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.

Spiros Michalakis Tells an Unfinished Story (+)

Spiros Michalakis has little trouble finding an audience for his discussions of quantum mechanics. As we chronicled in the Random Walk article “Superhero Physics” in our Summer 2015 issue, Hollywood filmmakers actively sought his ideas for the movie Ant-Man.

Michalakis, the manager of outreach and a staff researcher at Caltech’s Institute for Quantum Information and Matter, also drew a crowd of science-loving students to his 2013 TEDxYouth@Caltech lecture, “Atoms—An Unfinished Story.”

The 11-minute lecture describes his quest—humorously framed as a lifelong bid to avenge a childhood chess-game drubbing—to build the ultimate quantum computer.

The Sounds of Science: LIGO

“We listen for changes in the separation of mirrors over the 4-kilometer length of each laser-interferometric detector. But thermal energy in the 0.4 millimeter diameter glass strings that hold up 40-kilogram mirrors also causes ringing sounds that we call ‘violin modes.’ And a hiss comes from the quantum nature of the light: fluctuations in the nothingness of empty space that interfere with our pure laser beam.”328-audio-icon

Rana Adhikari, professor of physics, talks about noises from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) detectors. The aim of LIGO is to measure the stretching and squeezing of space-time. Scientists listen to the detector outputs—which are sometimes disturbed by things from the earth, such as earthquakes or traffic—using headphones.

The Sounds of Science: Tsunami Waves

“The tsunami causes the ionized gas that is out there to resonate — ‘sing’ or vibrate like a bell.”

 Edward C. Stone, the David Morrisroe Professor of Physics, characterizes the sounds of “tsunami waves” that helped signal Voyager I’s entrance into interstellar space. These waves of pressure are caused by coronal mass ejections from the sun. Stone is the project scientist for the Voyager mission based at Caltech.

Superhero Physics

One day last year, Spiros Michalakis, a staff researcher at Caltech’s Institute for Quantum Information and Matter, found himself having a serious conversation with actor Paul Rudd about conservation of mass and energy. Rudd stars in this summer’s Marvel flick, Ant-Man, playing a character who steals a suit that shrinks the wearer down to the size of an ant while allowing him to retain his usual strength.

Rudd was part of a team, including writers, producers, and special effects experts working on the film, who met with Michalakis, a quantum physicist, to get his scientific input on various plot points in the script. “The Ant-Man suit has to do a lot of work to keep the hero alive,” says Michalakis. After all, a lot could go wrong if a 160-pound man suddenly became the size of an insect. Everything from his metabolism, to his breathing, to his sight would change (he would see in the ultraviolet).

Then there was the issue of mass. In order for the character to be able to ride on a flying ant (as the original Marvel character did), he would have to lose almost his entire mass. How would one account for that? “I gave them a visually stunning way to represent the loss of mass through energy dissipation,” says Michalakis. “That would lead to nuclear explosions that would destroy the earth, but who is counting?”

The filmmakers identified Michalakis as the expert they needed through the Science and Entertainment Exchange, a program of the National Academy of Sciences aimed at elevating the level of scientific accuracy in Hollywood productions. Michalakis says he doesn’t think the goal should necessarily be to get the science in the movie exactly right but to make some fundamental aspects accurate.

“It is in the conversations after the movie that the fans get into the actual science,” he says. “That’s when the experts should be front and center to answer the questions and to create wonder.”

–Written by Kimm Fesenmaier


Header photo courtesy of Marvel Entertainment/Film Frame

Finding the Value of X-rays (+)

In researching our article on X-ray crystallography (“X-ray Vision“) we came across this 1940s-era General Electric film, Taking the X Out of X-rays, which discusses the origins of X-ray research and the technology that made it possible.

The nine-minute black-and-white video explains what X-rays are, how they work, and the basics of X-ray photography and fluoroscopy. The information is still relevant 70 years later, long after most of us have lost the sense of wonder about the hidden world these rays reveal. But for the film’s presenter, that sense of wonder is fresh and exciting. He marvels, “Rays, which are themselves invisible, can reveal objects that are otherwise also invisible.”

One More Look Back at Inauguration

The Caltech community welcomed the Institute’s ninth president, Thomas F. Rosenbaum, at a number of campus events in late October 2014. Participants in a “Science and the University-Government Partnership” panel talked about the future of academic science and its evolving relationship with government, industry, and private philanthropy. Also, the University of Chicago President Emeritus Don Michael Randel presented his keynote speech at the inauguration convocation. After the ceremony, Caltech hosted a public reception on the Olive Walk, featuring live music and fare from local food trucks. In the photo above, President Rosenbaum posed with party attendees.

For more on the day, visit

Photo by Bill Youngblood Photography

A Nobel Honor

Caltech added another win to its Nobel scorecard in 2014, bringing to 33 the tally of Caltech alumni and faculty laureates, who have won a total of 34 Nobel Prizes.

Eric Betzig (BS ’83), a group leader at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Farm Research Campus in Ashburn, Virginia, was awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry along with Stefan W. Hell of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry and William E. Moerner of Stanford University. He is the second Caltech alum in two years to be awarded the prize; Martin Karplus (PhD ’54) received the Chemistry Prize in 2013.

The three were honored “for the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy,” a method that allows for the creation of “super-images” with a resolution on the order of nanometers, or billionths of a meter. In essence, the work turns microscopy into “nanoscopy.” The technique developed by the trio overcomes the so-called Abbe diffraction limit, which describes a physical restriction on the sizes of the structures that can be resolved using optical microscopy. Essentially, the limit shows that nothing smaller than one-half the wavelength of light, or about 0.2 microns, can be discerned by optical scopes. The result of
the Abbe limit is that only the larger structures within cells—organelles like mitochondria, for example—can be resolved and studied with regular microscopes; individual proteins or even viruses cannot. The restriction is akin to being able to observe the buildings that make up a city but not the city’s inhabitants and their activities.

Betzig, who was a physics major from Ruddock House during his time at Caltech, built on earlier work by Hell and Moerner to find that it was possible to work around the Abbe limit to create very-high-resolution images of a sample, such as a developing embryo, by using fluorescent proteins that glow when illuminated with a weak pulse of light. Each time the sample is illuminated, a different, sparsely distributed subpopulation
 of fluorescent proteins will light up and, because the glowing molecules are spaced farther apart than the Abbe diffraction limit, a standard microscope would be able to capture them.

Still, each of the images produced in this way has relatively low resolution—that is, the images are blurry. Betzig realized, however, that by super-imposing many such images, he would be able to obtain a sharp super-image, in which nanoscale structures are clearly visible. The new technique was first described in a 2006 paper published in the journal Science.

—Kathy Svitil

Photo by Alexander Mahmoud @ Nobel Media AB


Q&A with Dr. Rosenbaum

On July 1, Thomas Rosenbaum will take office as the ninth president in Caltech’s history after more than 30 years at the University of Chicago—first as a physicist and faculty member; next as director of its Materials Research Laboratory and, later, its interdisciplinary James Franck Institute; then as vice president for research and for Argonne National Laboratory; and, ultimately, as the university’s provost. In anticipation of Rosenbaum’s arrival, E&S asked him to sit down and answer a few questions on topics ranging from diversity to Caltech’s future to his summer reading list. Here, then, is a brief but close-up look at our next president.

E&S: UChicago is a pioneer in diversity. What did you learn through the process of expanding diversity that may be applicable at Caltech?

Rosenbaum: Diversity is integral to the values and success of Caltech; it is not an add-on. Universities are in the essential business of attracting the most original, creative, and compelling scholars and creating an environment of un$inching inquiry and challenge. These aspects of academic eminence require faculty, students, and staff from a wide range of backgrounds and with diverse perspectives.

What do you think distinguishes Caltech in higher education?

Caltech’s combination of absolute excellence, traversable disciplinary barriers, and soaring ambition is simply remarkable. It does not seem possible that a university with only 300 faculty members and 2,250 undergraduates and graduate students combined could be setting the intellectual agendas and running world-preeminent facilities in so many different scientific and engineering arenas, yet we are. JPL is a huge and essential multiplier, but in my view it fundamentally comes down to Caltech’s culture of fearlessness.

What do you think is the biggest challenge before higher education today?

Segmentation, exacerbated by a background environment of disinvestment. Private research universities like Caltech provide a very special residential experience where education and research are intertwined, but they can only serve a small segment of the student population and are squeezed by declining federal investment in research. Publicly funded institutions traditionally have provided the means for a larger body of students to receive an education, with some exemplar research universities among the mix, but states are rapidly retreating from this element of the American dream. Liberal arts colleges are highly tuition dependent and not all will be able to stay in business. For years these different parts of the higher-education spectrum, of distinct character but linked purpose, have provided a range of opportunities for students. I fear that the spectrum is segmenting and leaving large gaps between the elements.

When you consider where Caltech could be decades and decades into its future, what are your hopes?

We need to continue to be a place of possibility, for the intellectual dreams of our faculty and students and alums, and for the aspirations of the world at large.

Tell us something that people would be surprised to know about you.

I spent every spare minute I had in high school playing basketball. The hoop on the president’s house garage sealed my move to Pasadena!

What talent would you love to have that you don’t?

I wish I could carry a tune. I love music, but everyone is happier if I just drum my fingers or tap my feet.

What’s on your summer reading list?

To catch up with the eight or so issues of the New Yorker that I am (perpetually) behind!

What words do you live by?

There is a Jewish teaching that in one pocket you should put a slip of paper that says “For me the world was created,” and in another pocket you should put a slip of paper that says “I am but dust and ashes.” The secret of a successful life is to know when to reach into the proper pocket.