Dr. Steve Mayo

Fueling Future Scientists

Endowed leadership chairs can make a big difference on Caltech’s Pasadena campus—and 3,000 miles away. No one knows that better than Stephen Mayo (PhD ’87), holder of the William K. Bowes Jr. Leadership Chair of the Division of Biology and Biological Engineering and Bren Professor of Chemistry and Biology. Less than four years after being named the inaugural Bowes chair, he has used the flexible funds to help biology and biological engineering faculty accelerate their research in new directions.

On campus, he helped Markus Meister create a new graduate program in neurobiology, combining neuroscience (itself a fast-changing field) with quantitative components special to Caltech.

“What makes our neurobiology program so compelling is that it integrates multiples scales of thinking about neuroscience,” Mayo says. “At the cellular level, you’re looking at molecules and cells and how they interact. And at the systems level, you’re looking at networks of neurons and circuits, and how collective behavior emerges.”

Creating—and recruiting for—a brand new graduate program is no simple task. Mayo drew upon Bowes funds to support graduate students during their critical first years. Federal grants cannot be allocated to first-year graduate students, so accessible, private funds are imperative during this pivotal time in an up-and-coming researcher’s career.

“Being able to use those discretionary funds to empower faculty to create novel, exciting teaching offerings for students is a special opportunity for me.”
- Steve Mayo

“The Bowes chair provides discretionary payout, which allowed me to make the decision to support the first-year class of this important new program,” Mayo says. “By creating this neurobiology graduate program, we can both expose the world to the fact that we have a great training opportunity in the field, and create an educational experience that really emphasizes integration of quantitative approaches.”

When two Caltech professors approached Mayo with an adventurous idea for a new undergraduate course, Mayo knew just where to turn. Rob Phillips, the Fred and Nancy Morris Professor of Biophysics and Biology, and Victoria Orphan, professor of geobiology, made a compelling case for this new class—Bi/GE 105 Evolution—to culminate with a site visit to the Galápagos Islands.

“For an undergraduate course to go where Darwin actually went when he formed the theory of evolution—it was a phenomenal concept,” Mayo says. “Because we had the Bowes leadership chair, I could quickly designate funds for travel.”

The inaugural class was a huge success. A dozen students, Phillips, Orphan, and a teaching assistant spent spring break living as field researchers on the islands. They snorkeled to observe the only wild penguins found north of the equator, hiked a volcano, and turned their field notes into a number of reports and presentations. A new group of students recently returned from this year’s trip.

“Being able to use those discretionary funds to empower faculty to create novel, exciting teaching offerings for students is a special opportunity for me,” Mayo says. “I wish I could take the course myself!”

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