NASA researcher on the driving force behind aerospace innovation

Dr. Marie Denison talks about her work in computational physics and the importance of research collaboration

Aerial photograph of NASA's Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, home of the NASA Advanced Supercomputer Division (Image credit: Eric James)

As a research scientist in computational physics in the NASA Advanced Supercomputer (NAS) Division, Dr. Marie Denison is well aware of the importance of science that inspires people. Her work on turbulence modeling supports the ambitious goals laid out in NASA's Computational Fluid Dynamics Vision 2030 Study, which identifies the simulation modeling, high-performance computing (HPC) and big data management advances that will revolutionize computational aerosciences. The progress made in those areas at NASA, research labs, in academia, and in the industry will help propel aerospace innovations and reduce costs in the coming decades.

The passion for discovery that drives Marie began thousands of miles from Silicon Valley at a high school in Belgium.

Marie Denison, PhD“I was lucky to have great teachers in high school, which is where my interest in a STEM career started,” she said. “I enjoyed maths and sciences, and I talked with people active in sciences. I recall attending the PhD presentation of one of my neighbors, who was an engineer. It was so interesting. It tipped me in the direction of studying applied physics.”

Now, Marie is able to act as a similar inspiration herself, as a speaker at the Women of Silicon Valley event May 2 and 3, part of a broader program of global events for which Elsevier is a sponsor. These events give people and organizations the chance to connect, learn and act on gender diversity and inclusion in science. Marie sees that visibility as especially important in encouraging the incoming generation.

Women are still a minority in STEM and in Silicon Valley. Being active in the scientific community, speaking about our experiences, networking and encouraging young women who are interested in STEM – and those who haven’t yet considered it – is hugely important to increase our presence.

Marie is a firm believer in the need to ensure that the public is included in the conversation about science, both as a means to give back to the community and to motivate talented people to join the ranks.

“NASA goes to great lengths to do exactly that,” she said. “Of course, we publish many detailed technical documents, and we regularly report our findings online, in the news and on NASA TV.”

Back when NASA’s New Horizon’s spacecraft performed a fly-by of Pluto, members of Elsevier’s Mendeley team were among the people present to document the event.

“We regularly engage with students of all ages through science fairs, school visits, seminars and exhibits,” Marie said. “At NASA Ames, visitors get to tour wind tunnels and the NAS facilities. NAS has some pretty cool stuff to showcase, like a hyperwall visuzalization system that helps researchers analyze multi-dimensional data related to space weather, climate modeling and aerosciences, for instance. NAS also hosts Pleiades, NASA’s most powerful supercomputer, and its recent expansion, Electra. Electra is the prototype for a new modular, prefabricated, container-based supercomputer system. The cool thing about it is that it does not require new building, and it utilizes technologies saving water and power over traditional supercomputing facilities.”

The center of the Milky Way galaxy imaged by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope is displayed on a quarter-of-a-billion-pixel, high-definition 23-foot-wide (7-meter) LCD science visualization screen at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. (Image Credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltec)

Marie’s own work revolves around studying the transition of so-called laminar flow, which can be thought of as consisting of thin parallel layers that do not interact much with each other, into the turbulent regime that shows fluctuating, chaotic features with strong mixing.

“Reliable laminar-turbulent transition modeling is critical to predicting the performance and safe operating limits of aircraft over their full mission profile, as illustrated with the grand challenge problems defined in the Vision 2030 report,” Marie explained. “At this stage, we are simulating the very fine details of the flow features to understand basic physics mechanisms that shall help improve models down the road. To this end, we use and develop computer models and algorithms that exploit the latest HPC capabilities and facilitate big data manipulation.

“My collaborators do not shy away from breaking new ground, which keeps the job challenging and fun.”

Working in a fast-moving field of research means keeping up to date with the latest research in numerous fields, something Marie achieves by sorting through current publications and participating in conferences, workshops and working groups involving experts from the international community. As highlighted by Elsevier’s own research reports, collaboration also proves to be an important way of sharing information and driving research forward.

That collaborative process is an essential component of the information system supporting research. Marie underscores the importance of collaboration and developing more open systems that allow research teams to build on what has gone before:

We communicate with many other research groups and host research visitors from academia, research labs and the industry, who bring their expertise and help disseminate ours. Say, for example, we develop a new computational fluid dynamics solver: we’re interested in having other researchers test it, and we develop it in a way that makes it easier for them to expand it by adding modules and capabilities to it.

For women looking to get into the world of STEM, Marie has some advice to share:

I would encourage you to talk to women and men who work in the area you’re interested in, and to find someone who will let you shadow them so you can see what the job is like. Also, do not let any gender bias you may encounter get in your way, and encourage other ladies to join you.

About Marie Denison

Dr. Marie Denison is a research scientist at the NASA Advanced Supercomputing Division at NASA’s Ames Research Center at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, where she develops computational fluid dynamics codes and applies them to the study of turbulent flow physics. Before that, she was an R&D engineer at Texas Instruments in Dallas and at Infineon Technologies in Munich, Germany, where she led the design of several high-volume automotive power components. She has authored and co-authored over 60 patents and 60 technical publications. Marie greatly enjoys collaborating with talents of all backgrounds to develop tools that shed light on physics phenomena.

Outside of work, her passion flows into raising awareness about farm animal welfare.

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