SRP: Creating Opportunities for Breakthrough Collaborations

It is rare to find someone whose scientific research complements your own, even rarer to find that person outside of your lab or university circles, but sometimes the right event will introduce you to a future long-time collaborator. For Drs. David Trebotich and Christopher Paolini, that event was the SHI Sustainable Research Pathways (SRP) workshop in December 2018, and it underscores the benefits of greater exposure to and engagement with a diversity of researchers. 

Dr. Trebotich is a computational scientist in the Applied Numerical Algorithms Group of the Applied Mathematics and Computational Research Division at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (“Berkeley Lab”). Dr. Trebotich developed a code known as “Chombo-Crunch” with earth scientists Sergi Molins and Carl Steefel at Berkeley Lab to accurately simulate flow paths and reactions in subsurface fluid-rock systems. 

Dr. Paolini is an Assistant Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at San Diego State University (SDSU), whose work focuses on geochemical thermodynamics, subsurface flow, and the simulation of enhanced carbon mineralization. He wanted to present to and collaborate with researchers at Berkeley Lab. So, he applied to the SRP workshop and presented his research, ​​which focused on using produced water as a medium for algae growth to reduce the cost of water disposal, while at the same time stimulating precipitation of calcite and dolomite to increase the rate of mineral trapping for carbon storage. 

Dr. Trebotich heard about the presentation, reached out to Dr. Paolini, and they began what has become a multi-year SRP partnership. As SDSU is a Hispanic Serving Institution, Dr. Paolini approached three of his Latinx students who could assist with Dr. Trebotich’s code. That first summer, two Ph.D. students and two undergraduate electrical engineering students, who also had backgrounds in computer programming, joined Dr. Paolini at Berkeley Lab. 

Dr. Paolini’s students worked with codes that simulate microscale flows in complex porous media geometries. They gained unique skills in using state-of-the-art high-performance computing resources for simulating pore scale, geologic subsurface flow using finite volume, and embedded boundary methods with irregular boundaries. They also learned to meet quarterly milestones and deliverables, contributing to project milestone reports.

“That first summer went so well that we continued, we sharpened our focus, and now Chris is an integral part of this team. Chris and his students have filled a real need on the project,” says Dr. Trebotich. “I don’t think I would have had an avenue to work with Chris and other researchers at SDSU without the SRP program.”

For the two undergraduate students, Giovanni Garcia and Richard Gonzales, the SRP gave a significant boost to their applications to Masters of Science in Electrical Engineering programs and to internships at the Naval Information Warfare Systems Command (formerly known as Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command or SPAWAR). And one of the graduate students who participated three years in a row, Angel Boada, recently received his Ph.D. and is currently applying for a postdoctoral position at Berkeley Lab. 

For his part, Dr. Paolini credits the collaboration with boosting his own research and improving his tenure and promotion packages. “It is such a great privilege to collaborate and be affiliated with Berkeley Lab,” says Dr. Paolini. “Also, the SRP program allows me to bring underrepresented students to a national lab and provide them amazing research experience, all of which is valued at SDSU.” 

Drs. Paolini and Trebotich continue to work on accelerating the Chombo-Crunch code on GPUs to speed computation. Their work is part of the DOE Exascale Computing Project (ECP) to accelerate research, development, acquisition, and deployment projects to deliver exascale computing capability to the DOE laboratories by the early to mid-2020s. ECP teams are multi-disciplinary and multi-institutional. “By accessing some of the largest computers, we can run bigger problems at scales and resolutions that are unprecedented,” says Dr. Trebotich. “You could say SRP fostered this collaboration and, by extension, this work.”