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Dr. Dianna Spence

Computer Science Research Opportunity like a Hidden Treasure

Dr. Dianna Spence

North Georgia College and State University professor Dianna Spence, Ph.D., participated in the U.S. DOE Faculty and Student Team research program at ORNL to hasten the speed at which computationally-intensive equations are solved for the analysis of groundwater.

Dr. Dianna Spence, a mathematics professor at North Georgia College and State University, enjoys teaching and working with students but also knows that she really thrives in a productive computer software development environment.

Spence was able to enjoy aspects of both environments recently while working alongside three of her best undergraduate students in the Computer Science and Mathematics Division of Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), saying that “it feels like an ideal hybrid of industry and academic environments.”

Although her school is not historically a research university, a recent emphasis on fostering undergraduate research led Spence to apply for the U.S. Department of Energy Faculty and Student Team (FaST) research program, which is administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education and provides summer research opportunities in national laboratories.

Spence believes that increasing her involvement and awareness of current developments in her field will improve research prospects at her university, where few resources currently exist.

“The material I am learning also benefits me as an instructor,” she adds, noting that there are several relevant connections to her ORNL research and the courses she teaches. “The ability to make these connections will doubtless increase my effectiveness in the classroom.”

The “real world” application is one factor that initially drew Spence to this particular project. She and her students Lee Allison, Phillip Ostby and David Whitaker work with mentor Bobby Philip of ORNL’s Computer Science and Mathematics Division to hasten the speed at which computationally-intensive equations are solved.

The team aims to modify a set of computer programs that solve partial differential equations, which will be used in the analysis of groundwater flow. If Spence and her students are able modify the programs efficiently, groundwater flow can be analyzed more quickly.

Spence’s three-student team brings a variety of skills to the table. One student is well-versed in computing environments, while another is comfortable with matrices and linear systems, and the third has a good grasp on the physical applications of the research.

“The students and I all work in the same office; and when anyone discovers something worth sharing, they speak up to engage the other team members in the discussion,” said Spence, who believes the students benefit from the collaboration and interdisciplinary nature of the project.

“Even though we are primarily engaged in optimizing a mathematical process in a specific computing environment, the same methods we are studying have applications in... biology, medicine, physics, astronomy, environmental science, geology, chemistry, and so on,” said Spence.

The team is also gaining applicable experience in some of the most current technologies with graphics processing unit programming and parallel processing, and Spence says it is gratifying to watch her students developing a valuable skill set, as well as self confidence.

“I am amazed that the opportunity to come here and participate in cutting-edge research was there all along, like a hidden treasure,” Spence said. “I only wish I had pursued it earlier.” Spence lives in northern Georgia, which is less than four hours from ORNL.