Caltech senior trustee John Bryson and his wife, Louise, have created the John E. Bryson Fellow endowment at Caltech, which will support 10 Caltech graduate students each year with a focus on sustainable energy research. The couple’s $5 million gift to Break Through: The Caltech Campaign was supplemented with additional funds from the Gordon and Betty Moore Graduate Fellowship Match.
John Bryson co-founded the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) after graduating from Yale Law School in 1969. He then served as chair of the California Water Resources Board and as president of the California Public Utilities Commission. Bryson went on to champion clean energy at the helm of utility giant Edison International and served as U.S. secretary of commerce under the Obama administration.
Although the gift came from the Bryson family, Louise Bryson wanted the fellowships to be named for John alone. We spoke with her about this way of honoring her husband.
What inspired your family to make this gift?
Caltech’s mark on the world far exceeds the size of the school, and it has been a singular honor for John to serve as a trustee. Caltech is such an important part of our Southern California community and it’s an incredible academic institution with global reach.
Our gift is a tribute to the excellence of Caltech’s faculty, students, and administration, and to that most human desire—the search for knowledge. We see this gift as an investment in our collective future and hope that it inspires others to join us in supporting this great institution.
Why did you decide to focus the fellowships on alternative energy?
My husband has been an ardent supporter of the environment since his youth, when he spent as much time as possible outdoors—hiking, skiing, fishing, and canoeing. As a young man, he co-founded the NRDC. Then as CEO of Edison International, he committed to making Edison a leader in alternative energy, and that legacy lives on today.
John and I are impressed by the work being done at Caltech to fight climate change and ensure a healthy planet for our children. We want to enable the brightest minds of this and future generations to continue this work.
We are proud to sponsor these fellowships because they honor John’s contributions and ensure that his dreams of a carbon-free future will be realized.
What has your Caltech connection meant to you and your husband, personally?
Three things leap to mind. For one, John and one of our daughters witnessed history at JPL [which Caltech manages for NASA] when they watched as Opportunity landed on Mars. They will never forget that event.
Also, John has followed the work of Professor Nate Lewis and the Caltech team at JCAP [the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis]. We think that Nate and the students working there are onto something that will help solve a lot of problems around energy.
Finally, our friendships in the Caltech community have enriched our lives. John has been a trustee for some time and has always been impressed with the faculty members, the work they do, and their integrity. We also developed many friendships with faculty when our children attended Poly [Polytechnic School] along with theirs.
Why are you focusing your support on graduate students?
I’ll tell you a story. When John finished Yale Law School in 1969, he and a few friends started the NRDC to advocate on behalf of the environment. The Ford Foundation provided critical funding to get the organization off the ground. And while the foundation wasn’t really sure the NRDC would succeed, they decided to give it a start. The concept of environmental law was new at the time. And the Ford Foundation said, “We need to bet on the youth, and that’s what we are doing.”
This is what John and I are doing, too. With this gift, we are making a bet on young people. We are making this donation so that they can work on some of the most serious problems of our time.
John has an abiding belief in people and their ability to succeed against all odds. This same spirit—that unconditional belief and support—is so integral to Caltech. It really inspires people.
Endowed gifts last far into the future. That must feel good.
Our four daughters and I are so proud of John and the work he has done. We are happy to have the opportunity to make this gift in his name, in perpetuity, to honor him. This is an important gift for our family.