Caltech Home > Welcome > Speeches & Writings > Letters to Friends of Caltech > June 2020 Letter to Friends of Caltech
Search open search form

June 2020 Letter to Friends of Caltech

June 1, 2020

Dear Friends of Caltech:

"What we need are more people who specialize in the impossible." 
Poet Theodore Roethke

In the last few months, we have weathered the coronavirus storm together. Caltech has pivoted to remote learning and remote operations, as have educational institutions and businesses across the world. Our lives have become suffused with Zoom meetings, Webex gatherings, webinars, teleconferences, online classes for students of all ages, and a panoply of virtual events.

Virtual events, however, need not lead to virtual community. We have pulled together to keep the Institute moving forward, even as the whirlwind of the pandemic has altered our lives and often increased our burdens. We have learned that even in separation community can triumph. The Caltech community's commitment to discovery, to creating knowledge for the ages, and to improving people's lives today, continues unabated, and we celebrate with you this shared mission. 

Most laboratories on campus remain shuttered, but not all. In response to crisis, Caltech researchers are harnessing fundamental insights to deliver technological solutions to COVID-19 challenges. The enclosed brochure captures a slice of this activity. Investigators from across the divisions, all of whom share a commitment to breakthrough science, have taken action. As always, they tap into the lifeblood of the Institute: excellence, fearlessness, focus, and ambition.

Biologist Pamela Bjorkman, who has spent her career studying how the immune system reacts to viruses that cause diseases such as AIDS and influenza, quickly shifted her focus to isolating possible antibodies against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.  Electrical engineer Axel Scherer, a magician of microfabrication and microsystems, turned his talents to more effective, high throughput testing for infection. Neuroscientist Dean Mobbs, an expert on the behavioral dynamics of social interactions, is helping to demystify the emotional experiences of living through a pandemic. JPL engineers briefly segued from spacecraft to medical machinery and, in a matter of weeks, designed a markedly simpler, less-expensive ventilator geared to coronavirus patients. The FDA already has authorized the ventilator for emergency use.    

These dynamic and uncertain times have underscored the importance of science and engineering for society. The Institute has seized the moment and launched the Caltech Science Exchange, a web resource dedicated to clear and credible explanations of high-profile science and engineering topics. It features interviews with experts, illustrative articles, videos, curated external content, and a forum for discussion. The site currently presents multimedia content explaining what we know and, as importantly, what we don't know about the science behind COVID-19 and other viral threats. Future topics such as voting and elections, sustainability, earthquakes, and genetics are scheduled to follow.

As I write this letter, we are gearing up for a staged expansion of activity on campus and at JPL, with laboratory research slated to resume first in a modulated form. The process will be gradual and informed by public health guidelines and state, county, and local orders. We will base our decisions on data and do all we can to mitigate risk. The reality is that we will not be able to assemble as a full community for a good time yet. That is why your friendship, your engagement, and your support is so important. The impossible is within reach when we work together as a community.  


Thomas F. Rosenbaum

Enclosure: An Exchange of Ideas: Caltech Scientists on COVID-19