November 21, 2019

Alvarez Professorships Promote the Power of Great Teaching at Caltech

When Richard Alvarez (BS ’57) worked at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, he helped a team fire an electron beam down 10,000 feet of three-quarter-inch tube to probe elementary particle physics. He was one of the people in the lab, he recalls, who understood the whole machine.

“I could say, ‘No, you can’t do this at the injector end because the beam will blow up at the target end.’”

He attributes his ability to grasp the entire system to Caltech’s mathematics-focused core curriculum. “I was very grateful to Caltech for having emphasized math,” he says. “In appreciation of what Caltech did for me, I figure I should be one of those who helps the future students by supporting the Institute.”

Alvarez chose to pay forward his dedication to math and engineering with a gift to Caltech through Break Through: The Caltech Campaign to help lay the groundwork for the next generation of Institute educators. A member of the Torchbearers Legacy Society and the Caltech Associates, Alvarez has given $6 million to the Institute to establish two endowed professorships. The Harold and Violet Alvarez Professorship is named to honor his parents, both dentists who practiced in San Francisco for decades, and will support faculty in the Division of Biology and Biological Engineering. The Richard Alvarez Professorship will support faculty in the Division of Engineering and Applied Science, Alvarez’s home during his time at the Institute.

“Richard Alvarez’s generous gift is a testament to the Institute’s mission to integrate education with research that addresses fundamental challenges,” says Caltech Provost David A. Tirrell, Caltech’s Ross McCollum-William H. Corcoran Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering and holder of the Carl and Shirley Larson Provostial Chair. “The Alvarez professorships will strengthen the Institute’s ability to recruit and foster the work of outstanding faculty who will educate and inspire new generations of students.”

The Courage to Ask “Why?”

A string of inspirational teachers stoked the flames of Richard Alvarez’s interest in math and engineering. He remembers one fateful day in high school, when an instructor named Miss Welch called a student to the board to work a problem, then asked the class to explain why the student solved it the way she did. “The teacher said, ‘There are reasons for all this; there’s logic behind it,’” Alvarez explains. “In that 50-minute class period, she changed my life.”

At Caltech, more great teachers guided Alvarez’s path. Despite his keen mind for fundamental scientific principles, Alvarez says he struggled for two solid years with the rigorous curriculum, a period he describes as “skidding along.” His epiphany came in a class with bioengineering pioneer J. Harold Wayland (MS ’35, PhD ’37), a longtime professor of engineering science who became internationally known for instruments and methods to study blood flow in living organisms. According to Alvarez, Wayland had a gift for explaining how different fields of math and engineering fit together and why certain theorems worked. In Wayland’s advanced calculus course, years of mathematical instruction clicked together.

During senior year, a course on electricity and magnetism with longtime Caltech professor Robert Langmuir (PhD ’43) guided Alvarez toward a career in microwave engineering. Like Wayland, Langmuir had a knack for tying in the fundamentals of mathematics to explain broad engineering concepts. Electrical engineering professor Hardy Martel (BS ’49, PhD ’56), meanwhile, noticed Alvarez’s acumen for communication theory and went out of his way to encourage it.

“Caltech is a breeding place for instructors like that,” Alvarez says. “That is part of why I believe in Caltech.”

“I have huge respect for educators who advance science. [They] make it possible for common mortals like me to learn enough to make useful progress in engineering.”
- Richard Alvarez (BS ’57)

The Enduring Power of an Excellent Teacher

The Institute’s emphasis on mathematics paid dividends as Alvarez progressed through his career. When he went to work at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, for example, he drew upon knowledge from Langmuir’s class. Later, working at Ford Aerospace, Stanford Telecommunications, and Trimble Navigation, which was founded by Caltech alumnus Charles Trimble (BS ’63, MS ’64), Alvarez dove into satellite communications and helped develop the Global Position System during its formative years.

“It was impressive to see the same math appear in different courses at Caltech, and later to see it pop up in unexpected places in my career,” he says.

Although he pursued a career in industry, Alvarez became a teacher himself. Over the years, he volunteered as a math tutor and gave guest lectures at college preparatory schools near his home. “It is gratifying to see a look of understanding appear suddenly on a student’s face,” he says.

“I have huge respect for educators who advance science,” he says. “[They] make it possible for common mortals like me to learn enough to make useful progress in engineering.”