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I Apply Computational Mathematics to Understand the Natural World - Dr. Margot Gerritsen

posted Jul 8, 2010, 7:59 PM by Glenna Buford   [ updated Jul 8, 2010, 8:01 PM by AWM Editor ]

2004 AWM Essay Contest:
Grand Prize Winner

By Samantha Van Anh Tran

Dr. Margot Gerritsen's cultural, family, and educational background has molded her life and made her the successful person she has become. She was born and raised in Goes, a small, well-structured Dutch village, in the Southwest of Holland. Growing up in a Catholic family, where both her grandfathers and her father were teachers, she developed a deep interest in teaching at an early age because teaching was "always a part of her family". She started tutoring other students at the age of twelve. While she always wanted to be a teacher, she was uncertain at what level or in what field she would teach. Her teaching experience gradually evolved into teaching small classes while in high school and has resulted in her becoming a tenure-track assistant professor in the Department of Petroleum Engineering at Stanford University.

Her family strongly emphasized education and expected that she and her two other siblings would do well in school. She had a strong aptitude in mathematics and a desire to be the best at whatever she did. In grade school, her teachers gave structured math quizzes. She always strove to be the best by finishing the quiz first with a perfect score. At this young age, she had already developed a strong competitive edge that helped her succeed. Her inspiration to do mathematics comes from self-motivation.

As her studies grew in mathematics, she realized that pure mathematics as compared to applied mathematics did not capture her full interest. She developed a deep passion for real-world problem solving using the methods and techniques of applied mathematics. She found that she was able to model significant problems and obtain realistic solutions. Because she always loved "puzzles" and was intrigued by real-world problems, it was natural for her to identify and solve such problems with an engineering problem-solving approach.

Dr. Gerritsen’s strong pre-college educational background prepared her for both undergraduate and graduate studies. She attended a Catholic co-ed high school where she participated in the 6-year science track beginning in 7th grade. Going on to her undergraduate and master's-level graduate studies, she wasn’t sure what area or major to go into so she chose applied mathematics because of its usefulness in solving engineering problems. She chose this field of concentration to keep the doors of opportunity wide open. She attended the Delft University of Technology, a traditional, male-dominated university of engineering and technology, where only 6% of the student body were women. In a class of 200 students, it was common for her to be one out of two or three women in the course. She obtained her Master's of Science degree in applied mathematics from the Delft University of Technology.

She left the Netherlands in 1990 to go to "sunnier and hillier places" in the United States. She obtained her Ph.D. in Scientific Computing and Computational Mathematics with a minor in mechanical engineering at Stanford University.

When asked how she felt about learning and working in a male-dominated profession, she indicated that she never considered it a challenge. She stated, "I’ve always had many more male friends than female, and that started in high school already because I did all the sciences." Since then, she has often been the only professional woman in her work group or academic department. Again she stated, "I think very much so that if you don’t dwell on it yourself, then it’s actually no issue. I mean, of course, there are things that happen, but in both ways. Some things help and some things do not, but on the whole there is a good balance."

When I asked about her techniques for success, she answered: "First, I am usually stubborn and I never give up. Second, I tend to try to learn from my mistakes, and I am not afraid to ask questions. And third, I try always to be optimistic and accept my imperfections, so I never generally feel trapped or give blame to others." She believes students should be self-motivated to learn and develop abilities to think and solve problems critically, independently, and analytically. She feels that in order to succeed in college, as well as in life, one must be creative and think "outside of the box" in order to understand and fully grasp the "bigger picture".

Dr. Gerritsen uses five key principles in most of her work. First, a physical understanding of the given problem, including an understanding of cause-and-effect relationships, must be obtained. Second, a mathematical model must be specified and built in order to fully comprehend and visualize the problem. Third, approximations of the mathematical equations must be specified. Fourth, the appropriate numerical methods must be applied to obtain simulation results. And fifth, tests must be performed and repeated to obtain the data required to formulate a realistic conclusion about the modeling effort. She believes that people tend to dive into the mathematical modeling too quickly without adequately understanding the underlying physics. Understanding the relevant physics is the most challenging step. She believes that more and better collaboration and interdisciplinary problem solving is required to successfully attack significant real-world problems.

Dr. Gerritsen lives her everyday life according to one Dutch saying: Geniet het leven, benut het leven. Het vliegt voorbij en duurt maar oven. This motto literally means: Enjoy life, get most out of life. It will fly quickly and will last only a little while. Three recent events have driven her to try to live the spirit of this saying: the birth of her 4-year-old son, Callum; a near tragic emergency airplane landing in 2002 which resulted in a passenger’s death due to a heart attack; and the sudden death of her father, who was the main pillar in her life. Because she was so close to her father, his death made her realize how quickly everything could end. She said, “It’s these life-defining moments that put everything into perspective."

When asked what the term "lifelong learning" means, Dr. Gerritsen answered with: "Every day is a big, long learning experience. I think the more you learn, the more you know what you don’t know." She believes that "the further along you get in your education and the longer you work, the more you see there’s so much that still needs to be discovered and so many things are not clear."

Today, she is a tenure-track assistant professor in the Petroleum-Engineering Department at Stanford University, but considers herself to be "more of a fluid dynamicist than a petroleum engineer." Her main research is "the design and analysis of efficient numerical methods for solving partial differential equations that model processes in fluid dynamics." Her current research projects, aided by the use of computational mathematics enhanced by ever-evolving computer technology and software, are significant to society.

Examples are her involvement in the Stanford Yacht Research Group study that led to The Flight of the Nyctosaurus and a related project with The National Geographic Society. A nyctosaurus is a pterosaur or a flying reptile that lived about 80 to 85 million years ago. It had a large head crest that resembled the mast-boom-sail combination of a raked-back windsurfer. When a friend asked her to examine the effect that its big head crest may have had on the flight of this reptile, she became intrigued with pterosaurs and their flight. She is currently constructing physical replicas of this creature and other pterosaurs to analyze their form and function. The National Geographic project is about a much larger and older pterosaur called the African Pterosaur, whose wingspan was five meters. This project is also the backbone of a National Geographic Society movie that will be released early 2006. The goal of the project is to build a full-scale functional model that truly mimics the flight characteristics of a pterosaur. In addition to co-managing the project, her technical contributions are modeling and computing the flow capacities of the beast. She hopes the research conducted in this project will help advance the understanding of membrane flight, which may lead to innovative aircraft design. The project has enabled her to set up a summer program for high school students, allowing them to aid in the construction and simulation of the model replicas.

Another area of her research involves studies of subsurface oil reservoirs. A major problem of such reservoirs is that much of the oil is extremely difficult to recover. Gas injection can be used to enhance oil recovery but it is expensive, and a good simulation model of gas and oil flow is needed. She is developing the computational algorithms that enable more accurate performance predictions. The simulation of gas and oil flow in a mathematical model of an oil reservoir is a major computational challenge. Dr. Gerritsen applies partial differential equations in computational models to help the oil industry be more efficient, so that our country can decrease its dependence on foreign oil sources. Through her research she hopes to improve the understanding of fluid flow processes in oil reservoirs.

Five major areas in which she has published refereed papers are sailing, paleontology, oil reservoir modeling, coastal ocean modeling, and simulation of flow in shallow coastal regions. Her long-term goal is to apply computational mathematics to improve our understanding of the physics of the natural world.

Dr. Gerritsen serves as a Faculty Advisor for the Stanford chapter of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics in America (SIAM). Outside of her professional work, she has many interests and hobbies. She likes to play with her son, Callum, go biking, hiking, swimming, scuba diving, gardening, sewing, knitting, reading, listening to music, and weightlifting (but not as much as when she was a weightlifting instructor).

Through her many struggles and accomplishments, she has grown into a much stronger person. The birth of her son, the death of her father, and the horrendous airplane experience were significant personal stepping-stones. Upon completion of her Ph.D. dissertation, "Designing an Efficient Solution Strategy for Fluid Flows", she has grown professionally, becoming the only woman on the faculty of the Petroleum Engineering Department at Stanford University. She emphasizes that computational mathematics has become quite a mature field because of advances in computer technology and software. Today, much more complex models can be constructed and exercised with appropriate visualizations that can enable a deeper understanding of physical structures and related phenomena. Dr. Gerritsen hopes to continue making cutting edge contributions to interdisciplinary research and problem solving with a particular emphasis in the challenging field of fluid dynamics.

About the student: 
My name is Samantha Van Anh Tran, and I am an eleventh grade student at Presentation High School in San José, California - an all-girls high school. My favorite subjects are mathematics and the sciences. I am a first generation Vietnamese-American: my parents immigrated to the United States from Vietnam after the fall of Saigon. At last year's Synopsys Silicon Valley Science and Technology Championship, I won the grand prize in the physical sciences division for my project, "The Physical Chemistry of the Ice Spike Phenomena." This enabled me to exhibit my project at both the California State Science Fair and the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). I received the Achievement Award in Atmospheric Sciences from the American Meteorological Society for my project.