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K-State Today

June 3, 2013

Meeting of the minds: Chemistry doctoral student earns spot in summer conference with Nobel Laureates

Submitted by Greg Tammen

When it comes to inspiration, one Kansas State University graduate student will be receiving it from several of the greatest minds in the world.

Elizabeth Ploetz, a doctoral student in chemistry from Kansas City, Kan., has been chosen to participate in the 63rd Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in Lindau, Germany. The meeting, which runs June 30 to July 5, pairs promising future researchers with the world's foremost experts in chemistry. She's Kansas State University's fourth Lindau Scholar.

Throughout the weeklong meeting, Ploetz will interact and network with 36 Nobel laureates and 624 undergraduate and graduate chemistry students. The students will attend various lectures and informal discussion by the Nobel laureates, who will discuss their work, the state of science and more, in an effort to inspire the young researchers.

"It's really humbling," Ploetz said. "I know it sounds trite, but hearing that the world's leading scholars who have made substantial contributions to the world are going to take time to inspire me and the other young participants makes me do a lot of soul-searching. It's difficult to believe that I really am going to be a part of this meeting and learn from Nobel laureates."

Ploetz was invited to participate in the meeting following a multistage, international selection process against thousands of young researchers.

"Elizabeth is the most tenacious student I have ever met," said Paul E. Smith, Kansas State University professor of chemistry and Ploetz's adviser. "She expects a great deal of her self and this drive results in her being able to absorb huge amounts of information covering a wide variety of topics. I believe it is her depth of knowledge, productivity and desire that made her such an attractive applicant."

Ploetz works with Smith on computational and theoretical chemistry. They use high-performance computers to simulate real-world systems. These simulations allow them to explore the systems in extraordinary detail by providing spatiotemporal resolution that often exceeds what is available from experiments.

Ploetz observes and calculates the trajectories of atoms and molecules in these digital experiments. She uses the results to explore how molecular-level interactions produce thermodynamic properties of specific systems and vice versa. Additionally, she and her group also have spent time working to refine the intermolecular interactions in their simulations so the results better align with experiments.

"For example, a computer doesn't know what a water molecule is or how it should interact with other molecules," Ploetz said. "The computer is only going to do what we tell it based on the information we give it. That can lead to some interesting but fictional results if the computer simulations don't account for reality. If the simulation does not reflect the real world, then nobody is benefiting from the results."

Ploetz has published her research in the scientific journals Physical Chemistry Chemical Physics, Journal of Chemical Physics, Proteins, Advances in Chemical Physics and Fluid Phase Equilibrium, and has co-authored a book chapter. She is a National Science Foundation Graduate Research fellow and was a National Science Foundation GK-12 fellow from 2010-2011.

Following graduation and postdoctoral research, Ploetz would like to become a professor and conduct research with biological applications.

Since 1951, Nobel laureates in chemistry, physics and physiology/medicine have annually convened in Lindau to meet with and inspire young researchers.

Ploetz is the fourth Kansas State University student selected to participate in the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings. Previous participants are Mark Smith, physics, in 2006; Jayne Christen, biochemistry, in 2009; and Nora Johnson, physics, in 2012.