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11 innovators elevated to our highest level

The 2014 IBM Fellows represent a microcosm of IBM’s diverse global organization. Their backgrounds vary—from a village in southern India to the holy city of Jerusalem to a small town in central Kentucky. From different starting points, today these 11 leaders in their respective fields have reached the same destination—the rarefied ranks of IBM’s all-time technical giants. Meet the 2014 class of IBM Fellows.

IBM Fellows

Alessandro Curioni

Alessandro Curioni

Department Head, Math. & Computational Sciences - Member
IBM Academy of Technology Leadership Team

Alessandro Curioni grew up in Cantu’, Italy, not too far away from an IBM Learning Center. Even at six years old, he wondered, “What is this ‘IBM’ and what do these stripes mean?” as he walked past.

Now nearly 40 years later, as he earns IBM’s top technical rank of Fellow, he and his work have come to symbolize the amazing things that those eight bars stand for.

“That logo fascinated me when I was a boy. And later on, at the renowned Scuola Normale Superiore University in Pisa, the first machine I used was an IBM 4381 mainframe,” Alessandro said.

His chosen field of molecular simulation is of particular fascination because it impacts all scientific disciplines. “In the coming decade, high performance computing (HPC) will let companies start from the laws of nature and attack research problems that would not otherwise be solvable in realistic and economic time frames,” Alessandro said.

But in the late 1980s, computers only had enough power to simulate simple molecular systems—not nearly accurate enough for any practical application.

With every increase in speed, reliability and accuracy, we extend the realm of applicability and impact of the simulations we perform.

Those were the same years when scientists Roberto Car and Michele Parrinello, the latter a mentor of Alessandro’s, developed a method (called Car-Parrinello Molecular Dynamics) that laid the foundation for a much more accurate description of the dynamics of complex molecular systems. Alessandro, even in those early days, knew that to use CPMD in order to really understand what is happening at the atomic level of complex systems or devices, the simulation would need to take advantage of every available computational cycle on a supercomputer.

This motivated him to dedicate a significant part of his research toward what he calls “a systematic algorithm re-engineering effort” to ensure the proper exploitation of the available massively parallel resources of HPCs.

By 2007, his relentless efforts were paying off. IBM had announced that it would use hafnium dioxide, a promising new material, for its “high-k metal gate” chip technology—the first major change to the transistor since the emergence of silicon semiconductors. Alessandro and his colleagues contributed to this achievement by using simulations to understand why hafnium dioxide worked better as a high dielectric constant than other high-k materials previously considered by the industry. The team was able to gain a clear picture of the underlying physics driving the unique electrical behavior of hafnium dioxide when it mixed with silicon, and made chips smaller and faster than previously possible.

Alessandro has since applied his modeling techniques to simulate key processes across a number of areas, such as consumer goods, chemicals, manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, display technology (OLED); and in the development of an electric vehicle battery, made from Lithium-air, capable of going 500 miles on a single charge.

Most recently, Alessandro and his colleagues at IBM, ETH Zurich, the Technical University of Munich, and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory earned the 2013 Gordon Bell Prize—setting a new record (14 Petaflops) in simulation performance. And only one year earlier, Alessandro and his colleagues were awarded the PRACE Award for their research on particle accelerator simulations and optimization.

Fortuitous for IBM, Alessandro’s efforts opened up new uses for—and revenues from—HPCs. His work established Computational Science not just as a department at IBM, but as a pillar of scientific innovation, and for this he has been awarded the title IBM Fellow.

“This field is so interesting because it’s so broad. Simulations can give you knowledge you didn’t have before. They push knowledge forward in a way that can’t be done in the real world,” Alessandro said.

“Teamwork, and the interaction with exceptional people, is as critical as the algorithms and the computing power when it comes to computational sciences. I am grateful to have worked with so many brilliant people over the years.”

Alessandro CurioniAlessandro Curioni in his own words

What is the most interesting thing about your work?

It’s an interesting field because it’s so broad—you’ll never be bored!

Simulating and modeling complex materials fascinates me because to be successful, you must also understand the science behind what you’re investigating. This leads to equations that you have to efficiently code into a computer that helps us unravel the world around us. To achieve this goal, given the interdisciplinary nature of the work, you must collaborate with colleagues from diverse fields to actually succeed.

What is the key to succeeding in computer simulation?

My mother taught me to “never give up” and to “take responsibility” for what I do. This I’ve carried with me in all parts of my life. Work-wise, my mentor, Michele Parrinello, taught me to be pragmatic, and open to others’ ideas to be successful.

I’m also thankful to IBM for having an environment that allows this synergy between people and ideas. Even when I was a PhD intern at IBM Research-Zurich in 1993—which was a very challenging time for the company—the environment was still positive, and the scientists were always looking at ways to be innovative.

I still feel that same positive spirit from 20 years ago.

What are some key moments or advice that helped get you to where you are today?

Wanda Andreoni, my first manager at IBM, and still my mentor and collaborator, has been my role model. In terms of scientific rigor, perseverance, pragmatism and passion for discovery, I would not be what I am, or where I am, as a scientist without her example.

What do you consider the most important developments taking place today in HPC simulation and modeling?

The simulation field is much more mature today, but we’re still trying to increase the computer’s power to handle more data and create more realistic and accurate simulations. With every increase in speed, reliability and accuracy, we extend the realm of applicability and impact of the simulations we perform.

The future is when the computers will know and understand the new knowledge being produced from the simulations and integrate this with the already available data. My bet is that the synergy of advanced simulations and cognitive computing will strongly accelerate innovation in every field.

What does it mean to you to be named an IBM Fellow?

It’s a huge honor. I remember, on visits to the Watson Research Center, admiring the IBM Fellow photos and thinking, “These people changed the company and the world.”

As a Fellow, you are allowed to take responsibility for an idea and foster it. For example, with end of CMOS tech, we will need to develop new computing paradigms to be able to continue the simulations of complex systems, faster and more efficiently. This will be one of my next challenges.

What advice would you give to aspiring IBM Fellows?

As a Fellow, I also now feel more of a duty to be a role model for others; and need to do an even better job living our company’s values.

In addition to offering my mother’s advice of taking responsibility and never giving up, I think it’s important to always work toward a goal of something that you like to do. In life, you can’t always do everything you like, but always having a goal in mind will help you succeed.

What do you enjoy doing away from the lab?

I enjoy spending time with my family, and playing sports; those kinds of things. Maybe a guilty pleasure would be spending a long time in the sauna.

What was the last book you read?

I like to read Andrea Camilleri. His novels are often based in Sicily, and really capture the realistic way of life and Sicilian dialect. Right now, I am reading his book, Un Covo di Vipere.

What’s on your iPod right now?

I create my own playlists for when I take trans-Atlantic trips. They end up being only about 12 or 13 songs over and over that energize me. While most are from the 1970s, like Mike Oldfield, I do have some Adele.

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