• Photovoltaic research by Caltech graduate students is fueling advances in the most efficient and cost-effective ways to generate clean energy from the sun. Here, in the lab of Professor Nate Lewis, graduate students Adam Pietrick, David Knapp, Liz Santori and postdoc Matt Bierman are growing silicon-wire arrays for photovoltaics in a chemical-vapor desposition system.
    Credit: Mike Rogers
  • What do an endangered sea slug and cancer patients have in common? A compound produced by the first may one day treat the second. In the lab of Professor Brian Stoltz, grad students Allen Hong, Nathan Bennett, and (in the back) Chris Gilmore are creating synthetic replicas of medicinal substances produced by plants and animals, some of them rare or endangered. This research could ultimately lead to large-scale production of potent new disease-fighting drugs.
    Credit: Mike Rogers
  • Damage to cellular DNA lies at the root of many serious disorders, including cancer. From left, graduate students Pam Sontz, Anna Nordstrom, and Eric Olmon working in Professor Jackie Barton's lab, are conducting fundamental research into how specific proteins in the body recognize and initiate repairs to damaged DNA, and what causes this maintenance system to go awry. This work is shedding light on the origins of numerous diseases and could lead to the development of powerful new treatments.
    Credit: Mike Rogers
  • The recruitment of gifted graduate students is indispensable to the future of chemistry and chemical engineering, says Caltech's Jackie Barton.
    Credit: Bob Paz
08/25/2010 20:00:00

"The Impact That Our Students Have on the World Is Remarkable"

A Q&A with Chemistry and Chemical Engineering Chair Jacqueline Barton

As a chemist, Jacqueline Barton appreciates the importance of bonds—between atoms to make molecules, of course, but also bonds forged between people, scientists, and scientific disciplines, all of which apply to Caltech's Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering (CCE), which she currently chairs. In that multifaceted interdisciplinary environment, says Barton, where cutting-edge research is under way on dozens of fronts, the strongest bonds are those created by graduate students—more than 300 of them, working with faculty and fellow students on research ranging from investigations into the molecular basis of disease to the quest for abundant clean energy. "Our graduate students are the lifeblood of the division," says Barton, "the essence of what we do."

That's why the Hanisch Memorial Professor and professor of chemistry has launched an ambitious, unprecedented campaign to raise $30 million to create 40 endowed graduate-student fellowships. "Competition for the top graduate students is keen," says Barton. "It's absolutely essential that we establish this permanent fellowship program if we are to continue to be the best."

In this Q&A Barton talks about the division and its graduate students, past, present—and future.

Why have you put such a high priority on raising new funds for graduate student fellowships?

Let me start with a little history. This is a truly outstanding division. Linus Pauling, one of our earliest division chairs, worked for 20 years in the office where we're sitting now. And the people who worked with him and who came after him have been extraordinary. On our own faculty, we currently have the largest number of Nobel laureates in a department of chemistry in the world, as well as faculty who have received the National Medal of Science.  

What's most impressive, and makes us all, I think, the most proud, is the quality of the students whom we train and the contributions that they go on to make through their own careers. If you look at the faculty at the top chemistry or chemical engineering departments in this country, you will find that an amazing number of them have spent time at Caltech, either as PhD students, undergrads, or postdocs. We are training the best and the brightest, who are now leaders in academia and industry across the country. The impact that our students have on the world after leaving Caltech is remarkable, particularly when you think about how small an institution we are.

So it's not surprising that our chemistry program is ranked first in the nation—and my job is to keep it that way.  And what makes us what we are and who we are, is, most importantly, our graduate students. They make the place run, and, quite frankly, they run the place.

What do an endangered sea slug and cancer patients have in common? A compound produced by the first may one day treat the second. In the lab of Professor Brian Stoltz, grad students Allen Hong, Nathan Bennett, and (in the back) Chris Gilmore are creating synthetic replicas of medicinal substances produced by plants and animals, some of them rare or endangered. This research could ultimately lead to large-scale production of potent new disease-fighting drugs.
Credit: Mike Rogers

They run the place?

They absolutely run the place. I think that's why we're so good. Our students are the heart of our division, they are at the heart of our research, they are an indispensable part of everything that we do. And our greatest challenge is to provide consistent support for them. That's a more complicated proposition than it once was, when we could count on more sustained federal funding. These days, funding goes up and funding goes down, but when you make a commitment to a student working toward his or her PhD, that's generally a five-year commitment.

What are some of the research areas that these students work in?  What key questions are they investigating?

Today, probably half of the division works on problems that are related to biological questions—questions at the biomedical frontiers. In the past 10 to 20 years, science has come up with the tools and techniques to ask biological questions at the molecular level—and that's chemistry. Chemists now have the unprecedented ability to probe biological systems at the fundamental level of molecules and their interactions, and our graduate students are an incredibly vital part of this research. They're looking at different aspects of biological signaling—how information is exchanged—in every important biological system, from nerve cells, to the genome, to the immune system. That information is chemical.  Whether it's finding innovative methods of drug delivery or engineering new proteins and new molecules to carry out new kinds of chemical reactions, that work is very much at the heart of what we do. Their research is leading to the development of new drugs and new diagnostic agents for a whole range of applications in medicine.

Another major research area, one that's of crucial importance not just to our nation but to the whole planet, is how we come up with alternative energy sources. That, too, is a problem in chemistry, and the solution requires chemical engineering. We have graduate students collaborating closely with faculty on ways to develop new methods for harnessing energy from the sun and converting it into clean fuels on a large scale. They'll be very much involved in all aspects of the work that goes on in the DOE's new Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis—which will be headquartered on the Caltech campus—and Caltech's Resnick Sustainability Institute, both of which will be working to develop novel and viable approaches to renewable energy technologies. We expect extraordinary things to come out of these programs.

Damage to cellular DNA lies at the root of many serious disorders, including cancer. From left, graduate students Pam Sontz, Anna Nordstrom, and Eric Olmon working in Professor Jackie Barton's lab, are conducting fundamental research into how specific proteins in the body recognize and initiate repairs to damaged DNA, and what causes this maintenance system to go awry. This work is shedding light on the origins of numerous diseases and could lead to the development of powerful new treatments.
Credit: Mike Rogers

So, as you can see, work in our division is very varied and highly interdisciplinary. Chemists like to say that chemistry is the central discipline, and that's never been more true than it is today, as we push the boundaries toward physics, toward biology, and use our discoveries to engineer new materials, new medicines, and new devices. And if you want to pursue and maintain a thriving interdisciplinary program, you need a critical mass of people who are working in all these different areas, exchanging information, and sharing new ideas and perspectives. For us, in large part, that's our graduate students. They are the glue that binds this cohesive effort together.

So, we have to preserve this treasure at the heart of our chemistry community—and that means taking care of our graduate students.

Can you talk about some of the exceptional people who received their PhDs from this division?

Sure. I like to start with Gordon Moore—everyone knows his name, but plenty of people are surprised to hear that he earned his Caltech PhD in physical chemistry. He cofounded Intel, he propounded Moore's Law, and he and his wife, Betty, have created one of this country's great philanthropic foundations, which supports all kinds of initiatives in education and the environment. Certainly, our world would be quite different without him.

Another Caltech chemist renowned as an innovator, industrialist, and philanthropist is, of course, Arnold Beckman. He started with the pH meter and went on to invent revolutionary instruments that led to new discoveries in biochemistry and medicine. He founded Beckman Instruments, and also established a foundation that has provided magnificent support for higher education. There's William Lipscomb, who studied here with Linus Pauling in the 1940s. He won the Nobel Prize in 1976 for his fundamental work on chemical bonding.

George Whitesides, who's been a professor at Harvard for many years, got his PhD here in 1964, and if you were to ask, what has he done, I would have to answer, What hasn't he done? He helped to move forward the field of nanoscience with his studies of how molecules arrange themselves on surfaces. He's opened whole new areas of research in developing innovative new tools and principles for surface science, molecular self-assembly, and nanotechnology. Students of his have come to Caltech as graduate students or postdocs, and vice versa, so he's also an excellent example of the cross-fertilization that we have going on with successive generations of graduate students.

We have alumni from this division who have become leaders in biotechnology, like Michael Hunkapiller, who for many years was president of the company Applied Biosystems. Richard Scheller is another. He's now the VP for Research at Genentech, and just this spring he shared the $1 million Kavli Prize in Neuroscience. The prize was for work that he did as a professor at Yale on how nerve cells communicate through molecular signaling, and it has its roots in research he began here at Caltech as a grad student in chemistry.

Other graduates have gone on to become major players in academic administration—for instance, Mark Wrighton, who spent five years as provost of MIT and has now been chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis for 15 years. This just gives you a sense of how productive our former students have been, and in so many different areas. 

What about more recent graduates?

We have so many of them working in exciting areas. I'll just mention a few who have graduated in the last decade or so. Justin Gallivan, who's now at Emory University in Atlanta, heads up a research group that is interested in reprogramming molecules like those in the bacterium E. coli, so that they can carry out tasks like environmental cleanup and energy conversion. At Harvard, another of our graduates, Ted Betley, is developing assemblies of molecules that mimic the action of plants in using sunlight to split water into oxygen and hydrogen to produce clean, cheap energy. In 2008, he was named one of the nation's leading young innovators by Technology Review.

The recruitment of gifted graduate students is indispensable to the future of chemistry and chemical engineering, says Caltech's Jackie Barton.
Credit: Bob Paz

And now so many of our outstanding graduate-student alumni are women—scientists like Melanie Sanford at the University of Michigan, who is also pioneering new approaches to green chemistry, making remarkably efficient catalysts for organic synthesis. One of my own former PhD students, Sarah Delaney, heads up a team at Brown that's investigating how different types of DNA damage are implicated in cancer and incurable inherited conditions like Huntington's disease.

These are all ambitious projects with incredible potential. The scientists who are working on them are precisely the kind of outstanding young people whom Caltech must continue to attract and to educate. That's why this fellowship support is so essential.

Let's take an "It's a Wonderful Life" approach for a moment, and imagine a CCE division at Caltech that has fewer graduate students because they didn't have access to these fellowships. What would happen?

We wouldn't be the best anymore. We wouldn't be able to attract the exceptional faculty that we do. We would lose our ability to attract the very best scientists in the world—from graduate students to senior professors—to come here and do science together. When you are the best, you can never take that status for granted—you have to work hard to stay that way. The outstanding science that we do here is rooted in our ability to gather together the remarkable people that we have. Caltech is an extraordinarily collaborative, interactive place, and that's how the best science comes to be.

Written by Heidi Aspaturian