Nobel winner spent five years on UI faculty

URBANA — Fresh from a post-doctoral fellowship in Europe, Martin Karplus was looking to join a university where he could focus on his chemistry research.

That place would be the University of Illinois, where he would conduct work on an equation that is widely used by chemists today and make use of the early computer known as the Illiac to run calculations based on his equations. Karplus, who with Michael Levitt and Arieh Warshel was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday, was a UI faculty member from 1955 to 1960.

The three won the prize for developing computer models that researchers use to understand complex chemical interactions and create new drugs.

Karplus is the 11th Nobel Laureate to be affiliated with the UI's chemistry department and the fourth former faculty member in the department to receive the honor.

"Every year in early October we are wondering who the Nobel committee will pick. We look forward to it and we celebrate the announcement. When it involves the university, we're particularly excited as we are today," said Greg Girolami, UI chemistry professor and department head.

In an essay called "Spinach on the Ceiling: A Theoretical Chemist's Return to Biology," published in the Annual Review of Biophysics and Biomolecular Structure in 2006, Karplus wrote about his early upbringing in Austria, and, as fascism grew, his family's flight to the United States in 1938. He describes his education at Harvard University and time abroad as a post-doctoral researcher. His first faculty job was at the UI and he was paid $5,000 a year.

"Although the University of Illinois was a very good institution with excellent chemistry and physics departments, it was located in a small town in the flat rural Midwest, where I could not imagine living for more than five years. Having had such a good time as a postdoctoral fellow traveling in Europe, I was ready to get to work, and Urbana-Champaign seemed like a place where I could concentrate on science with few distractions," he wrote.

Charles Slichter, a retired UI Professor of physics who also had an appointment in the chemistry department, arrived on the UI campus as an instructor in 1949, a few years before Karplus. They crossed paths because they both worked on magnetic resonance at the time. Slichter was awarded the National Medal of Science in 2008 for his pioneering research in nuclear magnetic resonance.

He called Karplus "a very bright guy and wonderful person" and said he wasn't at all surprised to learn on Wednesday that his former colleague had earned the Nobel Prize, though for an area of study not related to nuclear magnetic resonance.

Slichter described Karplus as a theoretical, physical chemist.

"He's a theorist ... but he attacks things from a fundamental basis," Schlicter said.

The work Karplus did while at the UI is used by practicing chemists every day, Girolami said. While on the UI campus, Karplus "was interested in understanding the interaction between hydrogen atoms in chemical compounds using nuclear magnetic resonance," the same field in which Paul Lauterbur worked. The late Lauterbur, a longtime UI professor, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology in 2003 with Sir Peter Mansfield.

While at Urbana, Karplus developed an equation, now called the Karplus equation, which is used to help chemists determine the three dimensional structures of organic compounds, Girolami said.

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