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Ken Merz

Ken Merz ‘81 was recognized for his pioneering work in tackling complex biochemical problems with quantum mechanics.

As an undergraduate, Merz showed great promise for a successful career in chemistry.

In a world of growing technological advances, computers have infiltrated numerous aspects of our lives, reaching us all the way down to our tiniest pieces—our atoms. No one knows this better than Kennie Merz ‘81, who was awarded the annual American Chemical Society Award for Computers in Chemical and Pharmaceutical Research in March.

As professor of chemistry and co-director of the Quantum Theory Project at University of Florida, Merz’s efforts have led to breakthrough concepts in computational chemistry research. Much of his work deals with exploring the use of quantum mechanics to understand biomolecular processes such as protein folding.

While many scientists in his field employ classical molecular mechanical methods to run calculations, Merz was one of the first to tackle complex chemical problems in biology with quantum mechanical methods. He developed a new theoretical technique called “coupled” quantum/classical simulation methods. This approach uses computers to run calculations with more sophisticated quantum mechanical techniques, which can then be applied to large biomolecules like DNA.

His research group at the University of Florida has made a series of critical advances applying quantum mechanics to important issues in computational biology. Merz has used quantum mechanics, for instance, to examine how proteins interface with the solvent that surrounds them and to model protein-drug interactions. More recently, he has developed quantum mechanical methods to refine structures obtained by X-ray crystallography and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy. He also introduced a quantum mechanical algorithm for computing the NMR chemical shifts of entire proteins.

Merz says that coming to such a point in his career began with his time at Washington College. With intense undergraduate training, he was fully prepared for a graduate school at the University of Texas Austin, where he received his Ph.D. in organic chemistry, working with Professor Michael Dewar. Merz went on to do postdoctoral work at Cornell University with Nobel Laureate Roald Hoffmann.

Professor Frank Creegan remembers him as having an insatiable appetite for learning. “In the very best sense, Kennie was intense about his work, always asking questions and wanting to know more, and how the topic at hand could be used in new and novel situations,” Creegan recently remarked. “He certainly was one of our best.”