10/04/2012 14:21:24

What Makes Caltech Special?

We asked a few people for their thoughts on what makes Caltech special. Here's what they had to say:

"As you can imagine, there is no single or simple answer.  But perhaps the heart of it can be attributed to Robert Millikan, the modern Institute's first leader, and it is really quite simple: Identify the most promising areas of research, find the best people, give them adequate resources in a stimulating environment, and then stand back."—Edward M. Stolper, provost; William E. Leonhard Professor of Geology

"Our people, both on campus and at JPL, practice collaboration over competition. Our interdisciplinary environment allows engineers to talk to biologists, biologists to work with physicists, and computer scientists to partner with social scientists. It teaches our students our core values: respect, risk-taking, intellectual curiosity, and integrity. And it gives our staff the freedom and opportunity to act not only as support but as mentors themselves to our students and our faculty, accelerating the Institute's progress and increasing its impact on society. Our commitment to excellence and to each other's success makes Caltech special."— Jean-Lou Chameau, president of Caltech

"The Mars Science Laboratory [MSL] mission has a very strong representation of faculty in the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences, and the fields represented are surprisingly diverse. While one of our participants is a planetary scientist (Bethany Ehlmann) as you might expect, the other three have spent much of their careers working on terrestrial phenomena, including sedimentary geology and earth history (John Grotzinger), the origin of igneous rocks (Ed Stolper), and terrestrial isotope geochemistry and geochronology (Ken Farley). This is just one example of the rapid convergence of planetary science with terrestrial geoscience—and the kind of interdisciplinary work at which Caltech excels."— Kenneth A. Farley, chair of the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences; W. M. Keck Foundation Professor of Geochemistry

"What makes Caltech special are our students. They've got courage and are willing to swing for the fences. They focus on ideas and experiments that haven't been done before. They are the heart and engine for the research that gets done.  

I always like to think of Caltech as this beautiful, quiet place where everyone is focused on excellent research, and it's an environment that's not bureaucratic or hierarchical, but simply fosters interaction, interdisciplinarity, and encourages people asking and trying to answer questions that others haven't thought about."—Jacqueline K. Barton, chair of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering; Arthur and Marian Hanisch Memorial Professor and professor of chemistry

"Caltech's research has a lot of societal impact—through inventions and intellectual property such as the microwave oven engine, the CMOS camera found in cell phones, the da Vinci robot for medical operations, the DNA sequencer which has revolutionized medicine, and more. Right now, we are taking inspiration from the structure of cactus needles to come up with bioinspired painless needles that are small enough to avoid nerves, and use capillary wicking to gather samples for analysis, which will change the way blood tests are done. All of these important innovations are results of crafting and sustaining a fertile ground for creative minds, which is a core element of Caltech's educational mission."—Morteza Gharib, Caltech vice provost; Hans W. Liepmann Professor of Aeronautics and professor of bioinspired engineering

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Written by Kathy Svitil