NYU Looks to Courant Institute in Search for New Provost

June 3, 2002


Recently named provost of New York University, David McLaughlin was director of NYU's Courant Institute from 1994 until last month. Another distinction to come his way this spring: election to the National Academy of Sciences.
Like the cafes and neighborhood restaurants that populate New York City so densely, New York University's Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences owes at least some of its character and success to a much maligned New York phenomenon: small apartments.

"I think of the Courant Institute as its faculty," says David McLaughlin, the institute's director for the last eight years. Much of his energy during those years has gone into supporting the faculty and maintaining the "environment of intense collaboration" that, from the days of Richard Courant, has characterized the institute---an environment enhanced by the fact that many faculty live nearby and, given the size of New York apartments, spend much of their working time in their Courant offices.

McLaughlin was responding to a request from SIAM News that he comment on recent changes at the Courant Institute. Most obvious among them was the imminent end of his term as director; having conducted a national search, NYU president-designate John Sexton had just appointed McLaughlin the university's next provost.

In a May 18 phone conversation, McLaughlin told SIAM News about some of the Courant activities he considers especially successful, and looked ahead to the challenges of his new position. As it turns out, the challenges might lie ahead, but the appointment was already official, having begun on May 17. Providing additional background on the story were Margaret Wright, who on January 22 became chair of the computer science department at Courant, and Marsha Berger, deputy director of the institute.

Close Ties Between Mathematics and Computer Science
Courant can really be thought of as a college with two departments, McLaughlin says. Its strength in computational science comes from this closeness of mathematics and computer science. "Think of some of the people in computational science here at Courant"---Leslie Greengard, say, or Olof Widlund or Marsha Berger---and "you wouldn't automatically know which department they're in. . . . That's the kind of seamless interaction between mathematics and computer science that computational science needs." Those in computer science who are developing probabilistic algorithms benefit from the expertise of the mathematics department's strong group in probability, and vice versa---and that kind of exchange happens in many areas.

Berger concurs: "It goes back to the question of where in an institution computational science really fits." With a joint appointment in computer science (her primary appointment) and mathematics, she can easily recruit students from either.

"One of things that attracted me to come here," Wright says, "was the closeness of mathematics and computer science." At many universities, she points out, computer science is in the school of engineering---separate from mathematics, which is in arts and sciences. "I'm interested in both math and computer science, as I think many of the faculty are. As director, Dave took full advantage of this close connection."

Strongly in favor of interdisciplinary work---"it's been my professional life," McLaughlin says---he nonetheless acted in his eight years as Courant director on a firm belief that the core disciplines---mathematics and computer science---need to be strong if progress in interdisciplinary science is to be made. Any improvements at Courant, he says, must begin with improvements in the core disciplines.

Neither mathematics nor computer science is particularly broad at Courant; rather, genuine strength has been developed in focused areas.

Although an applied mathematician, McLaughlin did a lot to build up pure mathematics, Berger points out. "Courant now has a world-class effort in geometry," with particular strengths in symplectic geometry, differential geometry, and geometric analysis. Other areas strengthened under McLaughlin's directorship include number theory, stochastic analysis, dynamical systems theory, multimedia technology and computer graphics, computer security, and distributed computing. And, of course, the Courant Institute continues to specialize in applied mathematics, scientific computing, and the analysis of partial differential equations, McLaughlin says.

A top priority during his years as director was to maintain the institute's postdoc program. Like the faculty, with its tradition of interaction and collaboration, postdocs find Courant a stimulating environment, with substantial interaction not only with faculty, but also with each other. "We believe the Courant Institute is a great place to be a postdoc," McLaughlin concludes.

In computer science, McLaughlin cites "outstanding faculty appointments" made under the leadership of Richard Cole, Wright's predecessor as chair of the department; areas emphasized include verification, computer graphics and virtual life, computational linguistics, and security and privacy. Courant faculty are delighted that Wright has joined the institute, McLaughlin says. "Margaret's vision, energy, and leadership skills provide exceptional promise for the future of computer science in the institute; within a few months of her arrival, many new initiatives are already under way."

Since January, when she became chair of the Courant Institute's Department of Computer Science, Margaret Wright has directed much of her energy to recruitment---both faculty (up to five anticipated appointments would expand the 28-member department to 33 full-time faculty) and students (with graduate enrollments at optimal (pre-dot-com) levels, she looks forward to welcoming about fifteen new grad students to Courant in the fall).

Some Interdisciplinary Highlights
Of the interdisciplinary programs created during McLaughlin's tenure as Courant director, he singles out a few examples. One of them, joint with NYU's Center for Neural Science, includes his own current research area: visual neural science. At about the time of his arrival at NYU, McLaughlin explains, Robert Shapley, a professor of neural science, was beginning discussions with the Sloan Foundation to create programs that would bring physical and mathematical scientists into the neurosciences. McLaughlin worked with Shapley to create what has become---thanks to the Sloan Foundation and, since 2001, the Swartz Foundation---"a genuine, healthy interaction between mathematicians and neural scientists, with joint research programs, graduate students, and postdocs."

The Courant Institute gained two new divisions while McLaughlin was director. The approximately ten faculty in the larger of the two, the Division of Compu-tational Biology, work throughout computational biology, in such areas as physiology, genomics, neural science, heart modeling, and molecular dynamics. Leslie Greengard is director of the division.

Marco Avellaneda is director of the Division of Financial Mathematics, which conducts research in the mathematics of finance, outreach programs to the finance industry, and a professional master's program in financial mathematics. The master's program, described in SIAM News on its inauguration (in 1998), continues to be of very high quality, McLaughlin says, with the optimal limited enrollments necessary to ensure that quality.

An additional interdisciplinary venture, joint between Courant and NYU's College of Arts and Sciences, is the Center for Atmosphere Ocean Science. Richard Kleeman is the current director of the center, known as CAOS, which was initiated under the leadership of Andrew Majda. The center, which has five full-time and several additional part-time members, now has its own interdisciplinary PhD program.

Also noteworthy, McLaughlin believes, is the new fluid mechanics lab now in place on the first floor of the Courant Institute. Initiated by Steve Childress and Michael Shelley, the lab is now directed by Jun Zhang, who holds a joint appointment in physics and mathematics. The research emphasis of scientists and postdocs in the lab is fluid flow in interaction with elastic boundaries, which includes the flow of blood through valves, the interaction of wings with air in insect flight, and a flapping filament in a quasi-two-dimensional soap film flow tunnel (such as a flag flapping in the wind).

An exciting activity in the computer science department is the Center for Multimedia Technology. Predating McLaughlin's arrival at NYU, the center is now reaching out, to Silicon Alley, for example, and to the film department of the Tisch School of the Arts. "The energy level of faculty and students in multimedia," McLaughlin comments, "is off-scale." "I hate to be stepping down as director when I think about the exciting things going on at Courant," McLaughlin says, although any wistfulness seems to be outweighed by the excitement of his new position.

Looking Ahead
Berger and McLaughlin point out that NYU has improved significantly in the last ten to fifteen years, both at the faculty and the student levels. Moving during that time from a predominantly tri-state to a national student body, NYU has become attractive to undergraduates nationwide; 95% of the university's undergraduates now live on campus. By any measure, the quality of students has improved, and similar strides have been made in the faculty. NYU can now aspire to becoming one of the leading major research universities in the country, McLaughlin believes.

With its new strength, the faculty needs and desires a voice in the university's decisions. And that's where McLaughlin comes in: As provost, he is charged by new NYU president John Sexton with bringing the faculty and its academic priorities into the decision-making processes of the administration. The Sexton administration is committed to the idea that the university will move forward only with improvements in the College of Arts and Sciences (including the Courant Institute); progress in Arts and Sciences, in turn, is dependent on the sciences moving forward. "The fact that I'm a scientist will add a certain degree of knowledge to that process," McLaughlin says.

As on a smaller scale within Courant, an important challenge for McLaughlin in the next few years will be the identification of niches, within each of the sciences, in which NYU will seek to improve and excel. This will be a selective process, to be carried out with the faculty, McLaughlin points out. "It will be a very demanding job, in major part because of the cost associated with science today, the high cost of space in New York City, and the quality of the science already present at the universities with which we want to compete."

Marsha Berger, while regretting the loss for Courant, is unequivocally positive about McLaughlin's appointment as provost: "It's a great thing that NYU has someone in science in a top position. . . . Dave's appointment is excellent for the university."


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