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Alumni profile: Paul von Allmen

Paul von Allmen is a research group leader at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who got his career started with a postdoctoral research associate position at the Beckman Institute.

Published on Dec. 8, 2009

It probably helps to have broad horizons when you work in the space exploration business. Paul von Allmen is a former Beckman Institute postdoctoral researcher who always has looked beyond boundaries.

A chance meeting with current Beckman researcher Jean-Pierre Leburton several years ago led to von Allmen leaving Europe to come to the University of Illinois and Beckman to work with one of the Institute’s founding fathers, Karl Hess. Von Allmen leveraged his work here to land jobs in private industry, and then went on to head a computing research group at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

After earning a Ph.D. in physics from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, von Allmen went to work for IBM in Switzerland. It was there that he met Leburton, who was visiting the company’s facilities.

“I was looking for the next step,” von Allmen said. “He asked if I wanted to come to Illinois. I asked around about what the University was like, got good feedback, and decided to give it a try.

“For me it was an opportunity to expand my knowledge base and also a chance to meet a number of really first-rate scientists and engineers. This was the main thing I took from my stay at the University.”

After coming to Beckman in 1992, von Allmen collaborated with Hess on a number of projects and papers, including a seminal paper on developing first principals of an electronic structure calculation code.

“I had a fair amount of freedom with Karl in what was doing, which I really appreciated,” von Allmen said. “It allowed me to go in directions I found interesting. He was a very good discussion partner for all the projects we were conducting. That was a good time for studying new subjects and expanding my knowledge base.”

Von Allmen says the experience of working with Hess and others at Illinois was invaluable for his professional career. 

“Developing first principals of an electronic structure calculation code was a big endeavor and it is knowledge that I am using now,” he said. “Also, not too long ago I hired a quantum chemist and, without the knowledge that I gained through the work in Illinois, it would have been difficult for me to interact with this person.”

Von Allmen is the supervisor of the High Capability Computing and Modeling Group at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Located at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, JPL is a NASA lab that develops tools for space exploration and spacecraft expeditions, but also focuses on projects involving studies of the Earth.

Von Allmen heads a research group that is involved in many of these efforts. As he has done throughout his career, von Allmen looked to broaden his group’s mission and impact when he became its leader. 

“When I came here a good portion of the group was really focused on nanotechnology and nanotechnology is not something that is high on the priority list at JPL or NASA,” von Allmen said. “This means you can do this work if you get funding from outside agencies, which we did. But the people and the group were not really perceived as crucial or important for JPL.

“It took me years to change that perception by integrating people into projects and sometimes into mission work that is highly visible and relevant to the lab. This is something I think I succeeded in doing. We have a reputation in the lab and even beyond as a group for doing important and useful work.”

Von Allmen oversees a group of 26 people who spend most of their time doing research in computing areas that support a wide variety of projects. One current effort aids a European Space Agency comet intercept mission called Rosetta by providing data analysis and computational modeling of comets and their comas.

Other research projects include tasks that range from software development for accessing archives of NASA data or from agencies like NOAA to developing software packages for assessing data optically. Group members also write software for modeling physical properties of atmosphere of planets or moons, for modeling tsunamis, for astrodynamics, for spacecraft trajectory and mission design, as well as working in areas like image processing, radar data processing, and optimizing plans and schedules for space missions.

It is a highly diverse mission for a group, a fact that appeals to von Allmen. He says students who enjoy wide-ranging research can find as much fulfillment in industry or government labs as they do in university settings.

“Academia isn’t the only place where you can work and do interesting research,” von Allmen said. “Many people when they come out of a university, that is the only environment they know. They think the only place where they can do anything interesting is academia and that is just plain wrong.”

Von Allmen advises students to stay broad in their research and learning paths.

“Keep an open mind to doing things beyond what you have been learning in school and keep acquiring new skills. I encourage that very strongly,” von Allmen said. “I teach a class to the people in the group on some topic in mathematics that is really removed from what we do on a daily basis, but it keeps people learning and having an open mind.”