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Paul Alivisatos is UC Berkeley’s new provost — is this his final stop?

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SEPTEMBER 11, 2017

He needed to clear his head. He had just gotten his doctorate in chemistry from UC Berkeley, the home of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Glenn T. Seaborg and Melvin Calvin — the home of American chemistry. Set to start his first postgraduate job, he bought a Toyota Corolla and drove, slowly and meanderingly, across the country to Bell Labs in New Jersey.

Paul Alivisatos knew one thing: He didn’t want to be a professor, a typical path for many of his peers. Two years later, he was back at UC Berkeley as an assistant professor of chemistry.

This kind of back-and-forth happens to Alivisatos, UC Berkeley’s new provost. As an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, he was set to drop the chemistry major when a friend suggested he take physical chemistry. That way he’d have enough credits for at least a minor. Thirty-six years later, he’s one of the world’s leading physical chemists.

Chancellor Carol Christ chose Alivisatos as her executive vice chancellor and provost (commonly referred to as EVCP, or just provost) earlier this summer, one of the first personnel decisions she made as chancellor. The EVCP is essentially the chancellor’s No. 2: Its portfolio is mammoth, overseeing almost all academic units and a solid chunk of the campus’s administrative cabinet.

“I don’t know of any other physical chemist who’s such a strong researcher and such a strong leader at the same time.” — Louis Brus, professor of chemistry at Columbia University

Alivisatos, 57, is one of the most experienced administrators on a campus that has seen a widespread exodus of experience in recent years. A campus professor of chemistry who previously served as the campus vice chancellor for research, Alivisatos was also director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory from 2009-16.

The pick wasn’t shocking — it was rumored in the San Francisco Chronicle that Alivisatos was the odds-on favorite to become UC Berkeley chancellor earlier this year in the search process that eventually selected Christ. It put an experienced, younger administrator behind the 73-year-old Christ, who has said she will make decisions as though she’s at the end of her career. The positioning of Alivisatos, who interviewed for the chancellor position, invites the question: Does he want to be UC Berkeley’s next chancellor?

Alivisatos’ promotion comes at a star-crossed time for him. While he tackles the No. 2 position at UC Berkeley, one of his discoveries is flooding the marketplace. He helped perfect the quantum dot technology behind the newly introduced Samsung QLED TVs, which purport to have brighter and more precise colors thanks to Alivisatos’ research. Correspondingly, he is the Samsung Distinguished Professor in Nanoscience and Nanotechnology Research. (And he’s got one of the TVs as well, which can retail for up to $3,000.)

But to say that Alivisatos is the TV guy is to sell him way, way short. In nanotechnology, he’s a giant. In 2010, he was ranked the fifth most influential chemist in the world. He also appears on nearly every shortlist for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

“He’s an outstanding scientist,” said Steven Chu, professor of physics at Stanford University and collaborator with Alivisatos. “I thought very, very highly of him.”

Chu served as the U.S. Secretary of Energy from 2009-13, and he won the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics.

“I don’t know of any other physical chemist who’s such a strong researcher and such a strong leader at the same time,” said Louis Brus, professor of chemistry at Columbia University and an early mentor to Alivisatos.

Brus, who discovered the quantum dot technology with which Alivisatos works, is widely considered one of the founders of modern nanoscience.

You get the picture.

“That time is no longer possible”

Born in Chicago in 1959, Alivisatos lived there until his mother’s death precipitated a move to Greece in 1970, where he lived with family in Athens.

“I didn’t quite speak the language but I was suddenly immersed in that whole system and school,” Alivisatos said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “The consequence of that for me was that I learned to really have an internal standard or compass around what I was learning.”

“I think he’s a very calm, stabilizing person.” — Steven Chu, former U.S. Secretary of Energy

Leaving Greece, he returned to Chicago to attend the University of Chicago. He played around with a lot of majors, he said. German, classics, history and math were all in play at one point or another. Eventually he settled on chemistry after that pivotal physical chemistry class, although he did say he took the minimum number of chemistry classes required to graduate.

After completing his UC Berkeley doctorate in five years, Alivisatos left for Bell Labs. Bell Labs was at a halcyon time when Alivisatos entered. Interviews with scientists who worked in Bell Labs in the 1980s depict an intense and productive place. Chu won his Nobel Prize for research he did at Bell Labs during this time.

“That time is no longer possible,” said Chuck Shank, former director of Berkeley Lab and a researcher and director at Bell Labs for 20 years. They had the resources they needed, and they were surrounded by hard-driving and competitive peers. “We had a unique institution that no longer exists.”

Alivisatos worked under Brus at Bell Labs and would use the research he did there to get a faculty position at UC Berkeley. Once at UC Berkeley, Alivisatos would become part of an influential group of energy researchers called the “UC Berkeley energy mafia” by Greentech Media.

He began working his way up the scientific ladder, which many of colleagues say came naturally.

“I think he’s a very calm, stabilizing person,” Chu said. Chu served as director of the Berkeley Lab from 2004-08, and Alivisatos was his deputy director.

It’s around this time that the awards started flowing in. Alivisatos is a pioneer in the development of quantum dots, a popular type of nanotechnology. His research refined the knowledge of the properties and behavior of quantum dots, which means that many people working with them cite his research.

His awards and titles are as follows. This is not a comprehensive list.

  • National Medal of Science
  • Spiers Memorial Award
  • Axion Award
  • Wolf Prize in Chemistry
  • Von Hippel Award
  • Linus Pauling Medal
  • Dan David Prize
  • Computation and Engineering’s Nanoscience Prize
  • Ernest Orlando Lawrence Award
  • Rank Prize for Optoelectronics
  • Eni Award for Energy and Environment
  • ACS Award in Colloid and Surface Chemistry
  • Coblentz Award of Molecular Spectroscopy
  • Thomas J. Wilson Memorial Prize
  • Member of the National Academy of Sciences
  • Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
  • Member of the American Philosophical Society

But what does he want for UC Berkeley? He wants more. More access to classes. More resources for financially squeezed support staff. More opportunities for extracurriculars. More faculty.

How to pay for it all? Well, that’s another question.

From his office in California Hall, Alivisatos talks about his goals as executive vice chancellor and provost. Lianne Frick/Staff.

“He bleeds Berkeley”

In his corner office in California Hall, Alivisatos talks a lot about the changing relationship between the campus and society, which all seems to have the undercurrent of “there are new ways we can get money,” to pay for the classes, staff, extracurriculars and faculty.

“Our funding models are changing because how we connect to society is changing, too,” he said. “I think what we have to have is the ethos of a public university, but not necessarily such a static funding model.”

He favors more executive education and expanding master’s degrees, which he said are responses to the changing needs of the workplace. They also happen to make the campus some money. To meet Christ’s goal of expanding the faculty by 100, he said he wants to reach out to philanthropists, foundations, companies and international entities for funding.

Alivisatos said his own experience shows how UC Berkeley can keep its faculty from being poached. Many universities have tried to woo him away from Berkeley, but he’s chosen to stay each time. Charles Lieber, chair of department of chemistry and chemical biology at Harvard University, said Alivisatos turned down their offer many years ago.

“He bleeds Berkeley, is that it?” Lieber said.

Despite the money other schools offered, Alivisatos stayed.

“How could I leave my beloved Berkeley?” he said. “I never thought that by going someplace else, there was something I could do there that I wouldn’t be able to do here.”

UC Berkeley has the same relentless questioning that he saw at Bell Labs, Alivisatos said. Combine that with new sources of funding, and he’s confident they’ll be able to increase the faculty.

But UC Berkeley is used to big promises, and almost as used to just-as-big failures. Alivisatos, for his part, has been successful at bringing in money. Berkeley Lab’s budget grew 30 percent during his tenure, reaching about $800 million by 2015. When he served as the UC Berkeley vice chancellor for research from March 2016 to August 2017, the campus’s total new funding awards jumped about 26 percent from fiscal year 2016 to 2017, although that number shifts year-to-year based on a wide number of factors.

As for whether or not he wants to be chancellor, Alivisatos gave this answer: “I actually don’t know. This role is a deep learning experience for me right now. … Life has a lot of twists and turns in it, it really does, so I know I’m in a good place. And I don’t know where I’m going to be in the future.”

“In some sense, it’s like a chess player,” Shank said. “In Paul’s career, he’s been very strategic.”

Alivisatos brought up the instance when he set off to New Jersey, knowing that he never wanted to be a professor, only to become one two years later.

“I think that Berkeley is at a very special moment,” he said.

That’s not a no.

Corrections: A previous version of this article misstated the size of Berkeley Lab's budget in 2015. It was about $800 million, not $800 billion.
Austin Weinstein covers academics and administration. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @austwein.

SEPTEMBER 14, 2017