September 30, 2014

CORNELL CLOSE-UPS | Professor Donald Greenberg ’58 Works on Multi-Disciplinary Projects

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For 54 years, Donald Greenberg ’58, the Jacob Gould Schurman professor of computer graphics, has called Cornell his home. During his time on the Hill, he has worked on projects that affect a wide swath of disciplines, and has taught both Academy Award winners and the founders of Pixar.

A self-proclaimed advocate for interdisciplinary studies, Greenberg — who was the first director of the Computer Graphics and Scientific Visualization program at Cornell in 1991 — was originally an architecture student as an undergraduate. He said he ultimately switched to engineering, foreshadowing the merging of disciplines that would come to characterize both his life and his career.

Professor Donald P. Greenberg (Michelle Feldman / Sun Senior Editor)

Professor Donald P. Greenberg (Michelle Feldman / Sun Senior Editor)

Professor Donald P. Greenberg (Michelle Feldman / Sun Senior Editor)

“I don’t see this separation between disciplines as many people might,” Greenberg said.

He added that he believes that many students do not take advantage of the opportunities provided by interdisciplinary studies. He said he urges students to venture outside of their majors, their schools and their comfort zones.

“I think a lot of technical students have never taken good courses in arts and sciences, and on the other side, more creative students have not taken good technical classes,” he said.

Greenberg said he credits his diverse academic background as the inspiration for his first groundbreaking project, a computer graphics movie, Cornell in Perspective.

Working with a team of architecture students in a General Electric laboratory from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m, Greenberg said he and a team of collaborators spent a few nights each week creating a model animation of Cornell’s campus.

“The video introduced this new technology to the realm of architecture in a way that had never been done before,” Greenberg said.

Later, acting as a consulting engineer on Madison Square Garden and the St. Louis Arch, Greenberg said he continued to utilize an interdisciplinary perspective while working in the architectural world.

Greenberg added he was a pioneer in applying programming to the construction of concrete shell structures.

“I just didn’t have a feel for the way the structures behaved,” he said. “So I wrote my own programs to display that.”

Greenberg also said he would apply similar technology to both environmental and medical fields.

For example, he was once tasked with replicating the skeletal structure of the ivory-billed woodpecker, a bird that was spotted after it was assumed to be extinct. He modeled the bird’s geometry and its motion, in order to create a digital image that could be compared to photos from the sighting.

He also said he worked with his son in developing the mathematical representations for aortic arterial systems, so that individual, personified stents could be designed.

“This is about more than computer programs, this development has the potential to change the field of intravascular medicine,” Greenberg said.

In the future, Greenberg said he sees the application of this technology transcending divisions in disciplines.

“The future of computer science is in the applications,” he said, adding that the incorporation of computer graphics in various fields is “just a technique in search of a problem.”

Throughout his career, Greenberg said he has been inspired by his favorite artist, Johannes Vermeer, a Dutch painter from the 17th century, and the way he captured light in his paintings. Greenberg added that his favorite paintings prompted him to try and make images that were as lifelike as possible.

After many years of teaching, Greenberg said he is impressed by his students’ accomplishments. He proudly pointed to a series of black books that sit on his shelf, which make up the work of the graduate students for whom he has been both a teacher and a mentor. When asked if he is still in touch with any of these students he said, “almost every one.”

Looking towards the future, Greenberg still has big plans at Cornell. He said he hopes to see the implementation of new technology in the classroom that will foster a more interactive environment.

“Many Cornell classrooms are very outdated,” Greenberg said, adding “I would like to be able to use smart boards and tablets so that students could share and critique projects as a class.”

Until then, Greenberg said he plans to keep devoting his time to as many students as he can teach. He also plans to keep calling Cornell home.

He recalls visiting Cornell when he was young, with his father, who was also a proud Cornellian.

“I remember seeing the rolling hills, and watching the sun set over the lake … that was Cornell to me,” Greenberg said.