Anneila and Wal Sargent
October 1, 2018

Caltech Mentor’s Legacy Lives on through a New Graduate Fellowship

Anneila Sargent (MS ’67, PhD ’78), Caltech’s Ira S. Bowen Professor of Astronomy, Emeritus, has made a gift to establish the Wallace L. W. Sargent Fellowship. With this fellowship, she is supporting tomorrow’s scientists and engineers while also honoring her late husband. Wallace “Wal” Sargent, former Ira S. Bowen Professor of Astronomy, served on the Caltech faculty from 1966 until his death in 2012.

A former vice president for student affairs at Caltech, Anneila was motivated to give now to take advantage of matching funds that double the value of her contribution. She also knows what a high priority Caltech places on providing financial support for graduate students.

“Wal and I felt we led magical lives,” Anneila says. “We spent nearly all of our professional careers at Caltech and were aware of the benefits that accrue from working here. I want other people—especially if they are economically strapped—to have the opportunities that we had.”

“Anneila Sargent exemplifies the best of Caltech: a formidable researcher, a leader both at the Institute and in the international scientific community, and a builder of a better future,” says President Thomas F. Rosenbaum, holder of the Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair and professor of physics. “The graduate fellowship established in honor of Wal is a statement of symmetry and foresight, empowering generations of graduate students to follow in Anneila and Wallace Sargent’s footsteps.”

Accomplished Scientist, Beloved Mentor

Born in an English village, Wal Sargent was the first from his high school to go to college. He continued to distinguish himself as a student at the University of Manchester and as a postdoctoral scholar at Caltech from 1959 to 1962.

Wallace Sargent in 1971

But while his professional life progressed, his romantic life did not. Thinking like a scientist, Wal believed he would increase his chances of finding a partner if he worked at an observatory with a more equitable distribution of male and female staff.

Based on his data, he took a position at the Royal Greenwich Observatory. There, he met Scottish-born physicist Anneila. They were married within a year and relocated to Caltech in 1966, when Wal was offered a position as an assistant professor of astronomy.

During his time at Caltech, Wal helped reveal the history and vastness of the universe. His research demonstrated that the diffuse gas between distant galaxies is primordial and that most helium was made in the Big Bang. He also provided the first evidence for a black hole at a galaxy’s center. As director of Palomar Observatory, he oversaw a survey of the northern sky that uncovered more than 50 million galaxies and half a billion stars. Late in his career, he helped lead development of the W. M. Keck Observatory. Since its first light in 1990, Keck has remained the world’s most scientifically productive tool for observing the universe.

Beyond his direct contributions to science, Wal had “an enviable record of producing outstanding PhDs in astrophysics,” according to Alex Filippenko (PhD ’84), a Caltech Distinguished Alumni Award recipient who was mentored by Wal.

“I think it’s partly because he encouraged his students to capitalize on exciting opportunities that came their way,” says Filippenko, now a professor at UC Berkeley. “For me, one of the most striking moments came shortly after I graduated from Caltech. Wal and I were conducting observations at Palomar Observatory when we accidentally discovered a new kind of supernova (exploding star).”

Caltech alumnus, Alex Filippenko, and his family talk with Wal Sargent
Alex Filippenko (PhD ’84) reconnected with Wal Sargent in 2008 and introduced him to his family. Credit: Brooke Knowles

“Despite his own history of studying supernovae, Wal allowed me to take the lead in the analysis and publication of our results. That literally changed my career.”

A Distinguished Career that Almost Didn’t Happen

Anneila Sargent began her doctoral studies at Caltech just as Wal was beginning his professorial career. Upon receiving her master’s degree, however, she withdrew from school to start a family.

But Jesse Greenstein, who then led Caltech’s astronomy program, had noticed her talent and encouraged her to resume her graduate work. In 1974, she decided to try again.

As she studied how cool, dense molecular clouds of dust and gas give rise to new stars, Anneila also was raising two young daughters, Lindsay and Alison.

After earning her doctorate, she took a job at Caltech—first as a postdoctoral scholar, then as a staff scientist. She asked Rochus “Robbie” Vogt, now Caltech’s R. Stanton Avery Distinguished Service Professor and professor of physics, emeritus, if she could help manage the Owens Valley Radio Observatory.

When he asked why he should consider her for the position, her answer was straightforward. “I told him: ‘Well it’s just organizing telescopes. I organize my family, I organize my work life, and I can organize the use of telescopes.’”

Vogt gave her a chance, and she excelled. She went on to direct the observatory and joined the Caltech faculty in 1998.

Anneila pioneered astronomy in the wavelengths that fall between infrared and radio waves, with the goal of discovering how stars and planetary systems form and evolve. To fully explore these questions, she led efforts to create a bigger, more precise instrument.

She served as founding director of the Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-Wave Astronomy, a collaboration involving Caltech and three partner universities. She also played a pivotal role in the development of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, the largest and most advanced telescope of its kind. Anneila is a former president of the American Astronomical Society and currently serves on the U.S. National Science Board.

“Wal and I felt we led magical lives. We spent nearly all of our professional careers at Caltech and were aware of the benefits that accrue from working here. I want other people—especially if they are economically strapped—to have the opportunities that we had. ”
- Anneila Sargent

A Gift of Focus and Freedom

Because fellowships free Caltech graduate students to focus fully on their education, research, and future careers, raising funds for graduate fellowships is a cornerstone of Break Through: The Caltech Campaign.

Sargent family
Wal and Anneila with their daughters Lindsay (left) and Alison (right) in 1999.

This imperative has resonated so strongly with members of the Caltech community that some have established matching challenges to encourage others to support this priority. Anneila Sargent’s gift of $375,000, for example, grew to $750,000 thanks to the Faculty Advisors Recognition Endowment and the Gordon and Betty Moore Graduate Fellowship Match.

Anneila says that she and her daughters look forward to meeting the first Sargent Fellow. She also hopes to establish a second fellowship while matching funds are still available.

“My husband enjoyed his interaction with students very much,” she says. “He would have wanted to make a Caltech future available to them.”