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Our influence is powerful.

Dr. Christie A. Canaria (PhD '08, Chemistry) is a Board Member of the Caltech Alumni Association. In her role as program director at the National Cancer Institute Small Business Innovation Research Development Center, Dr. Canaria works at the intersection of science and industry to support entrepreneurs and small businesses in biotech. In 2014, she led the launch of Innovation Corps (I-Corps) at the National Institutes of Health, a program designed to support training to help project teams at NIH-funded small businesses overcome key obstacles along the path of innovation and commercialization.  In 2013, Dr. Canaria was awarded the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship and began science policy work in Washington, D.C.

Dr. Canaria recently spoke with the Caltech Fund about how the Caltech community helped lay the foundation for her success and why that inspires her to give back.

Q: How did Caltech prepare you for what you do now for the National Cancer Institute?

What's interesting about my work at the National Cancer Institute: I'm not trained as a cancer researcher. Science policy—which is really my focus—is more about knowing a little about a lot of different things. What I took from my time at Caltech were my experiences working in multidisciplinary research environments: chemistry, biology, applied physics, fabrication.

Having a broad knowledge about those different areas was the foundation for my role today working as a program director at the NCI. There are some program directors who are trained very deeply in cancer immunotherapies—that's not me. But anything that has to do with a medical device, or a diagnostic assay, or chemistry, or computer science, or algorithms, or machine learning, I can handle all of those. Caltech set me up to be successful in that sense.

What I also took from Caltech was this foundation for understanding how to think about problems. My postdoc advisor at Caltech told me, "Christie, your PhD really is basically a license to think. After you get a PhD, you'll have the skill sets to ask questions of any problem you come across." When I apply that to my current roles in science policy, in managing portfolios, in working with other researchers, I approach the problems and ask, "What is the scope of what we're talking about here? How do we approach this to either find a solution or create something new of value?"

Dr. Canaria and her family Dr. Christie A. Canaria (PhD '08) and family. Credit: Brad Cenko (PhD '09)

Q: Do you miss being in the lab?

There are the little things I miss. I miss strips of parafilm. Getting to handle test tubes. I miss being surrounded by my research. I used to spend long, odd hours operating huge, expensive pieces of machinery to take measurements because the only open blocks of time were in the middle of the night. I enjoyed the short commute between the Catalina graduate apartment, where I lived across the street, and the Beckman Institute, where I had my office.

But today there are other ways to still get that same feeling of immersion in learning. I have two young children. Each day studying them and trying to understand them fills notebooks!

I also have other ways to experiment. I live out in the Washington, D.C. area right now, and unlike Southern California, we have seasons. There's a whole cycle to life outside in the garden. It's a slower timeline for experiments, but every year I get to try something new with planting and growing things and seeing what works. I still find ways to get that same feeling of being in the lab; I'm just no longer at the research bench. 

Q: What makes Caltech truly special?

It boils down to the intimate size of Caltech. Just 300 faculty, including Nobel laureates, 900 undergraduates, 1,500 graduate students. The density of amazing brain power and thought waves permeating these four square blocks is huge. As students, you have access to exceptional faculty, and the faculty are crossing over and working with each other.

When I was there, I was in the chemistry program working for a Principal Investigator (PI) who was a physicist turned into a biologist, building biosensing devices with folks at the applied physics side of campus. 

One of the things I really loved about my time at Caltech was working at the interface of different disciplines to see where science could take you when you start combining these thoughts. It's these different perspectives that lead to extraordinary outcomes.

The undergraduates at Caltech are brilliant. They were inspiring because of how hard they worked and how they thought. They pushed me to work hard as a graduate student. Undergraduates were absolutely part of the lab life that we had, with a mix of undergraduates, graduates, postdocs, super postdocs. The undergraduates were also my first opportunity to build myself as a mentor. They were the people with whom I worked in the lab, thinking about experiments, how to put them together, how to do them, how to look at data together. We were learning alongside each other, and that was extremely important for my development as a scientist. 

And then working with the faculty, my graduate advisor Dr. Scott Fraser was like the wind behind my sails. He let you steer the ship, and he would give you the resources you needed. There was this beautiful, freeing sensation that you could do almost anything and he would give his support. And I leaned on him a lot for support, guidance, and input. But really, he kind of said, "The ocean is out there. Where do you want to go?"

Q: Why do you want to help Caltech?

I know that students will have a range of experiences when they think about their time at Caltech. But for me, when I look back, I have a profound sense of gratitude.

I am compelled from deep inside to give back because the whole experience of being in graduate school gave me so much. It's this environment where you're pushed hard thoughtfully and philosophically. And your cohort really forms the basis of your experiences and relationships. Dr. Fraser took me into his group as a chemistry student coming back into academia from industry and fought hard for me. He was a physicist who turned into a biologist and biology professor, and he was a serial entrepreneur, having spun multiple technologies out from his lab. I remember that there was a lot of pushback from my graduate committee about whether a biology professor would do right by a chemistry grad student and provide the education to merit a chemistry PhD. There was also pushback on training a PhD not on track to become a professor. But ultimately, the institution as a whole values innovation. I did my first provisional patent filing at Caltech based on the work I did there as a graduate student. 

I grew in so many different dimensions [as a graduate student]. I was pushed hard academically, but also given so much latitude to explore artistically and spiritually. I would not have had those experiences had it not been for the environment at Caltech.

When I think about the Caltech Alumni Association, how we re-envisioned our mission and our vision, we're taking a holistic view of what we want to provide alumni, not just professionally, but in terms of their wellness—financially, socially, making sure they're connected community-wise, spiritually—all the dimensions that lead to wellness. 

And our vision is really about everyone being a global citizen pushing towards science, technology and education. Across the globe, there are just 25,000 alumni. Whenever I meet another alum out there, it is magical, unexpected, and a treat.

On what inspires Dr. Canaria to give: "These are world-class leaders that we are giving rise to at this phenomenal institution. Given our size and our humble base of alumni, we are making our mark on the world." Pictured above, left to right: France Córdova (PhD '79), Ellen Williams (PhD '82), Arati Prabhakar (MS '80, PhD '85), and Frances Arnold, Caltech Professor and Nobel Laureate.

Q: What inspires you to give back?

It's not just about having spent time at Caltech. It's about where you go and what you do after Caltech. These 25,000 alumni around the world: What are they doing right now? They're doing amazing things. When I moved to Washington, D.C., in 2013, Ellen Williams (PhD '82) was leading ARPA-E, Arati Prabhakar (MS '80, PhD '85) was leading DARPA, and France Córdova (PhD '79) was leading the NSF. That's three women alumnae from Caltech leading major agencies at the national federal level. I think it would be an awesome study for some economist at Caltech to model—what is the return on investment? And I think this is part of what the driving force should be for why people should give to Caltech, because the return on investment is probably incalculable. How do you quantify the influence that Caltech alumni have in the world? And I just named three amazing women who, in 2013, were leading these agencies.

Now, Frances Arnold (Linus Pauling Professor of Chemical Engineering, Biochemistry and Bioengineering and Director of the Donna and Benjamin M. Rosen Bioengineering Center), who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2018—she's going to be co-chair of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). Caltech has a seat at the table in informing how science policy is built here at the Capitol: that's a big deal.

This is a major reason to give to Caltech: the return on investment is huge. And if you support Caltech, look at what comes out of Caltech. These are world-class leaders that we are giving rise to at this phenomenal institution. Given our size and our humble base of alumni, we are making our mark on the world.

I give because I feel good about the time I had at Caltech, and it makes me feel good to give back. The way I see it: we need to put good into the world to see good come back to us. Not just through our donations, but through engagement with the Caltech community and the Caltech Alumni Association. For me, being able to give back and help alumni and students to figure out where to go next, that makes me feel good because so many others have done the same for me. We're standing on the shoulders of giants. And one of the ways we can build a better tomorrow is by putting good things out into the world. For me, part of that is philanthropy.


Q: You recently upgraded your gift to Caltech. Thank you! What inspired you to do so?

I really wanted to bring intention to my donation. I had been giving sporadically and decided to actively set a monthly donation. I've had the opportunity to support the Caltech Alumni Association, the Caltech Center for Inclusion and Diversity, and the Caltech Fund. Giving is one way we can express ourselves: voting with our dollar to support a vision and move it forward.