UC Irvine chemistry professor John C. Hemminger has been appointed vice chancellor for research, effective Nov. 1. Dean of the School of Physical Sciences since 2006, Hemminger is a nationally recognized chemist whose research has yielded significant advances in nanotechnology manufacturing, efforts to combat atmospheric pollution and, most recently, solar fuels.
“It’s very exciting,” says Hemminger in his large, light-filled office in Rowland Hall. “The hardest part is probably going to be moving out of here.”
But he quickly turns serious, outlining the scope and challenges of one of the campus’s biggest jobs. The vice chancellor for research oversees about $300 million annually in research contracts and grants, ensuring that they meet strict compliance requirements, and distributes key seed money to promising new research areas.
Working with UCI’s top-notch schools of the arts, humanities and other fields is a priority, he says, despite his own background. He considers creative expression on a par with scientific research.
Hemminger also will serve as the public face of the university’s core research mission.
It’s a role he’s familiar with. As chair of the U.S. Department of Energy’s basic energy sciences advisory committee, he has briefed House and Senate committees on sustainable energy and scientific policy.
His new post, he notes, will give him added clout. He wants to work more closely with the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Defense, among others. But Hemminger is as comfortable speaking to a group of high school science teachers as members of Congress.
“I think it’s really important for university researchers to get the public excited about what they’re doing. For one thing, they’re paying most of the bills. And getting people excited is how you get the next generation of scientists into the university,” he says.
Hemminger, who along with scientists at several California institutions won a $122 million grant to set up a solar fuels research hub this summer, says “it’s critical that the U.S. maintain its lead in energy research – both for its own economic security and for future sustainability.”
He’ll continue his own research, including overseeing the UCI portion of the solar fuels hub, but he downplays his role: “I’m the plumber and the electrician,” he quips. “I come in and fix the machines; I make them work.”
Hemminger says he also plans to help faculty work more closely with industry – “something not many universities do well” – transforming academic research more quickly into practical applications. As industry has moved away from fundamental research, he says, universities – the University of California in particular – have filled the void with internationally recognized work.
The demands of his new post are considerable. Hemminger will oversee about 325 employees, as well as cutting-edge laboratories, equipment and research centers. He hopes to improve staffing and infrastructure. He’ll also be responsible for conflict-of-interest, research integrity and intellectual property issues.
Hemminger praises his predecessor, Susan V. Bryant, who retired last summer, for professionalizing compliance activities. He intends to continue that, while not burying faculty in paperwork. “Sue Bryant really put us on the right track,” he says.
Many at UCI, in turn, praise Hemminger.
“An exceptional scientist, an experienced administrator and a committed campus collaborator, Professor Hemminger will provide continued excellent leadership,” said Chancellor Michael Drake and Executive Vice Chancellor & Provost Michael Gottfredson in a joint statement.
Biological chemistry professor Peter Donovan, who led the vice chancellor search committee, says: “We saw John’s administrative experience and knowledge of the UC system as great strengths and felt he could pick up the reins of the position very quickly at a critical time for the university.
“John is also recognized as an outstanding researcher in his own right, and we felt that this would serve UCI very well in representing its research within the UC system, with the federal government and with donors. I’m delighted he accepted the position.”
Ken Janda, associate dean of physical sciences, has been named interim dean of the school while a replacement search is conducted.
Hemminger earned a bachelor’s in chemistry at UCI and, in 1976, a doctorate in chemical physics at Harvard University. He joined the UCI faculty in 1978. He has won major research awards and fellowships from the American Chemical Society, American Vacuum Society, National Science Foundation, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, American Physical Society, and American Association for the Advancement of Science.
A Villa Park resident, Hemminger is an avid traveler, hiker and gardener. He grew up in Northern California on land that’s now part of Redwood National Park. His wife, Carol, a chemist with a private company, is a photography buff, and the walls of Hemminger’s office are lined with colorful photos she took in Iceland, the Galapagos Islands, the Canadian Rockies and the Grand Canyon. The couple plans to spend December in Antarctica.
But Hemminger always returns to UCI. “One of the nice things about Irvine is that while it’s a young campus, it’s been extremely successful,” he says. “That success comes from the outstanding faculty and students here. I think that will make working in campus administration relatively easy.”