Fit more than just force fields
Liz Decolvenaere ’17 is a Principal Scientist in the Force Fields team at DE Shaw Research, where she studies how new techniques in quantum chemistry and machine learning can be used to improve the accuracy of molecular dynamics simulations of small organic molecules relevant to drug discovery.
She got her doctorate. in Chemical Engineering from UC Santa Barbara in 2017. During her graduate studies, she also completed an extended internship at Sandia National Labs. Prior to her graduate studies, she earned a BS in Chemical Engineering from the California Institute of Technology.
In this graduate Q&A, Liz shares what drew her to UC Santa Barbara, how she became a lean, mean quantum chemical machine, and her journey to sewing intricate costumes for the next Dragon Con.
How would you describe your role as Principal Scientist for DE Shaw Research?
Frankly, it depends on the day! Some days I feel like I’m back in college, knee-deep in articles and documentation, trying to understand the nuances of a new quantum chemical technique, or learning new software. scientist. Other days, I feel like a software engineer — hacking into a new script, library, or workflow to test a hypothesis or take an idea and put it into production. And then there are days when I feel like a professor, when I bring my expertise in the field to decide the next steps of a major project, or to help a junior colleague understand a new concept or tool with which he must work. It’s the best of all the things I love to do: scientific exploration, programming, and one-on-one mentorship opportunities.
I understand that you both supervise and manage junior researchers at DESRES. Why is mentorship so important and are there any particular mentors who have helped you along the way?
Generous and effective mentors are a big part of why I’ve been successful in my career. My mentors have helped me learn how to be an effective researcher, how to communicate my science, and pushed me toward opportunities both inside and outside of academia that have been critical to my development. The most important mentor/mentee relationship for a graduate student is between the PI/advisor and the student. My advisors, Professors Anton Van der Ven and Michael Gordon, both helped me grow from an energetic but giddy undergraduate to a lean, nasty quantum chemical machine throughout my time at UCSB. Professor Ram Seshadri, although not officially my PI, was also a great mentor in helping me introduce myself to people and opportunities beyond UCSB. Dr. Ann Mattsson was my advisor while working as an intern at Sandia National Labs and taught me many valuable lessons about interpersonal communication in science, life in National Labs, and opportunities outside of the United States. to pursue a scientific career.
You did your undergraduate degree at Caltech. What made you choose UCSB for your graduate studies?
During my senior year at Caltech, I worked on a design project using microplasma jets to grow silver nanoparticles. It was supposed to be a quick quarter hour project, but I found the material fascinating and took a graduate level plasma physics course with Professor Giapis to learn more. During my visit to UCSB, I met Professor Gordon, who was also working on microplasmas for materials synthesis – and a former graduate student of Professor Giapis! The opportunity to learn more about microplasms and their applications was the deciding factor in choosing UCSB over my other graduate offerings. …of course, I turned out to be real trash in experiments, and after breaking or damaging several pieces of equipment, I moved on to a computer lens. Last I heard, Gordon’s lab still has a “box of shame” full of some of my most spectacular failures on a shelf somewhere.
Can you tell us what was the motivation to create the Decolvenaere research accelerator and how it has impacted current graduate students? Did you receive a scholarship while you were a graduate student that you benefited from?
I was fortunate enough to end up working under a pre-existing grant (IRG3 – Robust Biphasic Materials) well funded by my PhD. However, during the last year of my PhD, in collaboration with Dr. Ann Mattsson from Sandia National Labs, I was going to attend a prestigious DFT conference in Sweden! But at the last minute bureaucratic formalities at Sandia prevented me from being reimbursed for any trip I had booked and I was told I had to cancel. I applied for—and received—a University Senate travel grant that allowed me to attend the conference, where my mentor was able to introduce me to many important researchers in the field of DFT. After graduating from UCSB, I wanted to give back in a way that could help graduate students grow their careers in ways that otherwise wouldn’t be possible. STEM travel opportunities were already well-funded, so funding a research grant seemed like the best way to capture the same spirit of providing a much-needed opportunity for a graduate student.
I understand that in your spare time, you’re a pretty amazing seamstress! How did you come to sewing and what creations are you most proud of?
Oh my God! I bought a sewing machine in 2010 to make a pokemon-themed costume for Anime Expo, and stuff… well, I like to think I’ve improved a lot since then. All my current cosplays are from fantasy series – Game of Thrones, Wheel of Time and some upcoming work in Stormlight Archive. But the creations I’m most proud of are the two costumes I made for my parents to wear to New York Comic Con – I dressed them up as Olenna Tyrell and Tywin Lannister, and they were a huge hit! I found photos that other people took of them together on tumblr after the bullshit, and seeing strangers on the internet complimenting my parents’ cosplay was a really awesome feeling.