CalTech Initiative for Students

Graduate Fellowships

Coming Together to Honor the Legacy of a Towering Scholar and Treasured Mentor

Mar 07, 2024

Aaron Cedolia

Robert Grubbs

Robert Grubbs (1942–2021), the Victor and Elizabeth Atkins Professor of Chemistry and a member of the Caltech faculty since 1978, was a giant in the field of chemistry.

He was committed to bridging the gap between scientific discovery and practical inventions, and his work has been adapted widely, from medical innovations to manufacturing techniques that are better for the environment.

Grubbs is remembered as much for his humanity and his mentorship as his game-changing research. He wrote in his autobiographical sketch for the Nobel Prize: “During my career, over 200 students and postdoctoral fellows have worked in my research group. They have all left their mark.” Grubbs left his mark on his students and colleagues as well.

Since Grubbs’s passing in December 2021, some 100 donors—including former students, colleagues, business partners, and friends—have raised more than $1 million to establish the Bob and Helen Grubbs Fellowship. The endowed fund supports one graduate student or postdoctoral scholar in chemistry each year. With continued contributions, the fund could grow to support even more fellows.

“I was honored to call Bob a friend for many years,” says Dennis Dougherty, the George Grant Hoag Professor of Chemistry and holder of the Norman Davidson Leadership Chair for the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering (CCE). “To see such a remarkable outpouring of support from people from across the globe for this fellowship is wonderful. I know Bob’s family is deeply moved by this effort.”

A Prolific Researcher and Entrepreneur

Grubbs was a co-recipient of the 2005 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the development of the metathesis method in organic synthesis, a new tool for building organic molecules. Metathesis is a chemical reaction, aided by special catalyst molecules, in which double bonds between carbon atoms are broken and reassembled. “To be able to rip them apart and put them back together very cleanly was a complete surprise to organic chemists,” he told The New York Times about his breakthrough.

Grubbs’s discovery has had diverse applications ranging from herbicides and thermal insulations for subsea pipelines to new treatments for kidney stones and Hepatitis C. His work also focused on “green” catalysts that use cheap, safe, and abundant chemicals—rather than precious metals—to create industrial and pharmaceutical products in a more efficient and environmentally friendly manner.

Grubbs received dozens of accolades for his achievements, including the Benjamin Franklin Medal from the Franklin Institute, the American Institute of Chemists Gold Medal, membership in the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering, and fellowship in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Chemical Society.

In addition, Grubbs was one of Caltech’s most prolific inventors and entrepreneurs. He is named on more than 200 US patents and founded or cofounded numerous start-ups, including a company that commercialized the catalyst technology for which he received the Nobel Prize. He also created synthetic polymers that are used in replacement lenses for people with cataracts. Now FDA approved, the lenses are being produced by another Grubbs startup. In fact, Helen Grubbs received the polymer lenses as part of her own cataract treatment.

Carrying the Legacy Forward

In fall 2023, Caltech graduate student Krista Dong was named the inaugural Bob and Helen Grubbs Fellow. Working in the lab of chemistry professor Hosea Nelson (PhD ’13), Dong investigates the reactivity of vinyl carbocations. Carbocations—positively charged carbon molecules—are important intermediates in organic chemistry with potential applications for the production of products ranging from explosives to paints to solar panels.

“I’m grateful for this award, which allows me to continue my research as a second-year graduate student,” Dong says. “Our lab space resides next to the old Grubbs lab, and it’s a little awe-inspiring. It’s a reminder of not only the incredible science that has come out of Caltech, but also Bob and Helen’s legacy within CCE.”

In the years and decades to come, more students like Dong will build upon Grubbs’s history of groundbreaking research in chemistry.

If you would like to contribute to the Bob and Helen Grubbs Fellowship, we invite you to contact Layla Tremalio, senior director of development for CCE, at (626) 395-1530 or Layla.Tremalio@caltech.edu.

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