A Kazakh husband and wife who are destined for science stardom

21 января 2015, 16:10

 Talk with Eldar Akmetgaliyev and Almagul Zhanaidarova for just a few minutes, and you’ll realize they’ll be making their mark on Kazakhstan and the world in years to come.
They’re the only Kazakh husband-and-wife team pursuing science Ph.D.s in the United States – and the Almaty natives are involved in some of the world’s most cutting-edge research.

Eldar, who studies at the California Institute of Technology, does mathematical modeling whose uses include helping scientists design stealth aircraft and that has many other applications, including in the petroleum industry and medical imaging.
He also co-founded a company that helps professional sports teams use mathematical data to improve their performance. The company’s first client is the Golden State Warriors of America’s famed National Basketball Association.
In addition, Eldar has been working with the new Shakhmardan Yessenov Science and Education Foundation to bolster Kazakhstan’s science education and research capabilities.

In addition to doing important science research, Eldar Akmetgaliyev co-founded a company in the United States to help sports teams analyze data to improve their performance. Photo courtesy of Eldar Akmetgaliyev.

Alma, who studies at the University of California at San Diego, is taking part in a multi-university American research project that President Barack Obama has raved about: Artificial photosynthesis.
Every grade school student knows what photosynthesis is: plants’ ability to use sunlight to convert carbon dioxide and water into the energy they need to thrive.
The object of the research Alma is working on is to find a way to use sunlight to convert carbon dioxide and water into fuel.Almagul Zhanaidarova in her lab at the University of California at San Diego. Photo courtesy of Almagul Zhanaidarova.

The couple’s story started when they met as graduate students in Moscow in 2005
Eldar was getting a master’s in applied mathematics at Russia’s premier physics school, the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, and Alma a master’s in organic chemistry at the country’s top chemistry school, the Russian University of Chemical Technology.
“Most of the Kazakh students we knew in Moscow who wanted science careers decided to go on to get their Ph.D.s,” Eldar said. “We decided to do that, too.”
He arrived at Caltech, in the Los Angeles suburb of Pasadena, on a full fellowship in 2009.
It was one of the most exhilarating moments of his life. The university is one of the world’s elite science schools, in the same class as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT.
“Every student is super-smart,” Eldar said. “It didn’t take me long to realize that many were smarter than me. I knew I would have to work extra hard to keep up with them.”
Alma took a research job at Caltech as Eldar began his classes. She would work as a researcher at Stanford as well before starting her Ph.D. program at UC-San Diego.
A key focus of Eldar’s research has been creating mathematical models of the way waves and particles disperse – an application of what’s called scattering theory.
“I'm trying to calculate how acoustic and electromagnetic waves behave when they hit an obstacle and, in the long run, how the wave picture can help determine the shape of the obstacle,” he said.
On the one hand, such mathematical models help scientists detect objects in faraway galaxies – like planets – that are difficult to spot by telescope. Or battlefield weapons an enemy is hiding.
On the other hand, the models help scientists design aircraft that radar can’t detect.
Mathematical modeling can also be used in geophysical surveying, an application important to a country like Kazakhstan with vast oil and gas deposits.
And it can also help improve medical imaging by making the scattering of waves that bounce from tumorous tissue stand out from the wave patterns emerging from normal tissue.
Alma has been involved in chemistry-related research projects at Caltech, UC-San Diego and Stanford. She’s one of a handful of international students in UC-San Diego’s chemistry program, which experts say is one of the best in the United States.
The research that Alma has pursued that’s attracted the most attention is artificial photosynthesis.
It’s a huge effort involving the U.S. Department of Energy and several universities and research institutes, including Caltech, Stanford, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of California at San Diego, the University of California at Irvine, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the Stanford Linear Accelerator.
Altogether, 160 scientists are working in the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis program, or JCAP.
The object of the program is to come up with a commercially feasible “renewable fuel source that can meet the nation's energy demand while reducing carbon dioxide emissions,” according to JCAP’s website, www. http://solarfuelshub.org.
Achieving that goal would be a game changer not only for the United States but also for the world. It would yield all the fuel the planet needs and make a major dent in climate change.
It’s such a big deal that President Obama mentioned it in his State of the Union Address in 2011. “At the California Institute of Technology, they’re developing a way to turn sunlight and water into fuel for our cars,” he said. “We need to get behind this innovation.”
While some of Eldar and Alma’s projects are momentous enough to change the world, one has been pure fun.Eldar Akmetgaliyev and Almagul Zhanaidarova are doing cutting-edge science research in the United States. Photo courtesy of Eldar Akmetgaliyev.
Eldar and his Caltech Ph.D. colleague Arian Forouhar founded Mocap Analytics to help sports teams improve their performance. The company’s website is at www.mocapanalytics.com.
Mocap’s math-based “analytical engine” helps coaches turn raw game information into offensive and defensive strategies.
One Mocap focus is player-location data. An example in basketball would be the places on the court where players shoot.
Data on the locations that generate players’ highest shooting percentages can be melded with other data to suggest the best combination of players to use, the kinds of plays a team ought to run, whether the club should play up-tempo or at a slower pace, and so on.
The Golden State Warriors use courtside cameras plus tiny cameras attached to players’ uniforms to collect the raw information that Mocap crunches.
Warriors management has become believers in Mocap’s data massaging.
“There’s kind of a (sports) data explosion going on right now,” said Assistant General Manager Kirk Lacob. To make the data useful the team needed to find “really smart people” who could “decipher that code and make it usable.”
He said Mocap impressed the Warriors “from Day 1, just by their sheer intelligence” -- their ability to put the data together “in a meaningful way.”
In addition to pursuing world-class research and starting a business, Eldar is working as a volunteer with a foundation whose mission is to improve science education and research in Kazakhstan.
“Two years ago I got an email from Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov,” Eldar said. “He asked for ideas about helping the scientific community back home.

Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov. ©RIA Novosti

President Nursultan Nazarbayev is keenly aware that a powerful science establishment could be an engine of economic growth that would help improve Kazakhs’ lives. He’s taken steps to make it stronger, but knows more needs to be done.
One thing that would help is more Kazakhs getting Ph.D.s in cutting-edge fields abroad, then returning to share their ideas with students, start research programs and create businesses.
One idea that Eldar shared with Foreign Minister Idrissov was sending bright undergraduate students to the United States and other science powerhouses during summer breaks to do world-class research.
“This would increase their knowledge and help them get into Ph.D. programs” in the West, he said. Once they finished their doctorates, he noted, “they could go back and help build up the scientific community.”
Eldar’s idea became reality when Kazakhstan sent nine undergraduates to the United States for research in the summer of 2014.
Their sponsor was the Yessenov Foundation, which was started in 2013 to help develop Kazakhstan’s science potential. The website for the foundation, named for a renowned geologist and geophysicist, is at www.yessenovfoundation.org.
Seven of the nine undergraduates the foundation selected for internships at Caltech, the University of California at Berkeley and other top schools were from the flagship Nazarbayev University, Eldar said.
Three of the nine have already been accepted in American Ph.D. programs, he added with satisfaction.
Word has spread quickly about the opportunity the research internships offer, Eldar said.
“Last year there were 60 applicants. This year the number of applicants has more than doubled to 130.”
After he graduates, Eldar plans to gain teaching and research experience at a university in the United States or Europe before returning to Kazakhstan as a professor and researcher.
Alma has yet to decide what she’ll do after graduation. Two things are for sure: She’ll have lots of choices. And she’ll be making an important contribution along with Eldar.
Remember the names Eldar Akmetgaliyev and Almagul Zhanaidarova.
You’ll be hearing a lot about them in the future.

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