PICASSO initiative fosters interdisciplinary research
related to computer science
By Steven Schultz
When Jaswinder Singh was a graduate student at Stanford,
his adviser encouraged his choice of research but warned him
that it was a risky one.
Singh spent many hours in the astrophysics department
struggling with something called the N-body problem. The
trouble was that his field wasn't astrophysics; it was
His idea was that computer systems design and the many
disciplines that rely on computing should not insulate
themselves from each other. "I see computers as a means to
solving real-world problems, and real-world problems as the
drivers we must use in designing hardware and software,"
says Singh. "That interdisciplinary style was not always
rewarded, because of the difficulty of evaluating it within
"Fortunately," he says, "that has changed."
Now an associate professor of computer science at
Princeton, Singh is directing a new effort that aims to
foster interdisciplinary education and research related to
computer science. The initiative, called PICASSO, is
intended to train researchers who form bridges between
computer science itself and other disciplines that
increasingly use powerful computers as tools for basic
research or applied information processing.
"In science, fundamental changes are occurring in the way
research is conducted," says Singh. The two traditional
modes of sciencetheory and experimentationhave 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
Singh, for example, is collaborating with molecular
biologists to help determine the structure of proteins and
to develop a computer model of the immune system.
High-performance computing is also playing a major role in
other areas, such as engineering, finance and
"There are vast numbers of problems that can be addressed
by computational techniques and that you couldn't even think
about solving 10 years ago," says University provost
Jeremiah Ostriker, principal investigator of the grant that
supports PICASSO. "This program provides a coherent
structure for our graduate science education that really
allows for interdisciplinary work."
The PICASSO 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 parallel
computers and novel problem-solving methods.
Second, computer scientists will gain a greater
understanding of the aplications of computers in other
disciplines. "This will enable them to design even better
methods and systems, thus leading to major advances in
computer science itself," Singh says. "Increasingly,
computer science needs to strengthen its outward-looking
As these two things happen, Singh hopes the third benefit
will follow: a new brand of truly interdisciplinary
researchers will cement the bridges between disciplines, and
entirely new research areas will crop up at the boundaries
between existing ones.
PICASSO is also expected to address the exploding number
of information processing and Internet services, many of
which requre new methods and technologies. These areas are
sure to drive interesting new research in computer science
and will require a high level of collaboration between users
and designers, says Singh.
A unique aspect of the new program, compared to
traditional computational science programs, is that it will
provide integrated research and training in the entire
computation pipeline rather than focusing on a small subset
of it, according to Singh.
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 perhaps 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 computer
science professor Kai Li, a member of the program's
Ostriker noted that PICASSO 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, 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.
Immune system simulation
In molecular biology, scientists have encountered similar
complexities in understanding the structure of proteins, the
mechanisms by which drugs work, and 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
PhD students, works with Weigert to develop a computer
simulation of the immune system, which already has yielded
insights and proven to be a valuable teaching tool.
Now Kleinstein, who spends much of his time with
molecular biologists, is facing some of the dilemmas Singh
experienced as a graduate student, but Singh reassures him
about the value of interdisciplinary work. That message is
also being sent on a departmental level. The University
recently hired a new faculty member, Mona Singh (no relation
to Jaswinder), who specializes in computational molecular
PICASSO, which stands for Program in Integrative Computer
and Application Sciences, will recruit PhD students from
computer science as well as from other departments and
involve the participation of local national labs such as the
Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Labs and the Plasma Physics Lab,
as well as industrial research labs. In addition to
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.
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.