A Purrfect Way to Support Students
In a flight of feline-inspired fancy, Caltech alumnus and Nvidia chip architect Robert Chapman has endowed a scholarship named for his cat.
Eager to support students at Caltech, Robert “Rob” Chapman (BS ’96) and his wife, Felicity Rogers-Chapman, have endowed the Amelia Earhart Scholarship.
No, it isn’t an homage to the famous aviator. The scholarship is whimsically named for the tiniest and boldest of the Chapmans’ three cats, adopted while the family was living under pandemic lockdown in Mountain View, California. Amelia, an intrepid explorer, was the first feline out of the box.
Usually, donors name scholarships after their families, but “that didn’t strike us as something we wanted to do,” says Chapman, a senior Application-Specific Integrated Circuit (ASIC) architect with Nvidia.
Chapman, the second of five children, was born and raised in Los Angeles. His father, who abandoned a passion for chemistry and became an IRS auditor to support his growing family, enthusiastically celebrated scientific curiosity in his children by showering them with books, encyclopedias, and personal computers.
Chapman says he and childhood friend Nam Yu (BS ’96) “spent overtime” tinkering with the nascent PC technology Chapman’s father, an early adopter, liberally supplied. Both went on to enroll at Caltech.
Chapman has nothing but fond memories of his college days. Inspired by his father, he started as a chemistry major but switched when he discovered a passion for electrical engineering. He played intercollegiate soccer all four years and ran track his last two years.
In addition to serving on the athletic committee at Lloyd House, Chapman was the go-to person for internet-related needs and custom electronics (e.g., Ditch Day stacks) in the residence.
Since graduating, Chapman has spent much of his career at Nvidia. He joined the fledgling company in 2000 as an ASIC design engineer and was later promoted to chip architect. In 2012, he left Nvidia for a small semiconductor company in Sunnyvale. He spent another four years as an ASIC architect at Google before returning to Nvidia in 2020. One of his recent projects was developing the chip Mercedes-Benz uses in its Level 3 self-driving system.
Return on Scholarly Investment
The decision to fund a scholarship grew out of Chapman’s gratitude for the support he received as an undergraduate.
Between paid summer internships and endowed scholarships, Chapman graduated with only $17,000 in student debt. “That was less than half-a-year’s starting salary as an engineer, which I easily paid off,” he says.
He adds: “Caltech was very generous with me—I was always aware of that, and I always wanted to help in some way.”
That generosity is a hallmark of Caltech, which provides financial aid for 100 percent of domestic students’ demonstrated need. Average student debt upon graduation remains low, with an average indebtedness of $17,219 for the Class of 2022. As the costs of delivering education continue to increase, however, greater strain is placed on the annual operating budget to offer financial support—leaving less available for everything else that makes Caltech a distinctively impactful university. That is one reason the Institute launched the Initiative for Caltech Students. The fundraising campaign will strengthen the Institute by raising $250 million to enhance the student experience, including $100 million for undergraduate scholarships such as the Amelia Earhart Scholarship.
Rob and Felicity, a researcher with a doctorate in education policy, are passionate about advancing opportunities for women. They have two daughters, both of whom are making their own opportunities. The elder is in Scotland at the University of St Andrews, studying environmental policy and sustainable development, and the younger is pursuing pre-professional ballet training in New York City, with dreams of being a marine biologist after dancing professionally.
Although it gives preference to female students, the Amelia Earhart Scholarship is not earmarked for any discipline or major.
“I don’t think I have the wisdom to know what the Institute will need over time,” Chapman explains. “I don’t know which fields will be the most interesting or the most dynamic in the future.”
For now, Chapman is focused on completing his scholarship pledge and, eventually, meeting the first Amelia Earhart Scholar.
But it may not end there.
After all, the Chapmans have two other cats: Damara, notable for her calm and patient demeanor, and Peridot, named for his stunning blue-green eyes. Might future Caltech scholarships immortalize these felines?
“Who knows?” Chapman says, smiling.