The Distinguished Alumni Award (DAA)—Caltech's highest honor for alumni—is presented this year to four alumni who, because of both personal commitment and professional contributions, have made remarkable impacts in a field, on the community, or in society more broadly.
The 2023 class of DAAs comprises Nader Engheta (MS '79, PhD '82), Karen Maples (BS '76), Eugene Myers (BS '75), and Kenneth Suslick (BS '74).
"This year's Distinguished Alumni have contributed to society in diverse ways, spanning optical science, bioinformatics, sonochemistry, and medicine, all serving as role models and mentors for peers and succeeding generations," says Caltech president Thomas F. Rosenbaum, the Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair and professor of physics. "They demonstrate how the Caltech academic experience nurtures original thinking across disciplines to transform our understanding and experience of the world."
Nader Engheta (MS '79, PhD '82), the H. Nedwill Ramsey Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, is recognized for his pioneering advancements in optics, including optical nanocircuits and metamaterials, which have brought a new understanding to how light and materials interact at the nanoscale.
Engheta is the founder of near-zero-index optics, optical nanocircuits, and wave-based analog computing based on nanomaterials. His fundamental and transformative contributions to the electrodynamics of light-matter interactions and to the physics and engineering of materials at various length scales have revolutionized how specialized materials can sculpt light, and they have opened doors to numerous other innovations in optics, electromagnetics, and materials science.
He has been honored, among dozens of distinctions, with the 2023 Benjamin Franklin Medal from the Franklin Institute, the 2020 Isaac Newton Medal and Prize from the Institute of Physics in the United Kingdom, the 2020 Max Born Award from Optica, and a Guggenheim Fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation in 1999. He has also been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Canadian Academy of Engineering, and the National Academy of Inventors.
Karen Maples, MD (BS '76), who served as an obstetrician and gynecologist at Kaiser Permanente for 38 years, is recognized for her trailblazing role as one of the first Black female undergraduates at Caltech, and for her outstanding accomplishments as an obstetrician, which include delivering the world's first surviving octuplets.
During her time at the Institute, Maples distinguished herself in the classroom, in the laboratory, and among her peers, serving as president of the Caltech Y, working as head usher for Beckman and Ramo auditoriums, and acting as a student manager of Caltech's track and field team. She also worked as a lab technician at Huntington Hospital and received two summer fellowships at JPL. Through her engagement activities as a student, and her continued involvement with the campus community and other organizations in the years after, Maples has inspired generations of underrepresented students to realize their full potential.
After Caltech, Maples attended the UCLA School of Medicine (now the David Geffen School of Medicine), after which she joined Kaiser Permanente as an obstetrician and gynecologist. In addition to safely delivering Nadya "Octomom" Suleman's octuplets, Maples was the assistant area medical director of Kaiser's Downey Medical Center from 2011–19, and mentored countless residents, midwives, and nurse practitioners throughout her career.
Eugene Myers (BS '75), director of the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Germany, is recognized for his transformative impact on the field of bioinformatics. He created the Basic Local Alignment Search Tool (BLAST) that revolutionized biological sequencing and continues to be used by scientists throughout the world, and later developed a whole-genome shotgun method that helped map the human genome.
It was in the 1990s that BLAST became one of the most important computational tools in biology, allowing scientists to rapidly compare their DNA sequences against a vast database of other sequences. Later, as an executive at Celera Genomics, Myers pushed forward the whole-genome shotgun method that randomly breaks DNA into fragments, sequences them, and then reassembles them. This technique enabled Celera to map the fly, human, and mouse genomes in just three years.
Myers, who has more than 250,000 total citations, was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 2003 and the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina in 2006. He has been honored with the Max Planck Research Prize in 2004, the Association for Computing Machinery's Paris Kanellakis Theory and Practice Award in 2002, the Royal Society Milner Award in 2019, and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Frances E. Allen Medal in 2022.
Kenneth Suslick (BS '74), the Marvin T. Schmidt Professor of Chemistry, Emeritus, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is recognized for profound contributions to sonochemistry (the study of chemical reactions powered by high-frequency sound waves) and chemical sensing, which have advanced the field of medical imaging and facilitated lifesaving treatments for cancer and sepsis patients. He is also recognized for his recent achievements in the development of sensors that can detect odors and toxic gasses and have the potential to protect human lives and the environment.
Suslick's work as a scientist, inventor, and serial entrepreneur has improved the lives of patients throughout the world. His breakthroughs in sonochemistry helped develop the first echo contrast agent for medical sonography. In this process, air-filled microbubbles with a crosslinked protein shell are injected into the bloodstream where they reflect sound waves, allowing physicians to see ultrasonic images in much greater detail. He also co-invented Abraxane, a common chemotherapy agent used in the treatment of metastatic breast cancer and pancreatic cancer.
Today, Suslick is advancing the field of chemical sensing, including work on a device that can rapidly test for antimicrobial susceptibility and, by extension, help identify potential sepsis patients; a device that is approved in Europe and the Food and Drug Administration has fast-tracked for approval. He has also developed an optoelectronic nose that can swiftly detect toxic gasses at very low concentrations.
Suslick has over 65,000 citations, more than 500 publications, and more than 70 patents and patent applications.
The 2023 DAAs were selected by the Distinguished Alumni Award Selection Committee—which comprises Caltech alumni, faculty, and administrative leaders—from nominations submitted by Caltech alumni and the campus community.