David Robinson, an alumnus of the Department of Scientific Computing. Photo by Los Alamos National Laboratory.

David Robinson graduated from Florida State University in Spring 2023 with a doctorate in computational science from the Department of Scientific Computing, part of the College of Arts and Sciences. Robinson was the first graduate of the department’s fire dynamics doctoral program, one of two interdisciplinary graduate degree tracks in association with FSU's Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Institute. Currently, Robinson is a postdoctoral researcher at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico where he develops the QUIC-Fire code, a bite-sized version of complex fire modeling techniques, to precisely model prescribed burns. QUIC-Fire models enable better-informed natural resource management at the local and regional levels.

Tell us a bit about your background and what brought you to FSU.

I grew up in Hilmar, California, which is a town of almond orchards and dairy farms. I began my academic journey at Merced College, a community college in California. After saving up money, I transferred to San Francisco State University, and I graduated from there in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in astrophysics. I loved the computational side of astrophysics, so I looked for a doctoral program where I could focus on computational science itself without marrying me to any particular subject matter.

What inspired you to become a scientist and pursue a doctorate in computational science?

I’ve always been enchanted by the idea of space, which I blame on Carl Sagan — the planetary scientist best known for his science advocacy and popularizing astronomy. I wanted to broaden my scope after undergrad, so I made the strategic decision to study scientific computing, affording me the necessary foundation to tackle the scientific problems that would arise in whichever specialized field eventually grabbed my attention. This field ended up being fire dynamics, which I fell into by chance.

Tell me about your current role at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

I spent the last two-and-a-half years of my doctoral program working on my dissertation remotely from LANL. As my schedule began to resemble a nine-to-five, I started to approach my work differently but in a good way. This made the transition from graduate research assistant to postdoc relatively seamless. Now, I spend most of my time developing the QUIC-Fire code at the lab.

While LANL is a huge facility, I work with a core group of people, which makes it all feel very normal.

What is QUIC-Fire?

The QUIC-Fire code has roots in FIRETEC, which is a physics-based computer code designed to generate 3-D simulations of the ever-changing and interactive relationship between a fire and its environment. To do so, FIRETEC accounts for variables such as fuel source, atmosphere, and topography in addition to physics principles including combustion, heat transfer, aerodynamic drag and turbulence.

Fire itself is incredibly difficult to model and predict, which means that a full computational fluid dynamics code like FIRETEC requires the extensive computational resources at LANL to run. This makes it more of a research tool than a practical one. By cherry-picking the most vital variables from FIRETEC, the QUIC-Fire code eliminates the need for terabytes of storage across multiple machines, allowing it to more quickly emulate FIRETEC’s function on smaller devices like a laptop.

What makes your work important?

The QUIC-Fire code is developed for a scale suitable for modelling prescribed fires, also known as controlled burns, which are purposefully lit for forest management, ecological restoration, land clearing or wildfire fuel management. Agencies like the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have shown an invested interest in incorporating QUIC-Fire into their tool suite; this would allow practitioners to experiment with different techniques and weigh each outcome.

For example, if you’re looking to target and burn a certain plant species without damaging other parts of the forest, you can test which techniques would be best for that scenario. These agencies don’t typically have access to high performance computing, and their goals differ wildly by region, which emphasizes the importance of QUIC-Fire access at the local level.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

There’s a direct, real-world connection between my work and the people who can actually use it. Fire seasons are getting worse, and prescribed fires are one tool that really helps mitigate risk. The conditions are so bad right now primarily because all fires were purposefully suppressed and prevented for about a century, which caused a buildup of fuel that can easily trigger destructive fires. Our hope is that QUIC-Fire can help practitioners in a well-informed way.

How did your time at FSU prepare you for professional success?

Mostly, it was the guidance from my doctoral adviser Bryan Quaife, an associate professor in the Department of Scientific Computing and a faculty associate in the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Institute. He sparked my interest in fire dynamics, and helped guide me in subject matter that was new to both of us. He taught me how to better approach problems and break them down pragmatically.

Can you tell us about an impactful experience during your time at FSU?

FSU collaborates with Tall Timbers, which has been around for more than 65 years and is widely considered the birthplace of prescribed fire science. Since Tall Timbers is based in Tallahassee, I had the opportunity to work there for a summer.

What are some upcoming goals or projects you are working towards?

With a company out of Santa Fe, New Mexico, called SciVista, we’ve been able to visualize QUIC-Fire simulations using virtual reality. QUIC-Fire is unique because it not only captures a fire’s horizontal breadth but also models its vertical structure. We can generate 3D video models, but it can still be difficult to get a good vantage point. VR has allowed us to simultaneously visualize a multitude of dynamic parameters driving a QUIC-Fire simulation. This helps us illustrate dynamics captured in the code like how fires are interacting with one another or how fires transition from the surface to the forest canopy.

What advice do you have for current undergraduate and graduate students?

Pay attention to what grabs your interest and don’t feel bad if that interest is outside of your current discipline. At the same time, stay dedicated to your work, and don’t jump around from discipline to discipline just for the sake of doing so.

This article was written by Kendall Cooper, and originally appeared at this link.