BNL and SBU build computer team for enhanced research

BNL and SBU build computer team for enhanced research

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They ask far-reaching questions, from looking at exactly how fleeting flame is to exploring supernova to studying chemistry and materials for clean energy production to examining the interaction of clouds with aerosols. The eight researchers who conduct a broad range of experiments using computers and a large numbers of data points are part of a growing one-year old group called the Institute for Advanced Computational Science.

A combined effort of Stony Brook University and Brookhaven National Laboratory, the IACS was created to use computers and their applications to solve problems in the physical sciences, life sciences, medicine, sociology, industry and finance.

The analysis of wide-ranging data is “incredibly broad and has a high payoff,” said Robert Harrison, director of the IACS, who moved to Long Island from Tennessee last year.

Funded with a $10 million donation from an anonymous contributor combined with a matching donation from the Simons Foundation, the IACS plans to hire an additional eight researchers over the next few years. Stony Brook is in the process of building a facility in what used to be the north half of the Life Sciences Library.

Harrison described computational sciences as a “very competitive” area for recruiting, which requires state-of-the-art facilities to build the best faculty and student team. The group has already purchased a $550,000 system from IBM.

Harrison, who is also the head of BNL’s Computational Sciences Center, said IACS faculty can contribute to the National Synchrotron Light Source II.

The new facility, which will open in 2015, will produce X-rays that are 10,000 times stronger than the current light source and will allow scientists to look at the molecular structure of anything from batteries as they wear down to the development of marine shells to superconductors.

Once experiments begin at the NSLS-II, the ability to process information will become especially important. The new light source “will create a lot of data at high rates,” said Reinhold Mann, the associate laboratory director for Environmental, Biological and Computational Sciences Directorate. “We need to manage the data and archive and analyze it. That needs to happen on the fly, as the data comes in. It’s a unique challenge [that requires] applied math, networking and connectivity.”

Mann, who is Harrison’s supervisor, has known him for over 10 years. Harrison leads by example and has an engaging vision, Mann said. He has a “good combination of skills on the technical and communication and people side.”

Harrison expects the computational science group to become a part of a team that enables researchers with different expertise to collaborate. “If you want to design a new fuel cell for clean energy production, by turning methanol into energy,” Harrison offered as a possible example, then “you [will work in] chemistry, material sciences and engineering. In order to understand the device, you might need to look inside it by using X-rays from the new light source.”

When he first visited Long Island in February of 2011, Harrison was surprised at how cold, raw and beautiful the area was. He said he marvels at the world around him. People are “surrounded by this miracle” he said. “Pick up a leaf and look under it at the insects or the pores in the leaf. There is all this wondrous stuff.”

Harrison and his three sisters (including a twin sister) are the first generation in their family to attend college. Harrison said he recalls sitting with his father, a World War II veteran who served in the British Army in India and who left school at the age of 14, when he was 17.

“My father didn’t understand what stars in the night sky were,” he said. Harrison suggested that understanding the “world around us” might give people “more confidence that things are okay.”

A resident of Port Jefferson, Harrison said he writes snippets of programs every day. He marvels at the rate of advancement in computers. His $700 cell phone is 10 times faster than the $20 million supercomputer he used for his Ph.D. thesis. He believes he is like many other scientists when it comes to facing an unfamiliar situation. He sees a problem as an opportunity to build knowledge.

“You work your way out of the maze,” he said, “and at each step, you learn. Even the dead ends” can provide information.