Recipients of the 2009 Schmitt Prize: Tom Dunn, Sheila Shull

Tom Dunn

Tom Dunn has been at Caltech since 1973 and is the head of the electronics shop in the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering. Last year, when we celebrated Tom's 35th year of being at Caltech, he wrote, "I am thankful for my 35 years of employment at Caltech. . . . I have particularly enjoyed working with the many fine Chemistry and Chemical Engineering graduate students during my career here. My biggest challenge and greatest blessing has been the fact that I am often working with someone smarter than myself. I also appreciate the other fine staff in the CCE division and other divisions, as well as those in Physical Plant, who have helped me in so many ways." As self-effacing as Tom is, it is no secret that hundreds of faculty, students, postdocs, and staff—current and former— feel enormous admiration and respect for him. No fewer than 90 of Tom's admirers wrote words of praise for him.

Excerpts from nominators' comments:

"Several years ago, Pasadena City College identified their most accomplished graduates in a variety of fields. In chemistry, they listed only two names—Bruce Merrifield, who won the 1984 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and Tom Dunn. We think they got it just about right."

"Simply put, Tom is a gem. Tom has outstanding technical skills—if it's got a plug, he can fix it. . . .What makes Tom Dunn truly remarkable is that his skills are coupled to one of the nicest personalities one could ever meet. Tom is caring and modest. I've never seen him raise his voice or get flustered about anything. When others were losing their heads, Tom always kept his. . . . Tom always found a way to solve the hard problems and deal with the hard personalities."

"There are some people who are irreplaceable and Tom is one of them. . . I dare anyone to find fault with this man."

"I remember many of us shuddering at the possibility of his retirement, since he was thought of as our human life raft."

"Tom's attitude and personality are so engaging that I sometimes suspected division members of pretending their instruments were out of order just to have an excuse to have Tom consult with them about their teaching or research goals."

"Without exaggeration, Tom's support has freed up hundreds of hours of my own time [so that I am able] to focus on research and teaching."

"Tom is not only smart and talented, but even more importantly, he is just a wonderful person—helpful and supportive—who personifies what is best about Caltech. While 'no drama Dunn' isn't as catchy as 'no drama Obama,' Tom is also very reassuring when confronted with problems and then gets the job done without fuss or drama—he's amazing."

"Tom maintains a wonderful 'can-do' attitude, and when you have occasion to call upon him, you find that he not only fixes the problem, you are in a better mood for having interacted with him."

"In looking over the award memo, I [see] it asks how [the nominee's] attributes contribute to uncommon trust and respect among his peers. How does one describe an individual that possesses exactly that trait? No, not 'possesses'—Tom IS that trait."

Sheila Shull

Sheila Shull has been the department administrator in Applied and Computational Mathematics for almost 30 years. When she first came to ACM (then known as AMa), the option was in some organizational disarray. Gerry Whitham, the executive officer at the time, pointed to the mess and asked Sheila if she could get things reorganized. She did so with incredible speed and skill, and the ACM faculty quickly realized what a treasure they had found. Sheila is an outstanding department administrator, and the entire ACM faculty feels privileged to have someone of her abilities. Sheila takes care of almost every aspect of the day-to-day activities in ACM, including proposal submission and grant management; management of staff members, visitors, and students; organization of international conferences; recruitment of students and instructors; utilization of space; and, most importantly, "care and feeding" of the ACM faculty, which is not without its challenges. The entire option feels very privileged to have someone of her caliber working for ACM and for Caltech.

Excerpts from nominators' comments

"Having lived through over 30 years of departmental ups and downs, challenges and triumphs, I believe without a doubt Sheila has been and continues to be, by her own design, one of the most significantly unifying elements in the department."

"It is through the very nature of her job performance that Sheila conveys the true essence of administrative support. Not only does she schedule, track, document and organize (and deftly untangle) ACM on a daily basis, but she also serves as a true advocate for the professional and personal well-being of those in the department."

"Sheila is certainly someone who makes being a faculty member here at Caltech special on both a professional and personal level."

"It is people like her, in direct daily contact with faculty and students, that truly define the atmosphere in our Institute."

"She in effect was one of our recruiting tools in attracting a good job candidate to Caltech. Through her outstanding service and dedication, our visitors and job candidates understood why Caltech was special and why we said there is only one Caltech."

"Although our faculty has evolved over several generations and our research emphases have changed, we all agree that it is impossible to envision how this option would function without Sheila. She is simply outstanding at her job. It is a privilege to work with her and a pleasure to interact with her."

"I heard she was an institution on campus—and though she insists that it's a myth when our faculty direct people to her because 'Sheila knows EVERYTHING!' it's a myth that she still propagates every day with her exceptional effort and performance."

"Sheila is also a kind and accessible figure in the department. She is discreet, and students feel comfortable approaching her for advice on all sorts of practical matters. For instance, she helps foreign students adapt to life in a new country. She also encourages students to openly discuss problems they may have with their research or with their advisor. Her care makes the department a much better place."

photo of Tom Dunn and Sheila Shull with Caltech dignitaries From left to right: Dean Currie (VP of Business and Finance), Thomas Schmitt (Founder of The Schmitt Prize), Tom Dunn, Sheila Shull, Jean-Lou Chameau (Caltech President), and Ted Jenkins (Caltech Board of Trustees) Credit: Caltech