Outgoing Berkeley Lab director to take research helm at UC Berkeley

January 21, 2016
By: Robert Sanders

Paul Alivisatos, an internationally renowned chemist who has run the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory for the past seven years, has been tapped to lead the research enterprise at the UC Berkeley.

Paul Alivisatos
Paul Alivisatos, outgoing Berkeley Lab director and newly appointed vice chancellor for research at UC Berkeley. Photo: Roy Kaltschmidt, Berkeley Lab

Alivisatos, who has been a UC Berkeley professor of chemistry since 1988, will assume the position of vice chancellor for research on March 1. He will oversee campus research, which annually generates approximately $700 million in grants and contracts. Alivisatos announced his plans to step down as director of Berkeley Lab last year, and his successor was approved today by the UC Board of Regents.

Alivisatos will be in Washington, D.C., tomorrow to receive the National Medal of Science from President Barack Obama at the White House.

“As a professed believer in ‘curiosity-driven research,’ a strong advocate for federal funding in support of basic science research and an experienced entrepreneur, we are convinced that Professor Alivisatos is uniquely positioned to lead Berkeley’s preeminent research enterprise,” said UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks. “He knows how to help people thrive and succeed in complex, dynamic, consensus-oriented organizations. He deeply respects our public mission. He knows exactly what it takes to produce world-class results.”

The vice chancellor for research has primary responsibility for research policy, research planning and research administration for UC Berkeley, including relations between the campus and industry, technology transfer and research compliance.

Alivisatos will replace interim vice chancellor Christopher McKee, a professor emeritus of physics and of astronomy and a Professor of the Graduate School, who took over in April 2015. McKee will return to research.

Quantum dots

Alivisatos is well-known in the field of nanotechnology, where he pioneered work on nanocrystals in the 1980s and co-founded a startup called Nanosys Inc., which uses colorful nanocrystals, dubbed quantum dots, to produce bright and energy-efficient computer displays. He also is a co-founder of Quantum Dot Corp., now part of Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc., which markets nanocrystals as submicroscopic tracers, and co-invented a technology for flexible solar cells that has been licensed by Siva Power.

Paul Alivisatos
Alivisatos with his research group in 2013. Photo: Roy Kaltschmidt, Berkeley Lab

“I really think the role of public universities in our society is central, and I am looking forward to having a dialogue with the faculty about what that will look like in the next 10 to 20 years and how we can make sure UC Berkeley is leading it and benefiting society,” he said. “Creating new knowledge is such a precious thing, and we need to make sure we are fostering that ethos for everybody, including undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs, faculty and staff.”

During his tenure at Berkeley Lab, he led efforts to focus research in the areas of renewable energy and climate change, and oversaw expansions of space for computational research, building efficiency, solar energy research and biological sciences. While noting that there are lots of similarities between the research at Berkeley Lab and that on campus, he said that there also are significant differences.

“Berkeley Lab is about team science, and about bringing people together from diverse disciplines to address problems of national scale,” he said. “That’s true of campus researchers too, but we also have to foster a good environment for curiosity-driven research and the wonderful, lone individual who is on a journey.”

Curiosity-driven research defines Alivisatos’s career. A native of Chicago who was raised in Athens, Greece, he obtained his bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1981 from the University of Chicago and jumped at the opportunity to come to UC Berkeley for graduate school.

“To me, Berkeley represented adventure, it symbolized something special in the world, a place where you come if you are interested in changing things,” he said. “I think that is what our student body is like today: a self-selected group that believes society can be better, be different, and wants to challenge the world. They see that as their adventure.”

He graduated in 1986 with a Ph.D. in chemical physics and went to AT&T Bell Labs for two years, where he became involved with the first research on nanoparticles: clusters of a few million atoms that exhibit unique optical and electronic properties because of their small size, measurable in hundreds of nanometers.

He continued that research upon returning to UC Berkeley in 1988, when he joined the chemistry faculty and later, in 1999, the faculty of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. He continued investigating quantum dot optical properties and found ways to make the quantum dots water soluble and also make them in shapes other than spheres. His creation of rod-shaped semiconductor nanocrystals that could be stacked to create nano-sized electronic devices altered the nanoscience landscape, leading to the idea of solar cells based on nanocrystals.

His lab in Hildebrand Hall, which numbers about 30 people, continues to find new ways to synthesize nanoparticles, probe their physical properties and use that information to develop them for use in renewable energy, biological imaging and sensing.

Despite his immersion in the world of science, he said that the University of Chicago instilled in him an appreciation of other disciplines – in particular, art – that he hopes to learn more about as vice chancellor.

“To me, art and science are cousins,” he said. He is an amateur photographer whose photos can be found online at He also mentored a young art student, Kate Nichols, who is still an artist-in-residence in his laboratory. He taught her how to make colorful nanocrystals that she continues to incorporate in her professional artwork. She is among some 75 graduate students and 62 postdocs Alivisatos has mentored at UC Berkeley over the past 28 years.

Alivisatos has been recognized for his many research accomplishments, with awards such as the Wolf Prize in Chemistry and the Linus Pauling Medal. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society.

He currently is the Samsung Distinguished Chair in Nanoscience and Nanotechnology and director of the Kavli Energy NanoSciences Institute at Berkeley. He is also the founding editor of Nano Letters, a publication of the American Chemical Society.