With the passing of Ueli Suter on 12th August, 2023, we have lost one of the greatest personalities of Swiss science. Ueli was one of the few people who could infallibly light up a room as he entered it. With his sharp wit and mischievous smile, he could effortlessly entertain and edify those around him, and by subtle use of his (often wicked) sense of humor, he could defuse the most intractable of interpersonal situations.
After his childhood and early education in Baden, AG, Ueli Suter studied chemistry at ETH Zurich, obtaining his PhD in 1973 before crossing the Atlantic for a postdoctoral stint with P.J. Flory at Stanford University. He returned to ETH to work as a senior assistant, obtaining his habilitation in 1980, before departing once more for the USA. He then worked as a visiting scientist for one year at IBM Almaden Research Center, San Jose, before being hired as a professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at MIT in 1982.
During the ensuing half-dozen years, Ueli broke new ground in computational studies of materials, in particular applied to polymer glasses and polypropylene. Having caught the attention of the scientific community, he was persuaded by the ETH President (who reportedly made a special trip to “headhunt” Ueli from MIT) to return to his alma mater. In 1988 he took up the ETH Chair of Macromolecular Chemistry in the new and rapidly growing Departement Werkstoffe, which later became the Department of Materials.
Ueli’s research at ETH was wide-ranging, but structure-property relationships of polymeric materials was a recurring theme. His enthusiasm for computers made him a proselytizer for their application in all aspects of research and teaching, while his books on atomistic modeling and conformational theory of large molecules had a major impact on the global polymer community. His research group was large, diverse, and highly successful, several of his alumni now being academics at prestigious universities. They were also dedicated to Ueli, whose charisma was the glue that held them together and spurred them on to great achievements. His teaching and research lectures were always illuminating and entertaining, and his ability to direct red and green laser pointers simultaneously along x and y axes attracted worldwide notoriety!
Ueli served as department chairman soon after his appointment at ETH, effortlessly steering the nascent materials department through times of major change and expansion. His suitability for higher office evidently became apparent to ETH senior management, and in 2001 he was appointed ETH Vice President for Research. The following four years marked a period of financial upheaval for the ETH, which was gaining a degree of administrative autonomy from the federal government. These times were particularly challenging for the Schulleitung, but Ueli steered the ETH research community through this difficult phase with his usual aplomb.
Ueli retired in 2008, becoming President of the Swiss Academy of Engineering Sciences (SATW). He also continued being an advisor on science policy to the Government of Singapore—an activity that he had begun after stepping down as ETH Vice President. His impact on the development of Singapore as a globally recognized research and development hub cannot be overstated, and in 2017 he was awarded honorary citizenship by the President of Singapore for his achievements on their behalf.
Ueli will be remembered by those of us lucky enough to have worked with him as a wonderful colleague, mentor, and friend, whose company we always cherished. He accomplished a huge amount as both a scientist and administrator during his time at ETH, and dedicated his time and energies after retirement to the wellbeing and promotion of the science and engineering community, in Switzerland and worldwide.
He will be missed greatly by all of us.