Physics society honors Birgeneau for ‘statesmanship in science’

The American Institute of Physics announced today (Thursday, Jan. 24) that Robert Birgeneau, chancellor of UC Berkeley, will receive the 2012 Karl Taylor Compton Medal for Leadership in Physics.

Robert Birgeneau

UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau. (John Blaustein photo)

The medal, one of the AIP’s signature awards, was established in 1957 to honor physicists who have made outstanding contributions through exceptional statesmanship in science.

Birgeneau was cited “for his leadership in improving the situation for women in science in the United States and around the world, his efforts to enhance diversity in science and for deepening our understanding of magnetism and its interplay with other states of matter.”

The medal, a certificate of recognition and a $10,000 check will be presented to Birgeneau at the American Physical Society’s March 18 meeting in Baltimore.

“The Compton Medal is one of AIP’s most prestigious honors. Since we present this award only once every four years, we take special care to ensure that we’re recognizing truly exceptional statesmen in science,” said AIP Executive Director and CEO H. Frederick Dylla. “Dr. Birgeneau is very highly regarded among his peers and the broader public for the contributions he has made to scientific investigation and for his commitment to diversity and equity in the academic community. He is most deserving of this recognition.”

“Needless to say, I am greatly honored to receive this award from the AIP,” said Birgeneau, also a professor of physics and of materials science and engineering at UC Berkeley. “Previous winners are among my heroes in modern physics. It is particularly gratifying that the AIP has recognized our efforts to make science more inclusive.”

Birgeneau is an internationally distinguished physicist who has been chancellor of UC Berkeley since 2004 and who led the University of Toronto from 2000 to 2004. His dedication to supporting women in science came to the forefront in 1995, when he was dean of science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). There, he authorized that year “A Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT,” proposed by women science faculty members. The study produced an influential 1999 report, and the recommendations were implemented with the strong support of Birgeneau. A standing committee on women’s issues was subsequently established, and major changes have taken place at MIT as a result. The study has had a large impact beyond MIT and has been quoted nationally and internationally.

As chancellor at UC Berkeley, Birgeneau in September 2011 joined First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House, playing a featured role in an East Room event to emphasize the need to clear hurdles for girls and women with aspirations to careers in science, technology, engineering and math. At that panel discussion, Birgeneau said eliminating obstacles to raising families while pursuing research careers is “not only an issue of equity, fairness and justice in our treatment of women, but also a critical issue for the success of our country.”

Addressing work-family issues

Under Birgeneau, UC Berkeley has been a leader in fostering a family-friendly workplace for faculty, students and staff, and the campus established the University of California system’s first initiatives to address the work-family issues of faculty and graduate students. UC Berkeley’s “family-friendly package” includes tenure-track stoppage of one year for faculty parents with caregiving responsibilities for a newborn or new adoptee.

“These are entitlements available to men, women and same-sex partners,” Birgeneau has said, “and importantly, faculty are not made to feel that they are asking for special treatment. This is very significant for our faculty.”

The Compton Award for Birgeneau “is a much-deserved honor,” said Frances Hellman, UC Berkeley professor and chair of physics. “His current research as well as his tireless work on behalf of UC Berkeley’s students, has been breathtaking and completely in line with his long and distinguished track record in research and diversity, which is being recognized by this award.”

As chancellor, Birgeneau has established a vice chancellor’s office for equity and inclusion, and been a tireless and admired national advocate for access to excellence in higher education for talented but disadvantaged students, including the undocumented and underrepresented. In 2008, he was recognized with a Carnegie Corporation Academic Leadership Award as a “Champion of Excellence and Equity in Education.” And in 2009, he received a Shinnyo-en Foundation’s 2009 Pathfinders to Peace Prize for his “commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion and to the integration of public service as an essential component of the academic experience.”

Birgeneau is an experimental physicist who uses techniques such as neutron scattering to investigate exotic materials, including high-temperature superconductors. These materials allow electricity to flow without resistance at much higher temperatures than most superconductors, which must be cooled to near absolute zero.

Hellman said she is “especially delighted” about Birgeneau receiving the Compton Award “because when he steps down as chancellor in a few months, he will once again take on teaching and research full time, and the students and faculty in physics will all benefit from his passion for education and his energy for discovery.”

Last March, Birgeneau announced that he would leave the chancellorship after nearly nine years to return to teaching and research, and that transition will happen on June 1.

A Toronto native, Birgeneau received his bachelor of science degree in mathematics from the University of Toronto in 1963 and his Ph.D. in physics from Yale University in 1966. He was a member of the technical staff at Bell Laboratories from 1968 to 1975, and then joined the physics faculty at MIT. He was named chair of the physics department in 1988 and dean of science in 1991. He was appointed president of the University of Toronto in 2000 and chancellor of UC Berkeley in 2004.

Birgeneau was elected to membership in the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of London, the American Philosophical Society and other scholarly societies. He has received many awards for teaching and for his research on the fundamental properties of materials.

The Compton Medal was established by the AIP in 1957 to honor Karl Taylor Compton’s service to the physics community and is awarded every four years. Previous Compton Medal winners represent some of the leading figures in U.S. physics research and public service in the late 20th century. Among them are Neal Lane, former director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Science Foundation; Nobelist Leon Lederman, former director of Fermilab; Mildred Dresselhaus, MIT professor and long-time advocate of women in science; and Victor Weisskopf, cofounder of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“It is also inspiring to receive an award named after Karl T. Compton, since in his role as president of MIT, Compton transformed MIT,” Birgeneau said.

The American Institute of Physics is an organization of 10 physical science societies representing more than 135,000 scientists, engineers and educators and is one of the world’s largest publishers of scientific information in physics. Its flagship publication is Physics Today.