Campus & Community

Accelerating science with innovative computing

3 min read

How daunting a task is it, in an age when it is possible to visualize structures and to see them at magnifications not even dreamed of a short time ago, to produce a “wiring diagram” of the human brain?

It is an extreme challenge when one considers that the amount of information that needs to be gathered, manipulated, and analyzed is “equal to all the written materials in all the libraries in the world,” Jeff Lichtman, professor of molecular and cellular biology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, explained to those attending the inaugural symposium of Harvard’s new Initiative in Innovative Computing.

Lichtman, one of the lead investigators of the IIC’s “Conectome” project, whose goal is to map, store, analyze, and visualize neural circuitry, was one of more than a half-dozen scientists who presented overviews of their work to the approximately 175 attendees at the March 21 gathering at the Radcliffe Institute.

As Provost Steven E. Hyman said, the IIC is a test case of whether Harvard science can successfully function outside of its traditional department- and school-based model. “The results thus far are very promising,” Hyman said.

At Harvard, and in fact throughout academic science, Hyman said, there has been no obvious place “that would take the fruits of computer science and apply those in very rigorous, but useful ways” to other disciplines. “We’re among the very first to fill” this gap, Hyman said, and the IIC team is positioned to be among the world’s leaders in the field.

Venkatesh “Venky” Narayanamurti, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), said that the IIC, which is dedicated to creating collaborative partnerships between computational scientists and specialists in other disciplines to solve the problems facing the latter group, “will be a linking organization” within the SEAS and within and across all of Harvard’s schools and science departments. The gaps between “computer science, computational science, and scientific computing must be bridged,” he said.

Alyssa Goodman, professor of astronomy in FAS and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and director of the IIC, began her overview of the IIC by asking some of the key questions IIC members and their collaborative partners are currently asking:

“What does the wiring diagram of the human brain look like? How do stars form in our galaxy? What is dark energy? How should we model blood flow in the human body from atomic to physiological scale? How should we use technology in teaching?”

And what is the IIC “not?” asked Goodman – “the IIC is not a super computer center. The IIC is more about people. In some cases all you need is a laptop, but you need a new idea” to explore, she said.