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Fredrick Shair

Fred Shair

Manager, Educational Affairs Office, Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Professor of Chemical Engineering (Retired)

By David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project

February 28, 2022

DAVID ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It is Monday, February 28, 2022. I am delighted to be here with Professor Frederick Shair. Fred, it's great to be with you. Thank you for joining me today.

FREDERICK SHAIR: Thank you, David. I'm going to enjoy it, too.

ZIERLER: Would you please tell me your current or most recent titles and institutional affiliations?

SHAIR: I was Manager of the Educational Affairs Office at JPL and at the same time, a member of the faculty at Caltech. I recall a number of faculty members who were very enjoyable. Harry Gray, super person, he's in chemistry. There were people like Bob Leighton, Richard Feynman. Dick Feynman also was great to be around, especially at lunch and coffee breaks. I once asked him, "What has been the biggest surprise of your life?" Not hesitating a minute, he said, "The degree to which I loved my first wife." Not wishing to get too personal, I rephrased it as, "Surprised in science." Then, he replied, "The fact that galaxies are not only beautiful, but they have a tremendous amount of information to gain from." Several times, Feynman and I went sailing with John Matthews and his wife. Caltech was very friendly. Everybody expected us to work hard, which is fine. I think one of the surprises was the degree to which people were also very relaxed.

ZIERLER: Tell me a little bit about, at JPL, the program in education. How did that get started, the Educational Affairs Office? How far back does that history go?

SHAIR: I'm not sure. I do know that when I came back from being dean of a university locally, I came back as a member of the Caltech faculty as well as heading up the JPL education program. In that position, an awful lot of direction came from NASA headquarters, which I thought was excellent. I'll give you an example, something that's sort of funny. One time, coming back from the Athenaeum, I saw Feynman kneeling near the sidewalk, and there were a couple of streams of ants. One group was going one way, the other group was going the other way. He said, "Take a look at this. This is really interesting." It turned out, he had found out there was a professor named E. O. Wilson at Harvard who was studying ants. Feynman said, "I just want to see how they do this."

Another time, John Matthews who was a good friend, and he was chair of physics. Several times, he asked Feynman and I to join him and his wife sailing. One time, it was sort of an overnight thing. Feynman and I were sleeping on the deck, and John Matthews and his wife were sleeping down below. We were going to sleep, and Feynman said, "I've got to urinate. Do you think I could do this over the side of the boat?" I said, "Why not? The fish do it all the time." He got up, and I could hear him going to the front. He didn't want to bother John and his wife. Suddenly, he said, "Hey, bioluminescence." What he was seeing was what was in the ocean. It was fantastic. He said, "You've got to see this." Of course, by this time, John Matthews was on board, and he said, "Oh, yeah, I forgot to tell you that this is what happens at night. You can actually see this."

ZIERLER: On the Caltech faculty, where did you sit? What division were you in?

SHAIR: Chemistry and Chemical Engineering.

ZIERLER: At what point in your career did you get involved in student development and interested in their education beyond your own research interests?

SHAIR: Of course, we mention the students because the students do a lot of the work. To attract a good student was really a wonderful experience because it's good for the faculty and great for the students. When I started my research, we were always vying for the top graduate students coming in. Suddenly, I realized a couple of the faculty members had lost some money, and NSF wasn't going to fund them. They were saying, "How do we support these students?" I said, "Maybe we should think about using internal funds to support students. Even undergraduate students." They said, "MIT has a program like that." I went off to MIT, and they did. They said, "You can't do much research, but if you're interested in a job watching test tubes and so forth, see so-and-so, and we can use you that way."

It wasn't a research program. Finally, when I tried to get it started at Caltech, not too many people were interested. They said, "Research is experience. They need to know the fundamentals, then they can do research." Well, Feynman disagreed. There were students who were ready for it, but he said, "I'm not sure I could do it." I said, "Look, maybe not research, but looking at literature and doing a literature survey, which you have to do before doing research. Just let the students interact with you." He said, "Well, I could do that." The moment that happened and he took a student on, the rest of the faculty said, "I'm ready for that, too, Fred." I said, "They're going to have to meet with you to develop a proposal just like a graduate student." And that works beautifully.

ZIERLER: In your own research career, what was your area of interest in chemical engineering? What types of things did you work on?

SHAIR: At Caltech, my first work was looking at how to use tracers to study fluid motions in the atmosphere. There was a person in England who was developing something, and I was tracking what he was publishing, and I suddenly realized, if he did something else, instead of going down to parts per million, it would be parts per billion. You use one thousandth what you otherwise would. We were the first ones to actually be able to release something through the atmosphere. Some companies initially agreed to support us, and they actually did a lot of work with us. They let us put some of this tracer, sulfur hexafluoride, nontoxic, into their stacks. It would go out to sea, then it would come back in the morning. We could determine how much of it came back in the morning, and people had never even thought about doing such an analysis. We enjoyed it, and once Feynman had a student work the survey, suddenly everybody else said, "Fred, count me in." Even JPL, especially JPL, was interested, too. One lady at JPL said that she was interested in doing some major tracer experiments, and that worked out well, too. We could actually take a syringe of stuff and squirt it, and we could follow it down as it diluted to parts per billion, and that meant you could look at the whole huge area. Initially, people said, "That can't be done." Then, when we actually showed them, it worked out beautifully, and people began to realize, "This is a new technique." We had other research projects close by, but that was what really gained us a lot of credit because this hadn't been done before.

ZIERLER: Tell me about your affiliation with the Center for Ocean Studies Education Excellence, COSEE.

SHAIR: We funneled students over to them. They did their research there. We said to the state, "If you want to use students, and you'll treat them like you would any professional, we'll help you find those people." It was one of those things where we were at the right place at the right time. It was a lot of fun. We would work around the clock, students would work around the clock, and when we'd see the data, it was spectacular.

ZIERLER: Let's take it all the way back to the beginning. Let's start with your parents. Tell me a little bit about them.

SHAIR: I was lucky and unlucky. I was born in Denver, but when I was 4 years old, they got divorced. My grandfather on my mother's side brought us back to Illinois. Incidentally, he was the head of the Republican Party of Illinois for a while. The first place we settled was a place called Moweaqua, which had about 800 people, next to Decatur. At one point in the 9th grade, I was living alone for about a month. My uncle helped me immensely, a lawyer in Chicago. They set it up so I would have supper at a neighbor's house, and breakfast and lunch, I would be on my own, which was fine. After some months, my mother came back, and things really improved. I was in the second or third year of high school, and one of the math teachers said, "Fred, take this exam." I said, "I'm not interested in going to college yet because I've got to earn some money." She said, "Just take the exam anyway." I must've done well. I never really understood exactly what happened. But about a month later, I got a phone call from the chair of Chemical Engineering at the University of Illinois in Champaign.

In those days, it was a $150 tuition. He said, "If we give you a $750 scholarship, would you come to the University of Illinois?" I said, "Of course." And that just was wonderful. Then, I had summer jobs, one in St. Louis, one on the East Coast, in chemical companies, and I learned an awful lot from them, too. Then, I just started interviewing for faculty positions after I left Illinois. The chair of Illinois asked me if I would be willing to meet with a person from the University of California at Berkeley. I said, "I'd be happy to meet him, but I'm not going to graduate school." He said, "Just talk to him." I did, and they said, "We'll give you this. You don't have to spend any money, you just have to work hard." I went out to Berkeley, and it was the best thing I did. It was the first time I'd ever been in an airplane. I flew from near Chicago to Berkeley, and it was great. The rest is history, I guess.

ZIERLER: You went to Berkeley as an undergraduate also?

SHAIR: No, Illinois for undergraduate. I was at the University of Illinois at Champaign for my undergraduate work.

ZIERLER: What was your major at Illinois?

SHAIR: Chemical engineering.

ZIERLER: Why were you interested in chemical engineering? Did you want to pursue a job in industry initially?

SHAIR: Yes. But I liked chemistry, and I thought I'd like engineering. It worked out fine.

ZIERLER: What year did you graduate from Illinois?

SHAIR: Oh, gee. It turned out that in Moweaqua, there was a small school, so the 1st and 2nd grades met in the same classroom. The teacher would talk to the 1st graders and 2nd graders. In math, I learned how to do the 2nd grade stuff.

ZIERLER: Did you go to Berkeley with the intention of studying with a specific professor?

SHAIR: Probably. But they said I'd get a choice. But I was impressed with what several faculty were doing. John Prausnitz was doing fluid mechanics. I felt everybody there was helping me, but we worked hard. We worked around the clock a lot of times. [Laugh] When you get something going, you've got to keep going.

ZIERLER: Tell me about your thesis research. What did you work on during graduate school?

SHAIR: It was this technique of atmospheric dispersion.

ZIERLER: What were some of the big research questions? What was the science about?

SHAIR: Whether there were other things in the atmosphere that would be taken wrongly for what the tracer was. We had to make sure the tracer didn't mix with something else similar to it. We also had to make sure it wasn't poisonous. We had to do the experiments like that that the fellow in England didn't have the resources to do. And now, it's used quite a bit.

ZIERLER: After you defended your thesis at Berkeley, what did you do next?

SHAIR: At that time, a person from General Electric came who had also graduated from Berkeley. They were in the Space Science Laboratory at General Electric. They gave me an offer I couldn't refuse. I kept thinking, "Is this the right place?" But that worked out beautifully because I learned so much from General Electric. That was also the place where I met my wife-to-be.

ZIERLER: Was the research at General Electric more fundamental science or more applied stuff?

SHAIR: It was actually using this technique in other ways.

ZIERLER: How long did you stay at GE?

SHAIR: I think it was only two to three years.

ZIERLER: Did you enjoy your time there?

SHAIR: Oh, yeah. But then, there was a guy who came through from Caltech who said, "We'd like to offer you a position." I said, "What would I be doing?" "You'd be teaching and doing research." And I couldn't refuse it. [Laugh]

ZIERLER: Do you have an idea of what you were doing that might've attracted Caltech's attention at that time?

SHAIR: Well, I think the fact that this was a technique–suddenly, you could measure something a thousand times more accurately than you could otherwise. The question was, what could it be used for?

ZIERLER: What were your original research interests when you got to Caltech? What did you want to work on when you joined the faculty?

SHAIR: They said, "We want you to work on expanding this technique." We developed better techniques. We worked with the California Air Resources Board. We could actually solve some of their problems. One of the problems that came out early dealt with the emissions of a power plant on the coast. The people from the power plant were saying, "That stuff gets blown out to sea, and it's done. Nobody ever sees it again." The California Air Resources Board said, "Let Fred put some tracer in it, and we'll prove that it's done." It wasn't done. We could account for everything coming back the next morning.

ZIERLER: On a technical level, when you say putting a tracer in it, does that mean physically, you can keep track of it and watch where it's going?

SHAIR: Yeah. If you use one place where you're going to release it, yeah. You have people miles away who take samples. We had lots of plastic syringes. We had it set up so we had detectors all over the place. We could do things that people previously said it would be impossible to do.

ZIERLER: What were some of the challenges in getting the tracer to stick to this stuff so that you could follow where it was moving?

SHAIR: It's in the atmosphere, and it's going to basically behave just like the atmosphere. There's mixing, and it dilutes. That's it.

ZIERLER: What were known to be some of the obvious culprits of this problem?

SHAIR: Sulfur hexafluoride hadn't been tested. Nobody had said sulfur hexafluoride was totally safe. We actually had people doing tests with animals, and some people would go in and breathe it for a day, and nothing happened. That was just one thing.

ZIERLER: Who were some of the other key faculty members working on this or related projects? Did you work with Arie Haagen-Smit at all?

SHAIR: Yes, he was the expert in dispersion of the flows.

ZIERLER: What about John Seinfeld? Was he there at this point?

SHAIR: No, he wasn't there, but I know him from after I was there. I was there several years before he came.

ZIERLER: What were some of the theories that might've guided your experimental work, either in fluid dynamics, vortices, things like that?

SHAIR: The question was, how much of the stuff in the northern hemisphere gets into the southern hemisphere? In the past, it would be hard to determine what that was. We could determine things like that.

ZIERLER: To what extent was the research geared towards solving a local problem in Southern California, and to what extent was it recognized that this was happening all over the planet, and it was really a global issue?

SHAIR: I think it became a global issue when the guy who was working on this originally in England became very interested in it himself. We did some experiments together.

ZIERLER: What were the findings? What came of this research?

SHAIR: We could follow things down to the southern hemisphere. You didn't have to have tons of stuff. If you can measure something in parts per billion, it gives you the freedom to do a lot of other things.

ZIERLER: Tell me about the relationship between Caltech and the California Air Resources Board. Was it a partnership?

SHAIR: The Air Resources Board said, "We want you to apply for some funds. These are the experiments we want to do." We decided, "These are experiments worth doing because nobody knows what the answer is." But when they learned about the technique, they started to talk amongst themselves. "Can you tell us how much of this stuff that goes out at night comes back in the daytime?" You do this enough times, you can say, "If these are the characteristics of the lower-level air flow, this is what's going to happen."

ZIERLER: What about industry? Were there opponents in industry who recognized that this might be problematic for their business?

SHAIR: Yeah. We knew people who said things like, "Fred, we don't want to disturb you, but we want to know exactly what you're doing." I said, "Everything I'm doing is open. You can actually be there when we make the release, and if you want to, you can be there when we collect the samples." The beautiful thing was, we could use 20 or 30 different students at 20 or 30 different places. We could just see them moving through. Often, somebody from industry would say, "You can't do one part in a billion." We'd say, "Come in, you can see the lab, see what we're doing." It wasn't a matter of us keeping it secret or anything like that. In fact, we often would say to the person, "If you have something you'd like to learn about, like how much of this stuff gets to this place, we'd be glad to do it if you want to give us a grant."

ZIERLER: To foreshadow to your development of the SURF program, I wonder if working with undergraduates was always important to you, that you always recognized the value of that.

SHAIR: I think I recognized it more when I got to Caltech.

ZIERLER: What about graduate students? What kinds of graduate students were working with you?

SHAIR: They did some of the fluid mechanics studies.

ZIERLER: As a result of your research, what mitigation strategies or solutions were available?

SHAIR: Once we realized what was going on and what places were going to be really impacted by emissions from a tower or chemical plant, people began to realize we weren't trying to put them out of business. We were just pointing out, "You have the information, now you can address it so the public is safe."

ZIERLER: What were some of the outcomes of this research looking at air quality? What can you point to that says, "So-and-so changed because of the work we had done"?

SHAIR: I think that's a question to be asked of the Air Resources Board. They used us immensely. I haven't kept track of what they did, but I do know that instead of worrying about things they shouldn't have been worrying about and not worrying about things they should've been worrying about, I think they were much more cognizant–in fact, they developed a technique themselves, I think, after we disappeared.

ZIERLER: In the late 1970s, tell me about the origins of the SURF program. How did that come about?

SHAIR: I was in a faculty meeting, and somebody in chemistry said, "We don't have enough funds for the student. We just lost our money." I said, "Let's see if we can't find some support for your student." It turned out that when we did this, people were generally saying, "Undergraduates doing my research? No, no, no. They need to know the fundamentals before they can do this." I said to Feynman, "How about taking on a SURF student?" He had a grant and could certainly support him. He said, "Yeah, but what could he do?" I said, "What are you going to do?" He said, "I'm doing a literature survey." I said, "Let him help you do that. Don't ask him to do the research because he's not ready for the research yet. Let him do some of the library research and get an idea of how you think." The moment he did that, the next year, everybody wanted to have a SURF student. They couldn't say, "My research is more than they can handle." Feynman basically said he was surprised how much the student contributed.

ZIERLER: Were there particular students who were pushing for this, who wanted more opportunities than were available at the time?

SHAIR: No, because it wasn't in their minds to push for something like that. If a faculty member said, "It's too difficult for you," they weren't going to complain and say it wasn't. But when Feynman took a student, I said, "He's not going to do research. We know that. But first, explain the problem to him, and explain what you want to have done. You want to see who's doing what work. Let him write a report up." Feynman said, "OK, I can do that." At the end, Feynman was amazed and said he did a good job. The next year, everybody at Caltech wanted a SURF student. If you look at what I sent you, there were some SURF-like programs prior to this where the students could do some research, but nothing that was organized as well.

ZIERLER: Were there any administrative challenges in getting this program up and running?

SHAIR: Actually, the provost and everybody were very supportive. When Feynman did this, it was a good thing. Even in non-science places, they liked to have something like this because they could handle the concepts.

ZIERLER: Tell me, once the SURF program got up and running, what opportunities did it allow students to pursue? What could students do now as a result?

SHAIR: They could look at a project and say, "I'd like to do a portion of this." Especially, the faculty who were non-science. They said, "They can't do this work. It's not science, and they wouldn't be able to." Now, the non-science faculty came in and made a lot of opportunities. I think that was very important.

ZIERLER: What about the professors? Did they realize immediately how good this would be not only for the students, but for their own research programs?

SHAIR: The answer's yes. There's no doubt about it. Some parts could not be done well. But Feynman got around that by having the student do a survey with him. Working with Feynman just a few hours a week or a semester was a very, very valuable thing for that student.

ZIERLER: Administratively, what were some of your responsibilities with the SURF program?

SHAIR: To make sure that the program was going well, make sure that the annual meeting where the students got together and did their presentations went off. That became very popular. Other students wanted to know what these guys had been doing. It was more than just bottle-watching. That was a key thing. It just took off.

ZIERLER: What about the budget? What were the questions about deciding who would pay for what to compensate the students for this work?

SHAIR: If it was going to be somebody's research, we'd try to get them to do this. Sometimes, they'd even put it into a proposal they were sending elsewhere. "We have two students who are seniors, and they'd like to do this. We'd like to support them, too." People began to think about supporting them.

ZIERLER: Did you work with JPL on a technical level? Was JPL doing things that were relevant to your work as a chemical engineer at Caltech?

SHAIR: I'd gone to take a position at Cal State, Long Beach. I liked that, but it was a different type of thing. When it was clear that the students could do a lot of things that hadn't been done before, we spent a fair amount of time talking to students–I'll give you one example. We needed to get Black students on the campus. I went down to visit several historically Black colleges, and we told these straight-A students, "If you want to come to Caltech, come about four weeks early, and we'll have a program to show you how we study, what we do, how we do this and that," basically how to do things. "Come first, and we'll show you how to study," is really what it amounted to. It worked beautifully. And there, we used JPL because JPL had some Black faculty, Black scientists on board. That was very important. Because they needed to see somebody else who looked like them.

ZIERLER: And did the SURF program precede your work in the Educational Affairs Office at JPL? Was there any connection between them?

SHAIR: I think so, although we spent most of the time I was there developing programs for JPL and NASA. It wasn't a SURF type of program, it was just research. But I think what we wanted to do was get some students in who would do well. One of the Black students came in, and I think the next year, he was voted student body president. He's done exceptionally well. That was a long time ago, too.

ZIERLER: Was there a certain point in your career when your interests in education started to outweigh what you were doing on the research side?

SHAIR: I was always interested in both, really.

ZIERLER: Was it valuable having that dual appointment at JPL? In what ways was that good for what you were trying to achieve at Caltech?

SHAIR: At JPL, they had their own program, but we had to have something that would interest students. But JPL spent a fair amount of time working with the national programs. They expanded that. It was not just JPL, but they had a connection to other programs. There was a lady at JPL who spent a fair amount of time trying to get students from different parts of the country to come to JPL during the summer, but they just wanted the top students. That required some traveling around and saying, "If you're at JPL, you can do a SURF-like program." We just wanted to introduce JPL to the rest of the country. I have the highest regard for JPL. The first Friday evening I was at JPL, I worked a little bit later and left about 6 o'clock. There was a lady by the name of Bobbie. I said, "Bobbie, how come all these cars are still here?" Hundreds of cars. She said, "This is JPL. They don't go home that well." [Laugh] It was amazing. The environment at JPL was outstanding.

ZIERLER: What years roughly did you start at JPL?

SHAIR: It was around 1990.

ZIERLER: When did you start thinking about retiring and what you wanted to do after Caltech?

SHAIR: I think it was around 2010.

ZIERLER: I wonder what satisfaction you got with the JPL Undergraduate Scholars Program, giving opportunities to California students who might not otherwise get to experience something like that.

SHAIR: Exactly. There's a tremendous amount of talent buried this way. Those who recognize that there is something there could benefit greatly with the students.

ZIERLER: Have you ever kept in touch with any students and paid attention to what they were able to achieve as a result?

SHAIR: A couple. In fact, somebody just recently called up and wanted to thank me because he had been doing some work and ended up at the University of Minnesota.

ZIERLER: Tell me about your time as dean of the College of Natural Sciences in Mathematics at Cal State, Long Beach.

SHAIR: You want to make sure the faculty take advantage of opportunities and try to develop new opportunities for faculty and students. When I was there, the engineering faculty also wanted me to come over once in a while. We had an awful lot more power when engineering and science worked together. I said, "You work together, you'll do a lot better than working against each other."

ZIERLER: Did you take on the dean position after you retired from Caltech, or did you step down from Caltech to become dean?

SHAIR: The latter.

ZIERLER: Were you interested in specifically administrative work at that point?

SHAIR: Somebody had made the offer, and I said, "Gee, that sounds interesting." That's about it. Then, going back at a different level, going back to JPL and working in the Educational Affairs Office there, I got to work with people throughout the country, which was very valuable, helpful, and enjoyable.

ZIERLER: Tell me about the time at Long Beach. Did you enjoy it?

SHAIR: Oh, yeah. I knew sort of what I was getting into, so it wasn't a problem.

ZIERLER: I'd like to ask you about some of the honors you've won and been recognized for over your career. Let's start with the governing board of the South Coast Air Quality Management District. First of all, what is the South Coast Air Quality Management District?

SHAIR: If you had a company or a factory, they wanted to make sure they knew where the emissions went, if they were dangerous, what the concentrations were. One of the companies on the coast said, "Our emissions are always going out to sea. When the sea turns around, they're diluted so much that there's no way we have to worry about that." We chatted with them publicly and said, "If you don't have to worry about it, let us do an experiment. You can see exactly every step of the way what's going to happen. If we get nothing in the morning, you're home-free." They couldn't resist. Of course, we could account for everything coming back. It forced the Air Resources Board to make some changes, too.

ZIERLER: Reflecting on the air quality of the area, where do you see your research contributing to the fact that air quality, thankfully, in our region is so much better than it was when you started at Caltech?

SHAIR: I think once people realized that things could be measured, the Air Resources Board picked us up immediately. They even have instruments and can do the same thing we did.

ZIERLER: What about some of the technological, political, or even economic changes that industry instituted as a result of this research? What connections do you draw there? I'm thinking, for example, of the advent of the catalytic converter?

SHAIR: Anything you can do to reduce emissions is extremely valuable because sometimes, you're getting it twofold. It goes out, then comes back in. The emissions and concentrations can be not bad for the first year, but if you're going to live there 20 years, it is bad. And the Air Resources Board picked up on that. I'm still friends with them. Every once in a while, we'll get together.

ZIERLER: I've heard that 40 or 50 years ago, you couldn't even see the mountains on the backdrop of Caltech.

SHAIR: That's right. But people were always reluctant to change because it cost money they couldn't recover as easily as they thought they should have been able to.

ZIERLER: What would you say your primary motivations were? Was it the human health impacts of air pollution? Was it beauty? Was it simply understanding the science? What were your motivations in this work?

SHAIR: A little bit of all of that. Understanding the transport and dispersion of pollutants. Very important. And making it a better place to live, a cleaner place to live. But I always had a lot of fun when we were actually solving a problem, doing an experiment. I think the students also enjoyed it. I didn't have to ask them to do things. They'd say, "How many samples should I take?" I'd say, "If you could take one every three hours, that would be great." And they did it.

ZIERLER: I wonder in what ways students had environmental concerns that were informed by a generational perspective. In other words, this was their future.

SHAIR: That's a good question.

ZIERLER: Tell me about your honorary membership with the Alumni Association of Caltech. In what ways did they want to claim you as their own?

SHAIR: I don't know. [Laugh] One day, they said, "We want to do this." I said, "I'm not going to complain." [Laugh]

ZIERLER: It was a nice way for Caltech to recognize your work.

SHAIR: Yeah, I appreciated that. Also, Eleanor Helin, the woman who named an asteroid after me, the things that she wrote, I was really impressed by.

ZIERLER: Let's talk about that. Asteroid Shair 5619. How was Eleanor inspired to name this asteroid after you?

SHAIR: You'd have to ask her probably. [Laugh]

ZIERLER: Did you know her before? Was she aware of your work?

SHAIR: No, never knew her before. Afterwards, yes.

ZIERLER: What's it like to have an asteroid named after you?

SHAIR: Well, I don't know. [Laugh] I don't feel any different. [Laugh]

ZIERLER: Have you ever been able to look at it on its orbit?

SHAIR: No, but she sent me all the data they collected on it. If I look at it, I can tell you where it is.

ZIERLER: Tell me about being named a Lifetime National Associate of the National Academy of Sciences. What does that mean for you?

SHAIR: It just means they thought the research I had done was valuable.

ZIERLER: Are you involved in anything currently? Do you work with student? Do you sit on boards? Are you involved in any scientific affairs?

SHAIR: I'm 85 years old, and I must admit, one of the problems of growing older is you lose friends. But I was lucky that I worked with people who I liked and trusted. We were willing to take risks. That's about it. [Laugh]

ZIERLER: For the last part of our talk, I'd like to ask a few broadly retrospective questions about your career. First, are you surprised at how vibrant and successful the SURF program has been over the years? Or was success baked into it from the beginning?

SHAIR: I think it was from the beginning because even the first years, the students who were involved with that were excited about it, just to have the opportunity to talk to a faculty member about typically a research project that they wouldn't get to for another four to six years. The irony is that way back when, when Caltech was first started, there were some people doing research, but that sort of dwindled and stopped. But there were some old-timers who would come to me and say, "We did something similar to this way back in 1922." [Laugh] But I was lucky to be at the right place at the right time and had really good people around me.

ZIERLER: What does it say about Caltech undergraduates in general, this program that asks them to get involved with professors' research on a substantive level, doing real research?

SHAIR: I think most of them are interested in science. They're not there just to get a degree so they can say, "I have a degree." At least when I was on the Admissions Program Policy group, that's the one thing we'd look for, whether the student was really interested in science or interested in getting a degree.

ZIERLER: What does it say about Caltech faculty that they would entrust undergraduates who, by definition, are not experienced, with such important aspects of their research? What does that tell us about Caltech professors themselves?

SHAIR: As I mentioned before, once Richard Feynman took a student on just to do a survey, the other faculty said, "Count me in." Faculty are very concerned about what their image is relative to everything else.

ZIERLER: So Feynman really set the tone.

SHAIR: He did, yeah.

ZIERLER: You don't happen to remember the name of that first SURF student that Feynman took on, do you?

SHAIR: No, but we can get it because I'm sure it's in the records.

ZIERLER: I'll look. That's a wonderful story. Of all people, Feynman. At a general level, what career opportunities were made possible to Caltech undergraduates as a result of SURF? In other words, the kinds of opportunities both in industry and in research, in academia.

SHAIR: Right. First of all, if they'd done some research as an undergraduate, that puts them way up high for research as a graduate student. Typically, that means it's a new faculty member at a new university who will call up the old faculty member at the current university and get good remarks. I think the key thing is not to be afraid of trying anything. You want to find people who are going to be helpful rather than saying, "I'm signing you up, but I'm not going to help you at all. Just do the work." That's not going to work.

ZIERLER: Among Caltech's six divisions, do you see the SURF program having greatest impact in any one of them? Or was it always meant to be equally useful among all of the divisions at Caltech?

SHAIR: It was meant to be wherever there was research being done. A lot of it, I'm happy to say, was the non-science faculty, the humanities. And the humanities faculty were very happy to see something like this happen. The idea was, they could talk to the students. In the past, they'd never get a chance to talk to the students. That was a big plus. And it also gave an opportunity to the students.

ZIERLER: I'm curious if you see your work as contributing more broadly to the constant effort to deepen the ties between Caltech and JPL from the student experience perspective.

SHAIR: I hadn't really thought of it that way, but I think it does do that. Once you have the faculty at one place talking to the personnel at another place–the faculty at each place are very smart. In fact, when I got to JPL, one of the programs we decided to start was where we'd take one person from each of the two-year colleges. Of course, the faculty at the two-year colleges were delighted. In fact, three of them were Caltech grads. I think the key thing is not to make up one's mind based on just a little bit of information.

ZIERLER: I have one more question for you to wrap up this wonderful conversation together. As the SURF program's founder, I wonder if you might reflect on some advice you might give freshmen given all of the undergraduates you've worked with over the course of their career, the things they should focus on, the connections they should make, how they should think about developing their careers as a result of their education at Caltech.

SHAIR: That's critical. I think the key thing is to get people to interact with and meet each other. And that's not an easy thing because some faculty get so overloaded, they just can't do certain things. If the administration is doing their jobs, they've got to know what the faculty want to do, what their strengths and weaknesses are. But it's critical that the students can talk to the faculty. At MIT, and I'm sure it's changed now, you could walk in and say, "Can I work in your lab?" "Sure, you can wash the Bunsen burners and all that stuff." They didn't expect you to be able to do anything. One thing that does happen every year now at Caltech is, there's a meeting, and there's a presentation from students who have done research projects. I would encourage other students to listen to those. They may think, "My gosh, how have they learned all that stuff?" But the idea is, one piece at a time, and it works.

ZIERLER: Fred, it's been wonderful spending this time with you. I'm so glad we were able to capture your perspective and insights over the course of your career. Thank you so much.