Prof. Juan de Pablo wins prestigious American Physical Society prize

Juan de Pablo, the Liew Family Professor of Molecular Engineering at the University of Chicago’s Institute for Molecular Engineering, has been awarded the 2018 Polymer Physics Prize “for his innovative models and algorithms for the simulation of macromolecular systems.”

Established in 1960 by the American Physical Society, the prize is among the most prestigious for the field, which addresses the behavior of polymers—any long chain of molecules linked together. The category includes everything from plastics and rubber to wood, DNA and proteins.

De Pablo’s develops theories and models to predict and simulate new polymer-based materials, which are the key to opening up new capabilities in many parts of our everyday lives—from electronics and solar cells to medicines and manufacturing.

“The idea is always to identify promising new molecules using modeling and simulation,” de Pablo said, which helps experimentalists focus on the most likely candidates to test in the lab.

Several of de Pablo’s methods and algorithms have become standards in the field, including a set that predicts how DNA folds, as well as another that shows how to model the behavior of coarse-grained molecules.

James Skinner, the Crown Family Professor in Molecular Engineering, nominated de Pablo for the award. “The scope, quality and importance of his work is breathtaking; it ranges from the very theoretical to the very applied, with important implications for medical, energy and information sciences,” he said. “It is hard to imagine a more deserving candidate for this prize.”

Skinner, who first worked with de Pablo in 1992 while they were both at the University of Wisconsin, also recognized de Pablo’s extracurricular work. He has served on multiple journal editorial boards, chaired National Science Foundation committees and led several multi-institutional centers, all while overseeing a large group of students and postdoctoral fellows—several of whom have gone on to become leaders in both academia and industry, Skinner said.  

“I could not be more pleased to accept this award, and I am grateful to my colleagues for the recognition,” de Pablo said. “It is wonderful to hear that what you did is useful.”

Three current UChicago faculty members had previously won the APS prize: Matthew Tirrell, dean and founding Pritzker Director of the Institute for Molecular Engineering (won in 2012); Karl Freed, the Henry J. Gale Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Chemistry (2014); and Thomas Witten, the Homer J. Livingston Professor Emeritus of Physics (2002).