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Caltech Computes: Disrupting and Uniting Science and Engineering

Driven by the disruptive force of computer science—which increasingly impacts how researchers work and collaborate by providing them with the ability to extract meaningful information from enormous data sets—whole new fields are developing at the intersection of science and engineering that will shape our future.

About 200 Caltech alumni, students, faculty, and friends filled the Beckman Institute Auditorium on November 12 for the Caltech Alumni Association's sold-out event, Caltech Computes: Disrupting Science and Engineering with Computational Thinking, which showcased the impact of a computational approach on a variety of fields, including biology, astronomy, and economics.

"…probability, optimization, machine learning, statistics: No matter what discipline you're in, you need these fields," the event's faculty coordinator, Adam Wierman, said at the event while introducing a series of faculty speakers. Wierman is a professor of computing and mathematical sciences (CMS) in the Division of Engineering and Applied Science (EAS). "It's from this intellectual core that new fields are emerging. [For example,] when you take biology and connect it to this core, you get bioinformatics or computational genomics," he said.

Wierman, executive officer for CMS and the director of Information Science and Technology at Caltech, is leading an initiative to reenvision information science as a hub for the rest of campus.

The future of computer science at Caltech and the world in general, he noted, can be summarized by the shorthand "CS+X," as in, "What happens when you take computational thinking and combine it with some other discipline? Something new and disruptive."

In 2004, Caltech announced grants of $25 million from the Annenberg Foundation and $22.2 million from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation in support of this interdisciplinary initiative.

Since that time, there has been an explosion in interest in computer science—by both faculty and students. Currently more than 40 percent of the undergraduate population is majoring or minoring in computer science. Students today see the interdisciplinary nature of their advisers' research, and actively pursue the computer science skillset they will need to thrive in any career they choose, Wierman said—an ethos showcased at the Alumni Association event.

 "This weekend illustrated the innovative work occurring across Caltech's campus, as well as the dedicated outreach efforts of the Caltech Alumni Association," Wierman says.

Speakers at the event included representatives from a half-dozen fields and nearly every division across campus:


Pietro Perona, Allen E. Puckett Professor of Electrical Engineering, whose Visipedia project is capable of distinguishing individual bird and tree species, using a combination of machine learning and expert human input. [Watch the talk]

Yisong Yue, assistant professor of computing and mathematical sciences, who is collaborating with Joel Burdick, the Richard L. and Dorothy M. Hayman Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Bioengineering and JPL research scientist, to develop a prosthesis that can utilize machine learning to help patients with spinal injuries to stand again. "Every patient is unique and every injury is unique. You need it to learn on the fly," Yue said in his talk. [Watch the talk]


George Djorgovski, professor of astronomy, director of the Center for Data Driven Discovery, and executive officer for astronomy in the Division of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy. Djorgovski searches for "things that go bang in the night"—such as supernovas—by scanning enormous data sets gathered by sky surveys. "At some point, it's all ones and zeroes and it doesn't matter whether the data came from a seismograph or telescopes," he said at the event. [Watch the talk]


Richard Murray (BS '85), the Thomas E. and Doris Everhart Professor of Control and Dynamical Systems and Bioengineering, who is creating synthetic biological machines with programming written directly into their DNA. [Watch the talk]

Lulu Qian, assistant professor of bioengineering, who wants to use DNA origami to create a real-life version of "Hermione's bag" (referencing the bottomless storage of the fictional Harry Potter character's purse). [Watch the talk]


Thomas Vidick, assistant professor of computing and mathematical sciences, who is exploring how the mysterious nature of quantum mechanics can be utilized to create unbreakable cryptography. [Watch the talk]

Xie Chen, assistant professor of theoretical physics, who is developing a new model for quantum computing that overcomes the fragility of traditional approaches. [Watch the talk]


Federico Echenique, the Allen and Lenabelle Davis Professor of Economics and executive officer for the social sciences in the Division of Humanities and Social Sciences, who showed how to improve algorithms that govern how student applications are reviewed assuaged frustrated parents in the Boston public school system. [Watch the talk]


Tom Miller, professor of chemistry, whose advanced algorithms allow more precise computational models, paving the way toward more efficient and less volatile lithium-ion batteries. [Watch the talk]


Steven Low, professor of computer science and electrical engineering, who envisions a future in which algorithms govern electric vehicle charging, reducing the need for a massive charging infrastructure. [Watch the talk]


 Peter Schröder, the Shaler Arthur Hanisch Professor of Computer Science and Applied and Computational Mathematics, whose discussion of the application of algorithms from quantum mechanics to the generation of computer-simulated fluids gave the audience a look "under the hood of what makes Hollywood fly," he said. [Watch the talk]

Written by Robert Perkins

Robert Perkins
(626) 395-1862