A crazy idea, but worth a try

25 April 2018

Paola Gori-Giorgi was awarded a Vici grant for simulating interactions between molecules. “I was already a professor, and I already have a highly effective group, but thanks to the Vici I can now launch a new and exciting line of research.”

“I had a crazy idea, and when we tried it out the initial results looked promising”, says Paola Gori-Giorgi, the professor of theoretical chemistry at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. “This was the idea that prompted me to write my Vici proposal.” She is delighted to have been awarded the grant, which will allow her to launch a new line of research. “I can now hire the Master’s student who did the preliminary research as a PhD student. The referees described this concept as ‘visionary’, saying they expect this research to generate new knowledge, even if my idea doesn’t work. That was great to hear.”

Prof. Gori-Giorgi’s € 1.5 million Vici grant will be used to improve computer simulations of interactions between molecules. “I’m someone who is keen to find out how things work. That’s how I ended up in fundamental research – I always want to know exactly what's going on.” That’s also what she likes about teaching. “That twinkle in a student’s eyes when, in a flash, they fully understand.”

In computational chemistry, computer simulations are used to develop new materials. “You can use these simulations to calculate how electrons position themselves around atoms, and how a given material will behave.” On that molecular scale, quantum mechanics is a major factor. “That makes the calculations complex. We are forced to use approximations. My group is working on ways to refine those approximations”, says Paola Gori-Giorgi. Such approximations tend to undermine the accuracy of our predictions. As a result, the molecules tend to behave differently in practice than we had expected. Prof. Gori-Giorgi plans to use her Vici grant to take the next step. In addition to electrons, she wants to explore Van der Waals interactions between molecules.

During the Vici interview, the panel repeatedly asked her to give details of specific applications. “I just kept on saying that I couldn’t think of any specific applications. That’s not what we do. But if we can improve the simulations, that will also improve their predictive value. This, in turn, will benefit chemistry and physics as a whole. As the predictions become more accurate, fewer experiments will end in disappointment.” She points out that this is exactly what she enjoys about her work: “I get a real buzz out of doing fundamental research that is widely applicable.”

Paola Gori-Giorgi’s work is multidisciplinary in nature. “My group includes mathematicians, chemists and physicists.” She often observes that there still is a mismatch between this approach and the way universities are structured. “There are clear dividing lines between the disciplines, which sometimes get in my way. People tend to put me in the Chemistry pigeonhole, yet what I do could just as easily be classified as Mathematics and Physics.” She is, therefore, strongly in favour of the broad NWO Domain Science, where traditional scientific disciplines merge into one another. “Even so, you still get the feeling that NWO has not dispensed entirely with the traditional categories. During the Vici discussions, I found myself being questioned by a catalytic chemist, yet there were physicists and mathematicians whose expertise was much closer to my field. The transition to multidisciplinarity takes time.” But she wouldn’t have it any other way. “With all these different people in my group, we reinforce one another. A different take on things can be very refreshing.”

Source: NWO