40-Year Service Awardees

Caltech Staff Service Awards 2014

The 59th Annual Staff Service Awards will be presented in Beckman Auditorium on Monday, June 2, at 10 a.m. During the ceremony, more than 250 staff members whose service ranges from 10 to 50 years will be honored. A full list of awardees can be found here.

This week we are featuring Caltech staff members who will be recognized for 40 and 45 years of service to the Institute.


The honorees include three 40-year staff members: Eugene Akutagawa, a senior scientist in biology and a member of the professional staff; Susi Martin, assistant to the Board of Trustees; and Steve Vass, a senior instrument specialist at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO).


Eugene Akutagawa graduated from UCLA with a bachelor's degree in microbiology; a help-wanted ad in the Los Angeles Times for a lab assistant brought him to Caltech, where "I was standing in the hallway, waiting to be interviewed, and there's [Nobel Laureate] Max Delbrück coming out of the lab. To me, a microbiologist, he was like a god, and there he was, right in my face—so I knew this place was going to be great. And I liked its smallness, especially contrasted with UCLA, where undergraduate biology classes were 700 or 800 people spilling into the aisles."

Nevertheless, his first job proved unrewarding. "I was implanting electrodes in rats and watching them press the lever until they pooped out," Akutagawa recalls. (The lab belonged to Research Associate Marianne Olds, whose husband, Bing Professor of Behavioral Biology James Olds, had discovered the brain's pleasure center more than two decades earlier.) "Then one day, I was sitting in the parking lot eating my lunch, and a mockingbird landed on a bush and started singing his heart out. I thought, 'I know he's not really singing words, but he's communicating. It would be interesting to study that.' And lo and behold, within a few months Mark Konishi [now the Bing Professor of Behavioral Biology, Emeritus] came here from Princeton."

Konishi had already made a name for himself studying songbirds and owls, so Akutagawa changed labs. The job interview was informal, Akutagawa recalls. "Mark said, 'What experience do you have?' And I said, 'Well, when I was growing up in Hawaii, I tried to save nestlings that had fallen out of their nests.' And he looked at me very sternly and said, 'What did you feed them?' I said, 'Rice. And water.' 'Did any of them live?' 'Nope. They all died.' I think he appreciated my honesty. He never told me I got the job, but he went over to the chalkboard and drew a football shape. He said, 'That's canary seed. That goes to canaries and white-crowned sparrows.' And he drew a little circle, and he says, 'That's millet. That goes to the finches.'"

Within a decade Akutagawa had become a full-fledged collaborator, doing the meticulous microscopy needed to trace fine neural circuitry. In 1985, Konishi and Akutagawa published a paper that showed why male zebra finches sing and females don't: specialized neurons in the male's brain flourish and develop many connections, but in females they atrophy and die. Says Akutagawa, "Our relationship eventually evolved into me doing my own independent research. It's been quite a ride, I must say." The ride, however, is nearing its end; Konishi has retired, and Akutagawa will be following suit.

"I love this job," Akutagawa continues. "It's more like a hobby. It's just an amazing place to work, in large part because Mark was just an incredible supervisor. He gave us a lot of freedom, which spurs a lot of good science."


Susi Martin works in the Caltech president's office as assistant to the Board of Trustees. The Board has 85 members and meets five times a year, and Martin manages their comings and goings. She says, "I arrange transportation to and from the airport, hotels, whatever assistance they need. It could be anything." During her tenure, she's moved from a Selectric typewriter to a Filemaker Pro database to the Internet; from three-ring binders to PDFs.

Martin began her Caltech career in the procurement division at JPL before joining the office of then-director Bruce Murray. After a special assignment supporting the Seasat mission's Failure Review Board in 1978, she moved on to one of JPL's early biomedical technology projects before transferring to the Lab's office of planning and review. It was there in April, 1981 that Hardy Martel (BS '49, PhD '56), an electrical engineering professor and the secretary to Caltech's Board of Trustees, called to inquire whether she'd consider moving to campus. One of Martin's former colleagues in the director's office, Mary Webster, had joined the staff of Caltech president Marvin Goldberger earlier that year; when Martel became in need of an assistant, Webster had recommended Martin.

From 1988 to 1994, Martin also served first as assistant secretary and then secretary to the board of directors of the California Association for Research in Astronomy (CARA), a partnership set up by Caltech and the University of California to build and operate the W. M. Keck Observatory on the summit of Mauna Kea.

"I love working with the trustees," Martin says. "It is an honor and a delight—they are a truly remarkable group of individuals, and it is a privilege to facilitate their work on behalf of Caltech." Over the past 33 years, no two days have been the same, she says. "The challenges have been interesting, but the rewards have been awesome and tremendously diverse." For example, Martin was at JPL for the landing of the Mars rover Curiosity, staffing one of the rooms set up for the trustees. "Seeing that first image of the rover's shadow cast on the surface was just amazing," she recalls. "To see something nobody else had ever seen—to be a part of that history—was so cool."


While Akutagawa and Martin have essentially stayed put, Steve Vass has occupied eight different offices in three of Caltech's academic divisions. Vass was born and raised in Hungary, where he learned electronics at a trade school. "I had some college but not too much." He eventually came to the United States, where he landed a job in Caltech's biology division in the laboratory of then-professor Leroy Hood (BS '60, PhD '68). Vass helped Hood and postdoc Michael Hunkapiller (PhD '74) build the protein sequenator, which automatically determines the sequence of amino acids that make up a protein. Two decades later, this machine and the other ones developed in the Hood lab—the protein synthesizer, the DNA synthesizer, and the DNA sequenator—would spark the biotech revolution of the 1990s.

In the early 1980s, Vass moved to the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, where he built X-ray diffractometers for physical chemist Richard Dickerson. Dickerson used them to make high-precision measurements of DNA's crystal structure—both its usual right-handed spiral and the less common left-handed form.

In 1987, Vass moved again—to the Division of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy and the LIGO project. LIGO searches for the gravitational waves that Einstein predicted would be generated by the motions of extremely massive bodies—colliding black holes being an oft-cited example. The detector consists of twin interferometers, each with a perpendicular set of 4-kilometer-long arms, that were built in Louisiana and Washington in the late 1990s. When Vass joined the project, the design's details were being worked out in a prototype interferometer with 40-meter arms that had been built on the Caltech campus. Nearly two decades later, the 40-meter prototype remains the proving ground for next-generation ideas.

Vass describes how LIGO changed his perspective: "In biology, people said, 'Oh, if we only had a good chemist, we would hit it out of the park.' Then in chemistry they said, 'Oh, if we had a really good electronics guy, we would be just the best.' But in physics, they say, 'We know everything. We can do it ourselves.'"

"Basically, I run the lab, but the fun part is you get to do everything. This morning, I've been hunting for 'ground loops.' The east end of the interferometer has a 60-Hertz hum, which is line current, and it's ruining the spectrum. So I'm going around with an ohmmeter looking for something disconnected—or something connected that shouldn't be. My job is to prepare the best possible environment to get good science done."

LIGO measures the distance between suspended mirrors to within a billionth of the diameter of an atom by bouncing a laser beam between them, so Vass begins his mornings making sure the interferometer hasn't lost lock. "If people stayed really late the night before, things will be fine," he says. "But if they left at 10 p.m., everything will have drifted a little. And earthquakes affect the machine. It's much better designed against quakes now, but in earlier days if we had a local magnitude 4, our precious glass might have fallen and gotten chipped, or our mirror coating could have been ruined. Back then it was a baby, and I've seen it grow up with my kids. I have grandkids now, and someday LIGO will produce something, too—some cosmic event will happen close by, and we'll see it."

"I have to say thank you to all the people who've helped me grow," Vass concludes. "I've learned a lot here and had a lot of fun doing it."

Douglas Smith
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Tuesday, July 22, 2014
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Teaching Quantum Mechanics with Minecraft and Comics

Ditch Day? It’s Today, Frosh!

Today we celebrate Ditch Day, one of Caltech's oldest traditions. During this annual spring rite—the timing of which is kept secret until the last minute—seniors ditch their classes and vanish from campus. Before they go, however, they leave behind complex, carefully planned out puzzles and challenges—known as "stacks"—designed to occupy the underclass students and prevent them from wreaking havoc on the seniors' unoccupied rooms.

Follow the action on Caltech's Facebook and Twitter pages as the undergraduates tackle the puzzles left around campus for them to solve, and get in on the conversation by sharing your favorite Ditch Day memories. Be sure to use #CaltechDitchDay in your tweets and postings.

View photos from the day:


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Thursday, September 25, 2014
Location to be announced

2014 Caltech Teaching Conference

Tuesday, May 13, 2014
Avery Library – Avery House

Semana Latina Keynote Speaker – Dr. Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton

Friday, May 16, 2014
Center for Student Services 360 (Workshop Space) – Center for Student Services

The Role of Writing in Building a Research Career

Friday, May 30, 2014

Caltech Teaching Assistant Training for 2014-2015 Year

Research Update: An Autism Connection

Caltech neuroscientists find link between agenesis of the corpus callosum and autism

Building on their prior work (see "Bridging the Gap"), a team of neuroscientists at Caltech now report that rare patients who are missing connections between the left and right sides of their brain—a condition known as agenesis of the corpus callosum (AgCC)—show a strikingly high incidence of autism. The study is the first to show a link between the two disorders.

The findings are reported in a paper published April 22, 2014, in the journal Brain.

The corpus callosum is the largest connection in the human brain, connecting the left and right brain hemispheres via about 200 million fibers. In very rare cases it is surgically cut to treat epilepsy—causing the famous "split-brain" syndrome, for whose discovery the late Caltech professor Roger Sperry received the Nobel Prize. People with AgCC are like split-brain patients in that they are missing their corpus callosum—except they are born this way. In spite of this significant brain malformation, many of these individuals are relatively high-functioning individuals, with jobs and families, but they tend to have difficulty interacting with other people, among other symptoms such as memory deficits and developmental delays. These difficulties in social behavior bear a strong resemblance to those faced by high-functioning people with autism spectrum disorder.

"We and others had noted this resemblance between AgCC and autism before," explains Lynn Paul, lead author of the study and a lecturer in psychology at Caltech. But no one had directly compared the two groups of patients. This was a challenge that the Caltech team was uniquely positioned to do, she says, since it had studied patients from both groups over the years and had tested them on the same tasks.

"When we made detailed comparisons, we found that about a third of people with AgCC would meet diagnostic criteria for an autism spectrum disorder in terms of their current symptoms," says Paul, who was the founding president of the National Organization for Disorders of the Corpus Callosum.

The research was done in the laboratory of Ralph Adolphs, Bren Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience and professor of biology at Caltech and a coauthor of the study. The team looked at a range of different tasks performed by both sets of patients. Some of the exercises that involved certain social behaviors were videotaped and analyzed by the researchers to assess for autism. The team also gave the individuals questionnaires to fill out that measured factors like intelligence and social functioning.

"Comparing different clinical groups on exactly the same tasks within the same lab is very rare, and it took us about a decade to accrue all of the data," Adolphs notes.

One important difference between the two sets of patients did emerge in the comparison. People with autism spectrum disorder showed autism-like behaviors in infancy and early childhood, but the same type of behaviors did not seem to emerge in individuals with AgCC until later in childhood or the teen years.

"Around ages 9 through 12, a normally formed corpus callosum goes through a developmental 'growth spurt' which contributes to rapid advances in social skills and abstract thinking during those years," notes Paul. "Because they don't have a corpus callosum, teens with AgCC become more socially awkward at the age when social skills are most important."

According to Adolphs, it is important to note that AgCC can now be diagnosed before a baby is born, using high-resolution ultrasound imaging during pregnancy. This latest development also opens the door for some exciting future directions in research.

"If we can identify people with AgCC already before birth, we should be in a much better position to provide interventions like social skills training before problems arise," Paul points out. "And of course from a research perspective it would be tremendously valuable to begin studying such individuals early in life, since we still know so little both about autism and about AgCC."

For example, the team would like to discern at what age subtle difficulties first appear in AgCC individuals, and at what point they start looking similar to autism, as well as what happens in the brain during these changes.

"If we could follow a baby with AgCC as it grows up, and visualize its brain with MRI each year, we would gain such a wealth of knowledge," Adolphs says.

The Brain paper, "Agenesis of the Corpus Callosum and Autism: A Comprehensive Comparison," also includes as coauthors Daniel Kennedy, assistant professor of psychology at Indiana University, and Christina Corsello, a member of the research staff at Rady Children's HospitalSan Diego. The research was funded by the Simons Foundation, Autism Speaks, and the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation.

Katie Neith
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An Autism Connection
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On the Front Lines of Sustainability

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On the Front Lines of Sustainability

The chemical processes used to make products ranging from pharmaceuticals to perfumes can have a harmful impact on the environment. However, Caltech chemist and Nobel laureate Robert Grubbs has spent several decades developing catalysts—compounds that speed up a chemical reaction—that can make the synthesis of these products more efficient and ecologically friendly, ultimately reducing their environmental footprint. Similarly, chemist Brian Stoltz is developing new strategies for the synthesis of compounds needed in the chemical, polymer, and pharmaceutical industries. His new processes rely upon oxygen and organometallic catalysts—greener alternatives to the toxic metals that are normally used to drive such reactions.

Switching from paper files to cloud-based data storage might seem like an obvious choice for sustainability, but can we further reduce the environmental impact of storing data? The theoretical work of engineer and computer scientist Adam Wierman suggests that with the right algorithms, we can. Today, data centers—the physical storage facilities Wierman calls the "SUVs of the Internet"—account for more than 1.5 percent of U.S. electricity usage. And as more data goes online, that number is expected to grow. Wierman's work helps engineers design algorithms that will reroute data, with preference to centers that use renewable energy sources like wind and solar.

Energy from the sun—although free and abundant—cannot easily be stored for use on dreary days or transported to cloudy regions. Caltech engineer and materials scientist Sossina Haile hopes to remove that barrier with a specific type of solar reactor she has developed. The reactor is lined with ceramic cerium oxide; when this lining is heated with concentrated sunlight it releases oxygen, priming it to remove oxygen from water molecules or carbon dioxide on cooling, thus creating hydrogen fuel or "syngas"—a precursor to liquid hydrocarbon fuels. This conversion of the sun's light into storable fuel could allow solar-derived power to be available day and night.

Caltech student participants in the Department of Energy's biennial Solar Decathlon competition set out to prove that keeping a house lit up, cooled down, and comfortable for living is possible—even while off the grid. The Techers teamed up with students at the Southern California Institute of Architecture to create CHIP and DALE, their entries in the 2011 and 2013 competitions, respectively. These functional and stylish homes, powered solely by the sun, were engineered with innovative components including a rainwater collection system and moving room modules that optimize heating and cooling efficiency. 

Although many of us take the nearest bathroom for granted, working toilets require resources and infrastructure that may not be available in many parts of the world. Inspired by the "Reinventing the Toilet Challenge" issued by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, environmental scientist and engineer Michael Hoffmann and his team applied his research in hydrogen evolution and water treatment to reengineer the toilet. The Caltech team's design—which won the challenge in 2012—can serve hundreds of people each day, treat its own wastewater, and generate electricity, providing a sustainable and low-cost solution to sanitation and hygiene challenges in the developing world. Prototypes are being tested in India and China for use in urban and remote environments in the developing world.  

Geophysicist Mark Simons studies the mechanics of the Earth—furthering our understanding of what causes our planet to deform over time. His research often involves using satellite data to observe the movement associated with seismic and volcanic activity, but Simons is also interested in changes going on in the icy parts of Earth's surface, especially the dynamics of glaciers. By flying high above Iceland's ice caps, Simons and his colleagues can track the glaciers' melt-and-freeze response in relation to seasonal and long-term variations in temperature—and their potential response to climate change.

The production of industrial nitrogen fertilizer results in 130 million tons of ammonia annually—while also requiring high heat, high pressure, and lots of energy. However, in a process called nitrogen fixation, soil microorganisms that live near the roots of certain plants can produce a similar amount of ammonia each year. The bugs use catalysts called nitrogenases to convert nitrogen from the air into ammonia at room temperature and atmospheric pressure. By mimicking the behavior of these microorganisms, Jonas Peters and his colleagues synthesized an iron-based catalyst that allows for nitrogen fixation under much milder conditions. The catalyst could one day lead to more environmentally friendly methods of ammonia production.

Traditionally, the photovoltaic cells in solar panels have been expensive and have had limited efficiency—making them a hard sell in the consumer market. Engineer and applied physicist Harry Atwater's work suggests that there is a thinner and more efficient alternative. Atwater, who is also the director of the Resnick Sustainability Institute, uses thin layers of semiconductors to create photovoltaics that absorb sunlight as efficiently as thick solar cells but can be produced with higher efficiency than conventional cells.

The generation of chemical fuels from sunlight could completely change the way we power the planet. Researchers in the laboratory of Caltech chemist Nate Lewis are working to develop different components of a fuel-producing device that could do just that called a photoelectrochemical cell. The cell would consist of an upper layer that could absorb sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water vapor, a middle layer consisting of light absorbers and catalysts that can produce fuels, which are then released through the device's bottom layer. When such a device is created, the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis, of which Lewis is the scientific director, aims to ease the transfer of these technologies to the private sector. 

Clean energy from the wind is a promising alternative to fossil fuels, but giant pinwheel-like wind turbines that are common on many wind farms can create dangerous obstacles for birds as well as being an unpleasant addition to a landscape's aesthetic. To combat this problem, Caltech engineer and fluid-mechanics expert John Dabiri is testing a new design for wind turbines, which looks a bit like a spinning eggbeater emerging from the ground. By placing these columnar vertical wind turbines in a careful arrangement—an arrangement inspired by the vortex of water created behind a swimming fish—his smaller vertical turbines create just as much energy as the "pinwheels" and on a much smaller land footprint.

In the early 1990s, Caltech bioengineer Frances Arnold pioneered "directed evolution"—a new method of engineering custom-built enzymes, or activity-boosting proteins. The technique allows mutations to develop in the enzyme's genetic code; these mutations can give the enzyme properties that don't occur in nature but are beneficial for human applications. The selectively enhanced enzymes help microbes turn plant waste and fast-growing grasses into fuels like isobutanol, which could sustainably replace more than half of U.S. oil imports, Arnold says. She's also exploring ways the technique could help factories to make pharmaceuticals and other products in much cleaner and safer ways.

The combined research efforts of Richard Flagan, John Seinfeld, Mitchio Okumura, and Paul Wennberg aim to improve our understanding of various aspects of climate change. Chemical engineer Flagan is pioneering ways to measure the number and sizes of particles in the air down to that of large molecules. Seinfeld studies where particles in the air come from, how they are produced by airborne chemical reactions, and the effect they have on the world's climate. Chemical physicist Okumura studies the chemical reactions that occur when sunlight encounters air pollution and results in smog. Wennberg, an atmospheric chemist, studies the natural and human processes that affect smog formation, the health of the ozone layer, as well as the lifetime of greenhouse gases. Wennberg and his colleagues join a legacy of Caltech researchers who have improved air quality through key discoveries about pollution.

In the past, researchers have discovered materials that can act as reaction catalysts, driving sunlight to split water into hydrogen fuel and an oxygen byproduct. However, these wonder materials are often expensive and in short supply. The research of chemist Harry Gray, who leads the National Science Foundation-funded Center for Chemical Innovation in Solar Fuels program, tests combinations of Earth-abundant metals to search for an inexpensive catalyst that boosts the water-splitting reaction with the sun. Gray also coleads an outreach project in which students in the classroom can participate in the race for solar fuels by testing thousands of materials and reporting their results to Caltech researchers.


Although Earth Week has officially come to a close, Caltech's commitment to sustainability continues. In this feature, you will meet some of the researchers at Caltech whose work is contributing to a greener planet and to the long-term improvement of our global environment.

Spring Break in the Galápagos


As the final element of Evolution, Caltech's new Bi/Ge 105 course, a dozen students spent their spring break snorkeling with penguins and sharks, hiking a volcano, and otherwise taking in the natural laboratory for evolution that is the Galápagos Islands. The second-term course was created and is taught by Rob Phillips, the Fred and Nancy Morris Professor of Biophysics and Biology, and Victoria Orphan, professor of geobiology, and is designed to give students both a broad picture of evolution and a chance to make their own up-close-and-personal observations.

"Rob and I both feel very strongly that lab and field experiences are essential for the growth of the students as scientists," Orphan says. "Being at a place like Caltech that's small and where you have a lot of talented and enthusiastic students is the perfect environment to create those kinds of opportunities."

So with their trusty mascot—a bobblehead Darwin—in tow, the undergraduate students, their teaching assistant, and the two professors flew to Ecuador and then to the archipelago off the coast to spend a week living as field researchers and learning from Ecuadorian naturalist Ernesto Vaca and from their natural surroundings.

"The Galápagos are completely iconic," says Phillips. "Right before your eyes you can see the products of evolution, if you like. You can swim in the water with the flightless cormorants. The famed Darwin's finches are there. You can wonder what penguins are doing at the equator. What especially impresses me about seeing species such as the cormorants is the way they teach us about some of the most important evolutionary features seen on islands, such as dwarfism, gigantism, and flightlessness."

During the trip, each student made a presentation to the group, discussing a species or topic specific to the islands. One spoke about the Galápagos fur seal; another presented about the opuntia, a variety of cactus; another about marine iguanas. Senior bioengineering major Laura Santoso spoke about invasive species on the island. She says that although she had researched the subject extensively ahead of time, she saw things differently once she was actually in the Galápagos. For example, she had read that a particular invasive insect had been essentially eradicated from the islands, but while there she actually saw a number of the bugs. "It drove home how challenging it is to get rid of these invasive species," she says. "I find that observing the complexity of the issue in person and developing my own inferences makes it more meaningful."

Junior bioengineering major Aleena Patel agrees, adding that the trip suggested new ways to ask questions, to study, and to explore. "Being there in person piques curiosity in ways that other facets of learning don't," she says. "At times, there was so much to see it was almost overwhelming. But as scientists, we need that inspiration to ask questions and to be emotionally motivated."

That is just the kind of motivation Phillips and Orphan hoped to impart. "My view is that the most important point is to get students to plug into the idea of looking at nature and wondering, 'Why is that like that? How could science attack that question?' It's not so much a course about learning what is," says Phillips. "It's a course about saying, 'I wonder . . .'"

In addition to the Galápagos trip, the class took smaller day trips closer to campus during the winter term. On a special behind-the-scenes tour of the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits, they were able to collect samples from one of the current excavations in order to study the microbes that make a living in such a unique environment. They also visited the Moore Lab of Zoology at Occidental College, where they used calipers to measure beaks in one of the world's largest collections of Mexican birds. The goal of the exercise was to get a feel for the kinds of measurements that biologists have conducted on finches on Daphne Major, one of the islands of the Galápagos, to study evolution in action.

The new class was supported by Caltech's Innovation in Education Fund, the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences, and the Division of Biology and Biological Engineering through its William K. Bowes Jr. Leadership fund. As for why its focus was evolution, Orphan explains, "Evolution is of course integral to anyone doing biology. But when you start to look around, you find that evolution has its tendrils in a lot of different areas of research beyond biological research—even in computer science. We wanted to give the students that perspective, that even if they weren't going to be evolutionary biologists, per se, that the concepts and the way of perceiving the world in this class were going to help them."

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Spring Break in the Galapagos
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