Yale Daily News

Over the past several months, Yale faculty in various STEM departments have been appointed to prestigious positions as heads of research centers, advisors to the President of the United States or members of the committee that presents Nobel Prize winners. 

Debra Fischer, Eugene Higgins professor of astronomy, is the next director of the National Science Foundation’s Division of Astronomical Sciences. Steven Girvin, Eugene Higgins professor of physics, was the founding director of the Co-design Center for Quantum Advantage, also known as C2QA. John Wettlaufer, A.M. Bateman professor of geophysics, mathematics and physics, was a member of the Nobel Committee for Physics. Jennifer Richeson, Philip R. Allen professor of psychology, is a member of President Biden’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. 

“Since 1861, when Yale granted the first PhD in science awarded in North America to Arthur Williams Wright, Yale has been a leader in the sciences,” Tamar Gendler, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, wrote to the News. “Two years later — in 1863 –– Yale awarded the first PhD in Engineering in North America, to Josiah Gibbs, who spent the rest of his career at Yale, creating the field of statistical mechanics. Albert Einstein called Gibbs ‘the greatest mind in American history.’ In the ensuing 160 years, Yale has remained at the forefront of American science, with field-defining contributions across the social, biological, physical and mathematical sciences, both theoretical and applied. Our current faculty carry on this glorious tradition as leaders in their disciplines and in the nation.”

Fischer was appointed director of the NSF’s Astronomical Sciences Division earlier this year and began their tenure on Oct. 12. As director, Fischer is responsible for managing new research projects in astronomy and ensuring that researchers have access to opportunities for new projects. 

Every 10 years, researchers in the field of astronomy come together to decide the top priorities in astronomical research for the following 10 years. Over several months, they draft, revise and publish a Decadal Survey, outlining the most important projects in astronomy. Fischer’s appointment is especially timely, as the most recent Decadal Survey was published on Nov. 4. 

Fischer, as Director of the NSF’s Astronomical Sciences Division, will remain on Yale faculty but will no longer teach since the directorship is a full-time appointment. 

Girvin, as founding director of the C2QA, oversaw the creation of the center and development of its major initiatives. According to him, “year ‘zero’” of his directorship was dedicated to creating relationships between 24 different institutions and 88 principal investigators while writing a 950-page funding proposal for submission to the Department of Energy, which ultimately approved it. 

According to Girvin, the center has two main goals related to improving research in quantum information science and engineering.  

Girvin wrote that the first goal is “to carry out the fundamental research needed to dramatically improve the performance of all the components in today’s rudimentary quantum systems (computer and communication networks) and to invent new components, modules and software design that will permit the US industrial quantum ecosystem … to someday build quantum systems that offer practical economic and scientific advantage over conventional supercomputers.” 

The second goal is to “train the quantum workforce (undergraduates, graduate students and postdocs) needed for the rapidly burgeoning field of quantum information science and engineering,” Girvin wrote to the News. 

Girvin explained that the Department of Energy requires directors of research facilities to hold appointments at the primary Department of Energy lab associated with their research centers. For C2QA, the primary research center is Brookhaven National Lab in Long Island, NY. 

“Yale and Brookhaven negotiated a complex agreement which allowed me to temporarily be 50% employed by Yale and 50% by Brookhaven.” Girvin wrote to the News.  “However I continued to teach full-time at Yale and in fact created and taught a new undergraduate course, PHYS 345 ‘Introduction to Quantum Information Processing and Communication’ last spring while I was director.”

This year, Wettlaufer was appointed a member of the Nobel Committee for Physics. According to Wettlaufer, members of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, such as himself, are eligible to become Nobel committee members. On Oct. 5, Wettlaufer gave the scientific presentation at the announcement ceremony for the winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics.  

As a member of the committee, he was responsible for receiving the detailed reports about recent advancements in physics from the international physics community. Wettlaufer explained that he met with the other members to discuss each of the reports for several months. Then, the members, depending on their areas of expertise, chose specific reports covering subdisciplines in physics in order to contribute to a final report. The final report, with the names of all the Nobel prize nominees, will be released in 50 years, according to Wettlaufer. 

“[As my] first year on this committee combined with the fact that the award this year fell into my area of responsibility meant that it was an enormous effort for me,” Wettlaufer wrote to the News. 

In October, Richeson was appointed as one of 30 experts on President Biden’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. At Yale, Richeson researches the psychological phenomena related to cultural diversity, with a recent focus on the effects of racial injustice and discrimination. The News was unable to reach Richeson for comment. 

According to the White House press release detailing the function and composition of this specialized council, Richeson, along with the other expert council members, will be responsible for advising the President on decisions regarding science, technology and innovation. 

“The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) is the sole body of advisors from outside the federal government charged with making science, technology, and innovation policy recommendations to the President and the White House,” the press release states. 

In 2020, Yale College awarded 317 bachelor’s degrees in Physical Sciences & Engineering. 

Selin Nalbantoglu covers the School of the Environment as a beat reporter for the SciTech desk. Previously, she covered breakthrough research as an associate beat reporter.