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A Center for Innovation and Education in Sustainability Science and Engineering

On September 26, Lynda and Stewart Resnick, owners of The Wonderful Company, announced a $750 million pledge to Caltech to support research into the most pressing challenges in environmental sustainability. The commitment will establish a permanent endowment to support the work of investigators across Caltech's academic divisions and JPL, which Caltech manages for NASA, in four core research initiatives focused on pressing issues ranging from the development of efficient solar fuels and a smart electricity infrastructure; to the measurement, modeling, and potential mitigation of climate change; to the effective management of water resources; to the creation of ways to improve soil fertility in a changing climate. It also will enable the construction of a new 75,000-square-foot building on campus, the Resnick Sustainability Resource Center, which will amplify and expand the efforts of the Resnick Sustainability Institute (RSI), established in 2009 with a gift from the Resnicks and a matching gift from Gordon and Betty Moore. We spoke with RSI director Jonas C. Peters, Bren Professor of Chemistry, about the Resnick pledge and what it means for Caltech and for sustainability science.

Why do you think the Resnicks invested, at this level, in Caltech?

More than anything, this gift speaks to the Resnicks' faith in Caltech's ability to have societal impact in the arena of the environment and sustainability, and their trust in our capacity to steward this incredibly generous and imaginative commitment responsibly, now and in perpetuity.

Caltech is a special place. Our comparatively small size leads naturally to an intimate and remarkably collaborative atmosphere. While we are small by comparison to our peer institutions, our impact is way above our weight class. Our plan is to use this commitment to drive hard to solve critical challenges involving the environment and sustainability. Following a model that defines the culture of Caltech, this extraordinary commitment by Stewart and Lynda Resnick will enable our talented community to carry out the boldest research and educational agenda we can possibly imagine.

Describe the four initiatives and why they are important.

From the outset, support via the Resnick Sustainability Institute at Caltech has been leveraged to develop transformational new technologies in renewable energy conversion. One of the primary areas has centered on the foundational science needed to create viable solar fuel technologies, so-called artificial photosynthesis. This research area at Caltech also has been supported by the Moore Foundation and through large federal grants including those supporting the National Science Foundation-supported Powering the Planet Center for Chemical Innovation (CCI) and the Department of Energy's Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP). And it has shown remarkable progress, faster than most of us could have imagined. One can now see paths to viable technologies. Now, we will double down on this venture in a new initiative called "Sunlight to Everything." We will continue our advance toward the ultimate goal of practical solar fuel technologies, but we also will think much more broadly about how the sun's energy can be harnessed, leading to new discoveries in battery storage, to smarter electric grids, to catalysts for degrading plastics and efficiently making new chemicals and materials, and so much more. Hence the name: Sunlight to Everything.

Two other initiatives will focus on climate science and water resources. There is no question that our climate is changing and that mankind's use of Earth's resources is having a dramatic impact, but questions do remain about how the climate will change, how it will change in different locations, what the societal impacts will be, and how we can mitigate and adapt. Water resources also will continue to change as the climate changes. We have great talent on Caltech's campus in this domain, and fantastic capabilities, talent, and resources to leverage via JPL. For instance, JPL's low-Earth orbit satellites can collect data relevant to climate science and the tracking of fluctuations in groundwater. Such data are essential to models that can inform responsible action policies.

The fourth initiative involves ecology and biosphere engineering. It is enormously important to understand how complex ecological relationships are being affected by a changing climate and changing resources, including water. While the microbiome has been popularized in the context of human health, microbiomes exist in many essential contexts, including the soil. Soil microbiomes will evolve as a result of climate change and associated changes in water resources, and that will be a focus area for us. Scientists have a great deal to learn about these complex ecological relationships, but they also have the skills to innovate new technologies that could, for example, enhance crop growth in harsher environments. To monitor the global output from these microenvironments, we will also develop remote-sensing technologies to study the biosphere en masse. These technologies will enable us to track major biogeochemical processes on a planetary scale, such as global photosynthesis or methane release. These types of data will help ensure a broader understanding of how the earth is adapting to new realities and will influence policies that can be enacted based on what is learned.

What are some developments and discoveries that Caltech has previously made in these areas?

I've already alluded to our campus's pioneering work toward renewable solar fuels. Progress there has been incredible. But there is so much more.

Computer scientists have made huge advances reimagining the power grid. They now devise algorithms that can make smart, instantaneous decisions as the electric grid fluctuates through the course of the day. This leads to substantial improvements in efficiency. Caltech engineers are also making great progress on the Space Solar Power project, which is this idea of launching a solar power station into space that operates seven days a week, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and beams renewable zero-carbon energy back to our planet via microwaves. For example, new ultralight and robust nanowire solar cells have recently been fabricated for future applications in space. Our campus has also developed remote-sensing tools to identify methane leaks in the LA basin and we have measured, via remote sensing, the total underground water capacity in parts of California and how this capacity changes seasonally and over time. We've also made great strides in chemical catalysis for green chemistry. For example, Frances Arnold's 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry acknowledged her lab's groundbreaking work that pioneered the tools of directed evolution to solve critical challenges in sustainability.

How else will the gift benefit Caltech?

An easier question to ask is whether there is any way our campus won't benefit. I honestly can't think of one. We want Caltech to be the world's academic center for innovation and education in the science and engineering of sustainability. The Resnicks' gift will help this become a reality by enabling Caltech to build state-of-the-art new teaching laboratories that every single first-year undergraduate will use. To accompany this, we will reimagine the first-year chemistry laboratory curriculum requirement in the context of sustainability, and create new course content to accompany these new teaching labs. As a result, every undergraduate will be exposed, from the outset, to the vexing challenges of sustaining a global population that is rising, on an earth that's struggling to support it. Most importantly, we will teach them the opportunities that science and technology offer to meet these challenges.

This commitment will also dramatically impact our support for graduate students and postdoctoral scholars in research and entrepreneurship. We will train new generations of scientists, who can work in many capacities, to have real-world impact in sustainability.

To support and enhance all of this research, Caltech will build a new permanent facility to house resource centers with expert staff and state-of-the art equipment. These centers will include the Solar Science and Catalysis Center, the Remote Sensing Center, the Ecology and Biosphere Engineering Facility, the High-Performance Computational Facility, the Water and Environment Lab, and the Translational Science Facility. The last facility will help us to scale up and pilot test early stage technologies to gauge their potential for translational impact. The new teaching laboratories will be housed in the same building facility, allowing our undergraduate laboratory courses to seamlessly integrate with these cutting-edge research facilities.

How do you think this gift might have an impact outside Caltech?

This investment makes a very bold statement: Major support is needed for environmental and sustainability research. Stewart and Lynda's commitment will cause individuals and organizations of capacity to ask themselves, "How can we have a transformational impact in this realm? What more can we do?" And what could be more important? When an institution like Caltech decides to harness so much of its resources and talent pool to focus on and have impact in sustainability, other institutions will be influenced to make similar commitments via support and resources. Our campus has no monopoly on talent, and I am hopeful that campuses, companies, and governments will become increasingly bold in their pursuit of ensuring a more sustainable world in which we can all thrive. We look forward to partnering with them.

What excites you the most about this opportunity?

Everything! This commitment and the research and educational structure it now sets in motion are unique in so many dimensions. It is a unique vision for a university, and one that is remarkably suited to the Caltech environment. What excites me most is the hard work of translating the Resnicks' commitment into action. We will immediately begin to bring together the various talent pools and stakeholders from campus to set plans in motion, we will engage the faculty who will help guide our bold initiatives, and we will begin research in the projects we've charted thus far. That includes research with my own co-workers in my labs. We also have much work to do to design the Resnick Sustainability Resource Center, its facilities, and its associated undergraduate teaching labs and curriculum.

I realize just how lucky my timing has been to be able to play my role as director. I have enjoyed enormous trust from my colleagues, our division chairs, Caltech's provost and president, and especially Lynda and Stewart Resnick, in helping to shape and shepherd this vision moving forward.

For the first time in my career, we have an opportunity to say to our colleagues, "Don't tell me what you could do if you had this or that. Instead, imagine if you could do anything, where there would be the promise of broad impact in sustainability, what would it be?" Thanks to Lynda and Stewart, I can then answer, "That's a great idea! How can we help?"

Written by Emily Velasco

Kathy Svitil
(626) 395-8022