How Brainiacs Can Help Your Business

A new program at McMaster University promises to pump out engineering and science grads who can help your company grow.

One fine day in mid-November, a group of specialists with doctorates in such esoteric topics as combinatorics and optimization descended on the Fields Institute for Research in Mathematical Sciences at the University of Toronto. They were there to kick off McMaster University's new graduate School of Computational Engineering and Science. Their challenge: to explain , in lay terms, what makes computational engineering and science (CES) relevant to the business community, and how to take it mainstream.

The first question, of course, was what exactly is computational engineering and science? Academic squabbling ensued. Panelist Margaret Wright, NYU's chair of computer science, suggested CES is a loosely defined “area of study,” while McMaster University professor Hugh Couchman argued it is a full-fledged “discipline.” They ultimately agreed CES is a multidisciplinary field that draws on math, sciences, engineering and computer science, and features advanced computer modelling to solve complex problems.

What's really exciting now, said Wright, is CES experts' ability to advance health-care and climate prediction, and improve business management techniques. For example, CES advancements permit doctors to more effectively operate on cancer patients, by manipulating beams of radiation around a model of the tumour on a computer, to determine how best to zap the growth.

William R. Pulleyblank, vice-president of IBM Global Services' Center for Business Optimization, described how high-performance computing transforms business operations, helping cut costs and propel productivity. Pulleyblank discussed a deal IBM signed recently with U.S.-based health insurance companies to detect medical fraud. A computer program analyzes insurance data, identifies deviant behaviour (say, a dentist billing 26 root canals in an afternoon), and highlights spurious claims.

Turns out the real impediment to CES's progress is academic infighting, and scientists' disinclination to communicate outside the academy–a situation Barbara Lee Keyfitz, director of the Fields Institute, described as “challenging.” But Keyfitz and her colleagues are optimistic McMaster's program will help solve the impasse.

That lofty goal may be easier said than done. Before the conference ended, the masterminds were bickering about which prerequisites should be required to take the program. Plus ça change…