Lehigh University
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Debarati Chattopadhyay hopes one day to design new instruments

Debarati Chattopadhyay hopes one day to design new instruments – telescopes, satellites and space probes – that will see farther, and with greater clarity, into the remotest stretches of outer space.

The double major she is pursuing at Lehigh, she believes, will give her a unique advantage to do this.

Debarati earned a B.S. in astrophysics in the spring of 2004 and will add a B.S. in computer engineering in 2005. Astrophysics, which applies the laws of physics and mathematics to determine the origin and evolution of celestial bodies, is a new major in Lehigh’s College of Arts and Sciences. Computer engineering, which combines elements of computer science – software – and electrical engineering – hardware – is offered by the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science.

Lehigh’s arts-engineering program allows Debarati to complete the two degrees in five years.

A knowledge of computer engineering, especially computer science, is indispensable to the study of astrophysics, says Debarati, who is the only female CompE major in her class. Theoretical astrophysics is a computational field, and many of its problems cannot be solved without software programs.

Debarati’s first opportunity to bridge astrophysics and computer engineering came in the summer of 2003 when she did a research project with George McCluskey, professor of physics and director of Lehigh’s astronomy and astrophysics program. She developed and analyzed software for solving problems in celestial mechanics, particularly N-Body problems, which study the trajectories of celestial bodies that move under mutual gravity, such as planets in a solar system or stars in a stellar cluster.

“Finding a solution for an N-Body system with two bodies is not difficult and can be done using Newtonian equations,” says Debarati. “But systems with three or more bodies are too complex to solve analytically and can only be solved by doing numerical calculations using a computer software program.”

This summer, Debarati will conduct research with Prof. Mark Weber of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. Her project will be to develop software for use on a NASA satellite studying the corona, or outer atmosphere, of the sun.

Lehigh’s computer engineering program has prepared her well for her adventures in astrophysics, says Debarati, by forcing her to work independently.

“The computer engineering courses are definitely hard; they make you work a lot. Other departments tell you how to do things in a structured way, but in computer engineering, you have to do things on your own. The professors give you a problem, and you have to figure out yourself how to solve it. It’s a lot of work, but it teaches you how to use language and solve a problem.”

Solving programming problems, says Debarati, requires a dedication bordering on passion.

“You either love programming or you don’t like it at all. If you do like it, when you get a problem to solve, you can’t eat or sleep, you can’t stop, until you’ve solved it. When you’ve done it, it’s the greatest feeling in the world.

“Computer science also requires a lot of creativity – everyone’s way of solving the same problem is entirely different. You might be using the same language or even the same algorithm, but how you apply them is different.

“You try to look for the simplest solution to a problem, which is not always easy or obvious. The whole point of a computer science education is to figure out the best way of doing something. The problems that you encounter are going to be different; you have to know the basics in order to solve them.”

Much of a computer engineering major’s work is done on the engineering college’s Unix computers, which, Debarati says, can be remotely accessed from PCs in dorm rooms and from other points on campus.

Outside class, Debarati has served as cultural affairs director of the Indian Students Association. To promote cultural learning among Indian students at Lehigh and to introduce India’s myriad cultures to non-Indian students, ISA sponsors an annual Diwali Show, which features Indian dances, music and plays, and attracts 500 to 600 people.

Debarati is also the vice president of Tau Beta Pi and will become president in the fall. The national engineering honorary society was founded at Lehigh in 1885.

Debarati chose Lehigh because of its relatively small size, its reputation as a top engineering school, its attractive campus and the financial aid package it offered. She has a Dean’s Scholarship, a merit-based award that pays $10,000 a year as long as she maintains a 3.5 GPA.

Posted on Tuesday, June 01, 2004

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