The Best Place to Start

Daniela Bonafede-Chhabra (BS ’84) looks back to her time at Caltech—including the three hours and 15 minutes she spent waiting for her supervisor to arrive on her first day of work—with boundless appreciation.

Fruit flies were the reason Ed Lewis, then Caltech’s Thomas Hunt Morgan Professor of Biology, didn’t make it to the lab until a few minutes past noon to welcome Bonafede-Chhabra to his research team. “How can you fault him for being late?” Bonafede-Chhabra asks. “He was busy pioneering the field of evolutionary developmental biology.”

The biologist conformed his sleep schedule to the 12-hour life cycle of Drosophila melanogaster, which often made for long nights and late mornings. “He structured his life around his research,” she explains.

Lewis could have asked a technician or postdoc to orient then-sophomore Bonafede-Chhabra to the work techniques. But she was honored that he took it upon himself to train her personally.


“Each lesson was an opportunity for him to impart his exacting standards and to remind us that every fly’s life and every experiment we designed should matter.”
- Daniela Bonafede-Chhabra

Bonafede-Chhabra remembers Lewis as someone who was generous with his time, his insights, and his regard for others’ lives. “We exposed the flies to chemicals and x-rays to induce mutations,” she recalls. “But he wouldn’t let us handle the chemicals to feed the flies. He reasoned that, because we were only in our 20s and had our whole lives ahead of us, it fell upon him, in his 60s to face any potential risks.”

Lewis, who died in 2004, went on to win the Nobel Prize in 1995 for groundbreaking discoveries about how genes regulate the development of specific regions of the body. Less widely known are his contributions to our understanding of the link between radiation and cancer.

Finding Her Way Back to Basics

“I had role models like Ed Lewis, Ray Owen, and my thesis adviser, Mark Konishi, all around me at Caltech, showing me how to be a good scientist as well as how to be a good person—which felt like one and the same,” Bonafede-Chhabra says. “I learned that in research and in life, if you’re lost, just find your way back to basics. You can figure out what to do from there.”

After she received her bachelor’s at Caltech, Bonafede-Chhabra earned master’s and doctoral degrees in neurobiology from Yale University. She went on to raise a family and also to support the well-being of individuals and the communities they live in through a number of humanist nonprofit agencies.

Today, Bonafede-Chhabra serves as a trustee for Princeton Community Housing. In this role, she advocates for the development of affordable homes and diverse neighborhoods. Starting from basics continues to yield positive results for her as she works toward balanced housing solutions. No matter how impenetrable a challenge may seem, she is confident that if she does enough digging, at the root she will find a fundamental problem that she can get started on solving.

Finding Ways to Give Back

In part because the analytical approach she developed at Caltech has served her so well over the years, Bonafede-Chhabra and her husband, Ashvin B. Chhabra, have stayed connected to the Institute. As members of the Caltech Associates, they provide resources that help Caltech’s faculty and students advance discovery. The couple’s participation in Associates programs also helps to build social connections among the worlds of science, business, and philanthropy. And through the Torchbearers Legacy Society, they have pledged to support Caltech beyond their lifetimes through provisions in their estate.

The couple’s most recent gift will establish the Bonafede-Chhabra Scholarships at Caltech. Their $75,000 contribution was matched with $50,000 from an anonymous alumnus. This enabled them to create a $25,000 current-use scholarship that was awarded to a student during the 2017–18 school year, and a $100,000 endowed fund that will benefit Caltech undergraduates for generations to come.

The Bonafede-Chhabra scholarships bring the added benefit of promoting diversity on campus because they carry a preference for African-American scholars, with a secondary preference for students demonstrating the greatest financial need. Bonafede-Chhabra is passionate about creating a future where excellence in education for all is not a privilege but a right.

“It was a legacy of accomplishments that lured me to Caltech from my small hometown in Italy,” says Bonafede-Chhabra, who was the first in her family to graduate from college. “But then I came here to find that, of course, extraordinary science happens because of extraordinary people. So our support for Caltech’s breakthroughs starts with supporting Caltech’s people.”

Giving Priorities