Omar Ghattas: Alum Tackles Large Problems

Graduation Year: 1984

Degree at Duke:
Bachelor of Science
Master's
PhD

Career Highlights:

  • John A. and Katherine G. Jackson Chair in Computational Geosciences
  • Professor of Geological Sciences and Mechanical Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin

Because at the time it was a relatively small program, we developed strong connections with faculty and fellow students. The computational mechanics program gave me a terrific background for my future work.

Omar Ghattas thinks big. And that’s not just because he’s in Texas.

His specialty is modeling the dynamics of the earth—from the propagation of seismic waves through the crust, to the flow of heated rock deep in the mantle, to the dynamics of polar ice sheets. To carry out these mammoth tasks, he needs as much computational power as he can get, which is why he’s in Austin, Texas, home of the world’s largest academic supercomputer.

“My primary focus is on modeling large complex geophysical systems, so everything I do by necessity involves supercomputing,” said Ghattas (B.S. ’84, M.S. ’86, Ph.D. ’88), John A. and Katherine G. Jackson Chair in Computational Geosciences and Professor of Geological Sciences and Mechanical Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin.

“An earthquake is a good example of a complex system that would be hard to study without a model, and for that you need a supercomputer,” he explained. “Another example is convection in earth’s mantle, where heated rock rises from the core to the crust and then cools and descends. These convection patterns are responsible for tectonic plate motion. Computer models can provide a better understanding of these dynamics as they occur over geological time scales and ultimately their influence on earthquakes and volcanoes.”

While he models mantle flows in earth’s deep interior, he also uses some of the same principles in modeling the flow of polar ices sheets and their critical role in affecting sea level rise or fall..

Much of Ghattas’ time is spent directing the Center for Computational Geosciences in the Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences. He also serves as the Co-Chief Applications Scientist for the 580 teraflops supercomputer at the Texas Advanced Supercomputing Center .

A one-year post-doc after graduate studies made his Duke stay nine years, a period he said jokingly should have earned him tenure as a student.

“During those nine years, I got to know many faculty members very well,” Ghattas said. “Because at the time it was a relatively small program, we developed strong connections with faculty and fellow students. The computational mechanics program gave me a terrific background for my future work”

After leaving Duke, he took his first faculty position at Carnegie Mellon University, where he stayed for 16 years before coming to Texas in 2005.

Originally published Summer 2009.