Caltech leader looks to the future
New chairman of the board hopes to do more to develop high school students while also keeping NASA strong.
Dr. David Li Lee, the incoming chair of the Caltech board of directors, with the outgoing chair, Kent Kresa. (Photo courtesy of Caltech / November 10, 2012)
Today, supercomputers interpret mountains of numbers at lightning speeds, students can track it all on their iPads, and Lee has become chairman of the 57-member board of trustees governing the university and the rocket lab it runs, Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Lee recently replaced former Northrop Grumman Corp. Chief Executive Kent Kresa, who served eight consecutive one-year terms as chair of the Caltech board. Kresa said the work of the board is both simple and daunting.
“The critical thing we have to do is to maintain Caltech as the No. 1 university in the world,” Kresa said. “When you are in that position there is only one way to go, which is down, which is not acceptable.
“Caltech is a mecca for the best and the brightest in the world. As board members, our objective is to make sure it continues that way.”
Lee, 62, said Caltech is in a “very good position” to enhance its reputation.
“Looking back over the last 30, 40 or 50 years, Caltech is preeminent in many regards,” Lee said. “Now the baton has been passed on to me, to help make sure Caltech maintains its leadership position in science and technology.”
A co-founder and one-time president of the broadband firm Global Crossing, Lee also served as a vice president for TRW Information Systems Group and is a co-founder of the private equity firm Clarity Partners.
In addition to his role on the Caltech board, Lee is a board member at USC, the J. Paul Getty Trust and the investment firm Trust Company of the West.
In order for Caltech to stay on the leading edge in astrophysics, medical science, development of new energy technologies and other fields, researchers must attract grants that fund their work. Lee said success begets success when it comes to grants.
“What we fundamentally believe is you have to do the best you can and do things that other people cannot do. The rest takes care of itself,” he said. “If we do other things people have not thought of or are not capable of doing, we'll get our share of the grants. We don't see a major threat [to that].”
Lee also said the university is playing a growing role in encouraging students in the United States to pursue careers in the sciences. Nearly 40% of Caltech grad students are foreign-born, and while Lee and Kresa celebrate the school's capacity to attract top international students, there is a push to develop a new generation of U.S.-born researchers and innovators.
“I think Caltech is doing a lot in working with high school students, particularly those who have a liking for science and technology,” he said. “We encourage them to come to research labs and work with research teams on campus and get a taste for something they cannot do in their high school labs. Can we do more? Should we do more? The answer is obviously yes.”
Lee said members of the board, working with Caltech President Jean-Lou Chameau, keep a close eye on Congress and the NASA budget. NASA's planetary science budget, which is critical for JPL, would take a $200-million-plus hit in the coming year under President Obama's proposed budget. Members of Congress, including Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), are seeking restoration of the funds, but Congress has yet to complete negotiations or vote on a budget for next year.
Lee said the spectacular success of the Mars rover Curiosity, which landed on time and intact on Mars this summer, is a boost to JPL's reputation and its chances of being fully funded.
“With the most recent success we have achieved on the landing of Curiosity, it has really brought home to people how JPL can help the nation regain its pride and to accomplish scientific and technological breakthroughs that we could never have imagined,” Lee said.