Chemla named Willett Scholar

Siv Schwink

Associate professor Yann Chemla is among the 10 newly named 2015 Donald Biggar Willett Scholars, selected by the College of Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. This recognition is for outstanding young faculty members who, relatively early in their careers, are making substantial contributions to their respective fields.

Chemla is an experimental physicist working at the juncture of physics, biology and chemistry. His research focuses on single-molecule biomechanical processes and specifically the mechano-chemical conversion in processes ranging from how proteins interact with DNA—bending, wrapping, or translocating along the molecule—to how cells swim and process information from the environment. His lab group employs state-of-the-art biophysical techniques such as optical tweezers and fluorescence, designing and constructing cutting-edge instrumentation and developing biological systems for single-molecule manipulation. Data collected through these techniques is then subject to quantitative analysis and modeling. His most recent research explores the molecular "nanomachines" involved in genome maintenance.  

Chemla received his doctoral degree in physics from the University of California, Berkeley, in 2001. As an experimentalist in applied superconductivity, he developed an interest in biology through his study of magnetotactic bacteria with a superconducting magnetometer and the development of a biosensor based on functionalized magnetic nanoparticles. He worked as a postdoctoral fellow at UCB, prior to joining the faculty at Physics Illinois in 2007. He was selected for a CAREER Award at the Scientific Interface from the Burroughs-Wellcome Fund in 2005, was selected for a Sloan Foundation Fellowship in 2010, and was named a Beckman Fellow at the U. of I.’s Center for Advanced Study in 2012/13.

Chemla joins current Donald Biggar Willett Scholars in physics, Professors Brian DeMarco and Matthias Grosse-Perdekamp.

The Willett Research Initiatives Fund in Engineering supports term professorships, undergraduate- and graduate-student research, and related research activity. It honors the memory of Donald Biggar Willett (1897-1981), who attended the University of Illinois from 1916-1921. Willett left the University before graduation, just a few credits short of completing his coursework in civil engineering. He started his career as a partner in the family business, Suburban Coal and Supply Company, and later worked as a self-employed bookkeeper and tax preparer. In 1994, his widow, Elizabeth Marie Willett, willed her entire estate to the College of Engineering, which established the Willett Research Initiatives Fund.