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ASU geographer receives Presidential Early Career Award

December 19, 2008

ASU geographer Paul M. Torrens is among the newest recipients of the competitive Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE).

Torrens, an associate professor in the School of Geographical Sciences at ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences was recognized in a ceremony at the White House Dec. 19.

PECASE, established in 1996, is the highest award given to young scientists and engineers by the U.S. government. It was presented to Torrens in recognition of his innovative, immersive 3-D computational modeling, which is designed to help predict crowd behavior. The reusable and flexible modeling environment Torrens is constructing looks at putting behavioral geography into classic artificial intelligence and then applying it to a general kind of social behavior in crowds: riot situations, pedestrian behavior, behavior of shoppers and along retail streets.

“Most of this work is usually done by computer scientists. They’re usually most interested in the computational efficiencies – to try to get the most efficient or elegant algorithm– so they usually turn to physics in search of their algorithm,” says Torrens.

“Under certain conditions, crowds behave the same as particles behave in flowing in a conduit. So they use equations from physics for the motions of particles,” he says. “But human crowds are not very well known and they’re not well behaved. So there’s a small niche there for me to do some work.”

Torrens’ work is mostly in urban geography and behavioral geography – “classical social science stuff,” he says. “But I also build my own tools if there’s a question I want to answer and there are no tools.”

In addition to his work as an associate professor in the School of Geographical Sciences, Torrens is director of the Geosimulation Laboratory at ASU and an affiliate faculty researcher in the Center for Social Dynamics and Complexity, as well as the GeoDa Center for Geospatial Analysis and Computation. His research is focused on Geographic Information Science (GIS).

“In the area I work in, GIS, geographers are playing a huge role in the next generation of cyber infrastructure,” Torrens says. “Geographers in the past have been peripheral to these initiatives, but are becoming more central to it.”

Luc Anselin, director of the School of Geographical Sciences and the GeoDa Center, says Torrens is a pioneer in the emerging field of geosimulation, “which tries to better understand complex spatial phenomena like urban sprawl and the development of megacities. This work attracts worldwide attention, including from some very promising future graduate students.

“Torrens directs the new geosimulation laboratory in the School of Geographical Sciences, which is establishing a cutting edge reputation. This not only helps the school attract new research funding, but also appeals to promising graduate student applicants,” Anselin says.

It’s this kind of work that earned Torrens a National Science Foundation (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award in early 2007 in the amount of $400,000 over five years. That award was the foundation for the PECASE honor. NSF and other federal agencies annually nominate scientists and engineers at the start of their independent research careers for the PECASE. Selection for this distinguished honor is based on innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology that is relevant to the mission of the sponsoring organization or agency, and community service.

Torrens was one of 20 PECASE recipients nominated by NSF. The other 2007 PECASE awardees were nominated by NASA; and the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Education, Energy, Health and Human Services (National Institutes of Health) and Veterans Affairs.

“It’s a huge honor; it really catapults your career to a whole new level of success,” says Torrens. “For me, it is a validation that what I’m working on is really important and well supported. When you receive a CAREER award, you become more of an NSF citizen; you’re folded more into the process and you become better aware of what’s going on.”

Torrens also cites the support he’s received at ASU. “I don’t think I would have been able to do this research if not at ASU. If you have an idea and you make a convincing argument for it, people here just support you,” he says. “They don’t really care about what discipline you’re in or who else is doing it or how senior you are.

“When I first came here I had the ear of the vice president for research, most of the chairs of departments; President (Michael) Crow came over to have a look at my research and gave me some ideas and put me in contact with some of the people he knows; just loads of support. It’s been really good,” Torrens says.

One of his early supporters was Anthony Brazel, ASU professor and associate director of the School of Geographical Sciences. “I was privileged to witness Paul's potential by recognizing his impact in the field a few years back when he applied for the NSF early CAREER grant. This is a wonderful accomplishment for him, for geography and for ASU.”

In the field of geography, not that many scientists receive CAREER awards, according to Torrens.

“For geography it’s part of a trend that geographers are now becoming more involved in big science questions,” Torrens says.

Torrens joined the ASU faculty in 2005 as an assistant professor. Born in Dublin, Ireland, he holds a doctorate from University College London, master’s degrees from Trinity College Dublin and Indiana University, and a bachelor’s degree from Trinity College Dublin. He is a member of the editorial board of the International Journal of Microsimulation and is a member of the scientific advisory board for Savannah Simulations in Geneva, Switzerland.

Accompanying Torrens to the White House ceremony was his wife, Betsy, and his 2-year-old son, Finley, who had a new suit for the occasion. And, if the White House ceremony wasn’t enough excitement this week, Torrens also celebrated his 35th birthday on Dec. 18.