The new interim executive director of the Biocomplexity Institute, Cal Ribbens, is anything but new in town. He’s been at Virginia Tech since 1987, and was named head of the Department of Computer Science in the College of Engineering in 2015.

With research interests and many publications in high-performance computing and computational science, Ribbens is now poised to take on the task of guiding the institute into its next phase. Over the years, he has collaborated with many researchers at the Biocomplexity Institute, analyzing large-scale, complex systems; understanding the necessity of research to guide response for the pressing challenges of today’s world.

“I knew about the potential and the kind of work that went on here,” Ribbens said. “The institute has contributed in a multitude of ways, including important scientific questions, important societal impact problems.”

In his 32 years of service at Virginia Tech, Ribbens has seen it all, with collaborations between the College of Engineering, College of Science, and social science departments. He’s well aware of the transdisciplinary research taking place at the institute and how the approach fits into the larger vision to ensure Virginia Tech remains at the forefront of technology, research, and experiential learning. His focus on high-performance computing and parallel algorithms and systems is key to the research done at the institute on a daily basis.

Ribbens has been on a “listening tour” around the institute, trying to uncover what’s important to those who work here. In his first month, he’s met research and administrative staff who have given him a sense of their passion for the work they do.

“I find that it’s a group of people who are very committed and excited about the mission here,” said Ribbens. “They feel like they’re part of a team; they want it to succeed; they have a real sense of being part of something bigger than their individual jobs. And that’s very gratifying to see.”

Team science is a big part of the equation, one Ribbens plans to nurture.

“It’s about bringing a group of people together, a diverse set of people from different backgrounds, different ways of thinking, different ways of solving problems, different expertise in terms of their discipline. You need that for the kind of big, complex problems the institute’s research addresses,” said Ribbens.

It’s this kind of agility that is integral in a world where science makes great leaps in discoveries by the day, thanks in part to the abilities granted by high-performance computing.

Diverse teams give researchers, as well as students, a chance to engage in a new form of research and learning. Students in particular get an experiential education that is unique to the institute and reinforces the greater vision of the university’s Beyond Boundaries initiative, which makes experiential education like this, a top priority.

“We are reimagining education and challenging the boundaries that traditional learning happens only in the classroom. For decades, we’ve had students at the Biocomplexity Institute who have worked in our labs and get phenomenal experiential learning opportunities. I think the institutes can really be leaders in providing those sorts of experiential opportunities. I look forward to seeing how that plays out.”

Written by Tiffany Trent

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