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What do shapes have to do with chemistry? UTSC Sloan Fellow explains

Assistant Professor Artur Izmaylov is the first UTSC chemist to be named a Sloan Research Fellow. (Photo by Ken Jones)

Assistant Professor Artur Izmaylov is the first UTSC chemist ever to be awarded a Sloan Research Fellowship.

Every year, the Sloan Foundation recognizes the distinguished performance of 126 Canadian and American researchers, and their unique potential to make substantial contributions to their fields. Awarded annually since 1955, the fellowships honour early career scientists and scholars whose achievements and potential identify them as rising stars, and the next generation of scientific leaders.

Past Sloan Research Fellows have gone on to notable careers and include such intellectual top names as John Polanyi and John Forbes Nash, the subject of the film A Beautiful Mind.  Since the beginning of the program, 43 fellows have received a Nobel Prize and 16 have won the Fields Medal in mathematics, among many other honours. Additional details about the five U of T researchers who are this year’s recipients of Sloan Research Fellowships are available here.

U of T Scarborough writer Shelley Romoff spoke with Artur Izmaylov to learn more about the significance of this award for his work and for his research group.

How does the Sloan Fellowship make a difference for your work?

This fellowship makes a difference in several ways.  First of all, this is a confirmation that the questions we are addressing in our research—and these are relatively abstract topics—are perceived by the scientific community to be significant to our field and to its development. 

Meeting the conditions for this award is quite difficult.  The Sloan fellowships support young researchers very early in their careers, and the selection is largely based on their independent research contributions after having received their Ph.D. I spent three years as a post doc, and then two years doing independent research. To generate a significant scientific output in a short period of time requires, besides great ideas, organizing a productive research group. So this is really an acknowledgement not only of my work, this award also acknowledges the research climate here.

I have been lucky to work with very talented postdocs and students who contributed a lot to this success. The Sloan Fellowship allows us to continue working on exciting projects.  And perhaps just as important, this means I can now provide a nurturing environment and training to more post docs, which will help us continue to build the research enterprise at U of T Scarborough.

Your research is foundational. Tell us about the questions you are exploring.

Our goal is to understand complex dynamics in intuitive ways so that we can predict system behavior without doing extensive computational work.

My research is focused on understanding and modeling chemical dynamics involving multiple electronic states in molecules and materials. Such processes are ubiquitous in solar energy harvesting, light-absorbing proteins like rhodopsin, which is the key player in human vision, and heterogeneous catalysis on metallic surfaces. The size of these systems and a quantum character of their dynamics makes modeling especially challenging.

Your work as a chemist uses topology—an area of mathematics concerned with shapes.  How does this influence how and what you can investigate?

It has been known for some time that topology may play a role in chemical dynamics. However, it was not clear when exactly it becomes important and how it affects dynamics of molecular systems. In my group, we take an approach where first, we build a simplified model of molecular systems with what is known as non-trivial topology. Working with a simplified model of real molecules allows us to explore much faster possible regimes where the topological effects are important.  Then we come back to real molecules with the knowledge acquired in playing with models, and we look for the interesting dynamical regimes. Thus we are able to provide a simple and intuitive description when topological effects are important for chemical dynamics, and we can describe what is their role.  

With a clarified role of topological effects in chemical dynamics we can predict and engineer molecular dynamics without performing extensive computations. Also we found that we can improve approximate computational schemes by including requirements to reproduce topological effects in modeling dynamics.

What advice do you have for researchers at the early stage of their career?

Finding questions that you are passionate about and building a group of people who will be excited about working on answering these questions with you are the two most important things. Hire talented people, inspire their creativity, be available to answer questions and consult.

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