A forum where trees intersect with software
The topics may be diverse, but plant evolution, computer chips and catalysts for solar power all found common ground at the Yale Science and Engineering Forum.
The event, which the Yale Quantum Institute hosted last week, has taken place annually since 1995 and is designed to give Yale faculty a chance to hear what their colleagues have been working on.
“This is the sort of thing that ought to happen at a great university,” said Peter Schiffer, vice provost for research and professor in applied physics. “We are bringing together scientists from across the spectrum of sciences at Yale, and having them talk to each other and explain what they’re doing.” Besides being inspirational, he said, it “gives us a sense of what’s happening outside our own lab.”
Although the presentations are aimed at scientists, they’re also designed to be accessible to researchers from all disciplines. Topics discussed covered a wide range. Erika Edwards, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, talked about how plant diversity has evolved. She was followed by Rajit Manohar, the John C. Malone Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, who made the case for designing asynchronous circuits for computers.
For some presenters, speaking to a broader audience meant looking at their own research from a different angle.
“It caused me to think about the problems from a different perspective and led to some new insights,” said Sharon Hammes-Schiffer, the John Gamble Kirkwood Professor of Chemistry, who spoke about catalysts for energy conversion. She also noted that the talks on computer science gave her an appreciation for the breadth of the field, and to consider possible connections between the different disciplines.
In his introduction to a session on computer science, Daniel Spielman, the Henry Ford II Professor of Computer Science, Statistics and Data Science and Mathematics and Applied Mathematics, also pointed to connections from seemingly disparate fields. For instance, Yong Xiong, associate professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry, gave a talk on cryo-electron microscopy for structural biology, using images with novel algorithms. These, Spielman noted, were similar to some of the work of Smita Krishnaswamy, who spoke of predictive computational models of cells. And all this was possible, Spielman added, by the “amazing hardware” created by people such as Manohar.
Krishnaswamy, assistant professor of genetics and of computer science, said the various talks gave her some ideas that she could use in her own research.
“It was really unusual to hear from researchers on such a broad range of topics,” she said. “Hearing Rajit Manohar's talk made me think about how asynchronous circuits are related to human brains, and perhaps this is a model we could start to learn in biology.”
Interaction between speakers and audience was lively throughout. To keep the talks from getting too technical, A. Douglas Stone, the Carl A. Morse Professor of Applied Physics and professor of physics and deputy director of the Yale Quantum Institute — and one of the event’s original organizers — would sometimes ask a presenter to clarify a point.
Scott Miller, the Irénée du Pont Professor of Chemistry, who spoke on chemical reactions in molecular environments, said he was pleased with how the presentations maintained the tricky balance of substance and accessibility.
“I very much appreciated the way each speaker took some time to engage us on the nature of the data that they generate, and the techniques they use to analyze and understand it,” he said.