Concordia's Thursday Report

Vol. 30, No.11

March 03, 2005


CERMM brings engineering and chemistry together

By Beverly Akerman

>Keynote speaker Emily Carter, of Princeton, and Professor Gilles Peslherbe.

Keynote speaker Emily Carter, of Princeton, and Professor Gilles Peslherbe.
Photo by Kate Hutchinson

The Fifth Annual Symposium of the Centre for Research in Molecular Modeling (CERMM), held Feb. 11 to 13, brought 70 scientists from 15 institutions to Concordia's Richard J. Renaud Science Complex.

The plenary lecture was given by Emily Carter, a professor in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and Applied Computational Mathematics at Princeton University.

Her lecture was called "Stressed-out metals: Predicting their response from the bottom up." It started in a historical context with a slide of a Liberty ship. This was a U.S. Navy vessel built at the height of the Second World War, 60 years ago.

Manufactured quickly, sometimes in only three days, the Liberty ships did not hold up well when deployed in the North Atlantic. Between the cold and the salt conditions, they quickly corroded; the ships cracked and ultimately split in half.

"That's what I study," Carter said, "the transformation of iron from ductile to brittle. It puts mechanical engineering and chemistry together.

“Engineers have been guessing at the physical laws underpinning what happened to the Liberty ships; we're helping them find out more through quantum mechanics," the basic principles at the root of all phenomena. Carter is partially funded by the U.S. military, and indicated that they have a strong interest in understanding such phenomena.

She later explained that it's "fun to have synergy between different fields, if you can figure out how to talk to one another.

“As a chemist who has been thinking about Angstroms most of my life, now I get to think about millimeters. Pretty cool! And instead of picoseconds, I get to think about seconds. Very cool!"

Her enthusiasm at being the lone quantum chemist building the knowledge base in a department of engineering was understood and applauded by everyone in the audience. After her talk, one man pointed out that though the Liberty ships had fatal flaws at the micro scale, they were so well engineered at a macro scale that, despite having split in half, they remained afloat for up to a day and a half before finally sinking.

Director Gilles H. Peslherbe describes CERMM as a multi-institutional centre with 14 senior members from six institutions, and brings together computation and its applications in chemistry.

“It supports the research of over 10 postdoctoral fellows, 35 graduate students and numerous undergraduates in atmospheric, biological, macromolecular, materials, medicinal, organic, physical and polymer chemistry,” he said.

The transformation of Concordia’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences was Dean June Chaikelson’s subject in her welcome to the scientists on Friday evening.

"The revitalization of our faculty has completely transformed Arts and Sciences," she said. "There have been 200 tenure track hires, who represent 44 per cent of our faculty. Our research dollars have doubled since the 1999-2000 academic year.

"In the 1980s, about 10 to 15 per cent of our faculty was engaged in research; now, only 10 to 15 per cent is not doing research. It is a total transformation!"

Talking about the Renaud Science Complex, Chaikelson said, "We have received four awards already for this $85-million building, mainly for technical services, and we are up for a fifth." The building is so efficient that she expects the university to recoup its cost in two and a half years instead of the 10 years projected.

Chaikelson warmly thanked international drug giant Merck-Frosst for their support of a lecture series in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry "that helps to expose students to some of the leading minds in the field."

Participants in the CERMM symposium came from McGill, Université de Montréal, UQAM, Queen's, Toronto, Trent, Windsor, Waterloo, Alberta, Brandon (Manitoba), and from the United States, Rice University and Princeton. There were 26 poster presentations, and, after the plenary, the same number of talks.