Thomas Theis Named Executive Director of the Columbia Nano Initiative

Thomas Theis, who has extensive experience in leading physical sciences research at IBM, the Semiconductor Research Corporation, and many federal initiatives, has been named the inaugural executive director of the Columbia Nano Initiative (CNI), an interdisciplinary group led by Columbia Engineering focused on advancing research efforts in nanotechnology.


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“Following an extensive national search we are absolutely thrilled to have Tom on board,” says Keren Bergman, chair and professor of Electrical Engineering who serves as science director at CNI. “Tom brings an exceptional combination of research and executive leadership experiences that cross-cuts industry, government, and academia. I could not think of a better person to lead CNI and our nanoscience and engineering community at Columbia.”

CNI was established at the University in 2014 to build upon and maintain Columbia’s strong and successful experiences with highly multidisciplinary and collaborative research programs in nanoscale science and engineering. The center supports multi-disciplinary research in the Departments of Applied Physics, Chemical Engineering, Chemistry, Electrical Engineering, and Physics. Theis will be leading CNI within a research structure that both stimulates the development of new major research centers and programs as well as assures the creation and maintenance of the specialized facilities that underlie these groundbreaking programs for the benefit of the entire University. CNI serves as liaison to central University departments, including the Office of Projects and Grants, Human Resources, the Controller's Office, Purchasing, Accounts Payable, and Facilities.

“I'm energized by the warm welcome I've received from Columbia faculty and the challenges of my new job,” Theis remarks. “My team and I will support ongoing research, even as we launch the new clean room facility to support Columbia's expanding interdisciplinary research community. CNI has proved its value in attracting and retaining world-class faculty, and we'll add to that value. Longer term, I'll work with faculty to generate new research proposals and identify and implement new and unique capabilities for nanoscale fabrication and characterization. It's a privilege to lead CNI in support of Columbia's fine culture of multidisciplinary research.” 

Theis, who is also a professor of electrical engineering, received a BS degree in physics from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1972, and MS and PhD degrees from Brown University in 1974 and 1978, respectively. He completed a postdoctoral year at the Technical University of Munich before joining IBM Research in December of 1978. 

At the IBM Watson Research Center he made important contributions to the understanding of electronic conduction in wide band-gap insulators. In 1982, he became manager of a group studying growth and properties of III-V semiconductors and published extensively on III-V materials and devices. From 1984 through 2015 he held various senior management and executive positions at IBM. In 1993, Theis was named senior manager of silicon science and technology, where he coordinated the transfer of copper interconnection technology from IBM Research to the IBM Microelectronics Division. The replacement of aluminum chip wiring by copper was an industry first, the biggest change in chip wiring technology in 30 years, and involved close collaboration between research, product development, and manufacturing organizations. He served as IBM’s strategist for exploratory research worldwide from 1998 to 2012 and as director of physical sciences from 1998 to 2010, conceiving and initiating successful research programs in silicon nanophotonics and Josephson junction-based quantum computing, and championing research in nanoelectronics, exploratory memory devices, and applications of information technology to address societal needs in energy, infrastructure, and the environment. As program manager of new devices and architectures for computing, from 2010 to 2012, he organized research projects aimed at greatly improved energy-efficiency in future computing systems. In 2012, he went on assignment from IBM to the Semiconductor Research Corporation to lead SRC’s Nanoelectronics Research Initiative, a private-public partnership funding university research aimed at new devices and circuits for computing.

Theis is a fellow of the IEEE, the American Physical Society, and the 2015 recipient of the George E. Pake Prize of the American Physical Society. He has served on numerous advisory boards and committees including the advisory boards of the National Nanofabrication Infrastructure Network, the Board of Physics and Astronomy, the Physics Policy Committee of the APS, the Corporate Associates Advisory Board of the AIP, and the National Academies committees that authored the first and second triennial reviews of the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative and the report, “Physics 2010, Condensed Matter and Materials Physics.” He also served on the committee that authored the “Report to the President and Congress on the Third Assessment of the National Nanotechnology Initiative” for the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). He has authored or coauthored more than 70 scientific and technical publications and is an inventor on four U.S. Patents. 

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