Charles V. Shank, 2014

Senior Fellow, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and Laboratory Director, emeritus, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

1965 – B.S.: University of California, Berkeley
1966 – M.S.: University of California, Berkeley
1969 – Ph.D.: University of California, Berkeley


For the seminal development of ultrafast lasers and their application in many areas of scientific research, for visionary leadership of national scientific and engineering research communities, and for exemplary service supporting the National Laboratory complex.


Dr. Charles V. Shank is honored for his seminal contributions to ultrafast science and energy research, leadership for the national scientific and engineering communities, and service for the advancement of the National Laboratories. Charles Shank is widely acknowledged to be the founder of the field of ultrafast science. As a scientist and then manager at Bell Labs he built this field from the early days of picosecond spectroscopy to the dawn of ultrafast x-ray light sources. He not only invented many of the source methods and lasers, he also discovered and developed many of the science applications in chemistry and materials science. The merit of this work is huge, in medicine, manufacturing, marking, metrology, and most of all, for basic science. As Director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, he worked energetically to launch the DOE Joint Genome Institute (JGI), which successfully decoded three human chromosomes in the Human Genome project, developed the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC), an Office of Science national user facility supercomputing center, pioneered new applications for the Advanced Light Source (ALS), and also created the Molecular Foundry, an Office of Science nanoscience national user facility. Dr. Shank has also been an energetic and highly effective leader in a number of highly influential National Academy, Department of Defense, and DOE studies, and a tireless leader and supporter of the national laboratories complex. He has chaired or served on important studies regarding the future of optical science, the revised US national technologies list, the review of the quality of science and technology at the national security laboratories, and a management study of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project. He has also held leadership roles on advisory groups and boards of governors of many important national research council boards, and several national laboratories.

Early in his career Shank became a pioneer in fiber optic communications with his co-invention of the distributed feedback (DFB) laser, now a key component in high data-rate transmission systems. Subsequently with his collaborators, Shank pioneered the development of high frequency femtosecond dye lasers. This effort revolutionized the time resolution of optical sources from picoseconds to a few femtoseconds. This ushered a new regime of ultrafast time-resolved science by providing new experimental means to directly study of the movement of electrons and nuclei in many states of matter, which lead to new understanding of how energy is stored and transferred within molecules and materials. By directly studying underlying mechanisms in diverse fundamental topics such as melting, electronic relaxation, nascent chemical reactions, and more, Shank broadly advanced scientific discovery with enduring impact in areas as diverse as energy science, materials science, physics, chemistry, and biology.

He is also recognized for his leadership in scientific and engineering research. This service includes leadership at AT&T Bell Laboratories, where he served as Head of the Quantum Physics and Electronics Research Department and as Director of their Electronics Research Laboratory. His service on the National Critical Technologies Panel resulted in the identification of the most essential technologies to advance the long-term national security and economic prosperity of the United States as called for by Congress. In his service as Chair of the National Research Council’s (NRC) Committee on Optical Science and Engineering, Shank was the organizer and lead author of the 1998 decadal report on Harnessing Light: Optical Science and Engineering for the 21st Century, with the goal to identify key opportunities for future advances and their impact in areas of optical science and engineering. This study yielded key optical science and engineering science and technology topical recommendations for optical sensing, lighting, and energy; information technology and telecommunications; health care and the life sciences; optics in manufacturing; and national defense. In the area of national security, Shank has been a member of the National Academy of Sciences’ Air Force Studies Board and served 12 years as a member of the Intelligence Science Board (ISB) of the Central Intelligence Agency. During his tenure the ISB issued six reports related to information and its processing, three on the biological sciences, and three on science and technology more generally. Shank’s understanding of optics, information technology, and energy science were highly valued components of these efforts.

Dr. Shank was appointed Director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) in 1989 and he became an active collaborator with other research organizations. At the outset, Shank and his colleagues worked with DOE scientific leaders and other national laboratories to assemble new initiatives in biology, supercomputing, and the physical sciences. One significant initiative was the Office of Health and Environmental Research’s (now, BER), initiative on the Human Genome Project. Shank worked with BER and leaders at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Los Alamos National Laboratory to successfully launch the DOE Joint Genome Institute (JGI) which generated the complete sequences of Chromosomes 5, 16 and 19. The JGI has since shifted focus to the non-human components of the biosphere for DOE's energy and environmental science mission. In the final year of Shank’s Directorship, the DOE JGI became a national user facility to advance genomics in disciplines where sequence information drives scientific discovery.

In the mid-1990s, Shank responded to the interest of the Office of Advanced Scientific Computing Research’s (ASCR) in opening a competition for the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC) and the Energy Sciences Network (ESnet). Shank pointed to NERSC’s strengths and opportunity for integration in all the programs of the Office of Science and need to build computational collaborations with other laboratories. NERSC successfully moved to LBNL in 1996, and now has more than 5,000 users, the largest user community of any national facility. In 1999 Shank chaired an Office of Basic Energy Sciences (BES) workshop on complex systems, and was the lead author of Complex Systems: Science for the 21st Century, with nanoscience being a key theme. Working with colleagues, Shank strongly supported nanoscience at the National Laboratories. These developments contributed to the National Nanotechnology Initiative in 2003, leading to five National Nanotechnology Centers (user facilities) at DOE Laboratories. Following the 2004 groundbreaking and construction of the LBNL’s Molecular Foundry Building, it has now served more than 3000 scientists from many areas of the world. Shank has also served on the Board of Governors for Argonne and Fermi National Laboratories and in 2007 was appointed Chair of the Sandia National Laboratories Science Advisory Board. More recently in response to the FY 2010 Defense Appropriation Bill, the National Nuclear Security Administration called on the NRC to “Review of the Quality of the Management and of the Science and Engineering Research at the National Security Laboratories”. NRC appointed Shank to Co-Chair the study, and he testified before Congress on the findings in 2014. Shank identified several issues that needed to be addressed to prevent erosion of high-quality work at the NNSA laboratories. Shank was also was a member of the most recent biennial ITER Management Assessment Team. The Team made key recommendations for performance improvement of this large-scale international fusion energy project.

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