Alliance for Computational Science and Engineering Helps Make Students and Faculty 'Research-Ready'

January 6, 2011 — Major research is increasingly complex, collaborative, cross-disciplinary and multi-institutional. Identifying the functions of genes, determining the effects of human activity on long-term climate, calculating the innumerable scenarios of how atoms behave in physics experiments, better understanding how market fluctuations affect economies – all require the use of massive computing resources, and the ability to make use of that power.

"Research is changing drastically. Everything is computerized in the sciences these days. There is a deluge of data that must be analyzed," said Andrew Grimshaw, director of the University of Virginia Alliance for Computational Science and a professor of computer science in the Engineering School. "The problem is, researchers who are highly skilled in their scientific disciplines may not have the computing skills needed to cope with a rapidly growing data load.

"They need help."

That is where UVACSE comes in. With a core staff of five computing professionals and a cadre of highly-trained graduate students, UVACSE is helping scientists and scholars across Grounds to better use computing resources to perform complex data analysis, to build and run computer models, and to make use of computer clusters at U.Va. and at computing centers nationwide.

In the last three years, UVACSE staff members have worked with dozens of faculty researchers and graduate students to customize their capabilities for high-end research projects. Several U.Va. researchers are now tapped into some of the most important research sites and databases in the world, including national centers located in Tennessee, Illinois and Texas.

Even data-heavy visual projects in the arts and humanities sometimes require big computing power, said David Germano, associate professor of Tibetan and Buddhist studies in the College of Arts & Sciences and director of SHANTI, the Sciences, Humanities & Arts Network of Technological Initiatives, UVACSE's sister organization.

"UVACSE has in a short time had a transformative impact on U.Va. by providing strategic resources and support for initiatives across Grounds pursuing research goals that are computationally intensive," Germano said.

"We're here to de-mystify computing." Grimshaw said. "We're saying to researchers across Grounds, 'Come to us with your computing challenges and we'll dedicate some staff expertise and time to you, and we can even facilitate arrangements with the national centers.'"

Using a consulting approach through its "Tiger Teams," UVACSE offers free assistance, in which technical staff members work with researchers to optimize their capabilities for high-end computing, tailored to specific research problems. Thus far, UVACSE has provided Tiger Team assistance to more than 30 science and science-related projects in several disciplines.

"We provide intensive user support, a focused concentrated effort, to get people quickly through a particular problem and to solve it within a limited time duration," Grimshaw said. 

To compete nationally and internationally with peer institutions, Grimshaw said U.Va. researchers must make full use of the highly capable computing resources available at the University and through connections and collaborations with other universities and national laboratories.

Increasingly, major grants from the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the U.S. departments of Energy and Defense are awarded to research teams capable of doing big science with proven high-speed computing capabilities. These capabilities enable and enhance collaborations among highly creative individuals working together to solve the toughest problems facing humanity.

Additionally, collaborations that result in large grants can become economic multipliers for the University and are essential to the continuing economic development of the Commonwealth of Virginia in high-tech fields of industry.

UVACSE resulted from a grassroots effort, beginning more than a decade ago with an ad hoc task force of faculty members from the Engineering, Arts & Sciences and the School of Medicine, all of whom were conducting complex investigations requiring high-end computing. A second task force five years later produced a plan and obtained $250,000 in funding from the National Science Foundation. With further funding from the Office of the Chief Information Officer, UVACSE became an entity, a resource with a staff and a mission to provide computing education and outreach through individual consultations and the management of shared computing resources across Grounds.

"We are here to help our faculty, students and research staff be fully 'research-ready' and proficient in computing skills so U.Va., as an institution, can adapt to the new realities of the complex research environment and compete well with our peer institutions," Grimshaw said.

Astronomer John Hawley, one of the early advocates for a computing resource center, notes that since 2000, the speed of the fastest supercomputer has grown by nearly a factor of 10,000.

"This increase in computational power creates unprecedented opportunities for new ways to solve some of the most important and challenging research problems," Hawley said. "But the capabilities of these computers now greatly exceed the ability of the average researcher to utilize them effectively. UVACSE creates a collaborative environment where those with discipline-specific knowledge can work with experts in algorithms, programming, data management and visualization. Researchers can focus on what they know best while collaborating with people who know the details of computing."

For examples of research projects assisted by UVACSE, visit here and click on "exemplar Tiger Team projects."

— By Fariss Samarrai

Media Contact

Fariss Samarrai

University News Associate Office of University Communications