NSF Opts for Three Institutes: UCLA's IPAM To Join IMA, MSRI

July 23, 1999


True to his word, Donald J. Lewis saw the NSF recompetition for institutes through to completion before stepping down as director of NSF's Division of Mathematical Sciences. A few days before leaving Washington, Lewis (shown here, right, with MSRI director David Eisenbud) was honored by friends and colleagues at a dinner at the National Academy. (Look for additional coverage in the next issue of SIAM News.) Photograph by Marty LaVor.

Barry A. Cipra

The University of Minnesota-based Institute for Mathematics and Its Applications and the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, recently won renewed funding from the National Science Foundation in a recompetition for mathematics research institutes. In another year they'll be joined by a third NSF-funded institute, the Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics at the University of California at Los Angeles.

The three awards, totalling $8 million a year for five years, were approved in May. Final details, in the form of "cooperative agreements" with the institutes, remain to be hammered out. "Each of the institutes has an aspect in it now that it wouldn't have had 10 years ago," says Donald J. Lewis, director of the Division of Mathematical Sciences at NSF. The new emphases include outreach and interdisciplinary programs. "We have an enormous need right now for institutes that bridge mathematics to the other sciences," Lewis says.

Coming Attractions
The new institute, according to co-directors Mark Green and Eitan Tadmor, will be intensely interdisciplinary. "The basic objective is to encourage cooperation between mathematics and other scientific disciplines," Tadmor says. IPAM will maintain a roughly 50:50 mix of mathematicians and scientists from other fields. Programs will be an academic semester or quarter in length. Each program will bring in four senior and ten junior researchers, in addition to 20 or so visitors. The programs will begin with tutorials on the scientific problems being addressed and on the relevant mathematics, followed by seminars and conferences.

Two programs have been finalized for IPAM's first year (2000-01): functional genomics and geometrically based motion (with applications ranging from materials science to image processing). The plan is to build toward three programs per year; other topics cited in the NSF proposal include computational methods in chemistry and cryptography and number theory.

A key innovation at IPAM is a plan to hold "reunion" conferences one and two years after the conclusion of each program, to help maintain collaborations among participants. "We do not believe in three months problems will be solved. But we do believe that in three months initial contacts will be made," Tadmor explains. "In short, the major idea is not just to create a program, but to create a working group."

The setting for the reunions should help: The gatherings will be held at Lake Arrowhead, UCLA's lakeside conference center in the San Bernardino mountains. The IPAM proposers liken the Lake Arrowhead aspect of IPAM to the well-established conference center for mathematics at Oberwolfach in Germany.

IPAM itself will be housed on campus, in a building convenient to both the mathematics department and various schools of science and engineering---appropriate for the interdisciplinary mission of the institute. (The building, which currently houses the UCLA placement center, was designed by the renowned architect Frank Gehry.)

Tony Chan, chair of the UCLA mathematics department, believes that the interdisciplinary emphasis of IPAM will pay off for mathematicians. "We talked to a lot of scientists," says Chan, who was one of the PIs of the NSF proposal and is a member of the IPAM board. "They say, if they find the right people, they're willing to come up with their own grants, bring people to their labs, arrange subsequent visits where you can work on these problems in depth. If we convince these scientists that we're useful, they would actually be willing to support us!"

Old Dog, New Tricks
Interdisciplinarity is also being emphasized in new programs at IMA and MSRI. IMA is currently wrapping up a year-long program on mathematics in biology. The theme for this fall is reactive flow and transport phenomena, to be followed by mathematics in multimedia in 2000-01, and mathematics in the geosciences in 2001-02. IMA's forte, says director Willard Miller, is in identifying areas of mathematics that will have a major impact on progress in other areas of science, engineering, and industry: "That has been our mission, and remains our mission."

The mission is being carried out in new digs: IMA moved last fall to refurbished office space in a nearby building. "The nicest feature is that it's an open design," says Fadil Santosa, associate director for industrial programs. The individual offices are small, but there is a large central area sporting whiteboards and workstations (and, most important, a kitchen island with coffee). "People get drawn to the open area," Santosa explains. "It really encourages interaction."

One of the new wrinkles at IMA is a series of "hot topics" workshops. Many of the workshop topics have come from IMA's 14 corporate members and reflect urgent research needs of industry. "They are IMA's rapid-response standalone workshops organized to address fast moving areas of research," Santosa says.

The first of the workshops, on challenges and opportunities in genomics, was held in April. Upcoming topics include decision-making under uncertainty for energy and environmental models, analysis and modeling of optical devices, and scaling phenomena in communication networks. The goal of the workshops, Miller explains, is to establish interdisciplinary teams of mathematicians and industrial scientists working on problems from specific industries. IMA hopes to spin off a slew of such groups. "Once they're set up, we will bid them bon voyage, and set up some more," Miller says.

MSRI has set up its own network of corporate affiliates and partners, including Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft Research, Pfizer Corp., and Cylink. "The corporate affiliates program is helping us find areas of applications where new mathematics is involved, says deputy director Hugo Rossi. The partners have sponsored MSRI workshops on financial mathematics, the human genome, materials science, and computer-aided design, with a conference on quantum computation slated for next year. MSRI also has a fellowship intern program with Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft Research, with plans to expand to six positions next year. "This is an idea which really seems to have been well received by our young researchers, Rossi says.

The schedule for next year includes a two-month program in numerical analysis and applied mathematics, with workshops on finite element methods and mathematics in materials science. MSRI has also added a two-week summer program for graduate students in applied mathematics. This summer's subject was nonlinear dynamics of continuous media; on tap for 2000 is a program in mathematical biology.

David Eisenbud, the director of MSRI, emphasizes the intellectual ferment promoted by the programs. "The institutes are a great source of excitement and intensity in a given field," he says. "For the semester that we're running a given program, we like to think---and I do think it's true---that we are usually the strongest center in the world in that field."

Public outreach is another significant new direction for MSRI. "We are expanding our efforts in the area of communication of mathematics, both within the community and for the general public," Rossi says. The institute has begun to place preprints on its Web site, along with an archive of lecture notes and videos. In February, it collaborated with the Center for Theater Arts at Berkeley in a special program on Tom Stoppard's Arcadia (see SIAM News, April 1999). MSRI also initiated a journalist-in-residence program last fall.

All three institutes figure to be hotbeds of mathematical creativity, especially with mathematics becoming an increasingly collaborative endeavor. Providing a milieu for mathematicians to meet and mingle, with each other and with scientists from other fields, has been a centerpiece for IMA and MSRI, and it should be the same for IPAM. "E-mail and telephones and the Internet are wonderful ways of communicating," Rossi says, "but there's no substitute for just getting together and standing at a blackboard or sitting at a table and working things out."

Barry A. Cipra is a mathematician and writer based in Northfield, Minnesota.


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