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He Bridges the Gap in Scientific Knowledge

He Bridges the Gap in Scientific Knowledge
A view of the new eastbound span of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Washington

Born decades after the devastating 1940 collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and on the other side of the earth, Omid Nohadani is developing mathematical methodology to ensure such a catastrophe never happens again.

A physicist’s son, Nohadani moved from his native Iran to Germany at age 12 and became a groundbreaking physicist himself. He is at the forefront of the relatively new field of robust optimization — a modeling methodology that uses computational tools to address optimization problems in which the data is uncertain.

Earning his Ph.D. in physics at USC College in 2005, Nohadani will take his research to his new post as assistant professor at Purdue University.

For nearly four years, Nohadani has conducted postdoctoral research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard Medical School, where he has advanced his work on robust optimization. The field’s real-world applications could prevent bridges from collapsing due to errors that in the case of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Washington was later referred to as a blind spot.

The calamity occurred four months after construction because engineers failed to take into account the effects of vertical side winds.

“After these side winds, the bridge started to vibrate like the strings of a guitar,” Nohadani said during a telephone interview from Cambridge. “You can’t just blindly design. You have to take errors into account.”

Nohadani said he built a strong research foundation at USC College. After earning his bachelor’s and master’s in physics with a minor in philosophy at the University of Bonn in Germany, he chose the College because of his interest in theoretical research and the opportunity to work with Stephan Haas, a highly respected physicist in the field.

“For the particular kind of research I wanted to do, USC was the best choice,” he said. “And because of the family atmosphere, I quickly felt at home. It became my scientific home.”

Haas, professor of physics and astronomy, said Nohadani’s success was a result of his former student’s intellectual independence and originality in research.

“We like to prepare our graduate students as much as we can to develop these characteristics,” said Haas, Nohadani’s academic adviser. “In my experience, successfully struggling with hard research problems at the beginning of a career is an excellent way of gaining the resourcefulness and independence that one looks for in a prolific scientist.”

Nohadani said USC was among the first universities to establish a high-performance computing center (HPCC) to solve scientific problems.

“They brought in 20 to 30 computers to create a parallel machine at HPCC, and I was one of the first users on the computational side,” he said. “By the time I graduated, this machine was the second-largest academic computer in the world. I was a graduate student and allowed to be part of all of that.”

While at USC, Nohadani was appointed Graduate Student in Residence by the Office of the Provost. In that post, he served as a resource for all graduate and professional students and as a liaison with USC administration and faculty.

“This opportunity sharpened my leadership skills significantly,” he said.

Nohadani looks forward to continuing other crucial research in nanophotonics and ultrafast optics at Purdue. He also uses robust optimization techniques to improve treatment for cancer patients at the Massachusetts General Hospital. His treatment plan takes into account all phases of breathing during radiation, in particular for lung cases. Organ motion during breathing can compromise the effects of radiation.

“This is a mathematical model that has very, very wide applications,” he said. “It can be applied to building bridges, to treating cancer, to assessing the stock market. The model is emerging and finding its way into real life.”

He credited USC College for helping him to reach his current success.

“Nowhere else in the world could I as a graduate student have been able to carry on the kind of research I did there,” he said. “The opportunity was unique.”

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