UC Davis Establishes First Endowed Chair in Physics and Astronomy, Appoints Knox

The nature of dark energy, the origins of the universe and the afterglow of the Big Bang.

These are just a few of the mind-bending phenomena Professor Lloyd Knox will continue exploring as the first Michael and Ester Vaida Endowed Chair in Cosmology and Astrophysics.

The Vaida Chair — the first endowed faculty position in the Department of Physics and Astronomy — was established with a $1.5 million estate gift from Michael L. Vaida, Ph.D. ’73, and his wife, Ester Vaida. The Vaidas also pledged $200,000 to support a graduate fellowship and undergraduate scholarships.

“I am incredibly grateful to Michael and Ester for this remarkable gift,” Knox said. “It will support our missions of research, teaching and service for as long as there is a UC Davis.”

Endowed chairs are prestigious academic positions established through a significant philanthropic gift. Funds are invested in perpetuity, with a portion of generated returns used each year to allow the faculty holder to pursue ambitious research projects, mentor students and contribute to the advancement of knowledge in their field.

At a ceremony held last month to thank the donors and celebrate Knox’s appointment, the cosmologist called it “the highest honor” he has ever received.

“I feel very deeply the responsibility to honor this gift, and the trust of my colleagues, by putting these resources and this title to good use,” he said. “Like the Starship Enterprise, I am now on a five-year mission. I promise I’ll do my best.”

Although the gift was initially included in the Vaidas’ estate plan in 2014, the pair chose to activate it early so they could see benefits of it within their lifetime.

“I am very happy we did it that way,” said Michael Vaida. “This field studies fundamental questions about our universe – these are things I’ve been curious about for most of my life.”

Cultivating curiosity

Knox’s immersion in science began as soon as he could read. From regular trips to the library for the latest astronomy books to attending summer science programs as a young boy, Knox found countless ways to fuel his curiosity.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Virginia and a doctorate in physics from the University of Chicago. Knox joined the UC Davis faculty in 2001, with a research focus on the fundamental laws of nature and origins of the universe.

“The universe is a great, huge mystery,” Knox said. “We’re all a part of this natural system that includes simple rules that seem to apply everywhere, and we have no idea why it’s like that. I feel a great privilege to be part of the conversation.”

His work has been supported by the National Science Foundation, NASA and the Department of Energy. In 2004, Knox was named a UC Davis Chancellor’s Fellow, and in 2012, he was elected as a Fellow of the American Physical Society in recognition of his work. He is also a senior member of the Planck and South Pole Telescope collaborations — international teams of scientists working together to unlock secrets about the cosmos.

Knox’s research with these large collaborations has been highly cited, and he and his team of graduate students have made notable discoveries such as their detection of a signal from the “cosmic neutrino background” in 2015. These ghost-like particles, called neutrinos, were released after the birth of the universe more than 13 billion years ago.

Estella Atekwana, dean of the College of Letters and Science, said the gift is a testament to the strength of the physics and astronomy program and the donors’ belief in the college’s impacts on the world.

“With this endowment, Michael and Ester have guaranteed our students continued, transformative personal connection to the most influential scientific minds in the world while simultaneously supporting key research that helps us understand our universe,” Atekwana said.

While discovering knowledge about the universe is a priority for Knox as the Vaida Chair, he is also passionate about using resources to strengthen the department’s culture, mentor more students and support diversity efforts across campus.

“I want this to be a place where more people feel the kind of support I have felt over the years, where we all respect and care for each other, and where we all feel free to take the kinds of risks that support learning and discovery,” Knox said.

Donors’ legacy lives on in the cosmos

As a graduate student in the early 1970s, the department’s collaborative and inquisitive environment made a lasting impression on Michael Vaida.

“I saw firsthand the fruitful results you get from a multidisciplinary approach,” said Michael Vaida, who earned a doctorate in computer science and computational physics in 1973. “I used the expertise I learned in my computer science classes to solve physics problems, and that became my thesis.”

His journey to UC Davis began in Soviet-era Romania, where he was raised by his maternal grandparents. He graduated in 1965 with a degree in physics from one of the country’s top public research universities, but he always dreamt of living in the U.S.

Michael Vaida migrated to New York by way of Yugoslavia, France and Italy, and ultimately landed in Central California in the fall of 1968.

He earned a master’s degree from California State University, Fresno, where he met his beloved wife. A pioneer in the field of data analytics, he founded Vaida Health Data consultants in 1986 and worked with hospitals and hospital associations across the country.

Ester Vaida also built a career in health care, working as a surgery coordinator for Sutter Women’s Health in Sacramento. A native of Guatemala, she often served as a Spanish translator for many migrant workers and their families who sought services there.

Although Michael Vaida did not pursue a career in physics, he retained a keen interest in the subject, particularly astrophysics. And since Ester Vaida shares his fascination with the stars, they chose to let their legacy live on through the cosmos.

“When I suggested we bequest our estate to charity, Ester was very supportive of the idea,” Michael Vaida said. “If this gift to UC Davis leads to any new discoveries about the universe, we would be delighted.”