Computational Engineering at Work: ICES Graduate Jamie Bramwell at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

CSEM graduate student Jamie Bramwell is hooded by ICES director J. Tinsley Oden. Marv Hackert, associate dean of Graduate Studies and a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry stands in the background.

It’s no secret that new CSEM graduate Jamie Bramwell was excited to land a job at the prestigious Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Almost everything else about her job, however, remains classified.

The historic collection of national labs, famous for their advancements in nuclear weapon technology during the Cold War, is dedicated to national security research. So it’s understandable that Bramwell can’t reveal exactly what she’ll be doing as a computational engineer at the labs. What she can say is skills she learned at ICES are a critical part of the job.

From Engineer to Mathematician

At ICES, Bramwell researched mathematical methods that predict substructures beneath the earth’s crust. Using data collected above ground by acoustic waves being bounced back from below, Bramwell applied finite element methods, a mathematically derived computational technique, to solve inverse problems. This problem type works indirectly for the solution, using collections of known readings to make informed predictions about unknown structures or phenomena.

“Seismic inverse is used by a lot of people. There’s exploration geophysicists or earthquake scientists. It’s also used by the geoscientists for doing whole earth simulations,” said Bramwell.

Engineers use simulation programs based on similar methods that Bramwell applied in her research. But without the heavy fundamental math background of computational scientists, an engineer’s work can come to a halt if a problem appears in the program.

Bramwell says fixing these problems when they arise will be a large part of her job at Livermore.

“I am going into the engineering division at Lawrence Livermore National Labs, and the reason [the labs] are wanting to hire me is because most people, especially those who were in industry, when they put in a simulation and it breaks, you don’t know why,” said Bramwell. “It’s only with a deeper mathematical understanding can you at least have some idea how to fix these big commercial sized problems. “

Bramwell didn’t always have plans for working in a national lab, or even working in computational engineering. Before coming to ICES, Bramwell earned her bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Northwestern University and worked for two years as a nuclear systems safety engineer to get a sense of what industry was like.

“Two years of that was enough for me,” said Bramwell. “I decided it just wasn’t rigorous enough. I wanted to know more about the real, hard mathematics behind the engineering techniques.”

“And that’s one of the reasons why I was attracted to ICES--because they have a set path for people without a math background to get into the math side of things.”

The Interdisciplinary Advantage

In addition to troubleshooting simulation problems, Bramwell says her Livermore job will involve coding the solid mechanics portions of “multi-physics” simulations, programs that model the physical interactions of states of matter at once (think of fluid air flowing over a solid aircraft wing), as well as optimizing that code for efficient processing on advanced computing systems.

Jamie Bramwell receives her diploma
The interdisciplinary resources available as a part of ICES’ Computational Science, Engineering, and Mathematics (CSEM) graduate program, taught Bramwell techniques that will aid in executing this mix of computational and engineering science. In fact, she thinks conventional, more subject-defined graduate programs, would have left important topics unexplored.

“If I had gone through a traditional engineering mechanics graduate program I don’t think I would have had that exposure to the real theory of finite elements and functional analysis,” said Bramwell, referring to the computational techniques used to create simulations. “And If I had gone into a traditional applied math program, I don’t think I would have had access to real engineering resources.”

The bits and pieces of mathematical and computational theory that create the foundation for applied simulations can be found scrawled on the many chalkboards across ICES. But turning the math into a model takes the processing power of a supercomputer. In the CSEM program, Bramwell said she didn’t learn only how to write mathematical concepts in computer code, but how to best run it, too, by tapping into the supercomputer servers at The University of Texas’ Texas Advanced Computing Center.

And that’s a good skill to know at Livermore Labs, home to Sequoia, the second most powerful supercomputer in the world.

A New Job, A New Confidence

Bramwell knows skills she learned at ICES will enable her to do her job at Livermore Labs partly because she has already applied them there. Last summer, Bramwell did an internship at the labs under the computational directorate.

“This is where I got exposed to these really large multiphysics problems and had interviews with all sorts of people,” said Bramwell. But when offered a job, she chose to opt for the engineering directorate so she could focus on applied problems as opposed to refining theory.
“There were actually a couple of other directorates where I could have gotten a job. That’s the nice thing about having an interdisciplinary degree,” said Bramwell.

Bramwell had previously interned at Shlumberger, and ICES’ close connections to Sandia National Laboratories could have likely fostered another job option. But Bramwell chose Livermore because it satisfied more than her intellectual pursuits. The nearby San Francisco area’s technology business offered work opportunities for her software developer husband, and the city of Livermore is pleasantly similar to Austin, says Bramwell—minus the scalding summer months.

The range of computational, engineering and mathematical techniques Bramwell learned as a CSEM student enabled her to get out of industry and into research, and live in a city that offers more than just a job. But Bramwell also says there’s a secondary effect to her ICES education than technical knowledge: A certain confidence that comes with deeply understanding a topic.

Bramwell says she felt that conviction while presenting her dissertation research to an international audience of scientists in a conference in Prague.

“I didn’t feel uncomfortable. I really knew what I was talking about and I didn’t feel out of place,” said Bramwell. “That’s how I knew that ICES had been good for me and had given me the skills and the confidence to address this room of world experts.”

Article by Monica Kortsha


Posted: May 22, 2013