Convocation is Caltech's annual official welcome of its newest scholars—undergraduate students, graduate students, and postdocs—to the Institute, and to its culture of discovery and innovation. In the first in-person convocation held inside Beckman Auditorium since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly 500 attendees heard from Caltech president Thomas F. Rosenbaum and Kevin Gilmartin, vice president for student affairs. The speakers also included two Caltech faculty members and a graduate student, who are all working to advance sustainability through research and teaching.
"You've come here in a lot of ways because of our commitment to fundamental discovery," Rosenbaum said in welcoming the community of scholars, "but we also care enormously about impact on society. And it's this connection between the fundamental research and the connections to society where you can make an enormous contribution."
He added that Caltech is "a place which emphasizes community, emphasizes people. We want you to succeed. You will succeed. And we want desperately for you to learn from your peers as well as from the faculty, so please take advantage of that opportunity to get to know each other, to take advantage of the insights that your colleagues will bring to you as you start this exciting adventure."
Gilmartin noted that, as a professor of literature, he can attest firsthand to "the remarkable breadth and diversity of the Caltech experience." At the same time, he called it "fitting" that the focus of this convocation event was on research. "One of the remarkable things about Caltech is that all of you who are joining us here today, undergraduate students as well as graduate students and postdocs, will have the opportunity to contribute meaningfully to our critical research mission," he said.
In introducing the sustainability research and education portion of the event, Gilmartin added, "I'm often struck by the pivotal time in which we now live and work, as the long-term impact of human society on global systems requires that we move with a real sense of urgency toward more sustainable technologies and ways of living." He added: "Caltech has singularly committed itself to that effort."
Gilmartin was followed by Theodor Agapie (PhD '07), professor of chemistry and executive officer for chemistry, who highlighted Caltech's Resnick Sustainability Institute. Agapie described how RSI and the accompanying $750 million investment in sustainability at Caltech has catalyzed research projects and efforts across the Institute, and also empowered the faculty to reimagine students' educational experiences. The Resnick Sustainability Center, a new state-of-the art building that is expected to open in 2024, will house facilities to support both research and education in sustainability sciences. "What I think is truly exciting," he said, "is the possibility of students—all of our undergrads—walking through this building, its main interaction spaces, ... and [taking] classes here and ... [being] able to interact with researchers doing their sustainability research."
He also urged the students to "take some time to go outside and explore Southern California and explore Los Angeles."
Jess Adkins, the Smits Family Professor of Geochemistry and Global Environmental Science, expanded on Agapie's description of the RSC, describing the Institute's efforts to "bring sustainable education into the Caltech experience."
"Sustainability problems are at the intersections of all of our basic problems," he noted. "...It's really important to remember that sustainability problems are human problems. ... These problems are planetary in scale, and, from the beginning, you want to be thinking about that. ... You have to be thinking and working with your colleagues around you, mostly your student colleagues."
Adkins went on to talk briefly about his work in carbon sequestration as an example of the kind of basic research Caltech excels at, that can be scaled up to create practical societal solutions.
"I think you guys can do the same thing," Adkins said to the audience. "Focus on a basic science problem but already have in mind scale, scale, scale."
Rounding out the sustainability portion of the program was fourth-year geochemistry graduate student Holly Barnhart, who works in Adkins's lab on the ocean carbon cycle. Barnhart talked about the breadth of opportunities for field work, undergraduate research, graduate mentorship, and collaborations both within and beyond Caltech. "LA is a really cool place to do research," she said, "because there are a lot of other large research institutions around."