Widgets Magazine

Energy Secretary Steven Chu to return to Stanford

U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu will return to Stanford this spring as a faculty member following the conclusion of his four years in office. Chu’s appointment will mark his second stint at the University, where he had previously worked as a professor of physics and applied physics from 1987 to 2008.

Courtesy U.S. Department of Energy

Courtesy U.S. Department of Energy

Upon his return, Chu will be the William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of Humanities and Sciences, holding a joint appointment in the Department of Physics and the School of Medicine’s Department of Molecular and Cellular Physiology. The exact date of his departure from the Department of Energy is currently unknown and likely dependent on the process of nominating his successor.

“We’re very excited,” said Steven Kahn, chair of the Physics Department. “It’s fantastic that he’s back… Many of us know Steve from when he was here before, [and] we strongly value him as a colleague.”

Chu framed his decision to return to Stanford as a natural move for someone who viewed his time in office mostly as a break from academia.

“The highest point in my career was when I became a professor in [such] a great institution,” Chu said.

At Stanford, Chu will focus on issues surrounding energy efficiency and policy, in addition to launching an initiative in advanced bio-imaging and pursuing other interdisciplinary projects.

“I want to return to… the marriage of physics, biology and biomedicine,” Chu said. “That is a very exciting frontier.”

Despite Chu’s evident comfort with academia, he cited his time as Secretary of Energy as invaluable in broadening his approach to the issues he’ll address upon his return and providing perspective on academia’s role in driving progress.

“[As Secretary of Energy], you get a much more complete view of issues that go so much deeper,” Chu said. “You see a lot of the things that it takes to go from discovery to invention to… getting it out into the marketplace.”

“Using technology to drive down the cost of cleaner forms of energy is only part of it,” Chu added. “There are a lot of things having to do with education and public awareness… [Some think that] if you build a better mousetrap, they will come. You have to build a better mousetrap, and people have to be aware that it’s a better mousetrap.”

As part of that emphasis on education, Chu said that he looks forward to teaching and interacting with undergraduate as well as graduate students.

“[Teaching] a freshman seminar was one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had,” he noted.

Born in St. Louis in 1948, Chu studied as an undergraduate at the University of Rochester before obtaining a Ph.D. in 1976 from the University of California, Berkeley.

After a stint in the private sector at AT&T and Bell Laboratories, where he performed the work developing methods to cool and trap atoms with laser light that ultimately earned him the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics, he joined Stanford in 1987. He worked as a professor of physics and applied physics for 21 years, including stints as chair of the physics department from 1990-1993 and 1999-2001, before he was nominated by President Barack Obama as Secretary of Energy and subsequently confirmed.

After a four-year tenure marked by historic expansions in spending on green energy, Chu wrote in a letter to Energy Department employees that many major energy challenges– from a reliance on imported oil to lagging investment in green energy and a lack of action on climate change– still lie ahead. He emphasized, however, his intent to further his accomplishments as Secretary of Energy even after leaving office.

“I would like to return to an academic life of teaching and research, but will still work to advance the missions that we have been working on together for the last four years,” Chu wrote.

Even as he approaches a return to academia after his time in office, however, Chu acknowledged that choosing between Stanford and Berkeley– where he completed his postdoctoral studies and where he served as director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory from 2004 to 2008 — was a difficult decision. Ultimately, however, the presence of four of Chu’s grandchildren in Palo Alto proved to be a critical factor.

“They’re both great universities, but I’m very happy to be coming back to Stanford,” Chu concluded.

About Marshall Watkins

Marshall Watkins is a senior staff writer at The Stanford Daily, having previously worked as the paper's executive editor and as the managing editor of news. Marshall is a junior from London majoring in Economics, and can be reached at mtwatkins "at" stanford "dot" edu.
  • pol_incorrect

    Nobody asked him about Solyndra and the billions of dollars he decided to put on “green” bankrupted companies whose only merit was that the investors or the management were donors to the Obama campaign. Here is a Washington Post investigation on the Solyndra scandal http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/specialreports/solyndra-scandal . The tenure of Mr Chu at the DOE has provided more evidence to support the indictment against “The Best and the Brightest” by the namesake book. It has also provided more evidence to support William F. Buckley, Jr.’s contention that “I’d rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University”. Happy to see Mr Chu back in the lab where he belongs (and where he should have stayed to spare us, the taxpayers, from billions of dollars in wasted money).

  • pol_incorrect

    Here is also a less than flattering account from the liberal “The New Republic” http://www.newrepublic.com/article/politics/magazine/100037/steven-chu-energy-obama-solyndra .

  • Andy D

    wow, not even a mention of his 4 years as Director Lawrence Berkeley Lab prior to heading off to Washington? All I can say to that kind of cleaning of the record is: Go Bears!

  • John Apps

    What is very strange about the above commentary, is no mention of Chu’s appointment to the directorship of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory prior to his stint as Secretary of Energy.

  • Daily Editor

    Amended above

  • Streetsmarts_Rule

    Boy, am I glad that I wasn’t the only one feeling that way! I have always maintained that being a great scientist doesn’t automatically translate to being a good administrator. Those skills are very, very different.

  • pol_incorrect

    Yes. About the only person I can think of that fits both well is Arno Penzias. Stanford’s president is also a very good scientist and administrator. However, thus far, he hasn’t gotten recognition of the caliber of a Nobel Prize. In his field that would be the Turing Award.