Starting this year, a new million-dollar endowment at Caltech will fund research focused on renewable energy and sustainability. The Briceño Family Discovery Fund honors the memory of the late Nelson Briceño (BS ’73) through a Break Through campaign gift to an institution that helped to shape his life.
“When he died in 2009, we immediately thought of giving money to Caltech,” says Vanessa Briceño, Nelson Briceño’s daughter. “Caltech was really instrumental to who he became.”
After taking time to find just the right tribute, she and her mother decided on the Briceño Family Discovery Fund.
“My husband loved Caltech,” adds Geraldine (Deana) Briceño. “He made the best friends of his life there.”
A Classmate Larger than Life, per “Mouse” and Beagle
In 1967, Nelson Briceño came to Caltech through a scholarship program started by John F. Kennedy that helped young people from underdeveloped countries attend U.S. colleges. He was the only one of eight siblings to leave Colombia, and his parents—a traveling salesman and a secretary—couldn’t prepare him for life abroad. But he loved the challenge.
“He had great stories about his time at Caltech,” Vanessa Briceño says. “The stories had this strangely mythological quality in my mind when I was growing up.”
Two of Nelson Briceño’s closest friends—Allen “Mouse” Hirsh (BS ’70) and C. Alan Beagle (BS ’70)—corroborate the legendary quality of Nelson Briceño’s Caltech years.
They describe a supremely confident polymath who tried everything that interested him, all at once. Briceño double-majored in geophysics and economics while working long hours at side jobs. Beagle remembers their double-dates, Hirsh their wild revelry. Briceño was the basso profundo in the glee club, the social chair for Ricketts House, and a devoted member of his church. He played on Caltech’s graduate soccer team and undergraduate football and wrestling teams. He trounced native English speakers at Scrabble. “He’d sit and read the dictionary,” Hirsh says. He taught himself to drive—according to Beagle, “a vehicle was a necessity because of his social and work endeavors”—and loved to drive fast. “The Pasadena Freeway was not a place to be” when Briceño was out and about, Beagle adds.
Briceño embodied Caltech fearlessness. “He was willing to take risks, but only after analyzing them,” Beagle says. “He truly believed he could overcome any obstacle he perceived.”
But Briceño didn’t know what he wanted to do after graduation. His daughter remembers a story he liked to tell about asking the famous Caltech physicist Richard Feynman for advice. “I don’t know what to tell you,” Feynman said. “I’ve known I wanted to be a physicist since I was seven.”
Briceño eventually attempted graduate study in Hawaii. Although it didn’t work out, it had a happy, unexpected result: He met Deana there.
Then, Briceño took a job with an oil company. Exploring for oil tapped his ingenuity, his love of people, and his Caltech training. He and his family ended up traveling the world.
His daughter prized his bravery and unconventionality. Once, for example, he wanted to reach a new oilfield in Burma, so he boated up a flood-swollen river to find out how far it could be navigated. Another time, his company needed to land planes in the middle of the jungle, so he hired locals who had a herd of water buffalo to trample an airstrip.
Throughout his career—and later through the family’s foundation—Briceño made special efforts to support communities near the oilfields. He employed locals and provided school supplies. “He really valued that local impact work,” his daughter says.
“The money for our family’s foundation came from an oil company my dad sold,” she adds. “He and I spearheaded the foundation. I grew up with an interest in environmental issues, and when I wanted to support environmental causes, he was open to that.”
When Nelson Briceño passed away at just 61 years old, the tributes that poured in revealed that he had helped and befriended people across the Americas, Southeast Asia, Australia, Africa, Europe, and the UK.
Now, Vanessa Briceño leads her family’s efforts to benefit people around the world. When she came to Caltech to discuss how she and her mother might direct a gift from their foundation to honor her father, she found herself fascinated by today’s students and their sustainability research.
“It was inspiring to see young adults who are still so passionate and have so much hope for the work that they’re doing,” she says. “I feel like I’ve lost that quality a little bit. I feel much more matter of fact about it—‘Oh, this is the world and we try our best.’ I’m looking forward to helping people who really care about doing good things for the planet and for humanity and all living things.”
Jonas Peters, Bren Professor of Chemistry and director of the Resnick Sustainability Institute at Caltech expresses thanks for the Briceños’ support of Caltech scholars.
“As we face the enormous challenge of creating new energy options and a more sustainable future, Caltech students and faculty will draw on support from the Briceño Family Discovery Fund,” Peters says. “This generous gift will help us act on our most ingenious ideas. Ideas such as developing the chemistry that enables solar fuels, or new catalytic transformations that enable efficient and environmentally benign manufacturing of materials needed for consumer goods and industrial chemicals.”
Through their determination, these scholars will further Nelson Briceño’s approach to life.
“My dad was somebody who always made a way,” Vanessa Briceño says. “No option was not an option. He would just figure how to get a thing done, and do it.”