Pioneering and productive – Master’s in Computational Science

The Università della Svizzera italiana (USI) has offered a Master’s degree at the Institute of Computational Science since 2014. The aim of the course is to teach the students comprehensive skills and knowhow on the methodology and tools of computational science. Although the programme is ambitious and doesn’t leave the students much free time, they are extremely enthusiastic.

Nowadays, computational science is used in virtually every discipline to simulate and research complex processes – especially ones that theory and experiments are no longer able to model, such as research on new materials, in the life sciences to develop drugs or research heart disease, for climate predictions, risk assessments for environmental disasters, or for assessing markets. For Rolf Krause, the founder and director of the Institute of Computational Science (ICS) at the Università della Svizzera italiana (USI) in Lugano, computational science is the key technology of the present and future. Consequently, offering a Master’s degree with a practical and comprehensive interdisciplinary education at the institute was a must for him.

MSc students in Computational Science during the interview (Image: Valentina Mazza)MSc students in Computational Science during the interview (Image: Valentina Mazza)

Interdisciplinary educational spectrum

Since 2014 students have been able to obtain a Master of Science in Computational Science (MCS) at the ICS. Founded in 2008, the institute offers its students a broad-based, interdisciplinary educational spectrum that is unrivalled in Switzerland. The focus is on methodology in the form of mathematics, software development and high-performance computing with applications. The aim of the course is to teach the students diverse skills in computational science and give them a comprehensive grasp of numerical simulations, applied mathematics, statistics and data science.

Anyone who has a certain passion for these subjects and a basic background in mathematics or the natural sciences can apply. Master’s student Edoardo Vecchi from Varese (Italy) joined the ICS two years ago with a Bachelor’s in economics. He was drawn by the novelty, although it was somewhat difficult in the beginning as he lacked experience in programming. On the flipside, the mathematics element came easy to him. Today, he is extremely happy with his decision: “I’ve learnt a lot of new things and the Master’s gives me plenty of tools that I can use in a wide range of situations.” In his Master’s project on portfolio optimisations, he is currently learning to combine the methods and tools acquired during the course with the knowhow he gained during his Bachelor’s.

Briton Toby Simpson became a Master’s student again at the ICS at the age of forty-five. He had previously spent fifteen years working with computers in the finance sector in London and Geneva. As he explains, he eventually realised that he wanted to know and study more so he handed in his notice and came here. The Master’s in computational science at USI was just the ticket. “I wanted to work more scientifically while learning to write complex, scientific software that’s good and fast. And that’s precisely what I do here.” He loves Switzerland, Lugano and his degree, but confesses that the material has been very challenging, especially in the first semester.

“We enjoy great access to all the teachers here”

As an Erasmus student from Slovakia, Alena ended up at USI more by chance, where the ICS caught her attention. She is now doing her PhD under Professor Rolf Krause. During her PhD, she has the opportunity to attend a lot of interesting and innovative master courses, which allow her to deepen her mathematical background, while boosting her research with new possibilities. The two Master’s students and the doctoral student make no bones about the fact that the programme offered involves a lot of work, little spare time, hardly any weekends and sometimes even the odd nightshift. But they embrace these conditions with pride and even laud them. “Eventually, you simply realise how much all the hard work pays off,” says Toby. “I remember the feeling when I could suddenly read and understand a mathematics paper.”

They stress how good and personal the supervision from the professors is at this comparatively small institute. Toby recalls – still in disbelief – how he was once puzzling over a problem with a code in the cafeteria. Professor Schenk, the director of the Master’s programme, just happened to be there, too, and spontaneously helped him to solve the problem. “We enjoy great access to all the teachers here,” say all three in unison.

The broad range of topics covered during the degree includes numerical analysis, high-performance computing, geo-science, computational engineering, optimisation, computational (bio-) mechanics and fluid dynamics, computational medicine, drug design, computational finance and shape analysis. Apart from anything else, there are the two core courses in high-performance computing and a software workshop on supercomputing, data science and simulations. In these courses, the students have the possibility of using USI’s clusters or the infrastructure of the Swiss National Supercomputing Centre (CSCS) in Lugano. In the first semester, they learn the theoretical basics of scientific computing and the programming models needed to parallelise the codes. As the three students explain, they gather practical experience during summer schools. “The simulation course is a way to gain initial research experience and implement the theory we’ve learnt in practice,” says Alena. “Once you know how to make simulations, you’re free to choose your own project and apply what you’ve learnt, which is a great feeling.” This freedom enables the students to follow an individual course programme alongside the obligatory modules. They are supervised by a tutor from the ICS for the full two years.

MSc student Toby Simpson (Image: Valentina Mazza)MSc student Toby Simpson (Image: Valentina Mazza)

Using Europe’s strongest supercomputer

What the three students particularly appreciate and what, in their eyes, makes up for all the hard work are the enormous opportunities offered to them alongside what they deem a comprehensive and high-quality education at the institute. Even in the first year, the students have the possibility to take part in specialist conferences, such as the PASC Conference, and make key contacts or attend summer schools at USI and the Swiss National Supercomputing Centre (CSCS) in Lugano. “We’re a small group that can focus on what we like and are interested in,” says Edoardo. As a Master’s student, you almost enjoy the same privileges as a doctoral student.

For all three, besides the institute’s good national and international scientific connections, one highlight is also the opportunity to use the supercomputer Piz Daint at the CSCS, currently the most powerful supercomputer in Europe. This enables them to run and optimise the codes they have written themselves on thousands of GPUs. And whenever any issues or problems crop up, they can exchange ideas with the CSCS staff and ask questions.

All in all, for Edoardo, Toby and Alena the Master’s in Computational Science at USI is second to none: whether it be the knowhow mediated, the personal environment or the infrastructure available to them, the programme ticks all the boxes. And last but not least, they find the small town of Lugano at the southernmost tip of Switzerland an attractive place to study.

Find out more

about the Master of Science in Computational Science: https://www.master.ics.usi.ch

Master interview “The students quickly become research and practically minded”

about ICS: https://www.ics.usi.ch/

about USI: http://www.usi.ch/

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