Renowned computational physicist is named associate director of computational science

Written by
Jeanne Jackson DeVoe
Aug. 17, 2020

Bill Dorland, a renowned computational physicist at the University of Maryland has been named to the new position of associate laboratory director for computational science at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL).

Dorland has extensive background in developing computer codes to model complex plasma physics processes. He won the U.S. Department of Energy’s Ernest Orlando Lawrence Award in 2009 for his work on a computer code designed to understand turbulence, the chaotic swirls and eddies in plasma that can disrupt fusion reactions. Dorland will lead PPPL’s effort to develop computational science into a new core capability that provides high-performance computing support to understand and predict fusion plasma physics, design fusion facilities, and simulate complex plasma phenomena.

Steve Cowley, PPPL director, said Dorland has an excellent background to lead the effort to develop computational science as a major research area at PPPL. “I am delighted to have recruited Bill Dorland to join our team,” Cowley said. “Bill played a central role in the development of plasma turbulence simulations for which he was awarded the DOE prestigious E.O. Lawrence Award — it is a stunning achievement. He is also a strategic thinker who has a compelling vision for PPPL’s future in scientific computing.”

Jon Menard, deputy director for research, said Dorland’s expertise and reputation in the physics community makes him an excellent fit for the new position. He noted that Dorland has a broad research background that encompasses not only plasma physics but also astrophysics. “He has excellent computational experience and has led major research groups at the University of Maryland,” he said. “He knows the community well and quite broadly…and he’s an excellent person to lead this effort from both a technical and strategic standpoint.”

“Princeton is the premier national lab in fusion energy and the premier plasma physics program in the U.S., so the invitation to be part of that was very exciting,” Dorland said. “PPPL has decades of success in computational physics, science, and engineering. This is more about reenergizing that capability.”

Computer codes are used to understand everything from the shape of the plasma to how it absorbs and releases energy, and those physics problems are too complex to solve through linear equations. Having a research area devoted to computational physics would allow researchers to work with a team to solve problems through models that can predict plasma behavior. That team would include not only computational physicists but also members of the information technology staff who specialize in coding, Dorland said. “Instead of making one-of-a-kind beautiful automobiles, “he said, “we’re going to build a production line. We’re going to bring mass computing to scientific computing at PPPL.”

Computational science is one of two new core capabilities being developed as part of Cowley’s plan to expand PPPL’s research mission to become a multi-purpose laboratory. The other new core capability is the development of a research program focused on low temperature plasmas in microelectronics and quantum computing. “We want to organize the Lab so we can support a diversified mission and help to model what the industries of the future need to be successful,” Cowley said. 

A new computer cluster

Dorland is working with Menard and Princeton University to build a computer cluster dedicated to computational physics. The cluster would be a supercomputer that would be used to develop more computer codes and utilize existing codes to solve more research problems. Last year, Princeton University purchased Traverse, a supercomputer for its High Performance Computing Research Center that has expanded resources for PPPL researchers and students doing computational physics aimed at developing computer codes to be used in tomorrow’s exascale computing.

The computer cluster for computational physics has a similar architecture to the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center’s Perlmutter supercomputer. It would make use of codes developed at PPPL that are used at fusion facilities worldwide, including the TRANSP code, which is used for whole device modeling of fusion reactors, and codes such as M3D-C1 and GKeyll used for simulating fusion plasma stability and plasma turbulence, respectively. The supercomputer could be installed as early as this calendar year on the Forrestal campus and would be available to both PPPL and University researchers.

PPPL has also been a leader of the fusion Exascale Computing Project Whole Device Modeling Application (WDMApp) and has worked closely with advanced computing experts at Princeton University, particularly through the Princeton Institute for Computational Science and Engineering (PICSciE).

At the same time, PPPL is developing its quantum computing capabilities for plasma simulations, Dorland said. These new capabilities will help PPPL make greater contributions to future fusion research on the international fusion experiment ITER and continue to develop next-generation fusion devices.

Chaired assessment of computational physics at PPPL

Dorland chaired an external assessment of PPPL’s computational physics capabilities in December 2019 that found that numerous PPPL researchers are doing computational research but that various individuals and teams are siloed and may not be fully aware of one another’s efforts. “These are outstanding teams of professionals writing outstanding papers but they’re often not sharing software and computational knowledge,” Dorland said.

The report also recommended that PPPL develop a closer partnership with Princeton University as well as with other universities with expertise in this area such as Rutgers University, Dorland said.

Dorland will work at PPPL half-time and will continue to work half-time as a professor at the University of Maryland. Dorland has served as acting associate laboratory director for the past several months. He hosted a virtual retreat in April with many PPPL staff members to share information and begin discussing a strategic plan for computational physics, which was part of PPPL’s long-term vision outlined in the Annual Laboratory Plan.

Graduated from Princeton in 1993

Dorland received special and highest honors when he graduated from the University of Texas in 1988 with a bachelor’s degree in physics. He received a Ph.D. in astrophysical sciences from Princeton University in 1993. While a graduate student he worked with Cowley, a PPPL staff researcher at the time, and his advisor was PPPL physicist Greg Hammett.

Dorland also earned a master’s degree in public affairs from the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs (formerly the Woodrow Wilson School) in 1993 where he focused on science policy. In addition to winning the E.O. Lawrence Award, he is a University of Maryland Distinguished Scholar-Teacher. He was director of the University of Maryland Honors College for seven years. Dorland was named a fellow of the American Physical Society’s Division of Plasma Physics in 2005.

Dorland is open about his battle with a rare type of cancer called chordoma, tumors that occur in the base of the skull and spine. He was diagnosed with the disease in 2004 and was given two years to live. The tumors have affected Dorland’s spinal column and impacted his ability to walk. Dorland was one of the people who founded the Chordoma Foundation, which has raised millions of dollars for research. He was one of the first patients in a trial immunotherapy treatment in 2012. The treatment seemed to work at first but then failed and Dorland took part in another trial of an immunotherapy in 2016. Dorland has remained active with the Chordoma Foundation as a volunteer and still offers advice to chordoma patients all over the world.

Dorland and his wife, Sarah Penniston-Dorland, a professor of geology at the University of Maryland, live in College Park, Maryland. They have an adult daughter, Kendall Dorland. 

Dorland says he is looking forward to the challenge of building a robust computational science program at PPPL “This is about building a really successful organization within the Laboratory to support the mission,” he said.

PPPL, on Princeton University's Forrestal Campus in Plainsboro, N.J., is devoted to creating new knowledge about the physics of plasmas — ultra-hot, charged gases — and to developing practical solutions for the creation of fusion energy. The Laboratory is managed by the University for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the largest single supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit

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