Issue 1: October 2016

Out of the Ordinary

Welcome to The Caltech Effect—a magazine featuring deep dives, illuminating backstories, and human moments arising from Break Through: The Caltech Campaign. In this issue: A pair of hallway-hopping friends point to an undiscovered planet. A doctor seeks medical breakthroughs where there is no med school. A grad student finds her own scientific playground. A Caltech love story, 46 years in the making. An undergrad’s gift starts with a dance party. Keep scrolling to explore.

Champions of Caltech

Forty-six years ago, David Lee (PhD ’74) walked onto campus as a 20-something in awe of Caltech’s reputation in physics. During his graduate studies, he met Ellen, the woman who would become his wife, at a campus event. In the decades since, the Lees have entwined their lives with Caltech and have supported it as caretakers, volunteer leaders, and benefactors.

Today, as chair of Caltech’s Board of Trustees and a co-chair of Break Through: The Caltech Campaign, David champions the institution whose scientific leadership first captivated him so long ago.

Catch glimpses of the Lees’ extraordinary association with Caltech through this gallery of photographs, including some from the couple’s personal collection.

Freewheeling Partnership Leads to Far-out Finding

The close collaboration between observational astronomer Mike Brown, Caltech’s Richard and Barbara Rosenberg Professor and professor of planetary astronomy, and theorist Konstantin Batygin (MS ’10, PhD ’12), assistant professor of planetary science, led to an unexpected discovery of evidence for the existence of a new planet—a planet that is itself out of the ordinary. How did the dynamic duo become the first people in generations to propose a new planet and not be called crazy? Great ideas, determination, skill, and a willingness to take risks—backed by discretionary funding that allowed them to hit the ground running.

“If we had to wait to secure external funding for the research, we would probably still be waiting today,” Brown says. “We had the idea and were up and running immediately. I think everybody at Caltech feels this way: If you have an idea that is worthy of your time, you should go off and pursue it.”

In the case of Planet Nine, Brown supported his research with discretionary funding from his endowed professorship, which was established by trustee Richard Rosenberg and his wife, Barbara.

Likewise, Batygin’s new-faculty startup funds allowed him the freedom to quickly employ the supercomputer housed just a floor below his office in the Seeley W. Mudd Building to move the project forward. (The start-up funds, the computer, and the building were made possible by contributions to Caltech from individuals, corporations, and federal agencies.)

“I didn’t have to wait for months to get these calculations going,” Batygin says. “You come up with an idea, and the resources are there to test it. At the same time, you’re in an environment where doing risky things is encouraged. All of these things came together into something of a perfect storm, out of which Planet Nine emerged on its eccentric orbit.”

Nine New Ideas for Medicine, So Far

We all want breakthroughs in medicine—but how are they made? In 2015, Caltech trustee Richard Merkin came up with an unusual idea.

The physician and healthcare executive started a collaboration between Caltech—a university with no medical school—and his nonprofit, the Heritage Medical Research Institute (HMRI). A Break Through campaign gift from HMRI provides research funding so that selected Caltech professors can explore their boldest ideas for bettering human health.

Is Merkin’s new idea working? Decide for yourself: See what the first eight Heritage Medical Research Institute Investigators—electrical engineers, chemists, biologists—have accomplished so far.

Free to Play with Physics

Maria Okounkova is not your average graduate student—even at Caltech. She spends her time deep in thought about black holes and supercomputers. She thrills at the idea of using algorithms to play with nature. And thanks to a fellowship created by Dominic Orr (MS ’76, PhD ’82), she has the freedom and flexibility to follow her passions wherever they lead without being tied to a single lab, adviser, or teaching assignment. This graduate student’s only constraints? The speed of her computer and the laws of spacetime.

What Makes Caltech Out of the Ordinary?

We asked some of the people who know Caltech best—our donors—to share their points of view.