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NPACI-Supported Computational Physics Program
at Oregon State Wins Support


regon State University is preparing to offer Bachelor of Science degrees to students majoring in computational physics in order to satisfy the exploding demand for university-trained computer specialists. Rubin Landau, a physics professor and director of the Computational Physics for Undergraduates program at Oregon State, designed the curriculum for the degree–the second of its kind in the United States. With the support of SDSC and NPACI, Landau has received the endorsement of the Department of Physics, the university provost, and the chancellor of the Oregon University System–support that paves the way for final approval at the October meeting of the Oregon Board of Higher Education.

Picture of Rubin Landau

Rubin Landau

SDSC and NPACI provided one-month summer appointments to help Landau develop his curriculum. "In many ways, I couldn’t have won this approval without the help of SDSC and NPACI," said Landau. "More than having their financial support, having the personal endorsement of the leaders of these national organizations helped me win this authorization."


Many companies could use more college graduates trained in computational science to model ground-water movement or to help design cars, aircraft, and other transportation equipment. "Unfortunately, there are not enough information technology workers to meet the demand," said Landau.

Illinois State University is the only other university in the United States known to offer a bachelor’s degree in computational physics, according to the American Institute of Physics. (Several other universities offer bachelor’s degrees in physics with minors or specialties in computational physics.)

In partnership with NPACI’s Education, Outreach, and Training program and a three-year, $600,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, Landau bought 40 Sun computers to create a low-budget, yet powerful, 20-node Beowulf cluster. Landau cools his computers with a window air conditioner. Graduate students gain invaluable experience serving as system administrators. "We’ve learned how to make do with a shoestring operation," he said.

NPACI’s Education Center on Computational Science and Engineering at San Diego State University also provided high-performance computing and research tools to Landau’s program. The tools were developed for research, visualization of data, and interactive collaborative environments.


Landau has written three physics textbooks, including Computational Physics: Problem Solving with Computers. He began offering computational physics classes to seniors 10 years ago, and in 1997 he began offering versions of these classes to freshmen.

Students use Web-based tutorials and demonstrations and textbooks. The courses require proficiency in physics, computer science, and applied mathematics to solve real-world problems. For their assignments. students receive codes developed by graduate students at Oregon State. "The students have two to three weeks to get a feel for the research and how to do simulations," said Landau. "It’s a real challenge."

Most physics students in United States colleges use computer-simulation software such as Maple and MatLab; however, Landau says many don’t understand the computer science involved. At the same time, computer-savvy undergraduates don’t always find science courses that suit their highly developed multimedia tastes.

"When I was an undergraduate more than 35 years ago, I realized that computing had to be woven into the fabric of science education," said Landau. "Of course, it’s often hard to provide interdisciplinary programs at most universities."


Oregon State recently hired Christopher Sullivan, one of Landau’s undergraduates, as manager of its Biology Computing Center. KwangChul Oh, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Botany and Plant Pathology, had determined the nucleotide sequence of a section of a tomato chromosome that contains a gene called dgt. The gene’s biochemical function was unknown, and Oh wanted to discover it.

So Sullivan wrote a program that compared Oh’s tomato DNA to the genomes of other plant species. Just as Oh had hoped, the comparison identified the dgt gene as one that helps the plant respond to a growth hormone. "Chris was indispensable," said Oh.

Tomatoes account for $1.7 billion in annual U.S, farm income, second only to potatoes among all fruits and vegetables. Oh hopes the results of his research can be used to develop higher yielding tomatoes and other agricultural crops.

Landau is not surprised that one of his computational physics students played such an important role in a plant-research project. "Many big users of supercomputers are involved in biological research," he said. "I’d like other university departments to use the same tactic that I’ve used to create programs in computational biology, computational chemistry, and computational mathematics." –RG


Rubin Landau
Oregon State University

Ann Redelfs

Greg Moses
Julie Foertsch
University of Wisconsin, Madison

Kris Stewart
San Diego State University