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Donald Truhlar, chemistry professor

New Regents Professor Donald Truhlar ranks among the world's top physical chemists.

A super computing chemist

Don Truhlar, a chemistry professor and leading researcher in quantum mechanics, is one of three new Regents Professors

By Deane Morrison

Sept. 12, 2006

It's not often that a scientific journal dedicates an entire issue to one member of the profession. But Donald Truhlar, a University chemistry professor, received that honor in January, when the Journal of Physical Chemistry published a tribute to him along with its customary complement of scientific papers. Now the University has given him its highest faculty rank, naming him one of three new Regents Professors. A University professor since 1969, Truhlar is indisputably among the world's best physical chemists. He tackles problems most of us can only understand in the simplest of terms--questions about, for example, how subatomic particles manage to pull an end run around the laws of physics laid out by Galileo and Newton. (A good thing, too--some of those tiny particles belong to human proteins called enzymes, and their behavior helps the enzymes carry out many of the chemical interactions that govern our lives.) Also, as director of the University's Supercomputing Institute from its early days until this spring, Truhlar has given a whole generation of researchers access to a powerful tool for solving problems in all areas of science.


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Kathryn Sikkink, Department of Political Science, College of Liberal Arts, with additional appointments in the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs and the Law School
Profile: "Tracking the human rights trail" (Sept. 6, 2006)

Donald Truhlar, Department of Chemistry, Institute of Technology
Faculty profile

For more information about all three faculty members, see the news release, "University of Minnesota names three new Regents Professors."

As he settles in for an interview, a graduate student briefly pops in through Truhlar's open office door. "My door's always open," he says. "My students come in all the time." Born in Chicago, Truhlar followed his older brother John to St. Mary's College (now St. Mary's University) in Winona, Minn. John, inspired by the 1957 success of the satellite Sputnik, wanted to become a physicist, and Don intended to follow suit. But he soon switched to chemistry. "I started as a physics major but was interested in applications of physics to chemistry," Truhlar explains. After graduating, Truhlar and his new wife, Jane, headed for California, where he began graduate school in chemistry at CalTech. After receiving his doctorate in 1969, he and Jane headed back to Minnesota and his job as an assistant professor at the University. By 1976 Truhlar had risen to full professor. He made his name in physical chemistry, in which researchers use theory and mathematics to find broad principles to explain chemical reactions. A key element of Truhlar's work has been to describe how subatomic particles called electrons distribute themselves as they whiz around the nuclei of atoms. For example, an oxygen atom usually has eight electrons filling up space and forming a shell around its nucleus, and a carbon atom has six. How these electrons behave determines how atoms and molecules join and break apart (such as the digestion of food and the buildup of muscle), how they absorb or emit light, and every other chemical property a substance possesses. One application of that work is in drug design. To be effective, a drug must dissolve in the watery environment of the digestive tract and the bloodstream, and it must also dissolve in and pass through the fatty membranes that enclose cells. A chemist who wants to design a drug might dream up a compound, make it in the laboratory, then measure how well it dissolves in both environments. This is time-consuming, and a chemist may make 40 different drugs just to get one that passes the test. "But it would save time making drugs if you could calculate overnight [the ability to dissolve in water or oil]," says Truhlar. "You could calculate the behavior of 500 drugs and narrow the list down to 20 for more laborious experimental study. That's a lot better than making several potential drugs just to get one that has the right solubility properties and is worth further testing."

"This country could fall behind if it neglects fundamental science, which doesn't produce a product or payoff in the short term," Truhlar says. "We need to understand the fundamentals, and chemistry is a prime area for research in fundamental physical sciences."

Truhlar and a colleague, professor Christopher Cramer, developed a computer program called AMSOL that allows researchers to calculate the ease or difficulty of dissolving molecules in different media. It is now licensed to several pharmaceutical companies. Another application of Truhlar's work is in computing the rates of chemical reactions that take place at low temperatures high in the atmosphere. For example, the potent greenhouse gas methane may be transformed into other molecules that react with still other molecules by processes too fast to study. But, by computing those rates based on Truhlar's studies of the behavior of electrons, researchers can get a better idea of how methane and other chemicals in the atmosphere will interact to affect global warming. It is in this area--predicting rates of chemical reactions--that Truhlar has made his most important contributions to physical chemistry. Because the classical laws of physics are not always obeyed in the world of atoms and subatomic particles, Truhlar calculates rates using quantum mechanics, a fundamental theory developed in the last century to explain the behavior of matter at the atomic scale. "I don't believe there is another theoretical chemist alive whose research interests span as broad a range as Don Truhlar's," says chemistry department chair Jeffrey Roberts. "Because of Don's work, chemists have a general set of theoretical and computational tools that they can apply to the problems that interest them." Last year, Truhlar's feats led the American Chemical Society (ACS)--the world's largest scientific organization--to tap him for the Peter Debye Award in Physical Chemistry, akin to the world championship in that field. Thus did Truhlar, who had already won an ACS award for computational chemistry, become that rarest of rarities: a chemist who has won two ACS awards. At the University, he guided the Supercomputing Institute for 18 years, which now serves about 200 research groups from more than 40 departments. He has thrice served as director of graduate studies, for his home department of chemistry and for two interdisciplinary doctoral programs: the chemical physics program and the scientific computation program, of which he was the founding director. He was named an Institute of Technology Distinguished Professor in 1998. Yet the Regents Professorship stands out. "It's wonderful to get an award at your own university," Truhlar says. "This means a lot because it comes from my colleagues." Established in 1965, the Regents Professorship recognizes the prominence of faculty members who have made exceptional contributions to the quality of the University of Minnesota through teaching, research and scholarship or creative work, and contributions to the public good. The University plans to increase the number of Regents Professors to 30 by 2010. Currently, each receives a salary stipend of $20,000 per year and an additional $30,000 research stipend. Truhlar says he hopes that the United States will support those who want to study fields similar to his because, although the fruits of such research are little known to the public, their impact is deep and wide. "This country could fall behind if it neglects fundamental science, which doesn't produce a product or payoff in the short term," he says. "We need to understand the fundamentals, and chemistry is a prime area for research in fundamental physical sciences."

Read all about American Chemical Society awards to University faculty.