Ravichandran Receives Murray Lecture Award

Guruswami (Ravi) Ravichandran, the John E. Goode, Jr., Professor of Aerospace and professor of mechanical engineering, and director of the Graduate Aerospace Laboratories (GALCIT), has received the 2014 William M. Murray Award from the Society for Experimental Mechanics (SEM), "for pioneering contributions in experimental mechanics of deformation, damage and failure of materials under multiaxial dynamic loading."

Ravichandran's research group explores the properties of materials ranging from biomaterials to bulk metallic glasses, adhesives, and polymers. As winner of the Murray Award, Ravichandran delivered a lecture to the SEM annual conference on June 3, 2014, titled "Three-Dimensional Quantitative Visualization: Application to Studying Cell-Matrix Interactions." The lecture will be published in a forthcoming volume of SEM's official journal, Experimental Mechanics.

"I was greatly honored to give the 2014 William M. Murray Lecture of the Society for Experimental Mechanics," says Ravichandran. "I consider this award to be a recognition of the collective work carried out by my research group (students, postdocs, and visitors) over the last 25 years in mechanics of materials. My research has benefited from the truly interdisciplinary and highly collaborative environment at Caltech, and from the appreciation and support for cutting-edge experimental work in the Graduate Aerospace Laboratories (GALCIT)."

The Murray Award is the highest honor given by the SEM, the leading professional society in experimental solid mechanics. Ravichandran is currently president-elect of the society, and will be its president in 2015‑16.

Past Caltech winners of the Murray Award include Wolfgang G. Knauss (1995) and Ares J. Rosakis (2005).

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Maria I. Lopez Wins Schmitt Staff Prize

Maria I. Lopez, lead options administrator in Computing and Mathematical Sciences in the Division of Engineering and Applied Science at Caltech, is this year's winner of the Thomas W. Schmitt Annual Staff Prize. Lopez has been working at Caltech since 1996. Since 2003, she has served in a variety of capacities within computer science: as secretary to the department head, administrator for the Center for the Mathematics of Information, and most recently as the option administrator for Caltech students who are pursuing concentrations in computer science.

"Lopez is in charge of the organization of annual classes taken by more than 2,000 undergraduate and graduate students," says one of the anonymous individuals who nominated Lopez for the prize. "Computer science is the largest option on campus, so as option rep administrator, Lopez is in charge of about 200 students a year. Maria gets thanked in every thesis defense that I attend. Her positive attitude has been quite contagious among her peers: she literally invigorated her colleagues to play as a team . . . I do not think it is an exaggeration to state that she is the energy source of the whole department."

For her part, Lopez counts herself lucky to work with such a wonderful group of people. "My first job on campus was in faculty records, and then I moved to admissions and worked with prospective students. These were good experiences, but I think I've found my place in computer science. It's a great department. We have great leadership, great support, and wonderful coworkers. My supervisor, Jerolyn Chittum, always gives us the proper tools. If you want to take a class to better yourself, she's very supportive. And our director, Mathieu Desbrun, is just amazing."

Another anonymous individual who nominated Lopez for the Schmitt Prize notes her "independent initiative" and "unflapping professionalism and cheer." Indeed, Lopez stands poised to step into all kinds of situations, to be of use wherever she can. As Lopez explains, "I really enjoy interacting with people, and it's nice to work with people from multicultural backgrounds. For everyone, but especially for our international students, I like to emphasize an open door policy: stop by and say hello, come on in. If it's not my area, I'll find out who you can talk to. I just want to be of service. We're here because of the students, so I try to make it warm and inviting for them." Because Lopez works with incoming students, she often knows individuals throughout their Caltech careers, and she delights in meeting their families and watching them grow and change during their time here.

"Caltech is a great place to work," says Lopez. "When I first started, a friend of mine was introducing me to other staff, and they all said, 'Oh, I've worked here 17 years, or 20 years, or 12 years.' Now it's me saying, 'Oh, I've been here 18 years.' My whole job is different each term, so it's always interesting."

The Schmitt Prize was established in 2007 through the initiative of Thomas W. Schmitt, former associate vice president for human resources. Schmitt proposed the idea of a staff prize to senior administrators, and it was eventually funded by Ted Jenkins, Caltech alumnus (BS '65, MS '66) and trustee, who spent his professional career in the semiconductor industry. Both men were on hand to help award the prize at the 59th annual staff service awards on June 2.

Part of the excitement of the Schmitt Prize is that potential recipients do not know in advance who will receive the award. As Schmitt remarks, "I think Caltech does a better job of including staff as part of the community than any other place I know of." Jenkins is equally enthusiastic about the staff at Caltech. "One of the things that resonated with me when Tom first mentioned the idea to me was that the faculty get all kinds of awards, while staff are mainly recognized for seniority alone," says Jenkins. "Our faculty are the best and the brightest, but they can't do it by themselves. They need the environment and that comes from the staff."

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Miniature Truss Work

Fancy Erector Set? Nope. The elaborate fractal structure shown at right (with a close-up below) is many, many times smaller than that and is certainly not child's play. It is the latest example of what Julia Greer, professor of materials science and mechanics, calls a fractal nanotruss—nano because the structures are made up of members that are as thin as five nanometers (five billionths of a meter); truss because they are carefully architected structures that might one day be used in structural engineering materials.

Greer's group has developed a three-step process for building such complex structures very precisely. They first use a direct laser writing method called two-photon lithography to "write" a three-dimensional pattern in a polymer, allowing a laser beam to crosslink and harden the polymer wherever it is focused. At the end of the patterning step, the parts of the polymer that were exposed to the laser remain intact while the rest is dissolved away, revealing a three-dimensional scaffold. Next, the scientists coat the polymer scaffold with a continuous, very thin layer of a material—it can be a ceramic, metal, metallic glass, semiconductor, "just about anything," Greer says. In this case, they used alumina, or aluminum oxide, which is a brittle ceramic, to coat the scaffold. In the final step they etch out the polymer from within the structure, leaving a hollow architecture.

Taking advantage of some of the size effects that many materials display at the nanoscale, these nanotrusses can have unusual, desirable qualities. For example, intrinsically brittle materials, like ceramics, including the alumina shown, can be made deformable so that they can be crushed and still rebound to their original state without global failure.

"Having full control over the architecture gives us the ability to tune material properties to what was previously unattainable with conventional monolithic materials or with foams," says Greer. "For example, we can decouple strength from density and make materials that are both strong (and tough) as well as extremely lightweight. These structures can contain nearly 99 percent air yet can also be as strong as steel. Designing them into fractals allows us to incorporate hierarchical design into material architecture, which promises to have further beneficial properties."

The members of Greer's group who helped develop the new fabrication process and created these nanotrusses are graduate students Lucas Meza and Lauren Montemayor and Nigel Clarke, an undergraduate intern from the University of Waterloo.

Kimm Fesenmaier
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Tuesday, July 22, 2014
Center for Student Services 360 (Workshop Space) – Center for Student Services

Teaching Quantum Mechanics with Minecraft and Comics

Rewarding Inventions and Inventors

"Would Thomas Edison Receive Tenure?" This was the provocative title for a panel at the 2013 Annual Conference of the National Academy of Inventors (NAI), an organization founded in 2010 in partnership with the United States Patent and Trademark Office to support invention and innovation in universities and nonprofit research institutes.

Morteza Gharib, Caltech vice provost and the Hans W. Liepmann Professor of Aeronautics and Bioinspired Engineering, is a Charter Fellow of the NAI and was a participant in the 2013 panel discussing how Edison would fare before a contemporary tenure committee. That discussion led to a recent publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences titled "Changing the academic culture: Valuing patents and commercialization toward tenure and career advancement."

Edison makes an interesting test case. With more than 1,000 patents, Edison was a prolific inventor. He arguably created the very concept of a dynamic research laboratory, building a facility in Menlo Park, New Jersey, that was stocked with every conceivable material and staffed with scientists and engineers. However, Edison never published papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals, which is the standard marker for academic success in the sciences today. If we want more Edisons—and given the technological challenges of the 21st century, it is safe to say that we do—how will their research be evaluated and rewarded? Can three patents equal two academic papers? Is one start-up company worth the same as three academic papers, or five, or 10?

Gharib insists that while all universities need to recognize invention as a desirable outcome of research, no single metric will make sense for every academic or research setting. However, Gharib says, given its long experience partnering with industry, Caltech can take the lead in this area, helping other universities to place an appropriate value on invention.

Gharib recently sat down with us to discuss the role of inventions in evaluating faculty and the place of industry partnerships in the modern university.

Is Caltech facing new challenges in its relationship with industry?

At Caltech, we have been partnering with industry for a hundred years. We have had and still have very good relationships with large companies like Boeing, BP, and Dow, just to name a few. But there have been some historic changes in how academia and industry interact that have impacted Caltech.

For example, Caltech was really a pillar of the aerospace industry in its early years. It was due to innovations at Caltech, and the use of our wind tunnel here, that the industry really learned how to design better, safer, and more efficient airplanes. But after a while the big aerospace companies in Southern California began investing in their own R&D departments, giving them a lot of resources to do basic research. Caltech wasn't involved as much then.

That scenario has really changed in recent years, not just in aerospace, but in many industries dependent on scientific and technological innovation. Due to tighter budgets, industries have increasingly only taken on very targeted research, more like production R&D. Riskier and more basic research is being outsourced to universities.

Now the challenge to universities is to be mindful of which projects they pick up, choosing only those that are going to help them keep the quality of their research high and do work in keeping with their educational mission.

What does Caltech do to ensure that collaborations with industry partners are productive and appropriate?

It's really grass roots. We rely on the integrity of the faculty here.

Also, we don't expect faculty to go out and sell their ideas or inventions to industry. We have an office of corporate partnerships and an office of technology transfer, which I supervise, and that duo enables faculty to step forward and say, "I need to find a strategic partner for this project," or "I want to license this technology and then give it away," or "I need a start-up to develop the things my team has invented."

The offices of corporate relations and technology transfer actively involve faculty in the process of patenting their inventions and partnering with external corporations, so faculty gain experience in choosing the best solutions for their research groups.

Of course, we don't encourage faculty to build a shop to manufacture a specific device for industry. We do not allow our facilities to be used for routine manufacturing or the kind of research that does not benefit students.

Commercial partners understand this though. They're not going to come to us with a request to design a new bolt, because they know we'll say no. But if they come and ask, "Why do you think that 747 exploded?", then someone like Joe Shepherd [C. L. Kelly Johnson Professor of Aeronautics and Mechanical Engineering and the dean of graduate studies] will take that question and turn it into basic research in his lab.

How does Caltech evaluate patents or the commercialization of inventions to determine career advancement for faculty?

This is something that many provosts and presidents are concerned with, and it's why we wrote the article for PNAS. But it's something we already do at Caltech. It's important to realize that you can't come up with a single external model and expect it to work everywhere. You have to tailor this to the culture of the faculty at each institution. At Caltech, I feel what's most important is not simply to consider patents as a marker of faculty success, but to ask about the nature of the process that results in a patent or a start-up company.

You see, we aren't looking for faculty who sit down and think, "Today, I am going to invent this." Such a person might be a genius, they might invent wonderful things, but we are looking for something more from faculty. We want faculty who have a process in place that encourages basic research as well as innovation and invention; faculty who encourage publishing and the protection of intellectual property, and who create an atmosphere that promotes entrepreneurship.

How do you create an atmosphere for entrepreneurship?

Entrepreneurship is not just about monetary gains; it's a lifestyle: to be bold, to be fearless in tackling the toughest science and engineering issues that industry and our culture as a whole face. Caltech wants to instill in its students a mentality of taking risks, questioning everything, not being afraid that you're wrong. These are the elements that make a dynamic research group, and a group like that will be productive, regardless of whether that is through basic science, published papers, patents, inventions, or start-up companies.

In fact, these research groups have a lot in common with start-up companies themselves. There's just a lot of dynamism and adrenaline, ideas always popping. Some of the research groups here at Caltech are like a pack of lionesses, hunting down their research prey. If something commercial comes out of it, good. If not, it will still impact other aspects of science and technology. This may not bring a penny back to us, but it's our social contribution, and we're happy with it.

We're never going to encourage faculty to drop basic research at the expense of making patents, but then we don't see those two undertakings as exclusive. They're really inclusive. The most productive faculty in patent innovation—not only at Caltech, but at other universities too—are also the most productive in terms of the papers they publish.

What role can Caltech play in the larger debate about the role of invention in scientific research?

Our culture at Caltech is already a model for other universities in terms of invention and discovery and its transmission to the wider world. We get more out of faculty and students and postdocs by allowing them to be free of some of the conventional limitations and constraints that other universities put around their research teams. We have been able to do this in part because we have a culture that encourages collaboration. If you look at breakthrough innovations, most of them come at the interface between different scientific fields.

It is our moral obligation—and that of other universities, or course—to keep our example of collaborative work and partnering with industry alive and present. We are small, but other universities with much more muscle can do the same kind of thing.

Cynthia Eller
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Tricking the Uncertainty Principle

Caltech researchers have found a way to make measurements that go beyond the limits imposed by quantum physics.

Today, we are capable of measuring the position of an object with unprecedented accuracy, but quantum physics and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle place fundamental limits on our ability to measure. Noise that arises as a result of the quantum nature of the fields used to make those measurements imposes what is called the "standard quantum limit." This same limit influences both the ultrasensitive measurements in nanoscale devices and the kilometer-scale gravitational wave detector at LIGO. Because of this troublesome background noise, we can never know an object's exact location, but a recent study provides a solution for rerouting some of that noise away from the measurement.

The findings were published online in the May 15 issue of Science Express.

"If you want to know where something is, you have to scatter something off of it," explains Professor of Applied Physics Keith Schwab, who led the study. "For example, if you shine light at an object, the photons that scatter off provide information about the object. But the photons don't all hit and scatter at the same time, and the random pattern of scattering creates quantum fluctuations"—that is, noise. "If you shine more light, you have increased sensitivity, but you also have more noise. Here we were looking for a way to beat the uncertainty principle—to increase sensitivity but not noise."

Schwab and his colleagues began by developing a way to actually detect the noise produced during the scattering of microwaves—electromagnetic radiation that has a wavelength longer than that of visible light. To do this, they delivered microwaves of a specific frequency to a superconducting electronic circuit, or resonator, that vibrates at 5 gigahertz—or 5 billion times per second. The electronic circuit was then coupled to a mechanical device formed of two metal plates that vibrate at around 4 megahertz—or 4 million times per second. The researchers observed that the quantum noise of the microwave field, due to the impact of individual photons, made the mechanical device shake randomly with an amplitude of 10-15 meters, about the diameter of a proton.

"Our mechanical device is a tiny square of aluminum—only 40 microns long, or about the diameter of a hair. We think of quantum mechanics as a good description for the behaviors of atoms and electrons and protons and all of that, but normally you don't think of these sorts of quantum effects manifesting themselves on somewhat macroscopic objects," Schwab says. "This is a physical manifestation of the uncertainty principle, seen in single photons impacting a somewhat macroscopic thing."

Once the researchers had a reliable mechanism for detecting the forces generated by the quantum fluctuations of microwaves on a macroscopic object, they could modify their electronic resonator, mechanical device, and mathematical approach to exclude the noise of the position and motion of the vibrating metal plates from their measurement.

The experiment shows that a) the noise is present and can be picked up by a detector, and b) it can be pushed to someplace that won't affect the measurement. "It's a way of tricking the uncertainty principle so that you can dial up the sensitivity of a detector without increasing the noise," Schwab says.

Although this experiment is mostly a fundamental exploration of the quantum nature of microwaves in mechanical devices, Schwab says that this line of research could one day lead to the observation of quantum mechanical effects in much larger mechanical structures. And that, he notes, could allow the demonstration of strange quantum mechanical properties like superposition and entanglement in large objects—for example, allowing a macroscopic object to exist in two places at once.

"Subatomic particles act in quantum ways—they have a wave-like nature—and so can atoms, and so can whole molecules since they're collections of atoms," Schwab says. "So the question then is: Can you make bigger and bigger objects behave in these weird wave-like ways? Why not? Right now we're just trying to figure out where the boundary of quantum physics is, but you never know."

This work was published in an article titled "Mechanically Detecting and Avoiding the Quantum Fluctuations of a Microwave Field." Other Caltech coauthors include senior researcher Junho Suh; graduate students Aaron J. Weinstein, Chan U. Lei, and Emma E. Wollman; and Steven K. Steinke, visitor in applied physics and materials science. The work was funded by the Institute for Quantum Information and Matter, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the National Science Foundation. The device was fabricated in Caltech's Kavli Nanoscience Institute, of which Schwab is a codirector.

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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