UC Berkeley alumnus, former Berkeley lab director receives Enrico Fermi Award

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A UC Berkeley alumnus, professor and director emeritus of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory was honored at the White House for his accomplishments in energy science Tuesday.

President Barack Obama presented Charles Shank with the Enrico Fermi Award, recognizing a lifetime of distinguished achievement in pioneering the field of ultrafast science, leading the national scientific and engineering research communities, and serving national laboratories under the aegis of the U.S. Department of Energy, or DOE. Shank shared the award with UCLA physicist Claudio Pellegrini.

“Claudio Pellegrini and Chuck Shank have deeply impacted our science, our labs, and our facilities throughout their distinguished careers,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz in a press release. “In doing so, (they) have contributed greatly to sustained U.S. leadership in research and development.”

Established in memory of the first physicist to achieve a nuclear chain reaction, the Fermi award has recognized excellence in science and technology relevant to the mission of the DOE since 1956. Recipients are selected upon nomination by their peers and review by federal officials, and receive a citation signed by the president and the secretary of energy, a gold-plated medal bearing the likeness of Fermi, and a $50,000 honorarium shared with fellow laureates from that year.

Shank, who learned of his reception after a phone call from Moniz this spring, is the 66th individual to receive the award. Eighteen of his fellow laureates have been affiliated with UC Berkeley during their careers — two of whom have, like Shank, served as director of Berkeley lab, including its namesake Ernest Lawrence. Eight Fermi laureates have also received the Nobel Prize for their contributions to the fields of physics or chemistry.

“The award is a perfect recognition of the extraordinary career he has had,” said campus chemistry professor Graham Fleming. Fleming, who considers Shank a close friend and was present at last week’s ceremony, added that it is “a fitting recognition of his influence both as a scientific leader and scientific practitioner.”

After receiving his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees from UC Berkeley, Shank went to work at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey. At Bell, he began to develop the techniques and lasers that facilitated the measurement of events occurring on a timescale of a millionth of a billionth of a second — a duration during which light travels a hundredth of the thickness of a human hair. His work formed the basis of the field later recognized as ultrafast spectroscopy.

According to Fleming, Shank was the most important pioneer in this field.

“He showed that it could be applied to everything from basic biological processes to events in semiconductors,” Fleming said. Shank himself noted the integral role of ultrafast spectroscopy in understanding the initial chemical processes that occur in the eye.

Shank returned to Berkeley in 1989 as director of the Berkeley lab, where he served until his retirement in 2004. Under his leadership, Berkeley lab launched the DOE’s Joint Genome Institute, which decoded three human chromosomes in the Human Genome Project; the Molecular Foundry, a nanoscience and biotechnology research facility; and the Advanced Light Source, a research site that has facilitated further work in fields ranging from atomic physics to 3-D biological imaging.

“Chuck Shank is an outstanding scientist and remarkable leader in keeping with the very best of the Berkeley Lab tradition,” said Paul Alivisatos, director of Berkeley lab, in a press release. “For his many contributions, he is most deserving of the Fermi Award and our sincere gratitude.”

While at Berkeley lab, Shank concurrently served as a professor in the campus’s departments of physics, chemistry, and electrical engineering and computer sciences.

“It was quite a privilege to work in his group,” said Daniel Mittleman, one of Shank’s first graduate students and a professor of engineering at Brown University. “He’s had a huge impact and maybe hasn’t gotten all the credit he deserves yet.”

Shank looks back at his second stint at Berkeley with great fondness for his work, colleagues and students, and noted his own gratitude for those whose nominations and supporting letters led him to receive this award.

“Having been director of a national laboratory, I know how these awards work,” he said. “I was touched that so many worked so hard on my behalf.”

Upon receiving the award in Washington, D.C. last week, Shank returned to his home in Hawaii, from where he contributes to efforts involving the use of short optical pulse techniques in neuroscience.

Ishaan Srivastava is the lead academics and administration reporter. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @ishaansriv.