Acclaimed UT chemist named dean of natural sciences at Rice

National Academy of Sciences member Peter Rossky, currently a chemistry professor and director of two major research centers at the University of Texas (UT) at Austin, has been named dean of Rice University’s Wiess School of Natural Sciences.

He will join the Rice faculty Aug. 1, which will allow him to begin his deanship before the fall semester starts Aug. 25. In addition to being dean of natural sciences, Rossky will hold the Harry C. and Olga K. Wiess Chair as a professor of chemistry.

Peter Rossky, dean of Wiess School of Natural Sciences

Peter Rossky

“Peter’s scientific stature is evident from his election to some of the elite professional academies,” said Provost George McLendon. “It’s a measure of Rice’s stature to have a scientist like Peter leading the Wiess School.”

Rossky, who is also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, holds the Marvin K. Collie Welch-Regents Chair in Chemistry in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at UT and is a professor of chemical engineering. He directs the Department of Energy’s Energy Frontier Research Center on Charge Separation and Transfer at Interfaces in Energy Materials at UT and the Center for Computational Molecular Sciences at UT’s Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences.

“I am a theoretical chemist who finds nothing more engaging than to try to understand the molecular-level processes that underlie an important experimental observation whose origin is controversial or puzzling,” Rossky wrote in 2011 for his membership profile after being elected to the National Academy of Sciences — one of the highest honors for a U.S. scientist.

His research focuses on the structure and dynamics of chemical transformations in condensed-phase materials, such as liquids, polymers and molecular clusters. He is particularly interested in the role of liquids as an environment for chemistry, and also in understanding the quantum world, especially tracking the evolution of energy in molecular excited states. His research group has developed algorithms that underlie the ability to study the quantum statistical and dynamic behaviors of chemicals using computer simulation.

“I am excited to have the opportunity to join Rice as both a faculty member and as part of the leadership team,” Rossky said. “Rice is an outstanding university with a clear commitment to excellence in both research and teaching at all levels. Of great importance to me is the recurring Rice theme of ‘no upper limit’ — to always aspire to achieve greater things — and I come to Rice sharing that vision.”

Ned Thomas, dean of Rice’s George R. Brown School of Engineering, who chaired the search committee for the new dean, said he also is excited about Rossky’s new role. “Peter is very accomplished and broad in his interests,” Thomas said. “In addition to his deep knowledge of theoretical chemistry, Peter’s interests range from condensed matter physics to nanomaterials and chemical engineering. Having Peter on the Rice faculty as a leader and a researcher will be catalytic in many ways.”

As dean of natural sciences, Rossky will oversee the school that comprises the departments of Biochemistry and Cell Biology, Chemistry, Earth Science, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Kinesiology, Mathematics, and Physics and Astronomy. Faculty from those departments participate in a number of interdisciplinary institutes and centers, including the Institute of Biosciences and Bioengineering, the Richard E. Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology, the Rice Quantum Institute, the W.M. Keck Center for Interdisciplinary Bioscience Training, the Gulf Coast Consortia and the Rice Space Institute. They also engage in research collaborations with Texas Medical Center institutions, NASA, museums, industries, corporations, foundations and other universities.

Rossky said the important new areas of inquiry “germinate” at the intersection of the core areas of science, engineering and medicine, just as the now common areas of biophysics and nanoscience did in the past. “The Wiess School has a responsibility to nurture creative new directions, as well as to bring them into the classroom, so that Rice students have the best possible window on modern science that the school can provide,” he said.

Rossky has a B.A. in chemistry from Cornell University, where he graduated summa cum laude with distinction in all subjects, and a master’s in chemistry and a Ph.D. in chemical physics from Harvard.

He served as a National Science Foundation (NSF) National Needs Postdoctoral Fellow at State University of New York at Stony Brook before joining the UT faculty as an assistant professor of chemistry in 1979. He was promoted to full professor in 1987. He was appointed the George W. Watt Centennial Professor of Chemistry in 1990 and retained that endowed professorship until 2002, when his current endowed chair was awarded.

A former Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellow and John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellow, Rossky has been the recipient of a National Institutes of Health Career Development Award and an NSF Presidential Young Investigator Award. The American Chemical Society honored his research achievements with the Hildebrand Award in the Experimental and Theoretical Chemistry of Liquids. He also is a fellow of the American Physical Society.

Rossky has written more than 260 articles in peer-reviewed journals and currently serves on the editorial board of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and on the editorial advisory board of the Journal of Chemical Theory and Computation.

“Fundamental research and the teaching of future scientists lies at the heart of what makes a great university,” said Rice President David Leebron. “We are thrilled to have been able to attract a scientist and scientific leader of Peter Rossky’s caliber and experience to take the helm of the Wiess School of Natural Sciences and build on the most recent legacies of Kathy Matthews and Dan Carson.”

Rossky succeeds Dan Carson, who last year was appointed vice provost for strategic partnerships but agreed to continue his role as dean of natural sciences while the search was underway for his successor.

“We’re very grateful to Dan for his successful deanship and for providing additional leadership during the transition period,” McLendon said.

About Jade Boyd

Jade Boyd is science editor and associate director of news and media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.