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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Chemical Engineer Mark Davis Wins Prince of Asturias Award

Mark E. Davis, the Warren and Katharine Schlinger Professor of Chemical Engineering at Caltech, has been named one of three recipients of the 2014 Prince of Asturias Award for Technical and Scientific Research. Davis was recognized, along with Avelino Corma Canós of the Institute of Chemical Technology in Spain and Galen D. Stucky of UC Santa Barbara, for contributions to the development of microporous and mesoporous materials and various applications of these materials from the petrochemical industry to health care.

Microporous materials are characterized by pores that are less than 2 nanometers in diameter, while mesoporous materials have larger pores that can be up to 50 nanometers across.

Each year the Prince of Asturias Foundation selects awardees in eight categories to "encourage and promote the scientific, cultural, and humanistic values that form part of mankind's universal heritage." The foundation's citation for this year's awardees in the Technical and Scientific Research category says, in part, "The scientific and technical contributions of these three chemists have opened up very important lines of research that are on the frontiers of current knowledge, with direct applications in the reduction of pollutant emissions from vehicles and factories as well as in the processes of refining petroleum and in the chemical industry in general."

"It gives me great pleasure to receive the 2014 Prince of Asturias Award for Technical and Scientific Research with my esteemed colleagues Professor Corma and Stucky," says Davis. "It is gratifying to receive recognition for work on microporous and mesoporous solids, as these types of materials are the basis of significant technology that has greatly improved quality of life throughout the world."

"Mark's achievements in the development of new materials as selective catalysts and for applications in medicine have been impressive," says Jacqueline Barton, chair of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at Caltech. "It is outstanding to see his contributions being recognized through this award."

Davis has worked on microporous crystalline oxides, called zeolites, and zeolite-like materials since the 1980s. These materials have pores that are at the same scale as the molecules with which they react, allowing them to serve as very selective catalysts. Although zeolites are notoriously difficult to synthesize in a prescribed way, Davis and his colleagues have developed techniques for controlling their synthesis with desired nanostructures and properties. One of his group's major successes was creating zeolites with pore sizes larger than one nanometer in diameter.

Davis earned his BS, MS, and PhD at the University of Kentucky in 1977, 1978, and 1981, respectively. He joined the Caltech faculty as a professor in 1991, was named Schlinger Professor in 1993, and served as executive officer for chemical engineering from 1999 to 2004. Since 2004, he has been a member of the Experimental Therapeutics Program at the City of Hope Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Davis sits on the editorial board of Molecular Therapy-Nucleic Acids, Drug Delivery and Translational Research, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, and Nucleic Acid Therapeutics, among other publications. He is a member of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, the American Chemical Society, and the American Association for Cancer Research. He also has been elected to the National Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Medicine, and the National Academy of Sciences. Davis has won a number of awards previously, including the Presidential Young Investigator Award (1985), the Donald Breck Award from the International Zeolite Association (1989), the Alan T. Waterman Award from the National Science Foundation (1990), the Elmer Gaden Award from the American Chemical Society (2009), and the Gabor A. Somorjai Award for Creative Research in Catalysis (2014), among others.

Davis will receive the Prince Asturias Award from His Royal Highness The Prince of Asturias at an academic ceremony in October in Oviedo, Spain.

Kimm Fesenmaier
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Chemical Engineer Awarded Spanish Distinction
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JCAP Stabilizes Common Semiconductors For Solar Fuels Generation

Caltech researchers devise a method to protect the materials in a solar-fuel generator

Researchers around the world are trying to develop solar-driven generators that can split water, yielding hydrogen gas that could be used as clean fuel. Such a device requires efficient light-absorbing materials that attract and hold sunlight to drive the chemical reactions involved in water splitting. Semiconductors like silicon and gallium arsenide are excellent light absorbers—as is clear from their widespread use in solar panels. However, these materials rust when submerged in the type of water solutions found in such systems.

Now Caltech researchers at the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP) have devised a method for protecting these common semiconductors from corrosion even as the materials continue to absorb light efficiently. The finding paves the way for the use of these materials in solar-fuel generators.

"For the better part of a half century, these materials have been considered off the table for this kind of use," says Nate Lewis, the George L. Argyros Professor and professor of chemistry at Caltech, and the principal investigator on the paper. "But we didn't give up on developing schemes by which we could protect them, and now these technologically important semiconductors are back on the table."

The research, led by Shu Hu, a postdoctoral scholar in chemistry at Caltech, appears in the May 30 issue of the journal Science.

In the type of integrated solar-fuel generator that JCAP is striving to produce, two half-reactions must take place—one involving the oxidation of water to produce oxygen gas; the other involving the reduction of water, yielding hydrogen gas. Each half-reaction requires both a light-absorbing material to serve as the photoelectrode and a catalyst to drive the chemistry. In addition, the two reactions must be physically separated by a barrier to avoid producing an explosive mixture of their products.

Historically, it has been particularly difficult to come up with a light-absorbing material that will robustly carry out the oxidation half-reaction. Researchers have tried, without much success, a variety of materials and numerous techniques for coating the common light-absorbing semiconductors. The problem has been that if the protective layer is too thin, the aqueous solution penetrates through and corrodes the semiconductor. If, on the other hand, the layer is too thick, it prevents corrosion but also blocks the semiconductor from absorbing light and keeps electrons from passing through to reach the catalyst that drives the reaction.

At Caltech, the researchers used a process called atomic layer deposition to form a layer of titanium dioxide (TiO2)—a material found in white paint and many toothpastes and sunscreens—on single crystals of silicon, gallium arsenide, or gallium phosphide. The key was that they used a form of TiO2 known as "leaky TiO2"—because it leaks electricity. First made in the 1990s as a material that might be useful for building computer chips, leaky oxides were rejected as undesirable because of their charge-leaking behavior. However, leaky TiO2 seems to be just what was needed for this solar-fuel generator application. Deposited as a film, ranging in thickness between 4 and 143 nanometers, the TiO2 remained optically transparent on the semiconductor crystals—allowing them to absorb light—and protected them from corrosion but allowed electrons to pass through with minimal resistance.

On top of the TiO2, the researchers deposited 100-nanometer-thick "islands" of an abundant, inexpensive nickel oxide material that successfully catalyzed the oxidation of water to form molecular oxygen.

The work appears to now make a slew of choices available as possible light-absorbing materials for the oxidation side of the water-splitting equation. However, the researchers emphasize, it is not yet known whether the protective coating would work as well if applied using an inexpensive, less-controlled application technique, such as painting or spraying the TiO2 onto a semiconductor. Also, thus far, the Caltech team has only tested the coated semiconductors for a few hundred hours of continuous illumination.

"This is already a record in terms of both efficiency and stability for this field, but we don't yet know whether the system fails over the long term and are trying to ensure that we make something that will last for years over large areas, as opposed to weeks," says Lewis. "That's the next step."

The work, titled "Amorphous TiO2 Coatings Stabilize Si, GaAs, and GaP Photoanodes for Efficient Water Oxidation," was supported by the Office of Science of the U.S. Department of Energy through an award to JCAP, a DOE Energy Innovation Hub. Some of the work was also supported by the Resnick Sustainability Institute and the Beckman Institute at Caltech. Additional coauthors on the paper are graduate students Matthew Shaner, Joseph Beardslee, and Michael Lichterman, as well as Bruce S. Brunschwig, director of the Molecular Materials Resource Center at Caltech.

Kimm Fesenmaier
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Stabilizing Semiconductors for Solar Fuels Generation
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Tuesday, July 22, 2014
Center for Student Services 360 (Workshop Space)

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

Semana Latina Keynote Speaker – Dr. Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton

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

The Role of Writing in Building a Research Career

Friday, May 30, 2014
Annenberg 105

Caltech Teaching Assistant Training for 2014-2015 Year

From Nature to the Pharmacy: The Chemistry Behind Modern Medicines

Watson Lecture Preview

Natural products—molecules originally isolated from bacteria, fungi, plants, and other sources—often have medicinal values that can be enhanced by careful reengineering. For example, an aspirin tablet is a much better pain reducer than an extract of willow bark. Chemistry professor Sarah Reisman's lab develops synthetic methods to help organic chemists tweak existing molecules and even build new ones from scratch. On Wednesday, May 7, she will describe some tools of the trade.

The talk begins at 8:00 p.m. in Caltech's Beckman Auditorium. Admission is free.


Q: What do you do?

A: I'm a synthetic organic chemist. I spend a lot of time thinking about how to make small, carbon-based molecules—roughly the size of steroids, and comparable to most pharmaceuticals—that have some sort of biological activity. We try to prepare them in our laboratory so that through collaborations we can figure out how they work. We're more on the basic-research side of the spectrum; we develop synthetic tools that we, or researchers in pharma, can use to build molecules.

Natural products are relatively rare compounds. For example, the important antitumor drug Taxol—which we do not work on—was originally isolated from the Pacific yew tree. The yew population would have been decimated if the tree had been used as the commercial source of paclitaxel, which is the generic name for the drug. The manufacturers figured out how to culture an intermediate compound and finish the preparation synthetically, but first the demand for material inspired several chemical syntheses of the natural product.

Total chemical syntheses of natural products are complicated endeavors, because these molecules have very specific three-dimensional structures. The reactive parts that give the molecule its function all have to be connected in the correct spatial orientation, so how you bring the atoms together is really important. You have to figure out how to selectively engage and modify one part of the molecule without messing up the rest of it. Organic chemists have spent a long time developing these types of selective reactions, which is really what we do in my lab. And despite constant advancement in our understanding of synthetic organic chemistry, it is very much an empirical science. There are all sorts of rules and guidelines, but there are frequently exceptions to the rules and that's where things get interesting.

Working out the best order to do things is a big part of the challenge. We want to make these molecules in a reasonable way—usually in 20 synthetic steps or less. That's still on the high side, but it's reasonable. It's rare to obtain a 100 percent yield, and 20 synthetic steps with even a 75 percent yield at each step would lead to a very low overall yield. So we look for high-yield transformations wherever possible.


Q: What's exciting about this? What motivates you?

A: Well, I think it's pretty neat that most of what we make has never been made before. The goal is to make some compound that nature produces, but we get to design new molecules along the way.

We usually start with the target molecule and work backward—using either known transformations, or our intuition about reactions we might be able to develop—and as we simplify the target, we get to compounds that haven't been made before. Then we ask ourselves, okay, how do we actually make those compounds? And we work our way forward to those checkpoints—again, using known reactions, or new ones that we develop—but now starting from commercially available chemical building blocks.

I was drawn to organic chemistry because there's a tremendous amount of creativity embedded within it. There is no definitive right way to make a molecule. It's like putting together a jigsaw puzzle where you get to cut your own pieces. You figure out how to break the molecule up, and then how best to reassemble it. It's a lot of fun.


Q: How did you get into this line of work?

A: When I went to college I wanted to go to medical school. My declared major was biology, because I had heard that that was a good way to get in. Then, as a sophomore, I had to take organic chemistry as part of the premed requirement. I got hooked. It was unlike any other chemistry course I'd ever taken, because it was so creative. After I got into an organic chemistry lab and did some research, there was no looking back.



Named for the late Caltech professor Earnest C. Watson, who founded the series in 1922, the Watson Lectures present Caltech and JPL researchers describing their work to the public. Many past Watson Lectures are available online at Caltech's iTunes U site.

Douglas Smith
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The Chemistry Behind Modern Medicines
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