Carnegie Mellon University

Krista Freeman, Michael Polen and Chenjie Zeng

May 25, 2017

Michael Polen and Chenjie Zeng to Attend Distinguished Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting

By Emily Payne

In a merging of generations, cultures and scientific disciplines, the annual Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting offers leading young scientists from around the world an opportunity of a lifetime to meet ­the minds behind some of science’s greatest discoveries. Since 1951, the meeting has brought together Nobel Laureates and undergraduate students, graduate students and post-doctoral fellows to exchange scientific ideas, foster discussion and make international connections.

The meeting alternates between the natural science Nobel Prize disciplines — physiology and medicine, physics and chemistry — with an interdisciplinary meeting encompassing all three disciplines every five years.

This year’s gathering, dedicated to chemistry, marks the 67th anniversary of the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings. Carnegie Mellon University graduate students Michael Polen and Chenjie Zeng of the Mellon College of Science’s Department of Chemistry are two of 400 outstanding young scientists from 76 countries who will join 31 Nobel Laureates in Lindau, Germany, June 25-30.

A Science-Packed Agenda

With a focus on molecular machines, big data, climate change and the role of science in a “post-truth” era, the meeting promises attendees a science-packed program and the chance to socialize with their peers and Nobel Laureates in a more relaxed atmosphere.

Polen is particularly interested in discussing climate change and the difficulties facing the scientific and research community at the meeting.

“I’m fascinated to learn what each of these Laureates and students think about our current times. In the United States and around the world, we have a major global crisis, specifically in climate change, and we are facing strife in one way or another in our own countries,” Polen explained. “I want to learn the stories of these scientists as humans and see if there are ways in which we can all work together to make the world a better place, starting within our own countries.”

Polen studies atmospheric and environmental chemistry in Carnegie Mellon’s Center for Atmospheric Particle Studies with his advisor, Associate Professor of Chemistry and Mechanical Engineering Ryan Sullivan.

“I am thrilled that Mike has this exceptional opportunity to share his passion for environmental chemistry with other talented chemists from around the world. He will learn powerful lessons by hearing about the varied career paths of the Nobel Laureates, direct from the source,” said Sullivan. “I’m excited to share in Mike’s unique experience when he returns with many new insights and energy for science that will surely inspire my students and me.”

With a focus on climate change, Polen’s research looks at how the emissions from biomass burning affect cloud formation. Biomass burning, which includes wood and gas burning, releases carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and carbonaceous particles into the atmosphere.

Zeng said she looks forward to learning the stories behind the discoveries of the Nobel Laureates. A researcher in Professor of Chemistry Rongchao Jin’s lab, Zeng has made her own finds within the realm of synthetic nanoparticles. She is one of only 30 young scientists selected to present her work at a poster session during the meeting.

Her research focuses on making tiny particles that contain tens to hundreds of gold atoms and elucidating the structure of these synthetic gold nanoclusters by X-ray crystallography. Through analyzing these precise structures, Zeng is able to answer some of most fundamental questions in nanoscience, including how the atoms are packed into stable structures and how the surface molecules are arranged. These fundamental questions are important for practical applications of gold nanoparticles in catalysis, electronics and health care. In particular, Zeng established the structure of Au246, one of the largest and most complex nanoparticles to date.

“Chenjie has done stunning research in nanoscience and her achievements are simply amazing. Attending the Lindau Meeting will surely benefit her future career in scientific research,” said Jin.

Polen and Zeng both agree that they are most excited to meet not only the makers and shakers in science — Laureates whose discoveries have influenced modern science greatly — but to interact and exchange ideas with their peers, who are making significant contributions of their own in the chemistry field.

A Fellow MCS Perspective

Krista Freeman, a graduate student in the Department of Physics, can attest to Polen and Zeng’s excitement. She was one of 55 U.S. graduate students selected to attend the 65th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in 2015, which was an interdisciplinary meeting.

Freeman is working towards her Ph.D. in physics, with a focus on physical biochemistry. She studies the mechanical and kinetic properties of viruses, and specifically the role of metastability in the lifecycle of DNA viruses. Looking at these properties — like quantifying the force necessary to punch a hole in a virus capsid, or measuring the effect of DNA pressure on rates of DNA ejection — helps Freeman identify the conditions viruses need to successfully infect and replicate. The goal of her research is to identify those conditions, which can then lead to ideas on how to disrupt the viral lifecycle to prevent or treat infections.

Based on the nature of her work, Freeman was intrigued by the interdisciplinarity of the 2015 Lindau Meeting.

“I met physicists enthralled by the beauty and complexity of biology, chemists creating life-saving medical treatments and devices, biologists diving into physics and chemistry to develop quantification tools and every other permutation imaginable,” Freeman said.

Throughout the week, Nobel Laureates took the stage to give lectures, chair discussion sessions and engage in debates at panel discussions. The sessions brought forth frank reflections, in-depth analyses and lively conversations about the Laureates’ current research and historical achievements and the issues facing modern science and research.

For Freeman, the after-hour events also had a lasting impact.

“The informal moments were really memorable — from toasting to the future of science with William Moerner, a discoverer of the blackbody form of cosmic microwave background radiation, to dancing on a yacht with Brian Schmidt, one of the discoverers of the accelerating universe — the week provided once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to kick back, let loose and enjoy the company of some of the world’s brightest minds,” Freeman said.

This also included Stefan Hell, a physicist who revolutionized imaging techniques when he “broke” the diffraction limit. A scientific rebel if you will, Freeman admires Hell’s work on developing “super resolution imaging” to get around Abbe’s Law, which describes how the resolution limit for visible light is proportional to wavelength — a concept so central in introductory physics, it is engrained in a stone monument in Ernst Abbe’s hometown of Jena, Germany.

What left the biggest impression though was being able to see her path unfolding in front of her. She heard Laureates’ stories of failure and success, challenges to understanding difficult concepts and changing courses throughout careers. The sentiments shared at the meeting reassured Freeman that with hard work, curiosity and creativity, there is no limit to one’s discoveries.

“When Krista came back, she was very enthusiastic about her future," said Professor Manfred Paulini, head of the physics graduate program and a mentor of Freeman’s. "Besides having been able to rub elbows with very smart scientists, she realized that many of the Nobel Laureates did not follow a straight path but changed ways many times and often made things happen on their own as true self-starters. This really motivated Krista and gave her even more confidence in following her dream of becoming a researcher and teacher one day.”

“It was an experience like none I’ve ever had in science before," said Freeman. "I was inspired, challenged and motivated both by the Laureates and by my fellow young scientists. My curiosity was sparked in so many dimensions, and I got new ideas of directions I might like to explore in my future. My advice for the two students attending the Lindau meeting this year: have fun, learn a lot and get inspired.”