Hecker steps down as co-director, but not away from CISAC

Sig reception toast logo
Rod Searcey

He broke the news to the world that North Korea had built a modern uranium enrichment plant. He’s helped the Russians secure their vast stockpile of ex-Soviet fissile materials. And Stanford students routinely rank him as one of their favorite professors. 

Siegfried Hecker, one of he world’s top nuclear scientists and co-teacher of the popular course, “Technology and National Security,” has completed his five-year tenure as co-director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC).

Though Hecker is stepping down from the leadership role, he’s not walking away.

“He’s not going anywhere,” emphasized his successor, Stanford microbiologist and biosecurity specialist, David Relman, as he opened a seminar in Hecker’s honor on Feb. 25. The panel discussion, “Three Hard Cases: Iran, North Korea and Pakistan” featured Scott Sagan, Malfrid Braut-Hegghammer, Abbas Milani, Robert Carlin and Feroz Khan.

“He’ll be back this summer with his infectious energy and unswerving dedication for which he is so well known,” Relman said.

Hecker, 69, is taking a sabbatical in New Mexico – where he was director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory for more than a decade before coming to Stanford – and then at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, run by the Monterey Institute of International Studies. He’ll continue work on his book about his historic efforts to foster collaboration between U.S.-Russian nuclear labs and do some travel to meet his nonproliferation counterparts in other parts of the world.

“CISAC is part of my heart and soul now,” Hecker told a reception in his honor after the seminar. “Los Alamos was in my blood and bones. Today, Stanford is part of that too.”

Hecker will return to CISAC this summer to resume his writing and research projects as a senior fellow at CISAC and its umbrella, the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI). He’ll head back to the classroom as well.

“What I found out is that teaching is so much harder than just giving a lecture, because you really have to pay attention to what the students have actually absorbed,” Hecker said. “You need to be able to communicate with each and every one of them.”

Among the many national honors that Hecker has received over the years, the one he treasures most is the 2010 Eugene L. Grant Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, an honor voted on by the students.

Lauren Cipriano, a Ph.D. candidate in Mechanical Science and Engineering, has been Hecker’s teaching assistant for four years. She noted his class co-taught with former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry – also a senior FSI fellow and CISAC faculty member – is routinely attended by hundreds of students and rated among the best.

“He shares his own stories of how developing personal relationships with Russian nuclear scientists in the wake of the Cold War helped overcome diplomatic challenges, and how he continues those efforts today in Russia and North Korea to make the world a safer place,” she said in her reception toast. “Sig also has a scary ability to predict the future. Several times our policy paper assignments have nearly come true.”

One of those dramatic examples unfolded in 2010. While the students were writing a paper about how they would respond to the discovery that North Korea had established a uranium enrichment facility, Sig was traveling to Pyongyang.

“Our students were some of the first to hear the stunning news of the uranium enrichment facilities the North Koreans revealed to him on his trip,” she said. “The students couldn’t have been more excited to feel like insiders in the national security policy arena.”

Hecker said he is particularly proud of the bright young scientists who have come through as CISAC fellows during his tenure.

“I think we’ve been able to build a really strong science component to support CISAC’s mission of building a safer world,” Hecker said. “We’ve been able to attract a lot of very good young scientists and then send them on to good careers from here.”

He said that working with these pre- and postdoctoral fellows and visiting faculty and scholars from the life sciences and political sciences “has helped me to better understand how important it is to bring the technical and social sciences together when looking at problems of international security.”

Hecker, who moved to the United States with his family from Austria when he was a boy, received his Ph.D. in metallurgy from Case Western Reserve University and began his professional career as a senior research metallurgist with the General Motors Research Laboratories in 1970. He joined the Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1973, became its director in 1986 and served for more than a decade.

Hecker came to CISAC in 2005 as a visiting professor, having been recruited by Sagan, who was then the social science co-director of CISAC.

“Sig first became involved with CISAC when he was still at Los Alamos, through participating in our Track II nuclear diplomacy efforts with John Lewis in North Korea and with me in a Five Nations project meeting in Thailand,” recalled Sagan. The Five Nations Project on Asian Regional Security and Economic Development focused on new challenges to nuclear nonproliferation by the U.S., China, Russia, India and Pakistan.

“I first broached the possibility of his coming to Stanford as a visiting professor when he and I were in the back seat of a taxi in Bangkok after giving a joint lecture at the Royal Thai Military Academy,” in July 2004, Sagan said. “He has been a stellar leader and now that he is stepping down from administrative responsibilities, he will have even more time to be involved in CISAC’s nuclear nonproliferation activities around the globe."

CISAC co-director, Tino Cuéllar, called himself a “charter member of the national federation of the Sig Hecker fan club.”

“In his eventful, five-year tenure, Sig has been an extraordinary leader,” Cuéllar said. “He’s been a visionary about its future, an endlessly enthusiastic supporter of its varied missions and a role model of excellence combined with the collegiality that CISAC prizes so dearly.