Steven Chu currently serves as the 12th United States Secretary of Energy.
His nomination as Energy Secretary was unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate on January 20, 2009 and he was sworn in as Secretary of Energy for the Obama administration on January 21, 2009.
Chu is the second Chinese-American to serve as a Cabinet Secretary. The first was Elaine Chao, who served as Labor Secretary under President George W. Bush.
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Chu was born in St. Louis, Mo., on February 28, 1948 with a lineage from Taicang, in the Jiangsu province.
After graduating from Garden City High School in New York, he went on to receive a B.A. in mathematics and a B.S. in physics in 1970 from the University of Rochester. Later he earned a Ph.D. in physics from the University of California, Berkeley in 1976, during which time he was supported by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.
After obtaining his doctorate degree, Chu remained at Berkeley as a postdoctoral researcher for two years before joining Bell Labs in 1978, where his early research focused on x-ray microscopy, energy transfer and the optical spectroscopy of positronium.
Chu also conducted research on cooling and trapping atoms with laser light, work that in 1997 made him a co-winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics. Chu shared the award with Claude Cohen-Tannoudji and William Daniel Phillips. He and his team used six laser beams to trap the atoms, creating what they called “optical molasses.”
He left Bell Labs and became a professor of physics at Stanford University in 1987, serving as the chair of its Physics Department from 1990 to 1993 and from 1999 to 2001. While at Stanford, Chu, together with three other professors, initiated the Bio-X program that focused on interdisciplinary research in biology and medicine.He also played an important role in securing the funding of the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology.
In August 2004, Chu was appointed as the director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, a U.S. Department of Energy National Laboratory, and joined UC Berkeley’s Department of Physics and Department of Molecular and Cell Biology.
Under Chu’s leadership, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has been a center of research into bio fuels and solar energy technologies. He spearheaded the laboratory’s Helios project, an initiative to develop methods of harnessing solar power as a source of renewable energy for transportation.
Chu has been a vocal advocate for more research into alternative energy and nuclear power, arguing that a shift away from fossil fuels is essential in combating global warming. He spoke at the 2009 National Science Bowl about the importance of America’s science students, emphasizing their future role in environmental planning and global initiative. He joined the Copenhagen Climate Council, an international collaboration between business and science, established to create momentum for the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen.
Chu is a holder of 10 patents and has published nearly 250 scientific and technical papers. He received an honorary doctorate from Boston University when he was the keynote speaker at the 2007 commencement exercises. Diablo magazine, based east of Berkeley in Walnut Creek, Calif., honored him with one of its annual Eco Awards in its April 2009 issue, shortly after he was nominated as Energy Secretary. Washington University in St. Louis and Harvard University awarded him an honorary doctorate during their 2010 and 2009 commencement exercises, respectively. He was also awarded an honorary degree from Yale University during its 2010 commencement.
Chu comes from a family of scholars; his father earned an advanced chemical engineering degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and taught at Washington University in St. Louis and Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, while his mother studied economics. His older brother Gilbert Chu is a professor and researcher of biochemistry and medicine at Stanford University. His younger brother, Morgan Chu is a partner and the former co-managing partner at the law firm Irell & Manella LLP. Chu is married to Jean Fetter, a British American and an Oxford-trained physicist. He has two sons, Geoffrey and Michael, from a previous marriage to Lisa Chu-Thielbar.
(Text by Purvi Gajjar)
Photo courtesy of Department of Energy