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Chu hailed at UC Berkeley as "ideal match" for lab, campus

 Steven Chu
Steven Chu in his laboratory. Bart Nagel Photography)

– Today's announcement of Nobel laureate Steven Chu as Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's new director means the University of California, Berkeley, will soon be welcoming home one of its own.

Chu is one of three co-winners of the 1997 Nobel Prize in physics, awarded for the development of methods to cool and trap atoms with laser light. His appointment as LBNL director, effective Aug. 1, comes 28 years after he earned his Ph.D. in physics at UC Berkeley. "It feels like a homecoming," Chu said at the press conference announcing his appointment.

News of the appointment was met with unequivocal excitement from many on campus, several of whom have personally worked with Chu.

"It's nice to have him back where he belongs," said Chancellor Robert M. Berdahl. "This is a wonderful appointment. The lab and campus are so closely connected that what is good for the lab is good for the campus, and vice versa."

Chu is currently a professor at Stanford University, where he has been on the faculty since 1987. Before that, from 1978-1987, he worked at AT&T Bell Laboratories in New Jersey.

In addition to becoming director at the Berkeley Lab, Chu will also hold a professional appointment on campus although details are still to be worked out.

Those interviewed cited Chu's ability to bridge disparate fields, from the physical to the biological sciences, as a reflection of the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of science at the Berkeley Lab and on campus.

"Steve's appointment is a big deal because it means that LBNL and the campus will be able to branch out and become a more dominant force in the broader area of science," said UC Berkeley's Marvin Cohen, University Professor of Physics and president-elect of the American Physical Society. "He will solidify and build upon the strong connection the campus already has with the Berkeley Lab. He will both influence the research and the education on campus."

Cohen pointed out that former Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien had personally directed him to recruit Chu back to UC Berkeley years ago, so he said he was "particularly happy to hear" of Chu's appointment.

"This is an absolutely wonderful thing for Berkeley in every respect," said Mark Richards, dean of physical sciences at UC Berkeley. "He is an ideal match for the lab and campus because of his strength in both biological and physical sciences."

Jeffrey Bokor, UC Berkeley professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences, recalled Chu's energy when he worked with him at Bell Labs in the early 1980s.

"I had the lab next door to his at the time he was doing his Nobel-prize-winning research," said Bokor. "I remember when his discoveries were made, he came by and grabbed me and said, 'Here, look at this!' He was that kind of guy, always excited about what he was doing."

After earning his degree, Chu stayed on briefly as a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of UC Berkeley physics professor Eugene Commins, a person Chu regarded as his mentor.

More recently, Chu chaired the review of the UC Berkeley physics department. Berdahl said Chu did a superb job with the review and helped the campus effectively direct its resources.

"I would like to congratulate Steve on his appointment," said Marjorie Shapiro, incoming physics chair at UC Berkeley. "We in the physics department welcome him back to Berkeley. We not only consider him a first-rate scientist, but also a friend and colleague. Steve has a broad and interdisciplinary scientific perspective, which makes him an excellent choice for the LBNL directorship. His views reflect the physics department's vision of science in the 21st century."