Debenedetti discovers dual nature of water molecules

By Paige Pagan
Bronx, N.Y.

Pablo Debenedetti’s personality is kind of like a pancake: Each side, when you flip it over, has its own distinguished characteristics. One side of him is highly intellectual, a scholar at the top of his field. Another side of him, however, is gentler and more relaxed, befitting a father of two who loves classical, jazz and tango music and enjoys (well, “enjoyed,” as he tells it) playing soccer.

Debenedetti grew up in Argentina and studied chemical engineering at the University of Buenos Aires. He began studying industrial engineering but ultimately decided to pursue chemical engineering instead. Most recently, he has been using a computer model to study the ability of water molecules to spontaneously split. He has received many awards and honors, and in 2008 was named one of “100 Chemical Engineers of the Modern Era,” by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers. But despite his many accomplishments, there is a humility and optimistic air about him.

He was always a curious kid, and his interests shaped his career. He has always been the type of person to question how things work and how they apply to real life. “I was a nerd,” he said, laughing. This “nerd” first took an interest in geometry class creating proofs. The act of proving why something was true captivated him. Fortunately for the profession of chemical engineering, Debenedetti discovered that his true passion lay in research and teaching.

“My father used to say: I’ll support you in whatever you do,” Debenedetti said. “But when I told him I wanted to be a professional soccer player or pianist, he said that I was good — but not that good. I was more ambitious, so I’m glad that I became a chemical engineer.”

Debenedetti, explaining his current project about water’s constant evolving nature, is at once both passionate and informative. According to him and his colleagues, water has very unique properties. At lower temperatures and high pressures, molecules move faster, something he thinks is “very peculiar.” Liquids can even cool below their freezing point — super-cooling — which he also finds strange.

In his characteristic way, Debenedetti even manages to explain his complex work in ordinary terms: He compares the splitting of water molecules to water and oil not being able to mix, separating into two complete materials afterward.

When asked about his greatest scientific achievement, he cites a 2001 paper published in the scientific journal Nature, which outlined how the numerous properties and characteristics of water can be accurately measured mathematically.

However, Debenedetti said that his overall accomplishment in life was something that surpassed the great world of science and educational achievements: “My two children.” Debenedetti establishes that it is not easy to balance one’s professional life and family life, but that it is important to try. In fact, though doing so may have been his greatest challenge yet, he found that achieving that balance was absolutely necessary. And it seems he’s done a good job in that regard, too: He was very proud to note that his son graduated from the University in 2012 and is now a political writer.

To younger generations, Debenedetti advises: “Follow your curiosity, do things that keep you awake at night and love it.” He proves to be somewhat like a split water molecule himself: knowledgeable yet humble.

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