UMaine professor receives award

Posted April 01, 2009, at 5:26 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 6:38 a.m.

ORONO, Maine — University of Maine physics professor R. Dean Astumian has received a Humboldt Research Award, one of the most prestigious scientific honors in Germany.

The prize from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation is given to distinguished foreign scholars in recognition of their lifetime academic achievements. The award is presented annually by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation to up to 100 internationally renowned scientists and scholars residing outside Germany.

In addition to the cash award of 60,000 euros, or about $77,000, Humboldt awardees are invited to conduct research in Germany. Astumian will spend the summer and next fall in the laboratories of three scientists who nominated him: professors Hermann Gaub, Dieter Braun and Dr. Kay Gottschalk, all of the Ludwig Maximillian University in Munich, Germany.

“The Humboldt Research Award is unique in that it is recognition not only of past achievement, but explicitly is also in anticipation of continued contributions,” Astumian said. “The invitation to spend several months at LMU in one of the very best laboratories for single molecule biophysics is extremely exciting. I am really looking forward to working hand-in-hand with experimentalists testing some of the theories on the function of biomolecular machines that I have proposed.”

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Astumian focuses much of his research on Brownian motors — molecule-size machines that constructively use diffusion as a mechanism for controlled motion at the nanoscale.

Astumian points out that for macromolecules such as proteins in water, friction against the water is enormous, and thermal noise due to collisions with water molecules is very strong.

“Moving in a straight line must be like swimming in molasses during a hurricane,” said Astumian. “Yet cells thrive — they ferry materials, pump ions and build proteins to make order out of seeming chaos.”

Astumian has proposed that a basic mechanism by which they do this, known as the Brownian motor principle, is to selectively prevent motion due to thermal noise that is not desired, leaving behind the motion that is desired.

In addition to the recent Humboldt Award, Astumian is internationally recognized for his theoretical work on fundamental aspects of nanotechnology. He was invited to co-organize a Nobel symposium in Sweden, “Controlling Motion at the Nanoscale,” in 2005. In 2007 he was asked to speak at the Solvay conference “From Noncovalent Assemblies to Molecular Machines,” and he was a finalist for the Feynman prize for theoretical molecular nanotechnology in 2008. He also is a fellow of the American Physical Society, and was the chairman of the society’s Division of Biological Physics from 2007 to ’08.

The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation was established in Berlin 18 months after the death of Humboldt in 1860. Although its operation briefly was interrupted during turbulent times in Germany’s history, today the foundation annually allows more than 1,800 researchers worldwide to spend time researching in Germany and maintains a network of some 23,000 Humboldt recipients from all disciplines in 130 countries.

One of the most recent media mentions of a Humboldt Research Award winner was President Obama’s appointment of U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu. In 1994, Chu received the Humboldt Research Award and three years later was granted the Nobel Prize in Physics.

Forty Nobel Prize winners are numbered among past recipients of the Humboldt Research Award.

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