Chemistry prof receives grant for research

While working on the ultimate goal of improving the efficiency of solar batteries and speeding up computer memory, a UH chemist has been honored as one of the most promising researchers of chemistry and life sciences in the nation.

Assistant professor of chemistry Vassiliy Lubchenko is researching the electronic structure of amorphous materials – solids whose atoms, similar to liquids, are not arranged in a periodic fashion. Amorphous materials are all around us, from window glass to cotton candy.

What makes these materials both complex and interesting is that their underlying physics and chemistry is poorly understood, in part, because of the difficulty to create computer models that simulate the formation of these materials.

"Imagine creating a movie, in which – instead of filming individuals – you would have to make snapshots frequently enough to capture molecular vibrations," Lubchenko said. "To catch the molecular motions of interest, we would need to make a billion snapshots. Imagine how long it would take to create this movie."

Lubchenko’s solution to this seemingly impossible difficulty is simple; he uses "paper and pencil" calculations instead, playing out molecular dynamics on a computer – a task that can take centuries to complete.

"No matter how long the movie, we can always convey its plot with just a few sentences, after identifying key players and sources of tension. So, in a sense, we can circumvent this difficulty by playing the movie in our head instead of a computer," Lubchenko said.

Understanding how amorphous materials work would make them desirable for use in affordable solar batteries and computer memory.

His innovative approach to solving difficult problems has helped Lubchenko win the prestigious Beckman Young Investigator award, a $300,000 grant that provides research support to the most promising young faculty members in chemistry and life sciences. This year, 16 researchers across the country were awarded. Past and present winners have included researchers from Harvard, Princeton, California Institute of Technology and the University of California, Berkley, among others.

The award is provided by the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation to support tenure-track faculty members conducting ground-breaking research at non-profit research institutions.

As a professor, Lubchenko’s method of conceptual solutions to difficult problems has also won him another award – the admiration of his students.

"I enjoy coming up with simple explanations for difficult problems, and my students appreciate that," he said.

This fall Lubchenko will teach Physical Chemistry II, also known as Quantum Mechanics.

Surprising as it may seem to some of his students, Lubchenko has other passions besides chemistry and math. He is an active participant in a Russian amateur theater in Houston. His previous part was playing the lead role in a romantic musical last April. He also likes to play the piano in his spare time.

A Ukranian native, Lubchenko recalls that his passion for science started as early as the second grade after watching a science TV show.

"When I was 8 I wanted to become an astrophysicist," he said. "I don’t know how I even learned that word – probably from TV."

Lubchenko received his Ph.D. from the Universiy of Illiniois at Urbana-Champaign and was a postdoctoral research fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He joined the Department of Natural Sciences and Mathematics at UH in 2005.

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