Champion of the Changing Course

“This is such an extraordinary division, you feel that you want to give back, to be a part of it, and to help make a difference,” says Jackie Barton, who holds the Norman Davidson Leadership Chair in Caltech’s Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering (CCE) and is the John G. Kirkwood and Arthur A. Noyes Professor of Chemistry.

As the faculty lead of the division, Barton’s strategy is to help scholars realize their own ambitions, rather than directing the division’s overall scientific course.

“I do the best I can to enable our faculty to do the great research, the great experiments they want to do,” Barton says.

That approach harkens back to the work of chairs before her—and to her own Caltech start.

An Idea Forms

When Caltech recruited Barton as a professor in 1989, she was known for developing new ways to study the structure of DNA. But the seeds of a different focus were hidden in two papers among the dozens she published during the 1980s.

She had just started to explore the then-controversial idea that electrons could move along DNA as if it were a wire, doing important biological work along the way.

Caltech gave Barton the freedom to pursue her curiosity. She went on to win the National Medal of Science in 2011 for showing that electrons do, in fact, travel long distances through DNA. These electrons help locate DNA damage that, if not properly repaired, could lead to cancer and premature aging.

Now, Barton helps other faculty members follow their curiosity, too.

Freedom to Pursue Great Research

To increase intellectual freedom across the division, Barton has spearheaded a continuing initiative to raise funds for endowed graduate fellowships. She has made this initiative a top priority in CCE.

Fellowships alleviate the largest expense for most CCE faculty—their contributions toward graduate students’ tuition, salary, and benefits. That gives research groups more latitude to act on exciting ideas. Graduate fellowships also help attract promising new faculty to Caltech by supporting the talented students they want to work with.

“We have outstanding grad students in CCE who have gone on to become leaders in chemistry across the nation,” Barton says. “We want to continue to nurture and educate the next generations of leaders in chemistry and chemical engineering.”

In fact, Caltech leaders have set a goal of raising philanthropic support that would endow fellowships for all graduate students at the Institute, an achievement that would have a transformative effect on Caltech.

Barton also seed-funds CCE projects using payout from the multimillion-dollar endowment associated with the Norman Davidson Leadership Chair, established in 2016.


“These discretionary funds from the leadership chair are fantastic—primarily, they help us get new faculty up and running. They also provide support when an established faculty member says, ‘I have a new idea—can you help me?’ Now I can do something about it.”
- Jackie Barton

Recently, she has invested in several pieces of equipment—from a potentiostat to a computer cluster—to help faculty pursue ideas for novel batteries, simulations of complex electronic structures using quantum chemistry, advanced materials for next-generation electronics, solar cells, and tailor-made designs for new therapeutics.

Barton also is championing the molecular observatory, among other Break Through campaign priorities for her division. In this project piloted with initial support from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation in 2003, scientists across campus aim to share one superb facility to examine—at atomic resolutions—biomolecules and macromolecular machines that are vital to life and health. Understanding the structures of these machines is the first step in understanding how to design a drug to help fix the machine when disease has caused something to go awry.

A Singular Focus on People

“Without question, this place is all about empowering people—students, new faculty, and long-established faculty—and supporting their great ideas,” Barton says. “That’s what makes Caltech so special.”

She adds: “When you feel that you are making a difference, it just makes you want to do more. We want to enable our outstanding scholars to think big and push the frontiers further still.”

Giving Priorities

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