We understand only details about earthquakes
By combining different numerical models, Alice-Agnes Gabriel and her team at the SuperMUC-NG of the Leibniz Supercomputing Centre (LRZ) were able to gain new insights into the tsunami puzzle of Palu/Indonesia: Not (only) landslides on the steep bank triggered the giant wave, but fast cracks on the seafloor and the narrow tectonics of the narrow bay contributed significantly. The geophysicist, who teaches and conducts research as an academic councillor at the chair of the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich (LMU), will be awarded the PRACE Ada Lovelace Award for this and other computer-aided earthquake scenarios during the EuroHPC Summit at the end of March. "Dr. Alice-Agnes Gabriel uses numerical simulations combined with experimental observations to improve our understanding of the physics underlying earthquakes," said Núria López, Chair of the Scientific Steering Committee of PRACE, explaining the selection. "Their work covers wide scales and can improve our knowledge of these natural phenomena and protect us from their consequences". Although she herself enjoys studying rock formations, Gabriel specializes in numerical and mathematical problem solving in seismology, making High Performance Computing (HPC) part of her everyday life. A conversation about women in science and the future of supercomputers.
What does the Ada Lovelace Award mean to you?
Dr. Alice-Agnes Gabriel: A great deal, because firstly, the award is presented across all disciplines and shows all disciplines in which high-performance computing supports science. In geophysics and geology, many colleagues are still afraid of contact, and do not yet dare to tackle supercomputers and large data projects. Secondly, it makes women visible in areas where they are unfortunately still underrepresented. As a seismologist, I combine geophysics and HPC and rarely come across female colleagues.
What about women in geophysics?
Gabriel: At the beginning there were six of us among 180 students in physics. But things have changed: Now it is not difficult for me to find good women as doctoral candidates. At professorial level, the proportion of women in geophysics is still low, and even lower in areas like computer-aided seismology, where HPC, mathematics and mathematical problems are involved. Women have to prove their capabilities especially at the beginning of a research career. After the post-doc, it often becomes critical when you have to travel a lot, present and discuss your research and build networks. Little consideration is given to family or private life - the two-body problem emerges: Stays abroad are difficult to organise in a partnership when both want to pursue a career, and as a mother of small children you cannot always travel. In this phase, many women therefore drop out and go into industry. Luckily, I got my first long-term (but still temporary) position immediately after my post-doc and a lot of support from the Institute of Geophysics at LMU Munich. Networking and media in science are also changing and make many things easier: I now have to be less physically present, keep in touch with research colleagues worldwide via Twitter and get involved in discussions. I often manage the work on the SuperMUC-NG from home. Winning an ERC Starting Grant at the end of 2019 and now the Ada Lovelace Award changes a lot: I now suddenly have an individual office (laughs), I am perceived as a researcher at eye level and I am invited to many more projects.
How did you come to geophysics?
Gabriel: Through theoretical physics, semiconductors and materials science. I have already calculated large molecular simulations for these. Out of idealism and because I like to do something that benefits society, I came to geophysics. I am interested in earthquakes and the basic formations that trigger them. It is about similar questions as in material science. In geophysics we actually use simple equations, but these lead to complex results. We only understand details of earthquakes and have observations and measurements on very different scales. Seismology has always been a data-driven science, every observation brings data. Therefore I am now developing methods for solving numerical equations and mathematical models to bridge these scales and knowledge gaps. A major role is played by the integration of geometries, which are methodologically very demanding and with which existing observation data can be reinterpreted. Our solution of the Palu tsunami puzzle, for example, is based on a combination of mathematical methods for friction and the propagation of seismic and tsunami waves.
At the award ceremony, they will discuss the future of HPC and artificial intelligence at the EuroHPC Summit Week - what is your opinion?
Gabriel: Especially in the complex world of geophysics we can only gain new insights with modern methods. Our large model of the Sumatra earthquake and tsunami of Christmas 2004, which was calculated on the entire SuperMUC-NG, had 111 trillion degrees of freedom. In the future, we would like to calculate many such simulations in order to be able to consider uncertainties as well. At the same time, artificial intelligence is on the advance, not only to filter interesting geophysical signals from background noise in increasingly dense measurement networks, but also to improve mathematical methods.
And what do you wish for your personal future?
Gabriel: I would like to see many more exciting challenges at the interface between supercomputing and geophysics - but I'm not worried about that, we're just getting started.
Please note: The interview was conducted before the EuroHPC Summit Week was cancled due to COVID-19.