Oak Ridge internship helps senior focus on goals

Located 30 miles from Maryville is one of the world’s most powerful supercomputers.

The National Center for Computational Sciences at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) is the home of a supercomputer system that can calculate 119 teraflops, which figures to 119 trillion calculations per second.

Maryville College senior Brandon Aaby of Strawberry Plains, took advantage of ORNL’s supercomputer capabilities for seven months during 2007. Working on a double major in computer science and math, Aaby put his academic background to good use while interning at ORNL.

“Even though I have a double major and took many courses in math and computer science, I had the opportunity to greatly expand my scientific knowledge far beyond the regular course load,” Aaby said last month as he wound up his internship that started in May. “The real-world learning experience was great in adding to what I had learned in the classroom. This internship challenged me and gave me a better understanding of the opportunities in the computer science field and how I want to proceed after I graduate from Maryville.”

Maryville College is a member institution of Oak Ridge Associated Universities, and that relationship is extremely beneficial to students, according to Dr. Barbara Plaut, associate professor of computer science and Aaby’s academic advisor.

“We are so fortunate here at MC to have one of the best research labs in the world practically in our backyard,” said Plaut, who regularly schedules ORNL tours for her students. “Internships of any kind are beneficial to students, but having the opportunity to intern at a top-notch facility gives our students an unparalleled experience that can lead to excellent graduate school opportunities and fulltime jobs. As a consequence, our students enjoy the benefits of a small college while still having exposure to real-world, world-class research.”

Aaby is one of several current MC students who have interned at the national laboratory recently. Oak Ridge native and writing/communication major Whitney Downing, now a junior, was a member of the Research Alliance in Math and Science group last summer, working on Web design and usability and studying the internal and external communication at the facility.

During the summer of 2007, Aaby worked full time at ORNL with a group of college interns from around the country. During the fall semester, he worked primarily on an individual basis for 20 hours a week under the supervision of his mentor, Dr. Kalyan Perumalla of ORNL’s Computing and Computational Sciences Directorate.

His responsibility was to assist in the effort to increase the speed of computer simulations that social science researchers from Oak Ridge and around the world use to help with their particular areas of study. Much of Aaby’s focus was on working with graphics processing units that compose parts of particular research being studied.

Perumalla noted Aaby was a unique student, quick to grasp complex concepts.

“Brandon hit the road running by developing software and running experiments to help in our active projects on large-scale, high-speed simulations of social behavioral systems,” Perumalla said. “He learned a fair amount of complex material, such as graphics processors and data parallel algorithms in a short amount of time.”

During his tenure at ORNL, Aaby assisted Perumalla in the writing of a paper that is currently undergoing peer review that will hopefully lead to eventual publication as part of an international computer simulation conference.

Aaby, a 2004 graduate of Knoxville Catholic High School, did not enroll in college with computational science as his goal.

“I came in as a freshman planning to major in engineering,” he said. “After I was introduced to computational science in a computer class during my sophomore year, I decided this is what I wanted to do, and I changed my major. I’ve never regretted that decision.”

Hoping to be in graduate school by this time next year, Aaby said there are many possibilities for him to explore in the field of computational sciences.

“This is a field that is definitely on the rise,” he said. “There are going to be opportunities to do some science and research, as well as teaching. There are a lot of options, and I’m excited about all of the possibilities.”

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