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Interview of Cherry Murray by David Zierler on December 17, 2020,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
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Interview with Cherry Murray, Professor of Physics and Deputy Director of Research at Biosphere 2 at the University of Arizona. She describes some of the logistical challenges in managing Biosphere 2 during the pandemic, and she considers how current political and environmental crises perhaps make the research at Biosphere 2 all the more urgently needed. Murray reflects on how her work at the DOE has been an asset for Biosphere 2 and she recounts her early childhood, first in Japan and then Pakistan during her father’s postings for the Foreign Service. She describes her high school education in Virginia and then South Korea and the opportunities that led to her undergraduate admission at MIT, where she became close with Millie Dresselhaus. Murray explains her decision to remain at MIT for graduate work to conduct research in surface physics under the direction of Tom Greytak. She discusses her subsequent work at Bell Labs on negative positron work functions and where she rose to become Vice President, and she provides context for some of the exciting developments in superconductivity. Murray explains the circumstances and impact of the breakup of Bell Labs, and she reflects on her contributions on surface enhanced Raman scattering during her tenure. She discusses her work with Ernest Moniz, the circumstances of her being named Deputy Director for Science and Technology at Livermore Lab, she describes her tenure at Harvard and the development of the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and her experiences as Commissioner of the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. At the end of the interview, Murray discusses the development of Biosphere 2, some of its early stumbles, and the vast research value it promises for the long term.
OK, this is David Zierler, Oral Historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is December 17, 2020. I’m delighted to be here with Dr. Cherry A. Murray.
Thank you, David.
All right. So, to start, would you please tell me your current title and institutional affiliation?
My current title is Professor of Physics and Deputy Director for Research, at Biosphere 2, at the University of Arizona.
Now, is that considered a 50/50 joint appointment? Or is it all sort of one big job?
Good question. I think it’s more like a 10/90 joint appointment, where 90 is at Biosphere 2.
I see. When did you start at Arizona? What was your first year there?
To be complicated about it, I was in Washington, D.C. in a federal job—on leave for government service from Harvard University—and I got a letter from the Dean saying, “We have a deal for you because you are able to retire in the next two years.” And the deal was one year of Sabbatical, fully paid, and I would agree to retire and not sue them for age discrimination. And I thought about it, and I decided, “This is the time to move to Arizona.” So, I spent a year at Harvard teaching back in Cambridge, and then I took my year’s sabbatical in 2018 at University of Arizona. So, I have been at University of Arizona for two years, but I officially retired from Harvard last July. And I have been officially at University of Arizona since then.
And what was the connection for you at the University of Arizona that compelled you to take your Sabbatical leave there?
Well, I was on the Advisory Board for Biosphere 2 since 2011, when the University of Arizona took over Biosphere 2. Well, 2008-ish, they began negotiating to take it over. And by 2011, it had an external Advisory Board. And the university was performing research there. And how I got on the board was, I got a call from the Director of Biosphere 2, and I was enthusiastic about that because my parents had settled in Tucson when my father retired. And that was in 1973, 1974. So, I spent a lot of time in Tucson. And I really loved Tucson, and I’m very glad that I moved when I did. Pre-COVID.
Cherry, on that question, a very current events kind of question, obviously Biosphere 2 has a physicality to it that must be difficult with social distancing and remote work. In what ways are you able to continue doing what you’re doing remotely, and in what ways do you rely on colleagues or yourself to go in and have a presence on campus?
Well, Biosphere 2 is not on campus at University of Arizona. It’s north in Oracle. It’s kind of in the middle of nowhere in the desert. There are skeleton staff there. Biosphere 2 serves as a Research and Education Center. It’s also a Conference Center. And it is a science tourism site. Well, all of them shut down when the Governor shut the state down.
But they have been brought back, and tourism is now back. But there are no tour guides. It’s an iPhone app, basically. Or an Android app. And so, tourism is back. There were, I’m going to say, 100,000 visitors per year. And it’s back since November. So, only a month. And it’s roughly half the number of visitors, which is about what you need for physical distancing. What that did, of course, is, research is beginning to pick up again.
The Biosphere 2 is a 3.14 (note Pi) acre greenhouse, completely sealed from the outside. Or it can be. It’s open to air now. But it has a number of what are called Biomes. So, it has a rather large tropical rainforest. It has an ocean. It has a desert, it has mangroves. And all of these are being used for research. It also is on 18 acres of ground that was given to the University of Arizona in 2015, along with an Endowment to keep the operations going. All of these Biomes, just like your garden, need constant work to keep them up. And that has been going on during COVID.
Luckily, the rainforest had a very large, 50-person collaboration—mostly funded by the European Union—a six-month campaign of seeing what happens microscopically, using mass spectrometers and something like two kilometers of tubing; to the trees; the understory; the ground; the soil during a drought and then rewetting; to look at the uptake of CO2; the volatile organic compounds; the VoCs; and other things emitted from the trees; and see what actually survives during this drought and rewetting. And it had just finished before the shutdown. So, that collaboration is analyzing terabytes of data. So, that has not stopped. And they’re all doing it remotely, and the Europeans are back in Europe. And the Director of the Rainforest Research here is analyzing data, and they’re writing papers. Outside of the grounds, there are several research projects. One of them is going to become a Mars analog.
So, the object of this—which is not that different from the original plan of the Biosphere 2—is to use a small test module and to have analog astronauts—or Mars people, or moon dwellers—switch from a mechanical life support system—which is what we’re using now on the space station—built by the same company, to a greenhouse. So, switch from a human-built mechanical life support system to a bio-system life support or a hybrid system of both. So, it needs to provide all of the oxygen and remove waste from the human inhabitants, and it will be measuring the microbiome of everything and trying to understand—in much more detail, much more scientifically—how people can live off-world for a long time. Because they will need to grow their own food. You cannot, as in the Space Station, bring supplies to Mars. It’s too expensive.
Right. There’s no pizza delivery to Mars.
No pizza delivery. So, pizza’s going to have to be grown there. The original Biosphere-ians learned the hard way that we don’t know how to do this. And so, this is an experiment on a slightly smaller scale. But NASA is actually very interested in it to figure out, “How are we going to be able to do this? And how do you bootstrap up?” You start with regolith. Soil is amazing. So, I did start out as a condensed matter physicist. And I got more and more interested in sustainable development of human civilization on Earth because you can just look around you, and that is a major challenge.
It turns out that soil is an incredible stabilizer for life. And we don’t understand it. We don’t understand how soil is formed, and that’s one of the experiments at Biosphere 2. One of the consultants—that came in to look at the tourism part of Biosphere 2—looked at this experiment, which is three gigantic hill slopes of nothing but regolith. Ground up rock. They said, “This is more boring than watching grass grow.” But what it’s doing is understanding, first off, how water flows down a slope. And you would say, “Don’t we know that by now?” No, we have all sorts of models since the 1800s, and they’re wrong. Because it is a complex chemical and physical problem. So, there’s chemistry of the water interacting with the rock, which changes the porosity of the rock, and it changes the channels.
And it’s a physical mechanism. The water will find whatever lower-energy channel to go down. And the models of soil assume, let’s say, a 10x10 centimeter by whatever depth soil unit. And soil has, like, eight different layers to try to model this percolation problem. And what they really need is a ten-nanometer size model. And so, the models are not working well. Just for water flowing and soil. But how plants start growing there is the next experience on this hill slope, called a “Landscape Evolution Observatory.”
And then, the rainforest has been a rainforest since the 90s, when it was first put in. So, it is a large, fully contained ecosystem. There’s a stainless tub under the Biosphere 2—so it’s completely sealed off from all elements—including the ground. Whatever soil was put in there is the soil. So, it is a fantastic place to observe, get data, and understand how to model real large ecosystems that are less contained, and so, harder to model because you don’t actually know what’s going on. Here, you can measure everything.
Cherry, I want to ask a very sort of macro-social question as we round out 2020. Perhaps one of the messages from this year—in all of the awfulness, climate, racism, Coronavirus, political discord—is this perhaps a tipping point year that the urgency for creating sustainable life systems beyond Earth becomes more of a reality in terms of the understanding and need that this is not just a scientific moonshot kind of idea—but that we’re actually living in a way that is really and truly unsustainable here on planet Earth? Are people starting to talk about, “Look at what 2020 is. Maybe we really need to get serious about other planets to colonize”?
Yes, people are doing that. It’s even more important to sustain life here on Earth, than it is to go off-world. Because we need the Earth in-order-to go off-world, let’s just say. Yes, although it’s interesting, the politics of the science is unfortunate. Because science is science. There are certain things that are understood by the scientific community as, “Here’s what’s happening. We are observing it.” And it’s amazing that a large portion of the US populace doesn’t believe it. And that is not stopping with a change in Administration.
Right. This is bigger than Partisan Politics, you’re saying.
Yes. Yeah. And it started before. The Partisan Politics, I think, are a result of the populace not wishing to change what they’re doing, science or non-science. And it’s rather frightening to me because we are both scientists. We can look at what actually is happening. And it’s quite frightening.
Cherry, I want to ask about the 90/10 split between Biosphere and the Department of Physics. Is this true that most of the traditional trappings of Professor-hood that you have at the University of Arizona are at Biosphere—in terms of the teaching and writing you do; in terms of the interaction with students—mostly all taking place within the infrastructure of Biosphere 2?
Yeah, that’s right. Although, we, next year, because it was put off for a year, just like many things in 2020, are going to host the CUWIP Conference—which is the Conference of Undergraduate Women in Physics—and I’m part of that committee. I also Chaired the Committee for the Physics Department on how to bring the department back in COVID. Because students are now sent away since Thanksgiving—but starting in August—students came back to the university. And so how to actually teach physics labs, where we have to have half the students come in every other day, that kind of thing. I was on that Committee for the Physics Department. But my teaching will be multidisciplinary around Biosphere 2.
In what ways has your Government Service proved to be an asset, both politically and administratively, for your long-term vision for Biosphere 2?
Well, that’s a good question. I really enjoyed my Government Service. I’d just stepped down from being Dean of the Engineering and Applied Sciences School at Harvard when I got a call from Ernie Moniz, who was then Secretary of Energy, and this was a week after I had announced that I was stepping down. He said, “Remember two years ago, we had this conversation about you coming to Washington, and you said you couldn’t because you were Dean. You just stepped down.” And I said, “Oops. Well, all right. Let me think about it.” So, I decided, “Why not?” I had a year of Sabbatical, but I could take two years for Government Service.
And so, I decided, “All right. It’s half the salary, twice the living expenses. I’m in.” And it was wonderful. It was absolutely fantastic. And this is what really changed my mind about physics versus sustainable development of humankind. Because I was Director of the Office of Science that manages now $7 billion of research funding. Mostly physics. About 90% of the physics research. But it had a very large environmental component. So, I learned a great deal and truly enjoyed the experience–also; the Office of Science manages ten of the national labs. That was 2015, which was quite an amazing year for the Earth, since that was the year of the Paris Accord. Then, there was the Sendai Disaster Accord. There was, in August, a meeting to decide in Japan, I can’t remember what city it was in, to agree on the funding of sustainable development in the developing world. And then, there was the Energy Ministerial, which I went to, in San Francisco, where there was an announcement of $2 billion of funding for applied energy, clean energy technologies, and that every nation would increase their research in this clean energy transition by a factor of two.
And so, I was the Emissary to the beginning of this. What was it called? It’ll come to me. It was five years ago. Ah, yes, the Breakthrough Energy Coalition started by Bill Gates to fund innovation in clean energy. And countries around the world did get together to decide, “How would one best transition from what we have now to what we need going forward? And what kind of research is needed?” And quite a bit is. What has happened in the last five years is that many technologies that were developed over decades, mostly funded by the Department of Energy—in the energy technologies part of it, starting maybe from understanding scientific principles—have decreased in cost by about a factor of four to ten—making them, photovoltaics for example—cheap enough to deploy widely.
So, technology development, over 40, 50 years, developed LED lights to the point where they’re actually cheaper to operate than incandescent bulbs. And they’re certainly using less energy. They’re way more efficient. And they will be needed for agriculture going forward. So, all of this technology development is critical and needs a lot of physics. So, I’ve been giving talks on that. “Here’s what you can do as a physics graduate student.”
Well, Cherry, let’s take it all the way back to the beginning. Let’s start, first, with your parents. Tell me a little bit about them and where they’re from.
So, my father grew up on a farm in Ohio. And by good accident, he ended up going to Choate, a private high school, in Connecticut, and from there, went to Yale University. Yale University, very much like Oxford in England, creates most of the Diplomats in the US. And he became a Diplomat.
After some years of doing other stuff. But his Yale connection really got him into the Diplomatic work. He graduated from Yale in 1938, and he got a job offer in Tucson. And he wanted to get as far away from the cold as possible, so he took it. And it was teaching English in a Boarding School in the middle of the desert. Which is now in the center of Tucson, but then, it was way out. And he absolutely loved Tucson. Having grown up on a farm, he knew how to ride horses, and he went horseback everywhere.
Tucson at the time was the place that people sent their kids to Boarding School if they had allergies or some difficulty breathing in the East. And so, he taught in this school many amazing kids who ended up being writers and all sorts of things. While he was at the school, he decided to go to Taos, New Mexico—to an artist colony for the summer—since he was not teaching. And that’s where he met my mother. My mother grew up in Beaumont, Texas, having been born in Louisiana. But her father died just after she was born, and her mother became a science teacher. And she moved to Beaumont because that’s where she could get a job. And so, my mother went to University of Texas in art. And for some reason, she also went to Taos that summer. And they met and decided they would get married.
And then World War II happened, and my father volunteered for Officer training. And that led him all over the country. And by that time, they had gotten married. My eldest brother was born in Portland when they weren’t living together because my father was in training in Oregon. But they moved back to Tucson to live, while my father was going overseas. And he went to Europe and was in Eisenhower’s camp. And my mother lived in Tucson. I’m not sure how many years she lived in Tucson, but kept moving back and forth, depending on where my father happened to be at the time. When he came back from the war, he had already been recruited as a Diplomat. So, the first thing he did is move to Japan. By that time, I was 2 years old. And so, he flew to Japan. My mother—by herself following him—got on this Turboprop airplane which hit a typhoon on its way to Hawaii. And one of the engines went out. They just barely landed in Hawaii. So, we went to Japan and were there for two years.
And, Cherry, your father was in the Foreign Service?
Yeah, he was State Department.
Do you remember the Japan years at all? Do you have any memory of that?
Yes, I do. I went to kindergarten and nursery school in Japan. And I do remember that. We lived there for two years, then we went to Pakistan for three years. Then, we came back. We lived one year in Virginia when my father was working at the State Department, which he hated. He really liked traveling. When we were traveling, my mother painted, and taught painting, and sometimes taught English. But I was her TA in her painting classes. And I always thought—since both parents painted—that I was going to be an artist.
But we moved back to Japan for four years after Pakistan, then to Seoul, Korea for two years. And that was 1967-69, and Seoul, Korea was Third World at that point. My father was in the US Embassy in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. And at that time, we moved back to Virginia. So, I had a year and a half of high school in Virginia before moving to Korea. During that year and a half, I had a chemistry teacher that was fantastic. And that’s what got me interested in science.
Do you remember the chemistry teacher’s name?
No. I was trying to remember the chemistry teacher’s name a while ago—and all I know is he had a canary—and he played the piano. And he had a Master’s degree, and he was studying for his PhD. And he was really tough. But we got to go in the lab, and mix chemicals, and do lab work, which I truly enjoyed.
And, Cherry, Internationally, was your schooling mostly American schools or international schools?
My brother went to the International School in Tokyo. But I went to the base school. I was in junior high at that time. The high school where my brother was had a drug problem. So, my parents took him out of there and put him in the International School. But in Pakistan, there were no schools, so my mother taught us. My eldest brother was sent off to Choate, where my father had gone. But the brother who was five years older than me, and then my sister, who was born in Pakistan—not the greatest place to have a baby at the time—we all were taught by my mother. And I had half a year of third grade and fourth grade in Virginia, where I had to catch up because I did not know how to write cursive. Then, we went off again to Japan. And I went to the base schools.
What was the highest rank that your father achieved in the Foreign Service? Did he ever serve as Ambassador?
No, no, no. He was career. He was Economic Consul in Japan, and in Korea, something similar. He was the highest-ranking Foreign Career Diplomat. He was also in the Army Reserves. So, he left the Foreign Service and was a Lt. Colonel in the Korean War. And at that time, I lived with my mother back in Tucson. So, you see, I have a Tucson connection. And then, when my father finally retired—because my mother put her foot down that he was not going to Cambodia—he moved to Tucson.
Did your father ever talk about his experiences during either World War II or the Korean War?
Yes. He retired early, so he was maybe 60 years old. And he lived in Tucson until he was 98 and a half. And in his 90s, he began talking about his experiences, including the weird people he worked for, which he could not do before. They were all passed away or dead by the time he was talking about them. But he did work for some really strange people. And his experiences in Korea were pretty frightening. In Germany, it wasn’t so terrible because he was in Eisenhower’s camp. He was kind of a go-fer. He was a Captain at that time, and he was going back and forth between various Allied camps.
Did he talk about his politics at all? Would you be aware of which Presidential Administrations he liked and which ones he didn’t?
He was definitely Republican. He was so upset about the way the US was fighting in Vietnam with one arm behind its back. He said, “If you want to win a war, you have to go and cut off the head of the snake.” So, his perspective was, “You either are in, or you’re not,” in war. And he definitely voted for Bush. Now, would he have voted for Trump? I don’t know. That’s different, right? That’s different.
Plenty of Republicans, that was an easy no for them. No doubt.
Right. Right. Right.
Cherry, where were you when it was time to start thinking about colleges? Where were you as a junior?
Was that difficult, not being a kid in a normal American high school thinking about where to go to school? Was that logistically difficult, was it academically difficult to figure out where you might fit in, where it might be right for you to go?
Well, my brother, who was ten years older than me, who went to Choate, got caught up in Sputnik and decided to go to MIT on a ROTC Scholarship and became a physicist. So, he was ten years older. He was in graduate school by the time I was thinking about what to do. And he visited us maybe the summer before my junior year and basically said, “There’s absolutely no way you could hack MIT.” So, I decided to apply to MIT. And I also applied to Caltech. And Caltech sent me back a postcard saying, “We do not accept women.” And I had not experienced any of that because I was in base schools—where the classes were very small—and I was always in the accelerated class. So, I had never experienced sexism, really. But MIT accepted me. My father wanted me to go to either Radcliffe or, even better, Vassar, the closest women’s college to Yale because he was a Yale person. I did not want to go to a women’s college. My mother wanted me to go to a big state school where I could meet a husband.
Get your MRS.
Exactly. So, I went to MIT.
A strong rebellious streak for your whole family between your brother and both of your parents.
Cherry, given that you applied to Caltech and MIT, that is suggestive that it was a technical education that you were after, even as a 17 or 18-year-old.
Yeah. I wanted to do physics because, for one thing, I really liked it. The thing that got me so excited in my chemistry class in 9th grade in Virginia was—believe it or not— thermodynamics. Because the equations were so simple, and they explained the real world. And then, I got very interested in statistical mechanics, and I had my parents buy physics textbooks for me when I was in Korea, because Amazon didn’t exist then. And I read physics books and decided that’s what I would do. Partly because my brother said I couldn’t, but also, because I was actually interested. And so, I switched from wanting to do art, being interested in science, to doing science with art as a hobby.
Cherry, arriving in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the late 1960s must’ve been a very interesting experience for you.
It was because it was the last year of my brother’s Ph.D., he was finishing writing his thesis. And so, I met his friends and his roommates. They were all physicists. But one of them was the student of Millie Dresselhaus and said, “You’ve got to meet Millie.” So, I met Millie immediately upon arriving at MIT, and she was a great role model. She was not in the physics department because condensed matter physics was not considered “real” physics.
Yes, exactly. So, she was in the EE Department, but doing physics. And that year was Kent State. There were riots. Boston University students came across the Harvard Bridge onto the MIT campus, rioting with riot police following them. Compared to Harvard and Boston University, MIT students were mostly people just trying to do their courses in engineering. The faculty went on strike at MIT. And then, some students holed up a draft dodger in the student union, supporting him. And a group of students rammed down the president’s door with a telephone pole, and we did not have classes for the whole spring term because the faculty was on strike.
Was all of this culturally jarring to you—given your father’s politics—and the fact that you were around State Department officialdom your whole upbringing?
I was just trying to do my classes, so I was studying, and I already was in the lab. Freshman year turned out to be the first year they had UROP, Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program. I didn’t know it was the first year, but there was an opportunity, so I took it. So, I was doing research my entire undergraduate career. That’s how I got through physics, because I really, really liked working in the lab.
And how many women were in your cohort?
Three out of 100.
Did you band together? Were you sort of looking after each other?
We did know each other, yes. And I still follow them to this day. Interestingly, one was from Mexico, and one was from Israel, and there was me from kind of everywhere. But I had a wonderful time as an undergraduate at MIT. Students at Harvard organized a silent march protesting the war, and I marched with them. It was very moving. We walked around the entire city. It took all day, walking in complete silence. I was slightly more liberal than my parents. But I do recall coming back from the lab and being stopped on Mass Ave by police battalions with tear gas everywhere and rioters in the street. And all I wanted to do is get to my dorm. I was not among the rioters.
Who among the faculty at MIT might’ve served as a mentor to you or somebody who might’ve helped you get through any overt or not-so-overt sexism that you might’ve experienced as an undergraduate?
Well, Millie was wonderful. And I took a course from her. There were 100 physics undergraduates. Every one of them had an assigned advisor, and my assigned advisor was Jerry Friedman, whom I still keep in contact with.
One of the sweetest people I’ve ever met.
Absolutely. And he was fantastic. And he advised me to stay in research. The only problem I had in undergraduate courses is that I stood out. So, I could not slack off. Because I was the only female in the class. So, I was known by all of the professors. And there were people in the back of the room in the sections sleeping. I couldn’t do that.
To the extent that your education exposed you broadly enough to the world of both experimentation and theory, by the end of your undergraduate experience, as you were thinking about specializing in research for graduate school, where did you see yourself falling along those lines?
Absolutely experiment. I loved being in the lab. And I started out as a freshman in Ray Weiss’s lab, making superconducting bolometers as a freshman. And I got super interested in superfluid helium. Because we transferred helium in order to run the bolometers. And so, I looked around for anyone who was studying helium, and that’s how I found Tom Greytak, who was a beginning assistant professor who was doing light scattering from superfluid helium, and that was super cool. As a sophomore, first I went to Dan Kleppner’s lab and asked if he had any place for an undergraduate because he was doing atomic physics. After telling Jerry, “This is the kind of research I’d like to do,” he suggested several people. But I found Tom myself, because he was studying superfluid helium. I went to Dan. Dan said, “I’m not sure that I have any research for an undergraduate. Come back next week.” So, I immediately went to Tom Greytak, and he said, “Sure, you can join the lab.” So, I did.
It was almost an afterthought for you in terms of whether to go somewhere else for your graduate work. You had the momentum.
No, no, no I definitely thought, I was going to go somewhere else. And Tom, at that point, had gotten Tenure. He went on Sabbatical—so he couldn’t have been a beginning Assistant Professor—but he definitely was a young professor when I started.
You remember him as young.
Yeah, and he looks very young. Even now, he looks young. But he got tenure and went on sabbatical to University of San Diego. While I was doing my undergraduate thesis—I was running a helium-3 refrigerator that was home-built. I didn’t build it, I just built stuff on top of it. I built the Fabry-Pérot Spectrometer and actually measured the binding energy of two rotons, a two-roton state. But when I went to visit graduate schools, I went to San Diego because Tom was there. Talked to a bunch of professors there. Went to Stanford, talked to professors there. Went to Berkeley, talked to professors there.
The thing that surprised me at Stanford was I found it extremely sleepy. I went to talk to graduate students at each of these places, and the graduate students that I talked to at Stanford could not stand their Advisors. So, I decided, “Not Stanford.” Berkeley, the graduate students were not in the lab 24/7 the way they were at MIT. And San Diego is just laid back. And Tom, of course, wanted me to stay at MIT. So, I stayed at MIT. I also had, at that point, a boyfriend who was at MIT. So, that helped as well.
What was Tom’s style as a mentor? Did he allow you to essentially do your own work? Or did he assign you projects, and that was what ultimately became your thesis research?
No, I decided what I wanted to do. And he found money and helped me do it. He was very hands-off as a mentor, which is exactly what I needed and wanted. So, I built my entire apparatus. I decided I was going to do an ultra-high vacuum surface experiment—nothing like anything else that was going on in the lab—using light scattering because it was a laser lab.
And why surface physics? What was compelling to you about surface physics?
Good question. First of all, MIT undergraduate school was great for me because the students banded together to do problem sets. It was competitive, but it was collaborative. In graduate school, the graduate students in building 13 all knew each other extremely well and talked to each other all the time. Millie had a graduate seminar, where if anyone was going to give a talk, they had to do it there in front of the graduate students and Millie. So, she was a great mentor in how to give a talk. Very low-key. And so, in talking to the atomic physics graduate students—of which there were quite a few in building 13 and building 24–everything at MIT is numbered. Every course had a number. 8-321 or whatever. I just decided it would be a cool experiment because no one had done it: to observe chemical reactions on surfaces. And so, I devised an experiment using porous glass, so that it had a very large surface area but could be cleaned.
And I built my apparatus, and I spent I would say two years building my own ultra-high vacuum apparatus, including gold O-rings and welding. Because at that time, you could not really buy ultra-high vacuum seals. And I spent so much time in the workshop that I played tennis with the Head of the workshop. And Bill Phillips was in there at the same time—manufacturing his atomic physics apparatus—which took him seven years. I only took two years to develop mine. But I learned machining from the Head Machinist, but also Bill. And it was great fun. And I liked doing the electrical work. I did everything. During a big snowstorm, my buck-boost transformer in the laser power supply, I had an argon laser, blew up. So, I shut everything down, opened it up. I obviously needed a vacuum cleaner to try to clean it out.
So, I went to a chemical engineering lab—where I knew they had a vacuum cleaner—and asked to borrow the vacuum cleaner. And as I walked in the lab, the Grad student who was doing something in the hood, bumped a beaker off and it turned out to be full of a mixture of acids including HF. And it fell on my legs and burned a hole in my foot. And then, of course, that was a major snowstorm. The snowstorm that shut Boston down for a week. And, of course, New Jersey, where the laser company was, was completely shut down. So, we had to deal with my foot with a hole in it, and we managed to get home, which was beyond Route 128. Did not go on 128, but it’s a good thing because that turned out to be a parking lot and covered with six feet of snow.
And was this an emergency room situation for you?
Yes, it was. Yeah. At the MIT infirmary.
Did you recover fully? Is your foot okay?
Yeah, my foot’s fine. I did recover. But I was more worried about my laser power supply.
Cherry, how connected were you or not with the world of theoretical physics as it related to your physics research? Were there theoretical questions that motivated your work or that you felt like your work was responsive to?
Yes. John Joannopoulos, who was a theorist, did simulations mostly. But he had a graduate student who was actually simulating phonons of silica. And I was looking at phonons of silica and interaction of molecules like water. Pretty simple molecules. And looking at OH groups. And so, the experiment came first, but the theory actually explained what was going on. So, it was very nice.
When did you know that you were ready to defend?
Marc Kastner was on my thesis committee. And another chemical physics laser person. And they met with me maybe quarterly. And I remember Marc saying, “You have enough data. Just write it up.” So, I did get beautiful data showing very nicely–well, first of all, I had to figure out how to clean the glass—which was non-trivial because it was porous glass. But I had extremely nice data once I understood how to clean it. I cleaned it with hydrogen. Baked it at a very high temperature with hydrogen. That seemed to clean it pretty nicely, got everything organic off of it. I saw very nice surface phonons that were affected dramatically by putting various small molecules on them and had a series of papers written about that.
And the graduate student of John Joannopoulos was Bob Laughlin—who was a strange character—even then. But he and I were collaborating. Except for the time that my foot was damaged—and I had no idea when I could get my laser fixed again—which was slightly depressing because I was right in the middle of getting great data—it was very nice. I forgot one important point about my graduate career. Tom became the Assistant Head for Education. And he was a great teacher and very good at explaining things and understanding where people were not getting things. But he became completely absorbed in the Physics Department education because they were changing everything to be more active learning, even at that time.
So, he was not so available to you as a mentor.
No, he wasn’t, but that was fine. Because by that time, I had built my apparatus, and I had the funding that I needed. But I had an IBM Fellowship. I decided that I would go talk to him and ask him if I could spend an internship in industry. Maybe IBM, since I had this IBM Fellowship. And he looked up and fell off his chair. He was so surprised. This is not what graduate students are supposed to do. And I kind of backed out of his room and decided, “Well, that didn’t go too well.” I was in my office with my huge coleus in the window, and he came into my office a day later and said, “You should go to Bell Labs.”
So, I did spend a summer at Bell Labs in my second year of graduate school. That was a life-changing experience, and that is how I ended up at Bell Labs. Because they came and recruited me. And I loved it. By that time, IBM was saying, “Wait a minute.” And Ford Research were all trying to recruit me, but I was going to Bell Labs. And as I was writing my thesis, I went down to interview, and there were four different offers I could’ve taken at Bell Labs. But I thought I was going to do a post-doc. One of the offers was a member of technical staff, so I took that. And I was in the low temperature Physics Department there.
What was the work? What project were you involved in?
Well, I told them what I wanted to do. It was going to be kind of an extension of my thesis work, which was infrared observation of surface. Ultra-high vacuum. And I began building an ultra-high vacuum experiment when a surface-enhanced Raman effect was observed, which is 12 orders of magnitude larger signal than expected. Which was kind of a strange thing. And it was observed by Hendra in England, a chemist. Rick Van Duyne, who was at Northwestern, repeated the experiment because he didn’t believe it, and he got 12 orders of magnitude more signal than expected, and he knew how many molecules he had.
And so, I went to a surface physics Gordon Conference and decided I had to look at this, too. And I talked to my Department Head, and he said, “Well, why don’t you collaborate with Allen Mills? He’s doing a surface experiment right now.” He was looking at positrons on surfaces. But it wasn’t a silver surface, it was aluminum. And it turned out silver works, not aluminum. And it turned out years of doing experiments later, it was confined surface plasmons that were causing the effect. And the effect is, it’s very large. And so, I started collaborating with Allen, and we did some positron experiments. And then, Steve Chu got in part of this as well because Steve—believe it or not—was doing the theory of negative positron work functions. And Allen and I were measuring them.
And then Chuck Shank, who was down at Holmdel (I was at Murray Hill), basically volunteered to collaborate with me on this surface Raman thing on silver. Because a number of groups now were trying to figure out what was going on. And he had a Post-doc and a laser that he lent, and I borrowed Jack Rowe’s ultra-high vacuum chamber, and we did an experiment that definitely showed you had to have roughness in the silver, and that it was probably surface plasmons. And this was all extremely collaborative and very much fun. I then did some cluster experiments with Martin Jarrold, who made the clusters, and I did the enhanced Raman scattering of the clusters. And they were silicon. We had Krishnan Rajagopal do the simulations of what the clusters would look like because they don’t look like bulk silicon at all. And we could determine the Raman modes of these clusters and got a number of papers out of that. And I still had not done infrared on surfaces, five, six years into being at Bell Labs.
Because you never got around to it, or technologically, you weren’t ready for it?
No, I just never got around to it because there were all these collaborations, I was doing that were really state of the art, and on something that was impossible before we did it.
One of the things that happened during this, I was definitely doing visible light scattering from surfaces by this time, was—I talked to Tony Tyson, who was in my department because I was in the low temperature physics department. He was using CCD cameras to do Astronomy. CCD cameras were invented at Bell Labs to be shift registers, not to be cameras. The camera bit was a making lemonade out of lemons because they were so affected by light. But I decided, “Well, if he’s going to put this on a telescope, I can put it on a spectroscope.”
So, Steve Dierker was there by that time. He and I did the first Raman scattering experiment using a CCD camera, so a digital spectrum coming off a flat surface of silver because we were now doing silver and measured the difference. We could actually see a monolayer. And we could measure the enhancement to the rough surface directly. And that was fun. And some of this was in my lab. Lots of it was in other people’s labs. Because we were just borrowing equipment from each other, collaborating, whatever. It was great fun.
Cherry, was the research environment an inclusive place? It was not difficult to work there in that environment?
Because Arno Penzias was Vice President at that time, he absolutely believed in inclusivity because he was a minority. His family escaped the Holocaust just barely—and they arrived in New York when he was a child—completely penniless. And he had a policy of looking for African Americans and women to hire. And that’s why I was hired. Actively sought them out. Good students wherever. And there was a recruiting mafia, which I became part of for MIT, where you found the students when they were first-year graduate students, and talked to them, and followed them throughout their graduate career. And if they were of high quality in their pursuit of science; or computer science; or math; or whatever else Bell Labs did; you recruited them from early graduate student days.
And I do recall when I was already a Vice President, getting a call from Arno, who was upset that the list of potential candidates for the Vice President of computer science, (I was Vice President for physics), had no women in it. And he called me and said, “You must know some women computer scientists. These people have not found anyone, they claim, who would be on this list.” And so, I had to get mixed up in the computer science search. But he was adamant and started the “Graduate Research Fellowships for Minorities.” And then, after that, for women. 30 years after that was started, we had a revival: We invited the people who were graduates of that program, who were mentored by Bell Labs people as well as their university graduate mentor.
We had a big celebration of that, and it turned out that of African American university professors in science at the time, 90% of them came through that program. Which is pretty amazing. So, yes, it was a very inclusive place. Except for my first department head, who was Phil Platzman—who was a real character of the Russian physics type—maybe my first day at work or at least in my first week he had said, “Oh, you should go meet with this ‘lady physicist’ so-and-so.” So, “lady physicist” as opposed to physicist, or person, or something. But that was about the only sexist thing that happened. Pretty amazing. It was a great, very collaborative place.
And how well-connected were you with your academic peers? Were you presenting at the same conferences, writing in the same journals?
Yes. In fact, just after the birth of my first child, I gave an invited talk at the American Physical Society. I was active in APS and on various committees. I became President in 2009. I was going to say, did I collaborate with anyone in university? Not really. I talked to them a lot: I went to a lot of conferences with them. The collaborators were mostly at Bell Labs because it was so easy to collaborate with them. That is to say—you had a good idea, or they had a good idea—you would walk into their lab and say, “I have a great idea. All I need is your laser, and we can get so-and-so’s vacuum chamber, and stick it all together, and we can do this experiment and find out this important thing.” This happened in high Tc superconductivity.
Everybody jumped on trying to figure out what they could do to understand new phenomena. And it was very quick. It was like, over the weekend, put together something, you have data by three days later. And so, it was very, very different. Being able to buy equipment was trivial. You went to your Department Head. When I decided, I was going to get into doing colloid physics and soft condensed matter—I asked my Department Head—who was Doug Osheroff at that time, in the hallway, I said, “I need $150,000 to buy this computer. Because this was what I want to do with it. I want to look at little microscopic balls in water.” And he said, “I doubt you’re going to get any physics out of that; but go ahead.” And that was how I got my computer and started doing colloid experiments in Mike Grimes’s office. Because that’s where we found space to put the borrowed microscope.
Cherry, what were some of the exciting advancements in superconductivity during this time?
The discovery of high Tc was jumped on by people at Bell Labs who wanted to understand what the compound was, what the structure was, and if they could refine it more. And by that time, I was either a Director or Vice President. And that’s when I got a phone call, again, from Arno saying, “Why are all these people working on high Tc?” Because probably 20 people stopped what they were doing and started trying to figure out, “Is it phonons?” Theorists and experimenters. And a lot was discovered. And, of course, people outside of Bell Labs were extremely upset because the work at Bell Labs was so fast—the incentives were all to find out the science—not to show that you did it. The collaboration was extremely fluid, and if somebody could help in a collaboration, they were in. Being able to get the equipment or the money to do something was very easy compared to universities—where this kind of thing just did not happen.
So, the science got done ten times faster, which irritated people at universities to no end. Everyone at Bell Labs Murray Hill went to lunch in the cafeteria. The physicists and chemists were on one side of the building that was half a mile long, and the math and computer science were on the other side of the building, and they all met in the cafeteria, and talked to each other, and had loud arguments over lunch about pretty much everything. A lot of science. At that time, quantum computation was being discussed, and that kind of melded the computer science, math. Peter Shor was at Bell Labs. And it was amazing. Everyone who was who in science came by Bell Labs to give a talk, or have a Sabbatical, or whatever. So, the world of science and technology came to us. So, it was an amazing experience.
Cherry, given the span of your tenure at Bell Labs and how high you rose in the hierarchy, at what point, either economically or culturally, did you detect that the heyday of Bell Labs, and the primacy of basic science, and the idea that money was no object, was changing?
Oh, it became perceptible as Judge Green made a decision to break up AT&T.
So, you see this as an external factor. It was nothing internal.
Internally, everything was fine?
Well, AT&T was a regulated monopoly. They were allowed to make only a certain amount of profit by regulation. However, if they made more, they could put it back into the company, and they put it into Bell Labs. So, that’s where the money came from. It was guaranteed income. Very large company, a million employees at the time. And we all, at that point, remember the ad campaign: “Reach out and touch someone,” of AT&T, which we changed to, “Reach out and crush someone,” because it really was the monopoly. Which was fantastic for Bell Labs, but maybe not so great for the telephone service of the US. But as soon as it was broken up in various pieces at various times, and when the Baby Bells were spun off and Bell Core got pulled out of Bell Labs, that took around a third of Bell Labs away from what it was in the research area. Before that, there was Bell Labs Research, and that was 1,500 people roughly.
Then, there was Bell Labs Development. 35,000 people. And the development part was all Bell Telephone Labs Incorporated when I got there in 1978. In ‘81, I think it was, it became Unincorporated and became AT&T Bell Labs. And the development part of Bell Labs, the people who developed the transistor, and the CCD, and the satellite communications, and the fiber pulling, and laser communications, and line switches, all of those people were moved into business units. So, AT&T separated research and development and put development closer to manufacturing and sales. Then, when AT&T was split, AT&T bought NCR, a cash register company. And it had a UNIX company as well, UNIX being developed at Bell Labs in research, actually. A tri-split resulted in Lucent Technologies, NCR, and then AT&T. When that split happened, Bell Labs was again split into AT&T Labs at AT&T and Bell Labs in Lucent Technologies, the old manufacturing arm of AT&T.
And I stayed at Lucent. AT&T took mostly math, and computer science, and communications people. Physics, and chemistry, and some math, and computer science stayed at Lucent. But Lucent had 14 business units, and it, then, started spinning off business units. It was providing telephone equipment, or communications equipment, to consumers, businesses, governments, whatever. And they had these various business units and began spinning them off. As they were spun off, at that point, I was Senior Vice President, and my job was figuring out which researchers went with which of the business units.
When Microelectronics spun off, the whole silicon electronics lab spun with them. That was the premiere microelectronics research lab in the world at that time. And we don’t have that anymore in the US. After the spin-off they were pretty much all laid off by the business, as it did not do very well. That was quite horrible to see. And then we, of course, had a different funding mechanism because we no longer had long distance service. When we were AT&T Bell Labs, the revenues of long distance went to Bell Labs research in some percentage. Well, when AT&T spun off, we did not have that anymore. So, we became a tax on the business units. And if you’re a company in trouble—and you’re trying to sell off your business units—you can’t sell off the ones that are in the worst trouble. You have to sell off those that are making money. So, the taxes kept going down. And so, then we had to start laying off people and become more relevant to the company—which a number of us did—and that was fun for some time.
But the company was still not doing very well. And at one point, the stock was about to go to $100. And a year later, it was $.53. And Alcatel was trying to buy us. Which it eventually did. But by that time, I decided it was time to leave. And I was 50 years old, so just made it to retirement. So, my first retirement was from Bell Labs. And I was recruited to Lawrence Livermore National Lab as the Deputy Director for Science and Technology. I was there for a while and was again recruited to Harvard. And my second retirement was from Harvard.
Cherry, I wonder if the timing worked out for you, in a sense, at Bell Labs that you had risen enough in the company where your administrative duties were overtaking your ability and pleasures to do science.
Yes, I quit doing science in 2001 because my postdoc left. And I could not hire another postdoc when we were laying off people. That was just not right. And by that time, I was Senior Vice President. I was responsible for the research interaction with the wireless business unit and the optical business units, and they were doing poorly. And we were competing with Nortel. Nortel was doing way better than we were, and their technologies were better. Just everything was better. They also had the backing of the Canadian government. So, we were just flat out trying to help the business units stay afloat. And that was kind of fun.
But not anything like the Bell Labs of old. I was proud that about 100 researchers that I brought together to try to fix a problem in the optical business unit when 13 optical networks concatenated together was fixed. And that fix meant saving $2 billion for the company. It was a big deal for the company. And it took 100 researchers trying to figure out, “What is going on?”
Cherry, kind of a broad question for your entire career at Bell Laboratories, at Lucent. What was the research, both from a basic science perspective and an applied perspective, that you were most proud of?
All of Bell Labs? Or my own research?
Your own work. Either the work that you did for yourself, or the work that you made possible in your role in an administrative capacity.
I’m proud of understanding surface enhanced Raman scattering, which was a collaborative effort. And believe it or not, the colloid experiments were the first demonstration of a Hexatic phase and two-dimensional melting. Defect mediated melting. That was predicted, but never seen. And that was fun. I also looked at layering phenomena. Hexatic phases of vortices and high Tc superconductors since I had just seen a Hexatic phase in colloids. And then, I’m also quite proud of saving the nanotechnology lab, which we spun out and then had to spin back in, that did microelectromechanical systems and built an optical switch when we were in fast competition with Nortel.
And Nortel had to go out and buy an optical company to get an optical switch, but we developed it inside. And there’s still four of them in the network somewhere. So, our team in Research became part of the development team for that switch. I’m also proud of saving the hide of the optical networking business unit. And I turned around the interaction between research and the wireless business unit, which started out extremely contentious, and then research was helping them design their products. Mostly, they needed help from computer science. That was when I was a Senior Vice President, so I was managing then.
What entree did you have to the DOE? Did you have contacts there that sort of made those opportunities possible for you during your time at Bell?
No, the entree was Ernie. He was an Assistant Professor when I was a graduate student at MIT. So, it was an MIT connection. I remained very connected to MIT. I was on their External Advisory Board, the Corporation’s Advisory Board for the Physics Department for quite some time. I got off it when I went to DOE because I had to get off of everything. And when I was at Bell Labs, I recruited at MIT. I became Head of the Recruiting team. So, I maintained a lot of connections to MIT.
And what was your initial work post-Bell?
I was the Deputy Director for Science and Technology at Livermore. And that was extremely interesting, in a Chinese sense, I think. We went through a contract competition midway. I was there for four years. The Department of Energy really, really was upset at the University of California managing mostly Los Alamos.
This is the Wen Ho Li thing you’re talking about?
Well, it was Wen Ho Li, it was all these stupid things that Los Alamos was doing. Livermore was not doing stupid things. It had done stupid things in the past, but nothing like the amazingly bad things happening at Los Alamos. Students getting their eyes damaged because they didn’t have safety goggles on and things like that—which the University of California then brought Pete Nanos, who was an Admiral, to run the place—and he shut the lab down. We in Livermore were looking at this and saying, “Oh, no.” Because what that started was legislation in Congress that stipulated, any national lab that had been running for more than 20 years had to be recompeted. So, that still holds. You still have to recompete these labs. So, I and other LLNL managers were on the Bechtel UC team because they did not want a university running these labs anymore because the university was clueless as to how to run a Nuclear Facility.
I wonder if there were also post-9/11 security concerns that factor as well.
I think it was just total mismanagement. The university was not really managing the labs. They did fine in science. They did the review of science. That was great. But the operations of a nuclear enterprise with top secret data were not managed well. And the university was not overseeing it well. And so, the person who hired me at Livermore was pulled off to the team to run Los Alamos. So, then Livermore needed to get a new Director, who was not the same personality, let me just put it that way. And then, we had to go through contract competition. So, my job was to write the strategy for science, research, and engineering. Which is kind of, “What does the lab do?”
So, I spent the summer with 150 other people in the Bechtel Building in San Francisco, writing this proposal for $14 billion. Which was an experience I don’t want to go through again, but it was interesting to actually get a proposal together with all the right diagrams. Bechtel knows how to do this because that’s what they do for a living. And we won. We had to go through a mock exercise in Albuquerque showing that the leadership team could solve problems together. We were given various problems, and we had to act out in real time over a whole day. So, we had to spend, I don’t know, I’ll say five months preparing for this. We worked well in Albuquerque. As soon as we got actual control of the lab, that was different. And we went through a National Ignition Facility fiasco. This was, I don’t know, maybe the third fiasco at NIF. And when we took over the lab, we were $150 million over budget. The companies had to be for-profit. It was required that they be for-profit. And they got a huge fee compared to what the University of California was.
So, it was, like, $100 million fee. It was a $2 billion enterprise. $100 million is not a lot out of $2 billion, but it’s a lot when this $100 million is paying salaries of people that suddenly disappears. And we also had to pay taxes because it was for-profit. So, $50 million disappeared there. So, we had to lay off 2,000 people. Now, I had just been laying off people at Bell Labs. But this was so much worse. Let me just say, the behavior of the executive team was not exemplary. I’ll just put it that way. People were hoarding and refusing to lay off people because they were the most important thing that the lab had and that kind of behavior...
Did you have any idea what you were getting involved in, looking to not deal with these kinds of things at Bell?
No, I did not have any idea. No.
And you probably were not getting so much closer to the science, either, during this move.
Well, the thing that was amazing to me about Livermore, and it’s still true at the National Labs—as I’m on a number of National Lab Science Advisory Committees—including Los Alamos, is they really do fantastic science and engineering. And it’s harking back to the Bell Labs days, where, yes, they are given money by Congress to do certain things, but they do tax that money so that they have a little bit of discretionary money, so that they can start new projects. And it’s a small tax, up to 6%, which is a big argument with Congress constantly. Because Congress wants to detail everything. But the 6% tax at Los Alamos, which is a $3 billion entity, is a lot of money.
And they run a program called “Laboratory Directed Research and Development” (LDRD), which is really amazing. They do amazing things. And, of course, they do amazing things for the government. So, that was good, I was connected to the excellent science. I was not doing my own research, but I was overseeing science and technology at the Lab and overseeing the quality control. I had to deal with scientific misconduct, for example. That just comes with the job.
What were some of the most impactful science projects under your management at Livermore?
Well, despite the management issues, the National Ignition Facility had 12 miracles to get it going. And the miracles were, of course, technology. But it was amazing that this thing was able to turn on and work. Never mind it does not have ignition even now. For example, doubling crystals, which were this big, had to be grown to be four feet in diameter. And be perfect. And the facility used, I’m going to say, 600 of them. So, how to grow and polish them had to be discovered. Also, the damage to glass by various frequencies of high-power light needed to be minimized and fixed. And glass companies didn’t know how to do this. And so, the lab used a lot of LDRD research to figure out actually how to fix these problems. They also developed a plasma switch for the light. I forget the rest of the 12 miracles of science and technology. When I was there, another project, started out of LDRD, was a transmission electron microscope that was pulsed. So, you could watch things like metals melting in real time. So, femtosecond electron microscopy. Very, very high technology, difficult experiments get done at the National Labs.
At your level, did you have direct contact with Washington with DOE? Or would that be managed above you?
No, no, no, I had direct contact.
Mainly with the Office of Science?
Well, I did have contact with the Office of Science because the Office of Science did fund some things at Livermore. But mostly, it was contact with the Energy Offices and NNSA, the National Nuclear Security Administration. Because the nuclear part of DOE manages Livermore, and Los Alamos, and Sandia. And I have a lot of contact with the National Security apparatus. It’s just like the Diplomatic Corps. Everybody knows each other, and they keep moving around between different players, but they’re the same people.
Were you on a leadership track that, if you stayed at Livermore, this ultimately was heading toward the Directorship for you?
Oh, they wanted me to be the Director, but I did not wish to be.
You had enough?
I looked at what the Directors had to deal with and decided, “No. No, no, no. I’m happy where I am.”
Was the situation stabilized enough that by 2009, you can leave thinking Livermore was in a good place?
Yeah, Livermore was in a good place by that time. Yeah. It was not a great place, and it’s doing a little bit better now, but that’s because NNSA–at the Department of Energy—I learned this throughout my career but particularly being in Forrestal Building; which is the second most ugly building in Washington, DC…
What’s the first?
Herbert Hoover FBI Building. Designed by the same architect. Oh, my God, they’re ugly. And the DOE building is on stilts, looming over the Smithsonian. It’s right across the street from the Castle.
How did the opportunity at Harvard come together?
I was recruited.
It was a call out of the blue? Had you been putting out feelers? Were you thinking about leaving Livermore?
I was thinking about leaving, and I had an offer from the President, Bob Birgeneau, who was a former Department Head at MIT in the Physics Department when I was there. So, I knew him very well, and he really wanted me to come be Vice Chancellor for Research. And I was thinking about it, but at that time, I was also getting a divorce. And I did not want to be close by. So, how did I get known from Harvard? Back in the Bell Labs days, they tried to recruit me to the Physics Department at Harvard. And I did not realize this until years later.
Might this have been a Bert Halperin connection?
Well, it was a David Nelson, Bert Halperin connection, yeah. So, David Nelson was part of the theory of the Kosterlitz-Thouless-Halperin-Nelson two-dimensional melting. And so, he knew my work very well, and at that time, it turned out they voted tenure for me. But they didn’t tell me that. They just said, “We want you to come.” And I thought about it, and I said, “No, I have to rescue Bell Labs.” That was before it became un-rescue-able. But it did stabilize for a bit. I managed to keep Bell Labs physical science research going for five years.
But anyway, they knew me. And Venky Narayanmurti was the first dean of the school before it was a school. He was a Bell Labs person. I knew him. He, in fact, made one of the Bell Labs offers to me in the beginning that I did not take. He was running a materials group, and I went to physics. So, he knew me, and another connection, which is amazing. Bell Labs used to run Sandia. And they would send Executives to Sandia. And Venky was one of those Executives sent to the Chief Research Officer position at Sandia. And Sandia folks and I recruited together because we were Bell Labs people. So, I had a connection to Sandia, and I visited there, and knew Venky there.
At Harvard, Venky decided he wanted to retire from being dean. And Harvard did a search, and they came up empty. And they told Venky he couldn’t retire. And then, the reason they did a search and came up empty was, it was 2008, and the financial crisis hit. And Harvard’s endowment took a 20% hit. The endowment pays for 50% of the operations of FAS. So, that was an enormous budget hit.
So, Venky couldn’t retire. They spun out the school—which was a bad idea, I’ll say after the fact. They should not have done that because it did not have its own large-enough endowment compared to FAS, which is a monster. FAS is a $2 billion operation, Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Huge. So, the second time they did the search, they called me. The first time, I kind of knew they were searching, but I wasn’t terribly interested. And I was busy laying off people and whatnot at Livermore. But by the time we had finished, and things had stabilized a bit, I was interested. And I decided to move to Cambridge because it was on the other side of the United States from my soon to be ex-husband. And a lot of Bell Labs people were at Harvard.
Was it good to be back in Boston for you?
I loved living in Boston. Yeah. I loved it when I was there as a student, and it was great. I could walk to work. The San Francisco Bay Area traffic was horrendous.
Given the fact that you also had the professorship in physics, and that for your whole career up until this point, you were not operating in an academic environment, were you able to? Or did you take special care to make sure to take on students to teach classes? Was that in the cards for you?
I did not, no. No, because we were in financial crisis. So, the Engineering and Applied Sciences faculty, which was the Division of Applied Physics, had kept changing its name throughout the years. It was the Harvard Engineering School. It was pulled into FAS back in the 1850s. Then, it became the Division. Then, it was Applied Physics. Then, it was the Division of Engineering and Applied Physics. Then, it became the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Then, it was spun out as a school, which I told you was a mistake. Because it didn’t have the funding. Anyway, I discovered that they did not realize they had undergraduates. Because the undergraduates are all in the college, which is a part of FAS. And the graduate students are a part of the graduate school, which is a part of FAS.
So, they knew they had graduate students because they were paying them, but they didn’t even know which undergraduates were concentrating in engineering in their classes. They had no undergraduate educational strategy. Every faculty member could teach whatever they felt like teaching. So, that has now changed. I spent a very long time, I would say, five years as a dean completely changing the teaching and learning strategy of the school. And as a result, it now has four times more undergraduates concentrating in Engineering and Applied Sciences. They choose the school, undergraduates can do whatever they want, and they are fantastic at Harvard.
First of all, your timing is remarkable between Bell Labs, and then Livermore, and then the financial crisis at Harvard. It was all macro social economic doom and gloom for so long. I wonder, Cherry, in what ways has your experiences at Bell Labs and Livermore prepared you well to come into this storm at Harvard from 2008 going forward.
Well, I was used to being in a crisis-situation. More so than pretty much all the other management at Harvard.
Sure. A 20% hit to budget was sort of old news for you, and it was brand new for everybody at Harvard.
Right. And the faculty just went berserk because they are so entitled. I’m sorry, they are. They are so entitled. Not so at the University of Arizona. It’s a different type of faculty experience at the university, which has always been penurious.
What were the circumstances of you giving up the deanship but staying at Harvard?
My father died, and I was going back and forth between Tucson for months. And I just got tired of this deanship, and all of the bickering among the deans, and the entitlement of the faculty and the CFO saying, “No, you can’t continue to hire faculty because you’re 20% in the red.” I did fundraising for the school, that’s a major job, and fundraised 16 Computer Science faculty positions. And I was told I couldn’t hire them. And then, the person who gave the several number of digits figure was not happy. Just roadblocks everywhere. So, I decided, “I like living in Cambridge. I’ll just teach.” Because I love teaching undergraduates.
And Cherry—giving that your teaching—the Benjamin Peirce Professorship had the Public Policy aspect to it, I want to return to something you said earlier, which was striking to me. And that is, thinking about the course of your career, where you started intellectually and academically, and how you have come, over the years, to be concerned about macro social things, like soil for example, I wonder if this really crystallized for you during this 2015 to 2019 period where you were able to focus on teaching, and Public Policy was definitely part of your academic portfolio.
Yes. The course I taught when I came back from DOE was called “Systems Thinking to Solve Humanity’s Greatest Challenges.” It was a great course. Very interactive. One of the assignments, by the way, was watching the movie Contagion, talking about, “Any day now, we’re going to have a major pandemic.”
Hits a little too close to home, doesn’t it?
Yes, yes. We talked about EMPs, we talked about climate change, we talked about inequality.
I bet you enjoyed taking your skillset and problem solving in a laboratory environment, and applying it to these broad sociological, economic, political, scientific problems.
Yes, indeed. I like solving problems. Or at least mitigating them. Not sure that anything can be solved. But finding solutions that help people.
Did you take on graduate students in this role? Or was this strictly an undergraduate sort of teaching work?
No, we had graduate assistants. But I started two Master’s degrees, which Harvard, at least FAS, does not do Master’s degrees. So, that was another uphill battle. But one of them was Applied Computational Sciences. So, big data and learning how to simulate. And the other, which is where we got our teaching assistants for this course from, was a Master’s along with the School of Architecture in design and solving problems. So, innovation and design. And our head TA in this course was getting a Master’s in this program. And he is now CEO of a company that designs nutrition for cancer patients. So, they were learning from each other how to design a small company, whether it be for-profit or not-for-profit, to solve some human problem. And that is still going. Both of those Master’s programs are going well, despite the difficulty getting them because faculty did not want to hear anything about Master’s. Even though it was an Engineering and Applied Sciences school.
Probably your experience, in terms of macro social problems—thinking about the fact that you were Commissioner for the BP “Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill”—you were already thinking along these lines, but you just were not yet in a position to be teaching these issues. What were some of the big takeaways from the Horizon Oil Spill for you?
I was aware that there was a whole ecology of oil companies, but the biggest takeaway was, those incumbents who have the Politicians completely under their thumb are the small companies. The big companies have deep pockets, and they know they’re going to get sued. So, they do worry about environmental things, except for BP. That’s different. But Shell, and Chevron, and the big six know they have deep pockets—know they’re going to be sued— know that they just better do things correctly. Certainly, after the Exxon Valdez, Exxon completely changed their safety culture. BP did not. It was a scrappy British thing that was part of the government, then got spun off into a company. And they had horrendous, horrendous safety culture. None, basically.
We interviewed a MIT professor who was hired by BP to try to change their safety culture, and she said it was so horrible, she could not believe it. However, the big companies do, of course, have a lobbying force, but the companies that really lobby hard are the small ones. And those are also the ones with no safety culture, no desire to help the environment, and are damaging everything down there, in the Gulf in particular. And there is an ecosystem of companies. On the Deepwater Horizon rig, there were people from 159 different companies. Because they’re all consultants and hired to do particular tasks.
And they do not have a unified safety culture on the rig because there’s so many different companies there. So, it was extremely interesting to see this political situation. The Governors are under the thumbs of lobbyists, for example. One of the Governors was going to take the reparation money and build a Casino. Instead of repairing the Gulf. Well, he didn’t do that, luckily. But it’s amazing.
Cherry, were you involved at all in your advisory work for DOE in climate change policy or preparations for the Paris Accord?
I was involved in the energy part of that, energy transition, yeah. We did a strategic plan for what would need to be researched and developed for a green energy transition in the department.
And were you able to work at all with Ernie Moniz directly on these things?
Yes. Ernie is a friend of mine, and when I had some difficulty in the department, I just went to Ernie.
He took your calls.
He did, yeah. I could walk up to his office, and he was great. When I was waiting to be confirmed, which took some time, the Senate confirmation, because they were holding off on pipelines and things like that, had nothing to do with me, I worked with the Energy Technologies part of the Department. Before that when I was awaiting nomination by the President, I worked on a project that Ernie was enthusiastic about, which is to streamline the management contract for SLAC, which is a small lab. So, start small. And it worked, and they now have a streamlined contract. And I learned a whole lot about the department and all of the forces of bureaucracy that were against making a streamlined contract in the department. And it worked well.
Cherry, I’m curious also, given your work at Livermore and your later work at NNSA, were you involved at all in an advisory capacity on the Iran deal?
No, I was there sitting in what’s called the “Horseshoe,” waiting to be confirmed with all of the people doing the Iran deal. And they were from the National Labs, and I knew them. I was not advising on it at all. But it was going on, and they were all sitting in offices around me because they were advising the Secretary, and I was a Senior Advisor to the Secretary while I was waiting to be confirmed, working on mostly energy things and management of National Labs, not the Iran deal. Yeah.
Given the fact that you were spending time in Tucson, were you paying attention to Biosphere 2 at this time? Was this something that was generally on your radar?
I was asked in 2011, while I was still at Harvard, to be on the Advisory Board of Biosphere 2, because the University of Arizona was just starting one and had taken it over. And given that it was in Tucson, and that’s where my parents and my sister live, I said, “Sure.” And that’s how I got introduced to Biosphere 2. Although, in the 90s, I had visited it with maybe a brother or two. We drove up there to see what it was all about when we were visiting Tucson. When the Biospherians were inside. But I was on the Advisory Board until I went to DOE, when I had to get off of everything.
So, I knew what was going on. And then I decided to retire from Harvard—I got a letter from the dean of FAS saying, “Congratulations. You will be eligible in two years to retire. We have a deal for you,” when I was at Washington. And I decided there, “I am going to retire. And move to Tucson.” So, I called up Joaquin, who is the Director of Biosphere 2, and said, “Do you have a job for me?” And he said, “Yeah.” So, that’s how I got my job.
What was most exciting? You had accomplished so much up until this point in science, in policy, in administration. What was different for you about Biosphere 2 that made it intellectually compelling?
So, Biosphere 2 is doing wonderful stuff, but it’s not currently acting up to its potential. So, my job is to get it closer to its potential, which is the only place on earth that can do the kind of research that could save Ecosystems. Because it is its own Ecosystem, but it’s controlled. And so, that was what excited me. Then, COVID struck.
Your next crisis.
We’re going to have to pay attention to your next move to know what’s coming.
Well, the first thing that happened when COVID struck is the tourism disappeared from Biosphere 2, and that’s a third of the budget. “Hm, have I been here before?”
But yeah, the goal is to do something much bigger. And the current President at the University of Arizona is enthusiastic about–well: University of Arizona is number one in the world in water, not surprisingly. Water policy, water technologies, water everything. Because it’s sitting in the middle of the desert. Also, Astronomy and Astrobiology. Because it’s sitting in the middle of the desert, and there are no clouds. And environment. And particularly, arid environments. So, those are kind of the three prongs, other than medicine, which is obviously important in the time of COVID, that the President wants to build on because that is where University of Arizona is very strong. They’re also very strong, believe it or not, in Poetry and Dance. Which is bizarre, but there you have it.
Cherry, given how broad and deep your experience is at the nexus of academia, and private enterprise, and government, you’ve worked in these areas, and in some ways, overlapping, in so much of your career, how do you apply that experience and knowledge to Biosphere 2—in terms of capitalizing on the most important strategic institutional partnerships beyond Tucson, beyond the University of Arizona—given the fact that the goals for Biosphere 2 are so enormous and broad-ranging?
Well, we’re in the middle of negotiating a partnership where they came to us with the National Labs System of France. They are very strongly already interacting with University of Arizona in many ways, Astronomy, high energy physics, environment, that they’re starting a series of International Research Centers. So, this is new for them. They have some collaborations internationally, but they want to put a center in Tucson. So, that’s one collaboration that is going. We have a lot of collaborations with Mexico, and UNAM in particular—which is the oldest university in the Western hemisphere. I am a Co-Chair of the InterAcademy Partnership—which is 140 National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine—and we’re doing things with the Academies that interact with Biosphere 2.
Biosphere 2, as I said, not currently operating, has a Conference Center. A very nice one, where retreats can be held. And there have been retreats there. But I want a bigger network of Centers, which are not necessarily only in academia, working on global solutions. This got somewhat delayed by COVID.
And to go back to our discussion from your graduate school days—the duality of your interest in terms of basic science research and applications, applied technology, “How do you understand that duality for Biosphere 2?” What is it about the overall project that is discovery for the sake of discovery’s sake, and how much of it is, “Here’s a real, tangible problem, and here’s how this unique structure, Biosphere 2, can help resolve these problems”?
It is mostly the latter. Call it problem-based pure science, our Pasteur’s Quadrant. So, for example, the Earth has a real problem with its coral reefs bleaching and dying. The ocean is being refurbished to understand how to either genetically modify or find coral that are more resilient so that one could build back coral reefs. In fact, it’s pretty awful. We went, pre-COVID, to Mote Laboratory, which is a not-for-profit Laboratory on Key West. They are trying to restore coral reefs in Florida. 90% of them are gone. It’s horrible. It’s not just climate change, but some dredging of Miami Harbor or something brought up some horrible coral disease, and it spread throughout all of the reefs in Florida.
Also, human-caused, probably. But it’s hard to tell. So, the ocean is learning new things about coral reefs, but how to make them more resilient. The last experiment in the Tropical Rainforest at Biosphere 2 was understanding how a rainforest deals with drought. It’s a very complex system, so how is the system either resilient or not? What happens to it?
And in terms of establishing strategic partnerships in the world of private industry, just thinking off the top of my head, I would assume somebody like Elon Musk, who’s really into terraforming Mars, for example, are there opportunities that you see that Biosphere has an area of expertise where there’s a natural alliance with Titans of Industry?
Yes, and we’re talking to a number of Titans of Industry on this Mars analog. And as I said, Astrobiology is big here. Is there anything living in the solar system that we haven’t brought there accidentally, is something that we will find out probably within our lifetimes. How do you detect it? What is it? I’ve just been learning about weird things on Earth that I had no idea. I just got an email from this guy who’s building the Mars analog. There are trees in the tropics that take up nickel to the point where their sap is bright green, and they have more nickel content in their sap than in nickel ore. And these are trees living in the tropics. And people are thinking about mining them because it’s easier. You cut down a tree, you take the sap out, you got your nickel. And they’re also taking up carbon. And there’re, of course, extremophiles on Earth that might be relevant to what’s on other planets, or the moons of the planets, or whatnot. So, I’m interested in saving the Earth, of course, but we will eventually go off-planet.
Cherry, given the depth of your goals with Biosphere 2, how complex they are and how long it will take for success to come to fruition: None of these things that you’re aiming for are going to happen in the short term, right? So, my question is, what are the feedback mechanisms that you’re using to understand or to determine that you’re on the right track with all of these things that might take decades to see through?
That, of course, is a very good question. Well, first of all, as I said, we’re 30% in the red. It’s a bootstrapping. So, in order to get the research done, you have to be able to operate in order to write the proposals to get the money to do the research. So, we have assigned Directors to each of the Biomes, and their job is to have a long-term vision and grand challenges that they’re trying to figure out. By long-term, I mean ten years. Maybe 30. But let’s just say ten. But their job is to bootstrap up to the next five years. So, what proposals are they going to write? What agencies do we go to as soon as we can actually travel? And how do we get going? And the success of the science campaigns is one measure.
By success, have they found out something that no one else has been able to do? And why do anything at Biosphere 2, if you can do it elsewhere? You should do unique things at Biosphere 2, and really use the capacity of it. If you’re going to study a coral reef, you need something about as large as Biosphere 2’s ocean to have an entire ecosystem. You can’t really do it in the lab in a tiny coral tray because you don’t have the whole ecosystem. You don’t have all the fish, the microbial ecosystem of the ocean, its turbulence, the right light. You don’t have all of that stuff. But you can in Biosphere 2. You can also do that in the real ocean. Not as controlled. But you will not be able to put genetically modified coral in the real ocean. Not happening. But you can do it in Biosphere 2 because it’s contained.
Cherry, you’ve spent so much of your career at the Deputy Level, or the Assistant Director level, or the Research Head level. Now, as Director of Biosphere 2…
No, no, I’m Director of Research.
Right. But at that level, as you look to the Deputy level, what have been some of the management styles that you’ve learned in leadership over the course of your career that you are now in a position to apply fully?
Well, the difference between managing a science campaign, whether it is Pasteur’s Quadrant or not, and an engineering development project is, the management style needs to be quite distinct. So, in a development project, or if you’re managing a National Lab, or some very large operation, it has to be top-down. And the Director has to be absolutely petrified of safety environment human issues and always demonstrating that those are important. And making sure that everyone is doing their job in the appropriate way, and everyone knows what their job is. Totally different for science. For science, it’s bottom-up.
So, you go out and find the funding, you hold the carrot, and the scientists think up the great ideas. And it’s also true for innovation. If you know what you’re developing, you’ve got to do it top-down. But if you have no idea what you’re developing, which is the case for startups, then it’s got to be bottom-up. All ideas are on the table, listen to everything, be careful about safety and whatnot, but the culture is totally different.
Where do you see the tremendous advances in computational power? Even machine learning or possibly quantum computing, what factor will they play in the broad-scale goals that Biosphere 2 has looking to the future?
Well, the world has a great need for not just crunching data but understanding what the data is saying. Interpretation is the big problem. Also true for Biosphere 2, but for anything. So, AI and possibly quantum are going to be very important for that. Right now, quantum is super important for cryptography. But since it does not do error correcting at all because no one has figured out how to do that efficiently–it may be good for simulating a quantum system because it is a quantum system. But it’s not going to take your data and infer from it. And machine learning is going to be far better, than people, at doing this because we know people have biases. It’s built into their system. And if one can use a cadre of different machine learning algorithms, you might get rid of the biases.
Cherry, for my last question, looking to the future, the whole basis of Biosphere 2 is built on optimism, right, that there are solutions to these massive generational, economic, political problems. The Biosphere 2 project, the whole basis of it is, there is cause for optimism. So, just very broadly conceived, looking to the next 10, 20 years, what are the things that you’re most optimistic about where Biosphere 2, it will be understood, will be right there in the center of everything to create these solutions?
Well, I’m hoping that we can help create solutions for coral. Because coral reefs are not terribly resilient, we understand now. And they are so essential. If you talk about—which I don’t like to but nevertheless—ecosystem services: What is going to help human civilization? Coral reefs are a large part of it. They also have a large part of the biodiversity of the ocean, just all sorts of things. So, if we can do that, that will be wonderful. If we can understand how to make agriculture more productive and less damaging to the environment, that will be wonderful. And we have to work on getting rid of inequality. That’s the human aspect. But it’s critical for solving the world’s problems.
And you see Biosphere 2 as playing a critical role in solving inequality issues?
Yes. This is not what we’re starting out to do, but if you look at what is necessary for sustaining human civilization, it’s all of the sustainable development goals. Every one of them all at once.
Which would include empowering women in the third world, for example.
Or women in the first world, yes. Empowering everyone. Indigenous people have wisdom that we have lost, right? So, yes, I think inequality is a huge, huge issue. And COVID has brought this out totally. You can see how unequal people are.
Well, Cherry, on behalf of all human inhabitants of Planet Earth, I want to wish you the best of luck in resolving all these issues because boy, do we need it.
We do, yes.
Cherry, thank you so much for spending this time with me. I deeply appreciate it. It’s been tremendously fascinating and uplifting, and I can’t overstate what an important historical resource this will be. So, thank you so much.
Oh, you’re welcome.