View from a Start-up---the Institute of Computational Science in Lugano

April 6, 2011


The Institute of Computational Science is part of the Faculty of Informatics at USI (visible in the center of the photo), located in the heart of Lugano, a lake-side Italian-style Swiss city surrounded by mountains. Photo copyright USI.
Michael Bronstein

The small lakeside city of Lugano, situated in the south of Switzerland in the Italian-speaking canton Ticino, has always attracted visitors. Nicknamed the "Swiss Monte Carlo," Lugano is appealing for its mild Mediterranean climate, beautiful historic center, and breathtaking natural setting. As of recently, there is another reason to visit Lugano: a new university, officially known as Università della Svizzera Italiana (USI, literally translated as "University of Italian Switzerland," although the Swiss prefer to describe the region as "Italian-speaking" rather than "Italian") or the University of Lugano. Founded in 1996, the university has its main campus in Lugano, with another in Mendrisio.

The Lugano campus of USI hosts the Faculty of Informatics, which was established in 2004 with funding from the canton and the federal government. The goal was ambitious: to put Italian-speaking Switzerland in the same rank as its German- and French-speaking counterparts with respect to top-quality technical schools. Initiated by a core group of software experts, including founding dean Mehdi Jazayeri and current dean Mauro Pezzè, the faculty has quickly gained visibility as Switzerland's third pole of computer science (after ETHZ and EPFL) and as one of the world's centers for software engineering. In six years, the faculty has grown to include 21 members with diverse research interests, from software architecture, networks, and formal verification to information retrieval, computer graphics, and computational geometry.

In 2008, recognizing the new perspectives in a broad range of fields opened by advanced mathematical modeling and high-performance methods for numerical simulation, the university made the strategic decision to establish the Institute of Computational Science (ICS) within the Faculty of Informatics. The vision of the ICS founders is to provide a unique research environment, bringing together expertise in applied mathematics, numerical methods, computer science, high-performance computing, and domain applications.

Though the official language of the faculty is English, for both teaching and communications, the surrounding italophone city leaves an imprint on university life. With faculty from 12 countries and students from nearly 40, USI gives its foreign professors and students a natural incentive and the opportunity to master the Italian language. Some are proficient enough to better enjoy the life of the city; others are barely able to order a pizza, but the local people speak other languages and, in the worst case, are gracious enough to understand a pantomime.

In the summer of 2010, as a prospective candidate for a faculty position in ICS, I immediately fell in love with the charming town, the lake and the mountains, and the Italian culture (for which I have a particular affinity, being married to an Italian woman). After the crazy pace in Israel, where I got my PhD in computer science (at the Technion), and business-driven life in Silicon Valley, where I spent two postdoctoral years in a start-up company and at Stanford University, the Ticinese "dolce vita" seemed almost utopian.

I was impressed that despite its brief history, ICS had succeeded in attracting both promising and established researchers; among the latter is Michele Parrinello (who also holds an appointment at ETHZ), a pioneer in electronic structure calculations and molecular dynamics simulations and a 2009 Dirac medal laureate. Brand-new universities are rare these days, especially in Europe, and so I felt lucky to have this opportunity. Lured by the start-up atmosphere, generous funding, and the prospect of establishing from scratch a lab focused on research in mathematical methods for geometric shape analysis and computer vision (an application-oriented area that combines theoretical and numerical mathematics*), I decided to join USI.

The decision to join a new university is to some extent like the bet placed by someone who joins a start-up company rather than, say, Google or Microsoft: higher risk but also the potential for greater rewards. My new colleagues seem to have followed similar reasoning when joining USI.

Rolf Krause, the founding director of ICS, came to USI after a successful career in computational science at the University of Bonn, where he worked on discretization techniques and fast solvers for problems in mechanics. Whereas his research was considered "application-oriented" in Bonn, he points out, it is seen as "highly theoretical and mathematically oriented" in Lugano. There should be no contradiction between the two, he says: In computational science, one needs knowledge and competence in different areas, usually mathematics and computer science, along with, from the application side, physics, chemistry, biology. . . . An ideal computational scientist is thus a sort of "experimental mathematician," equally dexterous in informatics and mathematics. ICS aims to provide an environment in which this vision can be realized.

Illia Horenko moved to Lugano from the Freie Universität Berlin, where he was an assistant professor in the Institute of Mathematics. His research focuses on the development of data analysis algorithms, inverse methods, and time series analysis applied to problems of climate research, computational finance, biophysics, computational fluid mechanics, sociology, and political science. For him, USI offered the opportunity to work in a new, dynamically evolving environment in which he could combine his interests in mathematics, high-performance computing, and applied science.


The green (in both senses) campus of the Università della Svizzera Italiana. Photo copyright USI.

Igor Pivkin, with a PhD in applied mathematics from Brown University, joined the USI faculty after two years as a postdoc at MIT. He works on multi-scale multi-physics models and high-performance algorithms in computational biology and is intrigued by the prospect of working on one of the world's most powerful supercomputers, at the Swiss National Supercomputing Center (CSCS). ICS is part of the High Performance and High Productivity Computing (HP2C) initiative operated jointly by CSCS and USI, with multiple partners from Swiss universities and federal technical schools. One of the challenges addressed by HP2C is the development of new classes of numerical methods that will suit the next generation of high-performance computing architectures, and their exploitation in computationally demanding applications.

The Institute of Computational Science in Lugano maintains active collaborations with leading universities and research institutes in the United States, Germany, France, and Israel, as well as joint projects with industrial companies. The institute is tightly embedded in the continuously expanding research structure of Ticino, which is also the home of the Institute for Research in Biomedicine, the Oncological Institute of Italian Switzerland, the Cardiac Centre of Ticino, and the soon-to-be-established USI Faculty of Medicine.

Propelled by government strategic plans for the development of southern Switzerland, the growth of the young USI, and the measured ambition of its members, ICS seems to be perfectly positioned to become a top player on the European applied and computational mathematics landscape. Achieving this goal will certainly involve a lot of work and dedication---and also a lot of fun.

Michael Bronstein (http://www.inf.usi.ch/bronstein) is an assistant professor in the Institute of Computational Science, Faculty of Informatics, USI.

For additional information about the institute, see http://www.ics.usi.ch.


*See the author's "Computational Metric Geometry: A New Tool in Imaging Science," SIAM News, July/August 2010.




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