Debbie Dison Hall
Debra Dison Hall (BS '74)
Partner, Allen Matkins Leck Gamble Mallory & Natsis, (Ret.)
Judge Pro Tem Pore
By David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project
August 8, 2022
DAVID ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It's Monday, August 8th, 2022. I am delighted to be here with Debbie Hall. Debbie, it's so nice to be with you. Thank you for joining me today.
DEBRA HALL: Thank you for having me.
ZIERLER: Debbie, to start, would you please tell me your current or most recent title and institutional affiliation?
HALL: I was a Partner in the Corporate Department at Allen Matkins Leck Gamble Mallory & Natsis LLP which is law firm with over 200 attorneys with offices in Los Angeles and throughout California. I joined straight out of law school, when it was a very small firm of 17 attorneys, and I was there for 39 years.
ZIERLER: Wow. When did you retire?
HALL: I retired in June of 2020, which but for the pandemic would have been a really hard thing for me. I loved my colleagues, and I loved my clients, and being all together in the office every day. But, of course, starting in March 2020, no one was in the office, so that made retiring a whole lot easier. Many law firms, like accounting firms, have a culture that, at some point, you give way, and let the younger people take over. If it was up to me, I might've been practicing at 90.
ZIERLER: Debbie, what is life like in retirement? What are you up to these days?
HALL: Well, actually, I have started something of a second legal career. I volunteer as a judge pro tem. In my corporate life, I was a deal-maker. I bought companies, sold companies, provided general counsel-type services and advice, and negotiated large contracts. But now I go to court, and I sit up on the bench, and – it's very strange -- people call me "your honor" and do what I tell them to do.
ZIERLER: Do you wear a robe?
HALL: I do wear a robe. It's required by law. I sit in traffic court a couple of days a week. It's an unpaid position. I do it because I believe confidence in the justice system is a keystone for a democracy. For 80% of the population, appearing in traffic court is all the contact that they will ever have with the court system. It's a really delicate balance between reading the room, determining how you are going to get the point across that the laws are there for a reason and for the good of all of us, and that we have to have some respect for them, while recognizing that many of the people who come to court are the ones who really can't afford the kinds of fines we have. For example, they drove without insurance. That's a $900 fine. Chances are the reason they didn't have insurance was because they didn't have $900 that they didn't need for basic necessities like food and housing.
ZIERLER: Is this a hybrid situation? Are you sometimes physically in court and sometimes on Zoom?
HALL: No. In the civil courts, they do a lot of things over Zoom or whatever the platform it is that they use. But for criminal matters, the feeling is that a defendant has a right to their day in court—
HALL: —with the right to confront the officer and any witnesses, and to directly see and cross-examine them. So for that we are actually physically present in court.
ZIERLER: Debbie, what aspects of the law have you seen now that you could only see from this side of the bench?
HALL: So many of the people I see are very uncomfortable being in court. They don't understand the court system and really haven't thought about why we have laws. It's so tempting sometimes to want to give them a lecture and then treat them with compassion and dismiss their cases. But everything you do is going to be on the internet. People are going to say, "Oh, yeah, just go to court, and the ticket goes away." Being in traffic court has made me much more aware of traffic accidents and their causes. I've come to really appreciate more that we can't individually be of the mindset that it really doesn't matter if we go 50 instead of 35 or if we use our cellphones because we're not going to hit someone,. You start to see how much it does matter and how unaware people are of what is going on around them. After all – they didn't see the officer!
ZIERLER: Debbie, let's take it all the way back, 1967–1968, tell me the year and where you were in high school when you started to think about colleges and options.
HALL: I graduated from high school in 1970, so 1967-1968 was my sophomore year. I went to a large public high school in a middle-class neighborhood, and I didn't really start thinking about college options until my senior year. Life was so different there. I didn't visit any colleges before I choose. Basically, there was a book in the library with a paragraph describing each college. We had 476 seniors in my class. There was one college counselor, so there wasn't a lot of individual attention.
ZIERLER: This is where? Where did you go to high school?
HALL: In San Jose, California. Back then, of course, San Jose was much smaller. My father's side of the family was from Los Angeles. I had lots of aunts and uncles and cousins and a grandmother here, which played into my decision a little bit when I was looking at colleges. But I was also very, very into science, and so I basically had heard of Caltech and MIT. I applied to those. I applied to Stanford because, of course, it was near to my home and I knew about Stanford. As a fallback, I applied to UCLA, just because that was a school that was reportedly easy to get into, which is certainly a different world than we live in today. That was it. I never visited the campuses. I choose all on the basis of that one paragraph.
ZIERLER: Debbie, tell me a little bit about your family background and any encouragement you might've gotten, both in terms of being interested in science but also thinking that applying to those kinds of schools would be in reach for you.
HALL: My mother came from a family that was very poor. Her father was a worker in a steel mill back in Pennsylvania. She had no real conception of college. My dad was the only one in his family who'd gone to college. He went to LA City College, and then he went to Catholic University in Washington, D.C. He lived off campus and held jobs to work his way through college. He was very, very smart. He became a public accountant. But as computers came onto the scene, he was really fascinated with them. He was a self-taught systems designer, and he ended up designing the computer payroll system for the 28,000 employees at Lockheed Missiles and Space. He was always very interested in science and encouraged me and my sister to learn everything we could. He and I would get up and watch all the Gemini space launches when coverage started at 2 a.m. for the 6 a.m. (Pacific time) launches, watching them till 5 to 6 am when they would frequently be scrubbed. And then we'd get up and do it again the next day too. He was always very excited about my plans and interested in my schoolwork and extracurricular activities. Both of my parents were very supportive. When I was president of the science club, they chaperoned and helped on all the camping trips, even though they had never been camping in their life. They thought camping was sleeping in the back seat of a car. They were just always there for me. But the one thing that my dad always drove home was that he had worked his way through college, and that he was very sad that he hadn't gotten to live on campus and be part of a campus community. He always said, "I don't care where you go to college, but wherever you go you're going to live on campus and you'll live there all four years; you're going to have all the things I wish I'd had."
ZIERLER: He didn't say "and you're also going to be part of the first cohort of women to graduate"—
ZIERLER: —"ever from that college"? Was that part of it too?
HALL: No. But the late sixties were a time when it felt like the world was changing, like we could do anything. Sputnik was up there. In 1969 -- the summer before I was applying to college -- we landed on the moon. We all watched that. There was just this sense that you could do anything. I didn't even focus at the time on how few schools admitted women, even though at that point most of the Ivys did not admit women. Cornell had for some time, and then Yale admitted its first undergraduate women in 1969. The rest of them did not. One of my friends at my high school went to Yale in that first class. But thinking about being one of the first women wasn't top of my mind, although once I figured that out, it was very interesting. For me, it was between MIT and Caltech, when it all came down to it, because Stanford was too close to home. It actually came down in part to dollars and cents because MIT much more aggressively courted me. But my parents said, "We will find a way to send you to MIT. But we're not going to be able to afford to fly you back for Christmas or breaks, so you're going to be there for nine straight months." That was, for someone who was very close with her family and had a boyfriend at home (who is now my husband) ...
ZIERLER: [laugh] That's great.
HALL: There was a lot I was attracted to about coming to Caltech. The campus was near my grandmother's home. I liked the idea of having a class of a couple hundred, a small school. But the things that I encouraged my kids to consider when I took them on college tours were the things that I ended up really valuing at Caltech —the small classes, the intimate relationships with professors and labs, and the house living. I searched all over the United States for colleges that had those elements. That year, I happened to be on TURLI. I don't know if you've come across that, the Task Force on Undergraduate Residential Living. I combined my son's college trip with visiting the student affairs offices at many of the colleges we went to. What I was looking for everywhere were colleges that had housing systems like Caltech's - not just dorms - because the idea of living as a family for four years with people, and developing those relationships, was one of the best parts of Caltech—
ZIERLER: Oh, wow.
HALL: —and I was amazed at how few do. My son actually ended up going for a year to Oxford as an undergraduate, and then going back there for graduate school. Oxford has that kind of housing system.
ZIERLER: Debbie, did you graduate at the top of your class? Did you crush the SATs?
HALL: I did crush the SAT's. I graduated at the top of my class at high school [laugh] but not at Caltech. However, until I got to Caltech I didn't realize was just how weak my high school education was. When I got to Caltech, it was very hard because I was in that 10% of the class that had never taken calculus. Calculus wasn't offered in my high school. Nobody at my school ever went to a junior college to take additional classes. I didn't know you could. My roommate from Porterville had two years of junior college behind her when she arrived at Caltech. It was a really hard transition, going to Caltech.
ZIERLER: Debbie, you painted the picture of a sense of possibility: landing on the moon; Sputnik was a decade ago. What about specifically about the women's rights movement of the late 1960, Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan? Was that on your radar? Was it specifically a political component of wanting to do things that weren't previously available but you knew you could do them?
HALL: I didn't relate very much to the women's rights movement. It just wasn't at the top of my mind, because I had never been in a position where anybody suggested I couldn't do everything. It never seemed like it was going to be a fight. It just seemed like, oh, yeah, I can do that. Even in my high school — although as I think back now, when I went to high school, girls took cooking, and they took sewing, and the guys took woodshop and auto shop. But I decided I wanted to take mechanical drawing the summer before my freshman year. I was the only girl in mechanical drawing, but it never seemed to be an issue. It was just, OK, she's here. Coming to Caltech, I was really kind of taken aback at how militant some of the young women were because it just wasn't part of what I grew up with.
ZIERLER: Debbie, just a mechanics question. The decision to admit women for your timing, for your entry year, is literally hot off the press. Did you know specifically that you would be in the inaugural class? Did you receive, "Hear ye, hear ye, Caltech will now admit women," or did it just seem like that didn't register, and it always accepted women, and you would just be applying this year? How did that play out, from your perspective?
HALL: I knew that Caltech had historically been men undergraduates only, that they had been considering opening the doors to women, and that they had made that decision. Even though Caltech had made my list of schools just from reading the paragraph in the book, being in the first class of undergraduate women was an attractive aspect. The idea of being among roughly 30 women and 800 men [laugh], that sounded fun.
ZIERLER: When you applied, did you talk specifically? Was there an entrance exam where you were self-consciously expressing a desire to be one of those first women, or did you feel like you just submitted an application like anybody else?
HALL: I just submitted an application like anybody else. It's funny because when I think back: when I got accepted, of course, we got a lot of paperwork. Some of the paperwork, for example on the health form, hadn't been modified yet to recognize that now we had two sexes. They were asking about anatomical parts I didn't have, and whether there was any medical reason I was not able to play football, which gave us all a lot of laughs.
ZIERLER: Debbie, of course, Caltech's reputation precedes itself. You know it's going to be extraordinarily challenging for anybody. Did you go in with that extra sense of preparation that there would be a double challenge to your undergraduate experience, or you didn't even think about it?
HALL: Didn't even think about it.
ZIERLER: How did that expectation meet with reality once you got on campus?
HALL: Well, of course, as I said, I struggled really hard. Without having the calculus background, it was almost impossible to do the physics or the freshman calculus. My roommate had already had two years of calculus. She tested out of freshman calculus when she was 16. We're still very dear friends. But I would say, "How do you do this, Marion? How do you approach this problem?" She'd say, "Well, you look at it, and then don't you see the answer?" I'm like, "No." [laugh] But the one thing I will say, I never had the sense that I had to succeed because I was a woman. I never had the sense that, oh, if you don't do well, it's going to hurt the women after you. But it was certainly, in retrospect, something that was seemingly part of the Institute's consciousness. When I was struggling at one point, I went to talk to the dean because, as I recall, one of my professors had suggested maybe I needed to drop one of the classes, one of the required freshman classes, because I wasn't going to be able to cut it. Dean David Wood, I don't know if you've come across his name?
HALL: He volunteered to help, and he tutored me personally every morning at 8 o'clock for an hour, and it got me through the first term. Then he found an upperclass student — I think he was a junior — in one of the houses to come and tutor me in the evenings. I had free tutoring the whole first year, and I'm sure without that, I wouldn't have gotten through it. Harry Gray was our Chemistry I professor. After the first exam, when a lot of people did poorly, and particularly a lot of women, he started something called the Nitty-Gritty sessions.
HALL: If you got below a certain grade on the mid-term, you came to the Nitty-gritty session, where he went back to the basics [laugh], and caught us up.
HALL: I don't think that I saw that kind of personal Institute investment in the subsequent years. But, certainly at the time, I didn't focus on it. I was just trying not to drown. But in retrospect, it seems that the Institute was certainly watching over us.
ZIERLER: Debbie, roughly speaking, how many women were there in that first class?
HALL: There were 31 or 32. Four of them were transfer students, and the rest were freshmen.
ZIERLER: Socially, did all of the women immediately sort of band together? Were they dispersed throughout the broader student body? What did that look like to you?
HALL: Well, that's really interesting, and it's a question that's come up many times when we talk about it, especially now as many of us have started socializing in a lunch group that gets together periodically. When we first moved in, the Institute psychologists, who were part of a task force on how to bring women to Caltech, had thought it was really important that we be together, that we have some ability to kind of isolate ourselves. They took out a wall between two houses, Dabney and Blacker, in Tunnel Alley. We had this long, long corridor where all of the women were. They refurbished our rooms. They were beyond belief. The poor men were in rooms that had probably never been renovated since they were built, where you had a hot and a cold faucet. You had one light hanging from a chain on the ceiling, and you had one set of outlets. We had outlets every two feet. They spent $8,000 per room, I understand, which was huge at that time. We had multiple ceiling lights, new plumbing, outlets every couple of feet, and everything was just beautiful. They put us all there, except that six more women came than they expected, and so they put them in an alley together in Ricketts House. We were put together with the idea that we could all support each other. But, in fact, we were 30 very different women. We had little in common, and mostly we did not form friendships, or at least not very tight friendships, with more than one or two. I hardly knew most of the women. There was really only one woman I got to know well, my roommate Marion; we roomed together all four years. The other women in the first class that I got to know a little bit were through working in the Athenaeum. At that time they had student waiters in the Athenaeum. They hired five of the new undergraduate women as waiters. We wore little black dresses with white collars and little ruffled aprons. I will send you a picture. We got to know each other pretty well because we worked together every day for an hour, and then we would go down and eat together in the waiters' little area down in the basement of the Athenaeum.
ZIERLER: Debbie, in the first days or weeks, was there any official acknowledgement by Caltech? Was there a speech? Was there anything suggesting Caltech was recognizing what is really a historic change for the institute?
HALL: To generalize, I think back then, everybody, all the women, kind of just felt like we wanted to fit in.
ZIERLER: Not make a big deal of it?
HALL: We didn't want to call attention to ourselves as women. We didn't want to highlight differences, and so, no, there wasn't any fuss at orientation or anything else. We were divided into groups with the men, just randomly, with five or six students for each of our advisors. I don't recall any specific acknowledgements being made by the Institute. The undergraduates, however, did welcome us with a large sign on Millikin Library (as Caltech Hall was then known) that said "Welcome Co-Techs". The new coeds spoke of it pretty sarcastically. It did, however, make it into the title of a book my roommate Marion and I wrote our senior year under the guidance of English professor J. Kent Clark, called "Confessions of Two Co-Techs", which chronicled, with composite characters and literary license as to the timeline so as to include incidents from all four years, our experiences at women in that first class.
ZIERLER: Debbie, it's very funny to hear the guys, 1968–1969, they were all juniors and seniors, so I think very few, maybe even none of them, were still on campus by 1970. But to hear them talk about the range of motivations for pushing the administration to do this, as you can imagine, you might've heard directly, they ranged from the really noble about an appreciation, women can do things just as well as men, and we have to get up with the times, all the way to we want dates closer than Occidental. From your perspective, obviously, it was a different cohort of guys. What was your sense from the undergraduate men themselves about what it meant for Caltech to have women on campus at that point? Did you engage in those kinds of discussions?
HALL: Oh, yeah, they were very happy to have women on campus. They looked to us to replace the women who had been coming over from other colleges for exchanges. They were very excited to have women on campus. There was an element of them who had to believe, for some reason, that they had lowered the standards to let the women in. There were some of them who thought that the women would be a distraction. But, for the most part, they thought it would normalize things; that Caltech was an unusual place to be, an abnormal place to be. I think what they kind of learned over at least the first year was that, yes, it was nice to have women around but there were so few of us, in fact, it made it probably even more abnormal. The other things that lent themselves to not having a traditional kind of campus experience had nothing to do with the fact it was not coed.
ZIERLER: Debbie, I'll ask about two forms of pressure that you may or may not have felt, both in the short-term and the long-term. I'll start with the long-term, other examples given about why not to admit women as, "Well, we're going to invest all this education and resources into them. Then they're going to get married, and then they're going to drop out of the workforce, and why would we do it at all?" Did you feel, as you were thinking about next steps specifically, that you wanted to prove that sentiment wrong; that the investment, the risk, if that's what you what to call it, that Caltech took, that there was something that you owed to show that this was a good investment, it was the right thing to do?
HALL: I didn't feel that kind of a self-pressure because, in my mind, I'd always wanted to do something besides be a stay-at-home mom. My mom came to California after World War II. During World War II she had worked as a crane operator in a steel mill in Pennsylvania; the women entered the workplace to keep things going when so many of the men had gone to fight. In California she worked in a clerical job for the Atomic Energy Commission, and then she worked for a water company. If you were a married woman, you were not allowed to work. She wanted to work, so she hid the fact that she was married for the first two years—
ZIERLER: Oh, wow.
HALL: —and just didn't tell anybody. When everybody'd get together at different houses, she couldn't invite them over [laugh] because it would be clear she was living with someone. She always wanted to be in the workforce, but then she ended up, of course, being a stay-at-home mom because that's what people did in those days. But she always wanted to work. I remember that when my sister got into high school, my mom started taking business machines classes and other classes at the local community college, hoping that she could get back in the workforce. It just never worked out. It was an unrequited love for her that she never got to have the career. To me, having the career was a deep motivation. I see that in my own daughter now, who has children but still wants a career. She says, much as she adores being with her children and is committed to them, that giving up her career "would not be me; this is something that is part of who I am." That's how I felt. But this argument that we're not going to educate women, it's something I heard even in my law practice. "Why would we hire a woman because we'll do all this training of an associate, and then by the time she's going to be useful, she'll drop out and have children." That just astounded me. Even if a woman dropped out, many times it was for only a limited period while the children were growing, and then she went back, of course with never the same opportunities. You lose some time but so what? You educate the family. You put somebody educated in there, and their children are going to have a different shot at life. I just think it's a really weak argument. I didn't hear it when I was at Caltech, although I am sure that it was said. It wasn't one of the things that was said directly to me. The things that were generally said were they had to bend the standards to get enough women, and we all knew that was poppycock.
ZIERLER: I asked you about long-term pressure, and I'm glad you certainly didn't feel any. That's really a very important perspective to share. Debbie, what about in the short-term in terms of how much leeway you had in the classroom to make mistakes? In other words, did you feel an extra set of pressure to be doubly certain before you submitted an equation because you never wanted anybody to say, "Well, she's a woman, and this just proves my point"? Did you feel that pressure at all in the short-term in the classroom?
HALL: No. First of all, I have to tell you that when I was an undergrad, for the most part, teachers were talking at us. Teaching has improved dramatically. I used to laugh because we'd all want to get into the class with a Nobel Laureate or a professor otherwise renowned, and they were often the worst teachers.
ZIERLER: Sure. [laugh]
HALL: Some would look at the blackboard and mumble and write. In physics, I remember the first day of physics, the professor filled 27 blackboards. There were nine blackboards he filled 3 times in 55 minutes. [laugh] At least he wasn't mumbling though.
ZIERLER: Are you prepared to name names? Can you tell me who that professor was?
HALL: [laugh] No. I can see his face but I can't remember his name. Isn't that terrible? But if I looked it up, I know I'd find it. And for the record, I actually ended up liking him as a professor. Anyway, there was very little opportunity to raise your hand or to say something. It would always amaze me because we'd all be writing furiously, copying down everything the professor was saying, and somebody would raise their hand and say, "Shouldn't that be a negative?" I'd think, "How can you even follow what he's doing? I'm just writing as fast as I can." Then in the sections, they were small. There would be about 30 people a section, which meant maybe 15 showed up, and many were your housemates. They're the ones that you sat with in the hallway, trying to do your homework. There wasn't a sense that you would be embarrassed if you had the wrong answer. That was kind of par for the course.
ZIERLER: Debbie, academically, coming in, what was the game plan for you? What did you want to pursue and what did you end up majoring in?
HALL: There was absolutely a game plan. I was going to be a rocket scientist. All those launches I watched -- I wanted to work at JPL or NASA, and I wanted to send things into space. After one week of struggling through physics and math, I thought "I can't do this. This is not [laugh] my talent." I floundered around a little bit, but then ended up in biology, which had, well, two things. It was much more conceptual, so math didn't drive it quite as much. It still was there but it wasn't quite so much. It also started to have a less sterile feel to me. After physics was reduced to so much just equation after equation, thinking about life, and how you could benefit it, was really very interesting. I started working in labs my freshman year. As you know, I ultimately ended up working with Ray Owen in Kerckhoff. I go back there every once and while and look in, but my old lab is no longer a lab. It's an office with an equipment room behind it. But my freshman year I went walking through, and I met a very nice postdoc in Roger Sperry's lab, Larry Benowitz. Roger Sperry was doing the right brain, left brain work. He wouldn't have ever known me, but I worked Larry very closely. My work required sitting in a 95º room with 95% humidity, and doing behavioral experiments with a bunch of little chicks that were nice and cute the first few days. and then by the 10th day, were actually not very nice or cute. I would see over time if they would learn to follow a revolving sponge, not to step off a visual cliff, and to press a green light instead of a red one to feel the warmth of a heat lamp. It was pretty menial labor, but you could see, wow, this is really exciting to figure out where in your brain all these things fit. I don't know where I got off on a tangent on that.
ZIERLER: It was just finding an academic specialty for you, and that was clearly it.
ZIERLER: Debbie, what about among the faculty? Was it known? Obviously, some faculty were really out in front of this decision, and others were hesitant. Was that sort of active intelligence among women about what professors were really good on this, and which were not?
HALL: Yes, there was a sense that certain professors were really invested in helping the women succeed, contribute and feel welcome. There was also a sense that there were certain professors who thought this was a very, very bad course, and that they would do anything to highlight issues that the women were having. Of course, everybody knew Ray Owen was supportive because he was just so out there in terms of the policies to admit women and such. Harry Gray was perceived as being very supportive of women as well.
ZIERLER: Tell me about, as your undergraduate degree matured, some of the things you focused on and, coming to junior and senior year, when did you start thinking about next steps, what you do after undergrad?
HALL: Well, there again, coming from my family background, I never appreciated that when you went to grad school in science they paid your tuition, and that you even got some money. That was just something that was totally not in my understanding of how life worked. I knew how hard my parents were struggling to put me through Caltech, and that I had a sister who was going to be entering college a year after I graduated. My thought all the way was, "I need to find a job after I graduate." I was working in Ray's lab. I'd been working there for about a year and a half by the time I graduated, and I'd become part of the team. Ray was in his last years of a working lab. He was sitting on President Nixon's and then President Ford's Cancer Advisory Panel. He was spending a week each month back in Washington, D.C., and would regale us with stories of the three-person Cancer Advisory Panel, which had Dixy Lee Ray and Benno Schmidt on it. Then when he finished that, he was appointed the first Vice-President of Student Affairs. He was still running a lab, winding up with the postdocs and the grad students he had. I told him that I wanted to stay on and work in the lab and he said that with his current lab assistant becoming a graduate student, he had funds for a position. He basically treated me like I was a grad student, but I was getting paid. During that four years it became apparent to me was that I couldn't just work in a lab all day by myself. There was no internet at that time. The people you talked to were the people in the lab. I worked in a big room that just had me and one other postdoc. I realized I needed to talk to people. I needed to have a job that involved working more directly with people. I knew in that last year that I was looking for something besides science, but grad school had not entered into the picture initially. I sometimes think that if I had figured out that I needed calculus before I went to Caltech, and maybe done a summer course, and then stayed in physics, then I might've been on a very different trajectory. But I didn't see that happening in biology. Biology is so much different now, by the way. I think that if I were in biology now, I probably would've been just fine. But it was so lonely.
ZIERLER: It's a more interactive community now, you're saying?
ZIERLER: What kind of advice did you get from professors, your parents, anybody who was interested in having to share some ideas about next steps for you?
HALL: Now, I'm so proud of be part of the Y and to be part of SURF, where we have programs so that students get this kind of counseling. For my parents, graduate school was not part of their realm of understanding, and so there was no suggestion there that, well, you could think about going onto a graduate degree. I don't know why that never came up in Ray's lab, because I was working there. Many of the students I went to school with didn't go to grad school. I don't recall anyone formally or informally counselling us or that there were programs about next steps.
ZIERLER: Going off the idea that you were not a beneficiary the way that those systems exist now about getting advice for next steps – based on that, what did you decide to do, and were you basically talking in the mirror when you made that decision?
HALL: Essentially, when I graduated, I decided that I was really tired, and I needed to take the summer off. I had worked every year through college to help pay for my education, and so after my senior year, I just took the summer off and I went home. I lived with my mom and my dad and my sister, and we just played. Then as school started in the fall, I knew it was time to figure out what I was going to do. By that time, I knew I was going to look for a job in a bio lab, and I had talked to Ray already. I also interviewed at City of Hope because I had done some collaborations on projects with Dr. Ray Teplitz there. But my boyfriend, now husband, had started law school here in Los Angeles, so I knew I was coming back to Los Angeles one way or another. It was just a natural progression for me to join Ray's lab as a full-time member. I loved my time at Caltech, I really did, and it was a very hard thing to think about leaving. This was a nice transition where I didn't have to leave, but I could enter the next phase of my life, which was a working person.
ZIERLER: I bet you enjoyed it even more, knowing that there was a finality to it, that it would not be the life that you were signing up for in the long-term.
HALL: But, at the time, when I first started out, I thought it would be. I thought it might not be in Ray's lab but that I was going to be a staff researcher. At the time, I knew that people who ran the labs had PhDs. But there were people who just had bachelor degrees who were staff, not just at Caltech but in many places. I saw it as a possible way that I would just stay in science, and continue to do research. I probably, if I had stayed in that position, might've thought at some point, "Wait, I don't just want to be the staff. [laugh] I want to be something more." But, at the time, I was just so tired from Caltech and the Caltech experience, and there was a part of me that just didn't want to go to school anymore for a while.
ZIERLER: When did you ultimately decide to go back to graduate school, and what were the options? What were you considering?
HALL: It was four years out, and I was still working in Ray's lab, and he had a few more years before he actually retired from having an active lab. But I knew I wanted to do something where I would have a lot more interaction with people. I got summoned for jury duty. [laugh] In those days, you sat for six weeks. You went every day, and you sat in the courthouse for six weeks. I got up there, looked at the judge, and I said, "I like her job." [laugh]
HALL: "That looks like a lot of fun." So I decided to go to law school. It was ironic because my husband, by that point, had graduated from law school, and was already practicing. He was a public defender at the time. I never thought it looked very interesting. I did not want to do that. I did not want to read a lot of dusty old law books. But then I decided to try law school. I wasn't 100% sure that was what I wanted, but I figured, well, "I'll try that. If I don't like it after a year, I'll try something else." But it was kind of like you hit an age in your life where grown-ups are supposed to know what they want to do, and you're a grown-up now, so figure it out, and if you don't know, just start casting about. That was where I started. But I loved law school. I loved that the teaching was very interactive, very Socratic, not at all like the Caltech education. I just found the whole thing fascinating, and this kind of arguing yourself into a corner was a lot of fun. Then I decided after the first year, I'll write on to Law Review, I'll start doing all these kinds of things, and then it just sort of fell into place. But, there again, it was kind of like going to Caltech, and thinking I was going to be a physicist. When I left law school, I thought I would be a trial lawyer so that I could go up the ladder and become a judge. Instead, I started working with a senior partner who I really liked, who I really admired. He was a great mentor, and he did corporate law. I decided that was really interesting because I had the opportunity to work with a lot of different kinds of companies. I got to know all about their various businesses. In the first years, I worked a lot with a company that was developing some of the early multi-user multi-tasking computer systems. You'll get a kick out of this because everybody, of course, always pushed me to the science stuff. They would say, "Oh, Debbie will know that."
HALL: I was doing some of the work with the internet when it was brand new and nobody knew how to use it effectively in business. One of my clients was a large automobile manufacturer. They had the first dealer communication systems using satellite communications, so I was one of the first people to figure out how to contract for that, and how we were going to use those satellites for their business. Then, of course, my husband ended up being a judge, and I'm thinking, "Wait a minute, that was what I was going to do." [laugh]
ZIERLER: Yeah. Debbie, to go back to Ray's lab, what was the science at that point? What was he working on?
HALL: We were an immunogenetics lab. We overlapped some with Lee Hood's immunology lab. In Lee Hood's lab they were building the first gene sequencing machine. In Ray's lab we were working on a lot of things. I was involved in projects looking at gene influences on autoimmune diseases and liver hepatomas. It was kind of a place where, with Ray, if you thought of something you wanted to research, you could. One of the things I looked at that I was fascinated with at the time was something called transfer factor, which had been documented out of a Stanford lab. It was where they'd taken the white blood cells, and isolated out parts from people who had successfully conquered breast cancer. The idea was if you could just pull out this little piece of information, then you could just go and inject it in everybody else who had breast cancer, and then they would more effectively kill off the cancer cells and go into remission. I was fascinated by that. I tried for two years, and could not replicate the results, and it kind of fell by the wayside over time. It didn't work out, but it was something that I looked at and thought was interesting. Ray said, "Yeah, let's go for it. It's a long shot, but I don't need to get any more grants, so if we don't get it, we don't get it." We didn't.
ZIERLER: Debbie, as you alluded, this is really 25–30-plus years before the biotech revolution and starting to really translate the fundamental research into therapies. Was Ray thinking about that? Even if not in his own career timeline, was that sort of on the horizon in terms of his long-term vista?
HALL: It wasn't something we talked about. But, as you know, probably from researching Ray, he was the one who did the basic study that led to the science of transplantation of organs.
HALL: He was always very much of the mindset that you do basic science just to understand life and how the universe works, but he appreciated that there are benefits beyond just that understanding. It wasn't really what motivated him, or the vision he had for himself, or even necessarily for Caltech. But he saw what his basic science had led to in the area of human organ transplantation, and I think he would've been very excited by what's happened in the biotech area.
ZIERLER: What was your day-to-day interaction with him, and how often was he in the lab doing the work himself?
HALL: By the time I was working in the lab, he did not do any of the lab work himself. But every day, at 10 o'clock and 3 o'clock, we gathered for coffee time in his outer office in 7 Kerckhoff. There was the inner office where his desk was, and the outer office where there was a round table, and we gathered there. We were a small group. We gathered there every single day at 10:00 and at 3:00 for 15 minutes, and at lunch (generally without him) for half an hour, and we'd talk. Some of it was science, and some of it was not. Then about once a week or so, we would have a general meeting where people would talk about what they were finding in their research, what kind of work they'd done that week. Each of us individually talked to Ray frequently. His was a very open door. He treated everyone not as though they were somebody to be looked over or monitored, but that he was a sounding board. He would sit there and think with you about what you might want to do next.
ZIERLER: Debbie, to clarify the timing of your planning, for those four years when you were working in the lab, when at that point did you make that decision that there was an end point, and that you'd be doing something else? Even before you might've settled on law school, when roughly did that happen?
HALL: After the third year.
ZIERLER: After the third year. From Ray's perspective, did you talk about long-term plans? Was he just happy to have you? Didn't really engage like that?
HALL: I felt so worried about disappointing him that I kept my plans under wraps. I didn't tell him I was applying to law school. After I got in and decided to go, I went in and I had the conversation, and I said that this is what I had decided I was going to do. He was so supportive.
ZIERLER: Oh, that's great.
HALL: He said, "I didn't see in you the person who wanted to stay in the lab." He knew it, but he had never sort of pushed me to make any decisions or said, "I don't think this is a good idea for you long-term." He just said, after I told him my plans, "I could tell this wasn't what you were meant to do."
ZIERLER: Where you were concerned that you would disappoint him, is that because you think he saw you on a path to a PhD in biology, or you were just really good doing the work in the lab, and he wanted you to do that for as long as you wanted?
HALL: No, what was clear was that he loved science, and that we were all his children. [laugh]
ZIERLER: Stay in science, basically?
HALL: I loved science, but not enough. My fear was that he would be sad and disappointed that I didn't feel the compulsion to stay in science forever. It was not a good path for me. My projects were independent, and if I stopped doing them, it was not a big deal for him. It was just kind of that you wanted to please him. He invested so much in everybody he knew. But he did that all along. After I left the lab and I went to law school and after I started working in the law firm, a couple times of year, well, three or four times a year, he'd send me articles, some science based and some not, because "I think you'd be interested in this." Then a couple times a year, he'd call and go, "We have a person who's looking at Caltech. I think you should meet with her, or I have somebody here who thinks they maybe want to do law." He was always matching up people. At one point, he matched, well, he matched me up several times. He matched me up with a woman who had been in the General Counsel's office at Caltech, who then went on to become the general counsel of Occidental College. He said, "You should meet her." We hit it off, and she became a client. He was one of those people that was always trying to give you his wisdom, and help you make connections, and to connect you with other people who he thought you could help or could help you.
ZIERLER: Debbie, I don't know if you've ever thought about this, but was there any approach either to the Caltech education or working in Ray Owen's lab that was an asset in law school or as an attorney, quantitative logic, those kinds of things? Did you ever make those connections?
HALL: Not quantitative logic. The Caltech education itself was incredibly rigorous, and it taught you how to approach anything in life with that kind of analytical rigor. It was also a place where you learned that you weren't always going to get it right, and you weren't always going to figure out the answer, and that was OK. You could fall down and pick yourself up or you could acknowledge that you didn't get it right. Those were things that really did help me in my career a lot. I would see so many young lawyers who, when they'd fall on their face on a motion, were like, "What do I do now?" or they'd disappoint somebody, and I was like, "Oh [laugh], that's old hat. [laugh] I'm used to doing that." But what I took from Ray and his lab was that you were a team, and you worked better as a team, and you worked collaboratively. You didn't backstab. His was just such a culture of helping one another and appreciating what was behind what you were doing; not just doing something but thinking about why you were doing it; not just from the scientific standpoint but from a societal standpoint. Those are things that really, all through my career, really made a difference.
ZIERLER: Debbie, in what ways have you remained connected to Caltech over the years?
HALL: Well, it's really funny because it was a very rigorous, hard time, as much as I loved the student housing and I loved working in the Athenaeum. But after I left Caltech, I had a fairly long period where I maintained quite a distance from Caltech. For many years, I didn't do anything with Caltech. Then somebody I met somewhere asked me to be on a panel about alternate careers for the students. Then the next thing I knew, I was on the board of the Alumni Association. The next thing I knew, I was President. Then I was on the Rose Parade Float Committee. Then I was sent over to be on the SURF board. Then I joined the Caltech Y board. Then I was appointed to the Task Force on Undergraduate Residential Life. Recently I was on the Renaming Committee for Ruddock House. It's just been a constant. Once you get engaged in that community, you're entrenched. There are a lot of alumni that are constantly involved in Caltech, and you can't help but continue to be involved. Yes, Caltech is still very much part of my life.
ZIERLER: Debbie, have you paid attention to the numbers over the years, from your first class as a tiny minority to where—
ZIERLER: —we are today? Have you looked at the trendlines?
HALL: Oh, yes. It stuck at around 29% or thereabouts for what seemed like a very long time. There was a group of MIT and Caltech graduates, women, and we would go out to these high schools in various areas of LA to talk about careers in science. Some of the schools were in what felt like rather scary areas of LA. We would talk to the young women, the 10th and 11th graders, about science, and women in science. I was on a team of three. One was a woman who was a geology professor in Claremont. She had gone to MIT. The third was also a young woman from MIT. I don't remember what her rank was, but she was a rocket scientist in the Army. She was tall and Black and beautiful, and she'd come in with that uniform jacket swung over her shoulder, and all these kids, most of whom were Black, would look at her [laugh] and go, "Wow. That's what we want to be." The professor of geology and I would sort of go OK, and we'd do our talk. But then they'd get to the end, and they'd go, "How much do you make?" Well, of course, the woman in the Army wasn't making very much. [laugh] They'd get to me, and I'd say, "You don't choose your career and what you want to do with your life by what you're going to make. Lawyers, some of them make very little, and some make more. I'm not going to tell you because that's not meant to drive your decision." There again I forgot what our question was.
ZIERLER: Just about the trendlines of the ratio over the years.
HALL: But it seemed like no matter what we did, no matter how much recruiting we did, it didn't seem like they moved the needle very much. Then, seemingly all of a sudden, it seemed like it went up very quickly. Now, it's so exciting to see these classes that are almost half women. Although because I've continued to be very active in higher education, I realized that Caltech is still proportionately low in the percentage of women. I ended up representing a lot of colleges and universities in my practice. My daughter-in-law is a math professor at U Conn. My son-in-law is a philosophy professor at University of South Carolina. I stay abreast of a lot of stuff in academia, and I keep saying, "Yeah, well, we're close to 49%." But when you look at how that compares to many other colleges, it shows we're still behind because women make up the majority of the students at most colleges, and we're not there at Caltech. But I think it's a good thing. I think having it close to a fifty-fifty class is a really healthy thing for a college.
ZIERLER: Debbie, on that point, to take a really wide-angle lens to the meaning of all of this, it's really a two-way street. In the one sense, Caltech needed to do this to respond to the times, and it was the right thing to do from a basic civil rights perspective. But if you turn the tables, why was it a good decision for Caltech? How did Caltech become a better institution as a result of making this decision?
HALL: I think that the more diversity you have in any organization, the stronger you are, because you have an understanding, a better understanding of other viewpoints, of other perspectives, of other ways of approaching a problem. I also think that when you have a lot of diversity, and people get to know each other, that they're more likely to be able to work effectively together out in the workforce. These young men from Caltech were going to go out in the workforce, and it had women. If they had been totally isolated from them, I think that that would've been a much more difficult transition for them to be able understand, respect, and not be totally absorbed by the fact that there was a difference. One of the things that, of course, when we came to Caltech with so few women, there was such a focus on the fact that we were different. You've heard the term, I'm sure, of glomming. A women couldn't walk places without six guys clustering around her, and wanting to talk. I probably had a different experience for a couple of reasons. One was that I went over to Ruddock House with my roommate, Marion, which is something of a story I'll come back to. We weren't allowed to live there that first year. We had to live in Blacker. But we spent all of our time, except for sleeping, in Ruddock. Ruddock was kind of the "Christian house of gentlemen" at the time.
HALL: It was a much more comfortable place for us. There were a lot of drugs in those times. Marion and I both came from pretty sheltered backgrounds, and we weren't totally comfortable with that. The other thing was that I came with a long-term boyfriend. Hank was 6'6" and weighed 210 pounds.
ZIERLER: Don't mess. [laugh]
HALL: He was going to University of Santa Clara, and he came to visit every three weeks that first year. Then my second year, he transferred to USC. After that, they saw him all the time. [laugh] The young men that I spent time with, they were true friends. In fact, one of them ended up rooming with Hank when he was still in law school, and I was still at Caltech. They remain our friends to this day. But it was a different relationship than with some of the young women, who were anxious to develop a relationship. There had a cornucopia of riches, you know what I mean [laugh], but there was too much – too much pressure. A lot of the women paired up early on, I think, just as a defense against having so much attention. We walked out in the hallways in that Tunnel Alley the first week. There were always guys sitting all between our rooms, just waiting for us to come out. You'd have to step between their legs to get out. It was a little bit awkward. I think that having more women there normalized that, especially by the third or fourth year. People were used to them. There wasn't this undue attention to the fact that somebody different was there.
ZIERLER: The story…?
HALL: Oh, the story, yes. As you gleaned, I came from a rather sheltered background. I had come to Caltech, and these very nice young men from Ruddock House during rotation convinced us that, yes, they don't have any women there, and that there were going to be 14 in Blacker House. Nobody would miss us. They said, "Why don't you just move into Ruddock House?" Two of the guys who had singles paired up so that there was a room, and they moved us over in the middle of the night, about a week after rotation. We were very happy for about 12 hours. Back then, there weren't these layers of administration. There was, basically, the Master of Student Houses, and then there was the President. I got a call from the guy we called Dirty Dave who was the Master of Student Houses. He ultimately became the provost of one of the UC campuses. Anyway, Dirty Dave called us. Marion [laugh] was in lab, so I went down, and he says, "We have a problem." I go, "Oh?" [laugh] He continued, "Yes. You're not supposed to be living in Ruddock House. You're supposed to be living in Blacker House, and President Brown wants to see you right now." I marched with Dirty Dave over to President Brown's office. Here I am, it's my second or third week of school, and my parents have given up so much so that I could come. Dr Brown was very nice. But he said, "It was a big deal to bring women to Caltech. It wasn't something that all of the trustees were behind, and we spent a lot of time figuring out how to make this work. We had a committee with the psychologists and others, and we decided you should all live in these three houses. If you don't move back to your assigned house within 24 hours, you're going to be asked to leave the school." I'm thinking, "Leave? Expelled?"
HALL: [laugh] Of course, the guys from Ruddock moved us quickly back into Blacker House. But there was a little bit of damage done because the Blacker guys weren't happy that we'd moved out to Ruddock. But to me, that was kind of the good part of Caltech. I didn't go through a lot of layers of anything. The President told me, "You're moving back." From then on, I knew the President. In fact, he had me and Marion on his Christmas card that year with him. One of the best parts was that there weren't these layers between you and anybody. There was a sense that I could just go talk to the President.
ZIERLER: Debbie, what are you most proud of during your time at Caltech, and your involvement afterwards?
HALL: What am I most proud of? I don't know that there's any single thing. One of the things that I worked hard at was trying to convey to students that all of them were smart and successful and could succeed. I went to Frosh Camp the year I was President of the Alumni Association. Jean-Paul Revel was dean then, and he said to me, "I want you to tell them that they need to study hard and not play computer games [laugh] and all that." I got up and I did my thing, and I said, "Look, you're all here. You're all smart. You understand math, so you need to understand this. Half of you are going to be in the bottom half of the class, and that's not the end of the world. It doesn't mean you're not a good scientist or you don't have a bright future. But half of you are going to be in the bottom half, and you're going to feel like you're struggling." What I came to learn after dealing with a lot more students is that even if you were in the top half of the class, you often still felt you were still struggling. It was hard, and you didn't have a lot of confidence. One of the things that I think Caltech does very poorly is that it doesn't instill the confidence in the students when they leave Caltech that, "I'm Caltech. I'm hot shit." If somebody gets out of Harvard, it doesn't matter if they're at the bottom, "I went to Harvard." Caltech students don't feel that way. A lot of them get really demoralized by the experience.
I know when I did calling on behalf of the Alumni Fund or when I tried to bring in alumni women to come back to talk to the new young women students, some of them said, "No, I don't want anything to do with Caltech. It ruined my life. I would not send my children there." I think that's really, really a shame because I think Caltech is a really good experience. But people often don't feel that way. When I was President of the Alumni Association, one of the things I worked on was putting on panels to the tune of Life After Graduating in the Bottom Half of the Class, and bringing in people who were incredibly successful who had not graduated in the top. Years later when I was chairman of the Seminar Day Committee and chatting with Kip Thorne as I waited to introduce him as our general speaker, he said to me, "I went into physics, but I had to learn to think about it conceptually because I couldn't do the math." I said, "Oh, if I'd only known you 25 years ago because that is such a great message to get across to students." One of the things that I'm proud of is all the efforts I continue to make—whether it's on the SURF Board or other places— to remind people that we don't just invest in the people who are the stars, because you don't know who's going to end up being the one that really, really figures things out. That's one thing I'm kind of proud of. I had a really good active life at Caltech. I worked as a Beckman usher. I worked, as I said, at the Athenaeum, which I really loved. I worked as a switchboard operator. Back in those days, the Institute had a big telephone switchboard. When you called in, it rang, and the operator pulled out a red cord for the caller, and pulled out a black cord for the recipient, and you connected them. That was one of my summer jobs, and so I knew how to do it, and I thought it was great fun. So I got a job operating the Caltech switchboard one night a week. I worked in the library. I worked at JPL, doing some survey work for them in the Pasadena schools. I think that the things I'm proud of -- I was very active. I was active in student government as elections co-chair. I was UCC in my alley, the first woman UCC in our house. I was an editor on the yearbook staff. I sang in Interhouse Sing. I'm proud of the kind of the involvement I had as an undergraduate, and the way that I think I contributed to people's perceptions of women.
ZIERLER: Debbie, you said as an undergraduate, the social bonds did not extend to all 30 or so women. Have you kept in touch with a larger group than your immediate social circle over the years?
HALL: Yes, and part of this is because we now have this lunch group, which is a bunch of local Caltech women alumni. The only woman I had really kept up with before that was my roommate, and women alumni I worked with through the SURF Board and the Caltech Y Board. I don't recall exactly how this lunch group came about, but we started just getting together once every quarter or so at a restaurant down in the South Bay. I think I mentioned Kathy Faber somehow joined the group, and that's been kind of interesting for us, and I think interesting for her. Susan Murakami is in our group. Do you know Susan?
ZIERLER: Not yet.
HALL: Well, you're going to want to meet Susan.
HALL: Susan was in the second class of women. She's married to Lee Fisher, who was in my class. Susan went on to med school, and was a pathologist at Huntington Hospital for many, many years. In fact, we dedicated SURF to her this year. She's very active at Caltech—on the Y board, on the SURF board, was on the Alumni Association board—and she works with Tom Mannion. She cooks with him for the cooking class. She had a son who went to Caltech as well. You'll find her very interesting, I think. As I said, we were all very different, and a lot of our perspectives were really different. When we get together and we talk about it, you would think sometimes that we went to different schools because the experience Marion and I had was very different than the experience Lisa Anderson or Susan had. But I think that's part of just the fact that we came from very different backgrounds, and then we clustered in different student houses and different social groups. One of the things that I love about the student housing—at least when I was there—is that each of the houses had its own character. And even within the houses, each of the alleys, for example, has its own character. In our house back then, Alley 6 was the Bible belt. That's where the quiet people who liked to go to church lived.
HALL: Alley 1 was the jock alley, and Alley 4 was the drug alley. In fact, they had the Purple Gap Room where people hung out. Yet, even among those, there was just such a strength of family, even though we congregated into different groups even within the houses.
ZIERLER: Debbie, one last question, a really wide-angled lens on Caltech perspectives. As you described so vividly, when you arrived at Caltech, Caltech did not make a big deal out of this transition, and that worked for you because you and the other women did not want to make a big deal. If we can detach Caltech's response from this time period, as it relates to this specific decision, what does it say about the timelessness of Caltech's style in terms of the things it chooses to make a deal out of, and the things it doesn't?
HALL: I think that all of us feel that what it makes a big deal out of are the scientific successes, and that's what drew us there. Nobody came to Caltech because they wanted a certain social group. It's not like you choose to go to USC because you want the feeling of having a great football team, or to live in a student house. We all came for the science, and that's what Caltech celebrates, and I think that's what everyone would think was appropriate. To further this idea about not sort of thinking of ourselves as different, Stephanie Charles was one of the transfer students, and she too was on the Alumni Association board. We would have these conversations about do we want to have a program geared toward women? Those early women would say, "No, we don't want call out the difference." That's very different from the more recent women alumni who are much more comfortable with recognizing these distinctions. You can illustrate this in other areas. For example, when I started working as an attorney, when I went to work, I wore dark suits with little bow tie things on a collared shirt. We wanted to blend in. I think it was in Atlantic or maybe it was New York Times this week, there was a photo essay that showed women in situations where there was only one woman and several men. The first one was the jury on some spy case. The second was an astronaut group where there was one woman and several men. The women dressed remarkably like the men, and you just see that that was an era where we just tried to blend in. We didn't want to call attention to the fact that we were different.
ZIERLER: Debbie, this has been such a great conversation. You provided such a vivid sense of your experiences, the larger situation. I'm thrilled to hear about the daily interactions with Ray Owen, and what he represented, even beyond the science. This is just a treasure of a conversation. I want to thank you so much.
HALL: Thank you.