Linda Hsieh-Wilson is the inaugural Milton and Rosalind Chang Professor of Chemistry. While a named professorship is the most prestigious form of recognition Caltech bestows on its faculty members, Chang points out that the honor is a two-way street. “I learned about Hsieh-Wilson’s accomplishments, and it is clear that she will continue to make transformative discoveries,” Chang says. “I want to be part of her success story.”
Multiple Avenues of Inquiry
Chang established the professorship and research fund to give Hsieh-Wilson and subsequent chair holders the tools to follow their curiosity. “A truly accomplished scientist makes more than one invention or discovery,” he says. “Real progress is expressed as a sequence of ideas and choices based on experiences and wide-ranging knowledge.”
By endowing the professorship and research fund, Chang has equipped the chair holder with two imperatives for long-term productivity: the gifts of time and freedom. He has ensured that dedicated resources are available to Hsieh-Wilson’s lab so that she can direct hours she would have spent applying for grant funding toward scientific investigations. The flexible research endowment also removes some of the constraints associated with externally funded grants so that she can more freely explore new questions as they arise.
Discretionary support is essential to Hsieh-Wilson, who works like an architect to build new structures at cellular and atomic levels. Where chemists once were limited to nature’s building blocks, she synthesizes both natural and non-natural molecules to shed light on how cells in the brain adapt and form neural connections.
One of Hsieh-Wilson’s groundbreaking investigations focuses on a chemical process in the brain called glycosylation, where carbohydrates are attached to proteins. Hsieh-Wilson wanted to tag and visualize proteins undergoing glycosylation to better understand the process and its role in conditions such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer. No methods existed to accomplish this, so she invented them. Today, the tools and technologies she created to study glycosylation in the cell are used by labs around the world to unlock mysteries of brain function—and dysfunction.
Additional inroads made by Hsieh-Wilson’s lab have led to fundamental discoveries that may inform the development of antibodies to improve recovery from brain or spine injuries. Damaged neurons in the brain and spinal cord have a limited capacity for regeneration. Hsieh-Wilson discovered a key molecule produced after injury that prevents the regrowth of damaged nerves and has developed ways to block this molecule in order to stimulate neuronal repair.
“I am gratified to know that the namesake of this professorship is thrilled by the process of discovery and big ideas that have the potential to impact society,” Hsieh-Wilson says. “His support helps make such scientific pursuits possible, and it’s my honor to receive this professorship and benefit from his experience and wisdom along the way.”
Different Roads to Success
Chang received Caltech’s Distinguished Alumni Award in 2005 for his achievements as an entrepreneur, author, executive, and investor. He has founded numerous businesses, including Incubic Management, LLC, a venture capital firm that has incubated photonics and biotechnology companies resulting in six IPOs and seven acquisitions. In July 2021, a tech company he cofounded, LightDeck Diagnostics, was awarded a $35 million contract by the Department of Defense to increase production of its point-of-care COVID-19 Ultra-Rapid Antigen and Total Antibody tests, which deliver laboratory-quality results within five minutes.
Chang says he began to develop the mindset of an entrepreneur when he was a graduate student at Caltech. “Thanks to [the late] economics professor Horace Gilbert, I learned early on that business and technology are essential aspects of our economy,” he says. “And our society’s well-being is reliant on both.”
Chang considers his time at Caltech foundational to his success in life because he learned from his advisers and mentors how to approach problems. “They taught me a creative thought process that I could apply to life,” he says.
As a senior trustee, he continues to hold Caltech faculty members in high esteem and recognizes that endowing professorships is a powerful way to help Caltech recruit and retain world-leading scholars.
“Milton and Rosalind Chang know that Caltech’s greatest resource is people,” says David Tirrell, Carl and Shirley Larson Provostial Chair and Ross McCollum-William H. Corcoran Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering. “The Changs’ generous support will allow our students and faculty extraordinary freedom to explore their best ideas and to move quickly to establish new and unanticipated lines of inquiry.”
Many Ways to Give Back
The investment in the Chang Professorship and Research Fund was not Chang’s first gift to Caltech. He and his wife, Rosalind, previously created a fellowship for graduate students as well as provided scholarship support for undergraduates. The Changs also established the Chang Career Exploration Prize to help young alumni diversify their skills and formulate their own approaches to creating a better world.
Chang has personally guided and mentored scientists and engineers as they navigate non-traditional career paths in areas such as government, journalism, and public policy. “I encourage people to pivot in their pursuits,” he says. “At any stage, you can take your wonderful technical training and apply it to something new.”
A common through line for the Changs’ generosity over the years is that it has helped scientists and engineers immerse themselves in the creative thought process and forge their own uncharted paths to success. “When I was a student, I was grateful for the support I received along the way,” he shares. “Now, it is my joy to give back.”
Faculty member support is a high priority for Break Through: The Caltech Campaign. As of the time this story was published, campaign donors had endowed 45 named professorships, including the Chang Professorship.