Dr. Steven Chu, 2011 Scientist of the Year
The 2011 selection for R&D Magazine’s 49th Scientist of the Year, Dr. Steven Chu, is a familiar face to all, and he brings to the Award a depth of knowledge and ability that is reflected in both his accomplishments in science and the influence he now exercises in his role as head of the U.S. Dept. of Energy.
Long before he accepted a political appointment, Dr. Steven Chu had earned his place been among the United States’ leading physicists. He is, of course, best known for his 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics, earned for breakthroughs in cooling and trapping atoms with laser light at the former Bell Labs in the late 1980s. The method that he and his colleagues developed allows scientists to study and determine, with great accuracy, the structure of individual atoms which exist in the air.
Later, while a professor of physics at Stanford University, he broadened his research horizons. In addition to work in atomic physics, he established the Bio-X program, which focuses on interdisciplinary research in biology and medicine. Using atomic force microscopy, optical tweezers, and fluorescence imaging techniques, he investigated the physics of biological systems at a small scale, and also added polymer physics to his repertoire.
After assuming leadership of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in 2004, Chu added energy research to his fields of interest, and directed the laboratory to a leadership position in biofuels and solar energy technologies. During this time, he began to advocate for increased research in alternative energy and nuclear power, and his leadership in this area helped, in part, to prompt his selection for the U.S. secretary of energy position. Applying his analytical approach to large-scale energy problems, he made sweeping proposals, including a low-carbon “glucose” economy, and efforts to help manage global temperatures through reflection and absorption of sunlight.
Despite his existing role in crafting policy, Chu has remained a researcher, publishing papers in both physics and advanced biological imaging methods. His enduring influence in the scientific world, his ability to exercise thoughtful analysis on a wide range of scientific topics, and his unwavering dedication to the advance of scientific knowledge all contribute his selection as Scientist of the Year.