Tag: Nobel Prize

Nobel inspiration: Lawrence scientists, economists embrace new momentum

Megan Pickett, associate professor of physics, stands beside a whiteboard showing some of her astrophysics research in Lawrence University’s Youngchild Hall of Science. (Photo by Danny Damiani)

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

If you sensed a surge of excitement in recent days coming from the halls of Lawrence University’s Youngchild, Steitz, and Briggs halls, you were not mistaken.

When the Nobel Prizes for chemistry and physics were announced earlier this month, the news hit close to home for a couple of science faculty members and their students, creating momentum for the research they’ve been working on here at Lawrence.

The same can be said for a pair of economics faculty members who have focused their research on topics tied to the groundbreaking Poor Economics, a book that’s been a mandatory read in Lawrence’s Freshman Studies since 2016. More on that later.

The win in chemistry went to three chemists — Stanley Whittingham, John Goodenough, and Akira Yoshino — who were instrumental 30 years ago in the development of the lithium-ion battery, which now powers many of our wireless electronics, most notably cell phones. That’s a subject near and dear to Allison Fleshman, an associate professor of chemistry who has dedicated much of her research over the past two decades to ion mobility, work that could potentially improve the next generation of those lithium batteries.

The win in physics, meanwhile, went to two astronomers — Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz (they split the prize with a cosmologist on a separate project) — who in the mid-1990s discovered a fiery, uninhabitable planet orbiting a distant sun-like star, a breakthrough that set the course for the discovery of thousands of exoplanets in the Milky Way galaxy. Megan Pickett, an associate professor of physics, was fresh off her Ph.D. and working for NASA when word of the discovery came through. She has since spent much of her career studying the formation of those stars and planets, simulating how solar systems are formed.

Both Fleshman and Pickett drew inspiration early in their careers from the groundbreaking work these scientists were doing. To see them now honored with Nobels, well, there were celebrations in recent days to rival those of football fans on a Sunday afternoon.

“As soon as the Nobels were announced, my Facebook was a flutter with all of my old colleagues from graduate school and my post-doctoral work,” Fleshman said. “We were all very, very excited. There’s a subgroup of scientists, and we were just going absolutely bonkers when we heard. And I may have run through the hallway shouting, ‘lithium for the win.’”

Pickett had a similar response when the physics award was announced, not just because she was happy for Mayor and Queloz but also because of the momentum and validation it provides for the science she and her students are doing in Youngchild.

“I was wondering when this group would get the Nobel Prize,” she said.

How solar systems form

It was in 1995 when Mayor and Queloz first announced the discovery of the Jupiter-like planet, having tracked a periodic wobble in the colors of light from the star that indicated a planet was circling. They determined it to be a four-day orbit. Scientists at the time already believed there were planets other than Earth that were orbiting sun-like stars. But they had no proof. And then they did.

“The scientific community was skeptical, as it ought to be with new discoveries like this,” Pickett said. “There had been a lot of false discoveries and false alarms in the past. But this stood the test of time. And as people started using this method, more and more solar systems were found. We now know of 4,000 planets that orbit stars.”

Learn more about Physics at Lawrence here.

Pickett had just finished her Ph.D. at Indiana University earlier that year and was working at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. She remembers hearing the news of the discovery like it was yesterday.

“I was in the space science research laboratory,” she said. “The entire floor that I was on, mostly theoretical astrophysicists, were running down the halls excited about this. Everyone at first was trying to show that it was wrong, but they were really excited. They were either excited one way or the other. If it was right, we would finally have proof that there were planets outside our solar system. And it turned out to be right.

“And it turned out to be the kind of stuff I was interested in studying. So, I was very lucky in terms of my career, being in the right place at the right time studying the right thing.”

Scientists now believe that the number of planets in our galaxy could number in the billions.

“Twenty years ago, or 25 years ago, you would have been laughed off the stage if you had said something like that,” Pickett said. “Now people are taking it very seriously based on the statistics we’ve seen.

Allison Fleshman, associate professor of chemistry, stands for a portrait in her lab in Lawrence University’s Steitz Hall of Science. (Photo by Danny Damiani)

The study of ions

Meanwhile, over in the Steitz chemistry labs, Fleshman and her students are busy talking about the charge that the Nobel announcement has given their work. They aren’t necessarily doing lithium battery research per se, but they’re studying a piece of the process that could affect the ongoing development of the battery technology. Fleshman has been doing research in and around that topic since her doctoral studies at the University of Oklahoma.

“Part of my Ph.D. was in developing a new way of describing ion transport, which is what this field of research is called,” Fleshman said. “Ion transport is how well the ions can move, or their mobility between two electrodes. If you have an electric field, how well can the ion adjust to responses in that electric field?”

Learn more about Chemistry at Lawrence here.

Keeping that and related research alive could one day lead to changing the electrolyte — the chemical medium that carries the positively charged lithium ions — from a liquid to a solid, eliminating potential issues related to leakage or expansion in the battery.

“That would be kind of like the Holy Grail,” Fleshman said. “That’s the next big thing. Until then, the idea is to improve the material that carries the charge. My students and I apply a new model to describing that transport.”

The Nobel for the lithium-ion battery is a momentum changer in part because it’s something people can relate to. They may not understand the science behind it, but they appreciate the rapid advances in the cell phone and other electronic tools that they can hold in their hands. The message from Fleshman is simple — we’re not done yet.

“Once it gets to the consumer’s hands I think people assume there is no more innovation to be made,” she said. Not true. While the Nobel award acknowledges that the work of Whittingham, Goodenough, and Yoshino was cutting edge, there are a lot of questions yet to be answered.

“If you’re in the field, you know these questions,” Fleshman said. “You know there are limitations with the electrolyte. There’s a misunderstanding about why lithium moves. There are misunderstandings of how lithium interacts with the electrolyte as a whole.”

The possibilities for the next generation of lithium batteries are just now being explored, and it’s more than just making our electronic toys run faster. The prospect of communities redirecting some of their energy usage in more sustainable ways is in play.

“The Nobel puts those questions on the international stage,” Fleshman said of the continued study of lithium technology. “I think it gets more people interested, people who thought the technology was basically at its end. We’ve made a lithium battery. It works great. My cell phone stays charged for forever. But there is so much more innovation to be had.

“There are really good scientists out there trying to answer the question of how can we redirect our energy demands to energies that are sustainable, and rewarding those scientists with a Nobel is yet another way of saying we need a global conversation about renewable energy sources,” Fleshman said.

The book on development economics

When the winner of the Nobel in economics was announced, you might have heard a smattering of applause across campus. The work of development economists Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo of M.I.T. and Michael Kremer of Harvard is plenty familiar to students and faculty here. The 2011 book from Banarjee and Duflo, Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, has been part of Freshman Studies since 2016, meaning most every current Lawrence student has dissected the book at some point over the past four years, or will next term.

Dylan Fitz
Hillary Caruthers

The book — and now the Nobel – has shined a light on the growing field of development economics. In this case, it’s the work of economists who zero in at the micro level in the study of poverty and other economic issues in developing countries, gathering and using specific on-the-ground data to analyze outcomes. Instead of taking a big picture view, they run real-world trials of local groups or communities to test how certain factors — be it in the areas of education, health care, food, family planning or others — are affecting the economics of a region.

Nowhere on the Lawrence campus was the applause for the Nobel louder than in the offices of Hillary Caruthers and Dylan Fitz, both assistant professors of economics who specialize in the micro approach to development economics. Both have counted the Poor Economics authors and Kremer as role models since their graduate school days a decade ago, even before the book was published.

“I do find it extremely validating,” Caruthers said of the Nobel announcement. “It’s exciting that when you look at all of the Nobel laureates going back through time, this is by far the closest to our research. So, it’s exciting to see people be honored who we have admired and who have inspired us in our field of study and have really shaped the field so much. It’s like seeing our idols rewarded for their work.”

Learn more about Economics at Lawrence here.

Caruthers and Fitz said they both were driven to pursue development economics on the micro level because it is so tightly tied to the people affected. It is analysis of open-ended micro data from individuals and households with an expectation that it’ll add to the larger economics conversation, and, in the end, help improve living conditions.

It’s not that the more macro approach to development economics isn’t valuable, Fitz said. It’s just the micro approach and what it can bring to the table is another important piece, and it’s what drew him to the field.

“The type of work in Poor Economics is why I’m an economist,” he said.

Some of the research done by Caruthers, for example, has focused on how poor nutrition in utero can affect someone through life. That touches on the same themes explored in Poor Economics, studying how early health care, or lack thereof, can have ramifications that affect one’s ability to ever escape poverty.

“Economics is a social science, of course, but often it’s easy to forget that we are ultimately interested in people and the well-being of humans,” Caruthers said. “So, de-emphasizing systems and instead emphasizing that micro impact is very appealing to me as a scholar.”

Poor Economics has been a great fit for Freshman Studies, introducing non-economics students to a part of the economics curriculum many don’t know exists.

“A lot of freshmen come in and they don’t know what economics is,” Fitz said. “Some of them think it is just business or just defending free markets, which is not at all the case. Economics is something that can help us make the world a better place — to try to understand the world first of all, and then to improve it for people.”

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

Life of Professor Emeritus Robert Rosenberg celebrated in June 20 memorial service

A memorial service celebrating the life of Professor Emeritus of Chemistry and former Robert McMillen Professor of Chemistry Robert Rosenberg will be held Saturday, June 20 at 1 p.m. in the Nathan Marsh Pusey Room of the Warch Campus Center. Rosenberg died April 3 in Milwaukee at the age of 89.

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Professor Emeritus of Chemistry Robert Rosenberg, 1926-2015.

Rosenberg’s son, Charlie, will deliver a eulogy while his daughter and grandchildren will share family memories.  Alumni and colleagues will offer reminiscences and musical preludes will feature some of Rosenberg’s favorite songs.

One of Lawrence’s most distinguished teachers, Rosenberg spent 35 years on the Lawrence faculty (1956-91). His work on the physical chemistry of proteins and chemical thermodynamics was supported by grants from the National Institute of Health, the National Science Foundation and Research Corporation.

Well known and highly respected for being unfailingly courteous, Rosenberg encouraged his students to learn chemistry, often by designing their own experiments, gently leading and probing them to think creatively. He responded to their questions by asking more questions in turn to hone their analytical skills. His clear, patient explanations of equations describing complex physiochemical phenomena became legendary.

One of his students, Thomas Steitz, went on to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2009, an event Rosenberg said at the time had him “walking on air” with pride.

He was preceded in death by his wife, Virginia in 2013, and a son, James in 1994. He is survived by a son, Charles, Milwaukee, a daughter, Margaret (Eric) Wilde, Bronx, N.Y., and two grandchildren, Emma Wilde and Nathaniel Wilde.

The family has suggested memorial donations can be made in Rosenberg’s name to Lawrence University, the Nature Conservancy for the Fight for $15 campaign for fast food workers.

Read more about Rosenberg’s life and career.

About Lawrence University
Founded in 1847, Lawrence University uniquely integrates a college of liberal arts and sciences with a nationally recognized conservatory of music, both devoted exclusively to undergraduate education. It was selected for inclusion in the Fiske Guide to Colleges 2015 and the book “Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think About College.” Engaged learning, the development of multiple interests and community outreach are central to the Lawrence experience. Lawrence draws its 1,500 students from nearly every state and more than 50 countries.

 

Robert Rosenberg 1926-2015: Chemistry professor mentored Lawrence’s Nobel Prize winner

Robert-Rosenberg_cap&gown
Chemistry Professor Robert Rosenberg spent 35 years on the Lawrence faculty.

One of Lawrence’s most distinguished teachers, Professor Emeritus of Chemistry and former Robert McMillen Professor of Chemistry Robert Rosenberg, died Friday, April 3 in Milwaukee. He was 89.

Rosenberg spent 35 years on the Lawrence faculty (1956-91), specializing in physical chemistry of proteins and chemical thermodynamics. His research was supported by grants from National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and Research Corporation.

He was the author of the book “Principles of Physical Chemistry,” which was published by Oxford University Press, and co-author of the third and subsequent editions of “Chemical Thermodynamics,” originally authored by one of his Ph.D program professors at Northwestern, Theodore Klotz. In retirement, he wrote “Why Ice Is Slippery” for Physics Today, which proved to be his most popular work, quoted in a New York Times article, and in the Weekly Reader, while the original article was translated into Italian and Japanese.

In conjunction with former physics professor Bruce Brackenridge, Rosenberg created the novel course “The Principles of Physics and Chemistry,” a mathematically rigorous, calculus-based introduction to both physics and chemistry, spread over all three terms, that they taught collaboratively. They also co-authored a textbook of the same title.

Rosenberg’s scholarly interests extended beyond the laboratory into the arenas of societal concerns through public seminars on nuclear disarmament and environmental issues.

Well known and highly respected for being unfailingly courteous, Rosenberg encouraged his students to learn chemistry by often designing their own experiments, gently leading and probing them to think creatively, frequently responding to their questions by asking questions in return to hone their analytical skills. His clear, patient explanations of equations describing complex physiochemical phenomena became legendary.

Rosenberg_Steitz_newsblog
2009 Nobel Prize winner Thomas Steitz (left) was a protege of long-time Lawrence chemistry professor Robert Rosenberg.

One of his students, Thomas Steitz, went on to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2009, a development Rosenberg said at the time had him “walking on air” with pride.

His commitment to his students often extended well past their graduation, remaining an active mentor during the careers of many chemistry alumni. He enjoyed reconnecting with former students during Reunion Weekend. During his last two years, many former students wrote or came to visit, crediting him as a foundational influence in a number of distinguished careers.

Rosenberg was recognized for his teaching prowess in 1987 with Lawrence’s Excellent Teacher Award. In 1991, the year of his retirement, he was honored by the Sears-Roebuck Foundation with its Teaching Excellence and Campus Leadership Award in recognition of his continued “concern for the individual student beyond the classroom, both as advisor and role model.”

Born in Hartford, Conn., Rosenberg earned his bachelor’s degree from Trinity College and his Ph.D. from Northwestern University. He spent time as a research associate at Catholic University of America and taught at Harvard University Medical School and Wesleyan University before joining the Lawrence faculty in 1956.

During his tenure at Lawrence, Rosenberg spent a year as an NSF Fellow at Oxford University and served as director of the ACM program at the Argonne National Laboratory for a year. After his retirement in 1991, he spent several years as an adjunct professor of chemistry at Northwestern University, where he organized a well received symposium in honor of Professor Klotz.

He was preceded in death by his wife, Virginia in 2013, and a son, James in 1994. He is survived by a son, Charles, Milwaukee, a daughter, Margaret (Eric) Wilde, Bronx, N.Y., and two grandchildren, Emma Wilde and Nathaniel Wilde.

A memorial service celebrating Rosenberg’s life will be held at Lawrence later this spring on a day and time to be determined. In lieu of flowers, the family has suggested memorial donations can be made in Rosenberg’s name to Lawrence University, Northwestern University or the Nature Conservancy.

About Lawrence University
Founded in 1847, Lawrence University uniquely integrates a college of liberal arts and sciences with a nationally recognized conservatory of music, both devoted exclusively to undergraduate education. It was selected for inclusion in the Fiske Guide to Colleges 2015 and the book “Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think About College.” Engaged learning, the development of multiple interests and community outreach are central to the Lawrence experience. Lawrence draws its 1,500 students from nearly every state and more than 50 countries.

Nobel Prize Winner Thomas Steitz Delivers Lawrence University Commencement Address

Lawrence University graduate Thomas Steitz, whose research on the structure of ribosomes earned him the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, returns to his alma mater Sunday, June 13 as featured speaker for the college’s 161st commencement. It will be Steitz’ first visit back to his home state since being named a Nobel laureate.

Lawrence is expected to confer 310 bachelor of arts and/or music degrees to 297 seniors from 33 states and 14 countries during graduation ceremonies that begin at 10:30 a.m. on the Main Hall green.

John Dreher, Lee Claflin-Robert S. Ingraham Professor of Philosophy, delivers the address “What’s Good Today” at a baccalaureate service Saturday, June 12 at 11 a.m. in the Lawrence Memorial Chapel. The baccalaureate service and commencement exercise are both free and open to the public.

Four retiring faculty members will be recognized at commencement. s. Robert McMillen Professor of Chemistry Jerrold Lokensgard, Professor of Biology Brad Rence Professor of French Judy Sarnecki and Associate Professor and Director of Technical Services in the library Corrine Wocelka will be awarded honorary master of arts degrees for their combined 129 years of service to Lawrence.

During commencement, President Jill Beck, Lawrence Board of Trustees Chair Harry Jansen Kraemer ’77 and senior Alicia Bones of Omaha, Neb., will join Steitz in addressing the graduates.

Tom-Stetiz2_web
Thomas Steitz

Steitz, who grew up in Milwaukee and graduated from Wauwatosa High School in 1958, was named one of three recipients of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in October and received his award in ceremonies last December in Stockholm, Sweden. He was honored for his decades-long research into the structure and function of ribosomes, which decode messenger RNA into proteins, a function central to life. An understanding of the structural basis of the function of ribosomes provides possibilities for the development of new antibiotics.

Since 1970, Steitz has taught at Yale University, where he is the Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry and professor of chemistry. He also is an investigator for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

His address Sunday will be his third appearance on the Lawrence commencement stage. In addition to receiving his own bachelor’s degree with a major in chemistry in 1962, Steitz was awarded an honorary doctorate of science degree in 1981. Lawrence also recognized Steitz with its Lucia R. Briggs Distinguished Achievement Award in 2002.

On Friday, June 11, Lawrence will rename its 10-year-old Science Hall the Thomas A. Steitz Hall of Science in recognition of Steitz’ achievements.

Since winning the Nobel Prize, Steitz has maintained a busy travel schedule. He returned earlier this week from Cambridge University in England where he delivered a lecture to the Medical Research Council. He arrived in England from Erice, Sicily where he was teaching a class. During the past several months, he has attended conferences or delivered lectures in California, Denmark, France, Italy and Switzerland.

The Nobel Prize was just the latest in a long list of awards and honors Steitz has received during his distinguished career. He has been the recipient of the Pfizer Prize from the American Chemical Society, the Lewis S. Rosenstiel Award for distinguished work in basic medical sciences and the Newcomb Cleveland Prize from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

He also was awarded Japan’s Keio Medical Science Prize in 2006, which honors researchers for outstanding and creative achievements in the fields of medicine and life sciences and the 2007 Gairdner Foundation International Award, which recognizes outstanding discoveries or contributions to medical science.

After Lawrence, Steitz earned a Ph.D. degree in molecular biology and biochemistry from Harvard University, where he worked with 1976 Nobel Prize winner William Lipscomb. Following a postdoctoral year at Harvard, he moved to the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England before joining the Yale faculty in 1970.

Steitz is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was recently elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

His wife, Joan Steitz, also is a Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale. Steitz’ younger brother, Richard, graduated from Lawrence as well, earning a bachelor’s degree with a major in mathematics and physics in 1964.

Lawrence To Honor Nobel Prize Winner with Building Renaming Ceremony on Friday

Science Hall signs have been taken down to make way for the building's new name.
Science Hall signs have been taken down to make way for the building's new name.

Thomas Steitz

The Appleton community is invited to attend a special ceremony at Lawrence University Friday, June 11 when the college’s Science Hall will be renamed Thomas A. Steitz Hall of Science in honor of 1962 Lawrence graduate and 2009 Nobel Prize winner Thomas Steitz.

The ceremony, which begins at 6 p.m. in the Science Hall atrium, will include brief remarks by Lawrence President Jill Beck and Robert McMillan Professor of Chemistry Jerry Lokensgard.  The ceremony will conclude with the unveiling of a display commemorating Steitz’s Nobel Prize.

Steitz, who will not be in attendance at Friday’s ceremony, will be the featured speaker at Lawrence University’s 161st commencement on Sunday, June 13 beginning at 10:30 a.m. on the Main Hall green.

“This is a fitting way for Lawrence to recognize one of our most distinguished graduates, by naming for Dr. Steitz the facility in which our current students are learning cutting-edge science,” Beck said. “His dedication and accomplishments serve as inspiration to all of our young, aspiring scientists. Having the building they learn and conduct research in bear his name will motivate them to consider all that is possible in their own careers.”

Last October, Steitz was named one of three recipients of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his research that revealed the structure and function of ribosomes.   A few weeks later, the Lawrence University Board of Trustees voted unanimously to rename the nine-year-old Science Hall in Steitz’s honor.

A Milwaukee native and graduate of Wauwatosa High School, Steitz called the building renaming “a great honor from a university to which I owe so much.”

Steitz is the Sterling professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry and professor of chemistry at Yale University, where he has taught since 1970.