Deans Desk: Strength and hope during adversity

Douglas Clark, Dean College of Chemistry

Douglas Clark, Dean of the College of Chemistry and G.N. Lewis Professor

If the last year has taught us anything, it is that living through an unthinkable situation can become second nature, and that by working together we can adapt to make the best of the most demanding conditions. I have come to realize that the study of phase transitions goes beyond the boundaries of our College of Chemistry labs. In March 2020, we were all forced to ask ourselves, “How do we go from a state of constant physical interaction to a state of constant isolation, all the while maintaining the same level of productivity and effectiveness?” Countless hours were spent by faculty, staff, students, and researchers trying to identify the best methods to make this transition palatable and sustainable. I remain extremely proud and grateful for the hard work committed by everyone to keep the college running smoothly.   

We are still euphoric from the excitement surrounding Jennifer Doudna receiving the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, sharing it with collaborator Emmanuelle Charpentier for the co-development of CRISPR-Cas9. What an incredible achievement and inspiring message. It was a pleasure to co-host, with our graduate students, an online discussion with Jennifer in November to hear about the history of her remarkable journey and her vision for the future of gene-editing. Also, last fall, the college was honored to virtually host Birgitta Whaley as the 67th Gilbert Newton Lewis Memorial Lecturer. In her lecture, she took us on a journey of “finding the quantum in biology,” and you can read more about this fascinating work in the main science feature in this issue. I very much look forward to the days when these celebratory events can happen in front of a packed auditorium again. 

One of our greatest examples of triumph in the face of adversity over the last year is in our faculty recruitment efforts. Last July, assistant professor Ashok Ajoy joined us in the Department of Chemistry. This July, Joelle Frechette, from Johns Hopkins University, will join the CBE faculty as a full professor. Both departments have recently completed virtual interviews – never before done and flawlessly executed – for the next round of faculty hires, and both departments have identified amazing, diverse candidates who we are actively pursuing. I hope to be announcing those successful efforts this time next year.

View of Berkeley campus showing campanile and College of Chemistry buildings.
College of Chemistry buildings in evening light.

Since my last message, we have made significant strides in strengthening our ability to address diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) matters in the college. Anne Baranger has been appointed as our inaugural associate dean for DEIB, and Brice Yates has joined the College as chief DEIB officer. Together they lead the newly created College Advisory Committee for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging, and they have established several goals for advancing DEIB in the College, including developing a five-year strategic plan. They have recently collected proposals for our graduate diversity fellows’ projects, which is a reminder of just how inspiring and driven our graduate students are.

In early May we welcomed our first William A. Lester Lecturer. This new lectureship, named for our distinguished colleague, was established in 2020. It will bring to Berkeley eminent scholars from diverse personal and professional backgrounds to present their research and engage in discourse about their experiences and challenges of becoming scientists. I am thrilled to engage in this long overdue focus in our named lectureships. 

In other College news, I would like to acknowledge Ron Silva, who has served as our Advisory Board Chair for the last three years. Ron’s leadership was crucial in helping the College meet several challenges, and I am grateful for his exemplary service. Ron is succeeded in this role by our alumnus John Markels, currently the President of Vaccines at Merck and a longstanding member of the board. I look forward to working with John to advance our goals for the future, including construction of the new state-of-the-art Heathcock Hall, for which we recently received a $10 million commitment from PMP Tech. My excitement and gratitude continue to grow with each step we take towards realizing this goal.

Reflecting on these and so many other highlights from the last year, I am truly impressed, but not at all surprised, by the capacity of our College to make the successful transition to a new way of life while raising the bar of excellence even higher. Together or apart, faculty, students, and staff in the College of Chemistry will always find solutions to the toughest problems facing us today. We continue to celebrate our shared passion for and achievement in producing the best chemistry and chemical engineering research in the world.