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In focus - Shirin Faraji

Shirin Faraji’s mission to control “the dance of atoms and molecules with light”
23 February 2020

Fundamental theoretical research is the cornerstone of science. Yet, it is often underrepresented in public discourse outside of the university walls — in part, because it is not easy to explain in layman terms. Despite this challenge of communicating the complexities of cutting-edge research, Shirin Faraji, the chair of Theoretical Chemistry at the Zernike Institute for Advanced Materials, is passionate about helping more people to understand her work.

“I always say that when a molecule absorbs light, it starts dancing,” she explains, sitting in her office at the university campus. “The question is, how am I going to tell the molecule how to dance? How do I make sure that it dances the way I want it to? How do I teach it the right moves? How do I control molecular motions?”

She goes on to explain that these molecular dances are watched by other molecules and everything around them; their dancing can and does sometimes affect all nearby “spectators.”

Prof. Shirin Faraji
Prof. Shirin Faraji

Shedding light on science

Armed with research experience in coupled electron-nuclear dynamics of photo-excited systems, electronic structure methods for large molecules, and molecular dynamics, Faraji joined the University of Groningen in 2017 as an associate professor at the Faculty of Science and Engineering. The focus of her current research lies exactly in the domain of the metaphor mentioned above: she develops hybrid classical/quantum dynamical methods for studies of light-initiated processes in complex environments.

“Light plays a crucial role in our daily lives, such as human production of vitamin D, the 24-hour biological clock (circadian rhythm), and vision. Light is also exploited in modern technologies, e.g. solar cells, converting sunlight to electricity; and photomedicine, using light to activate or transport drugs, or to destroy tumor cells,” Faraji explained.

“All these processes involve the interaction of molecules with light. How do molecules behave when they are exposed to light? It’s all about the dance of atoms and molecules, happening extremely quickly in a tiny fraction of a second, that can be predicted, controlled and exploited using quantum mechanics and theory.”

In 2018, Faraji’s proposal entitled “Watching chemistry happen with light” was awarded a VIDI grant, providing financial backing for her innovative and impactful work in this direction.

Now, Faraji's research group is also creating efficient and user-friendly ways to work on computational chemistry problems. The goal of this work is to lower the entry barrier into this field of research and make it easier for students to learn the ropes.

In theory and practice

In Groningen, Faraji is an inspiring leader of a large research group, which consists of a postdoc, six PhD, and five M.Sc. students. Along with her team, Faraji has already made significant contributions in the field of theoretical and computational chemistry by employing theoretical and computational chemistry tools to obtain atomic-level mechanistic insights into light-induced processes and quantum effects in biomolecules and novel materials.

In addition to their interest in overcoming fundamental challenges in the field, the group members are also pursuing exciting applications, such as photo-switchable molecular motors relevant for molecular electronics, photo-switchable DNA used in nanotechnology, singlet fission in molecular solids to increase the efficiency of solar cells, and excited-state processes of far-red fluorescent proteins used in optogenetics. This amounts for a wide and impressive range of activity in a diverse and fertile field that is full of potential for great scientific breakthroughs.

Building the future

In addition to her fundamental scientific research activities, Faraji is also involved in developing scientific software infrastructure. She is contributing code to several software packages, most notably Q-Chem, one of the world’s leading quantum chemistry software programs. Q-Chem software enables innovative science worldwide and has become rather popular: for example, in 2019 it was cited in 446 peer-reviewed publications. Recently, in recognition of her leadership, Faraji has joined the Board of Directors of Q-Chem Inc., a company that maintains and supports a large and vibrant scientific community of developers (currently, more than 300 developers all over the world).

Owing to Faraji’s active participation in scientific events and various personal initiatives, she is already well known in the chemistry and physics communities in the Netherlands. Faraji serves on several scientific boards, including the NWO, the Dutch Research Council, the working group for Fundamentals and Methods of Chemistry, and the Lorenz Center Chemistry board at Leiden.

In 2019 Faraji was inducted into the Young Academy Groningen (YAG) and became an integral part of the Internationalization and Diversity working group. The topic of diversity is close to Faraji's heart, as she has first-hand experience of gender biases in professional life.

“The YAG is an exciting and vital initiative that has the ability to play a significant role in shaping the landscape of the university science policy by providing a unified voice and I would like to contribute to this voice on an (inter)national scale,” she said. “I believe science is a great unifying force that can bring people from different cultures and backgrounds together.”

Women in science

“Being born after the Islamic revolution in Iran and growing up during the war made me understand complex geopolitical situations and taught me how to survive within an oppressive social environment,” Faraji said. “Living on three continents over the last three decades has made me realize that globally, there is tremendous potential and talent in women. Yet, judging by the number of tenured female professors versus the number of PhD graduates, only a fraction of this talent remains in academia. As I advanced through my career, I naturally assumed a mentoring role for female doctoral and postdoctoral researchers. I have a strong vested interest in the long-term success of women in science that goes beyond the constraints of national boundaries.”

Addressing the diversity problem in fundamental science is a long-term challenge, but Faraji is happy to take it on, one step at a time. With her level of commitment and the things she’s already achieved in her career – both in “doing the science” and “doing for science” – she is certainly one to make an impact. A researcher passionate about science well beyond “molecules dancing in the light”, she takes great pride in building up the community around it — helping it to be diverse, well-informed and engaged.

Contact Prof. Shirin Faraji

Last modified:23 February 2020 2.27 p.m.

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