Navrotsky named Regents Professor for groundbreaking work in materials science

Alexandra Navrotsky has been fascinated with science since an early age, when she lived with her mother and immigrant maternal grandparents in New York City.

“My grandfather was a civil engineer — he designed highways and also loved trains,” Navrotsky says. “In fact, I learned to read the subway maps at age 3, before I ever learned to read.”

Navrotsky, who has earned many prestigious accolades, including membership in the National Academy of Sciences, will be inaugurated as an ASU Regents Professor on Feb. 9. The honor is bestowed to no more than 3% of all ASU faculty.

“I'm honored to become a Regents Professor and especially honored to have gotten it after being at ASU for only a short time, namely three years, although I was previously at ASU for 16 years in the 1970s and 80s,” Navrotsky says.

Navrotsky is a professor in the School of Molecular Sciences, within The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy, in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. Navrotsky is also an affiliated professor with the School of Earth and Space Exploration and director of the Navrotsky Eyring Center for Materials of the Universe.

Kenro Kusumi, dean of natural sciences in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, congratulates Navrotsky on this achievement.

"Her pioneering work and expertise in the fields of thermochemistry of minerals and solid-state matter push the boundaries of knowledge in materials while training the next generation of scientists in this field,” he says.

“With her remarkable career at ASU and the world’s most renowned institutions, Professor Navrotsky is a driving force for the inception of many cross-disciplinary programs, making her one of our most productive faculty,” says Tijana Rajh, director of the School of Molecular Sciences. “Her engagement never stops, even after all her success.”

Navrotsky acquired her college education at a breakneck pace, earning enough AP credits at the Bronx High School of Science to finish a Bachelor of Science at the University of Chicago in just three years.

“The Bronx High School of Science was probably the strictest, the hardest and the fastest-paced school I ever attended,” Navrotsky says.

“I knew I wanted to be a chemist before I went to Chicago,” she says. “Chemistry was midway between being observational and being theoretical — I like the balance of lab work and the good fundamental base that chemistry presents.”

As the first student invited to complete both undergraduate and graduate degrees in the department, she leapt at the chance to stay at Chicago through her PhD.

“I was the experiment,” she says. “I guess it turned out OK.”

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Professor Alexandra Navrotsky working in her lab at ASU in 1969.

Navrotsky started her independent career in 1969, in what was then ASU’s Department of Chemistry, left for Princeton in 1985, moved  to UC Davis in 1997 and rejoined ASU in 2019.

She has been described as the world’s leading scientist in the field of thermochemistry of minerals and solid-state materials. Her discoveries have been of fundamental importance in solid-state chemistry, geochemistry, materials science and engineering, exoplanetary chemistry and materials for space exploration.

When Navrotsky was young, her family had a country house where they used to collect rocks, minerals and crystals, but it wasn’t until graduate school that she realized there was good science to be done in geochemistry.

As a graduate student, Navrotsky worked with Professor Ole Kleppa developing calorimetry.

“I still work very much in that area,” she says. “We started focusing on geochemical problems in my last years of graduate school. We did some of the pioneering work looking at the thermodynamics of materials made at high pressure with Professor Robert C. Newton in geophysical sciences.”

In addition, Navrotsky works on solid-state ceramic materials, materials for energy applications, porous materials and metal-organic frameworks.

The questions she asks apply broadly.

“What structures are available to those materials, and why do they form these structures, in terms of chemical bonding? For that, thermodynamics is an excellent tool,” she said.

After graduating from Chicago, Navrotsky held postdoctoral fellowships in Germany at the Technical University Clausthal and at Penn State, before landing a job at ASU in 1969, where a burgeoning solid-state science program emerged as ASU completed its transition from a teachers college to a full-fledged research university.

Her 16 years on the faculty allowed her to develop her own program, build her own calorimeters and collaborate with geologists and solid-state chemists.

In 1985, the Geological and Geophysical Sciences Department at Princeton recruited her.

“When I was seeking a faculty position in ’69, Princeton was like Chicago — they wouldn’t hire women — and unlike Chicago, they weren’t even coed!” she said.

After 12 years at Princeton, including three years as department chair, “I saw what it was possible to do there and what was not: I explored all that phase space,” she says. In 1997, a plum offer from UC Davis drew her to the West Coast.

Navrotsky, who will turn 80 this year, is showing no signs of slowing down.

Her career has been remarkable, not only for its scholarship, but most significantly for the influence she has had on the earth sciences, and the efforts she has made to bring together the approaches, tools and philosophy of research in geochemistry, mineralogy, materials sciences and chemistry.

Navrotsky is also devoted to her students and coworkers and has made extremely significant contributions to the education and training of the next generation of scientists, with a special emphasis on underrepresented groups. 

Navrotsky’s many accolades include the Urey Medal from the European Association of Geochemistry, the Roebling Medal from the Mineralogical Society of America, the Harry H. Hess Medal from the American Geophysical Union and the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Earth Science. She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Philosophical Society and an Alfred P. Sloan Fellow. She has served as vice president and president of the Mineralogical Society of America.

In 2020, Navrotsky was ranked No. 25 globally in materials science in the "Updated science-wide author database of standardized citation indicators," published in PLOS BIOLOGY. She was also made a Distinguished Life Member of the American Ceramic Society and won the European Materials Research Society Jan Czochralski Award in 2021.

Top photo: Professor Alexandra Navrotsky addresses her doctoral and graduate students in the Bateman Physical Sciences Center on the Tempe campus. Photo by Enrique Lopez

Jenny Green