Monday, February 29, 2016

Modeling molecules at the microscale

Considering the Future

Science and Society conference to honor Nobel Laureate Ahmed Zewail

Can we find life on other planets? Can we bridge the economic divide between rich and poor? Can we engineer the human body to live longer than our genes currently allow, and should we even attempt such a thing?

On February 26, some of the nation's leading scientists and researchers—including five Nobel laureates, two of whom are from Caltech—will gather at Caltech to discuss some of the most perplexing questions facing humanity. During a one-day conference titled "Science and Society," they will address an eclectic mix of topics ranging from current efforts to reduce global poverty to the mechanical workings of clocks so accurate that they lose less than a second every 300 million years.

The conference has been organized in honor of Ahmed Zewail, Caltech's Linus Pauling Professor of Chemistry and professor of physics, who was the sole recipient of the 1999 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his development of the field of femtochemistry. Zewail, who also serves as director of Caltech's Physical Biology Center for Ultrafast Science and Technology, has lived the concept that science should drive the betterment of society, not only in his academic life, but in his advocacy as a U.S. science envoy to the Middle East and scientific advisor to the United Nations, and as a leader within his native Egypt, as exemplified by the role he played both during and after the Egyptian revolution of 2011.

"Science plays a vital role in helping people live better lives and helping humanity understand its place in the universe, and it's a rare treat for so many distinguished people to gather in one place to discuss these fascinating topics," says Zewail. "The theme that will shine through in this conference is that a passion for science, combined with a sense of optimism, can make the almost-impossible possible."

The conference, which will be held in Beckman Auditorium, will include speakers from Caltech, Stanford, the University of Maryland, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Caltech's president, Thomas F. Rosenbaum, and provost, Edward Stolper, as well as Jacqueline Barton, chair of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, and Fiona Harrison, the Kent and Joyce Kresa Leadership Chair of the Division of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy, will open the conference; Rosenbaum will also provide concluding remarks at the end of the day.

The other speakers will include Caltech Nobel laureate David Baltimore, who will talk about "The Future of Medicine" and the CRISPR technology that is now teaching scientists how to "edit" a person's genes, an undertaking that raises a host of ethical questions. "Since medicine has brought us from a life expectancy of 45 years to one of 77 in the last century, it is reasonable to expect medicine will be able to extend it to 85 or even 100," says Baltimore, the Robert Andrews Millikan Professor of Biology. "But to go much beyond that, we would need to think about altering our genes. Should we think about that?"

William Phillips, a physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology and a Nobel laureate, will give a talk titled "Time, Einstein, and the Coolest Stuff in the Universe." His discussion will focus on how scientists are using supercold atoms to "allow tests of some of Einstein's strangest predictions" and to create supremely accurate atomic clocks, which, he says, "are essential to industry, commerce, and science." Phillips is also a Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland, College Park.

JPL director Charles Elachi will predict—in his talk about "The Future of Space Exploration"—that, during the next decade, we will establish permanent scientific stations on Mars and engage in a search for present or past ocean life on the moons of Europa, Enceladus, and Titan. Elachi believes that, in the near future, "we will also be imaging and characterizing planets around neighboring stars to see if we are alone."

Roger Kornberg, Nobel laureate and the Mrs. George A. Winzer Professor in Medicine at the Stanford School of Medicine, will discuss "The End of Disease." His talk will look at the challenges faced by the scientific community from both "biomedical and political myopia," while also considering the capacity and power of physics, chemistry, and biology to bring modern medicine forward.

A. Michael Spence, a Nobel laureate from the Stanford Graduate School of Business who will speak on "Inequality and World Economics," believes the integration of the world economy has helped reduce global income inequality on a "massive scale." Nonetheless, he says, the economic divide between rich and poor is getting larger within many countries, including virtually all developed nations. In his lecture, Spence says, he will try "to unpack the contributing factors to this inequality, its results, and how to respond effectively to this trend."

And Caltech's H. Jeff Kimble, the William L. Valentine Professor and professor of physics, will be focusing on "startling advances in quantum physics"—specifically, how the complex correlations that arise among many strongly interacting quantum objects has and can continue to shape computation, communication, and the health of physics and society more generally. 

Visit the Science and Society Conference website for more information about the event and to register and receive updates.

Written by Alex Roth

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Considering the Future
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On February 26, some of the nation's leading scientists and researchers will gather at Caltech to discuss some of the most perplexing questions facing humanity.
Wednesday, February 17, 2016
Noyes 147 (J. Holmes Sturdivant Lecture Hall) – Arthur Amos Noyes Laboratory of Chemical Physics

The Magic of Inquiry—from high school fundamentals to authentic research projects

Where Is Solar Energy Headed?

In a new paper in ScienceNate Lewis, the George L. Argyros Professor of Chemistry at Caltech, reviews recent developments in solar-energy utilization and looks at some of the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead in the research and development of solar-electricity, solar-thermal, and solar-fuels technologies. Read the full paper.

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Where Is Solar Energy Headed?
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Friday, January 29, 2016
Center for Student Services 360 (Workshop Space) – Center for Student Services

Course Ombudsperson Training, Winter 2016

Van Lehn Named to Forbes's 30 Under 30 List

Postdoctoral scholar Reid Van Lehn has been named to Forbes's annual 30 Under 30 list in the science category. The list honors 30 outstanding individuals under 30 years old in 20 different categories, from venture capital to sports to science. Van Lehn was recognized for his research on chemically engineered nanoparticles and their interactions with cell membranes.

"I'm honored to be included amongst this impressive list of scientists—both those named this year and in prior years," Van Lehn says. "I know many dedicated researchers both at Caltech and elsewhere who are deserving of such accolades, and I feel very fortunate to have been recognized for my contributions. I would especially like to thank my colleagues and advisors, who have had a profound effect on my education and research and have been immensely supportive throughout my career."

Van Lehn uses molecular simulation to study what happens when synthetic molecules—engineered nanoparticles injected into the body—and biological molecules interact with cell membranes. During his graduate work at MIT, he discovered a mechanism by which certain kinds of nanoparticles insert themselves into cell membranes, a finding that could have implications in novel drug delivery pathways. As a postdoc in Professor of Chemistry Tom Miller's group at Caltech, Van Lehn uses simulations to study how membrane proteins integrate into cell membranes via a protein-conducting channel called the Sec translocon.

This fall, Van Lehn will join the faculty at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, in its Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering. His research will focus on developing and utilizing new simulation methods to understand the interactions of bioactive materials and engineer novel nanoparticles for therapeutic applications.

When not in the lab, Van Lehn can be found avidly playing or watching sports. "I hail from Pittsburgh, so I primarily follow the Pittsburgh Steelers, Penguins, and Pirates," he says. "I also play pickup Ultimate Frisbee, and I can occasionally be seen being horribly outplayed in pickup basketball."

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Van Lehn Named to Forbes's 30 Under 30 List
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Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation Furthers Legacy of Support

A $10 million gift from the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation has created an endowment that will provide year-in, year-out support to graduate students at Caltech. Augmented by $5 million from the Gordon and Betty Moore Graduate Fellowship Match, the grant establishes the Beckman-Gray Graduate Student Fellowship Fund at Caltech.

The fellowships honor the foundation's cofounder Arnold O. Beckman (PhD '28) and its former chair, Harry B. Gray, who is the Arnold O. Beckman Professor of Chemistry and founding director of the Beckman Institute at Caltech.

Read the full story at giving.caltech.edu

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Major Gift Furthers Legacy of Support
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The Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation helps to create a fellowship fund for graduate students

Toward Liquid Fuels from Carbon Dioxide

In the quest for sustainable alternative energy and fuel sources, one viable solution may be the conversion of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) into liquid fuels.

Through photosynthesis, plants convert sunlight, water, and CO2 into sugars, multicarbon molecules that fuel cellular processes. CO2 is thus both the precursor to the fossil fuels that are central to modern life as well as the by-product of burning those fuels. The ability to generate synthetic liquid fuels from stable, oxygenated carbon precursors such as CO2 and carbon monoxide (CO) is reminiscent of photosynthesis in nature and is a transformation that is desirable in artificial systems. For about a century, a chemical method known as the Fischer-Tropsch process has been utilized to convert hydrogen gas (H2) and CO to liquid fuels. However, its mechanism is not well understood and, in contrast to photosynthesis, the process requires high pressures (from 1 to 100 times atmospheric pressure) and temperatures (100–300 degrees Celsius).

More recently, alternative conversion chemistries for the generation of liquid fuels from oxygenated carbon precursors have been reported. Using copper electrocatalysts, CO and CO2 can be converted to multicarbon products. The process proceeds under mild conditions, but how it takes place remains a mystery.

Now, Caltech chemistry professor Theo Agapie and his graduate student Joshua Buss have developed a model system to demonstrate what the initial steps of a process for the conversion of CO to hydrocarbons might look like.

The findings, published as an advanced online publication for the journal Nature on December 21, 2015 (and appearing in print on January 7, 2016), provide a foundation for the development of technologies that may one day help neutralize the negative effects of atmospheric accumulation of the greenhouse gas CO2 by converting it back into fuel. Although methods exist to transform CO2 into CO, a crucial next step, the deoxygenation of CO molecules and their coupling to form C–C bonds, is more difficult.

In their study, Agapie and Buss synthesized a new transition metal complex—a metal atom, in this case molybdenum, bound by one or more supporting molecules known as ligands—that can facilitate the activation and cleavage of a CO molecule. Incremental reduction of the molecule leads to substantial weakening of the C–O bonds of CO. Once weakened, the bond is broken entirely by introducing silyl electrophiles, a class of silicon-containing reagents that can be used as surrogates for protons.

This cleavage results in the formation of a terminal carbide—a single carbon atom bound to a metal center—that subsequently makes a bond with the second CO molecule coordinated to the metal. Although a carbide is commonly proposed as an intermediate in CO reductive coupling, this is the first direct demonstration of its role in this type of chemistry, the researchers say. Upon C–C bond formation, the metal center releases the C2 product. Overall, this process converts the two CO units to an ethynol derivative and proceeds easily even at temperatures lower than room temperature.

"To our knowledge, this is the first example of a well-defined reaction that can take two carbon monoxide molecules and convert them into a metal-free ethynol derivative, a molecule related to ethanol; the fact that we can release the C2 product from the metal is important," Agapie says.

While the generated ethynol derivative is not useful as a fuel, it represents a step toward being able to generate synthetic multicarbon fuels from carbon dioxide. The researchers are now applying the knowledge gained in this initial study to improve the process. "Ideally, our insight will facilitate the development of practical catalytic systems," Buss says.

The scientists are also working on a way to cleave the C–O bond using protons instead of silyl electrophiles. "Ultimately, we'd like to use protons from water and electron equivalents derived from sunlight," Agapie says. "But protons are very reactive, and right now we can't control that chemistry."

The research in the paper, "Four-electron deoxygenative reductive coupling of carbon monoxide at a single metal site," was funded by Caltech and the National Science Foundation.

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Toward Liquid Fuels from Carbon Dioxide
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Caltech researchers gain insight into carbon monoxide coupling, one carbon atom at a time

Science with a Smile

The choice of career path—from teacher to musician to engineer—often results from experiences during one's formative years. For children born after 1985, it's likely a certain bow-tied, rumple-haired figure wearing a blue lab coat figured prominently in the lives of those who went on to pursue science and technology.

"I really admire Bill Nye due to his ability to inject a lot of entertainment and fun into teaching," says Caltech graduate student Sho Takatori. He was one of those kids who grew up watching Bill Nye the Science Guy, the long-running and award-winning science education series that originally aired on PBS Kids. "His wacky blend of engaging science concepts, wild experimentation, and humor was very compelling. His enthusiasm really got me fired up about science."

Growing up in Sacramento, California, in the 1990s, Takatori was a loyal fan of the show's fast-paced blend of science and amusement. This appreciation would later inspire him in ways he could have never guessed. After realizing the depth of his zeal for science in high school, Takatori moved on to UC Berkeley to earn a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering. While there, he worked with the California Environmental Protection Agency to help draft regulatory policies for the California Green Chemistry Initiative, a regulatory effort to develop safer chemicals and consumer products through the principles of green chemistry.

Takatori now works in the lab of John F. Brady, Chevron Professor of Chemical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering, where his work focuses on the fluid mechanics of particles suspended in liquids.."

Read more on the E&S website

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Science with a Smile
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Inspired by Bill Nye’s blend of science and entertainment, Sho Takatori approaches his teaching and lab work with enthusiastic dedication.

National Academy of Inventors Names Three Caltech Fellows

Caltech professors Harry Atwater, Mark Davis, and Ali Hajimiri have been named as fellows of the National Academy of Inventors (NAI). According to the NAI press release, fellows are "academic inventors who have demonstrated a prolific spirit of innovation in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions that have made a tangible impact on quality of life, economic development, and the welfare of society."

Harry Atwater is the Howard Hughes Professor of Applied Physics and Materials Science as well as the director of the Department of Energy Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP). His research focuses on photovoltaics and solar energy—he helped develop an artificial leaf as part of his work with JCAP—as well as plasmonics (oscillations of electrons on the surface of materials) and optical metamaterials (materials comprised of nanostructures). Atwater joined the Caltech faculty in 1988 and is a fellow of the Materials Research Society and member of U.S. National Academy of Engineering.

Mark Davis is the Warren and Katharine Schlinger Professor of Chemical Engineering and a member of the City of Hope Comprehensive Cancer Center and the UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center. Davis's research aims to synthesize catalytic materials called zeolites—crystalline solids made of silicon, aluminum, and oxygen and containing "micropores"—and biocompatible materials for the delivery of macromolecular therapeutics. Davis arrived at Caltech in 1991 and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Medicine and the National Academy of Engineering. In 2014, he received the Prince of Asturias Award for Technical and Scientific Research. Davis is the holder of more than 50 U.S. patents.

Ali Hajimiri is the Thomas G. Myers Professor of Electrical Engineering, the executive officer for Electrical Engineering, and director of Information Science and Technology. Hajimiri's research covers broad areas within high-speed and high-frequency electronics- and photonics-integrated circuits. This year, the Hajimiri group synthesized a 3-D camera—called a nanophotonic coherent imager—that provides the highest depth-measurement accuracy (similar to resolution) of any such nanophotonic 3-D imaging device. He joined the Caltech faculty in 1998 and holds 78 issued U.S. patents. Hajimiri is also a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

The 2015 fellows account for more than 5,300 issued U.S. patents. This year's fellows will be inducted on April 15, 2016, as part of the Fifth Annual Conference of the National Academy of Inventors at the United States Patent and Trademark Office in Virginia.

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Lori Dajose
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NAI Names Three Caltech Fellows
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