October 24, 2017

Alumni Couple Provides for Caltech Students in Their Will

With $200 and a box of clothes, Louise Kirkbride left home to attend Caltech in 1970—without her parents’ permission or support.
Louise Kirkbride's photo in the 1975 Caltech Big T
Louise Kirkbride’s photo in the 1975 Caltech Big T

That year, Caltech had announced that it would begin admitting female undergraduates. Kirkbride quickly applied and was accepted, but her parents did not want her to go.

“It was absolutely the hardest school to get into,” she says. “For me, that was irresistible. It was the perfect school to go to for science and technology. And being in the first class presented an extra challenge. So I called Peter Miller in admissions and told him my situation. He said, ‘If you can get here, we’ll take care of you.’ That commitment changed my life. The next morning I left Philadelphia.”

This week, Kirkbride (BS ’75, MS ’76) and her husband, Richard Lipes (PhD ’69), announced that their will now directs the bulk of their multimillion-dollar estate to scholarships for Caltech students, a top priority in Break Through: The Caltech Campaign.

The gift builds on Kirkbride’s leadership and support as a Caltech trustee for 22 years, a member and founding chair of the board’s Student Experience Committee, and a listening ear to many undergraduates.

“Louise and Richard care deeply about our fundamental values and ensuring that Caltech has the intellectual and financial means to take care of our students,” says Caltech president Thomas F. Rosenbaum, holder of the Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair and professor of physics. “Their thoughtful and generous planned gift will enable the Institute to support generations of future scholars who will similarly enrich our community.”

Richard Lipes (right) talks with Kip Thorne, Caltech's Richard P. Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics, Emeritus, at a Break Through campaign event in 2016
Richard Lipes (right) talks with Kip Thorne, Caltech’s Richard P. Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics, Emeritus, at a Break Through campaign event in 2016

Life-changing Financial Aid

Kirkbride’s and Lipes’s experience as financial aid recipients motivated their gift. Lipes held scholarships at MIT and a graduate fellowship at Caltech. “I ended up with zero debt because my NSF fellowship funded my graduate education to the penny,” he says.

Lipes’s NSF fellowship gave him freedom to pursue graduate studies at the institution of his choice, and the discovery of the omega-minus particle predicted three years earlier by Caltech physicist Murray Gell-Mann (now the Robert Andrews Millikan Professor of Theoretical Physics, Emeritus) convinced Lipes that Caltech was the best place for these studies. After he graduated and left for a postdoctoral position, his Caltech adviser, George Zweig, and engineering professor John Pierce invited him back to study the processes involved in hearing. He met Kirkbride while teaching.

She had decided to major in electrical engineering after taking a logic design class from Carver Mead, now Caltech’s Gordon and Betty Moore Professor of Engineering and Applied Science, Emeritus. “Carver Mead was welcoming and supportive to the first few girls to take his classes—and he made circuit design fun,” she says.

Uncharted Terrain

“After I graduated, it was a tough time to be a female engineer,” Kirkbride recalls. “In one of the first jobs I had, one of the lead engineers said he wouldn’t work with women. There was no collective gasp of horror. It was a different time, and I realized I was going to have to make my own path in life.”

So Kirkbride and Lipes started their first company, offering computer-aided design to aerospace companies. Then Kirkbride saw a new possibility—she could invent technology to improve her clients’ and other businesses’ relationships with customers.

While Lipes went on to a distinguished career in computer graphics, imaging, and communication, Kirkbride opened the automated customer-service market. She launched two successful software companies, secured the first patent for problem-resolution technology, and introduced one of the first cloud-based customer-service products.

The Value of the Caltech Moment

“Like me, many of our undergraduate students have a ‘Caltech moment’—when, perhaps for the first time, they face problems that they simply don’t know how to solve,” Kirkbride says. “Mine was the Physics 1a midterm, and it taught me one of the best lessons I learned here: Go back to basics and don’t panic. Building a business, you often face problems you haven’t seen before. My experience at Caltech gave me the confidence to take on those challenges.”

Lipes’s Caltech moment came during his first week of classes. “When I was an undergraduate at MIT, it was clear what it took to be successful. Often, the professor had written the textbook and everything was laid out line by line. But at Caltech, for the first- and second-year quantum and particle physics courses there weren’t textbooks, and I rapidly had to learn to be a lot more self-reliant.”

Kirkbride and Lipes hope that their gift will inspire others to include Caltech in their estate plans and support scholarships and fellowships.

In their view, Caltech should always be the place that attracts the best students in the world, helping them gain problem-solving skills and graduate with little or no debt so they can launch transformational careers—even if all they start with is a box of clothes.