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.

Good Vibrations

For their 1966 song, “Good Vibrations,” the Beach Boys assembled an unusual mix of instruments—including a jaw harp, a cello, and an Electro-Theremin—to produce one of their biggest hits. By arranging sound waves in a unique and particular way, they were able to elicit a positive response.

Many doctors and researchers have the same goal. After all, the same “excitations” that helped the Beach Boys usher in an era of feel-good pop—the sound waves that propagate through air and water, bringing notes of music to our ears—are also noninvasively able to explore body tissues, helping to visualize babies in the womb, heal back pain, or even deliver chemotherapeutics to targeted tumors.

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Faculty Footnotes: Konstantin Batygin

By day, Konstantin Batygin (MS ’10, PhD ’12), assistant professor of planetary science, is developing a theoretical understanding of how planetary orbits evolve—from start to finish—by studying the dynamical structure of our own planetary system. By night, he’s the lead singer of a band called The Seventh Season. Earlier this year, Batygin’s impressive research reputation—he had published 21 first-author papers by the age of 28—coupled with his musical interests earned him a spot on the Forbes “30 Under 30” list in the science category, where he’s described as “the next physics rock star.” We asked Batygin for a few other facts that probably don’t appear on his résumé:

He grew up surrounded by scientists in Japan, where his dad was a physicist at a research institution called RIKEN.
“At the time, I had grown to believe that becoming a scientist is simply something that you do when you grow up. However, this had nothing to do with my own career choice as I am now keenly aware that other jobs do exist—for example, one can also become a musician!”

His first trip to Disneyland was with a famous astrophysicist.
“When I was about 10 years old, I had a good friend named Dmitry. I knew Dmitry’s dad studied something related to black holes, but at the time the coolest thing about Dmitry’s dad was that he took us to Disneyland in Tokyo, and we got to go on all the rides, including Space Mountain. My mind was totally blown when I finally realized in grad school that Dmitry’s dad, Nikolai Shakura, was a world-famous astrophysicist who developed the standard theory of disk accretion.”

He met his wife, Olga, on the day he arrived in the United States as a teenager.
“Meeting her that day confirmed what the USA brochure had said: America really is a great country.”

Photo by Lance Hayashida

Need a Drink?

After taking your dog for a run on a warm sunny day, it’s likely that your first instinct upon returning home is to gulp down a whole glass of water. Fido slurps from his bowl, too, as you’re both driven to the same specific behavior by a signal that the body’s healthy ratio of salt to water is getting out of balance. But how does that signal result in the desire to drink water? Assistant Professor of Biology Yuki Oka has pinpointed specific neurons in the brain that control this response, at least for mice.

Oka and his colleagues focused a recent study on the circumventricular organs—the regions related to the hypothalamus that were previously suggested to play a role in thirst. Using optogenetics, a technique that allows the control of neural activities with light, the researchers found two distinct populations that controlled the animal’s water-drinking behavior. When the researchers “turned on” the first group of neurons, it evoked an intense drinking behavior even in fully water-satiated mice. The activation of a second group of neurons, on the other hand, could block the desire to drink even in highly water-deprived animals.

Although the work was done in mice, Oka says the finding suggests that there are innate brain circuits that can act as “switches,” creating or erasing the desire to drink water—and that these circuits could act as a thirst control center in humans, too.

–Written by Jessica Stoller-Conrad

Header photo courtesy of Susan Schmitz/

Fire and Ice

Graduate student Peter Gao took this photograph in Iceland while on an enrichment trip offered by the Division of Geological and Planetary Science and led by faculty members Mark Simons, Bethany Ehlmann, and Robert Clayton. The image features a sheer face of columnar basalts that is part of a series of dramatic rock formations found at Jökulsárgljúfur within Vatnajökull National Park. The terrain in the area is shaped by a volcanic eruption that took place about 8,000 years ago. The eruption led to flooding and subsequent erosion that swept away much of the volcanic edifices. When the magma cooled and contracted underground, it fractured, producing the hexagonal patterning seen here. The 15 students on the trip got to see the earth in action as Iceland’s Bardarbunga volcano began to stir the day they arrived and erupted at Holuhraun on the day they flew out.