UI chemistry professor gets $500,000 'genius grant'

UI chemistry professor gets $500,000 'genius grant'

A University of Illinois chemistry professor working to make customized molecules is one of 25 winners for 2005 of a $500,000 no-strings-attached fellowship from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

UI Professor Todd Martinez is the fifth person locally to win a "genius grant," as the MacArthur awards are commonly called.

The Chicago-based foundation awards fellowships to people in almost any field on the basis of the creativity, originality and potential of their work. The idea is to give them a period of financial and institutional independence to accelerate their work or take it in new directions.

This year's winners, announced today, include a pharmacist with a system for reducing drug-delivery errors, a sculptor, a violin maker, a rare-book preservationist and a lobster fisherman who studies the ocean ecosystem.

"The new MacArthur fellows illustrate our conviction that talented individuals, free to follow their insights and instincts, will make a difference in shaping the future," MacArthur Fellows Program Director Daniel Socolow said in a press release.

Martinez, 37, of Champaign said he was notified in a phone call on Wednesday, after a friend who used to be a UI professor asked him to be available at a certain time, ostensibly for a conference call on a joint research project.

Like the other winners, he has no idea who nominated him – the identities of its invited nominators are closely guarded by the foundation – and likely never will.

He said his initial reaction was shock.

"I was like: What is the MacArthur Foundation calling me for? I was more or less in shock for the rest of the phone call," the Martinez said. "Actually, I'm still in shock."

The caller gave him a phone number he could use in case he didn't believe that he had actually won the award. He didn't call. But he did check the number against the foundation's Web site.

Martinez is basically trying to ignore the "genius" label that comes with the grants, noting that the MacArthur Foundation itself eschews the description.

"I don't feel very much smarter," he joked.

As for the money, to be paid over five years, Martinez said his 10-person UI research group – abuzz last week because they knew something was up but not what – will get a trip to a scientific conference in Europe or some other exotic location.

"The rest of it we'll put back into doing science and research," he said.

What Martinez, a computational chemist, does is model the workings of molecules factoring in the actions of the atoms and electrons involved at the same time. Previously, scientists have treated the two as separate problems tackled independently.

But molecules don't work that way in real life, where atoms and electrons function as a coupled system.

"You needed to consider them as a single complicated problem," Martinez said.

Martinez, who came to the UI in 1996 after a postdoctoral stint split between UCLA and Israel, started out looking at two-atom molecules, which he characterized as almost laughably unrealistic but all that was manageable at the time.

With the computational techniques his group has developed, they're now up to molecules with thousands of atoms, a fidelity close to reality, and have learned enough to reach the doorstep of their ultimate goal – to begin designing molecules of their own with certain qualities, like reactivity to light.

That opens up all sorts of possibilities for better understanding the fundamental aspects of chemistry, which is all about molecular interactions, not to mention such chemically based processes as the workings of our eyes and plant growth, both of which rely on light.

Martinez even conceives of making, in essence, reconfigurable molecules controllable with lasers, a type of light that in its modern form can be finely tuned over space and time.

The UI professor also has gained attention for turning toys into science tools. The need for a certain kind of computing power to run their molecular simulations prompted him and colleagues to build a supercomputer out of PlayStation 2s when the video game machines came out three years ago.

He's already working with IBM on using its Cell processor, to be the heart of the new PlayStation 3, which is due next year.

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