March 11, 2002
The computer screen comes alive with the image of a leech wriggling snake-like toward the viewer. Swarms of brightly colored dots, indicating water, flow around the leech's fluttering body. As the leech's tail whips back and forth, showers of bright water-dots spray alternately to the left and the right behind the leech.
This vivid graphic simulation of a complex natural process is typical of the work being done at the Livingston Digital Millennium Center for Computational Science at Tulane and Xavier universities. The center, located in the Richardson Building on Tulane's uptown campus, was initiated by funding provided by the U.S. Department of Energy, with Lisa Fauci, professor of mathematics, serving as the director, and Donald Gaver, professor of biomedical engineering, and Ricardo Cortez, assistant professor of mathematics, serving as associate directors. Unique in the Gulf region, the center was started up last year, and already is producing high-quality results.
"There are many faculty and their students in different departments and schools at Tulane who use computational methods as an essential part of their research," says Fauci. "We wanted to have an infrastructure where people could overcome the barriers of their disciplinary fields in order to work together and learn from each other."
A key element of the center's effectiveness is its network of state-of-the-art Silicon Graphics Inc. supercomputers. "The SGI network provides a high-speed computing facility with a lot of shared memory," says Gaver. "Unlike a standard PC, you can run much larger jobs and share the CPUs for one job."
"The important thing is that we can do 3-D computations, which, until a few years ago, were very difficult," says Fauci.
"One project has to do with the motion of DNA," says Cortez. "The idea is to understand how the shape of a strand of DNA is related to the way it moves inside a cell. Our hypothesis is that the motion of DNA within a cell contains information that affects gene expression."
The computer's ability to simulate graphically the twistings of DNA strands is an invaluable resource for the researchers, says Cortez, who along with Thomas Bishop, assistant professor of environmental health sciences, is a faculty adviser for the project. Other projects pair the fields of biomedical engineering with cell and molecular biology, biomedical engineering with chemical engineering, and physics with chemical engineering.
These are described on the center's Web site at www.ccs.tulane.edu. The idea of an interdisciplinary center originated during collaborations several years ago among faculty members from mathematics, biomedical engineering and chemical engineering. The group, led by Fauci and Gaver, set out to organize a permanent interdisciplinary research center at Tulane. They identified 10 faculty members from across the university to be the center's core associates. Faculty members from Xavier University also were part of the initial group.
The germinal center applied for and received funds through Tulane's Wall initiative and from DOE last May. The university provided a location on the third floor of the Richardson Building. Following renovation of the space, equipment and furnishings were acquired, and by September, center personnel had moved in and started work. The SGI computer system, with its high-end graphics capabilities, is the center's functional backbone.
"We have an SGI 8-processor computer-server with nine workstations," says Verna Lee, the center's senior program manager. But as important as the computers are to the center's mission, they are tools only, not the center's main focus. The directors emphasize that the center is not a computer-service provider. It is rather an intellectual center whose chief aim is to foster productive interdisciplinary research.
"Somebody could be very much involved in the center and not use the computer hardware," says Fauci. "We look at the center as more of an intellectual infrastructure, where people can collaborate and work together."
The directors believe that the center has made a very promising start, and they are optimistic it will fulfill its aim of increasing cross-disciplinary collaborations.
"The initial projects are good examples of what we hope to accomplish," says Fauci. In addition to four postdoctoral researchers, there are 30 other Tulane and Xavier faculty and students who are using the facility. "The idea," says Fauchi, "is to create seed projects that will continue to create real research interactions between faculty members from different departments."
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