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Brain Research at UC San Diego Brings Excitement to Celebration of Former Engineering Dean

Leaders Recognize Robert Conn’s Achievements in Engineering, Energy Research and Mapping the Brain


  • Doug Ramsey

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  • Doug Ramsey

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Robert W. Conn

Within days of each other, Robert W. Conn recently made two trips to Washington, D.C. to meet President Barack Obama at the White House.

The Dean Emeritus of the University of California, San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering, Dr. Conn is President of The Kavli Foundation. As the Foundation’s President, on March 28, Conn visited the Oval Office with the 2012 U.S. winners of the Kavli Prizes. The visit was an opportunity for the President to acknowledge the newest laureates and to express how greatly the country depends on basic science. The meeting was also attended by the President’s Science Advisor, Dr. John Holdren, Norwegian Ambassador to the U.S. Wegger Chr. Strommen, and Mr. Rock Hankin, Vice Chairman of the Foundation’s board of directors.

Conn didn’t know it at the time, but just five days later, he would again be at the White House. Joined by the foundation’s Vice President of Science Programs, Miyoung Chun, this time he would be among a small, select group to meet the President before his public announcement of the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. Drs. Chun and Conn were invited to this meeting to acknowledge the catalytic role the Kavli Foundation played in the emergence of what is now a centerpiece of the Administration's science agenda. Afterwards, joined by two members of the Foundation’s Board, they took their seats in the East Room for the formal announcement.

Also on hand in the East Room for the announcement were UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla and four faculty members: Dr. Ralph Greenspan, associate director of the Kavli Institute for Brain and Mind (KIBM) at UC San Diego; Dr. Terry Sejnowski of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, who also directs UC San Diego’s Institute for Neural Computation; KIBM Director Nicholas Spitzer, distinguished professor of neurobiology in the Division of Biological Sciences; and Dr. Dilip V. Jeste, who holds the Estelle and Edgar Levi Chair in Aging in the UC San Diego School of Medicine. Greenspan was one of the originators of the concept in meetings sponsored by the Kavli Foundation, and he co-authored the proposal for a Brain Activity Map Project that was published in the journal Neuron in June 2012, with Kavli’s Miyoung Chun and collaborators from UC Berkeley, Caltech, Harvard and Columbia.

“UC San Diego is uniquely well positioned to contribute to this marriage of neuroscience and nanoscience,” said Greenspan. “We also must thank Bob Conn and The Kavli Foundation, because without their financial and intellectual support over the past two years, an audacious program such as the BRAIN Initiative would probably not have happened.”

The White House announcement, and the meetings with President Obama, represented another high point in the career of Robert Conn, the engineer, physicist and educator, as UC San Diego organizes a symposium to mark his 70th year. Dr. Conn is also the Walter J. Zable Professor, Emeritus, in the Jacobs School of Engineering, and the two-part symposium will honor his immense contributions to the campus and the San Diego region's high-technology success story, as well as his achievements in plasma physics, fusion energy research and energy policy. The event will take place in UCSD's Atkinson Hall and be co-hosted by the Qualcomm Institute of Calit2, and the Center for Energy Research (CER), both at UC San Diego.

UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla (in front row) and several UCSD scientists were in the audience in the White House East Room as President Obama announced the BRAIN Initiative.

On Thursday, May 9, from 1-5pm, key colleagues in the field of fusion and energy policy will discuss “Fusion as an Energy Source: Physics, Technology and Policy.” They will recall Conn’s work at the University of Wisconsin, UCLA, and UCSD, and his role in helping guide the U.S. fusion energy program as chair of the DOE’s Fusion Energy Advisory Committee and its transformation to the Fusion Science Advisory Committee during some of its most difficult times in the 1990s. This was prior to the U.S. re-entry into the large-scale International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) collaboration that forms a major focus of today’s U.S. fusion effort. Speakers will include University of Wisconsin-Madison Prof. Gerald Kulcinski, Grainger Professor of Nuclear Engineering and Director of its Fusion Technology Institute; Charles C. Baker, former director of the fusion program at Argonne National Laboratory and at Oak Ridge, and who was Associate Director of Fusion Energy in the Jacobs School as well as U.S. team leader of ITER; Stephen O. Dean, President of Fusion Power Associates and Editor of the Journal of Fusion Energy; Prof. Mohamed Abdou, Director of the Fusion Science & Technology Center at UCLA; UCSD Prof. and CER Director Farrokh Najmabadi; as well as Distinguished Professor Emeritus and former Director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Charlie Kennel. UCSD Prof. George Tynan will moderate the session.

On Friday, May 10, from 9 am to noon, the symposium will turn to “Enabling the Future: The Jacobs School, UC San Diego and the Region.” Speakers will highlight Conn’s contributions to UCSD and the greater San Diego region, and discuss his legacy, starting with the intense expansion and naming of the Jacobs School of Engineering, and the School’s rapid rise into the elite ranks of engineering schools worldwide. In parallel, there were other major areas of institution-building as Dean Conn reached out to industry, notably to form the Center for Wireless Communications, and to lead the establishment of the von Liebig Entrepreneurism Center. He also forged interdisciplinary links to parts of campus where engineering had rarely gone, including with the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies (IR/PS), and the Division of Arts & Humanities. All this ultimately led to the successful proposal by UC San Diego and UC Irvine to create Calit2 as an interdisciplinary hub of innovation in California. After a decade, Calit2 has become internationally renowned and respected around the globe as a center for innovation and discovery.

Among the faculty, industry partners, campus administrators and academic participants who are set to speak in person or “virtually” during the Friday session: former University of California Presidents (and UCSD Chancellors) Richard C. Atkinson and Robert Dynes; UCSD Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla; Qualcomm Co-Founder and CEO/Chair Emeritus Irwin Jacobs; UC Irvine Engineering Dean Emeritus and current Vice President of Broadcom, Dr. Nicholas Alexopoulos; CONNECT President Duane Roth; IR/PS Dean Peter Cowhey; Calit2 Director Larry Smarr; University Professor Shu Chien, founding Chair of UCSD’s Department of Bioengineering; Computer Science and Engineering Chair Rajesh Gupta; and Prof. Nick Spitzer, Director of UCSD’s Kavli Institute for Brain and Mind and distinguished professor of biology. Qualcomm Institute Director Ramesh Rao and IR/PS Dean Peter Cowhey will moderate the Friday sessions.

People interested in attending the Robert Conn 70th Birthday Symposium are asked to register in advance at Seating in the Calit2 Auditorium is limited to 200.


Robert W. Conn is President of The Kavli Foundation and Zable Professor and Dean, Emeritus, of the Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego. He began his academic career at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1970 where he became Professor of Engineering Physics, served as a founding director of the University’s Fusion Technology Institute and held the Romnes Faculty Chair. Dr. Conn moved to UCLA as Professor of Engineering and Applied Science in 1980. In 1986 he led the formation of UCLA’s Institute of Plasma and Fusion Research and became its first director.

From 1993 to 2002, Dr. Conn was Dean of the Irwin and Joan Jacobs School of Engineering at the University of California, San Diego and the Walter J. Zable Professor of Engineering Science. While Dean, he led the School through a period of unprecedented growth in faculty, students and reputation resulting in its current ranking among the top engineering schools in the country. He worked to form two new academic departments, Bioengineering and Structural Engineering. Research centers established during Dr. Conn’s tenure include the Center for Wireless Communications and the Whitaker Institute for Biomedical Engineering (in partnership with the School of Medicine). He was asked by the Chancellor on 2000 to lead a partnership across the campus to establish the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2). He led the hiring of the founding Director, formed a partnership with UC Irvine for a joint proposal, and helped raise the required matching funds well in excess of $100 million. Dr. Conn built partnerships between the university and industry and established the von Liebig Center for Entrepreneurism and Technology Transfer.

Dr. Conn has been a leading researcher in plasma physics, fusion energy, energy policy and materials science. He pioneered, beginning in the early 1970’s, the study of fusion systems as potential power reactors, identifying the major physics and engineering challenges facing the development of practical fusion energy. His theoretical and experimental research focused on plasma physics, the plasma boundary layer, surface science and chemical physics. He was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1987 for his pioneering research contributions to the fields of plasma physics and fusion energy.

Dr. Conn’s experience in the private sector includes co-founding Plasma & Materials Technologies, Inc. in 1986, a company that developed etching and thin film deposition equipment used to manufacture semiconductors. The company had its Initial Public Offering on NASDAQ in 1995 and was later acquired. From 2002 to 2008, he was a Managing Director at Enterprise Partners Venture Capital (EPVC), where he led investments in high-tech and IT companies. He left EPVC in late 2008 and became President of the Kavli Foundation in 2009.

Dr. Conn is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and is a Fellow of both the American Physical Society and the American Nuclear Society. He has served on committees for the U.S. Government, the University of California, the National Research Council, the National Academies of Science and of Engineering and several national laboratories. Awards for his research achievements include the Ernest O. Lawrence Memorial Award, presented on behalf of the President by the Secretary of Energy; the McGraw Research Award of the American Association of Engineering Education; the Distinguished Associate Award of the U.S. Department of Energy; and the Distinguished Alumni Award of the California Institute of Technology.

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