Bringing Cosmic Complexity Down to Earth

Annual research days highlight medical advances, power of computation

April 11, 2018

The theoretical can become tangible with the help of computational research, said Shane Larson, physics and astronomy, during Computational Research Day, held April 10 on Northwestern’s Evanston campus.

The associate director of Northwestern’s Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research Astrophysics (CIERA) was one of two keynote speakers at the annual event, which attracted some 400 faculty, staff, students, and members of the public.

“If I tell you there are 400 billion stars in the Milky Way or that our galaxy is 10 billion years old, it’s almost incomprehensible,” Larson told attendees. “But if an astronomer shows you an image, or better yet, lets you explore the cosmos through a three-dimensional simulation, then complex information suddenly appears more real.”

Larson was part of a daylong program that featured lectures, 3-minute “lightning talks,” a poster session, and a visualization competition. Participation from across Northwestern was evident, with 10 of 12 University colleges or schools represented.

Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences Dean Adrian Randolph introduced Larson and also discussed the role of computation in an evolving research community.

“Throughout the college, I see faculty integrating data and network science into their teaching and research, working with undergraduate and graduate students as they prepare themselves for our digitally-dominated world,” said Randolph. “Indeed, as research transforms our understanding of knowledge, traditional boundaries between arts, humanities, sciences, and engineering dissolve or are redefined.”

As a CIERA member, Larson frequently discusses his research with groups whose disciplinary knowledge varies widely, including public audiences and Northwestern colleagues.

“Not very often do I get the opportunity to do cross-disciplinary lectures, where I'm presenting to other technical people who aren't astrophysicists,” said Larson. “One of the greatest things about modern astrophysics is the broad spectrum of people who have to come together and who work together to make the big discoveries we read about.”

Big data is an essential part of the field, he noted. Huge sets of information that require analysis are only becoming larger as modern observatories continually collect information at an extraordinary rate.

Larson provided a historical sketch of astronomical discovery. Four hundred years ago, humans did not even know what the Milky Way galaxy was, until the invention of the telescope revealed it was composed of stars. Less than 100 years ago, researchers didn't know if the Universe was the Milky Way, or if the galaxy was simply a mote in a much vaster cosmic void. That question was resolved once again by telescopes and new theoretical ideas from Einstein's general relativity.

“Large scale surveys, both with ground and space telescopes, are attempting to make unprecedented maps of the Milky Way,” said Larson. “At the end of the 2020s, the space-based gravitational wave observatory LISA will add to those maps a survey of the stellar graveyard of the Milky Way.”

Larson has worked on the LISA project his entire career and since his arrival at Northwestern in 2013, he has been engaged in a vast array of different computational and observational work to better understand the galaxy in which we live. He is also a member of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) Scientific Collaboration. On September 14, 2015, scientists at LIGO observed, for the first time, ripples in the fabric of spacetime called gravitational waves, arriving at the earth from a cataclysmic event in the distant universe.

Computational Research Day, which started five years ago, brings together the University research community from across disciplines to discuss computational simulations, large data sets, machine learning, and visualization. Victoria Stodden, an information scientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, presented a second keynote, in which she discussed steps taken by the computational research community to enable reproducibility.

Northwestern IT hosts the daylong symposium and partners with research community members to understand current and emerging requirements for computational investigation.

“We provide computational, storage, and other digital resources for faculty, students, and research staff,” says Jackie Milhans, manager of computing and data support services at Northwestern. “More importantly, we have people who are experts in computational and data-enabled research to provide guidance, training, and in-person support.”

An awards presentation concluded the event. Graduate student winners were:

Lightning talk

  • June Lee, chemical and biological engineering, The Graduate School

Visualization Competition

  • Vikas Nandwana, materials science and engineering (static image)
  • Alex Gurvich, physics and astronomy (animation)
  • Vicky Yang, engineering sciences and applied mathematics (interactive)

Poster Contest

  • 1st Place: Nitin Hansoge, mechanical engineering
  • 2nd Place: Michael Katz, physics and astronomy
  • 3rd Place: Josh Fixelle, physics and astronomy
Lewis Landsberg Research Day Attracts Hundreds

More than 430 scientists, trainees, students, and faculty presented abstracts at the Feinberg School of Medicine’s 14th Annual Lewis Landsberg Research Day, a celebration of innovative research and the dedicated investigators who make it happen.

“This year — as every year we’ve done this — is bigger and better than last year,” said Rex Chisholm, associate vice president for research and vice dean of scientific affairs and graduate education at the medical school. “This is the day when we get to see the fantastic work everybody spends the rest of the year working on.”

Learning a new skill was a common theme among Research Day presenters. Mike Bancks, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Preventive Medicine, had to learn new methodologies for his work estimating lifetime risk for cardiovascular disease using fasting glucose levels.

“I had to grapple with some theoretical challenges,” said Bancks, who won first place in the public health and social sciences research category for his poster.

Fasting glucose is one measure used to determine diabetes status and to predict lifetime risk for diabetes, but it is not yet used for cardiovascular disease. Bancks used a sample of nearly 20,000 individuals to build a model that predicted lifetime risk and discovered that, among individuals who had the lowest fasting glucose levels, only individuals with diabetes had a high lifetime risk of cardiovascular disease.

The event, held April 5, included a keynote lecture by Mina Bissell, distinguished scientist in the Biological Systems and Engineering Division at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Bissell discussed the often-underappreciated impact of structure and form on a cell’s function.

Visit the Feinberg News Center to learn more about Research Day award winners.

Will Doss contributed to this report.