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March 2019 Letter to Friends of Caltech

March 21, 2019

Dear Friends of Caltech:

Caltech continues to be recognized for tracing new trajectories in science and technology. Over the last few years, Institute faculty members alone have garnered three Nobel Prizes and three MacArthur “Genius” Awards. These awards cut across disciplines, approaches, and generations.

The 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics recognized Kip Thorne and Barry Barish for the direct observation of gravitational waves, revealing, in Kip’s words, the “warped side of the universe”: the intricate workings of black holes, neutron stars, and gravity under extreme relativistic conditions. It follows a long tradition of Caltech scientists marrying deep physical insight with novel ways to interrogate nature. The 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry honored Frances Arnold for her revolution in evolution. Not satisfied with the approaches of traditional chemistry, Frances marshaled the tools of genetic engineering to create completely new chemistries – compounds never before produced by Nature – and greener pathways to producing chemicals.

Our most recent MacArthur Fellow, Doris Tsao, has deciphered the mechanisms by which the brain detects and recognizes faces. By combining measurements of electrical signals from individual neurons with elegant mathematical mapping, Doris has pointed the way to understanding how the brain encodes and processes information. She follows Dianne Newman and Victoria Orphan, who were recognized by the MacArthur Foundation for their fundamental studies of microbes and the environment. They have become key players in the nascent field of geobiology, which traces the interactions of microorganisms and the Earth as they develop together.

These awards illustrate the diversity of the intellectual endeavor at the Institute. With four of the six awardees being women, they also underscore the importance of recruiting a diverse faculty, student body, and staff to Caltech. Unless we are a destination of choice for individuals with disparate backgrounds, perspectives, and talents, we will not attract the best of the best. Diversity is very simply a necessary strategy for excellence.

What are our prospects? Caltech came late to the game. Dorothy Semenow moved from MIT with NMR pioneer and organic chemist Jack Roberts to become Caltech’s first female graduate student in 1953. Our first official graduating class of undergraduate women only came about twenty years later in 1974. Jenijoy La Belle, professor of English literature, waited another five years to become Caltech’s first female full professor. We remain under-represented across certain sectors of society.

But we are quick learners! I am optimistic about the future because of our culture. Caltech is an institution that is idealistic about learning and about the creation of knowledge. We have a commitment to evaluating people on the quality of their ideas. We believe in the power of a skeptical mind combined with a collaborative spirit. We value excellence and we encourage ambition. As is evident from our Nobel Laureates and MacArthur Fellows, we seize big ideas with doors and minds open for discussion. We count on each other and we count on you to advance discovery’s horizons.


Thomas F. Rosenbaum

Enclosure: Full STEM Ahead: Women at Caltech