Paul Alivisatos, director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and a UC Berkeley professor of nanotechnology, has won the prestigious Wolf Foundation Prize in Chemistry for 2012. Alivisatos, who earned his Ph.D. here in physical chemistry in 1986, is an internationally recognized authority on nanochemistry and a pioneer in the synthesis of semiconductor quantum dots and multi-shaped artificial nanostructures. He shares this year’s Wolf Prize in Chemistry with fellow nanoscience expert Charles Lieber of Harvard University. The Wolf Foundation, based in Israel, has been recognizing outstanding scientists and artists annually since 1978.

Paul Alivisatos
Paul Alivisatos (photo: Roy Kaltschmidt, LBNL)

The Wolf Foundation Prize — awarded in the scientific fields of agriculture, chemistry, mathematics, medicine and physics, and in a variety of the arts — consists of a certificate and a monetary award of $100,000. Recipients are selected by an international committee of recognized experts in each field. Since 1978, a total of 253 scientists and artists from 23 countries have been honored, including four scientists from Berkeley Lab – Gabor Somorjai (Ph.D. ’60; the “father of modern surface chemistry”), Peter Schultz, Alexander Pines, and George Pimentel (Ph.D. ’49; inventor of the chemical laser). Laureates receive their awards from the President of Israel at a special ceremony of Israel´s Parliament in Jerusalem.

The citation on Alivisatos’ chemistry prize credits him for his development of the colloidal inorganic nanocrystal as a building block of nanoscience and for “making fundamental contributions to controlling the synthesis of these particles, to measuring and understanding their physical properties, and to utilizing their unique properties for applications ranging from light generation and harvesting to biological imaging.”

Alivisatos is widely recognized as the man who demonstrated that semiconductor nanocrystals can be grown into two-dimensional rods and other shapes as opposed to spheres. This achievement paved the way for a slew of new applications including biomedical diagnostics, revolutionary photovoltaic cells and LED materials. He also demonstrated key applications of nanocrystals in biological imaging and renewable energy. Prior to his research, all non-metal nanocrystals were dot-shaped, meaning they were essentially one-dimensional.

While we’re waxing statistical, here’s one that’s mildly astounding:

Of the seven directors in the Berkeley Lab’s eight-decade history, a majority — the last four in a row, like dominoes — have been UC Berkeley alumni, each with at least a Ph.D. earned here.  Paul Alivisatos earned his in physical chemistry in 1986.  His immediate predecessor, Steven Chu, received his physics doctorate in 1976 (later winning a Nobel Prize and becoming U.S. Secretary of Energy).  Before Chu came Charles Shank, something of an overachiever Berkeley-degreewise (or a very loyal alum): B.S. ’65, M.S. ’66, Ph.D. ’69, all in electrical engineering.  The first of the alumni quartet, David Shirley, received his chemistry Ph.D. in 1959.

Is a Berkeley Ph.D. now an entrance requirement, perhaps unwritten, for the director’s job?  To find out, we’ll just have to wait for the next changing of the guard.  And there’s no hurry, Paul, no hurry at all.