UC Berkeley physics professor Marvin Cohen named Citation Laureate

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Media group Thomson Reuters picked UC Berkeley physics professor Marvin Cohen as a 2016 Citation Laureate — a recognition given to scientists predicted to win the Nobel Prize.

Cohen was selected for his work in theoretical materials science, a field that is key to developing new technologies used in computers, cellphones, solar panels and other devices.

The recognition identifies likely candidates to win the Nobel Prize at some point in the future, not just the year they were named Citation Laureate. In the last 14 years, 39 recipients of the recognition have later gone on to win Nobel Prizes. Citation Laureates are selected based on a variety of criteria, including the number of times their research has been cited by other scientists.

“(Recipients) are the peers of the Nobel Prize winners in every way in terms of the work they’ve produced,” said David Pendlebury, Thomson Reuters’ lead analyst for identifying recipients. “We’re trying to give them recognition whether they win the prize or not.”

Six other UC Berkeley faculty members have been identified as Citation Laureates in the past, according to Pendlebury. One of them, UC Berkeley professor of biology Randy Schekman, went on to win the 2013 Nobel Prize in medicine.

Cohen’s research has led to breakthroughs in predicting the properties of new materials, such as nanotubes and semiconductors, before they are ever created in the lab, according to UC Berkeley physics professor Jeffrey Neaton. Cohen said he was one of the first researchers in the field to use computer technology, and his papers have been cited thousands of times.

“We’re looking for the true pioneers,” Pendlebury said of the Citation Laureate selection process. “(Cohen) has really pushed this field ahead … for four decades.”

Cohen attributed the success of his research to the academic environment of UC Berkeley, calling the campus an “atmosphere of free exchange.”

“My secret advantage is that I’ve had brilliant students and postdocs and great colleagues here at Berkeley,” Cohen said.

He referenced a particular instance in which he presented an idea for a new type of nanotube to his students and asked them to run calculations via computer to see if it could be created. The calculations showed that the new type could be created, prompting Cohen to bring additional UC Berkeley faculty members on board. The collaboration resulted in the boron nitride nanotube, which is now widely used in electronics and medical research.

Neaton described Cohen as a “father figure” in the field, stating that junior colleagues benefited from Cohen’s example. Neaton said Cohen’s early theories enabled methods used in the field today, adding that because of Cohen’s contributions the field has progressed to the point where theoretical scientists can better contribute to science experiments.

“(Cohen) has shown all of us how we can effectively collaborate,” Neaton said. “He’s broken down that barrier between theory and experiment.”

Contact Lillian Holmes at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @LillianQHolmes.