As a Caltech doctoral student in chemistry in the 1980s, Barbara Burger (PhD ’87) stood out: She saw a future in industry rather than academia.
Recently, Burger, now president of Chevron Technology Ventures, pledged over $1.5 million to Caltech through the Break Through campaign, including funds from the Gordon and Betty Moore Graduate Fellowship Match, to pave the way for new generations of women just like her.
“Nontraditionals,” she calls them: women who pursue PhDs in chemistry and are determined to make a mark in the world outside the university.
Burger has enjoyed her 32-year career with Chevron and is glad she chose industry over academia. Back in her graduate student days, however, that decision earned her some side-glances.
“Caltech has produced people who have done amazing things in all lines of the economy and society, but it is not always easy to plot your way if you don’t go the traditional route,” she says. “When I look back, there were a lot of things I did not know. I am trying to fill that gap by providing support for today’s nontraditional students.”
Burger’s gift creates:
- The endowed Barbara J. Burger Fellowship, which focuses on female doctoral students in chemistry who aim to build careers outside academia
- The endowed Barbara J. Burger Women in Chemistry Annual Prize, which furnishes research-related support for female graduate students in chemistry at Caltech
- Discretionary funds for Women in Chemistry (WIC), a Caltech student organization, which can be used for guest speakers, site visits, and other activities that provide networking opportunities and advance the careers of women in chemistry and related sciences
According to Jackie Barton, Caltech’s John G. Kirkwood and Arthur A. Noyes Professor of Chemistry, who also held the Norman Davidson Leadership Chair in the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering (CCE) at the time Burger made her gift, the Burger Fellowship and Prize are forward-thinking.
“Support for graduate students has an enormous impact on their experience and on the research enterprise in CCE,” Barton says. “Barbara Burger’s support goes even further. It empowers women to think broadly and creatively about their career paths. Barbara’s commitment to the next generation of women leaders is inspiring.”
“I Wanted to Do Something Different”
Born and raised in New York, Burger went to the University of Rochester and originally intended to become a physician, like her aunt. She chose chemistry as her pre-med major. After graduation, she enrolled at Caltech because of its reputation for scientific and research excellence and decided to see where a PhD would lead.
She was surprised, however, to find nearly all her classmates at Caltech laser-focused on academic careers.
Burger’s first taste of industry had come the summer before graduate school: A post-college internship at Monsanto’s St. Louis headquarters opened her eyes to non-academic possibilities.
“I realized pretty quickly that I wanted to do something different,” she says.
Being a woman at Caltech set Burger apart almost as much as her determination to work in the private sector. Caltech had admitted its first female graduate student in 1953 and bestowed bachelor’s degrees on women for the first time in 1973. When Burger arrived 10 years later, women were still a slim minority of the student population.
“There were so few of us that we formed strong bonds,” says Burger, who remains in close contact with three friends from graduate school: Nancy Doherty (PhD ’84), Janet Marshall (PhD ’87), and Leigh Maier (PhD ’88). “Interestingly, we all had different careers,” Burger adds. “One is in government, one is in mainstream academia, and one went into industry initially but then became a university lecturer.”
Caltech’s gains in women’s enrollment are a point of pride for Burger. Today, the Institute’s undergraduate enrollment approaches gender parity, with a distribution of 46 percent female and 54 percent male in the class of 2022.
Strategy for Success
At Chevron, Burger started as a research chemist and rose to management and executive positions in marketing, chemicals, and lubricants. She has lived in the San Francisco Bay area, where she earned her MBA in finance at UC Berkeley, and in Houston, where she met her late husband, Chevron chemical engineer Ed Brown. She spent years in London, overseeing Chevron’s lubricant enterprises in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. Since 2013, she has been president of Houston-based Chevron Technology Ventures, which scouts new technologies and business opportunities for its parent company, Chevron Corp.
Burger wants help the next generation of Caltech women chemists interested in creative, non-academic career paths find their way.
From a business perspective, Burger considers her philanthropy a strategy for success. “I have had a career-long passion around encouraging women to enter and succeed in professions previously dominated by men,” she says. “In industry and beyond, where there is diversity and an inclusive culture, the solutions you come up with are much broader, better thought through, and more likely to solve problems.”
Looking ahead at Caltech, Burger, who is a member of the Caltech Associates, hopes her example will lead to more graduate fellowships for students who wish to pursue work outside of academia.
In addition, she looks forward to making a personal connection with the first Burger Fellow, Chong Sun, who also happens to be the first Burger Prize recipient.
“We have a responsibility to help those who come after us,” she says, “and we can get great joy by watching the fruits of that.”
To learn how you can establish a named fellowship fund at Caltech, or to request more information about the Gordon and Betty Moore Graduate Fellowship Match, please contact Bettie Woods, executive director for development, individual giving, at (626) 395-3088 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about how you can support Caltech’s Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, please contact Janny Manasse, senior director of development for CCE, at (626) 395-1530 or email@example.com.