Paul Chirik, the Edwards S. Sanford Professor of Chemistry, has been appointed Chair of the Department of Chemistry for a term of four years beginning on July 1. He succeeds current Chair Gregory Scholes, the William S. Tod Professor of Chemistry, who has held the post since July of 2020.
Professor of Chemistry Robert Knowles will serve as associate chair.
Chirik is a leading expert in the application of catalysis to challenges in sustainable chemistry. He has been with Princeton Chemistry since 2011, serving most recently as associate chair.
“I’m honored to take on this position because it’s a service role,” said Chirik. “One of the motivations for me is to give back to the Department, which has been such a great place for me scientifically and personally. This is a world-class chemistry department. The level of science we do here is just phenomenal, and the reason for that is the people. And by the people I mean the faculty, obviously, but also the postdocs and graduate students and undergrads and the staff.”
After the announcement was made last week, Chirik set out two goals that will provide direction in the first year of his term.
“First and foremost is just maintaining our scientific stature and mission,” he said. “One of the most important things to me is to effectively respond to change, from personnel change to external factors that could influence the way we do science. As the University evolves and the economy evolves and all these things change as a function of time, we have to make sure that we keep raising the level of science that we do.
“We’ve had a sea change in how we support grad students and postdocs and facilities. All these things create financial challenges. It’s important for the chair to make sure that the users, the people doing the work, don’t feel any of these pressures and that they stay focused on being creative and doing amazing chemistry.
“Another goal is to have the department grow,” Chirik added. “What do I mean by that? Faculty hiring is first. We’re on a really great trajectory right now. We’ve added two junior faculty and we’re going to continue to hire and add world-class faculty at the junior and senior levels. Attracting the best scientists, be they faculty, students or postdocs, is a top priority.”
Chirik commended the three chairs who preceded him since he started with Princeton Chemistry: David MacMillan, the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of Chemistry; Tom Muir, the Van Zandt Williams Jr. Class of 1965 Professor of Chemistry; and Scholes, whose term began in the thick of the COVID lockdown.
“That was an incredible challenge, to take over this role when you can’t be near people,” said Chirik of Scholes. “It wasn’t even clear how we were going to emerge from it and what normal would be. There were a lot of challenges and Greg weathered those with a calm head as he looked for the best solution possible.
“I was fortunate enough to work with him as associate chair so I think I got a glimpse of what the chair needs to do. I don’t think I saw everything, though, and I thank Greg for that.”
As associate chair, Knowles will head up the teaching side of the Department, including the teaching mission and the roster of lecturers who support it.
Chirik received his B.S. in Chemistry from Virginia Tech, where he graduated magna cum laude in 1995. He earned his Ph.D. under John Bercaw at the California Institute of Technology in 2000. He did his postdoctoral work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and joined the faculty at Cornell University in 2001 before coming to Princeton.
He won the Linus Pauling Medal in Chemistry in 2021; the Rylander Award in Catalysis in 2020; and the Gabor Somorjai Award for Creative Research in Catalysis in 2021. He also received one of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation’s first exploration-phase grants for research in green chemistry in 2022.
Chirik, an avid runner, lives in Princeton with his wife, Karen Chirik, Manager of Finance and Administration, Department and Program for the Department of Near Eastern Studies, and their twin daughters.