New fellows program supports taking risks in science

January 28, 2021
By: Elizabeth Costello
three researchers gather around gold-colored ultracold freezer
In the lab of Irfan Siddiqi (left), ultracold freezers are key to investigating the theoretical and technological aspects of quantum coherence and harnessing the phenomenon in superconducting circuits and other devices. (UC Berkeley photo by Keegan Houser)

To support research that has the potential to forge new paths in the physical sciences, UC Berkeley today (Jan. 28) launched the Heising-Simons Faculty Fellows program.

Through a generous gift from the Heising-Simons Family Fund, early- and mid-career faculty members working in geology and geophysics, materials sciences and materials chemistry, astronomy and physics will have the opportunity to apply for five-year $1 million fellowships to pursue basic science research that could lead to paradigm-shifting discoveries. Two awards will be given each year for the next six years.

“In science, ‘Eureka’ moments don’t occur in a vacuum,” said Dean of Math and Physical Sciences Frances Hellman. “Breakthroughs come as a combination of visionary imagination and painstaking basic research. This new fellows program celebrates the former and sustains the latter.”

The Heising-Simons Faculty Fellows program will advance the efforts of faculty who are pursuing bold approaches within the physical sciences. UC Berkeley’s remarkable record of achievement in these areas includes Ernest Lawrence’s invention of the cyclotron in the 1930s; Marvin Cohen’s predictions of properties in new materials, such as nanotubes and semiconductors, starting in the 1960s; Luis Alvarez and Walter Alvarez’s 1980 hypothesis that an asteroid’s impact caused the end-Cretaceous mass extinction; and Chung-Pei Ma’s discovery over the last decade that supermassive black holes lurk in the centers of many galaxies in the universe.

The program will provide an important injection of funds to launch a substantial research effort designed to advance endeavors that are in the early stages of development. The program will boost the efforts of faculty who have laid the groundwork for theories and technologies that are as bold and risky as they are potentially rewarding.

“The new Heising-Simons Fellows program provides a unique opportunity to support the cutting-edge research of our most innovative early- and mid-career faculty,” said Vice Chancellor for Research Randy Katz. “These generous and flexible awards will support the early stages of the most exciting and promising research. My colleagues and I are very grateful for this new program since many funders, including federal agencies, tend to focus on efforts that are already quite far developed.”

The program will provide discretionary resources to the faculty awardees, such as potential support for undergraduate, graduate or postdoctoral researchers or critical equipment and materials needed for the proposed project. Heising-Simons Faculty Fellows will be sustained and supported as they participate in UC Berkeley’s vibrant scientific ecosystem, working to turn their insights into quantifiable discoveries. The flexibility of the program and its broad reach across disciplines ensure that it will serve as an important foundation to launch the next wave of UC Berkeley trailblazers who are changing our understanding of the world, the cosmos and the universe, Katz said.