Remembering Robert Dirks

Robert Dirks tragically lost his life in the Metro-North train crash in New York on February 3, 2015. As a graduate student at Caltech, Robert made indelible contributions to the field of molecular programming, providing the first experimental demonstration of conditional nucleic acid self-assembly, and drawing on deep mathematical principles to develop computational algorithms that enable researchers around the world to analyze and design nucleic acid molecules, devices, and systems. As a research scientist at D. E. Shaw Research, Robert was working to develop long-time molecular dynamics algorithms to address the grand challenge of simulating protein folding. Brilliant, creative, generous, humble, and kind, Robert was a model scientist and collaborator.

The Robert Dirks Molecular Programming Prize

Following Robert’s death, there was an outpouring of support from researchers around the world. Community members within the International Society for Nanoscale Science, Computation and Engineering reached out with the idea of creating a prize in Robert’s honor to recognize early-career achievement in the field of molecular programming. At the annual Foundations of Nanoscience conference, a planning council of a dozen leaders gathered to formalize the terms of The Robert Dirks Molecular Programming Prize. The Dirks Prize will recognize exceptional early-career achievement by a researcher working in any area of molecular programming, whether theory, experiment, computation, or a combination thereof. The winner will receive a cash prize and be invited by ISNSCE to present a Prize Lecture at FNANO. Going forward, the Dirks Prize Lecture will provide an opportunity each year to honor Robert’s memory while celebrating the achievement and promise of an inspiring member of the next generation of researchers.

Molecular Programming

The emerging discipline of molecular programming is jointly inspired by the remarkable programmable molecular circuits and devices that orchestrate life and by the transformative impact of computer science on technology and society. Molecular programming researchers seek to develop the principles and practice for a new engineering discipline that will enable the function of molecules to be programmed with the ease and rigor that computers are programmed today, while achieving the sophistication, complexity, and robustness evident in the programmable DNA, RNA, and protein machinery of biology.

Endowing the Dirks Prize

We seek to establish a $100,000 endowment to provide enduring support for the Dirks Prize. A gift from one donor has already provided half this amount. We seek to raise the remaining $50,000 through donations from colleagues, laboratories, friends, and family that wish to contribute to Robert’s legacy. The Fund will be managed by the California Institute of Technology.