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June 17, 2015

Andrew Christlieb: Taking a large-scale step

June 17, 2015

Andrew Christlieb is an MSU Foundation Professor of mathematics, professor of electrical and computer engineering and founding chairperson of MSU’s new Department of Computational Mathematics, Science and Engineering, which is jointly administered by the College of Natural Science and the College of Engineering.

Large data is coming up everywhere within science these days. The problem is, the data sets are growing in size faster than our computing technology is growing. Further, the use of computational modeling as a technique to investigate the world around us has become a critical third leg of science, after experimentation and analysis. As a result, computational science has developed into a discipline in its own right.

So what is computational science? I like to say, tongue-in-cheek, that it’s when pen and paper are no longer the right way to go; so we bring computing in to help analyze the problem. In short, scientific computing is about developing algorithms to allow us to solve large problems in an efficient, cost-effective way in this crazy new world of multi-core computing.

For example, a key data science goal on the biological side would be better care for patients (e.g., personalized medicine). Given a patient’s genetic makeup, the proper data-driven model would identify the most effective treatment for that patient.

My research group works on developing new computational methods that help give a better understanding of the world around us, related to problems that we’re barely starting to understand — such as modeling morphology of separator membranes for more efficient fuel cells and batteries; or the LSST [Large Synoptic Survey Telescope] project, a large-scale, super high-resolution survey of the entire universe, which is generating the largest data sets in the world.

Ever since joining MSU in 2006, I’ve had this idea of creating a new computational science department. I realized that MSU had tremendous expertise in a wide range of research areas, including nuclear physics, plant biology and energy-related materials. But what I saw missing was the computational aspect.

It occurred to me that it would be helpful to many people across campus to have a common, shared resource related to educational goals and scientific goals, with scientific computing as the core. The aim was to break down silos and provide interconnectivity between disciplines. Well, maybe not break the silos down — maybe drilling holes into them is the right analogy!

It became obvious that, in order for MSU to be at the forefront of scientific discovery through computation, now was the time to take a worldwide leadership role by forming a new interdisciplinary department focusing on the intersection of algorithm, application and data.

Following lots of hard work and the efforts of many people over the past couple of years.  The MSU Board of Trustees approved the creation of the department and I’m excited to serve as its first chairperson. Heading this department is something that I feel very strongly about. It’s something I’m very passionate about, something I’m driven to do.  I see the new department as have an enormous ability to impact how we approach science.

It’s been really helpful to have voices from biology, from chemistry, from outside of the way I normally think about things to provide input regarding how we should put the department together. That’s really impacted how I see the world; it’s helped me have a much broader perspective.

We are getting extremely positive vibes from industry about what we’re doing with this new department. When we talk to companies like Procter & Gamble and Dow about what we’re proposing for the majors, their immediate response is: “When can the students start?” Representatives from industry are very enthusiastic; and we are excited about that!

Read more about MSU’s new Department of Computational Mathematics, Science and Engineering