Newly Minted Ph.D. Launches Computational Career
Written May 2005
A first impression of the soft-spoken Huidi Ji might not immediately reveal the intellectual tenacity of this professional problem solver. Ji is drawn to complicated problems that can only be solved through patient application of complex calculations.
Given Jis heritage as a native of Shanghai, China, it seems fitting that after completing her doctorate in computational mechanics at Duke University, she chose a career as a developer at a company named ABAQUS where she creates "problem-solver" programs. The Chinese, after all, invented the abacus, dubbed the worlds first calculating machine, as early as 3,000 years B.C.
Ji is now part way through her first year of a two-year developer-training program at ABAQUS headquarters in Providence, RI. ABAQUS develops advanced finite element analysis software products used by many major corporations across all engineering disciplines as part of their design process. Its major customers include Boeing, BMW and Department of Energy national laboratories.
Ji will spend a full year doing technical support for ABAQUS product users, a task that gives her real world insight into how the companys various programs are used and what problems clients typically encounter. As a developer in training, Ji also works with senior developers on various technical issues and creates answers for ABAQUS online support system for all users to access.
As part of the process, she gets to indulge her curiosity by delving into the code for the different software products. She says this helps her better understand what algorithms are in play in solving a problem. In year two of her training, Ji will get involved in quality assurance for the software programs, and by year three she will be a full fledged developer.
ABAQUS finite element analysis software can be applied to problems ranging from simulating car crashes and damage to crash-test dummies, to calculating the dynamic load from waves and wind on offshore structures, to evaluating the strength of biological tissues.
For Ji, this is a natural extension of her doctoral thesis work at Duke applying FEA to better understand the swelling/collapsing behavior of stimulus responsive hydrogelsÂ– a "smart" material composed of macromolecular polymer networks in a solvent, and designed for specific properties. Hydrogels are used in a wide range of biomedical applications from device coatings, to drug delivery, to tissue engineering.
Ji decided to come to Duke for her doctorate degree specifically to study with civil engineering assistant professor John Dolbow, who specializes in computational mechanics. "My interest in computational mechanics grew out of my Masters work in structural engineering and I wanted to pursue the programming aspect," said Ji, who has a B.S.E. in naval architecture and a M.S. in structural engineering from Shanghai Jiao Tong University in Shanghai, China.
"I had done very little programming before coming to Duke and really enjoyed learning how to apply C ++," Ji said. Dolbows research team doesnt use off the shelf computational programs, and focuses on developing new computational methods.
"I feel very fortunate to have had Huidi as my first Ph.D. student," said Dolbow. "On a technical level, her work here broke new ground in several disciplines. She played a critical role in developing a new theory for hydrogel mechanics, and the computational techniques she's developed are state-of-the-art. Her dissertation resulted in five peer-reviewed journal publications, several of which have already been cited multiple times."
At ABAQUS, Inc., Ji will ultimately have to focus her career on one of two ABAQUSs major products Â– ABAQUS/Standard and ABAQUS/Explicit. ABAQUS/Standard is usually applied to analyses that are well suited to an implicit solution technique, such as static, low-speed dynamic, or steady state transport analyses. In contrast, ABAQUS/Explicit is better suited for analyses where high-speed, nonlinear, transient response dominates the solution.
While ABAQUS/Standard is the flagship product of ABAQUS, ABAQUS/Explicit works well for simulating short, transient, dynamic events of large models that can be prohibitively expensive for ABAQUS/Standard to solve.
"Users are more ambitious and more demanding nowadays," said Ji. "They want to solve large problems, and performance is a big issue for them. They need an answer in at most a weekÂ– any time longer than that is unacceptable," she said.
Dolbow isnt surprised that Ji chose the job at ABAQUS. "She had offers for positions in both academia and industry after graduation, and I think she chose ABAQUS because it is one of the few companies that actually does research in finite element analysis. The company employs Ph.D. students from top research institutions in the US and abroad. The culture there should provide her with daily challenges as well as exposure to a wide variety of problems," he said.
Ji enjoys the tremendous breadth of her new job. "My Ph.D. work was very focused, but now that Im working in the field I see so many different problems and applicationsÂ– its very challenging and interesting."
The transition from work to industry has offered other benefits. "Its so nice to have free time after work," said Ji. ABAQUS, Inc. encourages its employees to value physical fitness and the company sponsors a cycling team, soccer team and running/walking programs. Ji recently signed up for a gym membership and a beginning drawing class at the nearby Rhode Island School of Design.
"Im working to try new things and develop my social life as I settle in to life in Rhode Island," Ji said.