From the time Steven Chu was a child, it was expected that he would follow in his family’s footsteps and someday earn at least one advanced degree. Chu recalls that, during his early years, his mother felt he was inefficient with how he completed schoolwork. He was also considered to be a mediocre student when compared to his brothers and cousins.
In high school, Dr. Chu was introduced to the study of physics. His teacher, Thomas Miner, encouraged his students to be creative and to engage in experiments to find the answers that they were looking for. As a senior in this class, Chu would begin an experiment using a physical pendulum to measure gravity that he would later refine 25 years later once he had become a well-known physicist.
After graduating from Rochester with his bachelor’s degree in 1970, Dr. Chu applied to many well known schools. He chose to attend University of California, Berkeley where he worked with Eugene Commins. Chu would stay at Berkeley after graduating, first as a post-doc and then as an assistant professor in 1978. He left shortly afterward to pursue a career at Bell Laboratories.
While at Bell Labs, Dr. Chu began his work with laser cooling, which would win him the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1997. He shared this award with Claude Cohen-Tannoudji and William Daniel Phillips. Dr. Chu also had two colleagues whom he recognizes as assisting him with his laser cooling work at Bell Labs, Leo Holberg and Alex Cable.
Dr. Chu left Bell Labs in 1987 to be a professor at Stanford. During his time here, he has served as Physics Chair twice (1990-1993 and 1999-2001). Once at Stanford, he expanded his research interests to include polymer physics and biophysics.
Dr. Chu has received numerous awards and honors during his career. These include an NSF Pre-Doctoral Fellowship (1970-1974), being named co-winner of the King Faisal International Prize for Science (1993), being elected as a member of the National Academy of Sciences (1993), Humboldt Senior Scientist Award (1995), Guggenheim Fellowship (1996), and being elected as a foreign member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (1998).
His nomination to be Energy Secretary was unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate on January 20, 2009. On January 21, 2009, Chu was sworn in as Secretary of Energy in the Barack Obama administration. Chu is the first person appointed to the Cabinet after having won a Nobel Prize. He is also the second Chinese American to be a member of the Cabinet after Elaine Chao.