Off the Cuff: Dan Stinebring
Dan Stinebring is a professor of astronomy with interests in astrophysics, radio astronomy and pulsars. He recently helped to found the Oberlin Center for Computation and Modeling.
You recently helped organize an OCCaM Conference. Can you talk briefly about what that was all about and what the process was to organize it? Also, what is the Oberlin Center for Computation and Modeling?
Many people pronounce it “Oh-Cam,” but it’s actually pronounced “Ah-Cum.” It’s a play on the name “William of Ockham,” who had this philosophical or scientific principle that you should use the minimum number of assumptions possible.
The idea for OCCaM grew out of lunch conversations that a group of three or four professors started to have in January of 2005. We had these conversations about how we all use modeling in our own research. It was important to all of us. We all used computers as well. And we all just started to think about how there was a lot of commonality in our interests. We obviously all had our own different research projects, but still, the way we approach them and set up models and that sort of thing, there was overlap. We decided we wanted to support each other and share ideas, as opposed to isolating ourselves as professors in our own little offices. So the idea grew out of that.
We approached the administration to help us in our first year. We came up with a budget. We decided we wanted to jump into this with both feet, and we wanted to see what was out there on the national scene and what other schools like Oberlin were doing. So we decided to host this national conference. It was kind of small, but not too small...there were about 40 people from around the country, mostly faculty members. We like the idea of having a lot of student representation and involvement, but honestly, it was a big enough of a job to organize it among the faculty members. There were, though, half a dozen students [from] outside of Oberlin and a dozen Oberlin students who were actively involved in the conference as well.
We’re considering making it annual or bi-annual, but right now, our focus within OCCaM is with on-campus activities. “What can we do to improve opportunities for students who are interested in modeling science?” It’s a phrase I’m using these days because we need to get over that we’re only talking about computers. It’s more than computers.
Do you think you can pause for a minute to explain what you mean by modeling, for those readers who aren’t so familiar with the concept?
I can give you a simple example of a model that might be used in an introductory environmental studies class, or that type of situation. Think of the situation where there’s the predator and prey, furry rabbits running around and wily foxes, and you want to look at the population dynamics. What would happen if, as the number of rabbits multiplies, all of a sudden the wily foxes have more food? That’s the sort of thing you can’t actually write down; while you might be able to write down the equations, you can’t solve them in a nice, simple form. You have to run a model on the computer to see how those equations interact with each other. If the Center for Disease wanted to trace the spread of avian flu, for example, it would need a model.
What role did the OCCaM conference have in framing Oberlin as an institution with a strong science department, both among peer institutions and in the broader science community?
The national conference was very helpful for Oberlin. Lots of people came in, saw that we have a lot of science facilities and a core of faculty members who are excited about modeling science and want to do more with it. We made some connections through the national conference that are going to endure.
I think you probably know that Oberlin has, for many decades, been a leader in science education in the nation, and even though that’s known on campus, it’s perhaps not widely known across the country as we think it should be. We want to highlight some of these developments on campus. We have excellent faculty in the sciences, but that’s not even so unique. One of the things that is so special about Oberlin is the students. We have students who are really ready to be involved in our research, to be co-partners in our work, and this makes it an exciting place to teach. And we want to let prospective students and others know that, because we think there’s something very special going on here.
For me, this is all about opportunities to enable students. One of the things that really empowers students is opportunities after Oberlin; Oberlin as a stepping stone toward a variety of exciting careers that, in this very changing world, may not even have names yet, but nonetheless, opportunities to start working with someone to design a new generation of computer chips, or green buildings.
How do you and your colleagues find ways of helping each other with your work, research and interests?
How do we help each other? What we find is that we often have some of the same concerns: How do you get started getting a model going in your research? What contents are you using? What techniques are you using? How do you check to make sure the results that you’re getting bears some connection with the real world? We have a weekly “OCCaM modeling group” every Tuesday afternoon at 4:30 p.m., which involves giving student and faculty presentations, and talking with each other informally about programs in our research and successes in our research. The meetings are fairly research-focused, but often times students doing projects with faculty members or students who are just interested come to the meetings to check it out.
The cool thing about the formation of OCCaM is that it has just opened up new exciting activities for all of us. From a faculty perspective, Oberlin is very departmental and it’s very hard to do things across department boundaries. Not that Oberlin is unique to that, but we don’t have particularly porous boundaries in this sense. Departments try to be kind of protective and turf-conscious, but the cool thing about OCCaM is we’re all interested in sharing each other’s projects.
Since you first started teaching at Oberlin in 1990, what other exciting introductions to the sciences have you seen or experienced, or what is the most exciting introduction?
It’s not exactly the question that you asked, but to tell you the truth, OCCaM has been the most exciting thing I’ve been involved with on campus since I’ve gotten here because I’ve gotten to know so many other professors in other departments. It’s only going to grow as more people get involved and we get students involved. We’re also exploring the possibility of developing a concentration in modeling science.
This is the exciting stuff; knowledge and learning does not come in little
departmental boxes. We’ve all inherited a fairly strict departmental
structure that we tend to work in, so it’s very liberating to work with
people across boundaries. I personally have a range of interests and it’s
interesting for me to learn about economics, or environmental studies or
chemistry. To have colleagues whose work is as interesting as my work is to me
is so exciting. When faculty members are excited about what they’re doing,
it means they’re charged up in the classrooms and there are projects for
students to work on and there are good contacts so when students graduate from
Oberlin and want to go on in biochemistry or environmental studies. They know
that their profs will be around to support and inspire them.