Today at Berkeley Lab

Don DePaolo: A Career Retrospective

depaoloDon DePaolo is stepping down this month after 38 years of Berkeley Lab and UC service. He came to Berkeley Lab and UC Berkeley from UCLA in 1988, and has made a continuous and ultimately profound impact on both organizations. Don has served as the Associate Lab Director (ALD) for the Energy Sciences Area, the ALD for the former Energy and Environmental Sciences (and oversaw its growth and evolution into two areas), the Division Director of the former Earth Sciences Division, Geochemistry Department Head, founder and director of the Center for Isotope Geochemistry (a joint-institution research facility using mass spectrometers to measure a wide variety of isotopes), and a faculty scientist working with a talented pool of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, creative, skilled collaborators at the Lab and UC Berkeley, and many more beyond those institutions.

Lab Director Mike Witherell noted that, “Don is first a great scientist, and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences relatively early in his career for his contributions in geochemistry. He is also an accomplished mentor who has helped develop geoscientists who have gone on to lead many institutions in several fields. Finally, he has done an enormous amount in several leadership roles to build Berkeley Lab into the superb research institution it is today. Former director Chuck Shank spoke very eloquently about the depth and breadth of his contributions to the Lab at the recent meeting of the Laboratory Advisory Board.”

depaolo-fieldAnd indeed his legacy at the Lab is impressive. For example, he founded the Center for Isotope Geochemistry, recruiting first-rate geochemists and setting up a successful joint association with UC Berkeley. It wasn’t long after this that Berkeley Lab became known as a world-class institution for isotope geochemistry. With his students and postdoctoral researchers, DePaolo did seminal work on kinetics applied to geological problems. Out of this has come Berkeley Lab’s productive Reactive Transport group, whose researchers use isotope systematics and develop modeling software, which they apply to a wide variety of serious environmental problems.

Deputy Director Horst Simon recalls some of the highlights of DePaolo’s years at the Lab, especially his ability to build strong relationships with some of our most important stakeholders. “Don was highly effective in communicating with DOE and other stakeholders and it helped him to work through difficult situations. In particular he helped with several transitions in the Energy Sciences Area, for example with establishing JCESR, and with supporting JCAP and help positioning it for the renewal. Don really helped to pull together the ALS-U team and lead it to success. He has a great talent for interpreting complex situations, and I could always go to Don for advice and insights.”

DePaolo has also played an important role by mentoring a broad range of geoscientists, ensuring that the Earth Sciences Division was intellectually balanced, as well as collaborative in culture. As Director of the Center for Nanoscale Control of Geologic CO2, one of only three Energy Frontier Research Centers in the U.S. focusing on earth science issues, he promoted a highly collaborative approach to DOE national lab science, a model that is very different from that used in universities. DePaolo prioritized research collaboration to achieve strong cross-disciplinary approaches to address complex earth science questions effectively.

depaolo-antarticaHis legacy to the larger scientific community is represented by his many former students and postdocs who have achieved success in academia and other research institutions. His mentees include professors at Harvard, UC Berkeley, Cambridge, Stanford, and several more universities, program managers at National Science Foundation, and scientists at Berkeley Lab and NASA. All regard Depaolo with deep respect; some of their reflections on Don’s mentorship are included here:

“Don’s loyalty to his students and postdocs is unsurpassed. He was tough on us, but behind our backs he was supporting us. Wonderful.”

“The way he did science, he was tackling new fundamental problems (no retreads), coming up with elegantly simply models to explain complex systems.”

“You’d be collecting data, and staring at it and it would be so complicated, you couldn’t think what was going on. You’d sit down with Don: “I’ve been looking at 3 months.” He’d look, very quietly, for three minutes, and then say, “Did you see this…?” Somewhere between frustrating and awe-inspiring at the same time. He was so quick to pull the nugget out of the data.”

“At some point, if he felt what your idea was a bad idea, he would tell you. And he was always right. Always. 100% of his advice he gave was great advice. I’ve gone back to Don when meeting big challenges in my career for advice—setting up a new lab, changing institutions—for a heart-to-heart. He has always been there, even years after graduation.”

“His dedication to graduate students and ability to find funding to support people to enable their pursuit of a wide variety of science interests made my own work experience enjoyable.”

“He’s very protective of his students, and mentors them. He’s very proud of his successful mentees. They have succeeded not only academically, but also in their personal life. He encouraged them to love their research, that they be happy in their life.”

DePaolo’s contributions to earth sciences are also demonstrated by more than 250 papers, books and book chapters, with nearly 20,000 citations. He has received many awards recognizing his contributions to science. He was elected as a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1993 at age 41. He received the Arthur L. Day Medal, the AGU Harold Urey Medal, the Hess Medal, and several more. And he has been elected as Fellow to seven distinguished organizations.

His scientific leadership will be sorely missed at the Berkeley Lab.