SIAM News Blog

Q&A with ONR’s Reza Malek-Madani

Reza Malek-Madani is a mathematics professor at the Naval Academy and a program officer for the Applied and Computational Analysis Program at the Office of Naval Research (ONR). He recently chatted with science writer and mathematician Analee Miranda about the ONR’s mission and research focus, funding opportunities and programs available for applied mathematicians, and career prospects at the ONR, among other topics.

What is the focus of your ONR program? Is your ONR portfolio directly related to your existing research? 

To provide rigorous, state-of-the-art research for the benefit of the Navy and Naval Research Enterprise. Specific topics of interest to the United States Navy and the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) require rigorous analysis with mathematics- and physics-based foundations. At the same time, the research needs to be applied to a specific Navy need. The ONR’s website has details on various research needs, such as the Multi-Scale/Multi-Physics Modeling, Dynamical Systems and Oceanic and Atmospheric Modeling, and Inverse Methods thrusts. 

The ONR is a funding agency, much like the National Science Foundation. The program officers at the ONR manage portfolios to help advance research investigations of interest to the Navy and the Marine Corps. They are not at the ONR to carry out their own personal research, but to enable and promote research. As a professor and researcher, I work on partial differential equations – in particular, how laser beams propagate in random media. Although this work is useful to the Navy, my academic research interests are completely separate from the research that my program funds. My ONR program interests are focused on a larger group of fields, with varying applications that the Naval Science and Technology Strategy has identified. At the analytical and computational level, I’m looking for research that supports multidisciplinary applications that align with critical naval applications.

For example, work in the multiscale/multiphysics thrust is intended to provide a mathematical framework for modeling in systems that have as many as 10 to 15 scales across their spatial and temporal domains. This type of research is almost always validated by comparison with real data. Some other interests include remote sensing using first principles for geophysical fluid dynamics, which can then be compared to real data, the ground truth. The data is often collected at the various naval laboratories. I’m looking for state-of-the-art research that can add to the existing models of the terrains and bathymetries that the Navy is interested in. Another field of interest is inverse problems. This type of mathematics emphasizes modeling wave propagation when the medium’s statistics are not known – it is analytical and rigorous.

When you think of SIAM, what ONR programs/projects under your management immediately stand out? What other SIAM-related fields would the ONR find interesting?

Andrew Stuart’s work and Chris Jones’ work immediately stand out. They are both current principle investigators (PIs), each of whose work has been featured in SIAM News. Some other applied math fields include optimization theory and data science – a fairly new program at the ONR with a particular focus on understanding the geometry of data. Machine learning tools are popular right now, as is graph theory. Our ONR division has many math-related interests.

SIAM organizes many conferences in the course of the year on a variety of topics in applied mathematics and computational science. Would you encourage your colleagues at the ONR to actively participate in these conferences?

Yes, I recently attended and ran a minisymposium at the SIAM Conference on the Mathematics of Planet Earth in Philadelphia. I also ran a minisymposium at the SIAM Conference on Applied Mathematics Education. The ONR is very active in SIAM, and ONR staff attend SIAM meetings and conferences regularly.

What kind of value do you think an applied mathematician brings that is vital to the success of ONR research that you oversee?

Rigorous modeling. In particular, modeling phenomena with error estimates, numerical simulations that are based on data, theorems, proofs, and analytical rigor.

What does an applied mathematician need to know before submitting a proposal to the ONR?

I recommend that mathematicians have a conversation with the program officer of the program they feel best fits their research. The program officers can help one determine if the proposed work is indeed the right fit for the program. The proposals will require some fundamental math development, and the mathematical application should be directly tied to a Navy need. We want our PIs to be knowledgeable about applications. Indeed, information about Navy interests is available online, but the best way to figure out what the Navy is interested in is to speak with a program officer. This could be a phone call or some kind of institutional event with guest speakers from the ONR.

What is expected from a mathematician who receives ONR funding?

Publications in well-known journals, proactive communication and interaction with the program officer and any pre-stipulated deliverable such as software and reports.

What is a typical work week for you at the ONR and how has your personal research experience prepared you for this role?

I typically try to stay on top of publications that my PIs produce, read relevant journals in applied math and physics, and in general, actively engage in keeping up-to-date with existing research as it relates to my ONR program. That aspect of the position requires previous research experience. Most of the work at the ONR is management-related. Although some time is spent researching topics for the program, this is only a percentage of the time. My time at the ONR is typically taken up by administrative tasks such as reading proposals by potential PIs, balancing budgets, communicating with PIs, writing reports, etc.

Are there internships available for applied math students who are interested in Navy research?

The ONR does not have internships, but the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) does. NRL internships are probably best for mathematics undergraduate and graduate students.  Many research opportunities may also be found on our website. 

What kind of positions in the ONR would be suitable for a recent grad in mathematics? What are the requirements? How would they apply?

There are no experience requirements that may prevent a new Ph.D. from holding the program officer position at the ONR. That said, I would highly recommend that new graduates first develop their research program, whether in an academic environment or a national laboratory, since entry-level research is important for a career in scientific management and administration.

Want to learn more about Navy research? There is NO better place to really understand naval science and technology (S&T) and make contacts than at the Naval Future Force Science and Technology (S&T) Expo. In July 2017, we will be hosting the conference in Washington, D.C. Many high-ranking naval, academic and industry leaders will attend. The expo will feature workshops, demonstrations, and outreach events.

Want to learn more about Navy internships? USAJOBS is a great place to start. We also recommend you check out the internships sponsored by the Navy’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities/Minority Institutions (HBCU/MI) program. The ONR publishes a list of fellowship and internship opportunities for students. The NRL’s research opportunities for students may be found on their website.   

Reza Malek-Madani received his Ph.D. in applied mathematics from Brown University in 1979. Subsequently he held two postdoc positions, one as a Van Vleck Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the other in the Department of Mechanics at the Johns Hopkins University, working in Clifford Truesdell’s group. He has been a faculty member in the Department of Mathematics at the United States Naval Academy since 1983. Beginning in 2000, he has also served as the program officer in Code 311 at the Office of Naval Research.

Analee Miranda is a freelance curriculum writer and mathematician. She is a subject matter expert on the radar scattering effects of UHF/VHF/HF radar on humans. Her current research interests include discovering new medical applications of radar technology.

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