Aug 18, 2020 – Bill Dorland, a renowned computer physicist at the University of Maryland, has been appointed to the new position of Assistant Laboratory Director for Computer Science at Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL).
Bill Dorland, a renowned computer physicist at the University of Maryland, has been appointed to the new position of Assistant Laboratory Director, Computer Science at PPPL. Image courtesy Alison Harbaugh, PPPL.
Dorland has extensive knowledge of developing computer code for modeling complex plasma-physical processes. He won the US Department of Energy’s Ernest Orlando Lawrence Award in 2009 for his work on computer code to understand turbulence, chaotic eddies, and eddies in plasma that can disrupt fusion reactions. Dorland will lead PPPL’s efforts to advance computer science to a new core function, providing powerful computer assistance to understand and predict the physics of fusion plasma, design fusion devices, and simulate complex plasma phenomena.
Steve Cowley, PPPL director, said Dorland has an excellent background to lead efforts to develop computer science as a key research area at PPPL. “I’m very excited to have Bill Dorland join our team,” said Cowley. “Bill played a pivotal role in developing plasma turbulence simulations for which he received the prestigious DOO EO Lawrence Award – it’s an amazing achievement. He is also a strategic thinker who has a compelling vision for the future of PPPL in scientific computing. “
Jon Menard, assistant director of research, said Dorland’s expertise and reputation in physics make him an excellent choice for the new position. He noted that Dorland has a broad research background that includes not only plasma physics but also astrophysics. “He has excellent computing experience and has led large research groups at the University of Maryland,” he said. “He knows the community well, and pretty well … and he’s an excellent person to lead this effort from both a technical and a strategic standpoint.”
“Princeton is the leading national fusion energy laboratory and plasma physics program in the United States. The invitation to attend was very exciting,” said Dorland. “PPPL has decades of success in computational physics, natural sciences, and engineering. This is more about reactivating this ability. “
Computer codes are used to understand everything from the shape of the plasma to the absorption and release of energy. These physical problems are too complex to be solved by linear equations. An area of research devoted to computational physics would allow researchers to work with a team to solve problems through models that can predict plasma behavior. That team would not only include computer physicists, but also information technology people who specialize in coding, Dorland said. “Instead of making unique, beautiful cars,” he said, “we’re going to build a production line. We will bring mass computing to scientific computing at PPPL. “
Computer science is one of two new core functions being developed as part of Cowley’s plan to expand PPPL’s research mission into a multi-purpose laboratory. The other new core competency is the development of a research program that focuses on low temperature plasmas in microelectronics and quantum computers. “We want to organize the lab so that we can support a diversified mission and help model what the industries of the future will need to be successful,” said Cowley.
A new computer cluster
Dorland is working with Menard and Princeton University to build a computational physics cluster. The cluster would be a supercomputer that would be used to develop more computer code and use existing code to solve more research problems. Last year Princeton University purchased Traverse, a supercomputer for their High Performance Computing Research Center, which has expanded resources for PPPL researchers and computational physics students to develop computer codes for tomorrow’s exascale computing.
The Computational Physics Computing Cluster has an architecture similar to the mother-of-pearl supercomputer at the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center. It would use codes developed at PPPL and used in fusion facilities around the world, including the TRANSP code, which is used for modeling entire equipment of fusion reactors, and codes such as M3D-C1 and GKeyll, which are used to simulate stability and des Plasmas used by fusion plasma are turbulent. The supercomputer could already be installed on the Forrestal campus this calendar year and be available to both PPPL and university researchers.
PPPL has also led the Exascale Computing Entire Device Modeling Application Fusion (WDMApp) project and has worked closely with advanced computer experts at Princeton University, particularly through the Princeton Institute for Computational Science and Engineering (PICSciE).
At the same time, PPPL is developing its quantum computing capabilities for plasma simulations, Dorland said. These new functions will help PPPL to make a greater contribution to future fusion research for the international fusion experiment ITER and to further develop fusion devices of the next generation.
Chair of Computational Physics at the PPPL
Dorland led an external computational assessment of PPPL in December 2019 which found that numerous PPPL researchers are doing computational research, but different individuals and teams are isolated and may not be fully aware of each other’s efforts. “These are great teams of professionals who write great work but often do not share software or computer knowledge,” said Dorland.
The report also recommended PPPL to develop closer partnerships with Princeton University as well as other universities with expertise in the field such as Rutgers University, Dorland said.
Dorland will be at PPPL at half-time and will continue to work as a professor at the University of Maryland at half-time. Dorland has been the deputy lab manager for the past few months. In April, he hosted a virtual retreat with many PPPL staff to share information and discuss a strategic plan for computational physics that was part of PPPL’s long-term vision outlined in the annual laboratory plan.
Graduated from Princeton in 1993
Dorland received distinguished honors when he graduated from the University of Texas with a bachelor’s degree in physics in 1988. He received a Ph.D. He studied astrophysics at Princeton University in 1993. During his undergraduate studies, he worked with Cowley, a then-PPPL employee, and his advisor, PPPL physicist Greg Hammett.
Dorland earned a Masters in Public Affairs from the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs (formerly Woodrow Wilson School) in 1993, where he focused on science policy. In addition to winning the EO Lawrence Award, he is a respected teacher at the University of Maryland. He was the director of the University of Maryland Honors College for seven years. Dorland was made a Fellow in the Plasma Physics Division of the American Physical Society in 2005.
Dorland is open about his fight against a rare type of cancer called chordoma, tumors that occur on the base of the skull and spine. He was diagnosed with the disease in 2004 and had two years to live. The tumors affected Dorland’s spine and his ability to walk. Dorland was one of the founders of the Chordoma Foundation(Link is external)who has raised millions of dollars for research. He was one of the first patients in immunotherapy treatment in 2012. The treatment initially seemed to work, but then failed, and Dorland participated in another immunotherapy study in 2016. Dorland continues to volunteer with the Chordoma Foundation and continues to provide advice to chordoma patients around the world.
Dorland and his wife, Sarah Penniston-Dorland, a professor of geology at the University of Maryland, live in College Park, Maryland. They have a grown daughter, Kendall Dorland.
Dorland looks forward to the challenge of building a robust computational science program at PPPL. “This is about building a really successful organization within the lab to support the mission,” he said.
PPPL on Princeton University’s Forrestal campus in Plainsboro, New Jersey, is dedicated to creating new insights into the physics of plasmas – ultra-hot, charged gases – and developing practical solutions for generating fusion energy. Managed by the University for the US Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the US’s largest single supporter of basic science in the natural sciences, the lab works to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. More information is available at science.energy.gov