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06/03/2010 07:00:00

Recipients of the 2010 Thomas W. Schmitt Annual Staff Prize

Presented to a staff member of the Caltech community whose contributions embody the values and spirit that enables the Institute to achieve excellence in research and education.

All staff members are eligible for this award, and are nominated by a member of the Caltech community. A committee of six faculty and staff members makes the final selection based on the following criteria. The selected staff member should

  • Enjoy uncommon trust and respect among her or his peers,
  • Directly or indirectly support the Institute's research and teaching mission in a singularly effective, professional, and passionate manner, and
  • Engender a spirit of enthusiasm about Caltech and its values among everyone with whom he or she interacts, both on campus and off.

Nils Asplund began his Caltech career in Gerry Wasserburg's Lunatic Asylum, where he stayed for 10 years. In 1985 Nils transferred to Low Temperature Physics, where he provided support as an expert engineer in both low temperature cryogenics and microfabrication. As a master of custom design and fabrication, he has crafted various pieces of research-specific instrumentation; in fact, many of the instruments he created are in use in research labs around the world. Since 2006, Nils has been senior research engineer in the applied physics group, specifically the Kavli Nanoscience Institute (KNI), in the Division of Engineering and Applied Science. He worked on everything during the construction of KNI, from designing safe engineering solutions for handling the vast array of chemicals used to the details of providing electricity, vibration isolation, soundproofing, and water cooling for all the new lab equipment. Nils may consider himself a "lone wolf," but he is considered "an exemplary leader" in the engineering field by those with whom he has worked over the years. Indeed, he has a reputation for fixing any problem, for always being there when he's needed, and for working with a calm demeanor and "can-do" attitude.

Excerpts from nominators' comments

"Nils truly exhibits qualities that make Caltech a very special and unique place—he really understands what Caltech is all about. With an interdisciplinary facility as diverse as the KNI, every individual staff member is asked to do many jobs at once. Nils is the mechanical engineer of the group, and he is often called upon to figure out unique and clever solutions to very complex situations. I know that I can always count on Nils to provide a solution that exceeds my expectations, and his ability to improvise has gotten me to think of him as the "MacGyver" of Caltech. He can find a solution to any problem, and always does so with confidence and professionalism."

"Nils embraces each challenge with dependability and an innate sense of fun."

"Nils' speed and accuracy as a machinist are unparalleled. During our collaborative work, I have never heard him say that any of the requests for unique equipment could not be fulfilled. The words "I can't" do not exist in Nils' vocabulary."

"As a graduate student, I strongly believed that Nils was a lifeline for my research projects."

"He is kept extremely busy with everything that's given to him, but despite that, he is always incredibly helpful and the first one to volunteer to assist with training or repairs."

"I cannot recall which I heard of first, Caltech or Nils Asplund, but most likely it was all within the same sentence."

"I am at a loss to suggest that there is anything that Nils is not able to design, construct, or engineer. He applies his skills with a natural sense of inquisitiveness and genuine excitement. . . . Quite simply, he makes everything possible!"

"He is that one Caltech person that has profoundly influenced my life. . . .There is nothing ordinary about Nils, and I will always equate the ideals of Caltech with him: his uniqueness, curiosity, dedication, his open mind and open heart."

Nils has very stringent standards, such that everything he produces is of the highest caliber and reflects a true understanding of Caltech's core values. In short, Nils is fearless, intellectually curious, enthusiastic, and always puts Caltech, and more specifically the KNI, first." 

Dlorah Gonzales—whose unique first name is her father's name, Harold, spelled backwards—came to Caltech in 1970. Starting as an 02 general clerk in Graphic Arts, within weeks she had assumed additional chores in the printshop and photo lab. Dlorah's diligence and initiative got her promoted to assistant manager and then to manager of graphic arts, where she instituted a centralized copier program and built a reputation as an efficient and well-liked manager. In 1992 she took on the additional responsibility of directing Mail Services, and in 1997 she added the title of deputy director of Auxiliary and Business Services, increasing her responsibilities yet again. She even managed to squeeze in a stint as interim bursar while a new one was recruited. Then, in 2001, Dlorah began a completely new phase of her Caltech career, as director of employment and employee services for Human Resources. But regardless of where she's worked and what her job title has been, Dlorah has long been known for her boundless energy, her ability to motivate her coworkers, and her willingness to take on any task herself.

Excerpts from nominators' comments

"Dlorah has been a mentor to many in her years at Caltech. She remains accessible even when her day is packed with her own responsibilities; her door is always open."

"I think that no one at Caltech has worn as many hats as Dlorah or as successfully. That success is dependent not only on hard work and a dedicated work ethic, but also on developing the trust and respect of coworkers all along the way."

"She used to be on the phone and I would always hear her say, 'No problem.' Then she would look at me with an expression that said, 'How are we going to get that job done?' But she always made it happen.

"She's been here, she's been there, she's been everywhere. . . . Legend has it that it may actually be Dlorah's hand proudly holding the flame on the Caltech logo—always lending her hand to help others. 

"She exudes a confidence that rubs off and convinces you that whatever the task or challenge you face in doing your work, that you can do it. Even if you don't know what the hell you're doing, you can figure it out, find the right answer, do the right thing, and get good results."

"Dlorah demonstrates an old-school, no-nonsense, cut-to-the-chase approach to work, but still has the ability to embrace new ideas and be flexible enough in her thinking to change processes with the times. She is the kind of leader who isn't reluctant to roll up her sleeves and get her hands dirty, again adopting an attitude of whatever it takes to get the job done."

"She provides the same level of service to everyone, from a prospective employee inquiring about jobs to a senior faculty member whom she knows very well. Everyone receives the same great service."

"Anyone associated with Caltech understands it's the intimacy and smallness that truly make it a unique place to work. Dlorah embodies the sense of the 'personal touch' and sets the standard and the tone of her organization in helping people."

"With her kind heart and boisterous laugh she has touched the lives of many people she has worked with, managed, and mentored."

Mike Walsh has been the first and only supervisor of the Division of Biology's Electronics Shop, which has existed for more than 30 years. Over the years, he's worked with a wide, vast array of graduate students, postdocs, and faculty, including such luminaries as Nobel Laureate Max Delbrück. Mike has exceeded the expectations for himself and the shop, and as a consequence it has been an invaluable resource to researchers all over campus who need instrumentation in bioelectronics. His customer-oriented focus and accommodating management style have earned him a well-deserved first-class reputation among faculty, graduate students, and staff. But Mike's reputation seems to extend far beyond Caltech, as many former members of the community continually seek his advice and expertise from their positions in other elite institutions in the U.S. and abroad. Or, as one former grad student here put it, "Now that I've moved with my lab to Frankfurt, I only wish that we could have taken Mike along with us."

Excerpts from nominators' comments

"The community of Mike Walsh fans extends literally all over the world, including former graduate students and postdocs who rely on his technical judgment when setting up their own labs. His real impact on experimental biology over the last 35 years should be the envy of anyone in the field. 

"There are no words to describe my immense respect for his technical abilities, professionalism, innovative spirit, and integrity. He really personifies what is special about Caltech!"

"The personal and professional support I have felt from Mike has allowed me to dare to pursue projects that I would have been hesitant to do without him."

"Mike is a person who takes great pride and pleasure in doing things right and engineering them to perfection, above and beyond what is simply adequate to get the job done. This is often the difference that makes what he builds stand the test of time and really enhances our research in ways that we cannot always anticipate in the beginning. He approaches everything with integrity and thoughtfulness, and what he engineers has a deep quality that makes it stand out."

"I appreciated his creativity, expertise, and energy for designing and iteratively improving new instruments that made new kinds of experiments possible."

"Every single measurement in our lab—and others I'm sure—relies on something that he designed and built. Mike is technically brilliant, deeply creative, selflessly dedicated, and breathtakingly humble."

"Mike always puts his colleagues, friends, and loved ones before himself. It is time that we as members of the Caltech community finally put Mike first and formally recognize him for his continuing positive contributions to our lives."

"He combines much wisdom with a great deal of cheerful patience, and will always find time to work on your problem. It's clear he loves his job: the harder the problem, the more interesting it is to him, and he will devote infinite time and care to finding ways to solve it."

"He possesses great technical skill, without which my research and that of others in the lab would not have been able to reach its potential. For that alone I am extremely grateful, but there is a lot more to Mike. He is extremely responsive, often anticipating potential issues and providing advice on how to deal with something before it even arises."

About the Prize

The idea for an annual staff prize was originally conceived and nurtured by former Associate Vice President for Human Resources Tom Schmitt, shortly after he arrived at Caltech in 1997. Tom realized that while faculty and students at the Institute frequently receive recognition, awards, and, yes, cash prizes, there was no such formal recognition of the contributions and excellence of Caltech's staff members. So, senior administrators set out to raise money for an endowment with which to fund such a prize. Fortunately, a benefactor appeared from within our own Caltech community. Ted Jenkins, an Institute graduate and trustee, has always been a strong supporter of Caltech staff. In 1966 Ted started his career at Fairchild Semiconductor Research and Development Laboratories as a process engineer, moving to Intel Corporation in 1968. There he held a variety of positions, and in 1990 was named vice president and director of corporate licensing. In 1996 he was appointed to head the government affairs committee, which coordinated Intel's public policy and advocacy across the corporation. Ted retired from Intel in 1999, but fortunately he did not retire from Caltech. President of the Alumni Association from 2001 to 2002, he also served as president of the Caltech Associates in 2004–2005.

When it comes to matters that affect Caltech's staff, Ted is a persistent trustee advocate for values and policies that create a positive work environment and that acknowledge the important role staff members play in Caltech's success. Not surprisingly, in the first discussions with the trustees regarding creation of an annual staff prize, Ted enthusiastically and without hesitation provided financial support for an endowment to fund this award in perpetuity. Caltech is indeed grateful for his generosity in making this wonderful recognition possible.

And why is it named the Thomas W. Schmitt Annual Staff Prize? It seems only fitting that the man who did so much advocating for staff during his 10 years of service should be honored by having his name on this award. It was Tom's persistence that made this prize a reality—just in time for his retirement in 2007!

Written by Paula DiConti