Cynthia Friend named incoming president of The Kavli Foundation

November 18, 2020
A headshot of Cynthia Friend

The Nebraska native transfers her leadership skills to advance science for the benefit of humanity

On November 17, The Kavli Foundation announced their selection of Cynthia Friend, Theodore William Richards Professor of Chemistry and Professor of Materials Science, as their next president. 

"As a distinguished scientist with proven executive leadership skills," said Rockell N. Hankin, Chairman of the Board, in a press release, "her appointment as president assures that The Kavli Foundation will continue its extraordinary impact on the scientific enterprise through its visionary leadership and its philanthropy."

Established in 2000 by Fred Kavli, The Kavli Foundation is dedicated to advancing science for the benefit of humanity, promoting public understanding of scientific research, and supporting scientists and their work. The organization supports research and scientists through international research institutes, initiatives and symposia in the fields of astrophysics, nanoscience, neuroscience, and theoretical physics, the Kavli Prize, and a program in public engagement with science.

“It is an honor to join The Kavli Foundation as president," said Friend. "The foundation provides an exciting opportunity to foster and support science for the benefit of humankind now and in the future. I am looking forward to working in partnership with The Kavli Foundation staff and with scientific leaders around the world."


"I really think that the ingenuity of people, if it's harnessed appropriately, can solve important problems like [climate change]."

- Cynthia Friend


Born and raised in southern Nebraska, Friend golfed with her family in cow pastures with the cows (she still enters tournaments today) and learned electrical and mechanical engineering from tinkering on cars with her father. She credits her family's encouragement of her curiosity, her high school's willingness to let her run her own independent project, and the space race of the midtwentieth century for her pursuit of a career in science. After attending the University of California, Davis as an undergraduate, the University of California, Berkeley for her Ph.D., and Stanford University for a brief postdoctoral fellowship, she joined Harvard University in 1981, just one of three women in the department. 

The first female full professor of chemistry at Harvard and the first woman to serve as Chair of the department, Friend built her lab to address global challenges in energy costs and develop alternative energy sources. To do that, she advanced the study of catalysis, eventually helping to found the Center for Integrated Mesoscale Architectures for Sustainable Catalysis in 2014. Funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, the center continues to forge international collaborations today with Friend serving as director.

"The objective is to basically use a team approach to try to address really big problems in energy sciences," Friend said. "In our case, we're trying to decrease the carbon footprint and increase the energy efficiency of chemical synthesis, which accounts for about a quarter of the energy use worldwide."

Despite the compexity of this challenge, Friend is optimistic: "I really think that the ingenuity of people, if it's harnessed appropriately, can solve important problems like this. It requires financial support and a will on the part of society to solve these problems. But I think that over time humankind has demonstrated an ability to innovate and adjust. If we take that energy, we can make huge inroads in solving environmental problems. I'm from the Midwest, so I'm optimistic by nature."

Friend is a member elected to the National Academy of Sciences, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, American Chemical Society, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Among her many awards, she has received several from the American Chemical Society, including the ACS Award in Surface Chemistry, the George A. Olah Award in Hydrocarbon Chemistry, and the Francis P. Garvan-John M. Olin Garvan Medal. She served as the Associate Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the Director of The Rowland Institute at Harvard, a privately endowed, nonprofit, basic research organization conceived to advance science in a wide variety of fields, and the Associate Lab Director at SLAC National Accelerator Lab, a preeminent international facility for X-ray science.