On October 1, Michelle Effros, the George Van Osdol Professor of Electrical Engineering, will become a vice provost at Caltech, overseeing the Council on Undergraduate Education; accreditation; the Staff and Faculty Consultation Center; Student-Faculty Programs; the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Outreach; and the Innovation in Education Fund. She takes on the vice provost role filled for the past seven years by Cindy Weinstein, Eli and Edythe Broad Professor of English.
"Cindy Weinstein has done extraordinary work in guiding our educational programs over the last seven years, most recently leading our reaccreditation effort to a successful conclusion while playing a central role in our transition to online teaching and learning," says Provost David Tirrell. "I'm delighted that Michelle Effros has agreed to join the provost's office to take on the continuing challenge of ensuring the high quality of a Caltech education. Michelle's deep understanding of Caltech and its students, her gifts as a teacher, and her sound judgment, will be vitally important assets in the vice provost's role."
Effros, an affiliated faculty member of the Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Institute for Neuroscience, points out that her assumption of the role of vice provost coincides with an educational inflection point; the COVID-19 pandemic, she notes, has pushed Caltech, like many other universities, to adapt to a world of remote learning and try education strategies it otherwise might not have. The Institute's challenge now, she says, will be to return to in-person educational activities without losing the advantages that came with a remote environment.
"One of the important things about a small place like Caltech that we pride ourselves on is community," she says. "But at the same time, by doing some of our outreach activities online, we were able to reach more students. Should we be doing more of these outreach activities online? It's something worth exploring in this moment when we've had to rethink things and do things differently and decide how to define the new normal."
Caltech's recent reaccreditation by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC) offered another opportunity for self-reflection, Effros says. One area of focus that came out of this process, which Effros plans to explore as vice provost, is flexibility and choice within Caltech's core curriculum. The core has positives and negatives, she says: while it gives Caltech students a common toolbox from which to work, having such a structured program can make it challenging for those students to explore and discover their interests.
"Figuring out how to balance those two competing needs is a really important issue that was brought up through the accreditation process," notes Effros, "and I think it's important to make sure that we're giving our students the opportunity to find their best path."
Effros received her undergraduate, master's, and doctoral degrees from Stanford University. She came to Caltech in 1994 as an assistant professor and was named the Van Osdol Professor in 2013.
Her research focuses on information theory, specifically on mathematical models of communications systems. For example, she says, cellphone towers and Wi-Fi hotspots work inefficiently because such systems cannot predict how many connected devices they will need to manage at any given point in time. The Effros lab researches the theories behind algorithms that could help such systems operate far more efficiently. "Given how the number of devices using these systems is growing, we'd like to be able to get to those limits of what is possible," she says. Meanwhile, she is also stepping into neuroscience to use the same mathematics her lab applies to technological communications to study biological systems like the human brain.
"Caltech is a place where you can make anything happen," Effros says. "We are small, and that smallness creates a lot of opportunities to have a vision and then make that vision happen. I think that that's true on many scales and many dimensions, and I think that makes Caltech an exciting place to be."