Raoul Kopelman

Raoul Kopelman, the Richard Smalley Distinguished University Professor of Chemistry, Physics, Applied Physics, Biophysics, Biomedical Engineering and Chemical Biology, passed away on July 20, 2023 at the age of 89. For 57 years, he shared with the Department of Chemistry his creative scientific mind, his genial collegiality, and his dedication as a mentor to students and colleagues.

He was a foremost expert in vibrational spectroscopy, photonics, bioanalytical chemistry, chemical physics, catalysis, nano-materials, and nano-devices. Kopelman defined the term “nanophotonics,” considered initially "a contradiction in terms for violating the optical diffraction limit.” His work provided the foundation for the development of super-resolution microscopy and single molecule spectroscopy.

A hallmark of his scientific career was his ability to bring together researchers from across different fields to address important questions. In recent years, he worked with chemists, biomedical engineers, radiologists, and oncologists to apply nanophotonics to better cancer diagnostics and treatment. [See: Chemical imaging could help predict efficacy of radiation therapy for an individual cancer patient

An active faculty member for his entire career at Michigan, Professor Kopelman was even awarded an NIH grant in 2020, when he remarked that it was “unusual for someone my age.”

He mentored over 70 PhD students of chemistry, physics, biophysics and applied physics. Three undergraduate students and one grad student received the Nobel Prize: Roald Hoffmann, Richard Smalley, Arieh Warshel and Eric Betzig.

Of his mentoring, former students say he tried to give students motivation rather than tasks, which let the students become "more creative, confident, responsible, and independent in their projects.” Another says, “Raoul Kopelman gave me all the tools and secrets, both scientific and personal, on how to conduct research properly, and he prepared me the best possible way for a successful academic career.”

His ability to pursue new avenues of research was another remarkable feature of his career, says colleague Nils Walter. When Kopelman joined the University of Michigan in 1966, he expected to continue experimental research in laser spectroscopy, but his lab space was not suitable for setting up a laser table, so he pivoted to theoretical chemistry, explains Walter. In that era, Kopelman developed the “Hoshen-Kopelman” algorithm that made a great impact on scientific computing. This method is still used in modern supercomputers, with applications as diverse as astrophysics and medical imaging. Kopelman was also one of the first to use supercomputers for non-classified, basic science problems.

Later, he returned to experimental research, changing direction again, this time pursuing analytical chemistry and developing nanoparticles that can be applied to a range of problems. Most recently, he collaborated with colleagues across the University to apply his fundamental work in nanochemistry to treating heart disease and cancer.

Raoul Kopelman received his BS in Chemical Engineering at the Technion, Israel Institute of Technology (1955), as well as an Engineering Diploma (1956) and an MS in Physical Chemistry (1957). He was the first Israeli to receive the US Fulbright Travel Grant (1957). He earned his Chemistry PhD at Columbia University (1960). He did his postdoctoral training at Harvard (1960-62).

He joined the Department of Chemistry in 1966 and was made a Distinguished University Professor in 2006. He was also a member of The Michigan Nanotechnology Institute for Medicine and Biological Sciences, The Michigan Biointerfaces Institute, and The Rogel Cancer Center.

He is survived by his three children and two granddaughters. He was preceded in death by his wife, Chava Blodek Kopelman.