Dan Arvizu has logged nearly 3 million air miles, and that’s on just one airline.
Global travel is a big part of Arvizu’s life story, as are all the people he’s met through his work with the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the National Science Board and other positions he’s held as a renewable and clean energy guru.
But Arvizu says one memory that stands out is his trip to the geographic South Pole – a journey that few people can say they’ve made.
He recalls flags flying and a marker at the exact spot, which he circled with astronaut Kathryn Sullivan because “if you’re walking around the South Pole, it’s like walking around the world. Every direction is north. That is really cool.”
Arvizu, who grew up in Alamogordo, returned to his alma mater in 2018 to become New Mexico State University chancellor. He calls himself “the poster child for the American dream,” with parents who crossed the border to Douglas, Arizona.
“They literally just walked across,” Arvizu says. “It wasn’t a big deal. When they came north, nobody had college (experience) or went to school or any of that kind of stuff. My dad shined shoes on the border.”
Arvizu, the first Hispanic director at a DOE national lab, just got appointed to the 30-member President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. He is excited to have the “superpower” of direct access to President Biden. That’s unlike past national academy-level positions, where recommendations went to the sponsoring agency, “and they may or may not do anything.”
“I am so honored and just privileged to have that level of access,” he says, noting that he will serve with two Nobel Prize winners, five MacArthur “Genius” fellows and two former cabinet secretaries. “I just pinch myself all the time.”
Why did you make the leap from energy and science to chancellor of NMSU?
“Part of the reason I’m at NMSU is because I’m passionate about the idea that a large fraction of our population, not just in New Mexico, have essentially not been able to participate in the fruits, labors and the rewards that this country has to offer in terms of opportunity. There’s a lack of basic infrastructure. When I have students that drive an hour and a half to get to a hot spot so they can actually take their class on a phone, we’ve got some issues. And I see this place as a jewel. When the opportunity came to come and do something different, I said, ‘You know what, it’s outside my comfort zone, but it is, I think, something so noble and so important for the future of this country. It’s where I want to give back.”
What got you interested in science, and in energy in particular?
“My sixth-grade teacher. He let us create, and I remember writing a paper on matter. What is matter? And when I showed it to my mom, she said, ‘What is this? What’s the matter?’ (My parents) were very, very modest people.”
What do you think has made you successful?
“You know, frankly, my people skills are the thing that differentiates me from other scientists and engineers. I have a little more rapport with people than the typical nerd would. That really, really served me well, and that was due to my heritage. My dad never knew a stranger. Anybody on the street, my dad would talk to them. He was constantly engaging and never full of himself, always very humble. Those are values that you carry with you for the rest of your life.”
What are you most proud of?
“I’m very proud of what we did at the National Renewable Energy Lab. I was there for 11 years, and we transformed the place. It was a nearly going-out-of-business kind of thing. They’d been literally in an industrial park … because they didn’t even have their own facility. So I went to the first meeting, and the former director introduced me. There were 1,000 people, and I got up there … and said, ‘You know, I see a day when we will have our own facility, and we’ll be able to have our own cafeteria and break bread and eat together.’ And I literally got 1,000 people to stand up and give me a standing ovation. And then I walked out and thought to myself, ‘I have no frigging idea how that’s ever going to happen.’ No plan, no nothing, I just put it out there. History will show that eight years later, we had all that. So I guess I’m most proud of the idea that I’m not afraid to make a prediction that I have no idea how we’re going to do it.”
What’s something few people know about you?
“I guess I would say that I’m kind of an ambassador. I’ve had a chance, really, to engage and interact with people from all across the world. I was in Fukushima (Japan) with people after the tsunami and the meltdown. I’ve had a chance to visit with people in South Africa, Johannesburg and Cape Town. I’ve had a chance to deal with people in Asia, China and India. I’m on a board in Singapore. I guess the thing I would say is that America is misunderstood by most of the world. They see our people as tourists. They see our politics sometimes that are kind of crazy and unpredictable, and when I talk to people, what I find is that they think a lot like us. ‘You’re not a typical American’ is what I get. And I say, ‘Yes I am. The people that are loud and boisterous and rude, that’s not the America I know. I know a different America.’ And I think that people actually are quite taken aback – in fact, refreshed that there is a more common thread among us all that may not be obvious if you just look at the papers and see the stuff on television. I don’t know, maybe (I’m) a quiet diplomat, a quiet ambassador of sorts.”
How do you spend your free time?
“I love the outdoors. I’ve played soccer in the Albuquerque men’s league for 15 years. I’ve climbed 11 14ers in Colorado … I’ve run half marathons … I love music, all kinds of music. I was a runner for 40 something years until my knees gave out. Now, I’m a Peloton guy. I don’t feel my age, to be honest with you. I feel much younger than I look or I am.”
Did you ever consider writing a book about your experiences?
“I am going to do that. I’ve had a very, very interesting life. It’s been incredible all the people that I got a chance to meet. Some of it I’ve got recorded, because my memory fails me after awhile. But I do need to do the memoirs. I would stop short of saying it’s a tell-all book, but certainly it would be because there are some stories …”