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2020: A Year In Review

At Caltech, as throughout the rest of the world, 2020 was a year like no other. This unprecedented year was filled with personal and professional challenges as well as fast-breaking and paradigm-shifting events, all of which were framed by (and helped to shape) incredible advances and discoveries in science, engineering, and technology, realized thanks to the ingenuity, insight, and perseverance of Caltech's community of researchers and scholars, students and staff.

In January, the Zwicky Transient Factory telescope discovered the first asteroid to orbit around the sun, entirely within the orbit of the planet Venus. In other space news, NASA retired the Spitzer Space Telescope after 16 years of astronomical discoveries. Researchers developed a tiny prosthetic device that enables jellyfish to swim more efficiently, which could one day enable the use of jellyfish to record information about the ocean.

Though it was still unknown that the year would become dominated by the novel coronavirus that was just beginning to make the news, Caltech issued precautionary information about COVID-19.

In February, researchers developed a sweat sensor to quantitatively measure a person's stress levels. Additionally, researchers discovered that a biomarker for Parkinson's disease may originate in the gut and also discovered that ultrasound can be used to selectively kill cancer cells.

In March, the United States experienced drastic changes as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. In early March, Caltech canceled all large public events and issued new travel restrictions. By the middle of the month, the Institute announced that all courses for the spring quarter would be moved online. Several laboratories shifted their research to focus on the novel coronavirus. A Q&A with Caltech alumnus and virologist David Ho (BS '74) garnered more than a million views on the Caltech website.

In April, the Institute made the decision to shift to a virtual commencement ceremony. As it became clear that COVID primarily attacked the respiratory system, NASA developed a COVID-19 prototype ventilator in 37 days, and it was quickly authorized by the FDA for emergency use.

By May, many scientists had adjusted to the new constraints on research made necessary by the pandemic. Researchers developed an ultrafast camera that can capture 70 trillion frames per second. The Caltech Alumni Association announced that its 83rd annual Seminar Day would be virtual for the first time ever. Caltech alumnus and astronaut Bob Behnken (MS '93, PhD '97) made a historic flight to the International Space Station.

Additionally, the Caltech Science Exchange launched, with its inaugural topic being the COVID-19 pandemic and the novel coronavirus that caused it.

In June, Caltech held its first-ever virtual commencement. Research continued, with discoveries about neurons responsible for memory-based decision-making and studies of how fracking triggers earthquake swarms. Astronomy news continued to make headlines, with LIGO's discovery of a mysterious object and images of a black hole collision flaring with light.

In July, as COVID-19 cases began to rise, Caltech launched its pilot testing program. Many researchers who had pivoted their focus toward COVID-19 were beginning to publish results, such as the first-ever images of human antibodies latching onto SARS-CoV-2 proteins. Fall term was initially announced as being partially in person, but that decision had to be rolled back as state and county regulations made in-person instruction impossible. On July 14, the federal government rescinded the new visa policy that required international students to take at least one in-person class during the coronavirus pandemic or face deportation to their home countries.

Led by the Black Scientists and Engineers of Caltech (BSEC) and the campus community, Caltech responded to the national protests against police brutality by developing a detailed plan for making progress on diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, including the development of a task force to address naming and recognition policies on campus.

As research operations continued at Caltech, scientists announced the discovery of bacteria that feed on metal.

In August, the Institute confirmed that the fall term would be done entirely via remote learning. Though no laboratories had focused on coronaviruses before the COVID-19 pandemic, Caltech's Merkin Institute helped catalyze the transition by offering grants for projects. The summer issue of Caltech magazine was printed, leading with a story on campus efforts into COVID-19 research.

By September, many professors had devised innovative new plans for teaching virtually. Social scientists published results of a study examining risk perception and behavior during the pandemic.

Research continued, with LIGO and VIRGO detecting their most massive black hole collision yet and physicists showing the usefulness of molecules in quantum computing. Earthquake research continued to be a Caltech staple, with studies illustrating how undersea earthquakes can help climate scientists monitor the temperature of the oceans and how laboratory simulations of earthquakes can reveal the physics of real earthquakes.

In October, the community celebrated virtually as two Distinguished Alumni, Andrea Ghez (MS '89, PhD '93) and Charles Rice (PhD '81), were named Nobelists. Several Caltech faculty members received funding from the federal government to lead and participate in quantum information science centers around the country.

The Institute launched its monthly Watson Lecture series, adapted for virtual audiences, as well as a virtual version of Public Programming's CaltechLive! community events program. The Caltech Science Exchange published pieces answering common questions about voting and elections. Caltech magazine published its fall issue, leading with community stories of how to create a more inclusive Caltech.

COVID-19 research continued to produce results, such as a molecular analysis of how the virus disables cells and how antibodies could lead to potential treatments. Researchers also developed a prototype of a rapid test to determine infection and severity.

Caltech continued its commitment to its diversity, equity, and inclusion plan by expanding the WAVE program and holding an expanded, virtual Freshman Summer Research Institute program. The Institute also joined a lawsuit opposing new restrictions by the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of Labor on H-1B visas.

In November, the Institute announced that construction on the Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Institute for Neuroscience Building was completed.

Historians announced the discovery of previously unknown copies of Isaac Newton's historic Principia textbook. Astronomers solved a 16-year-old mystery of an ultraviolet ring in space, nicknamed the Blue Ring Nebula, and detected the most powerful fast radio burst ever seen within our galaxy.

Robotics engineers turned their tools toward modeling the pandemic's spread, and researchers found that a new model using artificial intelligence outperforms other models. The Institute rolled out its surveillance testing program.

In December, NASA announced that the Caltech-led Lunar Trailblazer Mission to the moon could proceed with its final design and build. Researchers took an important step toward establishing a quantum internet. The president updated the community on concrete actions taken toward the Institute's diversity, equity, and inclusion goals.

Kathy Svitil
(626) 395-8022