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Steven Chu - Biographical Profile

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Steven Chu - Biographical Profile

Photograph of Dr. Steven Chu, Secretary of Energy under President Barack Obama and 1997 Nobel Prize winner in Physics.

U.S. government/public domain

General Information:

Birthdate: February 28, 1948
Birthplace: St. Louis, Missouri

Notable Accomplishments: 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics, Secretary of Energy 2009 to 2013

Educational Background:

In 1970, Steven Chu received bachelor degrees in both mathematics and physics from the University of Rochester. He went on to receive a National Science Foundation Research Fellowship that helped him attend the University of California, Berkeley, where he received a Ph.D. in physics in 1976.

Research Focus:

Dr. Chu worked as a postdoctoral fellow at University of California, Berkeley, for a couple of years after completing his degree, before moving on to work at Bell Labs. It was at Bell Labs that he did his research that would ultimately earn him the Nobel Prize. In 1987, he left Bell Labs to begin working at Stanford University, where he has held a number of leadership positions:
  • Physics Department Chair, 1990 - 1993
  • Physics Department Chair, 1999 - 2001
  • Co-founder of Bio-X interdisciplinary biology/medicine research program
  • Director, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, 2004 - 2009

Nobel Prize:

Dr. Steven Chu shared the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics with Claude Cohen-Tannoudji and William D. Phillips "for development of methods to cool and trap atoms with laser light." This methodology allows scientists to isolate individual atoms for experiments, which has led to new possibilities in how to test physical predictions, especially in the realm of quantum physics.

U.S. Secretary of Energy:

Steven Chu served as the U.S. Secretary of Energy under President Barack Obama from 2009 to 2013. He released a letter announcing his decision not to serve a second term on February 1, 2013. Though these letters are fairly standard, Chu's was notable in that it was a fairly lengthy review of his time at the Department of Energy, rather than purely a formal notification of his intention.

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory is a U.S. Department of Energy National Laboratory, so Chu had some contact with the Department of Energy in his capacity as its Director. Under his leadership, the laboratory did extensive research into alternative forms of power production, such as by using biofuels and solar power. This background made him a natural choice for Barack Obama to choose to fill the Cabinet-level position to guide America's energy policy.

Notable Quotes:

Articulating a vision of the importance of science being based on the merit of ideas, in his resignation letter from the Department of Energy, Feb. 1, 2013:

I’ve always been inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, who articulated his Dream of an America where people are judged not by skin color but “by the content of their character.” In the scientific world, people are judged by the content of their ideas. Advances are made with new insights, but the final arbitrator of any point of view are experiments that seek the unbiased truth, not information cherry picked to support a particular point of view. The power of our work is derived from this foundation....

I have worked each day to move the Department in a direction where the political leadership and highest levels of career managers have the intellectual curiosity and wisdom to learn from the people who reported to them and where the subject matter experts – which should include managers at the highest levels – as well as employees at our national laboratories welcome their counsel and help. I grew up and matured in organizations where a graduate student or staff scientist could have a discussion with a company department head, a professor, a national lab director and be heard, not because of their rank in the organization, but because of the quality of their ideas.

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