president for nonacademic affairs. I deal mainly with housing, dining, issues related to how housing placements happen, and any other issues related to where people are living. IHC is also involved in the policies related to those issues, so I also serve as the intermediary between the administration and the students on these policies.

Jamshidi: As ASCIT (Associated Students of the California Institute of Technology) president, my first job is to oversee the ASCIT board of directors, which is the student government of the undergraduates. I try to be in touch with what’s going on around campus, what the student body is currently concerned about, and how I can bring those concerns to the relevant administrators or members of the faculty board.

Since you are all student leaders, can you tell us what year you are and what you’re studying?

Jamshidi: I’m a junior, studying computer science and business, economics, and management.

Rosen: I’m a senior majoring in chemistry. I do work on protein degradation in the biology lab of professor Alex Varshavsky.

Darbe: I’m a fourth year graduate student in materials science. I work with Harry Atwater on optics for ultrahigh-efficiency solar cells.

What were your goals when you began your term at the end of the last school year?

Darbe: Obviously the technical training at Caltech is awesome, bar none. But we also want to make sure that some of the nontechnical skills—ones that are important for professional development, but don’t necessarily come through the graduate curriculum—are supported by GSC efforts. This year another one of our goals is to support and recruit a diverse student body, and we’ve been very pleased to see support for this at all levels in the administration.

Jamshidi: My main goal is to learn about and address what the students care about. I also went into my term expecting to be able to give good direction to the individuals on the board of directors, helping them figure out what they need to be doing in their roles.

Rosen: A lot of what the IHC works on are yearly needs that relate to the way the house system functions. The biggest of these is rotation, which is the process by which first years are assigned to a house. When I came in as IHC chair, I set goals for how efficient and effective I wanted the process to be. In the end, I wanted the students to be pleased with both with the process itself and with the outcomes. Rotation was all over and done at the beginning of the school year, and it went very well—I think we improved on the things we wanted to improve on from previous years.

How did you get involved in this leadership role, and what made you want to be a leader?

Rosen: I ended up in student government almost by accident. I love the houses, and I was very involved in my house socially, and when someone said that our house needed a president, I said, “I want to do it.” As president of my house, I served on the Interhouse committee for a year before becoming chair. I like being involved because I care about the people, I care about the house, and I want to be here to help students solve their problems, so they can go back to focusing on everything else that life—and Caltech’s coursework—is throwing at them.

Jamshidi: I started in student government during the third term of my freshman year. For the first two terms I was here I saw the upperclassmen who were involved, and they seemed to know everything—I wanted to be like them. And my involvement was also partially driven by boredom. I play volleyball during the fall term, and then during winter I had my first break from volleyball in a long time and I was like, “I have so much free time! What do I do now?” So I became the ASCIT secretary and I really enjoyed it.

Darbe: I was involved in GSC last year, in the capacity of organizing a professional development conference. When I see something happening and I have opinions about it, I don’t like to let things sit. I like to do something about it. And fortunately, because of its small size, Caltech is an easy place to make things happen.

It sounds like these roles are time-consuming. How do you fit in time for all of the other things in your lives, like classes, research, athletics, and so on?

Jamshidi: I balance it by staying extremely organized. I schedule everything that I do, pretty much always. And if I notice that I’m spending more time on homework, I’ll reschedule everything. I don’t know how else I’d be able to do it.

Darbe: I can only do this role by virtue of it being a one-year commitment. It’s a lot of time, but it’s really rewarding, and it’s really cool to see the academic institution from the other side—to sort of peek behind the curtain.

Rosen: I’ve always made my position in the IHC a priority. I took this on because I felt it was important, and I had a lot of things I wanted to get done in the position—things that I cared about accomplishing. It is a priority, not only in terms of when I am in class, but also when I sign up for classes. If I know I could be spending 60 hours a week on IHC commitments during a particular term, I’m not going to sign up for 60 hours of classes. For example, during rotation there was one day where I woke up at 8 a.m., went to bed at 1 a.m. the next morning, and only had a lunch break in between.

How will these leadership skills be applicable to your after-graduation plans?

Darbe: I’m interested in being a research scientist. It’s not yet clear to me where the most exciting opportunity is going to be, but I think that a lot of these GSC skills are going to be very helpful. Being able to corral people, and motivate people, and run an effective meeting. And, among other things, learning how not to promise too much. So many of these skills will be very, very useful, in years to come.

Rosen: I’m applying to biology programs for graduate school right now; I definitely know that I want to stay in research. Just as Sunita said, these roles allow us to peek behind the academic curtain, and if I end up being a professor, I’ll be on the inside. To know how an institution like Caltech runs at more than just the teaching level will be useful.

Jamshidi: I think the people skills I’ve gained as a leader will help in the future. My classes have prepared me with scientific and technical knowledge, and my leadership role has helped me develop skills like being able to work with lots of different people and learn how they’re thinking. Those are important skills.

What do you think is unique about being a leader at Caltech?

Jamshidi: Caltech is so small that I feel like everyone knows me. At a larger school, people wouldn’t know who I am or what I do. Often, administrators will email me random questions like, “Who do I talk to about XYZ?” and I’ll redirect them. That interaction wouldn’t happen at a larger school.

Rosen: It also goes the other way. Because Caltech is so small, we are able to have weekly and biweekly meetings with the vice president for student affairs. That just doesn’t happen at other places. Also, I know that my job doesn’t exist elsewhere because the house system is unique. That has its pros and its cons. I love the house system; it’s great to be a part of. But when I’m trying to troubleshoot something, I can’t ask, for example, “What did they do at MIT when something similar to this happened?” because there’s no comparison to be drawn.


-Jessica Stoller-Conrad


On the Leading Edge of Higher Ed: Eric Kaler

“I think that clearly technology is going to change an enormous amount of what we do and how we do it. It’s no longer about getting information to students. What we need to spend more time on is teaching students how to use that data.”

–Eric Kaler, University of Minnesota

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On the Leading Edge of Higher Ed: Richard Miller

“Not only do we need to teach applied science, math, and calculus but also what a patent is and how you make money from these ideas. We need to teach how to work in a team. I don’t know of a company that hires people and pays them for answering multiple choice tests and not talking to their neighbors.”

–Richard Miller, Olin College of Engineering

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On the Leading Edge of Higher Ed: Holden Thorp

“Higher ed is going to have to do more to make sure that we identify the people that we should be recruiting to our universities, and we have to do more to make sure that the folks who wind up here feel welcomed and are in a position to succeed.”

–Holden Thorp, Washington University

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New Matter for the Masses

Imagine you have an idea for a new object—say, a custom phone case that perfectly molds to your hand or a cupholder that attaches to your laptop. Then, an hour later, a tangible plastic version of that item materializes just a few feet away, right in your living room. This scenario might sound a bit futuristic, but New Matter, a company founded by Caltech alum Steve Schell (BS ’01), is determined to make affordable, at-home 3-D printing a reality in the present.

Schell was introduced to 3-D printing—a process that uses melted plastic to “print” three-dimensional objects—as a way to make quick industrial prototypes in his first job after graduating from Caltech with a degree in mechanical engineering. The technology has been gaining popularity in recent years, but consumer 3-D printers cost over $1,000 and require computer-programming knowledge to turn an idea into an object.

To reduce these barriers, Schell and his colleagues at New Matter came up with the MOD-t printer. By decreasing the number of components and moving parts, the company was able to dramatically cut costs; the MOD-t printer is now available for preorder from the company’s website for only $279. The printer also features user-friendly software and a marketplace where programming novices can buy and print premade designs from more experienced users.

Although at-home 3-D printing is often associated with making jewelry or decorative items, Schell says that it could also be used for more practical tasks—like making a replacement part for your dishwasher. He says the MOD-t printers should start shipping to homes in the spring of 2015.

–Jessica Stoller-Conrad

On the Leading Edge of Higher Ed: Philip Hanlon

“Both in terms of what it costs to go to school here and what it takes to succeed here, we are constantly looking for ways we can keep education accessible to the broadest student body possible. We know this strengthens the institution in the long run.”

–Philip Hanlon, Dartmouth

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Seeing Clear Through

Although the formation seen here could easily pass for a sepia-toned collection of clouds, you won’t be seeing these structures up in the sky anytime soon. The pink wisps are, in fact, fluorescently labeled intestine cells that were imaged within an intact mouse intestine—a feat made possible by a new technique developed by researchers in the lab of Viviana Gradinaru (BS ’05), assistant professor of biology. With this method, researchers can now make thick masses of tissue samples—such as organs and even entire organisms— almost completely see-through, a capability that has numerous research and clinical applications. Rather than having to physically slice through tissue, image each thin slice, and then digitally reconstruct the images into a 3-D visualization of the cells in an organ, researchers using Gradinaru’s technique can bypass these time-consuming steps by applying a solution of detergents to whole organs or organisms. The detergents dissolve light-blocking lipids in the cells, while the structures remain intact thanks to a supporting hydrogel that the researchers embed throughout the tissue—meaning that it becomes possible to look directly through and locate specific cells.

Strength In Numbers

by Katie Neith

Since its inception, Caltech has been dedicated to under-taking big, risky projects, particularly in the area of exploring our universe. Astronomer George Ellery Hale, one of the men credited with molding the Institute into a world-class science and engineering college, was the primary creative force behind the famed Palomar Observatory. Now, nearly 70 years after the groundbreaking 200-inch Hale Telescope—then the world’s largest—saw first light on that Southern California mountaintop, Caltech, along with the University of California and a group of international partners, is again leading the way toward the construction of what will be the world’s most advanced ground-based telescope, the Thirty Meter Telescope, or TMT.

“Thinking big and taking on the world’s largest astronomical telescopes is something we’ve been doing since the 1920s—it’s in our blood, in some sense,” says astronomer Shri Kulkarni, director of Caltech Optical Observatories. Like those observatories that have come before, he says, TMT is an ambitious project of incredible scope, a project that both has been and will be years and years in the making. Alone, the still-ongoing process of planning and developing TMT has taken over a decade. It’s estimated that constructing the telescope, building its instruments, and getting all of its mechanical systems online will take another eight years. The site where TMT will be built was blessed in the traditional Hawaiian manner October 7, and first light is currently planned for the early 2020s.

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No Two Alike, But How Different?

When you think of a snowflake, you probably picture something like a stellar dendrite—the classic six-armed branching snow crystal that shows up as a decoration everywhere this time of year. But depending on the classification scheme, there are as many as 80 different types of snow crystals, or snowflakes, out there—and you can begin a basic snowflake search to investigate this in snowy regions with little more than a magnifying glass.

In fact, that’s how Caltech physicist and snowflake guru Ken Libbrecht started his hunt, which has turned into the focus of his research. After happening across a journal article that described a type of snow crystal called a capped column, he wondered why he had never noticed one of the miniature icy thread bobbins falling from the sky in his native North Dakota. The next time he was back home, he grabbed a magnifying glass and went outside to take a closer look. “I saw capped columns. I saw all these different snowflakes,” he says. “It’s very easy. It’s just that I had never looked.”

Since that first foray into snowflake hunting in the late 1990s, Libbrecht has published seven books of snowflake photographs and has spent years in the lab trying to understand the molecular dynamics that dictate how ice crystals grow. For example, snowflakes go from forming in thin, flat plates to growing in long, slender needles when the temperature changes by just a few degrees. You can see this change clearly in the laboratory, yet no one knows exactly why it happens.

Among the less recognizable snowflakes on the chart that Libbrecht uses are hollow columns, which are tiny hexagonal columns with hollow spaces at either end; bullet rosettes, which form when multiple crystals grow columns at various angles from a single ice grain; and double plates, which are similar to capped columns but feature one plate that is much larger than the other.

For more about Ken Libbrecht’s work visit snowcrystals.com

–Kimm Fesenmaier

On the Leading Edge of Higher Ed: Laurie Leshin

“Many of these systemic challenges stem from messages that students get in their K–12 experience, and at home, and in the media about, one, “What do scientists and engineers look like, and do they look like me?” and, two, “What is the work of scientists and engineers, and is that work that I would be passionate about doing?”

–Laurie Leshin, Worcester Polytechnic Institute

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On the Leading Edge of Higher Ed: Mark Wrighton

“We’re in the midst of a revolution in terms of how technology is applied to both education and research. On every campus today there is an unrelenting quest for greater bandwidth and access to resources that are available on the Internet. And if the United States is to remain the leading center of innovation, we’re going to have to have great infrastructure.”

–Mark Wrighton, Washington University

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