UW to Offer Graduate Minor in Computational Sciences

September 14, 2012
Man working on equipment
Alex Buerkle, a UW associate professor of botany, helped create a graduate minor in computational sciences. The minor was recently approved by Academic Affairs.

While discussion of creating a graduate minor in computational sciences at the University of Wyoming traces back to 2005, the presence of a supercomputer in Cheyenne provides some additional motivation for the university’s effort to create a unique skill set and help students across many academic disciplines land jobs in the future.

“The last (UW) academic plan encouraged faculty in the Colleges of Agriculture, Arts & Sciences, and Engineering and Applied Science to serve as a core for computationally oriented options within existing masters’ and doctoral degree programs,” says Bryan Shader, UW’s special assistant to the vice president for research and economic development, and a professor of mathematics. “Our faculty recognize this is an important need for graduate students. Certainly, a part of this is our association with NCAR.”

Alex Buerkle, a UW associate professor of botany, says UW’s efforts to lay the groundwork for computational sciences include acquiring hardware at the NCAR-Wyoming Supercomputing Center in Cheyenne and the Advanced Research Computing Center (ARCC) on campus. In addition, UW hired a director -- Tim Kuthfuss -- of research computing, which is a new focus for IT, he says.

Minor points

The graduate minor in computational sciences consists of 15 credit hours. To complete the minor, graduate students must take three of eight core courses and two of seven elective courses. At least six of the 15 credits must be taken in courses outside of the student’s department, and only a grade of “B” or better will count toward the minor.

The minor is housed in UW’s Department of Mathematics and will be overseen by an advisory committee of Buerkle; Dan Stanescu, an associate professor of mathematics; Dimitri Mavriplis, a professor of mechanical engineering; and Liqiang Wang, an associate professor of computer science.

The minor is important to graduate students in the sciences, whether their major is astronomy, biology or geology, Buerkle says.

“Computational science skills are critical in the job market right now,” he says. “Most (post-doctoral) advertisements for a Ph.D. in life sciences call for computational science skills. A lot of times, grants include funding for a post-doctoral researcher.”

The initial seven UW research projects chosen for use of core hours on the supercomputer involve grant funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF). In all, approximately 40 researchers, faculty, post-docs, graduate students and undergraduate students will participate.

Mavriplis is the principal investigator of a project that develops models and software to use the supercomputer to study the flow of fluids in various settings, such as wind flowing around a turbine blade or water flowing through the subsurface. Wang will team with Po Chen, a UW associate professor of geology and geophysics, to apply a newly developed, full-wave seismic data assimilation technique to image, in 3-D, crustal and upper-mantle earth structures in the San Andreas Fault at Parkfield, Calif., for seismic hazard analysis/mitigation purposes.

“The projects at the NWSC in earth systems science, and the research projects across campus in other areas of science and engineering, increasingly require persons to have computational skills,” Shader says. “Involvement in projects like these will provide valuable experience for UW students in the use of NWSC and other national computational resources.”

Stanescu agrees.

“The demand for such scientists is quite big across the nation and NSF launched, this year, a program to encourage education in this direction,” he says. “Obviously, we hope that our graduates will be able to obtain jobs easier and lead more rewarding careers.”

The NWSC is the result of a partnership among NCAR, the University of Wyoming; the state of Wyoming; Cheyenne LEADS; the Wyoming Business Council; Cheyenne Light, Fuel and Power; and the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. NCAR is sponsored by NSF.

The NWSC will contain some of the world's most powerful supercomputers (1.5 petaflops, which is equal to 1.5 quadrillion computer operations per second) dedicated to improving scientific understanding of climate change, severe weather, air quality and other vital atmospheric science and geoscience topics. The center also will house a premier data storage (11 petabytes) and archival facility that holds irreplaceable historical climate records and other information.

NCAR officials are currently testing the supercomputer and readying it for the NWSC open house, scheduled noon to 4 p.m. Oct. 15 in the North Range Business Park in Cheyenne. The NWSC also will include an interactive visitors’ center, which will be unveiled at the open house.

Industry options

If UW’s graduate students don’t plan to remain in academia for a career, many industry jobs combine computer and science work, Buerkle says. For example, an agriculture seed company may seek to further improve crops, a process which now often entails studying genomics and using computers. This requires someone who can work effectively with large volumes of data.

The computational sciences graduate minor will provide students with the ability to recognize that problems that exist in one science exist in other sciences as well, he says.

“Searching for an optimum solution is the same whether you’re in engineering, biology or chemistry,” Buerkle says. “The system may be different -- DNA sequencing in life sciences or physical forces in engineering -- but the computational solution itself involves the same tools.”

Math runs like a common thread through all of these disciplines, and the problems that arise in these research areas almost always need some math in order to be solved, Stanescu says.

“This is what defines a computational scientist: someone who recognizes the common mathematical denominator of problems, usually arising from research, and is able to express it in computer language in an efficient way,” Stanescu continues. “As such, one can easily perform interdisciplinary work.”

The academic minor became available this fall, Shader says. Students taking courses -- listed as part of the minor -- this semester or students who have taken applicable courses before can apply those toward the minor, he says. For more information about the minor, go here.

“To conduct certain types of science right now, you have to be computationally savvy,” Shader says. “It really is a recognition that the way we do science has changed.”  

UW students and faculty interested in the graduate-level minor in computational sciences should contact Stanescu at 766-4380 or stanescu@uwyo.edu; Buerkle at 766-3845 or buerkle@uwyo.edu; Mavriplis at 766-2868 or mavripl@uwyo.edu; or Wang at 766-4226 or lwang7@uwyo.edu


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