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Where Schrödinger Dared Tread

Where Schrödinger Dared Tread
When Devin Matthews first walked into professor John Stanton’s office, Stanton appraised him as a pretty typical first-year student. Matthews had a scruffy beard, a self-effacing manner, and a high school transcript that placed him somewhere in the middle of the pack of his Tulsa, Oklahoma high school class.

Matthews had wanted to meet with Stanton because he was interested in taking his upper-division course in quantum mechanics and spectroscopy. The two talked for a while, and Stanton agreed to let him enroll. Then, says Stanton, he expected Matthews to go on his way. Instead, Matthews kept sitting in Stanton’s office, finally hinting that he had more than a typical interest in the field of quantum chemistry. Stanton began to quiz him on what he knew, and was, pretty quickly, blown away.

“There are moments in life when you realize that nothing will ever be the same again,” says Stanton, the George W. Watt Centennial Professor of chemistry and biochemistry. “This was one of them.”

Matthews already knew more about quantum chemistry than many first-year graduate students. He’d already written quantum chemistry software that was considerably more complex than what Stanton himself had written as a college senior. And he’d done it all on his own, without any quantum chemists to mentor him, because at the age of 15 he’d become captivated by the Schrödinger equation, which is one of the foundational equations of quantum mechanics.

“It’s such a beautiful equation,” says Matthews, who’s graduating this May with a Dean’s Scholars degree in chemistry. “It has this great symmetry and simplicity. Once you start working with it, it gets really complicated, of course, but even then, when you focus in on each part of it, it makes sense in terms of what it’s describing in real life.”

Upon realizing how advanced Matthews already was, Stanton invited him to join his lab. They’ve spent the last four years working together on some of the more challenging problems in theoretical chemistry. Of particular interest, to Stanton and Matthews, has been finding more precise methods for estimating the nature of small molecules.

“When you’re dealing with quantum systems” says Matthews, “you can’t just go out and take a direct measurement. It’s far too complex. Even when you’re looking at very small molecules, arriving at good estimates is so computationally intensive that it can take days, or weeks, or even months to run the calculations. So what we do is we look at spectra—infrared spectra, for example, or electronic spectra— of the molecules, and from that we can estimate the structure of the molecule and how it vibrates. We can learn more about the excited states of the molecule, we can calculate reaction rates,  we can calculate electrostatic potentials.”

By the end of Matthews’ freshman year he’d given a talk at the international meeting of the Molecular Spectroscopy Symposium, and had begun work on a paper, “Calculated stretching overtone levels and Darling–Dennison resonances in water: a triumph of simple theoretical approaches,” which would subsequently be published in Molecular Physics. By the time he graduates, Matthews will have published four papers in peer-reviewed journals.

Matthews’ next step will be to stay in place, for a little while. This summer, he’ll officially enroll at The University of Texas at Austin as a graduate student. He contemplated going elsewhere for his Ph.D., but decided to stay in Austin for a few reasons. He likes the work he’s doing in Stanton’s lab, he’ll have a head start on his thesis, and with Stanton’s support he’ll be able to finish more quickly than he might at another school.

“He started doing graduate level work when he was 14 or 15 years old,” says Stanton. “It doesn’t make sense for him to spend six years in a graduate program somewhere else. I want to get him on to the next step.”

Before leaving, however, Matthews hopes to make use of the relationships he’s forged to branch out into other areas, and perhaps even to get his hands dirty with some experimental work.

“I’m looking into quantum field theory,” he says. “The math I’d have to do for that makes the math I’m doing now look simple. I’d also like to do some experimental work as well, just to try it out, probably some kind of spectroscopy. I like to try new things.”

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Friday, 27 January 2023

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