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Date: August 12, 1999
Program to Train "New Breed" of Scientists
Grant Supports Graduate Research and Education at Boundary of Computer and Application Sciences
PRINCETON, N.J. -- Princeton has started a graduate program that fosters new levels of innovation and collaboration at the boundary of computer science and other disciplines from biology and astrophysics to engineering and economics, as well as at the boundaries of traditionally separate areas within computer and information sciences.
The initiative aims to promote novel research contributions to computer science as well as to other disciplines via cross-fertilization. It is intended to train a "new breed" of scientists -- researchers who form bridges between computer science itself and the many disciplines that increasingly use powerful computers as tools for basic research or applied information processing. It is expected to result in the discovery of novel and common solutions to seemingly disparate problems. A better understanding of these problems will, in turn, drive the design of more powerful and flexible computer hardware and software as well as new computational methods.
"In science, fundamental changes are occurring in the way research is conducted," says professor of computer science Jaswinder Pal (J.P.) Singh, who directs the project. The two traditional modes of science -- theory and experimentation -- have in recent years been joined by a third approach called computational science. In this emerging field, scientists use computer simulations, rather than conventional experiments, to tackle complex problems. Singh, for example, collaborates with molecular biologists to help determine the structure of proteins and to develop a computer model of the immune system. High-performance computing also plays a major role in other areas, such as engineering, finance and operations. However, as the technology and problems become more complex, scientists have a greater need to understand the relevant aspects of computer science.
"There are vast numbers of problems that can be addressed by computational techniques and that you couldn't even think about solving ten years ago," says University provost Jeremiah Ostriker, principal investigator of the grant that supports the project. "This program provides a coherent structure for our graduate science education that really allows for interdisciplinary work."
For computer science itself, it is increasingly important to drive the design of systems and algorithms (problem-solving methods) with real applications from various disciplines rather than with artificial problems. For example, system designs are often evaluated and guided by using simple simplified or toy programs rather than real applications, because the latter are not well understood by computer scientists. In addition to scientific, engineering and commercial computing, another important set of applications is found in the exploding number of information processing and Internet services, many of which require scalable computer systems and novel computational and data management methods. Advances in these areas also will require a high level of collaboration between users and designers and will benefit greatly from bridge researchers, says Singh. "Increasingly, computer science needs to be an outward-looking science."
Thus, the collaborative research that arises through the program is expected to generate benefits in three directions. First, researchers in the various disciplines will be better equipped to take advantage of new developments in high-performance computing, such as the use of parallel computers and novel algorithms. Second, computer scientists will not only be able to assist in developing new methods for these disciplines but also gain a greater understanding of applications which will help them design better systems and algorithms. And third, as both these things happen, says Singh, a new brand of truly interdisciplinary researchers will cement the bridges between disciplines that are increasingly critical for both sides, and entirely new research areas will crop up at the boundaries between existing ones.
A unique aspect of the new program, compared to traditional computational programs, is that it will provide integrated research and training in the entire computation pipeline rather than focusing on a small subset of it. The stages of this pipeline include: developing the mathematical model that describes the problem; creating a method, or algorithm, for solving the model; putting that method to use on parallel hardware, and possibly designing new hardware and software systems; and creating innovative ways to analyze and display the results. In the last area, students may work closely with the new room-sized display wall project in computer science being led by Professor Kai Li, a member of the program's executive committee.
A Rich Tradition of Computational and Computer Science at Princeton
Interaction between scientists who use computational tools is essential, says Hans-Peter Bunge, a geophysicist who uses computer models to analyze how rock moves within the earth over periods of millions of years (http://geodynamics.princeton.edu/HTML/page2.top.html). "People will try to reinvent the wheel when a solution already has been made," Bunge says. "We are using a tool that is very similar across all kinds of problems, across all kinds of disciplines."
Ostriker noted that the new program builds on Princeton's traditional strengths in computational as well as computer sciences, which go back to physicist John von Neumann--who made many seminal contributions to computing--and astrophysicist Martin Schwarzschild who used the first computers in the 1950s to model the structure and evolution of stars. Ostriker, Princeton's Charles A. Young Professor of Astronomy, is now using computational tools to understand the structure and origin of the universe.
"In many disciplines, we think we know what the equations are that govern the real world," Ostriker says. "But we don't know the solutions to those equations." In cosmology, for instance, scientists don't know what the initial conditions were when the universe was formed. Computer models allow cosmologists to plug different ideas about those initial conditions into a computer, then see if they generate a picture of the universe that matches current observations. "It's an essential tool," Ostriker says.
(For more information, see http://zeus.ncsa.uiuc.edu:8080/GC3_Home_Page.html.)
In molecular biology, scientists have encountered similar complexities in understanding the structure of proteins, the mechanisms by which drugs bind, or how people and animals mount immune responses to invading organisms. For example, biologists have reached the point where they understand the rules that govern individual components of the immune system, but can't predict how they all interact without the use of computers, says professor of molecular biology Martin Weigert. Steven Kleinstein, one of Singh's Ph.D. students, works with Weigert as well to develop a computer simulation of the immune system, which already has yielded insights and proven to be a valuable teaching tool. (For more information, see http://www.immunology.princeton.edu/).
The new program, called PICASSO (Princeton Integrative Computer and Application Sciences), will recruit Ph.D. students from computer science as well as from other departments, and will involve the participation of local national laboratories like GFDL, which does modeling of the oceans and atmosphere, and PPPL, which does fusion energy research, as well as industrial research laboratories. In addition to the integrative training, the students will receive all the conventional training in their fields. They will receive certificates in "Integrated Computer and Application Sciences" along with their degrees. For more information on the program, see its website at http://www.cs.princeton.edu/picasso. J.P. Singh can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
PICASSO is funded by a five-year, $2.7 million grant from the National Science Foundation. The grant is part of the foundation's Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training (IGERT) grant program, designed to foster interdisciplinary research training. Princeton was among 21 institutions that received IGERT grants this year. For more information, see http://www.nsf.gov/pubs/1999/pr9948/pr9948.txt.