Virginia Tech Magazine
President's Message
Fall 2008

Torgersen Bridge
Rebecca Craig  
Scientific inquiry, research, and life in the 21st century
by Charles W. Steger '69

American research universities like Virginia Tech have long been our nation's vanguard for intellectual stimulation and discovery. Research and scholarship have changed significantly in recent decades, and today we find ourselves increasingly reliant on high-performance systems to undergird the process of discovery.

Computational research is leading to profound changes in the way in which scientific inquiry and research are conducted. Classic scientific inquiry and research have rested on two fundamental pillars: theoretical/analytical and experimental/observational research.

The objective of experimental research is usually to test a hypothesis, perhaps based on the product of theoretical research, or to study causality. Virginia Tech and other research universities have made extraordinary contributions to our society, primarily through experimental research. An experimental researcher--someone like Thomas Jefferson--might have observed nature and compared effects of different fertilizers on the growth of a particular plant. Today, a scientist might observe the interactions of subatomic particles in a particle accelerator.

Theoretical research is the companion to good experimental research. Its language is mathematics, and it helps us explain and predict what we observe in nature. Theoretical research often leads to new breakthroughs, while experimental research often supports or refutes theoretical concepts.

Today, computational research, using the tools and concepts of computational science, is focused on the creation of models that mimic nature. The power and force of these concepts and tools are multiplied by orders of magnitude with the convergence of technological advances in both high-performance computing, where one can collect, store, and process large volumes of data, and in advanced communications technology infrastructure, which is increasingly referred to as "cyberinfrastructure."

Cyberinfrastructure is high-performance computing capable of processing trillions of computations per second with facilities capable of storing trillions of characters of data, all interconnected on a national scale through advanced communications networks able to move and share information at a rate of billions of characters per second. This high-performance computing fabric makes possible the construction of models and simulations from the atomic level to the universe.

Perhaps the best example of such applications may be found in the study of biology. Biological life is incredibly complex, which is why biological research through the 20th century was predominantly observational and its study anecdotal. Fast-forward to the current state of drug research with its long lead times and huge costs. A new drug may be evaluated experimentally in laboratories to observe simple biological interactions and, with increasingly positive results, may be tested using human subjects. Only through years of observing the effects can researchers know whether a drug works.

High-performance computing combined with the most advanced computational tools, however, is making it possible to build computer-based models that exactly simulate certain biological systems and processes. The right combinations of cyberinfrastructure and researchers who know how to use it are leading to new understanding of diseases and potentially to safer, faster, cheaper, and--most importantly--more effective drug treatments. Imagine being able to model and test human drugs without human subjects. This is the future in which we will live and work.

Virginia Tech has been a leader in development and innovations in information technology, advanced communications, and high-performance computing. It received international acclaim for its early exploitation of the Internet through the Blacksburg Electronic Village project. We are one of the founders of the nation's most advanced optical communications network supporting federal and university cyberinfrastructure requirements for computational research. In 2003, Virginia Tech built what was then described as the third most powerful high-performance computer in the world for about one-tenth the prevailing cost for such systems.

New modes of discovery encompassing computational research and enabled by advanced computing and cyberinfrastructure will accelerate what we know about the world, changing how we live, learn, and work. During the next decade, the top priority for Virginia Tech's Information Technology organization will be to give our researchers and scientists a competitive advantage through access to cyberinfrastructure that supports leading-edge computational research. The university will increasingly invest not only in technology and infrastructure but also in the people with the skill sets to fully use and explore these powerful tools, expanding our understanding of the world around us. In return, this new capability will enhance the educational environment, for both graduate and undergraduates, opening new areas of inquiry never before imagined.

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