Sigal Gottlieb never wanted to work in the same field as her father, who is an applied mathematician, but she could not ignore her passion for math.
During her undergraduate studies at Brown University, Gottlieb became immersed in applied mathematics, and according to her, “It fit in with the way I thought. It was clearer than anything else.”
Soon it didn’t matter that she was being drawn into the same profession as her father, Gottlieb knew what she wanted to do with the rest of her life.
“The applied math was very interesting to me, and I liked the idea of solving physical problems using computational algorithms,” Gottlieb says. “So that was the beginning of it, and if I had to pinpoint where the passion started, it was when I was able to say, ‘I don’t care that my dad does this, too, I love it anyway.’”
Today Gottlieb is a mathematics professor at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, where she researches the numerical solution of partial differential equations and acts as the director of the Center for Scientific Computing and Visualization Research (CSCVR).
Gottlieb describes scientific computing as developing and using computational methods to solve scientific problems that are otherwise intractable. The study has joined theory and experimentation as one of the three pillars of modern science and is used for the simulation of complex physical problems such as climate modeling, weather prediction, design of airplanes and engines, and the study of star formation and supernova.
Many of these physical problems are being tackled at the CSCVR, which officially opened in 2013 after Gottlieb and her colleagues realized they all had a similar need for computer equipment to research similar types of problems and similar types of algorithms.
The group collaborated to secure the necessary computer systems through two grants from the Air Force and National Science Foundation totaling $400K. Soon thereafter, UMass Dartmouth invested $200K to renovate space to house the CSCVR. Now, as a recognized center, the CSCVR brings together 20 faculty members from departments such as mathematics, computer science, physics, civil engineering, biology and fisheries, among others.
“We have transcended the boundaries of department and field to build strong interdisciplinary research collaborations,” Gottlieb says.
Gottlieb’s work in securing a future for the CSCVR has led to studies of the dynamics of the human microbiotic species and their effect on the host immune system, comprehensive computational framework for analysis and optimization of wave energy converters, and understanding how black holes can “dodge a bullet.”
When asked where she sees the CSCVR making the biggest impact, Gottlieb says it’s impossible to pick favorites.
“I will tell you as a mathematician that underlying it all is the mathematics of it — both understanding the equations and understanding what mathematical properties we have to design the numerical methods to have,” Gottlieb says. “This is what makes it a center for scientific computing: We’re really concerned about the power of computational science and the application area. While each application is very important to us, all of those applications are coming out of the central core, which is scientific computing.”
Another major concern for Gottlieb is promoting math education and getting students involved with research early in their college careers.
“I think that getting students excited and engaged in real research projects after their freshman year has been a major key for us,” Gottlieb says. “Getting students to come with us to conferences has been amazing for them. They suddenly see all that’s out there and they see why the stuff that they’re learning in class has a direct application.”
Through the CSCVR, Gottlieb and her colleagues are able to integrate undergraduate research into the UMass Dartmouth math curriculum through a five-year National Science Foundation grant. This eventually sparked the creation of the Office of Undergraduate Research at UMass Dartmouth.
Another major aspect of securing the NSF grant was to ensure all students have the opportunity to follow their educational aspirations no matter what their financial situation is.
“That grant from the NSF that was close to $800K over five years was tremendously important to us because our students are coming from backgrounds where they really need help to finance their education,” Gottlieb says. “Most of our students are working part time and sometimes full time outside the university, and being able to employ them to do research is investing not just in their education but in taking their education to the next step. I think that that investment is so important.”
Gottlieb’s efforts to get students passionate about scientific computing are paying major dividends in their job prospects as they move into the workforce.
According to Gottlieb, “There’s almost nothing that you can’t do with scientific computing. Essentially any problem that you can describe mathematically, which is pretty much everything, can also be simulated computationally.”
Because the field is so broad, students are trained in a wide variety of disciplines at UMass and can apply what they have learned to basically any profession they choose. Gottlieb points out that she has students who studied scientific computing who went on to be successful working in insurance, while one colleague of hers translated training in aeronautical engineering into a profession in fisheries.
The possibilities are endless, and so is Gottlieb’s impact on the scientific computing community.
Image of Sigal Gottlieb via Sigal Gottlieb
Image of black hole simulation via Max Planck Institute, Germany