From cyclotrons to wetsuits: A brief history of UC Berkeley’s scientific endeavors

Shaun Lien/Staff

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Over the past 150 years, UC Berkeley has been at the forefront of scientific discovery, achieving milestones that have impacted both the research industry and the surrounding community.

Notable figures and facilities across campus have engaged in and continue to engage in progressing the scientific realm of society, whether it be founding modern statistical theory, producing plutonium or inventing the first wetsuit.

“Our mission statement is to do the kind of cutting-edge research that has high impact,” said campus Vice Chancellor for Research Randy Katz.

The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which is managed by the UC and supported by the U.S. Department of Energy through its Office of Science, was founded by Ernest Orlando Lawrence, a UC Berkeley physicist who won the 1939 Nobel Prize for inventing the first cyclotron.

The cyclotron, a type of particle accelerator, helped pioneer the use of particle physics to uncover the structure of matter. According to the UC Berkeley website, the cyclotron has enabled the creation of large quantities of radioactive isotopes utilized in medical treatments.

“One of the greatest achievements of Lawrence Berkeley Lab and Ernest Orlando Lawrence was to recognize (that) very difficult, complex scientific challenges require teamwork,” said Ashok Gadgil, a senior faculty scientist at Berkeley Lab. “He set a tradition … of taking on extraordinarily difficult problems and solving them with teamwork across multiple disciplines.”

Currently, Berkeley Lab is spearheading six labwide initiatives: Microbes to Biomes; Extreme Data Science Initiative; Brighter X-Rays, Sharper Focus; Energy Innovation; Diversity and Inclusion; and Service Technologies for Science.

According to its website, Berkeley Lab fostered 5,600 jobs locally and 12,000 nationally and had an overall impact of $1.6 billion annually on the national economy in 2009.

“The culture of teamwork, scientific excellence, a sense of urgency in solving problems and being focused … is one of the biggest contributions of Lawrence Berkeley Lab,” Gadgil said.

The Keasling Lab, which has been part of Berkeley Lab since 1992, is another facility integral to Berkeley’s scientific endeavors. Researchers in the lab are affiliated with various campus departments, including bioengineering, chemistry and molecular and cell biology, according to the Keasling Lab’s website.

The lab’s long-term goal is to understand the production of organic chemicals, according to campus chemical engineering professor Jay Keasling.

“No. 1, we have trained a huge number of undergraduates, graduates (and) postdoctoral students,” Keasling said. “Many faculty were trained in my laboratory.”

In 2006, the Keasling Lab was able to engineer Escherichia coli, commonly known as E. coli, and a species of yeast to produce artemisinic acid, which can be converted to artemisinin and used to combat malaria.

The lab, which is partnering with Amyris Biotechnologies, has shipped approximately 51 million artemisinin combination therapies to Africa since 2014.

“Berkeley is a fantastic place because we are able to attract fantastic faculty,” Keasling said. “It’s an incredibly rich and creative environment that is unique to the world.”

Campus electrical engineering alumnus Kenneth Thompson developed Unix, a new operating system for machines, with his colleagues at Bell Labs in 1969, according to the UC Berkeley website.

In addition, David Patterson, a campus professor of computer science, directed a project in 1981 that produced an effective and efficient approach with respect to the design of computer central processing units, or CPUs.

According to UC Berkeley’s electrical engineering and computer sciences website, Patterson’s research methodology revolves around pinpointing key questions for the information technology industry and organizing groups of faculty and graduate students to determine answers.

“Our qualitative goal is to be the No. 1 university in terms of benefit to humankind (and) ensure that our research enterprise is at the leading edge … (of) world-class research,” Katz said.

From a corporate perspective, UC Berkeley has revolutionized biology by bridging the barrier between technology and science.

Donald Glaser, winner of the 1960 Nobel Prize in physics, founded the first biotechnology company in 1971, called Cetus, which eventually merged with another biotechnology corporation, Chiron.

“The magic of Berkeley is that we are (a) public institution. Our research agenda is about how the work we do impacts society,” Katz said. “Social justice, social mobility (is) important to our research enterprise, as is biology and technology.”

Contact Aarya Gupta at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @aaryapgupta.