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July 7, 1997

National Science Foundation awards $460,000 for UCSC scientific visualization lab

By Robert Irion

UCSC scientists soon will create powerful and informative graphical images from their data at a new interdisciplinary laboratory, thanks to a $460,000 equipment grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The Natural Sciences Division will match the federal grant with about $240,000 in funding and equipment, making the new lab worth about $700,000.

Once researchers establish the lab in the Applied Sciences Building this fall, campus scientists in a wide variety of disciplines will for the first time have access to a central facility for cutting-edge visualization.

"This grant enables us to put together a state-of-the-art visualization facility that wouldn't otherwise be possible," said project director Jane Wilhelms, associate professor of computer science and an expert in computer graphics. "It will be a wonderful resource for our scientists who already use scientific visualization. I expect that many others at UCSC will begin to use visualization in their research as well."

Today's complex scientific research makes visualization an essential tool, Wilhelms said. This especially is true for researchers who explore variations over a complex surface or within a volume of space. Large sets of numbers, in and of themselves, can reveal some useful knowledge. But when a scientist sees the data--with help from colors, shading, vectors, and other visual aids--crucial insights often emerge much more strikingly.

Eleven faculty members joined Wilhelms on UCSC's proposal to NSF, representing seven diverse disciplines: astronomy and astrophysics, chemistry and biochemistry, computer science, computer engineering, earth sciences, ocean sciences, and physics. Researchers from the Natural Sciences Division's other programs--biology, mathematics, and science communication--also will use the facility, she said. Students working on research projects with faculty in the division will have opportunities to learn how to use the lab and incorporate it into their research.

The grant and the campus matching funds will pay for an advanced multiprocessor graphics workstation and supporting hardware, worth several hundred thousand dollars. This system likely will be the most powerful and expensive computer system on campus, Wilhelms said.

Also planned is an array of audiovisual equipment, such as film recorders and video editors, color printers, and equipment for viewing three-dimensional graphics images. The latter may include a "virtual workbench," a large table onto which researchers may project 3-D data for viewing with stereo glasses. Similar facilities now exist at Stanford University and the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View.

Finally, the funds will pay part of the salary of a staff technician to manage the lab and help researchers use it.

Work planned at the new lab by various UCSC researchers includes the following:

Other key users will include assistant professor of computer science Suresh Lodha, who will devise new methods of visualizing shapes and uncertainties in scientific data; professor of physics Stanley Flatte, for studies of how waves move through the ocean, atmosphere, and earth; associate professor of chemistry Ilan Benjamin, for simulations of chemical reactions that occur at the boundaries between two substances; professor of earth sciences Thorne Lay, for 3-D modeling of geological structures within the planet; and professor of ocean sciences Geoffrey Vallis, for research on turbulence and other complex behaviors in the ocean and atmosphere.

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