Polvani Receives $2.9 Million Grant

Photo: Lorenzo Polvani and Jeffrey Koberstein

From Planetary to Molecular Research

Columbia Engineering News, Spring 2003

The National Science Foundation has given Columbia Engineering grants totaling $5.6 million for two interdisciplinary areas whose foci range from the global to the molecular. Lorenzo Polvani, who holds joint appointments as professor of Applied Physics & Applied Mathematics and Earth & Environmental Sciences, is principal investigator for a $2.9 million grant to investigate global problems that occur at the interface between applied mathematics and the earth sciences. Jeffrey Koberstein, chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering, will oversee a grant of $2.7 million with Morton M. Denn of CCNY that will focus on the interface of chemical engineering, chemistry and physics as it applies to all forms of soft material, from polymers to body tissue.

The grants are highly competitive five-year IGERT (Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training) grants and indicate the emphasis that NSF is putting on training future scientists in fields that cross traditional departmental boundaries.

Dr. Polvani leads a team of 18 Columbia scientists representing the disciplines of applied mathematics, earth and environmental engineering, statistics, earth and environmental sciences, and mathematics. While individual faculty members and research scientists are affiliated with The Fu Foundation School of Engineering, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and Barnard, the program is coordinated by Columbia's Earth Institute.

"Mathematics needs problems to solve and earth science offers many important, real problems," said Polvani. The hope is that by preparing Ph.D. students to apply mathematical techniques to broad, scientific issues that affect the future of our planet, many major important problems will be solved.

"When we teach earth science students to use applied mathematics, a smorgasbord of new research possibilities becomes available to them," said Polvani. "Similarly, applied math students can attack entirely new sets of problems and help solve important global questions. In short, we will have 'mathy' and 'earthy' types joining hands to understand how our planet works," he said.

Among the problems that these scientists will tackle are understanding the tropical atmosphere, discovering the evolution of the earth's crust, predicting droughts and floods, and determining the effects of ocean currents on global climate.

"Weather forecasting for the mid-latitudes has been in place since the 1960's," said Polvani, "but forecasting for the tropics is different because the dominant factor there is moisture, and we don't have a fundamental theory to understand the role of moisture in the atmosphere. If we did, we might be able to answer a lot of important and practical questions, for instance, how do we accurately forecast the paths of hurricanes."

One component of the grant will be dedicated to recruiting from underrepresented populations, and to attract students from non-research backgrounds to become excited about the prospect of solving real world problems. "We can now train a generation of scientists who will have a new category of math tools to focus on problems like floods, earthquakes, and climates," said Polvani, "and so we do have a better chance of 'saving the planet'."

The other IGERT grant, for $2.7 million, has a focus that is infinitesimal compared to the global nature of the earth sciences IGERT. The interdisciplinary chemistry, physics and chemical engineering focus will be on multiscale phenomena in soft materials. Chemical engineering's Koberstein describes the subject matter of the grant as encompassing everything from surfactants, plastics, pharmaceuticals, and ceramics, to minerals, food, textiles, proteins, biological tissue and guitar strings.

"Our students will investigate properties on length-scale structure and our goal is to look at different length-scales and see what effect that has on matter," said Koberstein. "Think of it as a three-dimensional fishnet and the distance between the knots in the net can be long or short. For example, with the same material, a simple polymer like polybutadiene, if the length-scale is large, it behaves like a rubber band; if the length-scale is short, the material becomes ebonite, which is used for bowling balls."

The Chemical Engineering grant is not only interdisciplinary but also inter-institutional. In a unique partnering, Columbia is working with principals at City College of New York's Levich Institute for Physico-Chemical Hydrodynamics and CCNY's Departments of Chemical Engineering, Physics, and Mechanical Engineering.

"The goal is to allow SEAS and CCNY students the opportunity to take advantage of a strong interdisciplinary program while studying in a synergistic atmosphere created by the inter-institutional environment that our two universities have in the field of soft materials," said Koberstein. "This is the first time that Columbia has exploited the strengths of a neighboring public university to pioneer a new paradigm for graduate education and research in the urban environment."

Among the areas of investigation will be studies of the thermal and dynamic properties of ultra-thin films to better understand their behavior; how polymers flow through confined spaces; the effects of liquid crystalline polymers on thermoplastics; and developing smart coatings for "labs on a chip."

"There is a new spirit evolving at Columbia," said Koberstein, "with new shared facilities and interdisciplinary research. We are not insular; we are using MRSEC facilities (see story on page 3) and we are able to offer our students many choices. Having choices is a good thing for education. Everybody learns much better when the menu is longer."

The IGERT program provides full tuition scholarships and stipends plus funds to support the students' own work, and can be used for travel to conferences, for computers and laboratory equipment or research equipment. The program guarantees placement for one summer for all Fellows in an internship at a research institution, national laboratory or industrial research center.

Additionally, Fellows receive specific training in skills that will help them become better scientists, such as selecting good research problems, giving effective presentations, preparing successful research proposals and developing an awareness of ethical issues in the surrounding research environment.

Interdisciplinary Faculty for Applied Math/Earth Sciences IGERT

Guillaume Bal
Applied Physics & Applied Mathematics

Allen H. Boozer
Applied Physics & Applied Mathematics

Mark A. Cane
Earth & Environmental Sciences and Applied Physics & Applied Mathematics

C.K. Chu
Applied Physics & Applied Mathematics

Andrew Gelman
Statistics Upmanu Lall, Earth & Environmental Engineering

John C. Mutter
Earth & Environmental Sciences and Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

Victor H. de la Pena

Stephanie L. Pfirman
Environmental Science, Barnard

Duong H. Phong

Lorenzo M. Polvani
Applied Physics & Applied Mathematics and Earth & Environmental Sciences

Paul G. Richards
Earth & Environmental Sciences and Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

Christopher H. Scholz
Earth & Environmental Sciences and Applied Physics & Applied Mathematics

Bruce E. Shaw
Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

Marc W. Spiegelman
Earth & Environmental Sciences and Applied Physics & Applied Mathematics

Martin Stute
Environmental Science, Barnard and Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

Martin Visbeck
Earth & Environmental Sciences and Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

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