January 12, 2017

Purdue Profiles: David Gleich

David Gleich David Gleich, assistant professor of computer science. (Purdue University photo/Rebecca Wilcox) Download image

Somehow, David Gleich makes the world of algebra, algorithms and data sound like a lot of fun. A complete blast.

That's completely because while he's doing work that would fog the minds of most people, he's clearly having a good time.

Gleich (rhymes with bike), assistant professor of computer science at Purdue, received a career award in 2012 from the National Science Foundation to discover methods to analyze enormous modern data sets using modest computational resources.

How modest? He recently used one of his algorithms to run an enormous "big data" set on a computer so small that some people might consider it a toy, a Raspberry Pi.

For those not hip to the latest in do-it-yourself computing, the Raspberry Pi is a computer that ranges in price from $9 to $30 and comes without niceties such as a monitor, keyboard, exterior housing -- in other words, any of the external parts that a lay person would recognize as a computer.

The device is a favorite of budding junior high computer geeks and makers, who use the tiny "nano computers" to do an array of amazing tasks. But none, before now, had used one to analyze a big data set.

Beyond the work with the Raspberry Pi, and more recent work that was featured in the prestigious journal Science, Gleich has developed an entirely new class of techniques that allows researchers to extract information about connections and networks in complex systems and to do the computational analysis without access to supercomputers.

"Some of the data sets from these systems are enormous, and people aren't sure how to analyze them," Gleich says. "Often it's like they are trying to mow a large lawn using a string trimmer. They can do it but it's slow and tedious. We give them a lawn mower and they are much happier."

Gleich uses his techniques -- running not computations, but highly efficient algorithms, on tiny computers -- to study a variety of problems in science, such as investigating neural networks in the brain, flight paths of airlines in the United States or the interaction patterns of proteins.

"When you look at my projects, it looks like they are all over the map," he says. "If you look at these you might miss the unifying theme, which is getting these computations to run on the resources that are available.

"The thing with the Raspberry Pi emerges quite naturally out of this. We say, 'Hey, why can't we run this data set on a Raspberry Pi? What would we need to do to be able to do this?'

"And the answer turned out to be nothing! We could already do this on a Raspberry Pi!" he says laughing. "It was just a matter of demonstrating that."

In February 2016, Gleich received a Sloan Research Fellowship from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in recognition of his research accomplishments and the promise of his work.

Gleich's wife, Laura Bofferding, is an assistant professor of mathematics education in the College of Education. They have a 2-year-old son, Isaac, who is a huge fan of the Purdue "All-American" Marching Band and insists on going to watch when he hears them practicing from their house near campus.

"He loves tracking down the band from the sound," Gleich says. "We take him to hear their performances after all of the home football games."

Gleich and Bofferding also enjoy West Lafayette's many ethnic restaurants; Isaac is particularly fond of sushi.

"We're both from small towns in Minnesota, so West Lafayette has been nearly ideal for us," Gleich says. "Before coming here, we hadn't really considered Purdue, but some colleagues suggested it, and once we took a look at the University and the community, we said, 'Huh, how many places would we rather be?' And the answer turned out to be not many. It really has been a very attractive place for both me and my wife."

Writer: Steve Tally, 765-494-9809, steve@purdue.edu, @sciencewriter


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