June 21, 2018

A Gift of Autonomy

Visiting Caltech in fall 2017, trustees Lynn Booth and Kent Kresa had a chance to stop by the newly opened Center for Autonomous Systems and Technologies (CAST). This interdisciplinary hub advances research on autonomous systems and robots with potential benefits ranging from improving disaster rescue and response to providing mobility for people with disabilities to expanding our ability to explore land, water, and outer space. The promise of innovation on display so fired the couple’s imagination that they decided to endow the Booth-Kresa Leadership Chair for CAST.

“Caltech researchers are tackling some very exciting projects, and I think they’re going to create amazing things,” says Kresa, chairman emeritus of Northup Grumman and former chair of the Institute’s Board of Trustees, which he joined in 1994.

Adds Booth, a prominent Los Angeles philanthropist who became a Caltech trustee in 2012, “When we got home from that visit, we thought about CAST and said, ‘You know, we’d really like to be part of that.’”

Distinct from a traditional professorial chair, the Booth-Kresa Leadership Chair will generate flexible resources year after year that the center’s director can use to seed promising projects, support top priorities, and pursue time-sensitive opportunities. CAST director Mory Gharib, Caltech’s Hans W. Liepmann Professor of Aeronautics and Bioinspired Engineering, will be the first holder of the Booth-Kresa Leadership Chair.


“In science and technology, freedom is the most powerful gift you can offer. The Booth-Kresa Leadership Chair will help ensure that CAST can move nimbly into our emerging more autonomous future, unleashing the creativity of our faculty, students, and scholars. I am personally grateful to Lynn and Kent for their generosity, enthusiasm, and trust in our vision.”
- Mory Gharib

The leadership chair will backed by an endowment of $5 million. This comprises a joint gift to Break Through: The Caltech Campaign from the trustees’ family foundations, with the Otis Booth Foundation and the Kresa Family Foundation each contributing $1,666,667 million. Their gifts will be augmented with additional funds from a matching challenge created by Foster and Coco Stanback, the donors who endowed CAST.


Kresa, Booth, and Gharib pause for a photo outside the CAST headquarters.

Broad Collaboration, Big Potential

CAST brings together more than two dozen engineers and scientists from the Division of Engineering and Applied Science, the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

At the center’s on-campus home, Caltech has constructed a unique laboratory. There, sensitive cameras can observe drones as they are challenged by simulated realistic weather conditions created by a sophisticated fan wall. Throughout CAST, faculty, students, and robots work side by side across the spectrum of basic and applied research.

Among the studies under way at CAST, teams are developing a walking robot that can adapt to any terrain, a flying ambulance that can navigate on its own to airlift victims from hard-to-reach locations, and sea gliders that can collect data where humans cannot—on Earth and other planets. Other researchers aim to realize increasingly familiar concepts such as driverless automobiles and self-directed drones.

“Unmanned vehicles are going to be very important in the years ahead,” Kresa says. “I was delighted that Caltech started a center to solve the problems involved in getting them to work, and getting them to work together.”

Kresa and Booth watch as graduate student Rachel Gehlhar demonstrates a novel prosthetic leg designed in Professor Aaron Ames’s lab.

‘You Have to Be Ready’

The gift adds a new chapter to the generous philanthropic legacies of the two trustees, who married in 2017. It is their first contribution to Caltech as a couple. According to Booth, the decision was organic.

“We both have a great affinity for Caltech,” she says. “We’re together, and it just felt natural to make the gift together.”

Individually, Booth and Kresa previously endowed leadership chairs that provide discretionary funding to the leaders of academic divisions. In 2013, Booth honored her late husband by establishing the Otis Booth Leadership Chair in the Division of Engineering and Applied Science. In 2015, Kresa and his late wife created the Kent and Joyce Kresa Leadership Chair in the Division of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy.

“The chair of a division or director of a center is the best person to have a comprehensive view of where the good ideas are,” Kresa says. “Giving Mory autonomy to jump-start new ventures creates a tremendous advantage.”

Booth adds: “We don’t know ahead of time who is going to come up with some wonderful idea. When they do, you have to be ready.”