August 6, 2021

Barr Leadership Chair Boosts Caltech Center for Comparative Planetary Evolution

Gift from alumnus and family offers flexible funding for multidisciplinary studies of planets familiar and far away.

For Terence Barr (BS ’84), being an undergraduate geophysics major at Caltech was a time of excitement and discovery. Highlights included the chance to work closely with faculty luminaries such as Joe Kirschvink, the Nico and Marilyn Van Wingen Professor of Geobiology, and Lee Silver, the W. M. Keck Foundation Professor for Resource Geology, Emeritus, an originator of planetary science who trained astronauts to conduct fieldwork on the moon.

Recently, Terence and his parents, Melza and Frank Theodore (Ted) Barr, made a generous gift to fuel the efforts of Silver’s spiritual successors. With a $10 million commitment from the Melza M. and Frank Theodore Barr Foundation to Break Through: The Caltech Campaign, the family has endowed the Terence D. Barr Leadership Chair for the Caltech Center for Comparative Planetary Evolution, or 3CPE.

“Defining some of the most consequential issues in planetary science, such as the origins of our solar system and whether we are alone in the universe, Caltech researchers address questions that have captivated humans for millennia,” says President Thomas F. Rosenbaum, Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair and professor of physics. “The Barr family’s powerful investment jump starts the interdisciplinary collaboration that is the hallmark of the Institute’s approach to launching original lines of inquiry.”

The center pulls together scholars from a host of scientific fields to create new knowledge about how planets form and change over time; the chair provides the 3CPE director with flexible resources to fulfill top priorities and seize emerging research opportunities. Mike Brown, the Richard and Barbara Rosenberg Professor of Planetary Astronomy, has been named the inaugural chair holder.

“We’re all inspired by the science, and we thought this was an amazing opportunity to help give that initial boost to start something big,” says Terence, who is president of the energy company AFEX International, Inc., and a member of the Caltech Associates.

Seeking Answers to Cosmic Questions

The nascent 3CPE unites investigators across astronomy, geology, and biology in search of answers to some of the biggest and oldest questions: Where do we come from? How did Earth come to be the way it is? Are we alone? By comparing knowledge about Earth, its neighbors in the solar system, and exoplanets, 3CPE researchers aim to untangle ancient mysteries and open up brand new areas of inquiry.

“To gain a fundamental understanding of how stars, planets, and life itself came to be takes wide-ranging interdisciplinary collaboration,” Brown says. “3CPE fosters these connections, and the Barrs’ gift helps make it all possible.”

The elder Barrs first gained a vantage on the Institute’s interdisciplinary approach to planetary science through their son’s involvement as member of the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences (GPS) Chair’s Council. In early 2020, they visited campus and met with faculty members from GPS and the Division of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy who described their latest research.

“I was so impressed,” Melza says. “It was like a light switch turned on in my head.”

“I think 3CPE is a revolutionary idea: to bring together several different areas of expertise at Caltech and approach this pioneering field of science. All of us at the Barr Foundation are very excited to support this.”
- Terence Barr (BS ’84)

A Powerful, Portable Education

As a student, Terence benefited from the hallmarks of a Caltech education, including access to trailblazing faculty members, early research experience, and broadly applicable lessons in problem-solving.

“Caltech was a great place to be an undergraduate because there were many great professors and very few undergraduates,” he says. “I received all of this personal attention.”

Although he originally planned to be a physicist, he felt the call of geology, which also had been his father’s area of study. Research trips alongside distinguished scientists took Terence to destinations ranging from Mexico to Russia.

Terence earned a PhD at Princeton and launched a first career in academic research at Monash University in Australia from 1990 to 2000. In 2000, he switched tracks to take the helm at AFEX International, which his parents had founded in 1993. In academia as well as industry, his Caltech training in tackling problems using first principles has served him well.

“Caltech gave me an incredible start to my career,” he says. “I will always have that Caltech way to approach problems.”

The Habit of Giving

The Barr Leadership Chair is one in a long line of philanthropic pursuits for Melza and Ted. After Ted’s success in a globetrotting career in petroleum exploration and production, the Barrs were inspired to support the communities that had been so good to them.

The Barrs have funded infectious disease research, public health efforts, and educational programs in West Africa. In the United States, they have supported medical science, environmental investigations, and the arts. And at Caltech, the Barr Foundation has supported postdoctoral research fellowships in GPS over each of the last five years.

“When you start making a profit in a country, you realize that that comes with an obligation to give something back,” Ted says.

Endowing the 3CPE leadership chair, he adds, is the family’s vote of confidence in Caltech’s capacity to expand our understanding of the universe, and in the first chairholder’s vision for the center.

“3CPE is an umbrella covering a lot of expertise,” Terence says. “Mike Brown is a unique individual who can see the big picture, from the microbial scale to planets light years away. He is inspiring to everybody.”