Hailing from Spokane, Washington, this Caltech alumnus and music maven enlivened The California Tech with reports on classical and opera performances. He was relegated to right field in freshman baseball but finished with a .500 batting average in all of two at-bats. Elected pope of Dabney, he served up witty recitations to his housemates after dinner.

Following commencement, this alumnus decamped to MIT for his PhD in physics. He stayed for several years as an instructor and assistant professor, kindling what became a lifelong devotion to providing undergraduates with research opportunities.

He came to JPL in 1964, rising from researcher to section manager and, later, deputy in the Education Office. During his 47-year JPL career, he championed student involvement at the arroyo facility.

This alumnus became secretary and treasurer of the Caltech branch of the honors society Sigma Xi. He and chapter president Fred Shair, a Caltech chemical engineer, were the last two active members as interest in the society cratered. But out of it grew a fixture of Caltech culture.

In 1979, Shair started something new: Caltech’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program.

Together with Caltech staffer Carolyn Ash, who had helped with Sigma Xi, this alumnus got involved with SURF right from the start. As a recruiter for JPL’s cooperative education program, he saw the initiative as a promising option for the lab. Eventually, through the efforts of JPL director Lew Allen and chief technologist Terry Cole (PhD ’58), Caltech students were offered the opportunity to pursue SURF projects there.

This alumnus took on administrative tasks connected with hosting the students. Those responsibilities stayed with him when he moved to JPL’s Education Office, now the permanent home of SURF at JPL.


Today, Bill Whitney (BS ’51) sits alongside Shair and Ash as the longest-serving members of the SURF Board. (Whitney takes credit—or blame—for coming up with the punny but straightforward name.) The Caltech Student-Faculty Programs Office (SFP) has benefited from decades of his guidance, advocacy, and philanthropy.

One example of his impact is a lecture series he dreamed up to help students explore the pragmatic aspects of parlaying undergraduate research experiences into science and engineering careers. The talks—originally called “Can You Do Research for a Living?”—continue as the William Whitney Workshops on Professional Development.

To perpetuate this legacy, he recently created the William M. Whitney Endowment for Academic and Professional Development at Caltech, which will grow with a gift from his estate. The fund generates resources for SFP events such as the Whitney Workshops. Whitney says his passion for promoting undergraduate research boils down to helping young people realize their potential just as their enthusiasm peaks. “Kids can do wonderful things with this motivation,” he explains. “There is a lot they don’t know, but let them get involved with research early, and they will learn the skills, tools, and concepts on the job.”