• From left to right: Ted Jenkins (Caltech Board of Trustees), Thomas Schmitt (founder of the Schmitt Prize), Joseph Shepherd (Dean of Graduate Studies), Maria I. Lopez, and Edward Stolper (Interim Caltech President)
    Credit: Bob Paz

Maria I. Lopez Wins Schmitt Staff Prize

Maria I. Lopez, lead options administrator in Computing and Mathematical Sciences in the Division of Engineering and Applied Science at Caltech, is this year's winner of the Thomas W. Schmitt Annual Staff Prize. Lopez has been working at Caltech since 1996. Since 2003, she has served in a variety of capacities within computer science: as secretary to the department head, administrator for the Center for the Mathematics of Information, and most recently as the option administrator for Caltech students who are pursuing concentrations in computer science.

"Lopez is in charge of the organization of annual classes taken by more than 2,000 undergraduate and graduate students," says one of the anonymous individuals who nominated Lopez for the prize. "Computer science is the largest option on campus, so as option rep administrator, Lopez is in charge of about 200 students a year. Maria gets thanked in every thesis defense that I attend. Her positive attitude has been quite contagious among her peers: she literally invigorated her colleagues to play as a team . . . I do not think it is an exaggeration to state that she is the energy source of the whole department."

For her part, Lopez counts herself lucky to work with such a wonderful group of people. "My first job on campus was in faculty records, and then I moved to admissions and worked with prospective students. These were good experiences, but I think I've found my place in computer science. It's a great department. We have great leadership, great support, and wonderful coworkers. My supervisor, Jerolyn Chittum, always gives us the proper tools. If you want to take a class to better yourself, she's very supportive. And our director, Mathieu Desbrun, is just amazing."

Another anonymous individual who nominated Lopez for the Schmitt Prize notes her "independent initiative" and "unflapping professionalism and cheer." Indeed, Lopez stands poised to step into all kinds of situations, to be of use wherever she can. As Lopez explains, "I really enjoy interacting with people, and it's nice to work with people from multicultural backgrounds. For everyone, but especially for our international students, I like to emphasize an open door policy: stop by and say hello, come on in. If it's not my area, I'll find out who you can talk to. I just want to be of service. We're here because of the students, so I try to make it warm and inviting for them." Because Lopez works with incoming students, she often knows individuals throughout their Caltech careers, and she delights in meeting their families and watching them grow and change during their time here.

"Caltech is a great place to work," says Lopez. "When I first started, a friend of mine was introducing me to other staff, and they all said, 'Oh, I've worked here 17 years, or 20 years, or 12 years.' Now it's me saying, 'Oh, I've been here 18 years.' My whole job is different each term, so it's always interesting."

The Schmitt Prize was established in 2007 through the initiative of Thomas W. Schmitt, former associate vice president for human resources. Schmitt proposed the idea of a staff prize to senior administrators, and it was eventually funded by Ted Jenkins, Caltech alumnus (BS '65, MS '66) and trustee, who spent his professional career in the semiconductor industry. Both men were on hand to help award the prize at the 59th annual staff service awards on June 2.

Part of the excitement of the Schmitt Prize is that potential recipients do not know in advance who will receive the award. As Schmitt remarks, "I think Caltech does a better job of including staff as part of the community than any other place I know of." Jenkins is equally enthusiastic about the staff at Caltech. "One of the things that resonated with me when Tom first mentioned the idea to me was that the faculty get all kinds of awards, while staff are mainly recognized for seniority alone," says Jenkins. "Our faculty are the best and the brightest, but they can't do it by themselves. They need the environment and that comes from the staff."

Written by Cynthia Eller