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NSF grant to boost supercomputing at UW-Eau Claire

| Julie Poquette

A recent $350,000 award from the National Science Foundation will more than double the high-performance computing capacity for faculty and students at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, but the grant’s impact will not stop there.

Dr. Sudeep Bhattacharyay

Dr. Sudeep Bhattacharyay

Dr. Sudeep Bhattacharyay, associate professor of chemistry, and Dr. Ying Ma, associate professor of materials science, were the principal investigator and co-principal investigator, respectively, on the proposal that led to the award, which was received in October through the NSF’s major research instrumentation grant program.

The grant will support the purchase of a hybrid GPU-CPU (graphical processing unit-central processing unit) high-performance computing cluster (HPC) to better meet demand that cannot be accommodated by current campus technology.  

“Our current, small-scale cluster, the Blugold Supercomputing Cluster, or BGSC, has served as our main resource for conducting faculty-student computational research outside the classroom as well as projects integrated in student courses,” Bhattacharyay said. “However, it has become severely limited in its capabilities, and this new HPC, which we call BGSC2, will enable important discovery and student experiential learning into the future.”

Ma laid out the numbers that illustrate the increased capacity of BGSC2.

Dr. Ying Ma

Dr. Ying Ma

“The current BGSC offers a total of 3.2 million core hours, but according to a recent user survey, 11.15 million additional core hours are needed for faculty-student collaborative research and classroom projects,” Ma said. “Due to a cut in the proposed budget, the new cluster probably won’t provide all the core hours, but we expect it will offer more than twice the core hours, which is a significant boost to the computational resource. Also, the faster networking will enable large-scale parallel computing, which is not possible with the current BGSC cluster.”

UW-Eau Claire’s current supercomputing cluster has been used by faculty and students from an array of the university’s STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programs, and many of their projects have resulted in findings that were published in peer-reviewed journals like ACS Catalysis, Biophysical Journal, Protein Science, The Journal of Physical Chemistry and the Journal of Mathematical Chemistry, to name a few.

“Thanks to the NSF grant, the new cluster will enable many new research activities in chemistry, materials science and engineering, computer science, physics, mathematics and biology," Ma said. "It will be open to all of our students, and they can obtain firsthand experience on a high-performance computing cluster either through faculty-student collaborative research or in a classroom project."

The new supercomputing cluster is an efficient way to engage more students in research with faculty, Bhattacharyay said.

“The new supercomputing cluster will create a plethora of opportunities for undergraduate research students,” Bhattacharyay said. “Students' engagement in laboratory activities is a critical component of the undergraduate research immersion experience. The supercomputing cluster will be like a virtual lab space that will efficiently engage students. Recalling that this year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry went for the development of lithium-ion batteries, which revolutionized global communication, the students can remain connected to the virtual laboratory space through their cellphone, tablet and laptops from anywhere in the world. The new supercomputing cluster is expected to enhance the undergraduate discovery experience.”

Working with an HPC is a rare experience for students at an institution the size of UW-Eau Claire, Ma said.

One of those students is Lauren Adams, who earned a UW-Eau Claire biochemistry/molecular biology degree in 2016 and is now working toward a doctorate at Northwestern University. As an undergraduate, Adams, a native of Eau Claire, worked with UW-Eau Claire’s HPC both as part of her coursework as well as during collaborative research with Drs. Bhattacharyay and Sanchita Hati from the chemistry faculty. She said those experiences helped prepare her for graduate school and her desired future career as a research and development scientist in industry.

“At Northwestern, I’m working to better understand how proteins in cancer are chemically modified, and how those modifications influence the cell growth and proliferation that drives cancer,” Adams said. “My experience working with UW-Eau Claire’s BGSC made me better equipped to interpret data and results, solve problems and design experiments.”

Mohammed Bataineh, a UW-Eau Claire junior majoring in computer science, works as one of two student administrators of the BGSC under the supervision of professional staff in the university’s Learning and Technology Services department. Bataineh’s responsibilities as an administrator include building out software packages from source code, daily monitoring, new user training, technical documentation of all software and hardware modifications, performing installations, and supporting users to get the most out of their software and maximize efficiency. The workload of student administrators will diversify and increase once BGSC2 is in place, Bataineh said.

Bataineh, also an Eau Claire native, plans to seek employment in industry following graduation and said his work on the cluster is helping him develop skills that should be helpful in landing that future job.

“Working as a BGSC administrator, I’ve improved my ability to look directly at a problem with no previous knowledge and come out on top with a solution, familiarize myself with unfamiliar concepts and explain difficult technical concepts clearly,” Bataineh said. “I believe these will all be incredibly valuable to me as I move toward an industry position following graduation.”

In addition to the real-life experiences the HPC affords UW-Eau Claire students, benefits also will extend beyond campus.

“Researchers from our sister campuses also will have access to this powerful resource,” Ma said. “And because of this grant, outreach activities have been proposed to bring high-performance computing to our local community as well.”

Top photo caption: UW-Eau Claire materials science student Emma Fischer and Dr. Ying Ma, associate professor of materials science, have made use of the Blugold Supercomputing Cluster as part of a faculty-student collaborative research project that involves the computational study of advanced energy materials. Photo by Bill Hoepner