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$1 Million Gift Establishes the Wanda Celine deVlaminck Scholarship at Caltech

Published on Tuesday, May 12, 2020 | 11:01 am
 
Michael Konrad, Wanda deVlaminck, and their dog, Darwin. Credit: Caltech

During her long and varied career, Wanda deVlaminck worked in state-level public health, advocated for the development of new vaccines and treatments, and co-founded a biotechnology company focused on gene therapies for cancer and other diseases.

“The one thing you can say about her professional life is that it wasn’t boring,” says her husband, Michael Konrad (BS ’58). “She was very adventurous.”

DeVlaminck was a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, but before she passed away in 2019, she asked Konrad to support Caltech in her name. To honor her wishes to support Caltech students at the beginnings of their own adventures, he has made a $1 million gift to the Institute to endow the Wanda Celine deVlaminck Scholarship. The gift is part of Break Through: The Caltech Campaign.

“She said she had learned how important my four years at Caltech were to me, and conversations with friends and the biographies of many scientists had convinced her of Caltech’s unique role in the scientific community,” Konrad says. “Even more than that, I think it was partially a gift to me.”

A Strenuous Vacation

With its demanding curriculum and academic population of high achievers, Caltech can be a challenging place for new students. Not so for Konrad. In 1954, the summer before he arrived at Caltech, he joined the U.S. Naval Reserve and endured the trials of boot camp. He considered it a luxury, then, that he could sleep until 7 a.m. at Caltech and still get to class on time.

“A lot of the other freshmen were upset because they didn’t have plush beds and their mothers weren’t there to cook their favorite foods,” he jokes. “But for me, it was a big vacation.” – Michael Konrad (BS ’58), on his days at Caltech

Make no mistake, Konrad’s “vacation” involved a lot of hard work. Outside the classroom, he became president of Fleming House, developed a love for hiking in the mountains, and lettered in cross country. The latter feat stunned his father, who had played football at the U.S. Naval Academy but did not see his son as being similarly attracted to pursue athletics. “I bought a letter sweater, and my dad nearly fell off his chair,” Konrad says.

Inside the classroom, Konrad initially focused on physics, but the vast potential for discovery in biology captivated him. Caltech’s physics program allowed him the freedom to take courses in biology and chemistry, and this experience inspired him to enroll as a biophysics graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1958. Unbeknownst to him, his future life partner was there at the same time, working toward a bachelor’s degree in microbiology, though a couple of decades would pass before the two would meet.

United by Science

After he earned his doctorate, Konrad spent 14 years as a faculty member at UCLA and Berkeley. He then joined the biotech firm Cetus, where he became director of a research project on interferons, proteins that cells release in response to viruses. Cetus focused on developing beta interferons, which are useful in treating diseases such as multiple sclerosis.

DeVlaminck, meanwhile, worked in the California Public Health Department in the 1970s before shifting to Cutter Laboratories, a pharmaceutical company that developed vaccines. She worked in a Cutter research lab for years, later becoming manager of the department that produced the vaccines and, eventually, head of regulatory affairs.

She then moved to Shell Oil, where she led regulatory affairs for the energy company’s new venture in interferon cancer therapeutics. Because Shell had little experience in the area, Konrad says, the company’s leadership decided to partner with a biotech firm to observe and learn from scientists in the field. Shell chose Cetus, and Wanda met Michael.

DeVlaminck went on to hold management positions at Cetus and Somatix, an early startup in the emerging field of gene therapy, where she managed environmental compliance and intellectual property. In 1992, she became a cofounder of the biotech start-up Avigen, focused on small-molecule therapeutics to treat neurological and neuromuscular disorders.

New Opportunities

DeVlaminck remained passionate about science and public health, Konrad says, until the autoimmune disease scleroderma cut her life short. During her last few months, she reminded him of her desire to make an impact on Caltech. In funding an undergraduate scholarship, Konrad and deVlaminck support Caltech’s promise to meet students’ demonstrated unmet needs. The Institute practices need-blind admissions for all U.S. citizen and permanent residents, a policy that is critical to its ongoing efforts to bring the most qualified students to study on campus.

“Konrad and deVlaminck’s generous gift reflects her adventurous spirit and dedication to the public good,” says Joe Shepherd (PhD ’81), the C. L. “Kelly” Johnson Professor of Aeronautics and Mechanical Engineering; holder of the Allen V. C. Davis and Lenabelle Davis Leadership Chair, Student Affairs; and Caltech’s vice president for student affairs. “Thanks to the Wanda Celine deVlaminck Scholarship, generations of ambitious students will have the opportunity to attend Caltech and make a positive impact on the world.”

To learn more about how you can help Caltech students by supporting scholarships, please contact Nicole Weaver-Goller, Senior Director of Development for Regional Major Gifts and Student Affairs, at (626) 395-6069 or nwgoller@caltech.edu.

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