BS ’96, Chemistry
Principal Investigator and
Los Alamos National Laboratory
Sample of Achievements and Awards
- New Trends in Research of Energetic Materials Conference, Science Committee, 2013
- Environmental Stewardship Award, National Nuclear Security Administration, 2012
- Los Alamos National Laboratory Spark Award, 2012
Every night, Disneyland showcases technology based on the work of David Chavez.
Several years ago, the theme park decided to respond to complaints from neighbors about the fumes from its fireworks and called on the noted chemist to create a solution. In response, Chavez helped formulate a compound that meant more color and less smoke. His nitrogen-enriched pyrotechnics not only burned more cleanly, but they also led the way to the dazzling displays seen at major events from the Olympics to the Super Bowl.
Throughout his career, Chavez has made groundbreaking contributions to chemistry. His high-nitrogen compounds have produced more environmentally friendly explosives and propellants, which have become important to the nation’s armed forces. In 2011, the Department of Energy honored him with the Ernest Orlando Lawrence Award. This places Chavez in a select group of Caltech stalwarts that includes Richard Feynman.
Chavez grew up in Taos, New Mexico—a small town with more in the way of arts than sciences. So even though he was skilled in math and interested in astronomy, Chavez recalls “it was hard to get a real sense of what it was like to be a scientist or an engineer.”
That changed after his sophomore year of high school, when he was chosen to take part in a summer science program at Los Alamos National Laboratory. The mentorship he received, and the classes and tours he took, ignited his passion for his future career. The program was also where he first heard about Caltech, from one of the Institute’s graduate students who was serving as an instructor. As his high school graduation approached, Chavez knew where he wanted to study next.
“My most important research experiences at Caltech were with Erick Carreira,” Chavez says of his second-term organic-chemistry professor. Carreira was not only influential as a teacher and research leader, but he also helped Chavez apply to graduate school—even calling department heads on his behalf. Chavez ended up pursuing his doctorate at Harvard.
Armed with his Caltech training and PhD from Harvard, Chavez went back to Los Alamos as a postdoctoral fellow. “The position gave me a lot of freedom to pursue what I wanted rather than having to work on any specific project,” he says. In addition to innovations that brighten the sky, Chavez’s efforts have made military duty safer by improving weapon systems. He still works at Los Alamos, currently as a principal investigator and project leader.
“Synthesizing new molecules often has an artistic quality to it,” Chavez says. “You can shape atoms into arrangements never before seen in nature."
Despite his busy schedule, Chavez finds time to mentor young people, paying back the support he received as a student.
“I believe that it’s important to nurture that same sense of curiosity [I had], of always wondering how things work,” says Chavez. “A number of people helped to instill it in me, and now I see it in my own children. It gives me great hope for the future.”