Robert J. Cave

Chemistry Professor

The Harvey Mudd College community mourns the loss of respected chemist, distinguished teacher and widely recognized scholar Robert J. Cave who died Dec. 18, 2020. Known for his hearty laugh and his welcoming and congenial manner, Cave served on the Harvey Mudd faculty for 32 years.

Robert J. Cave was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and was raised on the east coast, “traveling west” (to his way of thinking at the time) when he attended Michigan State University. He received a B.Sc. in chemical physics from Michigan State and then really moved west, attending Caltech on a National Science Foundation Fellowship in chemistry, receiving his PhD in 1986.

After graduation, he spent two and a half years in Indiana as a postdoctoral fellow working with Ernest R. Davidson on electronic structure theory. He arrived at Harvey Mudd in 1988 to continue studying the excited states of molecules using theoretical methods. With his research students, Cave used advanced techniques to describe the electronic wave functions of atoms and molecules to predict properties such as geometries, vibrational frequencies and charge distributions. One area of particular interest in the group has been the electronic coupling element for electron transfer. Recent focus has been on the development of approximate, fast, high-accuracy methods to calculate the electronic coupling based on coupled cluster wavefunctions. The group also has been investigating applications of density functional theory to study organic and organometallic reaction mechanisms and working on general methods to calculate quasidiabatic coupling elements for high-accuracy spectroscopic studies.

Bob Cave and student look at computer monitorCave once stated “the best part of it all is the extraordinary students at HMC. Almost none of the work … would have been done without them, and they made it all a lot more fun.” One of the joys of teaching at HMC, he said, was the range of courses he was able to teach, among them General Chemistry (lab and lecture), Thermodynamics and Kinetics, Statistical Mechanics, Science and Religion, and Electron Transfer Processes.

In addition to his work in the lab and classroom, Cave held several administrative roles at HMC. He was associate dean for academic affairs (2003–2007, 2015–2016) and was vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty (2007–2012). At the end of his tenure as VP and dean, the faculty presented Cave with a certificate of appreciation for his “effective leadership, enormous capacity for consensus building and desire to provide a supportive environment for the faculty [which] enabled faculty members to experience an unparalleled time of productivity and collegiality.”

Cave was a visiting researcher at Brookhaven National Laboratory, Rutgers University and University of Texas at Austin. From 2016 to 2018, he was visiting program director in chemistry at the National Science Foundation.

Cave is survived by his wife, Susie, his son, Ian, and daughter-in-law, Shaina Davis. He is predeceased by his son, Adam. The family requests that memorial contributions in his honor be directed to the UN World Food Programme, Equal Justice Initiative or the UN Refugee Program.