Saturday, February 3, 2018

Seth Olsen (1975-2018): theoretical chemist

I was very sad to learn last week of the tragic death of Seth Olsen in an accident. He was a former collaborator and colleague at UQ.

Seth was an outstanding and energetic scientist who easily crossed discipline boundaries, especially between chemistry, physics, and molecular biology.

Much of what I know about computational quantum chemistry, fluorescent proteins, conical intersections, and diabatic states, I learnt from Seth. He played a significant role in this blog. A search revealed that his name is mentioned in more than 70 posts. Many posts were stimulated by his work, his questions, or his suggestions. He often wrote comments, covering a wide range of topics. I found his interest helpful and stimulating.

Seth grew up in the USA. He was a physics major at the College of William and Mary. In 2004 he completed a Ph.D in in Biophysics and Computational Biology at The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His thesis was entitled, ` Electronic Excited States of Green Fluorescent Protein Chromophore Models,'' and his advisor was Todd Martínez, now at Stanford.

I first met Seth in 2005 when he was a postdoc with Sean Smith at the Centre for Computational Molecular Science at University of Queensland. During that time he met Louise Kettle, a Ph.D student in chemistry, who he later married.

I was very happy when in 2008 I was able to persuade Seth to join my group as a Research Fellow. He helped my group expand from condensed matter into chemical physics.  In 2010 I was pleased when Seth was awarded a 5-year Australian Research Fellowship. We continued to collaborate, although in many ways I was the junior author.

A significant contribution of Seth was to use high-level quantum chemistry calculations to show that the low-lying excited electronic states of the chromophore molecule in the green fluorescent protein has a natural description in terms of the resonant colour theory of organic dyes developed in the middle of the twentieth century by Brooker, Platt, and Moffitt. In different words, he used quantum chemistry to justify and parametrise a simple effective Hamiltonian for a complex system. Furthermore, he provided a rigorous quantum chemical justification for the colour theory description of a very wide class of organic dyes based on the methine motif. These results provide chemical and physical insight, an understanding of trends, elucidate design principles, and make modeling in condensed environments such as proteins, solvents, and glasses much more feasible.

I had great respect for Seth's integrity, both personal and scientific. He carefully checked calculations and arguments, would not rush to publish, and would not indulge in hype. Much of my skepticism and caution about computational materials science I gained from Seth's critiques.

Seth had his priorities right, putting family first.
My kids thought Seth was pretty cool, particularly when he came to a group social at our house with a backpack that contained a home brew beer set up!

My sincere condolences to Louise and their three young children.

Don't know what else to say. This is the saddest blog post I have had to write.


  1. Thank you Ross for your kind words. Louise

  2. I only met Seth briefly at a workshop quite a few years ago. My condolences to his family.

    Ross, thanks for the remembrance of someone who was evidently an incisive and successful scientist and at the same time "had his priorities right". A good example for us all.

  3. My sincerest condolences for your and all of our uq students' loss
    Hope you and your kids fine and well

  4. So sorry to hear this. All the best for his family to go over this saddest loss. Physics student.

  5. Thank you for the post Prof. Ross, and certainly some fitting words! I was priviliged to have Seth as a supervisor and lecturer and I certainly learnt a great deal from the experiences. I'm glad I knew Seth both as an academic, and a little bit as a person. (Josh Harbort)

  6. I am so sorry to hear Seth is not with us anymore. He was a wonderful person. (Yoni N.)

  7. I learned only today this very sad new. Seth visited us some years back and we stayed in contact since then. I loved the way Seth was doing science, his very personal style in writing papers. I appreciated him as a strong and positive person, always happy to help people. We are missing a strong scientist and a friend. Anna Painelli (Parma University)