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From sub-atomic to astronomical scales, we are working on the frontiers of science. A tradition of bridging boundaries has allowed us to probe fundamental questions at the intersections of different branches of science and mathematics and to create new fields of study. Because mathematics and the physical sciences are fundamental to many pursuits, including engineering, medicine and biology, we contribute to the education of most undergraduate students at UC San Diego.

Recent News

UC San Diego Dean Awarded Prestigious Meteoritical Society Medal

Mark Thiemens, a former dean and professor of chemistry and biochemistry at UC San Diego, has won the most prestigious prize awarded in the field of meteoritics —the scientific discipline concerned with the study of solar system origin, evolution and history.

Scientists Determine How Birds Soar to Great Heights

Migratory birds often use warm, rising atmospheric currents to gain height with little energy expenditure when flying over long distances.

It’s a behavior known as thermal soaring that requires complex decision-making within the turbulent environment of a rising column of warm air from the sun baked surface of the earth. But exactly how birds navigate within this ever-changing environment to optimize their thermal soaring was unknown until a team of physicists and biologists at the University of California San Diego took an exacting computational look at the problem.

Synthetic Membranes Created to Mimic Properties of Living Cells

Biochemists at the University of California San Diego have developed artificial cell membranes that grow and remodel themselves in a manner similar to that of living mammalian cells.

The achievement, detailed in a paper published in this week’s issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, follows the successful design last year in the same laboratory of artificial, or synthetic, cell membranes capable of sustaining continual growth. The two developments now bring the researchers closer to mimicking all of the properties of living mammalian cell membranes with synthetic components.

James McKernan Named Simons Investigator

MckernanMathematics Professor James McKernan has been named by the Simons Foundation as a Simons Investigator, an honor that will provide him with an award of $100,000 per year in research support over the next five years.

In announcing his selection as a 2016 Simons Investigator, the foundation said that “McKernan, in collaboration with Caucher Birkar, Paolo Cascini, and Christopher D. Hacon, has established one of the cornerstones of the Minimal Model Program: the finite generation of canonical rings in all dimensions.”

McKernan, who received his doctorate in mathematics from Harvard University in 1991, was a professor at UC Santa Barbara and MIT before coming to UC San Diego and currently holds the Charles Lee Powell Endowed Chair in Mathematics.

His research is focused on birational geometry and his work has been recognized by professional organizations with numerous awards: the Clay Research Award in 2007 and the Cole Prize in Algebra in 2009.  In 2011, he was elected to the Royal Society in the UK. He was also honored by being invited to and delivering a lecture at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Hyderabad in 2010.

X-Ray Snapshot of Butterfly Wings Reveals Underlying Physics of Color

A team of physicists that visualized the internal nanostructure of an intact butterfly wing has discovered two physical attributes that make those structures so bright and colorful.

“Over millions of years, butterflies have evolved sophisticated cellular mechanisms to grow brightly colored structures, normally for the purpose of camouflage as well as mating,” says Oleg Shpyrko, an associate professor of physics at UC San Diego, who headed the research effort. “It’s been known for a century that the wings of these beautiful creatures contain what are called photonic crystals, which can reflect light of only a particular color.”

Scientists Design Energy-Carrying Particles Called ‘Topological Plexcitons’

Scientists at UC San Diego, MIT and Harvard University have engineered “topological plexcitons,” energy-carrying particles that could help make possible the design of new kinds of solar cells and miniaturized optical circuitry.

The researchers report their advance in an article published in the current issue of Nature Communications.

Within the Lilliputian world of solid state physics, light and matter interact in strange ways, exchanging energy back and forth between them.

“When light and matter interact, they exchange energy,” explained Joel Yuen-Zhou, an assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry at UC San Diego and the first author of the paper. “Energy can flow back and forth between light in a metal (so called plasmon) and light in a molecule (so called exciton). When this exchange is much faster than their respective decay rates, their individual identities are lost, and it is more accurate to think about them as hybrid particles; excitons and plasmons marry to form plexcitons.”

Tehseen Lazzouni a 2016 Exemplary Staff Employee of the Year Awardee

TehseenTehseen Lazzouni, Recharge Analyst in the Chemistry and Biochemistry Business Office, has been selected as a recipient of the 2016 Exemplary Staff Employee of the Year Award. This annual campus award recognizes professional and support staff from across all Vice Chancellor and Health System areas, who have demonstrated exemplary service and made other significant contributions to the UC San Diego and San Diego communities.

Since joining the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in 2015, Tehseen has been committed to excellence through her attention to detail, unsurpassed customer service skills, keen problem solving, collaborative spirit, integrity and creativity.  She has gained a mastery of the recharge facility operations despite often dealing with ambiguous information and conflicting priorities.  Her optimistic attitude is infectious and often serves as a catalyst for improved relationships with many stakeholders, both internal and external.

In addition to her work in Chem/Biochem Tehseen is being honored for her previous work with the NASA California Space Grant Consortium.  There she worked creatively and tirelessly to improve the consortium by reaching out to groups to promote diversity in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM).  Some examples of her work included working with MESA directors at over a dozen state-wide community colleges  to improve their STEM programs.  In an effort to promote gender diversity in STEM at UCSD, Tehseen presented California Space Grant projects and opportunities to the UCSD chapter of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) and developed two scholarship programs for them.  Together these programs have provided 23 scholarships.

We are extremely fortunate and honored to have Tehseen as a member of our team in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and Division of Physical Sciences!

UC San Diego Chemistry Professor Wins Prestigious California Air Resources Board Honor

pratherKimberly Prather, distinguished chair in atmospheric chemistry at the University of California San Diego, will receive the Haagen-Smit Clean Air Award from the California Air Resources Board May 18. The awards have since their inception in 2001 recognized individuals for career accomplishments in improving air quality in a number of categories.

Board officials said they bestowed the award upon Prather in its Atmospheric Chemistry Research category to acknowledge her “pioneering work that has transformed our understanding of atmospheric aerosols and their impacts on atmospheric chemistry, climate, and the hydrologic cycle.”

$40 Million Observatory to Search for Signals from Early Universe

In an effort to probe the first few moments of time after the Big Bang some 13.8 billion years ago, a consortium of researchers, including astrophysicists from the University of California San Diego, is planning a new observatory in Chile’s Atacama Desert to measure the cosmic microwave background, or CMB.

The $40 million initiative, known as the Simons Observatory, was announced on Thursday and is being funded by grants from the Simons Foundation and the Heising-Simons Foundation.

Researchers Develop New Way to Explore Mathematical Universe

mathresourceAn international group of mathematicians at UC San Diego and other institutions has produced a new kind of online resource to help discover uncharted mathematical worlds.

The “L-functions and Modular Forms Database,” or LMFDB, is an intricate catalog of mathematical objects and the connections between them. Both beautiful and functional like an atlas, the LMFDB reveals deep relationships in the abstract universe of mathematics. This coordinated effort is part of a massive collaboration of researchers around the globe, and includes developing new algorithms and performing large calculations on an extensive network of computers.

Neal Devaraj named Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar

devarajNeal Devaraj named Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar

Neal Devaraj, an assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, has been named a  Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar by the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation, one of 13 faculty members nationwide to receive the honor.

Criteria for selection include an independent body of scholarship attained in the early years of a faculty member’s appointment, and a demonstrated commitment to education, signaling the promise of continuing outstanding contributions to both research and teaching.

The award provides an unrestricted research grant of $75,000.  Devaraj will receive his award for his research project “Site-Specific Covalent Tagging of RNA for Live Cell Imaging and Affinity Purification.” He is the sixth faculty member at UC San Diego to receive the prestigious award.

The foundation said the 13 faculty members receiving awards this year “are within the first five years of their academic careers, have each created an outstanding independent body of scholarship, and are deeply committed to education.”

“The Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award is the Dreyfus Foundation’s flagship program,” said Mark Cardillo, executive director of The Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation. “The award supports exceptional young academic researchers at an early and crucial stage of their careers. They are selected based on their independent contributions to both research in the chemical sciences and education.”

Since its inception in 1970, the Teacher-Scholar program has awarded over $45 million to support emerging young leaders in the chemical sciences.

The Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation is a leading non-profit organization devoted to the advancement of the chemical sciences. It was established in 1946 by chemist, inventor and businessman Camille Dreyfus in honor of his brother Henry. The Foundation's purpose is “to advance the science of chemistry, chemical engineering and related sciences as a means of improving human relations and circumstances around the world.” More information on the foundation and award is at: http://www.dreyfus.org

Guy Bertrand Wins Sir Geoffrey Wilkinson Award


Guy Bertrand, a distinguished professor of chemistry and biochemistry at UC San Diego, has been named this year’s winner of the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Sir Geoffrey Wilkinson Award.

Bertrand received the award for “for his discovery of stable carbenes and their applications in organometallic synthesis and catalysis.”

Bertrand studied chemistry at the National School of Chemistry in Montpellier and received his PhD from the University Paul Sabatier in Toulouse. After being a CNRS group leader (French National Center for Scientific Research) at the University of Toulouse, and then at the Laboratoire de Chimie de Coordination du CNRS, he served as director of the Laboratoire d'Hétérochimie Fondamentale et Appliquée at the University Paul Sabatier from 1998 to 2005.

From 2001 to 2012 he also was director of the UCR/CNRS Joint Research Chemistry Laboratory that he created and since arriving on the La Jolla campus in 2012, he has been the director of UCSD/CNRS Joint Research Chemistry Laboratory.

Bertrand is a member of the French Academy of Technology (2000), the Academia Europaea (2002), the European Academy of Sciences (2003), the French Academy of Sciences (2004) and is a Fellow of the American Association for Advancement of Sciences (2006). He has recently received the Sir Ronald Nyholm Medal of the RSC (2009), the Grand Prix Le Bel of the French Chemical Society (2010) and the American Chemical Society Award in Inorganic Chemistry (2014).

He is one of the associate editors of Chemical Reviews and serves as a member of the editorial board of several professional journals, including the Royal Society’s Chemical Science and Organic Chemistry Frontiers.

New Tool Allows Scientists to Visualize ‘Nanoscale’ Processes

Chemists at UC San Diego have developed a new tool that allows scientists for the first time to see, at the scale of five billionths of a meter, “nanoscale” mixing processes occurring in liquids.

“Being able to look at nanoscale chemical gradients and reactions as they take place is just such a fundamental tool in biology, chemistry and all of material science,” said Nathan Gianneschi, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry who headed the team that detailed the development in a paper in this week’s issue of the journal Microscopy and Microanalysis. “With this new tool, we’ll be able to look at the kinetics and dynamics of chemical interactions that we’ve never been able to see before.”

‘Adaptive Protein Crystal’ Could Form New Kind of Protective Material

Chemists at UC San Diego have created an “adaptive protein crystal” with a counterintuitive and potentially useful property: When stretched in one direction, the material thickens in the perpendicular direction, rather than thinning as familiar materials do. And when squeezed in one dimension, it shrinks in the other rather than expanding, and gets denser in the process.

This strange behavior could prove useful for the sole of a running shoe that thickens for greater shock absorption as heel collides with pavement, for example, or to construct body armor that strengthens when a bullet strikes.

How DNA Can Take on the Properties of Sand or Toothpaste

When does DNA behave like sand or toothpaste?

When the genetic material is so densely packed within a virus, it can behave like grains of sand or toothpaste in a tube.

That’s essentially what biophysicists at UC San Diego discovered when they began closely examining the physical properties of DNA jammed inside viruses.

Three Earth-Sized Planets Found Orbiting a Tiny Nearby Star

An international team of astronomers, including UC San Diego astrophysicists, has discovered three Earth-sized planets orbiting near the “habitable zone” of an ultracool dwarf star, the first planets ever discovered around such a tiny and dim star.

The discovery is detailed in a paper published this week in the journal Nature. The planets are so close to Earth—only 40 light years away—that astronomers should eventually be able to study in greater detail the composition of each of the planets and their atmospheres as well as look for chemical signals of life.

In Memoriam: Walter Kohn 1923-2016

walterkohnWalter Kohn, one of the founding faculty members of the Department of Physics at UC San Diego who received the 1998 Nobel Prize in Chemistry while a professor at UC Santa Barbara, died at his home in Santa Barbara of cancer on April 19. He was 93.

Kohn came to the newly founded UC San Diego campus as a physics professor in 1960 after working for a decade at Carnegie Mellon University. He served as chair of physics from 1961 to 1963 and left the La Jolla campus in 1979 to accept a position at UC Santa Barbara as the founding director of what is now called the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics. He remained at UC Santa Barbara as an emeritus professor and research professor until his death.

Supported by the National Science Foundation, the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics brings leading scientists from around the world to work on major problems in theoretical physics and related fields. In 1994, the building that houses the institute was named Kohn Hall in his honor.

A condensed matter theorist, Kohn made seminal contributions to the understanding of the electronic structure of materials and played the leading role in the development of the density functional theory, which has revolutionized scientists' approach to the electronic structure of atoms, molecules and solid materials in physics, chemistry and materials science.

He also made major contributions to the physics of semiconductors, superconductivity, surface physics and catalysis. A member of the National Academy of Sciences, Kohn was awarded the National Medal of Science in 1988 and the Niels Bohr gold medal from the United Nations in 1998.

Benjamin Grinstein, chair of UC San Diego’s Department of Physics, said Kohn had one of the most profound impacts on the field of physics over the past century.

“A study of citations from all Physical Review journals for the 110-year period 1893 until 2003 shows the paper by Kohn and our own Lu Sham (an emeritus physics professor at UC San Diego) to be the top cited paper and the one ranked highest in citation impact, and the paper by Hohenberg and Kohn as the second most cited paper and ranked second in citation impact,” he added. “In fact, Walter authored five of the 100 papers with highest citation impact.”

More specifically, said Grinstein, “Kohn started work on density functional theory during a visit with Pierre Hohenberg to the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. Then Walter and Lu expanded on that work to produce the now famous Kohn-Sham equations. The latter is the standard work horse of modern materials science, and even used in quantum theories of plasmas.”

On March 31, the UC San Diego Physics Department held its annual Memorial Lecture on a topic chosen to honor the 50th anniversary of the publication of the Kohn-Sham paper

In Memoriam: Ami E. Berkowitz


Ami E. Berkowitz, a research professor in UC San Diego’s Department of Physics and Center for Memory and Recording Research, died on March 31, 2016 of heart failure. He was 89.

Berkowitz received his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Pennsylvania in 1953. He was employed by the Franklin Institute Laboratories in Philadelphia from 1947 to 1960 where he was manager of the Magnetism and Thermoelectricity Division. He was with IBM from 1960 to 1968, initially at the Research Laboratory at Yorktown Heights, NY, and then as manager of the Materials Branch at the Components Division in Burlington, VT. From 1968 to 1986, Berkowitz was at the General Electric R&D Center in Schenectady, NY. There, he was active in electron beam addressed memories, thermomagnetic recording, magnetic tagging, magnetic printing, magnetic surface phenomena, amorphous and crystalline particles, and the development of spark erosion method for particle production.

In 1986, he came to UC San Diego as a professor in the Physics Department with an endowed chair, and to CMRR to establish the materials group. After retiring, he continued as a research professor at CMRR and the Physics Department. Berkowitz published extensively in the scientific and patent literature and with E. Kneller co-edited "Magnetism and Metallurgy," published by Academic Press.  He also gave many invited talks, and was been twice appointed a Distinguished Lecturer for the IEEE Magnetics Society and, in 1997, he was elected a Fellow of the American Physical Society.

He is survived by his wife, Alice Berkowitz; two sons, Barney and Jon Berkowitz; daughter Dana Berkowitz; and three grandchildren

Math professor named fellow of prestigious society

Michael Holst, a professor of mathematics and physics has been named a 2016 Fellow of the Society of Industrial and Applied Mathematics. Holst, who holds a UC San Diego Chancellor’s Associates Endowed Chair, is being honored “for contributions to computational biology, numerical relativity and scientific computation.” He is an author and reviewer and has served on many of the editorial boards for the society’s journals.

Alice C. Tyler Perpetual Trust Gives $125,000 for Sally Ride Scholarship

Long after her first flight into space, the late astronaut Sally Ride remained dedicated to science education and protecting the environment. Now, a new scholarship at the University of California, San Diego will help continue her legacy by supporting the next generation of Earth’s stewards. The Alice C. Tyler Perpetual Trust has made a $125,000 gift to establish the Alice C. Tyler Perpetual Trust Endowed Scholarship for the Advancement of Women in Science in Honor of Dr. Sally Ride.  

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Time, Mathematics, and the Mind of God

Date: Wed, August 10, 2016
Time: 6:00pm
Location: Atkinson Auditorium, first floor of Qualcomm Institute/Calit2