An intellectual environment

January 15, 2024

Guillaume Bal

An interview with the new Director of the Committee on Computational and Applied Mathematics

Guillaume Bal, Professor of Statistics and Mathematics, was named the Director of the Committee on Computational and Applied Mathematics (CCAM), starting July 1, 2023. In this Q&A, he discusses his priorities for the committee, areas of potential growth, and his vision for collaboration.

As the new Director of the Committee on Computational and Applied Mathematics, what priorities will you focus on?

Our PhD and Master’s programs are both still relatively new. The priority remains to establish a solid basis for these programs. This means generating a unique intellectual environment for students, Kruskal instructors, and postdoctoral researchers, as well as research and instructional faculty at all levels, that finds the right dose of mathematical sophistication and impactful applications. This also means tasks such as ensuring we have the resources to admit PhD students, recruit Kruskal instructors, and develop a well-rounded curriculum in CAM. We have already gone a long way in the past seven years of CAM’s existence. More remains to be achieved.

Do you have any new initiatives planned?

There are many areas of potential growth. Let me mention two broad domains: scientific computing and applied probability. But there are many more where UChicago is underrepresented.

What work being done in the Committee on Computational and Applied Mathematics are you especially excited about?

Rather than discussing specific work, let me focus on efforts to create the intellectual environment I mentioned. While CAM cannot take full credit in any way, over the past three years, UChicago was granted an NSF center, IMSI, with themes that resonate with CAM objectives, and an NSF-Simons Foundation center on the interaction of biology and mathematics. Many CAM faculty are centrally involved in the latter center.

Briefly describe the focus of your research.

I am interested in theoretical and computational analyses of partial differential models. This is the right language to describe local interactions. It is therefore ubiquitous in essentially all scientific applications. I focus on the interaction of solutions to such models with their constitutive parameters. This describes for instance light propagation in biological tissues with medical imaging applications or seismic wave propagation in the earth’s crust with applications in seismic monitoring. Recently, I have been interested in the broad field of topological phases of matter. There, PDEs and their constitutive parameters meet topology and its obstructions, which result in fascinating and totally unexpected behaviors. Potential applications abound in materials science and possibly the design of quantum computers.

What makes CCAM different from similar programs elsewhere?

Environment is what distinguishes us. How many places have such a close integration of (applied and computational) mathematics, statistics, and now data science as UChicago? This provides an excellent environment for PhD students to thrive.

What’s your vision for interdepartmental or interdivisional collaboration?

We are already interdepartmental but not sufficiently. I am excited about the interest from colleagues in geophysical sciences to interact with some of our students and postdocs. It is easy to imagine that there are many unexplored potential collaborations with other departments in PSD and with PME (a few of our PhD students already work in groups with PIs at PME and Booth).

Outside of work, how do you like to spend your time?

Spending time with family and enjoying all that Chicago has to offer. I also rarely resist an opportunity to spend time back in France.

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