Northwestern professor reflects on mini-sabbatical at Argonne

By Chelsea LeuSeptember 10, 2013

As the first Northwestern University faculty member to participate in the new Argonne-Northwestern mini-sabbatical program, Michael Miksis has had the opportunity to collaborate with Argonne researchers in the Mathematics and Computer Science division and make valuable connections with scientists of various disciplines.

Miksis is a professor of engineering sciences and applied mathematics, and mechanical engineering at the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science at Northwestern. In his research, he applies mathematical and computational models to fluid dynamics, for applications in biology.  At Argonne, he studies the effects of electrical fields on cells, as well as the technique of drying cells to preserve them.

Miksis collaborates with Argonne’s Paul Fischer (MCS) on a code developed by Fischer and the MCS division. The code, Nek5000, has the ability to accurately model fluid dynamics, and it has been used to simulate situations like gas turbine cooling and vascular flow. Through the mini-sabbatical program, Miksis gained a rare opportunity to modify the code with Fischer to apply to his own projects.

The mini-sabbatical program is offered through the Northwestern-Argonne Institute for Science and Engineering (NAISE), the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, and Argonne. Its goal is to strengthen Northwestern’s interactions with Argonne in existing areas of research, and to develop new areas of collaboration. 

The program is offered quarterly – in the fall, winter and spring – and lasts 10 weeks. Faculty members are chosen through an application proposal by representatives from Northwestern, NAISE, and Argonne. Once accepted, the participant is relieved from teaching duties for the quarter and must spend at least three full days a week at Argonne.

One facet of Miksis’s work at Argonne is researching lyopreservation, a technique used to preserve cells by drying them.  Miksis’s group at Northwestern had figured out how to model this phenomenon in two dimensions. At Argonne, Miksis works with Fischer to modify the code to model a 3D structure, a more complex and realistic problem. This project relies on robust computing power, which Argonne provides.

Though his mini-sabbatical officially ended in June, Miksis is still collaborating with Fischer. The program helped him plant the “seed” of a project, he said, “that hopefully will grow.”  He hopes to eventually branch out into a mutual grant program, and he has recently employed a graduate student to begin work on the project. 

Miksis highlights the ability to easily engage with other researchers as a major benefit of the program. At Argonne, he was able to collaborate much more easily with not only Fischer, but Fischer’s group as well.

“Especially when you’re just beginning a project,” he said, “being able to walk down the hall and say ‘I can’t figure this out!’ was very helpful.” 

Miksis especially prized the opportunity to speak with researchers outside his division. He believes that university researchers would benefit from engaging with new fields and learning new information, and he recalls that the best day of his mini-sabbatical was a student seminar day, when researchers from the MCS division gave short talks about their own projects. 

The Chicago area is fortunate to have such strong scientific institutions like Northwestern and Argonne in close proximity, Miksis said.

“The institutions may be 40 miles away from each other,” he said, “but building links through programs like this can make them seem like they’re next-door neighbors.”