Celebrating the shared legacy of Beckman and Gray

In November 2015, Caltech marked both the 25th anniversary of the Beckman Institute and the 80th birthday of chemist Harry Gray with a two-day “Invention and Imagination in the Molecular Sciences” symposium. Gray and the late Arnold Beckman (PhD ’28), former Caltech professor and chairman emeritus of the Caltech board of trustees, began a close working relationship in the late 1960s, when Gray arrived at Caltech. Beckman (above, left) congratulates Harry Gray on becoming the first Arnold O. Beckman Professor of Chemistry in 1981. Gray is also the founding director of the Beckman Institute, a multidisciplinary center for research in the chemical and biological sciences that was dedicated in 1989 with funds from the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation.

Photo: Courtesy of the Caltech Archives

Good Luck Green

These glowing crystals generated by Tania Darnton, a Caltech graduate student in the lab of chemist Harry Gray, are composed of the tetraphenylphosphonium (Ph4P+) salt of the compound tetrakis(diphosphonato) diplatinate(II), commonly known as Pt(POP) due to its phosphorus-oxygenphosphorus bridges. This compound is a precursor to another molecule Darnton is studying for her thesis, which is a highly luminescent derivative of Pt(POP) with possible applications in oxygen sensing thin films and catalytic electron-transfer reactions. According to Darnton, the crystals were created via the slow evaporation of a methanol solution of the compound—quite by accident, in fact. She hadn’t synthesized the Ph4P+ salt before, and after several frustrating hours of trying unsuccessfully to isolate the compound she decided to just leave the solution out and try again in the morning. When she returned the following day, she was greeted with bright green crystals, which she called a “wonderful reward” after the disappointment of the night before. Such compounds could be used in building detectors for laboratories to ensure proper atmospheric conditions for sensitive chemical reactions.

Photo: Courtesy of Tania Darnton

Take it to the Crowd

When you have a question about your health or your finances, you go to a doctor or an accountant for advice; you figure they have the knowledge you need to get the answers you’re looking for. But what about when you’re wondering where to go for dinner in a new city? Rather than hiring an expert chef to individually rate each restaurant—a pricey and time-consuming endeavor—you’d probably find it far more practical and efficient to trust the recommendations of the thousands of local diners who’ve already voluntarily rated the restaurants online.

Today, crowdsourcing—in which many individuals work toward the collective goal of narrowing down a large amount of information—has indeed made it easier to choose a good restaurant or pick a movie you’ll likely enjoy. But the concept has also found an application in areas of research where numerous scientists have collected far more data than they could ever analyze on their own.

By taking this data to the crowd, researchers at Caltech have found a way to engage the public while also allowing so-called citizen scientists to investigate a variety of research topics—from very tiny cells on Earth to massive star clusters in our galaxy.

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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