Nelson Receives 2017's ABB Sponsored Bomem-Michelson Award

Danielle Randall
March 9, 2017

Keith A. Nelson, the Haslam and Dewey Professor of Chemistry, has been named the 2017 recipient of the Bomem-Michelson Award, which is sponsored by ABB, a pioneering technology leader that works closely with utility, industry, transportation and infrastructure customers to write the future of industrial digitalization and realize value. Professor Nelson received his PhD in Physical Chemistry from Stanford University in 1981, and after a postdoctoral stint at UCLA, he joined the faculty at MIT in 1982. He has worked on discovery of new light-matter interactions and their exploitation for spectroscopy and control of coherent acoustic waves, lattice and molecular vibrations, excitons, spins, and their admixtures with light. He has developed novel methods for study of solid-state chemical reactions, crystals near phase transitions, glass-forming liquids, electronic excited-state dynamics, thermal transport, and matter far from equilibrium. He has pioneered ta­ bletop generation of strong terahertz-frequency fields and nonlinear terahertz spectroscopy.

The Bomem-Michelson award is dedicated to the memory of Professor A. A. Michelson, developer of the Michelson interferometer.  ABB sponsors the award to honor scientists who have advanced the technique(s) of vibrational, molecular, Raman, or electronic spectroscopy. Contributions may be theoretical, experimental, or both.  The recipient must be actively working and at least 37 years of age.  To ensure that the award is based on an independent evaluation of the candidate’s achievements, the selection is made by a committee chosen by the Coblentz Society.   Professor Nelson was presented with the award, which consists of an honorarium and a crystal symbol of the Bomem-Michelson award, at the Pittsburgh Conference on Analytical Chemistry and Applied Spectroscopy.  

Each day of the Conference, known as Pittcon, a newsletter indicating the day's highlights was published and distributed among the attendees. The March 7, 2017 issue featured the following interview with Professor Nelson:

What  does this award  mean to you-on both a personal and/or a professional  level?

KAN: The award means a great deal to me because it reflects the judgment of my peers. On the grand scale of human­ ity,we spectroscopists are a pretty tiny population! Few of us aspire to household name recognition. But among ourselves, we very much value our mutual respect. While that may seem almost assumed for anyone who is seri­ ously considered for the Bomem-Michelson Award, the fact is we don't spend a lotof our time acknowledging it and we do spend a good bit of our time responding to (or licking our wounds from) criticism, especially in the form of reviewer comments on our work submitted for publication or our research proposals. At its best (and quite often), that criticism improves what we produce, but the point is none of us are awash in accolades inour day-tcrdaywork. So when a moment like this comes along where our peers take the time and trouble to stop and say "We believe your work merits special recogni­ tion," it is extremely special and even sublime!

If you have children-as youngsters, did they or do they know what you do "at work'"?

My two children (now grown), a son and a daughter, both knew as kids what I do at work at least in a general way. They saw the lab occasionally, and when Ihad something that I thought could make an interesting impression (including, for example, visual images of propagating acoustic or shock waves or of terahertz electromagnetic waves), I would share it with them. Neither of them went into science, and I didn't push them in that direction, but they both have some of a scientist's habits of mind, especially an appreciation of analytical thinking applied to many (but not all!) aspects of life.

When you were a youngster,  could anyone have predicted the track of  your career?

I guess I'd say yes, it's exactly what many people would have predicted. I always liked science. I went to a small, country elementary school without much stimulation in that direction, and really didn't get any special outside exposure either (no one in the family was in science), but I knew Iliked the subject. In the absence of much science, I read lots of science fiction! Sometimes when I see how far our field has come in a generation, it seems to me that that's what we're producing. (And sometimes when I read those reviewer comments, it seems they worry about the same thing...)

What is your proudest accomplishment­ personal and professional?

I'm not sure "proudest" says it best. Maybe accomplishments that gave and still give me the greatest joy. 

Personal: Marrying my wife of 35 years! There were a lot of letters written with the help of a Spanish­ English dictionary and a book of 501 Spanish verbs with all the conjugations. That's tied with raising our two wonderful and adored kids. We, and I, have lived a charmed life in myriad ways.

Professional: Guiding the research of some of the most talented students in the world.

Who was or is your mentor(s) or the person you most admire?

Michael Fayer at Stanford was my PhD mentor, and there really was quite a lot of mentoring. I admire him for many reasons, but maybe above all for his relentless enthusiasm for his science, undiminished over the decades.

Who or what is a constant source of inspiration to you?

My wife and kids! I know, it's sappy, but that's the way we are, right? My wife has been a blessing to many in the Mexican and greater Hispanic community in our area. She's the director of a Mexican ballet folklorico (folk ballet) group, they practice in our house that is filled with the spectacular dresses and outfits from every region, and as a major side benefit the house rings with salsa, merengue, and cumbia songs and dancing. The dance group, and to some extent our house, has been a home away from home for many folks who are far from their original homes.

Who are scientists-either living or deceased-you would like to meet?

Doc H Brown. I've always hoped there could be some way to build a time machine after all, and I never would have imagined it would be from a Delorean.

What do you like to do inyour spare time? Hobbies? Sports? Write poetry? Sing/ Dance?

Kayaking, bicycling, and, yes, some singing and dancing, but I'm not recommending that anyone listen or watch.

What do you consider the top three scientific  breakthroughs-current  or past?

Somewhere in the top three must be that Delorean time machine.

What is your advice to 20-somethings now trying to build careers in science?

This too shall pass.

What is the next scientific breakthrough you would like to see succeed?

A more affordable version of the time machine! Maybe a Chevy.