Debenedetti to receive Rahman Prize for Computational Physics

Written by
Catherine Zandonella, Office of the Dean for Research
Oct. 10, 2022
Pablo Debenedetti

Pablo Debenedetti
Dean for Research, Class of 1950 Professor in Engineering and Applied Science and professor of chemical and biological engineering
Photo by David Kelly Crow

Pablo G. Debenedetti, Princeton University’s dean for research, will be awarded the American Physical Society’s 2023 Aneesur Rahman Prize for Computational Physics, which recognizes outstanding achievement in computational physics research.

Debenedetti, the Class of 1950 Professor in Engineering and Applied Science and professor of chemical and biological engineering, will receive the award “for seminal contributions to the science of supercooled liquids and glasses, water, and aqueous solutions, through ground-breaking simulations.”

The prize, established in 1992, honors Aneesur Rahman (1927 – 1987), a founder of the field of molecular dynamics who pioneered computational methods for modeling physical systems. Debenedetti will receive the award and deliver the Rahman Lecture at a future meeting of the American Physical Society.

Debenedetti’s research uses theoretical and computational tools to study a range of questions, such as how ice forms in the atmosphere, how non-crystalline solids such as glass form by rapid cooling of a liquid, how proteins function under extreme temperatures, pressure and humidity levels, and how water behaves when confined by surfaces that are water-repellent, or hydrophobic. His work has applications in areas ranging from the preservation of pharmaceutical compounds to water desalination and climate modeling.

A professor at Princeton for 37 years, Debenedetti has taught numerous undergraduate and graduate-level courses, as well as mentored 33 Ph.D. students and 27 postdoctoral research associates. Many of Debenedetti’s advisees hold leading positions in academia, industry or national laboratories.

“Debenedetti’s computational physics contributions have shaped our understanding of the liquid state, the properties of supercooled and glassy water, and the theory of hydrophobicity,” said Athanassios Z. Panagiotopoulos, Susan Dod Brown Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering, in nominating Debenedetti for the award.

“Inseparable from his scholarly accomplishments,” Panagiotopoulos continued, “is his absolute commitment to education and mentorship of students, from the classroom and thesis supervision, to lifelong support.”

Upon learning of the award, Debenedetti commented, “Today, computational research is a co-equal mode of scientific inquiry, on a par with theory and experiment. Over the years, I have been lucky to have worked on deep and challenging problems, such as the thermodynamics of glasses.”

He continued, “I am privileged to have worked with many exceptional students, postdoctoral researchers and collaborators throughout my career, and I am very grateful to Princeton for its computational infrastructure, which has enabled much of my research.”

Debenedetti’s interests span the thermodynamics and statistical mechanics of liquids and glasses, as well as explorations of protein thermodynamics, the physics of metastable liquids, and the effects of chirality, in which molecules exist as non-superimposable mirror images of each other, on biomolecular folding and spontaneous assembly.

Using theoretical and computational methods, Debenedetti and his students have provided key insights into the physical properties of supercooled water, found in large quantities in high-altitude clouds. The team’s simulations of supercooled water revealed the existence of two distinct forms of liquid water, a finding that helps explain many of water’s anomalies.

His team has also computed the phase diagram and evaporation kinetics of water confined by nano-scale hydrophobic surfaces, which are important in understanding the mechanisms of biological self-assembly.

Most recently he and colleagues published a study that applied computational chemistry, machine learning, and advanced sampling methods to the challenge of modeling the initial steps of water as it freezes into ice.

Debenedetti has authored more than 300 scientific articles and is the author of the book, Metastable Liquids. Recent awards include the Guggenheim Medal from the Institution of Chemical Engineers (2017) and the Alpha Chi Sigma Award for Chemical Engineering Research (2019) from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE).

Debenedetti is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the National Academy of Sciences. He is a fellow of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Physical Society. In 2008, Debenedetti was named one of 100 Chemical Engineers of the Modern Era by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers.

In 2008, he received the Distinguished Teacher Award from Princeton’s School of Engineering and the President’s Award for Distinguished Teaching, Princeton’s highest distinction for teaching.

Debenedetti became Princeton’s dean for research in 2013. He served as vice dean of Princeton’s School of Engineering and Applied Science from 2008 to 2013 and chair of the chemical engineering department between 1996 and 2004. Debenedetti obtained his B.S. in chemical engineering from Buenos Aires University, Argentina (1978), and his M.S. (1981) and Ph.D. (1985) in chemical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He joined the faculty of Princeton University in 1985.

The prize consists of $10,000, an allowance for travel to the meeting of the Society at which the prize is awarded and at which the recipient will deliver the Rahman Lecture, and a certificate citing the contributions made by the recipient.