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November 5, 2004

Simulations institute gains degree-granting authority

By Dawn Levy

On Oct. 28, the Faculty Senate authorized the year-old Institute for Computational and Mathematical Engineering (ICME) to grant master's and doctoral degrees as an interdepartmental program. By linking diverse departments to a central academic unit for computational mathematics, the institute supports interdisciplinary collaboration. Its researchers explore real-world challenges in virtual settings. The computer simulation tools they employ may lead to more efficient jet engines, surgical strategies with better outcomes, an improved understanding of protein folding in health and disease and optimized Internet traffic.

"Originally, scientists' research methodologies were theory and experiment," said ICME Director Parviz Moin, the Franklin P. and Caroline M. Johnson Professor in the School of Engineering. "Computing now forms the third leg of a stool for scientific discovery and prediction and for studying the performance and behavior of physical systems."

Jim Plummer, the Frederick Emmons Terman Dean of the School of Engineering, said the use of computers to model, simulate, design and synthesize is key to most engineered systems today. "From airplanes to semiconductor chips to new drugs, engineers today create these products by designing them using computer tools," he said. "ICME is aimed at providing a world-class education for all of our engineering students in these important fields. It is also aimed at helping us build research programs aimed at solving some of the grand-challenge problems of our day."

The new interdepartmental program replaces the successful Scientific Computing and Computational Mathematics program, whose students will be absorbed into ICME. It will enroll more than 100 graduate students.

"It is heartening to see the development of such a magnet for intellectual talent that is aligned with problems of national interest," wrote Dimitri F. Kusnezov, director of the Office of Advanced Simulation and Computing at the U.S. Department of Energy, in a letter congratulating Stanford on the new institute.

The institute will have 20 to 25 faculty members representing every department in the School of Engineering and some departments in the School of Humanities and Sciences and the School of Earth Sciences. It also will include new faculty hired over the next two years. The School of Engineering has provided support for five ICME appointments. Charbel Farhat (Mechanical Engineering), Eric Darve (Mechanical Engineering) and Amin Saberi (Management Science and Engineering) received the first three appointments. All ICME faculty will have joint appointments with 50/50 shared commitment between the institute and their departments.

The institute is temporarily housed in the Durand Building but within two years will move to an existing 12,000-square-foot space on campus that will be remodeled, Moin said. About 10 of the faculty members will have offices in the institute.

ICME's central mission is to ensure that Stanford's computational engineers are well versed in mathematical modeling and computer programming for numerical computation. Several faculty members have developed new courses for the institute, including service courses for first-year master's students, core courses for master's and doctoral students and specialized electives designed to give master's and doctoral students a toolbox of mathematical and computational methods for solving problems in their specific fields.

The institute also offers courses independent of the graduate interdepartmental program—a suite of service courses in mathematical computation for undergraduates. Nearly 80 freshmen and sophomores enrolled in the courses this fall to satisfy their undergraduate math requirements. "With the help of computers, we can solve real-world problems even using freshman mathematics," Moin said.

"The ICME curriculum is exciting because it gives professors who deeply care about mathematics and computation the chance to reshape the way it is taught to every student in the School of Engineering and beyond," said Eric Shaqfeh, chair of a curriculum committee including a dozen faculty. "The curriculum now, for the first time on campus, integrates continuous and discrete math with computation and brings the professors who are teaching the subject together on a regular basis to discuss how to do this best."

The committee aimed to create an educational foundation allowing students to master the skills necessary to create simulations in fields ranging from management science and engineering to aeronautics and astronautics, Shaqfeh said.

The diversity of the student curriculum mirrors the different ways far-flung faculty are applying simulations to their research. Charles Taylor, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and of surgery, simulates cardiovascular fluid mechanics to predict the effects of different strategies for bypass operations. Moin, a mechanical engineer, simulates the flow of air and fuel through a jet engine to improve fuel efficiency and decrease polluting emissions.

Multi-scale problems, such as simulating turbulence in blood vessels or jet engines, quickly exceed the computational resources of all but a handful of labs. "Now we really have fast computers and parallel processors to do large-scale simulations of aspects of the real world," Moin said. These simulations create "virtual laboratories," he said. Someday soon, auto industry researchers may crash-test cars in cyberspace, and jet-engine manufacturers may experience reduced costs for engine performance tests—which now cost up to $1 million a pop.



Dawn Levy, News Service: (650) 725-1944,


Parviz Moin, Institute for Computational and Mathematical Engineering: (650) 723-9713,

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