Heaven & Earth

Heaven & Earth

Power couple Jean-Lou Chameau, Caltech’s new president, and environmentalist Carol Carmichael combine the best of all worlds

By Julie Riggott 02/08/2007

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A couple as influential as Jean-Lou Chameau and Carol Carmichael could be intimidating.

In September, Chameau became the eighth president of Caltech and professor of civil engineering and environmental science and engineering.

Carmichael became a faculty associate in engineering and applied science as well as senior counselor for external relations.

Their titles sound technical, esoteric — maybe even unintelligible to those outside the scientific establishment. Their positions at one of the world's finest research institutions — home to 31 Nobel Laureates over the years — put them in a singularly prestigious and powerful place in not only the local community but also the international field of science.

Not surprisingly, Chameau and Carmichael are intelligent, articulate, hardworking and self-assured. But their down-to-earth, sociable and humble personalities — as well as their mutual enjoyment of sports and a certain countercultural music group — might be somewhat unexpected. Those qualities are a perfect fit for their work, which focuses on positive change for people and the environment.

Chameau and Carmichael came to Pasadena from Georgia Tech. Chameau had also been on the faculty at Purdue University. Though their positions at Caltech are certainly a career pinnacle, Chameau, 53, and Carmichael, 45, count their influence on students and faculty throughout their academic careers as their proudest accomplishments.  

“I feel I have had some positive influence on a large number of students … and faculty members, researchers, who themselves are accomplishing a lot,” Chameau said. “My biggest contribution today, I believe — I hope — is a positive impact on their lives and careers.”

Carmichael recalled students in whom she sparked an interest in science and engineering and even graduate study. Some of them had been the first in their families to go to college.

“I probably can name the undergraduate students I've worked with over the years, and many of them I still remember very vividly,” Carmichael said. “I'm most proud of the students that worked with me as undergraduates who have gone on to get Ph.D.s or other graduate degrees and now are really giving back to the community and helping other young people come along.”

That concern for helping students — and the entire campus community — to thrive was part of the appeal both had in the nationwide search for a new Caltech president after Nobel Laureate David Baltimore stepped down from the position last year.

George Van Osdol Professor of Planetary Science David Stevenson, who headed the search, said the committee was impressed not only with Chameau's accomplishments, his administrative style and his fund-raising success at Georgia Tech, but also with his sociability.

“He likes students, gets along well with students, and he's also a charming person,” Stevenson said, laughing. “It is important that he engages well with people, that he has a passion for the job.

“We think that he can do an excellent job through his commitment to students and education in general. Also diversity issues, he has a record on that. These are things that are important to Caltech.”

Carmichael's strong interest in students' well-being was also apparent to Stevenson, who commented that her professional experience in the area of sustainability could prove to be an additional benefit to Caltech.

Before suggesting any major plans for change on campus, Chameau and Carmichael have spent the past five months getting to know everyone from facilities managers to students and learning more about Caltech's unique challenges and opportunities. Caltech's “small community” feel, which sets it apart from a large university like Georgia Tech, has made that process easy.

“It feels like we're living in a small town,” Carmichael said. “Caltech's scale allows us to have the quality interactions that you need to have. So it's a really fun place to be.”

The couple, who have been married since 2000, live on campus in the house reserved for Caltech's president and have been enjoying Caltech's extracurricular activities beyond academics and administration.

The athletic pair (she enjoys hiking, while he likes running and skiing) took an immediate interest in Caltech sports, particularly the basketball team, which finally broke its 11-year losing streak on Jan. 6. Though they had just returned from Singapore two hours before tip-off, Chameau and Carmichael were at the winning game against New York's Bard College. And Coach Roy Dow said they were the first to walk over and congratulate the Beavers on their historic win.

With all the meetings, dinners and receptions they've been attending, Chameau and Carmichael have had little time for their cooking hobby, but they did enjoy a chamber music concert recently given by the talented musicians at Caltech. They also admit to having eclectic taste in music.

“I can love chamber music one day and then rock ‘n' roll the next day,” Chameau said. “Actually, I really love the Grateful Dead.”

Once he confessed his admiration of the popular psychedelia-influenced band, Carmichael did too. “It's a really free form of music; it's really appealing.”

At Georgia Tech, Chameau was a Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar and Hightower Professor. During his terms as dean of the College of Engineering — the largest in the nation — and then provost and vice president of academic affairs, Chameau was credited with increasing Georgia Tech's international reputation by encouraging interdisciplinary education and research. He also promoted diversity in the student body and was honored with an award from the Society of Women Engineers for his commitment to the recruitment of female faculty.

Carmichael, who was the senior research scientist for an interdisciplinary research program in environmentally conscious design and manufacturing at Georgia Tech, became director of the Institute for Sustainable Technology and Development in 1995. That program was initiated by Chameau in 1992. He and Carmichael “joined forces” three years later when they discovered that they both had been working independently on sustainability projects on campus.

Though principally designed for education and research into sustainable options for urban design, transportation and other areas, the Institute soon took on a more practical focus with Carmichael at the helm.

“You have to try to practice what you are preaching,” Chameau said, “so she worked on a number of programs to really help the campus and the local community to move into more sustainable ways.”

One of those programs involved encouraging the use of public transportation and reducing parking on campus over the course of 10 years. When Pasadena Mayor Bill Bogaard read about her accomplishments, he contacted Caltech to assess her interest in the city's planned Environmental Advisory Commission.

“To reduce parking spaces in the United States of America is sort of like attacking the most fundamental values of our country,” Bogaard said. “And she accomplished it. … She has something meaningful to offer this community.”

In January, Carmichael was appointed the first member of the commission, created to help the city stay in line with the United Nations Green Cities Declaration and Urban Environmental Accords, which it adopted in September. Bogaard feels she is uniquely qualified to help Pasadena “strengthen its role as a leader in sustainable municipal operations.”

Carmichael emphasized that environmental solutions are always long-term propositions, but she is decidedly optimistic about the city's progressive vision and looks forward to the commission's first meeting, which is planned for March.

“I think what they're proposing is actually quite exciting,” she said. “Creating a commission that has a slightly broader scope that would bring together several departments' activities more systemically is one of the reasons why, when I was approached, I was excited to do it. I think the approach they are taking is exactly right.”

Carmichael's interest in sustainability started during her undergraduate studies in chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She became interested in environmental policy and decided to pursue graduate studies in technology and science policy at Georgia Tech and doctoral studies in higher education at the University of Georgia.

“A lot of people don't know that a senator from Wisconsin [Gaylord Nelson] was the founder of Earth Day [April 22] nationally,” she said. “So where I grew up it was a fairly significant holiday, so to speak.”

Chameau grew up in France and attended college there before heading to Stanford University to study civil engineering, a field that had to tackle environmental problems head-on decades ago. “In the '70s and '80s, you had significant civil engineers who got involved in radiation issues and environmental waste and so on,” he said, “and at some stage I felt we were addressing the wrong problems. We were trying to solve problems after they occurred instead of trying to avoid the problems in the first place. And that led to this idea of sustainability and environmental-based design.”

Of course, sustainability has been gradually gaining popularity but still faces obstacles, not the least of which is the lack of scientific literacy in the general populace that begins with young students' declining interest in science and mathematics.

“There is less interest in science and technology at a time when society and the world and the economies are being driven more and more by science and technology,” Chameau said.

This problem has profound implications, Carmichael explained: “A lack of scientific literacy or a significant level of literacy really makes it more difficult for policymakers to make informed decisions and be able to communicate to their constituencies that face those decisions. So as a result, you find yourselves mired in nontechnical and technical debates without having the people who really understand what the issues are.”

Carmichael emphasized that this, again, is a problem that requires a long-term strategy. She mentioned Jared Diamond's most recent book, “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed,” wherein the Pulitzer Prize-winning UCLA professor provides examples of societies that have succeeded or failed as a result of their abilities to respond to the environment and plan for the future. Befitting Chameau's first year in office, Diamond will be the commencement speaker at Caltech's 113th annual graduation ceremony on June 8.

Despite the challenges facing environmental policy, Chameau and Carmichael expressed excitement about the changes they have seen during the last couple of years with respect to climate change, especially here.

“It's not unusual that California as a state is taking a lead in sort of influencing national policy. California often does that — or one of the northeast states usually does — so once that train leaves the station, it's hard to really stop. For me, it gives me a lot of hope that we now have politicians speaking seriously about the issue and not just talking about it, but proposing serious and important legislation that will make those changes happen,” said Carmichael.

Meanwhile, at Caltech, a place as progressive in its embrace of sustainability as Pasadena and California, Chameau and Carmichael have already put their beliefs into practice in at least one small way: Instead of printing and sending holiday cards, they donated those funds to the math and science tutoring program Caltech runs in the Pasadena Unified School District.

They look forward to the opportunities ahead, indicating that they couldn't refuse the offer to come to Caltech. “The people here are phenomenal,” Chameau said. “Caltech is an unusual place in the world. It's unusual in Pasadena, unusual in the country and in the world. It's a jewel.

“In addition to that, by the way, it's in Pasadena, it's in Southern California —”

“A beautiful place,” Carmichael interrupted with a laugh.

“We have what we joke about as ‘our farm' on campus,” she added later. “We have a lot of olive trees, and it's always been somewhat of a dream of Jean-Lou's to have a farm or land with olive trees, so how funny to be at Caltech and do that?”

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