by Jennifer Donovan, public relations director
Ulrich Hansmann, professor of physics and leader in computational and biophysics research, has received the 2009 Michigan Tech Research Award.
He developed seminal numerical techniques for modeling the workings of living cells and led efforts to apply computational algorithms to protein physics. He recently was named a Fellow of the American Physical Society (APS), a recognition of excellence by his peers and one of the highest honors in his field.
Hansmann is a pioneer in computational modeling of protein folding, a molecular process that, when it goes awry, can give rise to neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s. His work could help uncover the underlying processes causing proteins to misfold, potentially leading to effective therapies.
“Uli’s achievements in the protein-folding problem–one of the most significant challenges in science today–have been astonishing,” Robert H. Swendsen, professor of physics at Carnegie Mellon University, remarked.
“Uli is one of Tech’s leading computational scientists, with his outstanding work and international reputation among leaders in his field,” said David Reed, vice president for research. “He has taken the lead in trying to build computational capacity at Tech, and we look forward to continued advancement in this area through the current Strategic Faculty Hiring Initiative in computational discovery and innovation.”
Ravindra Pandey, chair of the physics department, also had high praise for Hansmann. “We are extremely proud of Professor Hansmann’s achievements in computational biophysics,” Pandey said. “He is an internationally known scientist in protein folding. He has established a well funded research group here at Michigan Tech and conducts extremely productive collaborative work with several national and international research groups.”
A leader in a computational approach to understanding the complex interactions in biological systems in a new, interdisciplinary field known as systems biology, Hansmann organized three international workshops on computational biophysics in systems biology. While continuing to teach and do research at Michigan Tech, he also helped the John von Neumann Institute for Computing in Jülich, Germany, develop a computational biology and biophysics research group.
“Not all key processes or molecules are accessible by experiments; simulations are sometimes the only technique to detect hidden processes or proteins,” Hansmann explained. “A systems biology approach that aims at deciphering the life functions in a cell requires a close interplay between experiments and computing.”
The physicist’s research goals include analysis and interpretation of biological data through modeling of molecular networks and simulation of cellular biophysics. He hopes this will enable scientists to analyze and predict complex diseases at a molecular level.
Although Hansmann is doing cutting-edge work, he is in no way proprietary about it. He already has developed a software program called Simple Molecular Mechanics for Proteins (SMMP) that is freely available as open source software on the Internet. One of his ongoing research goals is to develop public software for molecular simulation of cells.
As a teacher, Hansmann is devoted to helping students from a variety of fields, including physics, computer science, chemistry and biology, learn how to use supercomputers in their research. He also mentors community college students from underrepresented and disadvantaged populations through the Michigan Colleges and Universities Partnership (MICUP) program at Michigan Tech.
Born in Germany, Hansmann received his PhD in Physics from Freie Universität in Berlin. He has taught physics at Michigan Tech since 1998. His research is supported by the National Science Foundation.