A Passionate Scientist, a Picosecond Pioneer and a Presidential Honoree

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Chuck Shank presenting his “Vision 2010” plan during his annual address to employees at Berkeley Lab.Photo courtesy of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab

Chuck Shank presenting his "Vision 2010" plan during his annual address to employees at Berkeley Lab.

Chuck Shank believes in passion.

He fell in love one summer while working at Hewlett Packard as an undergrad intern. "Optical lasers had just been invented. I saw the light from the laser – so mysterious. I got to work with light-emitting diodes – not quite lasers – and fell in love with lasers and optics," said Shank. "It changed everything; I wanted to understand light and interaction with matter; I wanted to be part of that."

His passion for science has led to many achievements; Shank is receiving the 2014 U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Fermi Award, a Presidential honor that recognizes the recipient for career achievement in science and technology that benefits the nation. Shank is acknowledged as a key pioneer in the field of ultrafast science, from his foundational research work and leadership in picosecond spectroscopy to today's ultrafast x-ray light sources, and is being honored for his leadership and service to the DOE national laboratory complex.

A beginning

Shank completed his undergrad, masters, and doctoral degrees in electrical engineering at the University of California – Berkeley ("My father said, go to Berkeley; it costs $79 a year"), and in 1969 Shank began his career at the legendary AT&T Bell Laboratories.

Bell Labs was at its peak of invention and discovery, and development of the transistor there encouraged national interest in research and development, offering significant opportunities for young researchers. It was a time when people thought that anything was possible – a golden age of science and technology.

"At Bell Labs, I was given an opportunity that is very rare [today]. I was given a lab - it was empty, had a few benches – and was told to fill it. That was about it," said Shank. He realized he needed to work on something that he was really excited about. "It was this opportunity that taught me something about people and what will make a successful career. An empty room is not for everyone.

"Do you want to pursue discovery-oriented science to probe the dimensions of the unknown and get a kick out of learning new things? Or do you want to grab a problem, use your creativity, solve that problem and make something that works, that is tangible? Both of these were appealing to me."

Shank figured out how to make short pulses of light and how to use that strobe of light to understand what happens in the world where events happen on a time scale of a millionth of a billionth of a second, developing a new field now called ultrafast science.

After three years at Bell, Shank was asked to choose: continue the science or work on problems important to the business which could lead to promotions to management positions at Bell Labs.

Shank realized he was at a crossroads. "What was important to me was passion. I was going to work on my science and not worry about anything else," he decided. "I was excited [about the work], that's why I was here. I didn't care if I got promoted.

"Making the right choices is the most important thing you can do in a career. Identify the opportunities that you can pursue with passion."

Shank did rise through the ranks at Bell Labs, taking on management roles while continuing his trailblazing research on ultrafast laser pulses and fiber-optic communications. "To lead scientists, you need to be a scientist yourself," said Shank. "I've always had a job helping people achieve their passions at the same time I've achieved my passion."

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2014 Fermi Awardee Charles Shank also received many accolades for his work as Director of Berkeley Lab.Photo courtesy of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab

2014 Fermi Awardee Chuck Shank also received many accolades for his work as Director of Berkeley Lab.

A new calling

Then a new opportunity and direction came calling. "In 1989, I had the opportunity to come to LBNL (Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory) – an institution with an exciting past, focused on important problems – and join the lab as the lab director."

In taking the position, Shank became the first director in the lab's history to come from outside the current lab staff. Along with the director duties, Shank accepted a professorship and teaching duties at the University of California-Berkeley in three departments: electrical engineering and computer sciences, chemistry, and physics.

"Moving from industry to government and an academic lab meant I had to undergo a transition," said Shank. "At Bell Labs, you were given a budget and a checklist. At the end of the year, people came to check on you. If you had been successful, there was more money. If not successful, you lost your money.

"I had more license at Bell. [But] at Berkeley Lab, we used persuasion for funding through your agency and Congress. I learned how to consult, how to interact, and how to inspire. If you want to create something new, you need to inspire others, work with others, and get others working with you.

"Working with graduate students and working [as director] at Berkeley Lab with its fundamental science mission, environmental mission, and energy mission for 15 years was the most exciting time of my life," said Shank. "I felt like a kid in grad school, learning something new every week about a broad range of science. Large organizations means always dealing with people – they are complex and it's a challenge. I could lose myself in the science, working with the grad students, then go back refreshed to deal with the lab [administration duties]."

On Shank's watch, LBNL underwent major changes and innovations. The National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center began operations in May 1996. The DOE Joint Genome Institute opened in Dec 1997. A new DOE nanoscience user facility – The Molecular Foundry – was dedicated in March 2006. Shank oversaw a budget that climbed from approximately $229 million to $500 million.

Shank retired from Berkeley Lab in 2004 but continues to lend his expertise to numerous committees, professional organizations, and, as a Senior Fellow, to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute – that is, when he isn't on his boat, sailing from San Francisco home to Hawaii. "If you can have the life I've been privileged to have, live to work – not work to live. To me, the most important question is finding your passion."


The Fermi Award is a Presidential award and is one of the oldest and most prestigious science and technology honors bestowed by the U.S. Government. The Enrico Fermi Award is given to encourage excellence in research in energy science and technology benefiting mankind; to recognize scientists, engineers, and science policymakers who have given unstintingly over their careers to advance energy science and technology; and to inspire people of all ages through the examples of Enrico Fermi, and the Fermi Award laureates who followed in his footsteps, to explore new scientific and technological horizons.

A Fermi Award winner receives a citation signed by the President of the United States and the Secretary of Energy, a gold-plated medal bearing the likeness of Enrico Fermi, and an honorarium of $50,000. In the event the Award is given to more than one individual in the same year, the recipients share the honorarium equally. The Fermi Award is administered on behalf of the White House by the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science.

The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic energy research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information please visit http://science.energy.gov.

Sandra Allen McLean is a Communications Specialist in the Office of Science, sandra.mclean@science.doe.gov.