Alivisatos Has Big Shoes to Fill—And He’s Ready to Fill Them

UChicago’s incoming President Alivisatos is committed to supporting students from a broad array of backgrounds and to fostering a pride in academic inquiry in the same way President Zimmer has been. He also shares many other positive qualities with our current president.

By Emma-Victoria Banos

Dr. Armand Paul Alivisatos and President Robert Jeffrey Zimmer have a lot in common. They were both provosts of respected universities and researchers in STEM fields, and they have always supported cutting-edge inquiry and interdisciplinary study. In the last 14 years as president of the University of Chicago, Zimmer has articulated the University’s commitment to free expression, worked hard to make us a more prestigious institution (decreasing our acceptance rate by a little more than six-fold), helped to fundraise $4.5 billion of endowment funds (increasing our endowment almost two-fold), and supported campus renovations, beautification efforts, and new constructions. Given Zimmer and Alivisatos’s similarities, we can hope to see the same positive impact during Alivisatos’s time as president. As students, we shouldn’t be pessimistic about the committee’s pick before Alivisatos has a chance to prove himself as a leader.

Following the pattern of poaching provosts (President Robert Jeffrey Zimmer similarly was the provost of Brown University prior to being recruited as our school president), future president Dr. Armand Paul Alivisatos (A.B. ’81) is being plucked from his position as provost at the University of California, Berkeley. Also like President Zimmer, Alivisatos has a STEM background. While President Zimmer is a respected mathematician, President Alivisatos is an esteemed chemist. Zimmer, in his mathematical heyday, helped to prove some remarkable geometrical properties—for example, on a certain dimensional level symmetries cannot exist. Zimmer still serves as Chair of the Board for Argonne National Lab, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, and the Marine Biological Laboratory. Alivisatos’s research concerns the chemical properties of nanocrystals, and he’s highly influential in the scientific community, with an h-index (an indicator of research publication influence) of 176. Anything above 100 is considered a feat.

Working at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory starting in the late 1990s, Alivisatos was a core player in creating micro-transistors from a single molecule of carbon-60 known as a “buckyball.” He then moved on to studying nanocrystals and continued to teach at UC Berkeley, eventually earning himself a position as the director of Berkeley Lab in 2009. In 2013 he became the founding director of the Kavli Energy Nanoscience Institute, the goal of which is “to explore the basic science of how to capture and channel energy on the molecular or nanoscale, with the potential for discovering new ways of generating energy for human use.” After he stepped down from his position as director of Berkeley Lab in 2015, he assisted in perfecting the quantum dot technology behind Samsung’s cutting-edge QLED televisions which was released in 2017. For these accomplishments he was recently awarded the 2021 Priestley Medal, the highest distinction granted by the American Chemical Society. According to the CEO of the American Chemical Society, Dr. Thomas Connelly Jr., “Dr. Alivisatos is a true innovator in the field of nanoscience and chemistry as a whole.”

Alivisatos has also been an important part of the Berkeley Laboratory on an administrative level, which is important given that come September he will be administrating the entire University. While he was director of Berkeley Lab from 2009 to 2015, Alivisatos commenced the construction of more energy-efficient buildings and initiated overhauls on existing buildings with inefficient infrastructures. He also oversaw the demolition of the Bevatron collider, a “weak-focusing” particle accelerator built in the early 1950s which became outdated due to its need for more expensive magnets in comparison to the “strong-focusing” particle accelerators with smaller apertures of the modern day. He ensured that this deconstruction was carried out safely and that the radioactive leftovers were responsibly transported to hazardous waste facilities. The project had more than an 80 percent recycle efficiency.

Although he went to graduate school in California and has spent most of his time as a researcher there, Alivisatos’s roots are in Chicago. He’s a native-born Chicagoan who moved to Greece at a young age and then returned to get his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Chicago. He then attended UC Berkeley for graduate school, earned his Ph.D. in chemistry in 1986, and then went on to be a chemistry professor there. Now, he’s coming back to his roots, and he’ll be the second UChicago president to be an alum of the University. UC Berkeley’s loss of an excellent provost is definitely UChicago’s gain. Current chancellor of UC Berkeley Carol Christ said of Alivisatos’s new position as president that she “can think of no one better suited for this extraordinary opportunity” and that also there is “no one who will be harder for us to replace” in their board of directors. “Paul has been an extraordinary partner; a tireless, visionary leader; a friend; and a true champion for Berkeley’s mission, values and academic excellence.”

At UC Berkeley, Alivisatos was a proponent of many programs that encourage diversity in STEM majors, such as Girls in Engineering, which selects girls from sixth through eighth grade in the San Francisco Bay Area to participate in a week-long engineering summer camp overseen by UC Berkeley faculty and the CS Scholars Program, which provides support to those at UC Berkeley who belong to typically underrepresented groups in computer science. He also helped establish a course at UC Berkeley called Foundations of Data Science, which helps students of any major answer an interdisciplinary question that is of interest to them using data science. As of 2017, it was “the fastest growing program in the history of Berkeley” and had over 1,000 students enrolled for the fall of 2018.

We’re lucky to be getting another president as innovative as President Zimmer, who will be known as Chancellor Zimmer starting in September. It’s clear that Alivisatos is a great fit for UChicago. He is committed to diversity, to interdisciplinary study and inquiry, and he has extensive experience as a preeminent thinker and researcher. He left a profoundly positive impact on the UC Berkeley community, and he knows from experience what it’s like to be a student at UChicago. After 40 years away, welcome home, Dr. Alivisatos.

Emma-Victoria Banos is a first-year in the College.