Profiles in Applied Math - Bengt Fornberg

Can you tell us about your background prior to joining APPM?

After getting my Ph.D. at Uppsala University in Sweden in Scientific Computing, I went on to a postdoctoral position at the European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva, Switzerland. This is a place where physicists are probing the fundamental structure of the universe using massive accelerators. From there, I moved to a faculty position at Caltech in its Department of Applied Mathematics, with my research mostly focused on computational wave and fluid dynamics. After 10 years there, I gave up academics (and tenure) to experience the private sector, joining Exxon’s Corporate Research Laboratory in New Jersey. During my 12 years there, I worked a lot on seismic wave propagation through different geologic media. However, I increasingly missed the academic environment and teaching. And thus here I am, a professor of Applied Math at CU-Boulder.

What do you most enjoy about being a professor in computational/applied mathematics?

There are several factors in being a professor in this field that I am quite passionate about:

  1. In being an applied mathematician, one must emphasize the word ‘applied’. This means that I am not only a mathematician, but work with researchers from a variety of fields in science and engineering. Constantly working on different projects and always learning prevents one from ever getting bored. Furthermore, to attack problems from physics to geoscience to engineering requires different problem solving techniques, constantly developing and expanding one’s research toolbox.
  2. Working in different fields of research means a range of collaborations. That involves not only colleagues from different university departments, but I also get to work with National Labs, such as the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), the Department of Defense (through the Air Force Institute of Technology, AFIT), and the private sector, such as Royal Dutch Shell. These collaborations involve new areas such as liquid crystals, space weather prediction, geophysical modeling, and high-energy laser beams.
  3. After being 12 years in industry, I missed the teaching aspect that is part of being in academia. I find interacting with and educating the next generation of applied mathematicians really stimulating. Computation has become the third arm of research, along with theory and experimentation. Seeing students get excited about how they can use computational methods, especially in conjunction with analytical methods, to further their own investigations into a field is a very rewarding part of my teaching efforts.
  4. Lastly, being a professor in Applied Mathematics allows me to work with researchers from a variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds. I have traveled for research purposes to many countries. Apart from many countries of Western Europe, I have been on numerous extended stays in South Africa, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore.

What are your current areas of focus?

I have mentioned most of my application areas already, but maybe I can add that Radial Basis Functions (RBFs) have been a central theme for the last decade in many of my computational efforts. I am also really interested in how analytic functions/asymptotic analysis interfaces with (and complements) computational methods. These topics belong closely together, but are too often thought of as separate ones. Applied mathematics is very much about bringing great techniques together.