U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Nobel laureate in physics and a leader in the pursuit of alternative and renewable sources of energy, will be Harvard’s principal speaker at the Afternoon Exercises of Harvard’s 358th Commencement on June 4.

An eminent scientist whose work at the crossroads of physics and biology has now brought him to prominence on the national and international policy stage, Chu was unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate in January to serve as the nation’s 12th secretary of energy.

“Steven Chu is a brilliant scientist and an eloquent exponent of thoughtful, creative approaches to meeting the challenge of global climate change,” said Harvard President Drew Faust. “His own career combines leadership at the forefront of both disciplinary and interdisciplinary science with a passionate devotion to education and to the public good. It will be a pleasure to welcome and hear from him on Commencement day.”

A past professor at Stanford and then the University of California, Berkeley, Chu was co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in physics in 1997 for his role in developing methods to cool and trap atoms with laser light. From 2004 to 2008 he led the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, one of the nation’s pre-eminent scientific institutions, directing its intensified focus on energy and the environment.

“How to use science and public policy to confront the environmental consequences of energy use is a matter of enormous interest and importance to Harvard as a university, and to our alumni as citizens concerned about the future of the planet,” said Walter H. Morris Jr., president of the Harvard Alumni Association (HAA). “Steven Chu stands front and center in the nation’s effort to rise to that challenge, and I’m very pleased he has agreed to join us for Commencement.”

As is traditional at Harvard, Chu will speak during Commencement day’s Afternoon Exercises, which serve as the annual meeting for the Harvard Alumni Association and during which the HAA welcomes newly graduated students to its ranks. The exercises will take place in the Tercentenary Theatre of Harvard Yard, between the Memorial Church and Widener Library.

Early in his tenure as energy secretary, Chu has identified among his major goals the intention to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, to use energy in the most efficient ways possible, and to lower carbon emissions.

As director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Chu guided its growing focus on the search for alternative and renewable sources of energy, aiming to extend the lab’s leadership efforts in climate science, the search for new fuels, and the development of energy-efficient technologies. He emerged as a champion of bringing together investigators from the life sciences, the physical sciences, and engineering to work on biofuels, solar energy, new battery technologies, and other innovations.

A native of St. Louis, Chu attended the University of Rochester, graduating in 1970, and received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1976. He spent his early scientific career at AT&T Bell Laboratories, where he did the principal work later recognized with a Nobel Prize.

He served from 1987 to 2004 as a professor of physics and applied physics at Stanford, where he twice chaired the Physics Department and helped launch the interdisciplinary initiative Bio-X. He joined the University of California faculty in 2004, when he became director of the Berkeley Lab, serving concurrently as professor of physics and of molecular and cell biology.

His own research has ranged across important areas of atomic physics, biophysics, and polymer physics. In recent years, he has increasingly turned his attention to how insights and discoveries in physics and biology can be applied to problems of energy and the environment.

Chu’s numerous honors, in addition to the Nobel Prize, include the American Physical Society’s Arthur Schawlow Prize for Laser Science, the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation’s Senior Scientist Award, and membership in the National Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Academia Sinica, and the Korean Academy of Sciences and Technology.

The invitation to Chu comes at a time when Harvard has stepped up its efforts to address issues relating to energy and the environment, both in its programs of research and education and in promoting sustainable practices on campus.

For more about Harvard’s sustainability efforts, http://www.hno.harvard.edu/gazette/2008/10.23/99-gore.html.