Issue 13: October 2021

Cause and Effect

Over the last decade, Break Through: The Caltech Campaign catalyzed new avenues of research and discovery. The generosity of its donors provided faculty and students with the resources and freedom to pursue their most innovative ideas, transform science, and benefit society. As the Institute marks the close of this initiative, members of the Caltech community reflect on the commitments and support of 14,500 donors, who gave a total of $3.4 billion. Each of their gifts has invigorated the collaborative, boundary-pushing spirit that defines Caltech and makes extraordinary discoveries and advancements possible. The Break Through is just the beginning.


A Tribute to Break Through Donors

Caltech president Thomas F. Rosenbaum, Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair and professor of physics, and Board of Trustees chair David Lee (PhD ’74) look back on the Break Through campaign.


Building Toward Discovery

A “playground for robots,” a neuroscience nexus, and a quantum-computing wonderland are just a few of the spaces and places through which Break Through: The Caltech Campaign has reshaped the Caltech campus.


Great Minds Think Together

Cohorts that unite scholars and researchers from a wide variety of backgrounds are crucial to Caltech’s culture of interdisciplinary collaboration. Donors to Break Through: The Caltech Campaign have amplified existing cohorts and established new ones.


An Instrumental Campaign

The creation of new instruments to investigate captivating and pressing questions is part of Caltech’s DNA, and empowering scientists and engineers to develop these tools and devices has been a core tenet of this campaign. Break Through-supported instrumentation aids in the hunt for Earth-like planets, the fight against COVID-19, and the creation of a quantum internet.


Five Perspectives on Collaboration

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Idris Sunmola
WAVE Fellow, current undergraduate at Northwestern University

I worked and learned under Anima Anandkumar, Bren Professor of Computing, to devise machine-learning algorithms to help surgeons using robots in surgery. This is really the nexus point of computer science and physiology. The goal is to democratize health care, and, therefore, to provide lifesaving procedures to everyone regardless of societal and economic factors.

From the moment I stepped foot on the Caltech campus, I knew I was in a special place. My time was made even more memorable by my WAVE fellowship cohort, a group of young researchers eager to do science at the cutting edge. I’ve never been more inspired to use science to tackle the pressing problems faced by society, and I cannot wait to see the impact other WAVE participants will have on their communities.

Caltech’s WAVE Fellows program aims to foster diversity by increasing the participation of underrepresented students in science and engineering.


Laure Delisle
Kortschak Scholar

In the Computational Vision Laboratory of Pietro Perona, Allen E. Puckett Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computation and Neural Systems, we focus on how machines can best learn from human experts in humanitarian relief, wildlife conservation, and behavioral science. For my PhD, I explore efficient forms of communication between experts and computer vision models to understand better ways to guide visual machine-learning tasks.

The Kortschak scholarship empowers me to consider new research directions and to pursue them with my adviser’s support. It is an incredibly exciting feeling to be part of a cohort of like-minded researchers all carving bold and interdisciplinary research paths. Seeing them gaining momentum in their own lines of research inspires me to pursue innovative ideas and propels my own research forward.

The Kortschak Scholars program, established by businessman and Caltech trustee Walter Kortschak (MS ’82), supports incoming Caltech computing and mathematical science PhD students, offering two years of support to allow them to explore the field’s cutting edge.

Nicholas Sarai
Biotechnology Leadership Pre-doctoral Training Program (BLP) Trainee

I study how biological systems adapt, innovate, and multiply, and how humanity might leverage those abilities toward scalable solutions for a more sustainable world. Some of the many areas ripe for the application of biotechnology are pollutant degradation via engineered enzymes, the synthesis and application of nitrogenous fertilizer, and creation of chemicals from nonpetrochemical feedstocks.

I had relatively little experience in my early scientific career in understanding how industrial science is conducted. Making a positive impact through biotechnology requires consideration of complexities outside the scope of scientific knowledge alone, including the pathways to development, commercialization, and deployment. By exposing me to leaders from academia, industry, and government, the BLP has grounded this perspective and opened new avenues for making an impact through biotech innovations.

The purpose of Caltech’s Biotechnology Leadership Pre-doctoral Training Program is to produce world-class investigators who can address fundamental research questions and also apply discoveries to solving real-world problems. The BLP is administered by the Donna and Benjamin M. Rosen Bioengineering Center.

Niyati Desai
Keck Institute for Space Studies (KISS) Affiliate

At the Caltech Exoplanet Technology Laboratory, we specialize in the direct imaging of exoplanets, and we aim to see a planet very close to a bright star. I am working with Dimitri Mawet, professor of astronomy and Jet Propulsion Laboratory research scientist, to explore the potential for a new type of coronagraph instrument to be used in future space telescopes. [Editor’s note: See the story “An Instrumental Campaign” for more information on this research.] Using coronagraphs to block out primary starlight, as well as adaptive optics, we develop instruments that can image a planet whose host star is 100 billion times brighter than the planet.

The KISS program has provided a broad range of opportunities for me to meet distinguished researchers and learn about exoplanet-exploration efforts at Caltech and JPL [which the Institute manages for NASA]. As a KISS Affiliate, I’m inspired by meeting so many accomplished scientists and engineers who share my passion for space exploration.

Nominated by the Caltech faculty, KISS Affiliates are an ongoing cohort of the Institute’s graduate students and postdocs who are seen as the next generation of space-exploration leaders.

Kurt Dahlstrom
Resnick Postdoctoral Fellow

I research how the microbes that colonize the roots of food crops and other ecologically important plants compete and collaborate with one another to form communities that govern plant health. I hope to learn how the composition of these communities can confer resistance to disease or drought upon the crops.

The kind of collaboration exemplified by the Resnick fellows cohort is a huge reason why I wanted to work here, where there is a diverse community of scientists, not just biologists, working on sustainability from different angles. Being part of that group has allowed me to attend meetings on campus every couple of months with chemists, geoscientists, and materials scientists, where I could see the bigger picture.

The Resnick fellows include graduate students and postdoctoral scholars affiliated with the Resnick Sustainability Institute (RSI), which advances global sustainability through transformational science, engineering, and education.