Student-Faculty Colloquium Seeks to Improve Diversity, Climate at Caltech (+)

The Graduate Student Council recently hosted a forum designed to bring graduate students, faculty, and the administration together to discuss important campus issues. The Student-Faculty Colloquium (SFC) featured a keynote address by Caltech president Thomas Rosenbaum, followed by presentations on campus culture, mentoring, diversity, and work-life balance.

The forum, held February 11, included four sessions, each led by two graduate student cochairs and at least one faculty cochair. “The overwhelming enthusiasm and support of everyone we talk to—the faculty, the administration—speaks volumes to how important people at Caltech think these issues are,” says SFC organizer Allison Strom, a grad student.

“What I’m most proud of is that the graduate students have involved faculty in the panels and discussions. They’ve made it a joint effort. It’s not just the graduate students talking to the faculty; it’s a dialogue,” says Felicia Hunt, GSC advisor, assistant vice president for equity, accessibility, and inclusion initiatives, and Title IX coordinator. “We don’t have a class on planning a conference. To be able to pick it up and run with it takes an incredible amount of initiative.”

All sessions centered on discussions for the “sharing of ideas across departments, which goes with Caltech’s identity as a collaborative institution,” says grad student Natalie Higgins, cochair of the session “Supporting Students through Mentoring Networks.”

Grad student Emily Blythe, cochair of the session “Admissions and Recruitment,” agrees. “We see the SFC as a really good way to get everyone from different options in a room together. Certainly, options are doing great things the others don’t know about.”

Students in different departments may also be facing similar problems, as “many of the issues graduate students face transcend departments,” says Strom. “The challenges of being a scientist or engineer are pretty universal.”

The SFC aims to address these matters by facilitating conversation and opening lines of communication among students and faculty “to create a network of people you can talk to for advice,” says Higgins.

The main goals of the discussion in the mentoring networks session include making students and faculty aware of the issues that grad students face and of available resources for dealing with these issues, and attempting to fill any gaps in this system. The session will also provide information about “nonresearch mentoring—mentoring for other aspects of life,” says grad student Henry Ngo, Higgins’s cochair. “We’re not just researchers; there are different worlds we need to seek out.”

Similarly, Blythe hopes “to get a sort of best practices guide out of this to make sure everyone feels welcome at Caltech.”

The admissions and recruitment session, says grad student Sofia Quinodoz, Blythe’s cochair, offered a good opportunity to discuss “how each option can recruit the best people.” She said  grad students sharing their experiences with professors could “show them how they can help with recruitment” by letting them know what has and has not worked at Caltech.

The session “Professional and Career Development,” cochaired by grad students Parham Noorzad and Andrew Robbins, addressed the development of skills necessary for navigating graduate school and future work and the preparation required to navigate the job market. These discussions were important, especially for grad students, since “just finishing your thesis is not enough to get a job; you need presentation and interview skills,” says Noorzad.

Faculty at the professional and career development session offered “perspective on preparing students for different careers and to share their experiences with students, whether they have gone on to industry or academia,” says Robbins.

One challenge of the GSC was “getting people who aren’t interested in being student leaders involved in conversations,” says Strom. “They don’t have to be involved in student government to have their voices heard, so the SFC hopefully provided them with an opportunity to do that.”

Grad students Gina Duggan and Alicia Lanz organizinged a panel of students and faculty for the session “Advisor-Advisee Relationships” to address concerns identified from the Graduate Exit Survey and to answer questions about advisor/advisee styles, methods of communication, and expectations. “As graduate dean,” says Doug Rees, Roscoe Gilkey Dickinson Professor of Chemistry and dean of graduate studies, “one thing I’ve learned is that each lab and option has its own ways of doing things. We won’t find just one solution, but we’ll find what the basic elements are for a happy and productive relationship.”

“I was excited to hear what members of the faculty think about these issues,” says Duggan, one of the student panelists. “They’ve all been grad students also.”

Engaging students and faculty in this discussion was one of the main points of the SFC. “Now is a good time for departments; they seem more receptive and open to change,” says Lanz, the panel moderator.

Strom says the day was designed “to give students the confidence to be able to advocate for themselves. With more information, they can be more confident with their identities as scientists and people and figure out what they want to do in the future.”

For more about graduate student life, see our Winter 2015 article “Seeking a Balanced Equation.” 

Written by Nehaly Shah

A Bold Enterprise (+)

Our Winter 2015 article “Seeking a Balanced Equation” referenced the Star Trek musical parody Boldly Go!, which was written by Caltech grad student Grant Remmen and his brother, Cole. 

• • •

Grant Remmen, a graduate student in theoretical physics at Caltech, and his younger brother, Cole, who majors in theater arts at the University of Minnesota, have long shared a passion for musical theater. For years, they had discussed creating their own work, including songs, lyrics, and script.

Seeking inspiration, Grant, whose work at Caltech involves high-energy physics related to gravity, turned to space. What he found, besides the actual universe, was a version represented by the Star Trek television series of the 1960s.

“The topic of Star Trek was natural for us,” explains Grant. “We always loved the show.” The result, entitled Boldly Go!, will have its world premiere at Ramo Auditorium on the Caltech campus February 26–28 and March 3–5, 2016. Brian Brophy, a lecturer in theater at Caltech, will direct.

The production features 19 original songs and 20 scenes. Grant describes it as a “loving parody,” which he says combines affection for the material with moments of sheer irreverence. Many of the popular characters are included, such as Captain Kirk, Spock, Doctor McCoy, Sulu, Uhura, and Chekov, plus new ones as well.

By design, Grant says, Boldly Go! features a variety of musical styles, “including classic musical theater, gospel, tango, indie rock, ragtime power ballad, patter song, and more.”

“We did this in order to parody musical theater itself, a genre that we enjoy and with which we are very familiar,” he adds.

Song titles include “Klingons are Misunderstood,” “The Vulcan Way,” “Dammit Jim, I’m a Doctor,” and “Live Long and Prosper.”

Since September 2013, when work commenced on the musical, Grant has cowritten all facets while pursuing his doctorate at Caltech under faculty advisors Clifford Cheung, assistant professor of theoretical physics, and Sean Carroll, research professor of physics.

“I’m excited about my work because understanding the high-energy behavior of gravity and the nature of space-time is arguably the ultimate question in physics,” he says.

Grant remains “first, foremost, and always a scientist,” and spends most of his days doing research exclusively. During the time he spent developing the musical, he allowed himself small breaks to work on the production, writing bits of dialogue and lyrics whenever possible, which he then sent to his brother for suggestions and edits. Cole did the same in return.

Over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays in 2013 and 2014, while the brothers stayed at the family home in Minnesota, they spent hours each day alone together in a room, composing melodies like veteran Broadway composers.

The work on Boldly Go! also included what would be a leisure-time activity under different circumstances. To better understand the nuances of the characters, Grant viewed an estimated 500 hours of Star Trek programming, both film and television.

Watching Star Trek has been popular at Caltech since the 1960s. In January 1968, when NBC was threatening to cancel the program, a group of Caltech students protested the planned move. According to a story about the protest that appeared in the Los Angeles Times, “200 chanting, banner-waving Caltech scholars conducted a torchlight procession through the streets of Burbank to carry a protest to the steps of the National Broadcasting Company.”

A national campaign succeeded; NBC renewed the series for 1968–69, before canceling it permanently.

In the spring of 2015, Brophy and Grant conducted a five-week rehearsal of Boldly Go!, which culminated in a staged reading at the Cahill Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics. Many audience members at the event, which was sold out, wore Star Trek T-shirts. “I was overwhelmed by the reaction,” says Kelvin Bates, who is playing the role of Captain Kirk.

“At its core,” Grant says, “Boldly Go! is a story about being true to oneself and one’s convictions, about friendship and love, about discovery and wonder, about the triumph of the individual over adversity, and about the joy of sharing with each other this vast and mysterious universe.”

Written by Tom Waldman


Today’s graduate students, like those showcased in our Winter 2015 issue, often become tomorrow’s scientific leaders. The careers of France Córdova (PhD ’79), Arati Prabhakar (MS ’80, PhD ’85), and Ellen Williams (PhD ’81), offer dramatic examples of how true that can be.

These women now lead three of the nation’s top science, technology, and research agencies: the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E).

France Córdova

France Córdova
France Córdova

Since 2014, Córdova has led the NSF, a $7 billion-a-year federal agency that supports fundamental research and education in all the nonmedical fields of science and engineering.

Córdova studied physics as a graduate student at Caltech, working on X-ray astronomy. It was a time she remembered in a recent interview in the Caltech Alumni Association’s publication, Techer, as “rigorous, collaborative, and fun. … As graduate students, you were able to learn from and work right alongside all of these incredible minds, like theoretical physicists Murray Gell-Mann and Richard Feynman.”

After Caltech, Córdova built an impressive resume that included working for a decade at Los Alamos National Laboratory; leading the department of astronomy and astrophysics at Pennsylvania State University; and becoming the youngest person and first woman to hold the position of NASA chief scientist. Over those and subsequent years, the positions she held shifted from those focused primarily on research to more administrative roles, eventually including vice chancellor for research at UC Santa Barbara, chancellor of UC Riverside, president of Purdue University, and chair of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution before being named as the NSF’s director.

Arati Prabhakar

Arati Prabhakar
Arati Prabhakar

Prabhakar serves as director of DARPA—an agency of the U.S. Department of Defense that develops emerging technologies for use by the military and whose achievements include the creation of ARPANET, the precursor to the Internet.

Prabhakar first joined DARPA in 1986 after receiving her doctorate in applied physics from Caltech. Her initial job with the agency was to manage programs in advanced semiconductor technology and flexible manufacturing, and to manage demonstration projects to insert new semiconductor technologies into military systems.

She discussed how Caltech prepared her for that role in a 2011 interview with ENGenious, a publication of the Division of Engineering and Applied Science. In that interview, she said that “having a very solid technical foundation really helped with judgments I had to make in my career. … I was investing in people that I thought were going to make big leaps forward in technology. I wasn’t in the lab doing the work, but I was trying to exercise good judgment about where real breakthroughs might come from. That wouldn’t have been possible without the solid technical foundation I received at Caltech.”

In 1993, President Bill Clinton named Prabhakar director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a post she held until 1997, when she stepped down to pursue entrepreneurial interests in the Silicon Valley, funding and managing engineers and scientists to create new technologies and businesses. She returned to DARPA, this time as its director, in 2012.

Prabhakar appears in a 2015 video describing DARPA’s mission here.

Ellen Williams

Ellen Williams
Ellen Williams

Since 2014, Williams has served as director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), a federal agency modeled after DARPA and tasked with promoting and funding research and development of advanced energy technologies.

In 2014, as part of the kickoff to President Thomas F. Rosenbaum’s inauguration, she participated in a panel discussion at Caltech on “Science and the University-Government Partnership,” in which she described ARPA-E’s job as similar to that of a stockbroker, putting money into investments—in this case technologies—that will perform solidly but also rounding out the portfolio with riskier investments that nonetheless “have the potential to really win big.”

She said, “We have to take some risks [because] traditionally something like 20 percent of the initial investment of a technology portfolio will give 80 percent of the benefits—you just don’t know which are the 20 percent.”

Prior to joining ARPA-E, Williams served as the senior adviser to the United States Secretary of Energy and as the chief scientist for BP, where she was responsible for the company’s long-range scientific plans and activities as well as its major university research programs around the world.

Before working in industry and for the federal government, Williams built a 30-year career in academia, conducting research in nanoscience. She joined the faculty at the University of Maryland shortly after receiving her doctorate in chemistry from Caltech in 1981 and is currently on leave from her position of Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Physics and the Institute of Physical Science and Technology there.


Our Winter 2015 issue highlighted PhD students’ efforts to navigate copious amounts of coursework, lab work, and teaching duties as well as their personal lives. Here we look at two of Caltech’s pioneering graduate students: Roscoe Dickinson, who earned the Institute’s first PhD, and Dorothy Ann Semenow, the first female graduate student at Caltech.

Roscoe Dickinson

Roscoe Dickinson in 1923
Roscoe Dickinson in 1923

Dickinson joined Caltech in 1917 after completing his undergraduate education at MIT. According to Judith Goodstein’s history of the Institute, Millikan’s School, Dickinson began working with Arthur Amos Noyes, the founder and first director of the Gates Chemical Laboratory on a then-pioneering technology: X-ray crystallography, a technique to help determine the atomic configurations of crystals.

Dickinson went on to receive a doctorate in chemistry as Caltech’s first PhD recipient in 1920, shortly after the school changed its name from the Throop College of Technology to its current title. He then joined the faculty as a professor of chemistry, mentoring promising graduate students including Linus Pauling (PhD ’25), who went on to become a two-time Nobel laureate, and Arnold O. Beckman (PhD ’28), who later invented the pH meter and was a longtime trustee and benefactor of Caltech.

Dorothy Ann Semenow

Dorothy Ann Semenow in photo from a 1953 article in E&S magazine.
Dorothy Ann Semenow in photo from a 1953 article in E&S magazine.

After getting her chemistry degree at Mount Holyoke and studying at MIT, Semenow joined Caltech as its sole female student at the invitation of John D. Roberts, Institute Professor of Chemistry (now emeritus). On arrival, she pursued research in theoretical organic chemistry, earning a PhD in chemistry and biology in 1955.

Roberts, who in a 1985 interview described Semenow as “a superb student … an excellent perseverer, a very sharp mind [and] a very good experimentalist,” said that, with her in mind, he worked with Linus Pauling to persuade the Institute administration to rescind the rule, then in force, prohibiting women from enrolling.

A July 2, 1955, article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette noted that she was permitted to enroll once “the school let down the barrier against her sex in favor of ‘women who give promise of great scientific contributions.’”

It also noted that by earning her PhD at Caltech, Semenow, then 25, had “cracked a male fortress.”

—Written by Jon Nalick

The Power of Gunpowder

Although Europe represents only about 8 percent of the planet’s landmass, from 1492 to 1914, Europeans conquered or colonized more than 80 percent of the entire world. Being dominated for centuries has led to lingering inequality and long-lasting effects, including poverty and slow economic growth, in many formerly colonized countries. There are many possible explanations for why history played out this way, but few can explain why the West was so powerful for so long.

Caltech’s Philip Hoffman, the Rea A. and Lela G. Axline Professor of Business Economics and professor of history, has a new explanation: the advancement of gunpowder technology. “In 1914, really only China, Japan, and the Ottoman Empire had escaped becoming European colonies,” says Hoffman. “A thousand years ago, no one would have ever expected that result, for at that point Western Europe was hopelessly backward. It was politically weak, it was poor, and the major long-distance commerce was a slave trade led by Vikings. The political  dominance of Western Europe was an unexpected outcome and had really big consequences, so I thought: Let’s explain it.” Hoffman’s work is published in a new book titled Why Did Europe Conquer the World?

“Gunpowder was really important for conquering territory; it allows a small number of people to exercise a lot of influence,” he says. Hoffman put together an economic model of how gunpowder technology has advanced to come up with what he thinks is the real reason why the West conquered almost everyone else. His idea incorporates the model of a contest or a tournament in which your odds of winning are higher if you spend more resources on fighting.

“If you think about it, you realize that advancements in gunpowder technology—which are important for conquest—arise where political leaders fight using that technology, where they spend huge sums on it, and where they’re able to share the resulting advances in that technology,” he says. “For example, if I am fighting you and you figure out a better way to build an armed ship, I can imitate you. For that to happen, the countries have to be small and close to one another. And all of this describes Europe.” —JSC

Faculty Footnotes

There are approximately 100 billion neurons in the human brain—and the growth, development, and death of these neurons are controlled by thousands of genes. Sorting out how changes in these genes and neurons can lead to changes in behavior seems like a tall order, but that’s exactly the problem that biology research professor Carlos Lois is interested in.

His work uses songbirds as a model organism for the study of schizophrenia and autism:

“The advantage of working with birds is that they have this very natural behavior—singing—that in many ways is very similar to speech learning in humans. First, they have to listen to an adult tutor—the father bird—and after they listen, they practice until they can make a copy of the song that is very similar to what the father makes. There are not that many other animals that have this vocal learning. In humans there are a few communication-related genes that, when mutated, are associated with schizophrenia and autism. By studying mutations in those same genes in songbirds like zebra finches, we can learn how those mutations affect the bird’s ability to communicate with others—one characteristic used to diagnose these disorders.”

When he first came to Caltech to do a postdoctoral fellowship in David Baltimore’s lab, he didn’t have a driver’s license:

“When I was growing up in Spain, I lived in a big city and I didn’t need a car. Then I lived in New York and Boston. I came to Pasadena to do my postdoc and I was 28 years old and I didn’t know how to drive. I thought, ‘I’m sure I could do fine with a bicycle.’ I even went to Manhattan Beach, Santa Monica, and Zuma Beach on my bicycle, but then I decided that was enough, and I got my driver’s license.”

He loves the movies:

“I really like any sort of fiction—like novels, short stories, and especially movies. From 1986 to 2007 I’d say I watched an average of four movies every week. But when my son was born in 2007, it went from four movies per week to four movies per year. So now I mostly read fiction in novels and short stories.”

Solving the Nuclear Pore Complex

In the spring 2015 issue of this magazine, we wrote about André Hoelz, who is using X-ray crystallography to solve the architecture of one of the most elaborate structures in biology, the nuclear pore complex (“X-ray Vision,” E&S, Vol. 78, No. 1). Recently, a team led by Hoelz, assistant professor of biochemistry at Caltech, reported solving another crucial piece of that puzzle.

The nuclear pore complex (NPC) acts as a cellular gatekeeper that controls molecules trying to enter or exit the nucleus, the heart of eukaryotic cells where, among other things, genetic information is stored. For decades, scientists have been trying to figure out how the NPC can be such an effective gatekeeper—keeping out the cellular riffraff while helping to shuttle certain molecules across the nuclear envelope. This is important at least in part because the NPC is targeted by a number of diseases, including some aggressive forms of leukemia and nervous system disorders. In a paper published in Science Express on August 27, the team reported that they have solved the architecture of the pore’s inner ring, a subcomplex central to the NPC’s ability to serve as a barrier and transport facilitator. Hoelz and colleagues had previously described the atomic structure of the outer rings; now that the architectures of the inner and outer rings of the NPC are known, getting an atomic structure of those combined is “a sprint to the summit,” says Hoelz.

“When I started at Caltech, I thought it might take another 10, 20 years to do this,” he continues. “In the end, we have really only been working on this for four and a half years, and the thing is basically tackled. I want to emphasize that this kind of work is not doable everywhere. The people who worked on this are truly special, talented, and smart; and they worked day and night on this for years.”

Ultimately, Hoelz says he would like to understand how the NPC works in great detail so that he might be able to generate therapies for diseases associated with the dysfunction of the complex. —KF

Dirty Work

On the grounds of San Marino’s Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens—in the private, half-acre Huntington Ranch area—nearly two dozen middle and high school students spent this past summer measuring the levels of nitrogen in the soils around them to help the ranch determine whether its dirt is up to the challenge of growing an urban garden. This hands-on research experience was part of the Community Science Academy @ Caltech, which is affiliated with Caltech’s Center for Teaching, Learning, and Outreach. At left, James Maloney (MS ’06), one of the two co-directors of the CSA@Caltech program, helps high school student Kate Samaniego gather soil samples for testing. Other projects involved conducting experiments on ant behavior, and designing and building sensor-carrying remote-controlled powered kites, which the students flew over the library grounds. —JA

Art In Aberration

This image from Caltech’s semiannual Art of Science competition highlights the beauty of scientific mistakes. Graduate student Chen Xu, who works in materials science, was attempting to plate a smooth layer of gold on top of a truss—a carefully designed lattice functioning as a cathode—for a lithium-oxygen battery, a very clean and reusable type of battery. Formed out of a polymer, the truss must be plated with gold to make it conductive. But when the precious metal was being plated onto the structure, the process went too fast and the gold formed the flowery, tree-like crystals, called dendrites, seen above. Each “bouquet” or node is about 150 microns across, or approximately double the thickness of a human hair. The photo was taken using a scanning electron microscope, a machine that shoots focused beams of electrons at a specimen and measures the scattering to get very high-resolution images.

E&S+ 2015 Year in Review, Featuring Our Favorite Video Posts

In case you missed them, here are some of our favorite video clips from stories we ran in 2015. Click on the titles to read the stories that accompanied the videos.

Ride of The Valkyries

A Cube Competition

Next Generation of Neuroprosthetics

Snowflake Watching

Ride Along with RoboSimian

Commencement Address: Genevieve Bell

Taking a Dinosaur’s Temperature


This is Mars!

The Rocketmen

The Vomit Comet

The Sounds of Science-Tsunami Waves in Interstellar Space

Taking the X Out of X-Rays