URBANA – University of Illinois physics professor Klaus Schulten, a great innovator of computational methods to study the physical and chemical basis of biological processes, died on Monday (Oct. 31, 2016) at Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana. He was 69.
Schulten was a research powerhouse, leading a team of more than 30 students and postdoctoral scientists in the Theoretical and Computational Biophysics Group, which he founded at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology in 1989. With a background in chemical physics and a keen understanding of the potential of powerful computers to model biological structures and the physics and chemistry that drives them, Schulten led the development of software that enables scientists around the world to observe how molecules behave and interact at the atomic scale.
These include the program VMD for the interactive display, animation and analysis of large biomolecules, and the large-scale molecular dynamics simulation program NAMD. NAMD accounts for the moment-by-moment chemical interactions of as many as 100 million atoms, with time steps on the order of a millionth of a billionth of a second.
Schulten built his own parallel computer when they were not yet available commercially, and he was among the first scientists to use the Blue Waters supercomputer at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at Illinois.
"In biology and in biomedicine, we have to realize that basically all organisms are large societies of molecules," Schulten said. "We need a supercomputer to see that society for the first time."
To make that dream a reality, Schulten built a computational microscope that captures the biomolecules in action. "The light microscope is really a versatile instrument. But it can only resolve things down to a certain size, and that size is limited by the wavelength of light. That's where the computer comes in, to be a microscope where ordinary microscopes don't work."
Schulten's group made fundamental contributions to numerous areas of biology, most recently to understanding photosynthesis, force generation in cells, membrane channel dynamics and large-scale cellular organization. He and his colleagues revealed the precise chemical structure of the HIV capsid, teased out new details of the dynamic assembly of the ribosome and contributed to a deeper understanding of the chemistry of odor detection. One of his long-term interests was in animal vision, studying the magnetic field effect on migratory birds.
"Klaus was one of the most creative, farsighted and ambitious pioneers of quantitative and computational biology," said physics Professor Yann Chemla. "He will be remembered not just for his groundbreaking development of computational approaches to biology, but for the many important biological insights that emerged from these approaches, in fields as wide-ranging as neuroscience and molecular biology."
"The void left by his loss is very significant, not only to our group, but for the scientific community at large," said Beckman Institute postdoctoral researcher Juan Perilla, a member of Schulten's lab. "His contribution to science was immeasurable. He was always seeking to do what no one had ever done before. At the same time, he was extremely generous and shared his achievements with everyone."
Schulten was a Swanlund Professor of Physics, the director for the NIH Center for Macromolecular Modeling at Beckman Institute and co-director of the NSF Center for the Physics of Living Cells. He was also affiliated with the Department of Chemistry and the Center for Biophysics and Computational Biology. While at the University of Illinois, he trained over 77 graduate students in physics, biophysics and chemistry.
Physics Professor Nigel Goldenfeld summarized his scientific life at UIUC, "Klaus was a brilliant and passionate scientist, whose important scientific contributions were widely felt throughout the biological sciences, in fields ranging from neuroscience to molecular biology. He had a magnificent vision, when he came to Illinois, of the power of computation, and he used his intellectual gifts to turn that into a reality during the course of his career here, now sadly cut short.
"His work and intellectual generosity propelled the careers of many, many scientists, and he was one of the most farsighted and ambitious pioneers of quantitative and computational biology. He'll be remembered not just for his imaginative and groundbreaking development of computational tools for biology, but for the many important biological insights that emerged from his computational and theoretical work."
Schulten was born on Jan. 12, 1947, in Recklinghausen, Germany. He graduated from the University of Muenster with a degree in physics in 1969, and obtained a Ph.D. in chemical physics from Harvard University in 1974. He was a physics professor at the Technical University of Munich before joining the University of Illinois Department of Physics as a faculty member in 1988.
He is survived by his wife, University of Illinois chemistry professor and physics affiliate Zan Luthey-Schulten; his daughter, Charlotte Schulten, Glendale College professor of mathematics; her husband, Dr. S. Case Bradford at the Caltech Jet Propulsion Laboratory; his brother, Christoph Schulten in Aachen; and his sister, Karin Balmer in Mainz.
The funeral will take place at 10 a.m. Monday, Nov. 7, 2016, at St. John's Catholic Church in the Newman Center, followed by a reception to celebrate his life.
Morgan Memorial Home, Savoy, is handling arrangements.