Robin M. Hochstrasser (1931 - 2013), a pioneer and one of the world’s foremost scientists in the application of lasers in chemical and biomedical research, died February 27, 2013. He was a professor and distinguished researcher in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia for the past 50 years.
In 1963 Hochstrasser brought modern research to the university on how light interacts with molecules, a field known as molecular spectroscopy. His early work was concerned with the discovery of the spectroscopic properties of molecules in crystals subjected to high magnetic and electric fields and at low temperatures. In the late 1960s he, along with just a few other chemists worldwide, began to adapt various types of lasers for answering questions in chemistry and biology. This was the beginning of the “lasers in science” revolution that continues to this day. Quantitative studies of the ultrafast changes in molecular structure, particularly those of proteins, began with Hochstrasser’s research in the 1970s, which opened up the now flourishing field of time-resolved spectroscopy. Hochstrasser showed that laser studies of large molecules, such as proteins, can be carried out with the same rigor and depth as studies on small molecules. With the invention of femtosecond laser pulses (flashes of light of less than a trillionth of a second in duration), he exploited this new technology to develop highly sophisticated, so-called non-linear optical spectroscopic methods using multiple laser beams. His pioneering studies with femtosecond infrared pulses in the 1980s led to his development in the 1990s of a new kind of powerful spectroscopy, called two-dimensional infrared spectroscopy. This technique has made it possible for him and researchers in dozens of laboratories elsewhere to make molecular movies of the three-dimensional structure of proteins in action with unprecedented time resolution, and has defined a new role for ultrafast spectroscopic methods in chemistry, materials science, and biomedicine. In the past few years he used his invention to study of human diseases, such as AIDS, Alzheimer’s disease, and influenza by directly observing drugs interacting with their target proteins. His knowledge and expertise have had a wide-ranging impact at the university in physics, chemistry, biology, and medicine. Because of the depth and breadth of his research, Hochstrasser was widely regarded as a world leader in molecular spectroscopy, who left his mark on science, not only by his own original research, but also by inspiring and creating many scientific opportunities for others. If one were to succinctly summarize his contributions to science, one would say that Hochstrasser, more than anyone else, developed and brought to bear modern laser methods to the study of the motions of molecules in solution.
Hochstrasser was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1931. He received his B.Sc. from Heriot-Watt University (1952) and his Ph.D. from the University of Edinburgh (1955). His thesis research was concerned with surface photochemistry, which aroused his interest in fundamental aspects of how light interacted with molecules. There was a small detour in his career for two years, when he was conscripted into the British Royal Air Force, where as a pilot officer he taught electronics to navigators so they could use and rapidly service new high altitude radar bombsights. In 1957 he joined the faculty at the University of British Columbia, and in 1963 moved to the University of Pennsylvania where he taught chemistry and carried out research for the next 50 years. At Penn he trained 75 Ph.D. students and more than 90 postdoctoral fellows. He published more than 500 original scientific papers and two books, Behaviour of Electrons in Atoms and Molecular Aspects of Symmetry.
Hochstrasser was the Donner Professor of Physical Sciences at Penn. Since 1979, he was the Director of the University’s Regional Laser and Biotechnology Laboratories, which has been a major national resource sponsored by the National Institutes of Health for the development and application of advanced laser technologies to problems in biomedicine. From 1975-2012 he was editor of the journal, Chemical Physics. His other professional positions included Chair of the John Scott Advisory Panel for the City of Philadelphia (1985-present); Honorary Professor of Physics, Strathclyde University (2000-present); Chair of the American Chemical Society Division of Biophysical Chemistry (1998); Chair of the American Physical Society Division of Chemical Physics (1998); Professor Associé, University of Paris (1987); Christianson Fellow, St. Catherine’s College, Oxford University (1982); Visiting Professor, University of Munich (1980); Visiting Professor, California Institute of Technology (1975); Citée de Grenoble Professor, University of Grenoble (1989); Visiting Professor, Australian National University, Canberra (1973); Visiting Professor, and Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge University, England (1972).
Hochstrasser was a member of the National Academy of Sciences since 1982. His scientific contributions have been recognized by many other honors and awards, including the Linus Pauling Award (2012), the Pittsburgh Spectroscopy Award (2010), Honorary Fellow, Royal Society of Edinburgh (2008), A. H. Zewail Award in Ultrafast Science and Technology (2007); F. Albert Cotton Medal, Texas A&M (2005); Benjamin Franklin Medal in Chemistry (2003); Centenary Silver Medal of the Royal Society of Chemistry (2000); E. Bright Wilson Award in Spectroscopy (1998); Ellis Lippincott Award of the Optical Society of America (1997); LICOR Award, University of Nebraska (1996); Peter Debye Award in Physical Chemistry (1996); National Institute of Health Merit Award (1990-2000); A.C.S. Philadelphia Section Award (1990); Optical Society of America, Fellow (1989); SPIE Special President's Award (1986); Heriot-Watt University, Scotland, D. Sc., (Honoris Causa) (1984); Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1982); Bourke Medal, Faraday Society (1981); Alexander von Humboldt Senior Fellow (1978); American Physical Society, Fellow (1978); Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellow (1962-1967); John Simon Guggenheim Fellow (1972); Courtauld Scholar (1952-1955). Hochstrasser was to receive the Honorary degree of Doctor of Science from the University of Edinburgh on the occasion of the 300th anniversary of its School of Chemistry in June 2013.