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Feature Story | Mathematics and Computer Science Division

Mark Hereld — an interdisciplinarian combining science and art

Shattering traditional boundaries between disciplines, Dr. Mark Hereld has worked on experimental physics research and high-performance visualization infrastructure and has designed various art exhibit collaborations over the course of his career.

Although Hereld is known as an experimental systems engineer in the Mathematics and Computer Science (MCS) division at Argonne National Laboratory, his career is anything but definable. He believes that drawing from his diversity of research experiences allows him to approach projects in a unique way. Having picked up various skills over the past few decades, Hereld thrives on collaboration across traditional discipline boundaries to answer the big questions that are beyond the scope of any one discipline. I enjoy bridging communities,” Hereld said. Currently, he is working with the Field Museum to create camera-based data capture systems that capture information on tiny labels (about 4-point font) on pinned bugs.

Hereld pursued his undergraduate studies in physics and graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1978. He then went on to graduate school at Caltech studying experimental physics, where he worked with the gravity wave project — now known as LIGO. As the first graduate student in the project, he gained the skills to visualize how pieces fit together in 2D and 3D. Hereld worked on electromechanical engineering aspects in the building of the large vacuum system prototype for the project. This was Hereld’s first encounter with mechanical design — little did he know that this was the type of work he’d pursue, albeit in the computing world, for the next zillion years.”

After receiving his Ph.D., Hereld joined the aerospace and defense company Rockwell International to figure out how to apply arrays of infrared detectors to astronomy. These newly available detectors married large-scale integrated electronics made in silicon, like the detector in your phone camera (which didn’t exist back then!), to more exotic materials sensitive to infrared photons,” Hereld explained. I’ve always been interested in methods for sensitive detection, and computing has always been a big part of interpretation of these measurements! So, it’s not too much of a stretch to move into computational science from an experimental physics background.”

Hereld’s interest in infrared detection led to the 1993 deployment of the first-generation South Pole Infrared Explorer (SPIREX) to the South Pole, a University of Chicago project he developed with the University of Chicago’s Al Harper. The deployment included a series of spectrometers, imagers, and telescopes. Hoping to find an environment for very sensitive near-infrared observations with the low background that an orbiting satellite would see, we decided to put the very cold and dry atmosphere at the South Pole to the test,” Hereld said.

After working with the University of Chicago scientists on SPIREX, Hereld became involved with a project dedicated to obtaining a robot to handle terabytes of data storage. The Chicago Argonne Terabyte Storage system project team needed someone with a physics background and computing knowledge, and thus began Hereld’s journey into the MCS division.

After joining Argonne in 1998, Hereld worked on a variety of projects, mainly developing technologies for displaying information on a large scale. I developed large-scale tile displays based on projectors. The work draws on several disciplines, from engineering and mechanical design to computer science,” Hereld said. He explained that building display systems isn’t singularly computer science, but parallel rendering is the contact point between all of the fields. I think my biggest value in these projects has been my outside experience. I’m comfortable with interdisciplinary projects because of the unusual combination of skills I’ve picked up over the years,” Hereld said.

Hereld also has worked on several technologies that aid the interfacing of high-performance computing for scientists. One of these focuses on creating large-scale neocortex brain simulations. Hereld collaborates with scientists studying epilepsy and helps organize the modeling and computational aspects of their software.

Hereld is working on two projects in the MCS division, both of which reference his earlier career interests — capturing and analyzing image data.

The first project involves creating a system to capture information on pinned bugs at the Field Museum. The information is microscopic, and human-driven data logging would take over 100 years to retrieve and document all of the information. To optimize this process, Hereld builds camera systems that reach various angles to take a snapshot of the bug from every angle and piece together the information. He is currently working on three different designs for these 3D label reconstructions. Nicola Ferrier, a senior scientist in the MCS divison and a collaborator on this project, said: Working with Mark is special: he is very creative and usually comes up with ideas that are truly (to use an overused cliché) outside the box”—sometimes his ideas seem wacky but there is always a nugget of brilliance in the wackiness. Mark brings enthusiasm and humor to every meeting.”

Exploiting math to provide reliable high-resolution 3D snapshots, Hereld’s second project involves getting dynamic snapshots of the motion of molecules and bacteria in a single 3D image. This 3D microscopy system is a high-resolution optical system that perturbs the camera signal and encodes 3D information onto an image. The project is a combination of optics, measurement, and image creation,” Hereld said.

Alongside high-performance interfacing and computational work, Hereld has also produced several art pieces. His work dances back and forth across the border” between science and art by manipulating light, cold, the void, and time to create paintings, mixed media pieces, and new media works that explore the nature of the abstractions in our physical world. His work on Random Sky” has been written about in the Chicago Tribune, the Architectural Review, and more.

Art is about creating, and it’s always a personal struggle for me; one that revolves around questioning myself, the work, and my connection to the work,” Hereld elaborates. Compared to science and engineering, art is less definable and very open-ended, and it’s a wonderfully personal opportunity to explore.”

Hereld also co-designed the graphic skin” for the supercomputer Mira at Argonne. Hereld is a member of the Images Gallery Cooperative in Chicago, and his work has been displayed in several exhibition centers, including the Grand Ballroom in Navy Pier and the Hyde Park Art Center.

While Hereld has reaped the benefits of pursuing interdisciplinary projects that reflect his interests, he admits that there have been challenges. It’s certainly a lot of work to adjust yourself to a different set of goals and priorities while pursuing projects in different disciplines,” Hereld said. My career path has been anything but linear, but I am fortunate that I’ve been able to pursue my passions and contribute to such a diverse set of projects along the way.”

To learn more about Dr. Mark Hereld’s work, please visit