June 30, 2011

Emory Profile

Jamal Musaev: 'Land of fire' ignites love of science

Jamal Musaev
Jamal Musaev

By Carol Clark

Jamal Musaev, director of Emory's Cherry L. Emerson Center for Scientific Computation, is a native of Azerbaijan.

He grew up in the small, mountain town of Ordubad, during the heyday of the space race between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. 

"I loved physics, and from the time I was in sixth grade, I wanted to be an astronaut. That was my dream," Musaev recalls.

Azerbaijan is rich in oil and gas reserves. The ancients called it the "land of fire," due to the jets of flame that shot up from natural gas.

"It is one of the most tolerant places in the world, where about 90 ethnic groups and members of all different religions live in harmony," Musaev says of his native land -- founded in 1918 as the first democratic and secular Muslim republic – situated along the Caspian Sea. "People in Azerbaijan have three key traditions: A love of science, music and openness."

Notable Azerbaijan natives include many composers and scientists; the latter include Lotfi Zadeh, the developer of fuzzy logic, and Lev Landau, who won the 1962 Nobel Prize in physics.

From Moscow to Japan to Atlanta

Musaev gave up on his dream of becoming an astronaut, but he completed a master's degree in physics at Azerbaijan State University in the capital of Baku.  He continued his education at the U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences in Moscow, where he became interested in physical chemistry. After just three years, Musaev earned his PhD at the academy, and then became the youngest senior scientific fellow in the history of the institution. He also met his wife, Matanat, a fellow student from Azerbaijan, who was in Moscow for a PhD in literature.

In 1991, Keiji Morokuma, a leading theoretical and computational chemist, recruited Musaev to join the Institute for Molecular Sciences in Okazaki, Japan, where he focused on investigating gas phase reactions involving transition metals.

"If living in Moscow was about 20 percent different from living in Azerbaijan, then moving from the Soviet Union to Japan was 200 percent different," Musaev says.

In 1993, Morokuma moved to Atlanta to head up the Emerson Center for Scientific Computation at Emory. Musaev accompanied his mentor, uprooting once again to begin a new chapter in a new country. Musaev eventually took over as director of the Emerson Center, after Morokuma's retirement in 2006.  

His globetrotting career has been an interesting journey, he says, both culturally and scientifically.

Crossing borders in science

"We don't just provide the facilities and the expertise, we actually help do the science."

"I've had to learn three languages, in addition to my native Azeri, and also how to communicate with many scientists from different backgrounds and specialties."

All of these experiences come to bear at the Emerson Center, where science is both interdisciplinary and international. The big problems in science today require scientists to think outside their disciplines and collaborate across campuses and even continents. And supercomputers are increasingly crucial to both streamline and link their research.

Musaev recalls the first computer he used, in 1976, while he was a college student in Baku. "It was a Soviet model, as big as a house, and really noisy," he says. "It was slow and not very reliable, but we were still happy to use it, because we could get information that people couldn't get from just doing experiments."

Today's supercomputers have been reduced from the size of houses to large refrigerators, while their processing speeds and memory capacities have expanded exponentially.

"Now we can use computers not just to explain experimental findings, but to actually design the experiments," Musaev says.

Dozens of scholars, from Emory and different points of the globe, draw on the four large computer clusters, software library and expertise of the Emerson Center to conduct collaborative research projects. The center has played a key role in the development of two major research programs on campus: The Emory Bio-inspired Renewable Energy Center, which is seeking methods of developing sustainable fuels, and a National Science Foundation Center for Chemical Innovation, which aims to simplify drug synthesis.

"The Emerson Center brings people together," Musaev says. "We don't just provide the facilities and the expertise, we actually help do the science."

Musaev travels a great deal in his role as center director, but he and his family have happily put down roots in Atlanta, he says. His daughter, Iten, graduated from Emory in 2008 and now attends law school at the University of Georgia.

"Azerbaijan will always have a special place in my heart, but I'm very grateful and in love with my new country, the United States of America," Musaev says.

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