To Spur Interdisciplinary Research, an Astrophysicist Moves to Russia

Jim Zietz

Ed Seidel, Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology
October 15, 2012

H. Edward Seidel
Age: 55
Position he's leaving: Assistant director for mathematics and physical sciences, National Science Foundation
Highest degree: Doctorate in astrophysics from Yale University

I've thought a lot about the potential for what you could do at a new university, if you could create new structures from scratch. When I heard about the brand-new university that's being created here outside Moscow, the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology, I was immediately excited about it. The plan is that this university will have no departments, in the traditional way. It will have people who are expert in those domains but working in a new structure to address complex problems.

Innovation is inherent in the design and concept of the university from the very start. I interpret that fairly broadly to mean innovation in terms of new approaches and new ideas in science, and in terms of connection to problems of society and industry and the economy. And that doesn't necessarily mean applied research from the point of view that we're just going to develop products. Things inspired by society are often very fundamental research problems.

I started as a graduate student at Yale doing relativity and studying perturbations in stars like supernovae and black holes. And I quickly found that Einstein's equations were very difficult to solve. So, like many people, I turned to computers to try to find solutions.

I was asked to develop and lead a new Center for Computation and Technology at Louisiana State University. Then, four years ago, I came to the National Science Foundation as director of the office of cyberinfrastructure. Later I moved to be assistant director for mathematical and physical sciences. I spent a lot of time looking at new structures that needed to be put in place within the NSF to support interdisciplinary research and making the case for investments in basic science as the building blocks of innovation.

Tradition at the NSF is that those positions can only last for up to four years. I maxed out my four years up to the very last day. I did look at some very nice possibilities, particularly in the U.S., like vice president for research or provost-type positions. But this was the one that really pulled all the elements together. Of course, there are risks, but I tend not to think about them very much. I'm convinced that this new institute will succeed.

I'd never worked in Russia. I'd visited a couple of times; that's it. In 1996 I had the opportunity to help set up a Max Planck Institute, for gravitational physics, in Potsdam, Germany. I loved living in Berlin. When I visited Moscow, it reminded me a lot of East Berlin, which is my favorite part of Berlin.

But there's another thing. My father had actually lived in Russia. He worked in the Office of Naval Intelligence, and he was a fluent Russian speaker. He had hundreds of Russian books, and he'd occasionally tell me about Russia. It always intrigued me. So, having the opportunity to come here after that sort of family background was a real draw for me.

—As told to Karin Fischer