What is a Computational Scientist?

What is a computational scientist? College students running a simulation

So what is a computational scientist? If you’ve heard the job titles computational scientist and computational engineer, these are actually the same job—kind of. First, we’ll answer the question of what is a computational scientist. Then, we’ll clearly outline the subtle difference between computational science and computational engineering.

What is a Computational Scientist?

Why haven’t you heard of computational scientists before now? Well, it’s because the career didn’t even exist long ago. In fact, we know of only one college (the University of Texas at Austin) which offers a computational engineering bachelor’s degree.

At the graduate level, it is more common to see advanced degrees in computational science and engineering (CSE). As you see, this field is new enough that colleges haven’t really decided what to call it.

So what do computational engineers do? We’ve actually written an extensive article explaining what computational engineering is.

In that article, we defined computational science and engineering like this:

Computational engineers use computers to solve mathematical models, simulate behaviors, and then analyze the output of those behavior simulations.

In even simpler terms, this is what computational scientists do:

Computation engineers use computers and advanced math to understand, predict, and solve complex real-world issues, especially in the sciences. 

If you’re looking for more than one sentence, then read on! We’ll be taking an in-depth look at the major tasks that computational scientists do every day.

Computational Scientists Solve Mathematical Models

So what is a mathematical model? We’re fans of Britannica’s definition of a mathematical model as a “mathematical representation of reality“. If you can reduce anything in the biological or physical world into math, that is a mathematical model.

Let’s make it practical to bring some clarity. If you can reduce the assembly line operations of a factory into math (and yes, you can), that’s a mathematical model.

If you can model how weather systems interact and move, that’s a mathematical model. You can even use mathematical models for more abstract concepts like human languages.

Computational science is cool because it has power to address some of the biggest problems in our world today, producing groundbreaking insights in medicine and other fields.

So how to computational scientists solve these mathematical models? They use computers (both code and programs).

This is basic, but it’s a significant difference from computer science, where computer scientists are making the computer hardware do incredible things.

Computational scientists stand on the shoulders of these computer scientists, harnessing amazing programs and software to address real-world scientific problems.

Computational Scientists Use Simulation Modeling

The second major task of computational scientists is to use simulation modeling. Simulation modeling uses computers to see what would happen in a hypothetical situation.

For example, computational engineers could calculate the likely effect of a 6.3 magnitude earthquake hitting a skyscraper. As you can see, computational science has enormous potential.

Computational science gives society the ability to test things that could not be tested in real life (or would be way too expensive). And this isn’t just for physical things, it’s also relevant in biology, medicine, and any scientific problem that can be reduced to math.

Once a computational scientist runs a simulation model, they then have to analyze the results. This involves explaining the results clearly, considering ways to change the simulation model for more insights, or coming up with action steps based on the simulation modeling results.

Computational Scientist vs Computational Engineer (What’s the Difference)

As promised, let’s take a look at a computational scientist versus a computational engineer. Well, the work using simulation modeling and solving mathematical models is the same.

It’s also entirely possible for a computational scientist and computational engineer to have the exact same work responsibilities. However, here are some potential differences:

1. Computational engineers may focus more on the math and programming (running the simulation models), while computational scientists may approach more of the setup and decision-making side.

A computational engineer will work in the context of a larger organization and team. Someone has to decide what field (engineering, meteorology, etc.) the tests relate to, and what specifically the team wants to test. What does the team hope to learn from this simulation modeling?

Once the simulation models are run and reviewed, the team must come to an action step of considering whether to research a new health intervention, or conduct research to validate a hypothesis.

As you can see, there’s a lot of math and a lot of the scientific process at work here. In job titles, a computational scientist might be a little more involved with the scientific process. A computational engineer might be more involved with running the calculations—doing the math and coding to make sure the simulation modeling is accurate.

2. Computational scientists may come from a more specific science background, while computational engineers may come from a heavy math and computer science background

Practically, computational science and engineering is applied to specific problems in specific fields. In medicine, for instance, a computational scientist might have more of a background in biology and medical studies.

A computational engineer might not have taken any specific courses in medicine (though they’ll still have taken science courses).

Please note that this is not always the case. Computer science is a science, too, and computational science has much more in common with computer science than with other sciences.

Closing Thoughts and Resources

Our discussion of computational engineering is a much deeper dive than this article, and 100% relevant to those wanting to learn about computational science. We also compare computational science with computer science, outline the required college courses, and answer a lot more common questions.

If you’re considering computational science and engineering as a career, we’ve written a full article on whether computational science is worth it, and who should pursue the career.

We hope you’ve enjoyed our attempt to explain what is a computational scientist, and we wish you the best in your educational journey.