Harry A. Atwater, the Howard Hughes Professor of Applied Physics and Materials Science and director of the Liquid Sunlight Alliance (LiSA), has been selected as the new chair of the Division of Engineering and Applied Science (EAS). On July 1, he will begin his five-year term, taking over the Otis Booth Leadership Chair from current division chair Guruswami "Ravi" Ravichandran, the John E. Goode, Jr., Professor of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering. The Board of Trustees formally approved the Atwater's selection at a meeting in January.
Atwater earned his bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees from MIT before joining Caltech's faculty in 1988. He was named the Howard Hughes Professor of Applied Physics and Materials Science in 2002 and has held a number of leadership positions at Caltech: the director of Resnick Sustainability Institute (RSI) from 2009–15; director of Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP) from 2014 to present; and, starting last year, director of the newly launched Department of Energy research project LiSA.
Organizationally, EAS will continue to look the same under Atwater's leadership. "People like [former division chair] Ares Rosakis did the hard work of organizing EAS into strong departments," Atwater says. "My goal is to build bridges between these departments and to other divisions."
As he steps into the role of division chair, Atwater intends to develop a strategic plan with his colleagues in the EAS faculty: an open and transparent document that will serve to define what makes EAS distinct from other engineering schools and offer ideas to build on those assets. He also hopes to improve diversity in EAS through aggressive recruitment of top science and engineering students who embody diversity across a number of different axes, Atwater says, continuing the work of his predecessor. "Ravi has worked hard to improve diversity in EAS, and that's a priority for me as well." Finally, he plans convene discussions aimed at identifying engineering grand challenges for the division to tackle.
Atwater will take the helm under unusual and unprecedented circumstances: at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has forced undergraduate instruction to be online for the past year, while the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine offers hope that a return to in-person activities will happen soon. "We'll have to manage the transition from the pandemic world that we're still in right now to the post-pandemic world: to absorb the lessons, both good and bad, from the lockdown. We can ask, What are the things about our work style that we want to get back to and what are the things that were benefits?" Atwater says.
He will also continue leading LiSA, which succeeds the 10-year-old JCAP as that project's funding concludes this year. Under Atwater's leadership, JCAP sought new ways to improve on natural photosynthesis to create solar fuels (products such as hydrogen fuel and hydrocarbons) using just sunlight and basic molecules such as water and carbon dioxide. Launched in 2020, LiSA will work on streamlining the complicated steps needed to convert sunlight into liquid fuels and make the process more efficient.
After more than three decades at Caltech, Atwater says he's looking forward to the opportunity to serve the Institute in a new way. "I'm excited to be able to pay back or pay forward all of the investments that Caltech has made in me," he says. "I'm excited to try to do what I can to catalyze research initiatives that my colleagues are excited to lead, and to make the division as strong and distinctive as possible."