Issue 11: September 2020

Pivot Points

This issue of The Caltech Effect features scientists and engineers who have followed unexpected paths, repurposed technology, and responded nimbly to innovative ideas and urgent needs.

Interactive Story

Sense of (Re)Purpose

Caltech researchers have innovated to extend or redirect technologies for vital new uses.

Interactive Timeline

The Sound of Cancer

How two graduate students in different disciplines joined forces to help invent a new approach to cancer treatment.


Pull Up a Chair

Funding from endowed leadership chairs brings top talent to Caltech and supports researchers who take on pressing problems like COVID-19 or enter high-risk, high-reward areas of discovery.

Pull Quote

A Culture of Reinvention

Caltech community members recount the moments that transformed their careers … and lives.

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From biology to computer science

James Bowden
Rising Sophomore (BS ’23) and Computer Science Major

From astronomy to screenwriting

“I earned my BSc in astrophysics from Caltech and found myself not knowing what I wanted to do next. I talked to a Caltech career counselor who looked over my transcript and noticed my affinity for studying literature and writing. She asked if I had ever considered becoming a writer. I laughed: I wasn’t looking to become unemployed. So, I took the safer path and went to graduate school for astronomy. Just before graduating, I found out that I had stage 3 kidney cancer and would need robotic surgery, which was scheduled for the exact date and time of my PhD defense. I promised myself that if I survived, I would take the leap and follow my passion: to become a screenwriter. After all, what could be scarier than cancer? Three weeks later, I left the ICU, got my PhD, and started my new life doing what I love.”

Dagny Looper (BS ’04)

From chemistry to exoplanet exploration

Nick Siegler
Astrophysicist and Chief Technologist for NASA’s Exoplanet Exploration Program at JPL

From software engineering to student support

Preethi Periyakoil (BS ’18)
MD/PhD candidate in the Tri-Institutional Program at Weill Cornell Medical College
Recipient of a Caltech Alumni Association Milton and Rosalind Chang Career Exploration Prize, 2019

From improv to astrophysics

I started doing stand-up comedy about 10 years ago. GALEX, the mission for which I was hired as a postdoc at Caltech in 2006, was reaching the end of its mission, and I was at a decision point about where to go with my career. I also was taking improv lessons at Second City in Hollywood. As scientists, we learn a certain approach to solving problems; improv and stand-up present a very different way of approaching life and looking at things. Improv also taught me that a lot of my satisfaction in astronomy comes from working with a team. Before, I was focused on promoting my own reputation as a world-class researcher. It turned out I didn’t feel that comfortable just promoting myself. It was part of the discomfort I felt doing stand-up as well. That was a revelation to me, that I really enjoyed being with a team on stage much more than being there by myself. The experience with improv completely opened up my idea about what my career could be, and I got involved working as part of a group developing software and building instruments for the Palomar and Keck Observatories.

Don Neill
Research Scientist in Space Astrophysics at Caltech