Gifts from the estate of emeritus professor Clarence Allen (MS '51, PhD '54) and members of the GPS Chair's Council help chart the future of the Caltech Seismological Laboratory.
Caltech's Seismological Laboratory (Seismo Lab) is a place of legends. Founded more than a century ago, it is the birthplace of the Richter scale and the Southern California Seismic Network, and its media center is the go-to source of information for people around the globe when the ground shakes. Today, the Seismo Lab continues to lead the way in earthquake research and the study of planetary structures and dynamics. With the creation of the Clarence R. Allen Leadership Chair, the lab will have resources to ensure its impact on public safety and our understanding of how the earth works stretches well into the future.
Planting a Seed
"When Clarence passed, he bequeathed a gift of $2 million to the Seismo Lab, and another $2 million to the Institute, to be used at the discretion of the president," says John Grotzinger, the Fletcher Jones Professor of Geology and holder of the Ted and Ginger Jenkins Leadership Chair for the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences (GPS), where the Seismo Lab is headquartered.
Allen's bequest, paired with the centennial anniversary, presented GPS leadership with a propitious opportunity to establish a leadership chair for the lab. Unlike other professorial chairs, which generate salary support, Caltech's distinctive leadership chairs provide discretionary resources, affording chair holders the freedom to advance highly creative and time-sensitive projects. "President Rosenbaum very generously offered to staple the two gifts together to fund the chair," Grotzinger says.
Even combined, however, the bequest wasn't quite enough to fund a leadership chair, which requires a $5 million endowment.
To raise the remaining $1 million, Grotzinger turned to the GPS Chair's Council, a group of distinguished volunteers who advocate for students, amplify groundbreaking research, and act as strategic advisers for the division chair.
Honoring a Legacy
To celebrate its 100th anniversary, the Seismo Lab hosted a scientific conference in fall 2022. Terence Barr (BS '84), chair of the GPS Chair's Council, viewed the event as an opportune time to encourage members to support a leadership chair named in Allen's honor.
"It was especially appropriate to honor Clarence Allen, who had contributed so much to the Seismo Lab and GPS," notes Barr, who was inspired to pursue a degree in geophysics after taking a class with Allen.
Dayna Salter (BS '76), who joined the Chair's Council in 2021, concurs. She studied seismology and geophysics, with Allen as her adviser.
"He put me at ease when it felt daunting to talk to professors one-on-one," remembers Salter, who was a member of the third freshman class of women admitted to Caltech. "I have nothing but positive memories of him, which makes it all the more important to donate funds for this chair."
Barr, Salter, and many other council members came together to secure the remaining funds to endow the leadership chair.
"This was a recognition by the Chair's Council of the important role the Seismo Lab has played in our understanding of earthquakes and seismicity," Barr says. "It's also a recognition of the important role the Seismo Lab will continue to play in furthering our understanding of earthquakes, developing more sensitive seismic networks, and educating the next generations of geophysicists."
Building a Resilient Future
In January 2023, Michael Gurnis, the John E. and Hazel S. Smits Professor of Geophysics, was named the inaugural holder of the Allen Leadership Chair. Gurnis, who has directed the Seismo Lab since 2009, develops and uses computational models to better understand plate tectonics and mantle dynamics. He also directs the Schmidt Academy for Software Engineering, which trains software engineers to set new standards in scientific software.
"Mike is a great advocate of the lab, and he's a brilliant scientist himself," Grotzinger says. The endowed leadership chair, he adds, will give Gurnis the freedom to follow up on innovative ideas that have the potential to result in breakthroughs.
"It's a great opportunity for the Seismo Lab to have funds that aren't tied to specific contracts and short-term needs," Gurnis explains. "One of the things endowment funds allow us to do is seed promising research in its infancy, when it's hard to justify what we're doing to government agencies and foundations."
Gurnis says one of the hallmarks of the Seismo Lab is that it provides opportunities for graduate students to hone diverse skill sets by working with multiple faculty advisers. "Many young scientists will benefit from Clarence's generosity," he adds, "by having opportunities to initiate highly innovative research collaborations with faculty."
In addition to supporting faculty and students, Salter says the leadership chair will give the Seismo Lab increased resources for connecting with the public, helping more people better understand and prepare for earthquakes on a local level and beyond.
"Clarence was a real integrator across the division, and now Mike Gurnis is that bridge for bringing faculty, students, and the greater community together in the search for new knowledge," Grotzinger says.