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Robert Silbey, former MIT dean of science, dies at 71

'Excellent teacher' spent 45 years as faculty member, administrator.
Robert J. Silbey, former dean of MIT's School of Science.
Robert J. Silbey, former dean of MIT's School of Science.

Robert J. Silbey, who served as dean of MIT’s School of Science from 2000 to 2007, died Thursday, Oct. 27, after a battle with cancer. He was 71.

Silbey was known for his leadership and political acumen as dean, his commitment to enhancing MIT’s education and research, and his work in condensed phase theory and quantum biology, fields that he helped to pioneer.

“Bob Silbey was a total citizen of MIT,” said Charles Vest, president of MIT from 1990 to 2004. “He was a first-rate scientist, an excellent teacher, a skillful administrator and a caring steward of the MIT student experience. As chemistry department head and dean of science, he built bridges across disciplines and brought a strong sense of humanity as well as a great sense of humor to his work. Although he never sought the limelight, he has left a big legacy at the Institute and will be greatly missed.”

Silbey joined the MIT faculty in 1966, becoming head of the chemistry department in 1990 and director of the Center for Materials Science and Engineering in 1998. He took over as interim dean in February 2000 and was named permanent dean the following year.

Robert Brown, who appointed Silbey dean while serving as MIT’s provost, said Silbey was “one of the most talented academic leaders I have ever had the honor of working with. He led by example through his own dedication to teaching, research and the success of MIT’s students, and he had the unique ability to work calmly through the most difficult issues and get agreement from strong-willed colleagues on a way forward.”

Brown, now president of Boston University, added that Silbey also “brought a sense of optimism and a little levity to the difficult day-to-day work of deans and provosts.”

“His way of bringing people together through his humorous stories made him beloved by his colleagues,” said Sylvia Ceyer, the John C. Sheehan Professor of Chemistry and chair of the Department of Chemistry. “He was a generous colleague, personally and scientifically, giving of his time, energy and brilliant mind to us.”

An advocate for excellence in teaching, Silbey supported innovative approaches to undergraduate education such as the Technology Enhanced Active Learning program, which changed the way freshman physics is taught. He also oversaw the construction of the Brain and Cognitive Sciences Complex, and during his tenure as dean, four Nobel Prizes were awarded to School of Science faculty members.

Another of Silbey’s priorities was improving the experiences of women and underrepresented minorities on the faculty.

“In producing the historic report, ‘A Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT,’” Ceyer said, “Silbey played the critical role in obtaining the empirical data substantiating the women’s concerns and beginning the process of amelioration.”

Catherine Drennan, a professor of chemistry, said Silbey offered critical support in creating a welcoming environment for female and minority students.

“He was always seeking new opportunities to make MIT and the field of science better for everybody,” Drennan said. He enthusiastically began a new collaboration between chemistry and biological engineering in the teaching of thermodynamics.

Silbey was known as a caring mentor, and many of his students have gone on to positions of leadership in academia.

“After his remarkable service as dean, Bob Silbey continued to serve the Institute in extraordinary ways,” said MIT President Susan Hockfield. “He saw, in many dimensions, how MIT could grow stronger, and he committed himself to making that vision real, with brilliance, pragmatism and always his light touch.”

Silbey was a consummate teacher who received almost every teaching award MIT bestows, including the School of Science Teaching Award, the Graduate Student Council Award for Teaching and the Baker Award for Undergraduate Teaching (voted by the undergraduates). In 1996, he was named a Margaret MacVicar Faculty Fellow, an honor that recognizes outstanding classroom teaching at MIT.

Drennan, who co-taught freshman chemistry with Silbey many years ago, said it was impossible to improve on his lectures. “He commanded that room with his voice, his presentation and his personality,” she recalled.

A former undergraduate in Silbey’s thermodynamics class, Justin Cohen ’03, wrote, “I still fondly look back on that class, and I can honestly say that although I may have forgotten quite a bit of material, I still remember the joy, energy and excitement that all of us felt when Professor Silbey was teaching … his energy, passion and friendliness made you feel as though you had known him forever.”

Silbey made fundamental contributions to the theories of spectroscopy, energy transfer and nonlinear optical properties of glasses, solids and polymers. In the 1980s, Silbey showed how the high conductivity of conjugated polymers arose from chain distortion induced by excitations. This work provided the first quantum calculations of the soliton, polaron and bipolaron entities that dominate polymers' conductivity. His work also provided the first quantum method capable of predicting the redox potentials of these polymers, explaining a large amount of existing experimental data in hole burning, photon echo and single molecule spectroscopies, thereby spurring many new experiments.

“It is well known among the scientific community that Silbey was an experimentalist’s theorist,” Ceyer said.

Most recently, Silbey’s research focused on energy transfer and quantum dynamics in the context of photosynthesis — the process that plants use to convert the sun’s energy into sugar. His work was particularly relevant to the first step of photosynthesis, which involves the capture of photons by light-harvesting pigments and the subsequent transfer of the photon’s energy to structures within plant cells that convert it to chemical energy.

To predict how fast excitation energy could be transferred, Silbey developed a wide range of theoretical methods that have now become the standard techniques for studying photosynthetic energy transfer. One example is the variational polaron transformation, which describes how quantum friction can slow down the motion of excitation energy. A paper by Silbey and Robert Harris of the University of California at Berkeley on this approach, one of most cited in physical chemistry, is a classic, according to Jianshu Cao, MIT professor of chemistry.

“With this and other powerful tools, Bob Silbey and his team predicted the dynamics of energy excitations in conjugated polymers and other organic molecules important for solar cells,” Cao said. “These studies laid a solid foundation for the current investigation of quantum biology.”

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Silbey received a bachelor of science from Brooklyn College in 1961 and a PhD in theoretical physical chemistry from the University of Chicago in 1965. He then worked as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Wisconsin for a year before joining the MIT faculty in 1966.

He was a fellow of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Physical Society. He was awarded the Max Planck Research Award of the Humboldt Foundation, and was a Dreyfus Foundation Teacher Scholar, Sloan Foundation Fellow and a Guggenheim Foundation Fellow. He also received, among other awards, honorary degrees from his alma mater, CUNY Brooklyn College, and École Normale Supérieure in Cachan, France.

Silbey is survived by his wife, Susan, the Leon and Anne Goldberg Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at MIT; daughters Jessica and Anna; sons-in-law Keith Dresser and Jeffrey Thompson; brother Joel and sister-in-law Rosemary; sister-in-law and brother-in-law Alma and Dick Merians; nieces Victoria Silbey and Diane Merians; nephews David Silbey and Roger Merians; and four grandchildren: Charlotte Silbey Dresser, Harper Silbey Dresser, Henry Hardy Thompson-Silbey and Oliver Harold Thompson-Silbey.

A Robert J. Silbey Memorial Fund has been established at MIT in his memory. Donations can be sent to the MIT provost’s office. A memorial celebration will occur on March 17, 2012 from 2-4 p.m. in Building 46.

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