SIAM News Blog

Obituaries: Jim Corones

By Jon Bashor

James “Jim” Corones, 1945-2017. Image courtesy of the Krell Institute.
James “Jim” Corones, professor emeritus of mathematics at Iowa State University, passed away on April 28, 2017. He was 71.

Colleagues remember Jim for his leadership, ability to forge collaborations, and wide-ranging interests. But his enduring legacy is the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Computational Science Graduate Fellowship (CSGF) program, which he developed and led while at Ames Laboratory. The program became the centerpiece of the Krell Institute, which Jim founded in 1997.

“In many conversations, Jim lamented the fact that DOE labs didn’t get due credit for their role in advancing computational science,” said Robert Voigt, who has been involved with the CSGF program since its onset and now provides technical advice. “He was passionate about improving awareness of the DOE’s role and contributions, and saw the fellowship as one way to raise that awareness.”

The CSGF program was created to train Ph.D. students in the then-emerging field of computational science, explicitly viewed as a closely-coupled combination of mathematics, computer science, and a scientific or engineering application. The fellowship is unique in requiring each fellow to obtain a substantive level of knowledge in all three components.

“There’s no question that the program helped give us all a foundation for the field of computational science, which didn’t really exist in the early 1990s,” said David Brown, director of the Computational Research Division at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and, like Voigt, a longtime member of the CSGF steering and selection committees. “It’s widely viewed as one of the most successful fellowship programs in the world, and has served as a model for many other programs.”

Students specializing in a science or engineering application are required to take high-level computer science and math courses, while math or computer science students must take high-level science/engineering courses. All are required to spend one summer working at a DOE national lab on a project that differs from their thesis research. To date, nearly 350 students have completed the program and are working at universities, national labs, and industry-based locations.

“Jim was incredibly smart and creative, and he devoted years of his life to the amazing CSGF program,” said Margaret Wright of the Courant Institute at New York University, who served on both the steering and student selection committees for many years. “He made it a success and protected it. People kept trying to change it, but he was the front line in defending it. Jim was firm as well as diplomatic, and was always successful in maintaining the principles of the program.”

Kevin Kreider, a postdoctoral researcher who worked on inverse scattering under Jim at Ames Lab from 1987-1989, remembers his energy and good sense of humor. “I always think of him as a visionary,” said Kreider, current chair of the Department of Mathematics at Akron University. “At the time, software packages were just being developed for solving problems involving partial differential equations, and Jim always talked about pushing that computing frontier. He was always looking to the future.”

Barbara Helland, associate director of the Advanced Scientific Computing Research program in the DOE’s Office of Science, began working for Jim as a computer scientist, administering his group’s computers at Ames Lab. Due to Jim’s leadership, the group was always a few steps ahead of the rest of the pack in deploying the newest systems, whether it be a VAX, a LISP machine, or the lab’s first distributed computing system.

“He pushed me out of the nest and freed me up to come to Washington,” said Helland, who followed Jim to the Krell Institute and worked for him for over 20 years. “He taught me a lot of what I needed to do this job — how to pull people together, build coalitions, and start discussions to move in new directions.”

Helland also noted Jim’s knack for anticipating new scientific thrust areas; he selected CSGF students to “seed the pipeline” in fields such as bioinformatics and machine learning before they were mainstream.

Roscoe Giles, a professor in Boston University’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and member of the CSGF steering committee, said that the annual CSGF fellow selection meetings showcased Jim’s talent for getting people to work together and agree on the final outcome. This process was punctuated by fierce discussions, as dozens and dozens of applications were whittled down to just 20, with each committee member reviewing every application and then serving as an advocate for two or three in the final round. “Without Jim’s passion, our discussions would not have been nearly so rich and thoughtful,” said Giles.

“We had genuine disagreement, but we remained collegial,” added Wright, who adopted some of Jim’s committee management techniques in selecting SIAM Fellows. “We’d always end up happy with the fellows we chose.”

Jim Hack, director of the National Center for Computational Sciences at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, remembers Jim’s passion for many things, from ancient Greek coins to baseball — especially his beloved Boston Red Sox and the hated Yankees.

“I was always amazed at the breadth of things he could talk about,” said Hack, who served on the CSGF steering committee since its creation. “I always felt I learned something new when I chatted with him.”

Among Jim’s other interests were jazz, blues, and classical music; football, basketball, and golf; national and international politics and political history; science education and national science policy; religious and philosophical underpinnings of Western thought; gardening; fishing; poetry and literature; history of the 20th century, particularly of Eastern Europe and life behind the Iron Curtain; and visual arts such as painting, sculpture, and film, including classic science fiction and film noir. Voigt also recalls Jim’s passion for fine wines and food, which were celebrated in a special meal (at personal expense) at the end of the annual selection process.

“He was the quintessential great leader,” said Wright. “He was highly knowledgeable and dedicated to doing what was right.”

“We loved working for him and he challenged us to do our best,” added Helland. “And he inspired loyalty — you knew he’d be true to you.”

Jim, who earned his B.S. and Ph.D. in physics from Brown University and Boston University respectively, led the applied mathematics program at Ames Lab. His research was in the field of linear and nonlinear wave propagation, including extensive work in acoustic and electromagnetic inverse scattering.

Jim is survived by Lou Lamb Corones, his wife of 30 years; sons Michael John Corones of Brooklyn Heights, N.Y., and Matthew John Corones of Ames, Iowa; and Kathy Corones of Ames, the mother of his sons.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the work of surgeon Peter Scardino at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center or to the research of radiation oncologist Russell Hales and neurologist Scott Newsome, both of Johns Hopkins Medicine. A scholarship will also be established in his name through the Krell Institute.

Jon Bashor is the communications manager for the Computing Sciences organization at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. He worked with Jim Corones on various projects, with Jim helping track down the definitive Latin translation of “It shouldn’t be this difficult,” which Bashor uses in his email signature: “Tam difficile non debet.”

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