A Day with Martin Karplus

Alright, so just to preface, this post may not be entirely related to music, but I wanted to write about it, so I figured I’d use this blog as a platform (there are some connections to music, specifically to Maestro Muti and to Theodor Adorno, so I would still count this as an acceptable post on my music blog haha). As some may know, I’m double majoring in molecular engineering and chemistry, and not in music (although I do wish that I was taking more music classes). So when I’m not attending concerts/operas or writing about music, I’m usually doing something related to science/engineering! I help run the undergraduate chemistry club at the University of Chicago (Benzene!), and every year we get the amazing opportunity to host a distinguished faculty member for the Hillhouse Memorial Lecture, renamed in honor of the late Professor Greg Hillhouse, someone who really advocated for the undergraduate students in the chemistry department. (I just got done writing about how the classical music world could do more to welcome students, and that also couldn’t be more true for the chemistry department at school.)

For this year’s lecture, which took place a couple of weeks ago on March 6th, I had the great honor and privilege of hosting Professor Martin Karplus of Harvard University and Université de Strasbourg. I invited him a year ago, as he has been someone I’ve looked up to since high school. During the summer after my junior year in high school, I started doing some theoretical chemistry research at UChicago. When Martin was named as one of the three winners of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, which was right after my summer of research, it really brought theoretical chemistry to the spotlight, and it was just really cool to see that a field you are working in is recognized for its importance to the world. Now, fast forward to the spring quarter of my freshman year in college, which is when I took a class called “Modern Science.” For the final project, we had to create a digital museum exhibit that traced the history and evolution of some sort of invention/technology. I knew right away that I wanted to do molecular dynamics (MD) simulations, one of many important fields that Martin has worked in, and after doing the research for the project, I really came to admire Martin as a scientist, as he had the courage to use MD simulations on biomolecules, which wasn’t really thought of as a useful thing to do at the time.

Fast forward again to a couple of weeks ago, when after a year of planning for Martin’s visit, I finally got to spend the day with him on campus. I won’t go into all of the conversations we had, or some of the *interesting* things that happened related to his visit, but some of the highlights of the day included us talking about our love for food and Michelin star restaurants (in fact, Martin actually worked in the kitchen of Joël Robuchon!), going on a tour of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House with him, and being able to introduce him in front of a super packed crowd for the Hillhouse lecture. I couldn’t imagine that he would ever accept my invitation to speak on behalf of our club, so I’m truly grateful that he did. Besides him being my favorite scientist, he’s also become one of my favorite people because regardless of his stature as this world-renowned scientist, he was amazingly down-to-earth, gentle, and kind, and enjoyed meeting with students throughout the day. He somewhat reminds me of Maestro Muti in that they are both individuals who really take the time to interact with, teach, and give back to students, despite their fame and prestige. Actually, speaking of Maestro Muti, when Martin won the Nobel Prize in 2013, the conductor of that year’s Nobel Prize Concert in Stockholm, Sweden was Maestro Muti – amazing coincidence! You can view the video of the concert here: http://www.nobelprize.org/mediaplayer/index.php?id=2023

Additionally, I mentioned Theodor Adorno, one of the few music theorists that I’m actually familiar with because of his essay on Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier that I read for my music analysis/criticism class in the winter of my freshman year. Another surpising coincidence, but Martin is actually the nephew of Adorno – how cool is that!! It’s awesome when I get to draw these connections from art/music to science, and that is also something Martin really enjoys, as he is also a well-known photographer with exhibits around the world. Thank you very much Professor Karplus, and I hope to visit you again if I ever get the chance to visit Boston 🙂


Photo credit: Irene Hsiao (more photos can be viewed here!)


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