Thursday, June 30, 2011

'Land of fire' ignites love of science

Emory scientist Jamal Musaev celebrates July 4th, and the May 28 independence day for Azerbaijan, shown above with fireworks over the capital Baku. "Azerbaijan will always have a special place in my heart, but I'm very grateful and in love with my new country, the United States of America," he says. Credit:

By Carol Clark

Jamal Musaev, director of Emory’s Cherry L. Emerson Center for Scientific Computation, has a worldly view of science.

He grew up in the small, mountain town of Ordubad, Azerbaijan, during the heyday of the space race between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. “I loved physics, and from the time I was in sixth grade, I wanted to be an astronaut. That was my dream,” Musaev recalls.

Azerbaijan was founded in 1918, as the first democratic and secular Muslim republic. “It is one of the most tolerant places in the world, where about 90 ethnic groups and members of all different religions live in harmony,” Musaev says. “People in Azerbaijain have three key traditions: A love of science, music and openness.”

Notable Azerbaijan natives include Lotfi Zadeh, the developer of fuzzy logic, and Lev Landau, who won the 1962 Nobel Prize in physics.

Situated in the Caucasus region on the Caspian Sea, the country was incorporated by the Soviet empire in 1920, but regained its independence in 1991. Azerbaijan is rich in oil and gas reserves. The ancients called it the “land of fire,” due to the jets of flame that shot up from natural gas leaks. Before the Soviets took over, the Swedish Nobel brothers built one of the biggest oil companies in the world in Azerbaijan.
A natural gas fire burns in an ancient stone building in Baku, Azerbaijan. Credit:

During World War II, Azerbaijan supplied both fuel and scientific brainpower to the Soviet military. A chemist from Musaev’s hometown, Yusif Mamedaliyev, developed a high octane aviation fuel in 1941 that allowed military airplanes to fly at higher altitudes.

Musaev gave up on his dream of becoming an astronaut, but he completed a master’s degree in physics at Azerbaijan State University in the capital of Baku. He continued his education at the U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences in Moscow, where he became interested in physical chemistry. After just three years, Musaev earned his PhD at the academy, and then became the youngest senior scientific fellow in the history of the institution. He also met his wife, Matanat, a fellow student from Azerbaijan, who was in Moscow for a PhD in literature.

In 1991, Keiji Morokuma, a leading theoretical and computational chemist, recruited Musaev to join the Institute for Molecular Sciences in Okazaki, Japan, where he focused on investigating gas phase reactions involving transition metals.

“If living in Moscow was about 20 percent different from living in Azerbaijan, then moving from the Soviet Union to Japan was 200 percent different,” Musaev says.

In 1993, Morokuma moved to Atlanta to head up the Emerson Center for Scientific Computation at Emory. Musaev accompanied his mentor, uprooting once again to begin a new chapter in a new country. Musaev eventually took over as director of the Emerson Center, after Morokuma’s retirement in 2006.

His globetrotting career has been an interesting journey, he says, both culturally and scientifically. “I’ve had to learn three languages, in addition to my native Azeri, and also how to communicate with many scientists from different backgrounds and specialties.”

All of these experiences come to bear at the Emerson Center, where science is both inter-disciplinary and international. The big problems in science today require scientists to think outside their disciplines and collaborate across campuses and even continents. And supercomputers are increasingly crucial to both streamline and link their research.
An education and career spanning four very different countries gives Musaev a worldly view of science. Photo by Bryan Meltz.

Musaev recalls the first computer he used, in 1976, while he was a college student in Baku. “It was a Soviet model, as big as a house, and really noisy,” he says. “It was slow and not very reliable, but we were still happy to use it, because we could get information that people couldn’t get from just doing experiments.”

Today’s supercomputers have been reduced from the size of houses to large refrigerators, while their processing speeds and memory capacities have expanded exponentially. “Now we can use computers not just to explain experimental findings, but to actually design the experiments,” Musaev says.

Dozens of scholars, from Emory and different points of the globe, draw on the four large computer clusters, software library and expertise of the Emerson Center to conduct collaborative research projects. The center has played a key role in the development of two major research programs on campus: The Emory Bio-inspired Renewable Energy Center, which is seeking methods of developing sustainable fuels, and an NSF Center for Chemical Innovation, focused on stereoselective C-H functionalization, which aims to simplify drug synthesis.

“The Emerson Center brings people together,” Musaev says. “We don’t just provide the facilities and the expertise, we actually help do the science.”

Musaev travels a great deal in his role as center director, but he and his family have happily put down roots in Atlanta, he says. His daughter, Iten, graduated from Emory in 2008 and now attends law school at the University of Georgia. “Azabaijan will always have a special place in my heart, but I’m very grateful and in love with my new country, the United States of America,” Musaev says.

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