February 13, 2017

Sharing a Vision of Sustainability

Charles Zeller (BS ’68) and Peter Cross (BS ’68) met in 1964 as first-year students in Dabney House. Over the years and across the miles between their homes in California and Texas, the two have remained friends and forged sometimes-parallel paths. Both enjoyed successful careers developing computer systems and instrumentation. Both have supported their alma mater generously.

“It is a compelling thing to work on, if we care about the future,” Zeller asserts.

Cross and Zeller became interested in sustainability science when they visited campus a dozen years ago and heard Harry Gray, Caltech’s Arnold O. Beckman Professor of Chemistry, and Nate Lewis, Caltech’s George L. Argyros Professor and professor of chemistry, describe technologies that one day could result in cheap, simple, clean energy for everyone in the world.

“That they and others like them believe in the promise of science and technology to provide solutions for a more sustainable planet, and are willing to bet on Caltech and the Resnick Institute to be a big part of such solutions, adds both meaning and momentum to our day-to-day research efforts.”
- Jonas Peters

In 2009, the Resnick Sustainability Institute was founded at Caltech to promote the work of scientists and engineers who are advancing energy efficiency solutions and the greening of industry. Cross joined the Resnick Institute’s advisory council in 2010, and two years later he and his wife established the Peter and Melanie Cross Endowed Graduate Fellowship Fund to support graduate students engaged in renewable energy and sustainability science.

In March 2016, Peter and Melanie Cross hosted a Resnick Sustainability Institute event and reception in their net-zero energy home in Palo Alto, California. Pictured at the event, from left: Resnick Institute executive director Neil Fromer; Peter and Melanie Cross; and Jonas Peters, Caltech’s Bren Professor of Chemistry and director of the Resnick Sustainability Institute.

Cross explains, “We saw that endowing a fellowship is a high-leverage opportunity to get somebody started in a field who can carry the torch for decades going forward.”

 

Among the first to bolster the Resnick Institute’s ability to recruit and support graduate scholars by creating a fellowship fund, the Crosses were pleased to learn that their gift would be amplified by the Lynda and Stewart Resnick Matching Program. Peter Cross shared news of this opportunity with Zeller, who followed suit and, with his wife, initiated the Charles P. and Sylvia Zeller Endowed Fellowship Fund. In 2014, Zeller joined Cross as a member of the Resnick Sustainability Institute Advisory Council.

Sylvia and Charles Zeller pose with President Barack Obama at San Francisco’s Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in October 2012.

“I thought I would be reading novels when I retired, but I bounced off the walls and got involved in a couple of start-ups,” Zeller says. “Then I spent two years learning about sustainability—enough to really follow the research. This science has given me a new mission in life.”

 

“The boldest ideas can take years to develop,” says Jonas Peters, director of the Resnick Sustainability Institute and Bren Professor of Chemistry at Caltech. “I am grateful to the Crosses and the Zellers—philanthropists who understand the long view and give to keep yet-unproven research projects moving forward. And their support is so much more than financial. That they and others like them believe in the promise of science and technology to provide solutions for a more sustainable planet, and are willing to bet on Caltech and the Resnick Institute to be a big part of such solutions, adds both meaning and momentum to our day-to-day research efforts.”

It turns out that being part of Caltech’s close-knit community appeals to benefactors such as Cross and Zeller just as it does to faculty members and students. “It not only allows for good research collaborations across disciplines,” Cross explains, “but also allows me, as a donor, to have a better view of the work that is going on—to see how various aspects of research come together.”

For Zeller and Cross, Caltech’s small campus is the place where lifelong friendships were formed. Their memories include “wars” between the Dabney and Fleming student houses, an undisclosed number of chem lab explosions, and one uncharacteristically almost-clear November day in 1964 when the smog dissipated enough for all of the out-of-state students to behold the San Gabriel Mountains for the first time. And now their Caltech story continues, through their involvement with the Resnick Institute and through the students who will benefit from their families’ giving.

Even more important, their investments in graduate scholars at Caltech have given Cross and Zeller confidence about the potential to solve difficult, global scientific problems. As Cross explains: “It is gratifying to interact with these energetic, intelligent students. You can see the future will be in good hands with them.”