The following post is part of a special blog series highlighting the importance of our O’Donnell Awards program and its impact on the program’s past recipients in medicine, engineering, science, and technology innovation, as well as the importance of scientific research to Texas. The 2014 O’Donnell Awards recipients have each agreed to contribute to the blog series.
The third post in this series was written by Dr. Thomas Truskett, recipient of the 2014 O’Donnell Award in Engineering. Dr. Truskett was recognized for fundamental contributions in three areas—self-assembly at the nanoscale, dynamics of confined liquids, and structural arrest of complex fluids—that are important for applications ranging from biomedical imaging to the delivery of therapeutic proteins.
Dr. Thomas Truskett, Recipient of the 2014 O’Donnell Award in Engineering
By Thomas Truskett, Ph.D.
Through discovery and innovation, scientists and engineers have a long history of addressing challenges critical to our health, prosperity, and security; i.e., to our quality of life. Since the latter is a priority for the citizens of most communities, a practical question arises. What can be done now (e.g., as a city, state, nation, etc.) to encourage and support a lasting culture of discovery and innovation? More specifically, what actions can be taken to help create and sustain the necessary human capital and infrastructure, as well as the resources and incentives, for these activities to thrive over the long term?
The answers are, of course, community specific and require understanding a complex landscape of political, strategic, and economic considerations. Private investors and companies have financial incentives to support development of promising and profitable technologies, and—all else equal—they favor investments in locations with a healthy business environment, a vibrant technological sector, and a highly skilled workforce, often in close proximity to prestigious tier-one research universities. The latter can be particularly helpful because the intersection of education and the world-class research characteristic of tier-one institutions not only helps to attract and retain top faculty and students, but it also produces a steady stream of graduates educated in a culture of discovery and innovation. More broadly, the tier-one university goals of educating future leaders and creating and disseminating new knowledge complement those of a robust technological sector.
But that still leaves the question of what to do to cultivate an environment conducive to the long-term success of tier-one research universities? In addition to providing the necessary funding for world-class faculty and facilities (dollar amounts that get repaid many times over by the economic impact of these institutions), further investments need to be made to broadly support a culture of discovery and innovation. In Texas, one successful and forward-thinking example of such an initiative is The Academy of Medicine, Engineering & Science of Texas (TAMEST), founded a decade ago to recognize and bring together the top innovators in the state of Texas, including members of The National Academies as well as rising stars. Through its annual conferences and critical issues forums, as well as through the annual O’Donnell Awards, TAMEST has created something truly unique in Texas: a relevant innovation connection point for top educators, researchers, professionals, industry practitioners, media, and the public.
I experienced first-hand the benefits of TAMEST over the last year after being selected as the recipient of the 2014 O’Donnell Award for Engineering. It’s hard to describe how quickly giving an O’Donnell Awards Lecture at the annual conference in front of hundreds of Academy members and rising stars opens new doors for collaboration. This type of broad exposure is especially important in highly interdisciplinary fields like some of those in which I and my collaborators work, including computational material design and engineering liquid forms of biological therapeutics for at-home treatment of disease. Based on interactions and conversations associated with the O’Donnell Awards and the annual conference, I learned of fascinating complementary approaches, techniques, and ideas from other areas of science and engineering that advanced our research capabilities, and I have also established entirely new collaborations that are broadening the impact of our work. As the new year approaches, I look forward to the chance to return and participate in the annual conference and contribute to what has become a powerful and enlightening interaction forum for discovery and innovation in Texas.
By Dr. Tinsley Oden and Dr. Omar Ghattas
A simple definition of science is this: the activity concerned with the systematic acquisition of knowledge. The English word is derived from scientia, which is Latin for “knowledge.” According to the Cambridge Dictionary, science is “the enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.” It is designed to reduce or eliminate ignorance by acquiring and understanding information and involves the mental comprehension of perceived truth or fact through cognition.
The question of how knowledge is acquired has been a subject of debate among philosophers of science for almost 3,000 years and, as far as is known, began in writings of Plato and Socrates. After millennia of debate by the greatest minds of human history, two avenues to scientific knowledge emerged: 1) observations, experimental measurements, information gained by the human senses, guided by instruments; and 2) theory, inductive hypotheses often framed in mathematical language. Observation and theory are thus, the two classical pillars of science.
Is there a third pillar? Is there a new avenue to gain scientific knowledge and guide engineering design? The answer, in our minds, and in the minds of most contemporary scientists and engineers, is very clearly “Yes.” It is the new discipline of computational science: “the use of computational algorithms to translate mathematical models that represent how the physical universe behaves into computer models that predict the future and reconstruct the past, and that are used to simulate a broad spectrum of engineered products, processes, and systems.”
Computational science represents the single most important scientific advance in human history. It has transformed forever the way scientific discoveries are made and how engineering design and manufacturing are carried out. It lies at the intersection of mathematics, computer science, and the core disciplines of science and engineering.
What can computational science and engineering (CS&E) do that classical science cannot? It can look into the past with so-called inverse analysis to determine which past events caused observed phenomena. It can explore the effects of thousands of scenarios for or in lieu of actual experiments. It can be used to study events beyond the reach of contemporary experimental science. It can optimize procedures for the design of products and systems. It can even explore the consequences of a breakdown in models and theories.
Indeed, it is difficult to conceive of a contemporary engineered product, process, or system that has not been designed by the modern tools of computational science. From power systems, chemical processes, civil infrastructure, automotive and aerospace vehicles, and advanced materials, to electronic devices, communication systems, medical devices and procedures, pharmaceutical drugs, manufacturing systems, and operational logistics, and many more—sophisticated models running on high performance computers are used as surrogates of reality to facilitate virtual design, control, planning, manufacture, and testing, resulting in faster, cheaper, and better products and processes.
Moreover, the prediction of the behavior of natural systems using computer models has led to vastly improved understanding of these systems, which range from severe weather, climate change, energy resources, and earthquakes, to protein folding, genomics, chemical processes, and virus spread, to supernovae and evolution of galaxies, to name but a few. Indeed, the traditional core disciplines of science and engineering must now be reviewed and reconstituted because what had once been out of reach by traditional science is now well within reach due to the advent of powerful new tools and approaches afforded by computational science.
This past year marked the 10th anniversary of the founding of the Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences (ICES), the leading research institute in the world in CS&E with over 250 faculty, research scientists, and graduate students, located here in Austin, Texas. Moreover, the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) in 2013 deployed Stampede, one of the most powerful supercomputers in the world. These two resources, and others, have placed The University of Texas at Austin at the forefront of research and education in computational science and engineering. The impacts on the region and the state are just beginning to be felt, and will accelerate rapidly in the coming years.
Dr. Tinsley Oden (director of the Institute for Computational Engineering and Science (ICES), associate vice president of Research and professor at UT Austin) and Dr. Omar Ghattas (director of the Center for Computational Geosciences at ICES and professor at UT Austin) will both be speakers at The Academy of Medicine, Engineering & Science of Texas’ (TAMEST’s) Annual Conference January 16-17, 2014. The conference will address the computational revolution in medicine, engineering, and science.