Q&A with new director of NCSA

Q&A with new director of NCSA

In the early days of the Internet, a young astrophysicist at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications worked with other scientists to create one of the very first websites, Spacetime Wrinkles, on Einstein's theory of black holes.

Other University of Illinois researchers were developing Mosaic, the world's first Web browser, and "we wanted to make sure there was content on the World Wide Web," said H. Edward Seidel, who worked at NCSA from 1991 to 1996 as leader of the numerical relativity group.

Seidel will take the helm of NCSA in January, succeeding Thom Dunning, director for the past eight years. He credits his first stint at NCSA, under founding director Larry Smarr, with sparking his interest in high-performance computing.

The News-Gazette caught up with Seidel via email from Moscow, where he is now senior vice president of research and innovation at the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology, a new interdisciplinary research university also known as Skoltech.

He previously worked at the National Science Foundation, serving as assistant director for mathematical and physical sciences from 2009 to 2012 and overseeing a budget of more than $1.4 billion .

He was also founding director of the Center of Computation and Technology at Louisiana State University, where he was credited with building interdisciplinary research programs across the campus and state and a statewide research infrastructure. While there, he was one of the co-principal investigators on the Blue Waters project at the UI, serving as its first science director.

Before that he led the numerical relativity group at the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics, also known as the Albert Einstein Institute.

Seidel earned a bachelor's degree in physics at the College of William and Mary in 1981; a master's degree in physics at the University of Pennsylvania in 1983; and a doctorate in relativistic astrophysics at Yale University in 1988.

In his interview, Seidel talked about his plans for NCSA, the excitement surrounding the center's early days and how that "transformed" his research career.

Q. Where did you grow up?

I grew up on the East Coast, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Pennsylvania, and finally high school in Newtown, Conn. ... But once I started my professional career, I made it to Champaign, where I lived for seven years (longer than any place aside from Berlin, where I lived one month longer).

Q. What drew you to physics and high-performance computing?

I was always interested in math and science and grew up during the space program of the '60s, which had enormous influence on me. As for HPC, it was being a postdoc of Larry Smarr at NCSA that drew me in to scientific computing and interdisciplinary work.

Q. Why did you decide to take this position?

I love the mission and vision of Skoltech and the adventure of living in Russia. But when I think about the importance of computational science and now the emergence of the data-intensive revolution, and the incredible impact they will have on the future of research and society, the opportunity to be at the heart of this at the helm of NCSA, with the UIUC campus behind it, was something I couldn't pass up.

Q. Was Blue Waters one of the attractions, given that you were one of the people who helped launch it years ago?

Certainly having one of the most powerful facilities in the world for research through computing was an attraction. It's something like the Large Hadron Collider for computational science! It is a tremendously powerful tool for research.

Q. How would you describe NCSA's development/growth since you were here in the mid-1990s? What was that experience like?

Being at NCSA during the early '90s completely transformed my career. It was teeming with people from across the campus and across the world. Computer scientists were working with physicists who were working with artists. Computing was making so many research activities possible that had been unthinkable just a few years before, and it had magnetic leadership in its director, Larry Smarr. I emerged from NCSA a very different person.

Q. Did it change your research focus?

Being at NCSA for those years completely changed my approach to research. I came to Champaign in 1989 working on more mathematical approaches to the study of black holes and exploding stars, and worked basically by myself. The environment I found at NCSA was extremely exciting and different. Computer power, now almost trivial by comparison, was fantastic, allowing me to work on much more complex problems.

But that was only a small part of it; more importantly, it was a place where people worked with others to address problems they couldn't possibly do by themselves. And there was a real spark, an excitement that something special was happening. I worked with other physicists, mathematicians, computer scientists, artists, and more. So many new things were coming out of NCSA all the time.

Q. What projects did you work on while you were there?

There were many new projects that I became involved in. The Mosaic web browser was developed, and my group developed websites on Einstein and black holes because we wanted to make sure there was content on the World Wide Web! (You can still find it; search for Spacetime Wrinkles and see movies of us when we were young!)

Armed with this new style of collaborative interdisciplinary work, I also became involved in two large collaborative projects funded by the NSF and by NASA involving many institutions. New visualization environments were developed, in which I worked with artists and musicians alongside computer scientists. I learned the importance of scientific teamwork and the creative energy that different cultures can bring into a collaboration, and I basically never looked back. It is the trend of research in the 21st century.

Q. How far along is the Skolkovo Institute? Does it have plans to collaborate in any way with NCSA or Blue Waters?

Skoltech has a wonderful mission and vision for a 21st century research university. It will have no departments, but will have 15 centers for interdisciplinary research in complex problems in topics in biomedicine, energy, computing, nuclear, and space science and engineering. It will have innovation embedded in every center, and every course; research will be inspired not only by the science questions themselves but also by their relevance for society and economic development.

The institute after nearly two years of development has now got 10 of 15 centers planned with several already starting. The centers are being created through a worldwide competition; winning proposals are funded to partner with Skoltech to help build these interdisciplinary centers. Faculty are being recruited, the first classes are starting in just over a month. It is very exciting project that is doing many new things that other universities are watching very closely, and many are participating in. It embodies the principles learned years ago at NCSA, but across the entire university. So it will be very natural to explore how NCSA and UIUC can partner in this exciting Skoltech project to build a 21st-century university from scratch.

Q. You've been involved in launching major new initiatives in previous positions, both at LSU and the Skolkovo Institute. What areas would you like to develop at NCSA in coming years?

I would like to see NCSA even more deeply embedded in and powered by the incredible UIUC campus as a center where computer-intensive and data-intensive research will flourish across many research disciplines. The Center for Computation and Technology at LSU that I developed had faculty from many different departments, from physics to music, from coastal studies to business, working together through a common thread of computing. New and exciting things come out when such an environment is there. My model for this was actually my early experience at NCSA, the foundation for this is already there!

Q. What do you think of Thom Dunning's tenure as director over the past eight years?

He's done such a tremendous job. He has brought the most powerful tool in the scientific computing world, Blue Waters, to UIUC, he's positioned NCSA at the helm of the NSF's national "connective tissue" for computing, XSEDE, and has created an excellent environment for building strong connections on campus. He's positioned NCSA perfectly for the next director to come in to lead the next phase of the scientific computing revolution. I feel honored and very lucky to be able to come follow him.

Q. What challenges do you see for NCSA, including the federal research funding environment. Would a project like Blue Waters get off the ground today?

NCSA will need to be the best it can be to continue to compete with other centers and attract the large funding streams needed to support supercomputers at the national leadership level in an increasingly tight fiscal climate. It will also have to navigate a paradigm shift in scientific computing from big, big supercomputers to solve certain classes of problems to so-called "Big Data," that encompasses the much larger world of problems facing research and society. With such a strong campus behind it, I am confident that NCSA will not only do well, it can help set directions for the future.

As for Blue Waters, it is an incredibly powerful tool for science. Illinois is one of the few universities in the world that has the capacity to support such a facility. It will be very important to harness the strengths of the research teams across the nation who use it to make the case that such large investments need to continue for computational science to advance.

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