Getting to know Bedrich Benes

This story was originally posted on 01/04/2011.A native of the Czech Republic, Bedrich Benes earned his master’s and doctoral degrees in computer science from Czech Technical University in Prague. After teaching computer science for six years in Mexico, he came to Purdue with his family in 2005. An associate professor of computer graphics technology, he has helped establish the department's master of science degree. Potential graduate students from around the world have expressed an interest in studying with him and assisting with his work. His graduate students have become employed with companies such as Dreamworks and Microsoft. He and his wife, Alejandra Magana, have two children. She is a visiting professor in the Department of Computer and Information Technology and Engineering Education this academic year.

On Purdue: Purdue is the best place I’ve been so far. It offered freedom. Universities in other countries usually say, “We need you to do ABC.” Purdue said, “do what you think you are the best at.” That is most important in a research environment, to work on a topic you consider important, find your collaborators and do it in the way you know best. Then, it is not just your work, it also becomes part of your life.

What I am ‘best at’: Within Purdue, I work mostly on procedural modeling. I write code that generates a model that makes sense, or we attempt to find an automatic description of an existing model. I’ve had some successes with good people. Outside of Purdue, I have been working with Adobe Research for about two years. I am fortunate that I am able to take something that I really like and have it immediately translated by a leader in the field to be used by so many people. I am also working with Daniel Aliaga [from computer science] in the area of urban modeling. We can model 3-D cities that make sense, cities of buildings, plants, human beings, roads. We received NSF funding for this project. With all my work I have had papers accepted in the most important journals such as ACM Transactions on Graphics or Computer Graphics Forum.

Why computer graphics is a natural for collaboration: One part of computer graphics, scientific visualization, traditionally serves as a front end for some other fields. I  work with Kevin Gurney [from earth and atmospheric sciences, now at Arizona State University] on CO2 visualization. They gave us the data, we helped them visualize it, and they started talking about what the visualization told them. When you collaborate, you can bring important insights for them and for you. This has been pretty cool. Recently, I have ongoing collaboration with people in the field of forestry, horticulture and material science.

On putting the graphics card to use: The GPU is your computer’s graphics card. In the last five years, the GPUs became much more powerful than the CPU for certain tasks. I have been focusing on high performance computer graphics where I take graphics cards and use them to calculate scientific problems.

Where all the research goes: Papers, papers, papers are the most important thing. I focus on quality rather than quantity. Before I submit a paper, I check the focus and the impact of the journal or conference. If you do it the right way, you get very strong feedback and become known in the scientific community. Later, this kind of focus will also bring collaborators.

What I teach: My focus is on graduate education. I teach an introduction to computer graphics course for graduate students where I try to equalize the knowledge base of all of the incoming students. On the other edge of the spectrum I teach advanced courses: computer graphics programming, how to program graphics cards to do computer graphics, and how to program graphics card for scientific computations. With Gary Bertoline, Jamie Mohler, and Hong Tan, I teach a course on perceptualization. In the next class, students will be touching thunderstorms and feeling hurricanes through haptic interface. They will feel the electromagnetic forces in a nanostructure or simulate skin and elastic materials.

On his global outlook: It’s the most important thing. It’s an eye-opening experience. I strongly encourage my students, after they finish their degree, to go study somewhere else. It breaks many clichés that one unconsciously keeps in the head. In research and education, you see a totally different approach. You can hear about differences and accept them mentally, but when you experience and live them, it is much more different.

Outside of work: I have two kids – so my family is my most important hobby. Since I was seven, I’ve been in love with astronomy. After I received tenure, I got a gift of a telescope. Now I spend time outside freezing or fighting mosquitoes and taking photos of the sky (which is also computer graphics-related). I like to play guitar. I play classical guitar to relax, or I turn the stereo on, listen to Pink Floyd and play along with them. I love to read. I read anything related to psychology, I like old philosophers, and anything related to space, math, and physics, such as the philosophical thoughts of Carl Sagan.