Caltech Researcher Awarded $10 Million Grant

PASADENA, Calif.-- Brian M. Stoltz, the Ethel Wilson Bowles and Robert Bowles Professor of Chemistry at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), has been awarded a $10 million grant from the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST).

Stoltz, whose work is focused on developing new strategies for the synthesis of complex molecules with interesting structural, biological, and physical properties that may lead to useful biological and medical applications, is one of 12 international scientists chosen to receive the award as part of the KAUST Global Research Partnership (GRP) Investigator competition. The GRP program is designed to fund research in areas of science and technology that are of particular importance to Saudi Arabia and the region, such as water desalination, renewable and sustainable next-generation energy sources, salt-tolerant plants, durable and environmentally friendly construction materials, and solar technology.

Each investigator was scrutinized by a panel of 14 world-renowned scientists, including Caltech's former provost Steven E. Koonin, chief scientist at British Petroleum, and evaluated based on their record of achievement to date and the relevance of their proposed research to the mission areas of KAUST, which include energy and environment; materials science and bioengineering; biosciences; and applied mathematics and computational science.

Stoltz was recognized for his efforts to discover and develop new oxidation reaction processes of potential utility for the chemical, polymer, and pharmaceutical industries. The new methods employ organometallic catalysts in conjunction with molecular oxygen, instead of the toxic metals that are normally used. These new catalytic reactions also provide avenues of reactivity that are simply unavailable using older techniques.

"Caltech is honored that KAUST and its committee of esteemed scientists selected Brian Stoltz after their extensive search for the world's most promising science and technology researchers," says Caltech president Jean-Lou Chameau. "This generous award will significantly advance Brian's efforts in chemical synthesis and nontoxic catalysts, and also reminds us of the global impact that our scientists are making with their research," adds Chameau.

"This is an enormous boost for our research program and my students and I couldn't be happier that the KAUST GRP has entrusted us with this honor," Stoltz says. "I am excited to work with KAUST and be a part of this very unique endeavor. It will be an exciting time here and at KAUST!"

Each investigator will spend at least three weeks per year on the KAUST campus in Saudi Arabia, participating in the research and academic life of the University.

KAUST is an international graduate-level research university, "dedicated to inspiring a new age of scientific achievement in the Kingdom, across the region and around the globe," being built on the Red Sea at Thuwal, approximately 50 miles north of Saudi Arabia's second-largest city, Jeddah. The 36-million-square-meter core campus is set to open in September 2009. For more information, visit

With an outstanding faculty, including five Nobel laureates, and such off-campus facilities as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Palomar Observatory, and the W. M. Keck Observatory, the California Institute of Technology is one of the world's major research centers. Caltech offers instruction in science and engineering for a student body of approximately 900 undergraduates and 1,200 graduate students who maintain a high level of scholarship and intellectual achievement. Caltech is a private university in Pasadena, California. For more information, visit

Kathy Svitil

Caltech Engineers Build Mini Drug-Producing Biofactories in Yeast

PASADENA, Calif.-- Researchers at the California Institute of Technology have developed a novel way to churn out large quantities of drugs, including antiplaque toothpaste additives, antibiotics, nicotine, and even morphine, using mini biofactories--in yeast. 

A paper describing the research, now available online, will be featured as the cover article of the September issue of Nature Chemical Biology.

Christina D. Smolke, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at Caltech, along with graduate student Kristy Hawkins, genetically modified common baker's yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) so that it contained the genes for several plant enzymes. The enzymes allow the yeast to produce a chemical called reticuline, which is a precursor for many different classes of benzylisoquinoline alkaloid (BIA) molecules. The BIA molecules are a large group of chemically intricate compounds, such as morphine, nicotine, and codeine, which are naturally produced by plants.

BIA molecules exhibit a wide variety of pharmacological activities, including antispasmodic effects, pain relief, and hair growth acceleration. Other BIAs have shown anticancer, antioxidant, antimalarial, and anti-HIV potential.

"There are estimated to be thousands of members in the BIA family, and having a source for obtaining large quantities of specific BIA molecules is critical to gaining access to the diverse functional activities provided by these molecules," says Smolke, whose lab focuses on using biology as a technology for the synthesis of new chemicals, materials, and products. However, the natural plant sources of BIAs accumulate only a small number of the molecules, usually "end products" like morphine and codeine that, while valuable, can't be turned into other compounds, thus limiting the availability of useful new products.

To their reticuline-producing yeast, Smolke and Hawkins added the genes for other enzymes, from both plants and humans, which allowed the yeast to efficiently generate large quantities of the precursors for sanguinarine, a toothpaste additive with antiplaque properties; berberine, an antibiotic; and morphine.

The researchers are now in the process of engineering their yeast so that they will turn these precursor molecules into the final, pharmacologically useful molecules. "But even the intermediate molecules that we are producing can exhibit important and valuable activities, and a related area of research will be to examine more closely the pharmacological activities of these metabolites and derivatives now that pure sources can be obtained," says Smolke, who estimates that her system could be used for the large-scale manufacture of BIA compounds in one to three years.

Smolke and Hawkins also plan to extend their research to the production of BIAs that don't normally exist in nature.

"If one thinks of these molecules as encoding functions that are of interest to us, the ability to produce nonnatural alkaloids will provide access to more diverse functions and activities. By expanding to nonnatural alkaloids, we can search for molecules that provide enhanced activities, new activities, and not be limited by the activities that have been selected for in nature," says Smolke.

"Our work has the potential to result in new therapeutic drugs for a broad range of diseases. This work also provides an exciting example of the increased complexity with which we are engineering biological systems to address global societal challenges," she says.

The research was supported by the Center for Biological Circuit Design at Caltech and the National Institutes of Health.


Kathy Svitil
Exclude from News Hub: 

Caltech Scientists Awarded $20 Million to "Power the Planet"

PASADENA, Calif.--In the dreams of Harry Gray, Beckman Professor of Chemistry at the California Institute of Technology, the future energy needs of the world are met with solar-fuel power plants. Now, a $20 million award from the Chemical Bonding Center (CBC), a National Science Foundation (NSF) Division of Chemistry program, will help bring this dream one step closer to reality.

In 2005, NSF granted three Phase I CBC awards. Gray formed a group of Caltech and MIT scientists who spent the $1.5 million and three years of Phase I conducting initial research and establishing public outreach plans for their idea.

Of the three Phase I projects, Caltech's is the only one to advance to Phase II, a $20 million, five-year extension. "We have added outstanding investigators from many other institutions to our Caltech-MIT team in order to ramp up our efforts in Phase II of the 21st century grand challenge to make solar fuels using materials made from Earth-abundant elements," says Gray.

In Phase I, the Caltech-MIT alliance, called "Powering the Planet," proposed to develop nanoscale materials to make fuel from sunlight and water. They designed a nanorod-catalyst water splitter that incorporates a membrane to separate the oxygen- and hydrogen-making parts of the system.

Nathan Lewis, Caltech's Argyros Professor and professor of chemistry, and chemist Bruce Brunschwig, a Member of Caltech's Beckman Institute (BI) and Director of the Materials Resource Center for the BI, headed a group of students and postdocs who began working on a silicon nanorod-studded plastic sheet to harvest sunlight. The hydrogen-making catalyst team was headed by Gray, Jay Winkler (a Caltech faculty associate in chemistry), and Jonas Peters (a former Caltech chemistry professor now at MIT). Research with the goal of finding efficient catalysts for the oxidation of water to oxygen was led by MIT scientists Dan Nocera, a former graduate student of Gray's, and Christopher Cummins.

With a conceptual design in place, and with promising results in all three investigation areas, the alliance expanded--18 senior researchers at 12 institutions signed on to compete for Phase II of the CBC award and participate in testing and refining the nanoscale water-splitting device.

Luis Echegoyen, Director of the NSF Division of Chemistry, says, "The Division of Chemistry is pleased and excited to establish this new CBC devoted to elucidating some basic science aspects of solar energy research. This center and its excellent team of researchers will enable NSF to partner with the scientific community to explore fundamental aspects of solar-driven splitting of water into hydrogen and oxygen."

The CBC Program is designed to support the formation of centers that can address long-term, high-risk, and high-impact basic chemical research problems. The centers are expected to be responsive to rapidly emerging opportunities and make full use of cyberinfrastructure to enhance collaborations.

"We are excited about our prospects, as we are lucky to have a very talented and dedicated group of students and postdocs who are ready and able to tackle the fundamental chemistry problems that must be solved before it will be feasible to produce clean solar fuels on a large scale," Gray adds. The Phase II award may be extended for an additional five years.

For more information on the award, visit


Elisabeth Nadin

Zhen-Gang Wang Receives Feynman Prize for Excellence in Teaching

PASADENA, Calif.--Zhen-Gang Wang favors the tried-and-true chalkboard for his classroom lectures on thermodynamics and polymer physics. The clarity of these lessons and the admiration of his students have won him this year's Feynman Prize for Excellence in Teaching at the California Institute of Technology.

"What I teach is traditional topics, so I use traditional means," remarks Wang, a professor of chemical engineering at Caltech, adding that he was very pleasantly surprised by the news. "Excellent board work" is just one of many praises listed in student evaluations of Wang's classes. "He engaged me as no lecturer ever had before," says Andrew Downard, who came to Caltech from Notre Dame University for graduate studies in chemical engineering. "The class is a journey to seek the truth with basic postulates and a passionate expert in the field to help steer us."

The Feynman Prize is Caltech's most prestigious teaching honor. With it comes a $3,500 cash award and an equivalent raise in annual salary. Winners are selected by a committee of students, former winners, and other faculty.

Wang started teaching at Caltech 17 years ago, having never before taught or even served as a teaching assistant. He knew he was in trouble after his first class, in statistical mechanics: "The level was unreasonably high--the scores on exams were very low. I learned over the years to adjust the level of the presentation," he remembers. "You have to really understand the material well, from several different angles, and then find the best angle that would be suitable for the students."

The hard work paid off, and across the board Wang's students admire his "uncanny ability to cut to the heart of a question and provide an answer based on fundamentals," according to one. They appreciate how he challenges them to sharpen their questions, and how he "sets the intellectual bar high" but gives them the means to reach it.

"I love teaching," says Wang, adding that he finds a sense of nobleness through training the next generation of scientists and engineers. "I enjoy research and I am devoted to it, but it feels more like a hobby. But my research is theoretical; it doesn't have an immediate impact on society. Through teaching, I feel like I'm having a more direct impact."

"Zhen-Gang is already quietly becoming one of the legends of Caltech," raves Julie Kornfield, a professor of chemical engineering at Caltech who nominated Wang for the prize. "He profoundly affects our students and transforms the way they think. To me he represents the essence of what Caltech is all about."

The Feynman Prize is named after legendary Caltech physics professor Richard Feynman, who wrote, "I don't believe I can do without teaching," in his book Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! The prize is endowed through the generosity of Ione and Robert E. Paradise and an anonymous local couple, to annually honor a professor who demonstrates unusual ability, creativity, and innovation in undergraduate and graduate classroom or laboratory teaching.

Elisabeth Nadin
Exclude from News Hub: 

Caltech Professor Frances H. Arnold Elected to the National Academy of Sciences

PASADENA, Calif.-- Frances H. Arnold of the California Institute of Technology has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences, an honor considered to be one of the highest accolades in the scientific world. Arnold, the Dick and Barbara Dickinson Professor of Chemical Engineering and Biochemistry, is also a member of the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine, making her one of only eight living individuals to have been elected to all three branches of the National Academies, and the only woman.

Arnold was elected for integrating fundamentals in molecular biology, genetics, and bioengineering to the benefit of life science and industry. Her research has revolutionized protein engineering and its applications to biotechnology, addressing central issues in protein design and the evolution of new biocatalysts.

She is one of the pioneers in the use of "directed evolution" to improve proteins and other biological molecules for commercial applications. Directed evolution applies the principles of breeding, but to molecules rather than animals or plants. Using these methods, Arnold has been able to generate proteins with a variety of useful features, like improved stability and the ability to function in nonnatural environments.

The practical applications of this research are very broad and include making enzymes that can effectively break down cellulose, the key structural component of plant cell walls, which would allow the efficient production of cellulosic biofuels.

"I am thrilled to have this recognition, and validation, of our efforts to use evolution to engineer biology," Arnold says. "At Caltech I have been able to work with great students and colleagues from disparate disciplines, who have helped me find new ways to look at problems. Caltech is both immensely stimulating and very supportive."

"Frances's work has changed the way we think about biological engineering, and her methods have been adopted by hundreds of laboratories around the world. It's a beautiful example of a new idea that proved to be almost immediately applicable to a broad range of fundamental and practical problems," says David A. Tirrell, the Ross McCollum-William H. Corcoran Professor and professor of chemistry and chemical engineering, and chair of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at Caltech. "We're very proud of what Frances and her students have accomplished."

The National Academy of Sciences is a private organization of scientists and engineers dedicated to the furtherance of science and its use for the general welfare. It was established in 1863 by a congressional act of incorporation signed by Abraham Lincoln that calls on the academy to act as an official adviser to the federal government, upon request, in any matter of science or technology.

The election of Arnold brings the total Caltech membership to 75 faculty and three trustees.

Kathy Svitil
Exclude from News Hub: 

Sixth Annual Caltech Science Writing Symposium

PASADENA, Calif.-California Institute of Technology President Jean-Lou Chameau and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Usha Lee McFarling will be the featured speakers at the sixth annual Caltech Science Writing Symposium. The topic of their conversation will be the importance and challenges of communicating science to the general public.

The symposium will take place on Friday, February 29, at 4 p.m., at Beckman Institute Auditorium on the Caltech campus. The event is free and open to the public.

As a civil and environmental engineer and president of one of the world's leading academic institutions, Chameau addresses diverse groups and often must communicate complex issues to audiences with varying ranges of scientific knowledge.

And as a former science journalist for the Los Angeles Times, McFarling, on a daily basis, had to clearly communicate technical concepts to the general public. Her recent series of articles, "Altered Oceans," which examines how ocean pollution threatens sea life and human health globally, won not only the Pulitzer Prize, but also awards from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Geophysical Union, and the National Association of Science Writers. McFarling also wrote for the Knight Ridder Washington bureau and the Boston Globe.

Together, Chameau and McFarling will discuss the difficulties of conveying scientific information to nonspecialists and will share their insights and tips for communicating effectively.

The symposium is presented by the Words Matter program and Caltech's Division of Humanities and Social Sciences.

Deborah Williams-Hedges

David Tirrell Elected to Membership in the National Academy of Engineering

PASADENA, Calif.- David A. Tirrell, Ross McCollum-William H. Corcoran Professor, professor of chemistry and chemical engineering, and chair of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at the California Institute of Technology is one of 65 new members to be elected to the National Academy of Engineering (NAE).

Tirrell was noted for his "pioneering contributions to bioengineered materials and synthesis of novel artificial proteins," according to the NAE. Tirrell's research combines organic, biological, and materials chemistry to make new macromolecular systems with exquisite control of structure and function.

His research explores artificial proteins made by the expression of artificial genes in microbial cells. Tirrell uses biological cells to make proteins, just as nature does, but reprograms the cells to produce specific materials that are targeted toward important biomedical technologies. He is also investigating the creation of novel amino acids that are the building blocks for applications in biology, biotechnology, and medicine.

NAE membership is among the highest professional distinctions accorded to an engineer. It honors those who have made important contributions to engineering theory and practice, and those who have demonstrated unusual accomplishments in the pioneering of new and developing fields of technology.

Founded in 1964, the NAE is an independent, nonprofit institution that advises the federal government on issues of science and technology policy while conducting studies to articulate the societal implications of rapid technological change. The NAE also initiates programs designed to encourage international cooperation between engineering societies, to improve the public's technological awareness and understanding, and to enhance the dialogue between scientists, engineers, and policy makers.

Jacqueline Scahill
Exclude from News Hub: 

Breaking Ground for Schlinger Laboratory

PASADENA, Calif.--Chemists and chemical engineers at the California Institute of Technology can soon start dreaming of experiments for their new labs, to be housed in a building dedicated to their work that will begin to take shape on February 13. The groundbreaking ceremony starts at 11 a.m.

The Warren and Katharine Schlinger Laboratory for Chemistry and Chemical Engineering is the first building specifically designed to house both disciplines under one roof at Caltech, providing laboratories and classroom and conference space.

The four-story building, which will occupy 60,000 square feet, was designed by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, a Pennsylvania-based architectural firm that has won many awards and built numerous academic and lab structures. The Schlinger Lab, which will likely merit a silver rating under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System for environmentally sustainable buildings, will be constructed at a cost of $45 million and should be finished in 18 months. It will be located near the western end of the San Pasqual walkway on campus.

First-floor labs will focus on atmospheric chemistry and materials. A conference room opening toward the chemical physics building was designed to encourage interactions among students and faculty. The third floor will feature synthetic chemistry with the Center for Catalysis and Chemical Synthesis (3CS), headed by Nobel Laureate Robert Grubbs, and funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. The second floor and half of the underground floor will be designated for yet-to-be-appointed faculty.

The Schlinger Lab was named in recognition of a $20 million campaign donation from Warren and Katharine Schlinger, whose roots run deep at Caltech. Warren spent 12 years at the Institute, earning his BS in applied chemistry, then an MS and PhD in chemical engineering, followed by postdoctoral research and teaching. Katharine grew up in the Pasadena area and was a vocal soloist, and met her husband while working as a department secretary for chemical engineering. "The new laboratory will be central to the future of the division, and it's especially fitting that our friends Warren and Katie Schlinger have played the key role in bringing it to life," says David Tirrell, chair of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at Caltech.

In response to their generosity, Caltech president Jean-Lou Chameau wrote that the Schlingers' gifts will "make a global impact on the progress of discovery in this field," adding that, "this historic initiative will change the landscape of our campus and amplify our ability to remain at the forefront of scientific research."

In addition to Schlinger and Moore Foundation contributions, gifts have come from an array of supporters, including the estate of former trustee Victor K. Atkins; trustee G. Patricia Beckman (daughter of Mabel and Arnold Beckman, PhD '28); Barbara J. Dickinson (widow of Richard Dickinson '52); The Ralph M. Parsons Foundation; the John Stauffer Charitable Trust; John W. Jones '41; Helen and Will Webster '49; Gregory P. Stone '74; and others. Funds raised to date total $37 million. 

Elisabeth Nadin

Energy-Efficient Refrigeration from Ultranarrow Silicon Wires

PASADENA, Calif.-- Supernarrow silicon wires, or silicon nanowires, are laying the foundation for a new type of cheap yet energy-efficient microscopic refrigeration, with no moving parts, report researchers from the California Institute of Technology in a study published today in the journal Nature.

The researchers found that making silicon into nanowires could create highly efficient thermoelectric materials. Thermoelectric materials create a voltage--a difference in electric potential--when there is a difference in temperature across the surface of the material. The thermoelectric effect has been known for more than 200 years, and the materials have had niche applications, such as power generation in satellites. However, the efficiency with which thermoelectric materials heat at one end and cool at the other in response to electric current has been too poor to be of general use. To improve performance, other researchers have experimented with increasingly complex compositions and arrangements of rare elements. Although they have found newer materials with improved efficiency, those materials are expensive and difficult to miniaturize.

The Caltech researchers, led by James Heath, the Elizabeth W. Gilloon Professor and professor of chemistry, took a completely different tack by using silicon, the most abundant element on earth. Using a method developed in Heath's labs, they constructed nanowires that were from 10 to 100 times narrower than the wires used in current computer microchips and found that the nanowires became extremely efficient at converting between thermal energy and electrical energy, exhibiting a 100-fold increase in performance. Near-term applications may involve recovering waste heat from microprocessor chips to make those chips more energy efficient. Longer-term applications include their use in efficient cooling units for refrigeration, or in thermal to electrical energy conversion for large-scale applications.

"At these tiny dimensions, nature is doing things that were previously not thought possible," says Heath, whose research group carried out the experiments described in the study. "Optimizing materials for cooling or heat recovery applications involves a tricky trade-off of several different parameters, including the electrical conductivity and the thermal conductivity." It is often the case that an improvement in one of these parameters will adversely affect the performance of the others, Heath says, but "we find that we can greatly drop the thermal conductivity in these nanowires without affecting the other parameters, and this leads to dramatic improvements in the thermoelectric efficiency."

An additional parameter that the researchers were surprised to see improved in the nanowires is the thermopower, which is the amount of voltage generated in a material for a given thermal gradient. The improvement likely arises from a phenomenon known as "phonon drag," which comes when the sound-carrying vibrations in the atomic lattice of the nanowires are not in thermal equilibrium with the current carrying electrons. "We find that for ultrathin nanowires the electrons drag certain sound waves along with them as they move down the nanowire. This extra heat from the sound is enhancing the thermoelectric efficiency," says Jamil Tahir-Kheli, a theoretician with Caltech's Materials and Process Simulation Center and a contributing author to the study.

Although silicon nanowires are still about a factor of two less efficient than the most efficient known thermoelectric materials, researchers are optimistic that further improvements in the materials will soon be made. "Our theoretical models indicate that a number of exciting avenues are available to significantly improve the efficiency," says William A Goddard, the Charles and Mary Ferkel Professor of Chemistry, Materials Science, and Applied Physics at Caltech, the director of the Materials and Process Simulation Center, and a contributing author to the study. "However, even at their current efficiencies, these nanowires already outperform many commercially available systems, and so could potentially find near-term applications. This is one more example of the surprising properties of in the world of nanomaterials, an area stimulated by the pioneering work of Richard Feynman, Tolman Professor of Theoretical Physics at Caltech, in 1959, just as I was arriving at Caltech," says Goddard.

Other authors on the study were Caltech chemistry graduate students Akram Boukai, Yuri Bunimovich, and Jen Kan Yu.

Kathy Svitil
Exclude from News Hub: 

Caltech Chemist Peter Dervan Wins National Medal of Science

PASADENA, Calif.—Peter B. Dervan, the Bren Professor of Chemistry at the California Institute of Technology, has been named one of eight recipients of the 2006 National Medal of Science. The award was announced Monday, July 16, by the White House.

The National Medal of Science honors individuals for pioneering scientific research in a range of fields—including physical, biological, mathematical, social, behavioral, and engineering sciences—that enhances our understanding of the world and leads to innovations and technologies that give the United States its global economic edge. The National Science Foundation administers the award, which was established by Congress in 1959.

Dervan, a former chair of Caltech's division of chemistry and chemical engineering, has influenced the course of research in organic chemistry through his studies at the interface of chemistry and biology.

A native of Boston, Dervan earned his BS from Boston College in 1967, and his PhD from Yale University in 1972. He was a postdoctoral fellow for a year at Stanford before arriving at Caltech as an assistant professor in 1973.

Dervan has pioneered a field of bioorganic chemistry with studies directed toward understanding the chemical principles for the sequence-specific recognition of the genetic material, DNA. He and his coworkers have combined the art of synthesis, physical chemistry, and biology to create synthetic molecules with affinities and sequence specificities comparable to nature's proteins. This chemical approach to DNA recognition underpins the design of programmable cell-permeable small molecules for the regulation of gene expression.

Dervan is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Medicine, the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, a foreign member of the French Academy of Sciences and the Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher Leopoldina. His awards include the Harrison Howe Award (1988), Arthur C. Cope Award (1993), Willard Gibbs Medal (1993), Nichols Medal (1994), Maison de la Chimie Foundation Prize (1996), Remsen Award (1998), Kirkwood Medal (1998), Alfred Bader Award (1999), Max Tishler Prize (1999), Linus Pauling Medal (1999), Richard C. Tolman Medal (1999), Tetrahedron Prize (2000), Harvey Prize (Israel) (2002), Ronald Breslow Award (2005), and the Wilbur Cross Medal (2005).

He has been a member of the Scientific Advisory Boards of Gilead Sciences since 1987, and the Robert A. Welch Foundation since 1988, and has served as a director of Beckman Coulter since 1998.

The National Medal of Science is presented annually by the president. Dervan and the other seven recipients will receive their awards at the White House on July 27.

Robert Tindol


Subscribe to RSS - CCE