By Leanne Moore Rodriguez
Stanford’s Department of Chemistry looks forward to welcoming new junior faculty member Grant Rotskoff who will join the department this summer after finishing his postdoctoral studies at New York University (NYU). The theoretical chemist is enthusiastic about the quality of his Stanford colleagues. He expressed, “I feel extremely lucky to have future colleagues that are so talented. They have been excellent to me in the whole recruitment process.”
An Appetite for Learning
Rotskoff enjoyed a well-rounded upbringing in Springfield, Illinois. He remembers having a voracious appetite to learn a wide range of subjects and activities as a child. “I was interested in everything from classical Latin to calculus to chemistry to biology – just anything that I could get my hands on…and I played every sport, though I was bad at all of them,” he recalled with a laugh.
He became particularly interested in science early on after reading “A Brief History of Time” by Stephen Hawking many times throughout his childhood. After his freshman year of high school, Rotskoff started boarding school at Illinois Math and Science Academy to hone in on his growing interest in math and science. He described the boarding school as being the “real foundational scientific experience” for him.
The academy had four long days of classes per week with one “independent day” when students could use the time as they wished. While many of his friends played video games or relaxed, Rotskoff got up at 5:30am every Wednesday to bus to the University of Chicago where he worked on his first research projects. Rotskoff explained, “That really gave me a good sense of what curiosity-driven science looks like, and that’s a lesson that I’ve taken with me to this day. I still like to structure projects around problems rather than techniques.”
Mathematician and Chemist
Throughout high school, Rotskoff continued to enjoy many different academic endeavors. He remembered, “I thought I was going to do it all – I thought I was going to be a polymath, I was going to write novels and also be a world-class mathematician, and a great inventor in science. In the end, I realized that I was going to have to major in something.” He ended up choosing Mathematics at the University of Chicago.
Throughout his undergraduate studies, Rotskoff maintained his interest in chemistry as he researched the molecular dynamics of proteins under Sean Crosson and Benoit Roux. Today, he loves that chemistry is an expansive and purely academic topic that offers a lot of intellectual diversity. “I like that it’s such a broad subject where one can work on so many different types of problems but still have this common language of chemistry with people that are working on problems that are so different from what I work on. We still have the ability to communicate and help each other and work on problems from very different angles that would be impossible for either of us to solve individually,” Rotskoff noted.
After his senior year at the University of Chicago, Rotskoff began his PhD in chemistry at UC Berkeley under Phillip Geissler where he worked on projects related to rare events in nonequilibrium systems. In 2017, he entered the Courant Institute at NYU for his postdoctoral research as a James S. McDonnell Fellow with Eric Vanden-Eijnden as his mentor.
A Bright Future at Stanford
Rotskoff looks forward to future collaborations at Stanford in chemistry as well as outside the department. “It’s a place where each individual research group is so strong,” he mentioned. He also feels a great sense of understanding and appreciation for his theoretical chemistry research amongst his new colleagues. He stated, “At Stanford I get a sense that people really appreciate that theoretical chemistry is about understanding rather than modeling. It’s really about developing theories to explain things.”
He plans to focus his group on machine learning and methods for nonequilibrium simulation, optimization, and control. Rotskoff explained, “My postdoc has largely been about trying to quantify errors and develop techniques that allow us to do things like enhance sampling using machine learning approaches, so that will be a big focus of my group,” and further, “The vision is to use modern techniques in applied mathematics – so not only machine learning, but tools from high-dimensional statistics…to push the envelope of what we can do in terms of controlling and designing nonequilibrium systems with a focus on applications in biophysics.”
Tom Markland, an Associate Professor of Chemistry, looks forward to welcoming Rotskoff and said, "Grant harnesses non-equilibrium statistical mechanics and machine learning to address fundamental biophysical problems at the mesoscale, such as virus self-assembly, and convert these complex physical systems into sophisticated mathematical models to gain insight into the laws governing their behavior. Grant adds a significant new dimension to our theoretical chemistry group and we are thrilled to have him joining us in the summer."