URBANA — Thom Dunning, director of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications for almost eight years, plans to retire in 2013.
The University of Illinois will conduct an international search for his successor, a process that could last into next summer, officials said Monday.
Dunning will remain in the job until a new director is chosen and then continue as a professor in the UI chemistry department. He informed NCSA staff members of his decision Friday.
Dunning said he has been blessed with creative, innovative colleagues who are dedicated to excellence, and the last eight years have been both "remarkable and rewarding."
But he said he will be 70 by the time his retirement goes through, and "it's time to turn NCSA over to someone who's younger, with more energy. Computing is a young man's game."
He said the center is facing no immediate challenges, having consolidated its position on campus and now leading the two largest national computing projects ever funded by the National Science Foundation.
"NCSA is really in a great position at this point," he said. "The person who comes in to replace me doesn't have any immediate worries" and can focus on longer-term goals.
Created in 1985, NCSA has some of the most powerful computer systems in the world and is a leader in applying high-powered computing to research on subjects ranging from molecules to the cosmos.
Dunning is NCSA's fourth director, hired in 2004 from the Joint Institute for Computational Sciences at the University of Tennessee and Oak Ridge National Laboratory. He had also held leadership positions at the University of North Carolina System, the Office of Science at the U.S. Department of Energy, the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Argonne National Laboratory, and Los Alamos National Laboratory.
During Dunning's tenure at NCSA, the center has attracted more than $394 million in federal funding, including grants for the Blue Waters petascale-computing project and the Extreme Science & Engineering Discovery Environment project, a virtual system that scientists around the world can use to interactively share computing resources, data and expertise.
NCSA also moved into its own building for the first time in 2005-06, consolidating more than 200 employees scattered across campus, and built the new Blue Waters National Petascale Computing Facility.
To foster collaboration between NCSA researchers and other researchers on campus, Dunning spearheaded creation of the Institute for Advanced Computing Applications and Technologies. Projects range from computational modeling of physical and biological systems to the innovative uses of computing in the arts and humanities. He supported creation of the Institute for Computing in the Humanities, Arts and Social Science and eDream (the Emerging Digital Research and Education in Arts Media Institute).
Back in 2004, Dunning said, he was attracted to the NCSA job by its staff and its desire to make computing power easier for scientists to use, as well as the UI's reputation. He saw the link to the campus as "critical."
"Over the years, NCSA and the campus kind of drifted apart," he said, with NCSA focusing on its national mission. "The advantage of being at the University of Illinois is that you're at a first-rate research and educational institution. You really need to take advantage of the opportunities that come along with that."
NCSA also increased its outreach, working through the Institute for Chemistry Literacy through Computational Science, an NSF-funded Math & Science Partnership project, to show how computational tools and simulations can improve high school education. A state-funded project known as the Illinois Shared Learning Environment will support teaching, learning and research in schools across Illinois.
Dunning said he's proud of NCSA's achievements at the national level, the ties it has developed within the campus, and the community's embrace of NCSA.
"It's been a lot of fun to interact with various people in the community, let them know what it is we're doing and why it's important," he said.
The UI's vice chancellor for research, Peter Schiffer, said Dunning has piloted NCSA through a period of grant change with "wisdom and vision," transitioning to a grant-driven funding model, increasing collaboration with other campus units and launching a new strategic planning effort.
"We owe Thom a lot and will miss him immensely, but he is leaving through a well-thought-through process that will allow Illinois and NCSA to have plenty of time to find the right person to lead us into the next phase — and he is leaving the new director-to—be with an arsenal of resources and strengths that will be very valuable in continuing to move NCSA forward successfully," NCSA's second-in-command, executive director Danny Powell, said in a release.
Dunning has continued a small chemistry research program as director but said he looks forward to expanding that work after stepping down at NCSA.
Larry Smarr: 1985 to 2000
Dan Reed: 2000 to 2003
Rob Pennington (interim): 2004*
Thom Dunning: 2004-present
*Now NCSA chief technology officer